- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A perfect day for Frank Narducci would be a quiet one in the lab, running experiments “from about 9 in the morning until 9 at night,” he said.
That would be a luxury for the Patuxent River Naval Air Station physicist who spends much of his time looking for new research dollars, writing reports, supervising a team of scientists and meeting with management to explain his brain-busting concepts in everyday terms.
His work most often focuses on the interactions of atoms and light in a way to help submariners (or anyone who cannot receive satellite readings from GPS) navigate with greater precision.
He’s working to create an improved navigating system. The technology is called a gyroscope. It doesn’t collect information from satellites, but it determines the traveler’s rotation, as well as their movement in a straight line to help them stay on track.
The research could be critical for submarines, helping them to travel longer underwater (where they are safest), before needing to resurface to obtain a GPS reading.
Other work Narducci is taking on is designed to help the fleet better distinguish between gigantic masses beneath the sea. The devices, called magnetometers, help detect metal — and the ocean is full of metal. However, Narducci has developed a concept that would allow sailors to detect changes in the magnetic field. He likens it to a hearing aid that instead of picking up all the sounds in a room, allows the user to zero in on the conversation they want to hear.
At sea, that could mean distinguishing an ancient, sunken mountain from an unfriendly submarine.
These efforts have, essentially, been his life’s work. And, Narducci says, his dream is to make a breakthrough that sailors can use every day.
He started with the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in 1996. Today, Narducci’s lab is set up like a chamber in the Enterprise. Not the USS Enterprise, a Navy aircraft carrier. Think “Star Trek.”
The rooms are full of glass cases the size of dining tables with hundreds of strategically placed optical lenses, through which beams of light pass. There is also a vacuum where he slows down atoms by reducing the chamber temperature to a couple of hundred millionths of a degree above absolute zero.
By slowing the atoms, Narducci’s team has more time to make measurements, which lead to greater precision.
Beyond his dream of developing technologies that impact the fleet, he wants to make a monumental impact in the world of experimental physics. In his wildest dreams, he would win a Nobel Prize.
“I tell my students, if you want to be a good physicist, it has to be something that’s in your blood,” he said.
Narducci’s father was a physicist. “He took me in the lab,” Narducci said. He remembers a platform there. As a little boy he would step on it, making it spin faster as he tucked his arms in toward his body, and slow down as he stretched his arms out. “Sort of like an ice skater,” he said. It taught him about the basic concepts of inertia and piqued a curiosity that carried him to graduate school.
Narducci said he knew he’d proven his mettle when he won his first scientific argument with his dad. Later, when his father died, it left a void that is sometimes hard to shake.
When he’d make an advancement in the lab, “my father was the only one who I could call and would understand what I was talking about,” Narducci said.
Narducci is continuing the passion kindled in him by his father by ensuring the work continues, in part, by sharing his expertise with others.
“He tells me about his day and I sort of just listen,” said his wife, Michelle. “He’s good about putting it into simpler terms. I guess that’s why he’s good with students.”
She said that he’s worked closely with St. Mary’s College of Maryland, helping the school obtain grants and working closely with students and professors in the lab at Pax River.
Michelle Narducci, a labor and delivery nurse, admits she wishes they had more time together. They’ve bought bikes they haven’t ridden yet. And, she’d like more time for just joking around. “Every night, he gets into bed and watches Dick Van Dyke,” she said, and still laughs at episodes he’s seen “a thousand times.”
Fun times will keep coming, she said. For now, she knows, “What he’s doing, it’s for the greater good.”
Jon Kwolek, a St. Mary’s College student, thought his own career path would focus on theory — dreaming up concepts that people like Narducci test and see if they work in the real world.
Then he spent time in the lab with Narducci. He’s seen presentations to top brass and he’s seen Narducci’s prototypes where, ultimately, those huge tables full of devices could be shrunken down, for installation on ships and elsewhere.
“He’s taught me everything I know about laser cooling,” Kwolek said. “The stuff I’ve learned in the lab has put me in a comfortable place in terms of understanding.”
Now, Kwolek said he plans to study experimental physics and earn a doctorate. “I was not considering doing that before I worked in the lab,” he said.