Nature friendly: Local physicist combines love of art and science
by Carol Carson
Sep 12, 2013 | 2159 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Physicist Joe Jordan has spent a lifetime seeing the art in science. Courtesy photo
Physicist Joe Jordan has spent a lifetime seeing the art in science. Courtesy photo

When we were little, we all loved bright shiny objects, but for Physicist Joe Jordan it was a little different. He remembers a favorite family story that started when he was three years old. While visiting his grandmother in the Shenandoah Mountains, someone suddenly noticed he was missing from the dinner table. They found him half a mile down a dirt road. When his family asked what he was doing, Jordan replied, “Just looking at the moon.”

“I saw it coming up and I thought I could follow it and get a closer look. Perhaps it was the light,” the scientist says. “I have a friend who thinks I’m part moth. I’ve always been attracted to light.”

When many of us think of physics we conjure up symbols like equations or white lab coats, but Jordan believes that any action involves physics phenomena.

“Even walking. You couldn’t walk on a slippery sidewalk if there wasn’t friction and friction can be described with ordinary physics,” he says.

Instead of being an intimidating subject, Jordan maintains that physics explains ordinary things that happen every day and presents an alternative ways of looking at the world.

To Jordan, whirl pool shadows are the Holy Grail of physics in nature.

“There is nothing opaque casting a shadow and yet it’s this strange circular shadowed region that lazily appears and then disappears along the sandy bottom of a clear pool of slowly moving water.”

“Sometimes you get a whole chain of these dark circles with bright rings around them. They’re very mesmerizing and each one of those dark circles is related to a vortex in the surface of the water,” he says.

Like his hero, Leonardo Da Vinci, Jordan is also an artist.

“I think the best science is artistic and the best art is scientific.”

In addition to his other projects, he is creating a “big public art mural that shows the arcs of the sun on the sky on the key days of the year- the solstice and the equinox.”

On the eve of the fall equinox, September 21, Jordan will lead a “Physics in Nature” walk in Fall Creek. This is part of a series of free nature walks I have created for the last five years with an environmental education grant provided by the San Lorenzo Valley Water District. Contact me for more information at

Jordan’s experience includes working for NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute for more than 20 years. Recently he's been teaching renewable energy at Cabrillo College and San Jose State University.

As a member of the Board of Directors of Ecology Action, Jordan has helped steer the organization in the direction of modernizing energy infrastructure. As part of that mission, he originated the very first public-facility solar-energy projects in Santa Cruz, including the large-scale deployment of solar-energy systems at several of schools. You can check out his TEDx Santa Cruz lecture at

In the future the physicist will be involved in implementing more renewable solar energy, particularly in schools- providing sustainability and costs savings.

He has also joined a new movement, Community Choice Aggregation, which focuses on empowering communities to own their own sources of energy.

“Marin has done it,” Jordan says. “They’ve wrested the reign of power production from PG&E and they pay for their own green power. We want to do that here — localizing and ‘greenifying’ our power production.”

Check out the local CCA at

Another of his goals is to push forward on recycling. 

“We should be recycling water like Scotts Valley but Santa Cruz hasn’t gotten there yet.”

But one of his happiest endeavors is teaching on the trail with budding naturalists. Jordan promises, “Every day miracles. And we will see at least one star. Keep an eye on the sky.”

- Carol Carson, M.Ed., is a writer, naturalist, and educator.
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