Ben Horowitz ES ’14: Making a Cosmological Splash

Grace Pan
By Grace Pan December 25, 2013 00:38
Ben Horowitz, a senior in Stiles majoring in physics, co-founded Splash at Yale during his freshman year. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Ben Horowitz, a senior in Stiles majoring in physics, co-founded Splash at Yale during his freshman year. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

For Ben Horowitz, a senior physics major in Stiles, happiness is the combination of a blackboard, a classroom of eager learners, and a sky of unexplored galaxies. As the co-founder of Splash at Yale, Horowitz has worked with thousands of Yale undergraduates and secondary school students in Connecticut — though many may be unaware of the man behind the curtain.

For the past three years, Horowitz has been the president of Splash at Yale, a program that invites local students to attend a diverse array of courses taught by Yale students. On top of this, he balances his other endeavors as part of the Yale Undergraduate Math Society and the Yale Drop Team.

As a member of Yale’s Drop Team, Horowitz had the opportunity to experience zero gravity. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

As a member of Yale’s Drop Team, Horowitz had the opportunity to experience zero gravity. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Ironically, for most of his adolescent life Horowitz never considered himself a particularly good student. “I’m pretty sure I even got a C in geometry my freshman year,” he recalled with a smile. But in his sophomore year of high school, he started attending courses taught by MIT students as part of the MIT Splash program. After enrolling in multiple math and physics courses because “they sounded the most advanced,” Horowitz began developing his then nascent interest toward these highly theoretical fields. In fact, he attributes much of his intellectual growth from sophomore year onward to Splash. “Splash made me realize that in order to understand these really cool advanced topics, you have to understand the basics,” said Horowitz.

Horowitz poses with his friends from the Yale Drop Team, which performs reduced gravity experiments. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz poses with his friends from the Yale Drop Team, which performs reduced gravity experiments. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Since Splash at MIT was so instrumental in broadening his mind, Horowitz co-founded Splash at Yale with Sebastian Caliri, PC ’12, in his freshman year. With some basic assistance from Learning Unlimited, the blanket organization that supports college Splash programs across the nation, Splash at Yale received around 170 students for its first program.

Since then, Splash at Yale has grown to attract more than 500 middle and high school students and 150 courses each semester. These seminar-style courses range from basic introductory physics to the history of American garbage. For the more artistically inclined, there are courses on improvisational comedy, ribbon dance, and a cappella music. Students can tap into their latent interests, as Horowitz himself did years ago, and undergraduate teachers have the opportunity to share what they are passionate about.

Horowitz teaches a physics course for the fall 2013 Sprout at Yale program. Sprout at Yale is an extension of Splash at Yale that Horowitz helped start. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz teaches a physics course for the fall 2013 Sprout at Yale program. Sprout at Yale is an extension of Splash at Yale that Horowitz helped start. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz himself has taught Themes of Modern Physics and Introduction to Cosmology, among other physics related courses. He sees teaching not only as an interactive and dynamic experience which should not be confined to problem sets and papers, but also as a way for the teacher to build a solid understanding of the material. “It’s a really nice way to study for exams, teaching a class for that subject,” Horowitz said with a laugh.

Much of Horowitz’s inspiration for his cosmology classes stems from his research in the lab of Professor Charles Baltay. Baltay’s lab studies supernovae to analyze dark energy and the history of the universe’s expansion. Horowitz got started late fall of his freshman year, when he was invited by Baltay to join the lab, and has worked there every semester since.

Horowitz shares his love for physics as a teacher in the first ever Sprout at Yale program, an extension of Splash at Yale that he helped found. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz shares his love for physics as a teacher in the first ever Sprout at Yale program, an extension of Splash at Yale that he helped found. Courtesy of Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz specifically studies RR Lyrae variable stars, stars whose brightness pulsates in a predictable pattern. He surveys different sections of the sky to collect data on star brightness, and develops code to search his data for signs indicative of RR Lyrae stars. “These stars can possibly trace the density of our galaxy,” explained Horowitz. His results so far suggest that our galaxy was formed by the coalescence of multiple balls of gas and debris, as opposed to just one.

Horowitz plans to attend graduate school, perhaps to study early universe cosmology. Although he has not picked out a school yet, his dedication to teaching is certain to follow him. “Where I go, if there’s a Splash program, I’ll be involved in it. If there isn’t, hopefully there will soon be a Splash Program,” Horowitz said. “I hope that in another twenty years, it will be expected that any university has it! Like a debate team or a marching band.”

Horowitz teaches physics for the spring session of Splash 2012, which drew more than 300 students from the area. Courtesy of Splash at Yale and Ben Horowitz.

Horowitz teaches physics for the spring session of Splash 2012, which drew more than 300 students from the area. Courtesy of Splash at Yale and Ben Horowitz.

And in the spirit of his Yale brainchild, Horowitz leaves students with some optimistic words. “Get excited about something!” he said. “You don’t have to stick with it, but if you figure out one thing you’re really excited about and pursue it, you’ll have some goal to always strive for.”

Grace Pan
By Grace Pan December 25, 2013 00:38