10 Questions with Jose Zorrilla

Dr. Jose Zorrilla, Instructor in Physics, joined Phillips Academy in 2021. Zorrilla teaches Astronomy and Calculus-Based Mechanics I. In addition to serving as a complement house counselor in Fuess House, Zorrilla coaches instructional crew. Outside of his campus commitments, Zorrilla enjoys stargazing and spending time with his dogs.

  1. Why did you decide to coach instructional crew?

My oldest daughter has been rowing for many years, and I thought this was a good opportunity for me to connect with her and with the sport in general. I did crew a little bit in college, and I have fun memories of that time. I think that this has been a really good way for me to get closer to my daughter.

  1. What led you to start teaching?

Before coming to Andover, I was doing research—I was a cosmologist—and [my oldest daughter] came one day to our home and said that she wanted to explore boarding schools, but I didn’t know much about them. When I started touring different schools with her, I realized these are phenomenal places for learning, and I thought maybe I should be the one applying to one of these boarding schools.

  1. Is there a topic in physics that interests you the most?

I’ve always been fascinated by cosmology—by how such a complex system as today’s universe, came to be from a very simple beginning. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about that. The interesting thing is that the more you go [backwards]—the more you move towards the Big Bang—the more you’re getting close to very fundamental questions in physics, to how interactions behave at a very basic level.

  1. What is your favorite meal at Commons?

This is going to sound lame, [but] I’m a huge fan of the chocolate milk. My go-to breakfast is always chocolate milk plus something I can pretend goes with it, like some pancakes or banana bread, things like that. Now, on a more serious note, I like their poke bowls. Whenever they have poke bowls, I go for it. I think it’s a very solid option.

  1. How does the process of conducting research compare to teaching?

The main difference is that when you’re doing research, you don’t know the answer, so it’s more of a process. When you are teaching, there are certain practicalities. Oftentimes, we tend to teach things that we think we know. In that sense, it’s kind of different. What we are trying to do here is to convey the experience of research, so the experience of the process of trying to find our truth, through our classes.

  1. What advice would you give to help a student succeed in physics?

I guess two-fold: one is to stay curious, and the second one, which is related, is don’t let failure weigh on you. Knowing that everyone has failed many times before solving problems shows that we have to be able to become resilient to failure; so don’t get discouraged because of that, and don’t stop being curious because we always approach science in general, and physics in particular, with a lot of curiosity, which is great.

  1. What is your most memorable experience at Andover?

So, we got two dogs when we moved here to Andover. They’ve grown quite a lot, [and] their names are Walter and Arturo. Walter is now like 100 pounds, Arturo is on his way to 80. We love to walk them through the Sanctuary, and I guess one of those moments has been me trying to get two almost 100-pound dogs out of the water, it’s not an easy feat.

  1. Why is studying physics beneficial?

Look at toddlers—they keep asking why, and there’s always this kid that keeps asking ‘why,’ and you tell them why, and they come up with another ‘why.’ You end up with a long chain of ‘why’s. It’s really hard to start with a chain of whys that doesn’t end in physics at some point. I think that satisfying curiosities is something that defines us as humans. I think that physics allows you to try to fulfill that curiosity.

  1. If you could have dinner with a famous scientist, who would it be and why?

There are many answers I could give. For example, one of my personal heroes would be Democritus, who came out with the atomic hypothesis a long, long time ago. We don’t know much about him because I don’t think there’s any original works—it’s just fragments and mentions from others—but he must have been a very fascinating person.

  1. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Before moving to Andover, I used to enjoy looking at the stars, and I liked to travel to places that had dark night skies so that I could actually do nice observations. Oftentimes, those places are in deserted areas. A side effect of that is that I tend to get lost. I’ve [gotten] lost in many different places, just trying to look at the stars. That was prior to coming to Andover. I don’t have to do that [now] because we have a telescope right on the roof. Most of my free time is [also] spent with my two dogs.