Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Too many good talks

I'm back from the world of afternoons by the pool (protected from the sun by the smoke of Georgia's wildfires), umbrella drinks, and physics jokes. All in all the April meeting was quite a success. As one organizer put it,

...the only bad thing is that there were too many good talks.

It's always interesting when like-minded groups of people get together. The APS mission is to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics, and that is exactly what happens at these meetings. Along with lots of email-checking, the devouring of free food, maybe a little singing, and a classic physics joke or two.

Mr. Heisenberg is driving on the free way and a police officer stopped him for speeding. Officer walks up to Heisenberg's car and asks him, "Sir, do you know how fast you are going?" Mr. Heisenberg said "Officer, I have no idea how fast I am going, but I know exactly where I am."

A student recognizes Einstein in a train and asks: Excuse me, professor, but does New York stop by this train?

Two atoms bump into each other. One says 'I think I lost an electron!' The other asks, 'Are you sure?', to which the first replies, 'I'm positive.'

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

NASCAR Physics

If you're like me you've never really gotten why NASCAR is so interesting. Sometimes I tried to hang out with my cousins while they circled around the tv and watched cars go around in circles, but I usually ended up wandering into the kitchen before too long. The crashes are cool - but there is a lot of filler space.

Despite my intent, the talk on NASCAR physics by Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky got me thinking that NASCAR might not be so bad after all. I never realized all of the little things happening while the cars went around the track - the catch can man, the turbulent air flow around the car, the bump drafting...and all the intuition and knowledge that the driver and his crew have to have to be any good.

We'll have a professionally taped video of the talk posted on PhysicsCentral within the next month or so, but here are a few home videos to tide you over.

What happens when NASCAR meets and an escalator

Jeff Gordon hits a wall

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Giant Friends

The 2006 Nobel Prize winners in physics, John Mathers and George Smoot, gave a special Nobel Prize Symposium this morning. Each winner spoke for about half an hour and then answered questions about the history of their prize-winning work on the cosmic microwave background radiation.
More about their work

(I really wanted to ask them if they were relieved to have been awarded 2 extra years of life, but I thought that might be inappropriate...)

This afternoon David Kestenbaum, currently a science reporter for National Public Radio, gave a lunchtime talk on the failure of the 17th street canal in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.
Listen / read his NPR report

Although the Nobel Prize Symposium and the lunchtime talk were on totally different subjects, a common theme stood out to me.

Transformational projects like the building of the New Orleans levees and large, space-based instruments used to investigate the cosmic microwave background ration aren't solo efforts.

Not only are engineers and scientists involved, but politicians, funding agencies, competitors, interns, journalists, citizens... As Kestenbaum pointed out and the picture of the levee breach so dramatically and tragically illustrates, it only takes a failure in one small area to create a big disaster. Smoot and Mathers' success (as they would tell you and as they told us in the talk) depended on the great work of many others.

Newton is famous for his line, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,"

but a more fitting line for the interconnected society of today might be, "If I have seen further, it is only by having lots of giant friends all across society."

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Einstein, Electrons, and Jim Carrey

Watch this video!

The formal session at the April meeting kicked off yesterday morning with a pair of talks from two of the most notable physicists around today - Francis Everitt and Gerald Gabrielse.

Everitt gave us some early results from one of the most challenging tests of general Einstein's General Relativity ever attempted - Gravity Probe B. So far, the experiment has confirmed the geodetic effect, and preliminary glances at the data suggest that it will also confirm frame dragging. The heart of the experiment includes four gyroscopes in the form of spinning spheres that are the most perfectly spherical objects ever made.

The difficulty of analyzing the data, particularly in light of some unforeseen sources of noise, means we won't get the full results until December. But Everitt has been working on this experiment for over forty years, out of its fifty year history. What's a few more months to a guy with that sort of dedication?

For those of us who aren't relativity experts, he brought along a handy little visual aid to explain one of the ways the Gravity Probe B gyroscopes are affected by gravity as the experiment orbits the earth. Notice that the orientation of the arrow changes due to the shortened path that the probe follows as a result of the warping of space.

Gabrielse, on the other hand, has made a stunningly precise measurement of the electron's magnetic moment.

It turns out that Jim Carrey and Conan O'Brien are versed on his research. They discussed Gabrielse's Penning Trap on Late Night a while back. Although NBC has taken the video off of YouTube, Gabrielse played it for us. It was surprisingly accurate, and hilarious. These are a couple of shots of Gabrielse with Jim Carrey on screen behind him.

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Transformational Science for Energy and the Environment

Last night I attended a talk by Ray Orbach, Undersecretary for Science, Department of Energy on "Transformational Science for Energy and the Environment." It was a nice overview of many of the DOE efforts to address global warming and our ever-increasing demand for MORE energy.

Orbach talked about five major areas (listed below) ripe for transformational advances that would have major impacts on the high environmental cost of energy production. The Department of Energy has active projects in all of these areas developed with the input of industry and academic experts around the world.

You can read more about their projects by viewing his entire presentation here or visiting the Office of Basic Energy Science website.

At the end of the talk Orbach answered lots of questions about possible energy sources and the direction of energy research. There were a lot of great questions - about geothermal energy, carbon sequestration, etc. - but the final question hit home with most of the attendees I think.
I summarize-

APS President Leo Kadanoff: Do we currently have the workforce needed to solve the energy problem?

Orbach: No.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Umbrella of Physics

I haven't had a drink with a little umbrella in it yet, but I did make it to Jacksonville this afternoon just in time for some of the final talks in the Society of Physics Students session.

Now, I like to think that since I have a masters degree in physics I should be able to follow most of the undergraduate research talks, but with topics like "Magnetic Field Reduction in Photomultipliers with the use of Bucking Coil" and "Using MCNP for Compton Scattering Calculations with BGO Scintillators," I am again reminded of just how LARGE the field of physics is.

(The students did a great job! and good for them for taking on some challenging and jargon-heavy subjects)

A PhD, after all, doesn't make one an expert in physics - it makes one an expert in a well-defined area of physics. The same can be said for other fields of course - ask any graduate student the topic of his or her dissertation and you'll realize how specialized things get at the top.

There is definitely a need for specialization in the world, but meetings like this remind me that there is also a need for generalization. After all, without that middle layer it'd be pretty hard to get public support and funding for "Optical Spectroscopy of Defects in Yttrium Orthovanadate Crystals" or "Hamiltonian Constraint Analysis of Vector Theories with Spontaneous Lorentz Violation." Or at least that's what I tell myself :)

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Free Bird!

So, I've never been to Jacksonville before. A few days ago if someone asked me what I know about Jacksonville, I think I could have produced a few factoids: it's really, really close to Georgia, it's on Interstate 95, the Super Bowl was here about three years ago, and (most importantly) Lynyrd Skynyrd is from here. Well, after a couple of minutes on Wikipedia I've learned that it is the most populous city in Florida (I'm surprised by this one...but it's on the web, so it must be true, right?), it is named after Andrew Jackson, and John Wheeler (the father of the black hole!) is also from here. I'm sure this newfound knowledge will come in handy someday.

My main duty today was to give my usual "pep talk" at our High School Teachers Day. My life was changed so much by a terrific physics teacher that I feel it's important to let these teachers know that they really do make a difference in their students' lives. The highlight of today's event was the most impassioned speech that I think I've ever heard on the importance of science education given by veteran teacher and educator Jim Nelson. Truly amazing.

Stay tuned...we'll keep you posted on all the excitement down here. Of course, I'll have to spend a little time searching for the perfect Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt for my brother. And I'll try really hard not to yell out "Free Bird" duing one of the plenary sessions. I can't guarantee anything though.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

That time again!

The April Meeting is upon us! Physics Babe, Buzz Skyline, Ben, Ernie, and I are all heading down to sunny (hopefully) Jacksonville, FL for another great meeting of the minds.

Expected highlights include a Nobel Prize Symposium with Mather and Smoot, NASCAR Physics with Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, and a talk by David Kestenbaum from NPR on the Katrina canal failure. New results from MiniBooNE will be presented, as well a new view of the universe above the North Galactic Pole and MUCH more. Stay tuned!

APS April Meeting
April 14-17, 2007
Jacksonville, Florida
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Friday, March 9, 2007

The 2007 APS March Meeting is in the Can

Be sure to come back to this site to read our impressions of the 2007 April APS Meeting coming up in a few short weeks in Jacksonville, Florida.
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I Think the Giant Bear is Gonna Miss Us

I never got around to checking out just why this huge blue bear is peaking into the Colorado Convention Center, but he seems to be having trouble reading the APS March Meeting sign hanging just in front of him.

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Tipping Point

Physicists as a rule are model citizens. Local cops have told me in my very unscientific sampling that when the APS meetings get into town crime declines, the streets quiet down, and there's less trash on the sidewalks. Drug dealers and most other petty criminals generally take the week off or move to more lucrative neighborhoods (except for the pick pockets who find us to be easy marks), the security forces here say.

But the APS isn't good for some of the locals in Denver. Cabbies, restaurant wait staff, and even buskers complain that physicists are bad for business.

"You folks know all kinds of stuff about science, but you don't know nuthin' about tipping," said a clerk at one of the coffee bars in the Denver Convention Center. "Yesterday, we split a total of six dollars in tips between the two of us after a whole day."

She went on to say much worse things about us, which encouraged a physicist standing next to me to pitch a quarter into the tip jar (more out of fear at the vitriol I had managed to unleash in the clerk, I would guess, than out of generosity).

The cab drivers are just as upset. Some of them express their feelings with strings of obscenities that verge on a kind of performance art when I ask them about tipping.

So who tips well?

"Sports fans tip the best," says one coat check girl in the Convention Center referring to groups that come to town for major sports tournaments. "I'd say three quarters of them or more tip, but only about a third of the physicists tip."

My cabbie yesterday told me that the folks in town for a recent electronics convention tipped well, when he could manage to pick one up. A lot of them had private cars or high-priced limos, he said, so he didn't have lots of fares. Most of the people in town for other conventions tipped fine during the day, and got a good deal more generous after dark, when they'd had a few drinks or were returning from dinner or a show.

The fact that more of us tend to stay in for the evenings, and drink with more restraint than other visitors, may be a large part of the problem from the point of view of folks who rely on tips to get by. Because of generally high mathematical aptitudes, sober physicists are less likely to miscalculate and over-tip in the rush to exit a cab or cafe.

But accurate tip calculation isn't the biggest problem, according to one older gentleman working at the Convention Center coat check. Most physicists, he says, simply don't tip at all. "It's a very diverse crowd," he said with a nonchalant shrug, "it might not be their custom, back home. I just do the best job I can, and if I get a tip, that's great. If not, I'll be all right."

Update: Just to show you how inexact a science tipping research can be, Geoff Brumfiel of Nature magazine got entirely different feedback on tipping when he was out at a bar last night.

In case you're confused about tipping, here's a guide to typical tip rates and practices around the world.
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An Impassioned Plea for Nuclear Reason

In this photo, the sage physicist Sid Drell concludes his look at the reasons (or more precisely the lack of reasons) behind the size of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.

In a talk that was more emotionally engaging than most at the March meeting, Sid pondered whether we really need thousands of nuclear warheads in the post cold war world. Perhaps only a few hundred would be enough to dissuade anyone with the capacity to threaten us militarily to think twice before making a move.

Officially, the US and Russia are seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles completely. Just when that might happen isn't clear, but it won't be soon. The next milestone for both countries is to get total numbers of weapons down to about 2000 or so.

In the meantime, the US is on the verge of completing plans for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). Although it sounds scary, Sid and the other speakers in Session H7: Nuclear Weapon Missions in the 21st Century made the RRW seem pretty reasonable. As I understand it, the RRW is intended to be a more robust replacement for aging warheads, and will be built with an eye toward cleaner production, as well as safer and more stable weapons systems. In addition, the cold war era demand for the largest possible explosive yield in every bomb is being dropped, according to speaker General Kehler of Strategic Command. Many of our older nuclear warheads were fine tuned for maximum yield, which makes them delicate, expensive, and high maintenance devices.

The whole idea of the RRW seemed pretty reasonable, even to a left leaning peacenik like me. But I'm glad we have folks like Sid around who encourage us, and more importantly our politicians and military brass, to stop and think about what we're really trying to accomplish with something as potentially devastating to life on Earth as nuclear firepower.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Small Welcome for the APS

It's not a lot, but we appreciate the thought. . . someone in Denver arranged for these little welcome signs to the APS hung on lamp posts around town. You might have to click the picture to see the larger version in order to find the sign.
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Football Physics on Denver TV

Physics football expert Tim Gay (far right) explains some of the finer points of classical dynamics to Denver's Channel 4 sports anchor (and former Broncos running back Reggie Rivers, far left).

Reggie has a deep appreciation for Newton's second law (F=ma) from years of ramming himself against Bronco's opponents.

Reggie's interview of Tim should air this coming weekend in Colorado.

Tomorrow morning, Tim will be a guest on Denver's channel 9 morning news program bright and early at 6:20AM in an interview with sports anchor Susie Wargin.

And tomorrow night, Tim will be giving a lecture that is free and open to the public.

So if you can make it to the Adam's Mark hotel in Denver at 7PM Thursday, come on out!
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Quantum 411

This is guest post from Ben, one of our good friends at the American Institute of Physics.

This year's meeting features a lot of new developments in quantum information and quantum computing. Ten years ago, quantum computing was mainly discussed at the DAMOP (Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics) meetings. But now, condensed-matter researchers are getting into the game, making progress with quantum-computer designs based on superconductors and semiconductors, for example. In a Reese's peanut-butter-cup kind of development ("you put chocolate in my peanut butter!" "you put peanut butter in my chocolate!"), DAMOP physicists are coming to the March Meeting now, too. Helping to bridge these two communities further is a recently created APS unit devoted to quantum information (called GQI).

This morning's APS news conference on quantum information featured a "Murderer's Row" of some of the top researchers in the field. Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois gave a nice introduction to the topic to science reporters from newspapers and magazines. He explained superposition by taking out a coin. "Tails" would represent 0, and "heads" would represent "1". To illustrate the superposition of the two states, he spun the coin, which he said was analogous to the coin being heads and tails at the same time. He liked the analogy because the coin eventually settles into heads or tails, just as a quantum superposition always collapses into a single state. Along this same theme, Kwiat discussed a new random-number generator that uses photons, or specifically the random timing intervals between photons hitting a detector, to generate random numbers.

Next up was David Wineland of NIST. His group traps ions with electric fields, then manipulates them with lasers. These ions can act as bits in a future quantum computer. Ion traps are the currently the most advanced quantum computation technology, but as Wineland modestly told me, it's like being two feet ahead at the start of the marathon. Ion traps were once big and clunky. Wineland showed miniature computer-chip like designs, from his lab and others around the world, that can potentially manipulate many ions for a more scaled-up and advanced quantum computing approach.

Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Heidelberg in Germany and Hefei National Laboratory in China unveiled a six-photon quantum computer. Pan is also a master of quantum teleportation (he's giving an invited talk on the topic on Thursday morning). After the news conference, he expressed the hope that quantum teleportation of ions, rather than just photons, would someday be possible over long distances. Star Trek is coming closer to reality all the time.

Batting cleanup was Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna in Austria. In a recent dramatic display, he and his collaborators transmitted a quantum-encrypted message between two Canary Islands at a distance of 144 km (about 90 miles). He showed future plans to transmit quantum keys via the International Space Station to ground-based receivers spaced thousands of kilometers apart. Quantum cryptographic systems, he pointed out, are already commercially available. He actually convinced a banker he knows that quantum cryptography was the best way to transmit sensitive information. But the banker, he says, is being a bit cautious. He's going to let one of his competitors adopt the technology first, and see if his customers will demand the same quantum service.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Bubble Logic and Artificial Viruses

Each day during the APS meeting, we arrange for a few of the meeting attendees to give special press conferences. The topics of the conferences represent just a few of the 7000 or so papers presented through the week.

One of the coolest presentations I was able to catch today was a look at bubble-based devices that perform many of the functions common in microelectronic circuits. Manu Prakash, a graduate student from MIT showed how they have built channels that control the flow of bubbles in a fluid stream. The bubbles interact to create analogs of transistors, electronic flip flops, oscillators, and just about any electronic component you can name. The ultimate goal of the research will someday be bubble-based CPUs and memory.

Bubble logic is much slower than conventional electrical logic, so why would anyone want such a thing? Because the bubbles can carry chemicals, biological samples, and other tiny payloads. A bubble logic device could be programmed to perform complex tasks in lab-on-a-chip systems for testing and analyzing chemicals and biological samples. Instead of building specialized devices, a researcher could buy a bubble CPU and memory, and program them to suit any analysis application (monitoring for toxins, manipulating DNA, etc.)

Bogdan Dragnea of Indiana University is doing equally cool stuff - he's making artificial viruses that lack the dangerous genetic core of living viruses, but look just like the real thing to your immune system. Someday soon, Bogdan and his colleagues may replace the vaccines we currently use, which are made from viruses, with completely artificial versions. The advantage is that there would be none of the risk associated with live-virus vaccines, which can cause occasionally cause the diseases they are intended to prevent.

There were several other fascinating press conferences today, but it's getting late so I'll tell you about those tomorrow.
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Rock On

I just came back from a physics sing-a-long...

If a picture is worth a thousand words then these videos are quite priceless (they are actually much clearer than the front images leads one to believe).

I think this one is especially catchy-

Walter Smith, "the man in charge", is a Professor of Physics at Haverford College and runs the PhysicsSongs website. He led the enthusiastic crowd of physicists through songs about electricity, nano science, magnetic fields, circuits, physical constants, and MANY other physics-y topics throughout the 1.5 hour event.

Smith was accompanied by University of Maryland Physics Professor Victor Yakovenko on drums (who also plays in a Russian-American rock band) and Denver musician Derek VanScoten on guitar.

If you're not at least a little amused yet, I'm afraid I really can't help you.
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Tuesday Snapshots

Intense Chattering

All around the conference center there are groups of people huddled around computers solving problems I didn't even realize existed.

Check yes or no.

Although nearly all of the meeting attendees have cell phones and laptops (and there is free wireless here), they still communicate with one another by posting handwritten notes on the message boards.

Holding our Own

There may be more males here, but us girls know how to represent.

Arm Twisting

"You should write to your congressmen (and women) every day. What should you say? That depends on how much you like 'em..."
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Monday, March 5, 2007

Greatness and Obsession

My first task here at the March APS meeting was to help out with the prize and awards ceremony. Okay, not really help out with the ceremony - more like put programs on chairs. Which, by the way, wasn't really necessary since nearly everyone that walked into the room grabbed a program off the table outside first...

I like to watch prize winners and I'm always interested in who they credit for their success. For some reason the "thank you to my family for putting up with me" comments got me thinking this year. Probably because I read Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie for 2.5 hours on the plane today (a great read).

The story of two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie is about great triumph over adversity, but it's also a story of how loneliness, depression, and isolation (even from her children) was the price she paid for her work obsession.

I don't know any of the APS prize winners personally and have no idea what they have or have not sacrificed to become the leaders and contributors they are today. Let it be known that I have great admiration for them and they should be very proud of their work. But I do have a question for them as well as the many others who excel in their respective fields: Is greatness possible without obsession?


On a lighter note, one of my favorite things about meetings is meeting new people and hanging out outside of the office with co-workers. Tonight I had a dinner with a great crew of old and new friends. Here we are chillin' in Denver. (Thanks to Shawn for the picture - he shoulda been in it too!)

FYI - We're not nerds ALL of the time. Very little physics came up at the dinner conversation - we covered the best place to buy cowboy boots, America's Next Top Model, buffalo "sanctuaries", the APS attendee looking for the "exhibitionist hall", politics, and MANY other topics.
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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

I arrived in Denver this afternoon--a beautiful, warm, and sunny afternoon. After all the weather news that Denver has made this winter, it's a relief to see low 60s in the forecast for the week.

After checking into my hotel, I wandered down to the convention center. Just the pre-meeting events (workshops, tutorials, etc) are happening today. Oh, and a little thing called registration... this is quite an operation. Afterall, there are over 7000 meeting attendees, and each one of those has to be "bagged and tagged". (That's my expression for getting your badge and program). Not to mention the large number of people that don't pre-register. I'm always amazed by the long lines for "On-site Registration"... especially since the registration fees are much higher when you don't sign up ahead of time. For the past seven years of March Meetings, I've seen a professor from my alma mater in the on-site line (now when I see him there, he just hangs his head in shame). If that were me, I'd wait in that loooong, sloooow line once, and then never again forget to pre-register. But to wait in that line at least

I'm sure there will be something more interesting to talk about tomorrow. Right now, I'm feeling a bit addle-brained from the travel and altitude. So, I'll leave you with the lyrics to the Warren Zevon song that inspired the title to the Andy Garcia movie, "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead":

I called up my friend LeRoy on the phone
I said, Buddy, I'm afraid to be alone
I got some weird ideas in my head
About things to do in Denver when you're dead

I was working on a steak the other day
I saw Waddy in the Rattlesnake Cafe
Dressed in black, tossing back a shot of rye
Finding things to do in Denver when you die

You won't need a cab to find a priest
Maybe you should find a place to stay
Some place where they never change the sheets
And you just roll around Denver all day

LeRoy says there's something you should know
Not everybody has a place to go
And home is just a place to hang your head
And dream up things to do in Denver when you're dead

You won't need a cap to find a priest
Maybe you should find a place to stay
Some place where they never change the sheets
And you jut roll around Denver all day
You just roll around Denver all day
(Warren Zevon/LeRoy P. Marineli/Waddy Wachtel)

By the way, that line about staying in a place where they never change the sheets? I really hope that isn't the case here...
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Friday, March 2, 2007

Ya'll Ready for This?

For some reason I can't get that ubiquitous sporting event anthem out of my head. "Ya'll ready for ba. ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. ba. ba...." Beginning this weekend, over 7000 physicists are storming downtown Denver, Colorado. It's the annual ritual know as the APS March Meeting, and it runs all next week. For many physicists, this is The Big Show. It's the place to show off what you've been doing over the past year and to learn what others have been doing. This is also a time of controlled chaos (that's an oxymoron if I ever heard of one) for the APS staff, who strive to make this event run as smoothly as possible. Throughout the course of the meeting, spacekendra, Buzz Skyline, and I will be dishing all the juicy stories.... ranging from the long lines for coffee to the most buzz-worthy physics results to the break-neck speed at which any free food disappears. It is our hope that you will be able to get a feel for the excitement that is the March Meeting. So, once again I ask, "Are ya'll ready for this?" I just hope we are...
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