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.'

Read the rest of the post . . .

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

Read the rest of the post . . .

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."

Read the rest of the post . . .

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

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 :)

Read the rest of the post . . .

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .