Archive for the ‘fall08’ Category


Undergraduate Days Gone By

December 20, 2008

This past semester was my final one as a physics undergrad. I had two last classes to take officially – one had to be Sr. Physics Lab but the other was an elective which could (and, by the opinion of various advisors, should) have been Quantum Mechanics but I chose to take Introduction to Astrophysics instead. The benefit of being a (putative) adult is that I do not always need to take the advice of others, even if it really is a good idea. The administration of the physics department has corrected that oversight and QM is required for anyone using the latest course catalogs.

Senior Physics Lab, taught by Dr. Karen Sauer, was quite interesting as I had hoped and expected it to be. It consisted of two 30-45 minute lectures followed by 3 official hours of lab work each week. We could work additional hours if we wanted to, except for the one experiment that required a radioactive source only the instructor was permitted to handle. Each student had to complete four projects/experiments over the semester, generally as a solo project (except for one or two projects considered difficult/complicated enough to duo). For my projects, I chose the Zeeman Effect, Plasma Diagnosis, Compton Scattering and Optical Pumping. The projects themselves ranged from fairly easy (ZM) to bothersomely difficult (PD). The write-ups, however, were the real challenge. Dr. Sauer demanded (after the first draft) fairly rigorous, publishable-level papers. Whether she got anything close to that level is a question for her, but I tried. My papers ran 1600-3300 words and were graded 9 out of 10 on average. My grade for the semester: A

Introduction to Astrophysics, taught by Dr. Shobita Satyapal, was a mixed bag. On one hand, the topic is incredibly interesting to me and getting some in-depth information on how the universe works was fascinating. On the other hand, I felt the class was easier than perhaps it should be. Granted, it is a survey course (like nearly everything else in the undergrad physics world), but I think we could have spent more time on the equations of astrophysics beyond the mostly-unproved basics. On the other hand, if it had been very difficult, I likely would have just complained about that, so I should just be happy with the A+ grade I received.

Even though I only took two classes officially, I still tried to squeeze in some more unofficially, just to keep things active.

Astrobiology, by Dr. Summers. I’ve taken this before and since I am nominally doing research for him and really enjoyed the class, I regularly attended this class. It was great two years ago and even better now. Class attendance has doubled and his slides have become even more awesome with time. It’s still fun. I took one exam without studying for it (did not realize it was being offered) and scored an 85, which was pretty good considering I usually forget things immediately after the semester ends.

Electromagnetic Theory – I sat through maybe half the classes of this one, hoping to pick up something I had missed in my first horrid class. However, the instructor was teaching off the same exact notes (word for word, example for example) as the ones used in the class I took officially and the teaching seemed under par.

Introduction to Quantum Mechanics was every bit as complex as I anticipated, but I attended and took notes as well as I could. I kept up fairly well with the topics until we reached Hermitian operators, at which point an entire class went by which sounded like a completely foreign language to me (the result of doing no outside work on the class). At that point, I realized I would be wasting my time attending further classes and used the time to extend my lab work or go home early and see my children before bedtime.

And so my undergrad career comes to a close with a cumulative GPA of 3.96. Now that I am not distracted by regular classes, I hope to be able to dig deep into my research, probably by taking my laptop to school one or more days a week and concentrating on things there, since I will always find a distraction if I stay at home. The grad school situation is currently fuzzy – my intent is to continue my work at GMU with Dr. Summers, but they now require applicants to take the Physics GRE and the next test is not held until just before the deadline for applications, so I may end up with a dead semester or two until I can get the paperwork completed, unless I can get a waiver to skip that portion given the faculty’s familiarity with me over the past several years. Time will tell.


Dusting Things Off

November 23, 2008

I need to get my butt in gear and post here at least once a week – if I go longer than that, it is all too tempting to let it slide just a little bit longer, and so on.

The semester continues apace, with some small modifications. I had abandoned the Quantum Mechanics class I was auditing. I hadn’t been keeping up with the reading and she finally passed beyond my ability to comprehend anything. (Although apparently it has regressed somewhat into more intelligible terminology.) The fact that it was such a late class helped in the decision – it’s nice to get home before 7 pm. E&M (also auditing) is only rarely attended – I usually find something better to do at that time (like eat). She is still teaching pretty much straight from the old notes I already have, so I am not missing much.

That leaves me still auditing Astrobiology (always cool) and taking my normal two classes, Sr. Physics Lab and Intro to Astrophysics. I’m working on the last of the four lab projects now (trying to get ringing to happen in optical pumping of Rubidium). After a quiz tomorrow, all that is left in that class is to hand in the final paper sometime before December 10th. Astrophysics has another homework assignment left and the final exam.

The photography class I took with Washington Photo Safari (night shoot at the monuments) was pretty cool. Sometime after the semester ends, I hope to do some tweaking of the pics and get them posted. In the meantime, here is one of my favorites.

Lincoln Memorial after sunset, shot across the reflection pool.

Lincoln Memorial after sunset, shot across the reflection pool.

Maestro, still very sick

Maestro, still very sick

In other news, we adopted a new kitten relatively recently. He was found in a feral colony by an LRR worker. She got him some to her vet for some medical treatment and then we adopted him, naming him Maestro (looks like he’s in a tux) and substantially more medical work (mites, an ugly case of worms, very serious upper respiratory infection, very low body weight and a few other issues).

Happily, he is in much better shape now (I was very worried for a bit, especially when he was sneezing blood) and has more than doubled his weight from a paltry 1.8 lbs to 4 lbs since we got him. Of course, that means he is well enough and old enough for neutering, but it beats starving to death in a feral colony.

Maestro ... not the brightest star in the sky?

Not the brightest star in the sky?

Of course, now I have to wonder if he has all his marbles. This was not an action shot. He had his tongue out like this for about 5 minutes.

Maestro gets along very well with the youngest of our other cats, Nikki, and plays, chases and roughhouses with her regularly. He is tolerated by the old man, Ziggy (who occasionally starts to play before he remembers his dignity). The old lady, Stardust, won’t have any of it, though and goes into serious hissy fits whenever he gets too close. However, since she is a total coward, I am not worried about any major catfights happening anytime soon.

Finally, I will leave you with a little bit of nature. After a particularly violent late-afternoon drenching, I spotted a truly brilliant rainbow lighting up the eastern sky. Even the deep purple side of it was very clear. Unfortunately, cameras do much less well with rainbows than eyes do (especially in the hands of inexperienced photographers like myself), but I did the best I could on this one.

Rainbow over Great Falls

Rainbow over Great Falls


Semester Update

October 7, 2008

It has been a busy, but unexciting semester so far. As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a lab and one course for credit, auditing 3 others and attempting to start up some new research on the side. In the copious spare time that remains, I also am trying to manage my family.

The hardest part is trying to keep tabs on the girls. For a change, all my classes are in the afternoon, so I don’t need to dash out the door early in the morning for a 9 am class. The tradeoff, though, is that I am not around when their school lets out 4 days out of the week, which is tough on the whole family.

The first lab report (Zeeman Effect) has been handed in – it should do well (the draft version got high marks). The second lab (Plasma Diagnosis) is in progress, but has been very troublesome so far. Tomorrow is the last reasonable effort I can make to collect the needed data – report due in one week!

My first (only?) mid-term exam is next Thursday, in Astrophysics. I am somewhat worried about that one – the instructor classifies it as a hard exam. This is the professor who thinks the homework is fairly easy, but it invariably causes stress for most of the class. At least we can bring a sheet of paper with whatever we want on it – and I can write in very tiny print.

My research is totally slacking – I’m supposed to be learning how the outer layers of the sun work hydrodynamically (in order to assist with other work I’m done – I’m not actually studying stars for this research). I’ve just been so swamped lately – in part due to an out-of-town medical emergency (now passed – hi, Mom!) which chewed up most of a week of mental time, in part due to me being a slacker still – that I have not taken the time to truly absorb the material. I need to get my butt in gear before he casts me off.

Right now, I am watching the 2nd Obama/McCain debate instead of doing homework or studying for the probability/uncertainty quiz I have tomorrow, but at least I’m not on the Xbox. And where are McCain’s manners? He ignores Obama while the latter is talking and various other rude moments tonight and throughout the campaign. The worst, though, is totally blowing off Obama’s hand shake offer at the end – he tapped Obama in the back to get his attention, and when Obama turned around with his hand out for a shake, McCain looked at it and turned away! Obama recovered well and turned to McCain’s wife (who did accept the hand) and then continued his business. Manners, Mr. McCain, manners – you must be civil to the Democratic nominee to the highest elected position in the country, even if you despise everything about him (as he must be to you, as the Republican nominee).

This Friday, I am taking a photo workshop with Washington Photo Safari (monuments at night), which could be cool (with the offset problem of possibly getting me too interested in photography again – like I have the time!).

Finally, I am attempting to keep up my training in krav maga at least twice a week – I was on a good roll until a few weeks ago when I lost two weeks in a row. Now I have to get my butt in gear again. I might add on a second type of training (perhaps muay thai) just so I can open up another night or two to work out – the krav sessions just don’t fit my schedule well this semester.


One Week Down

August 30, 2008

The first week of my last undergraduate semester didn’t go so badly, although it did give me a slight taste of what is to come for the rest of this year.

I am taking two physics courses for credit and sitting in three others unofficially. That gives me Sr. Physics Lab, Astrophysics, E/M Theory, Astrobiology and Quantum Mechanics to worry about (total of 11 lecture hours and 6 lab hours per week), plus a weekly meeting with my research advisor (more below) and bi-weekly meetings for astrophysics journal club, physics club and physics club officers (I’m the VP). Plus occasional seminars here and there. Oh, and research to do.

When I stopped to talk with my research advisor, he told me he had come up with not one, but two (unrelated) projects for me to consider. One deals with NASA’s AIM mission and the other with exoplanets. Both are way cool, but I suspect I will be going with the exoplanets one because it fits my interests and (very basic) foundation a bit better. So now I have another hundred or so pages of research papers and presentations to read plus some online work, preparatory to doing a lot more IDL coding. His hope is that the introductory work would keep me busy for the next two semesters (I’ll have a lot more time after this one, since I’ll have no classes at all this spring, most likely) and we would submit an official PhD thesis proposal(!!) next fall.

Of course, we’ve ignored (so far) the fact that I actually have to prepare for, take and suitably pass both the general and physics GREs to get into GMU’s graduate program, but at least I have a direction in which to travel.

And some time during all this (3 days!), my darling children head back to school, so I probably should pay attention to them occasionally as well (plus their mommy).


School Bell’s A-Ringing

August 25, 2008

First day of the fall semester today.

I started it off with a visit to my research adviser, who has not one, but two different PhD thesis-level projects in mind for me. Gift horse, anyone? One of them involves an active NASA mission. One is related to (but not directly involved with) my Charon work. The first one comes with funding, wherein I would draw a stipend (plus, presumably, funding for conference travel). The second has no funding itself, although Dr. Summers said he could probably spring for a couple conferences.

Now I have to decide between an interesting project I get paid for and a (somewhat more interesting) project that I won’t necessarily get paid for. And since I could conceivably be working on whichever one I choose for the next 6-8 years (although presumably I would eventually find some funding for the latter project – except in the current anti-science administration, that’s pretty well impossible), I need to choose pretty carefully. However, it’s a good problem to have – rather too many projects than not enough (or an unhelpful research adviser).

After that meeting, and some chatting with various friends in the hallways, I headed to Senior Physics Lab. This promises to be quite an interesting class, with two half-hour lecture periods followed by 3-hour lab periods each week. Additionally, we can always get a key to the advanced physics lab to work independently whenever we wish. We each have to work solo (with a couple exceptions) on four different experiments throughout the semester. My first is a study of the Zeeman Effect on mercury vapor. On Wednesday, we have an oral pass/fail exam on our individual experiments which we must pass before we’re permitted to begin work, then it’s radiation safety education and quizzing next week and finally we can begin work.

Following lab I sat in on the first Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course. Although this course is packed to full (every seat taken), I have permission from the instructor to sit in on it unofficially. It is now a required course for all new Physics undergraduates. However, since I am running under an older catalog, it is only optional for me (I’m taking Astrophysics instead), but it is still a good idea to know the contents since a significant part of the physics GRE uses the knowledge. My main surprise in the class is the number of physics majors in there whom I swear I have never seen before. You’d think I would know (at least by sight) all the junior/senior level physics students by this point (since there are only a few dozen total physics undergraduates).

Tomorrow – three more classes (two audits, one for credit)!


Decision time approaches

August 20, 2008

As I enter my final semester as a physics undergraduate, there is a decision looming which I have put off for at least a year: What next?

My choices seem to be along the lines of:
– go back to slacking (the easy option)
– get a real job (the hardest option, in many ways)
– continue education

The final one comes with its own three options:
– aim to become a secondary education (6-12) physics teacher
– aim to become a university physics professor
– aim to become a researcher

Assuming that slacking and getting a real job are off the table for the moment, that leaves me with some complex choices to make, even if I stay at GMU for my continued education (UMCP is a far better physics campus, but I really dislike the idea of driving into MD each day for grad school).

GMU’s College of Education and Development (CEHD) offers a Masters of Education in a variety of subjects, including physics. For admission, one needs 3 letters of recommendation, a goals statement and successful Praxis I exam results. The Praxis seems to essentially be a GRE for the education side of things. The LoRs will be interesting to achieve – I am not sure what they are to recommend (my physics knowledge? My teaching ability? My personality and work ethic?). I’m sure I can find three profs who attest to my hard work at school and in classes. Not much teaching experience, however (that’s the whole point here!). The deadline for spring admission is November 1st. For next fall, it would be April 1st.

For either the professor or researching angle, I need a PhD. The work is essentially identical for either direction, only my concentration work would change. GMU’s sparkly-new Physics PhD program requires acceptable scores (whatever that means!) in both the general GRE (fairly easy) and the physics GRE (very not easy). There are only fall admissions for the graduate program, which leaves me with an April 15th deadline.

Given that I am unlikely to get all my testing done as well as other paperwork within 2 months, the April deadlines are more achievable. That means I can get my various paperwork collected throughout this semester and schedule my test-taking in late winter or early spring (so as not to worry about studying for it during classes).

Now I need to find someone who can usefully advise me as to paths and suggestions of how to approach them. I’ve already had one person suggest I find a high school physics teacher and ask to sit in on classes just to watch how things go. (Alas, he also suggested I do NOT choose a specialist school like TJHSST, the only place I actually might have access to a physics teacher, because I know his wife!)

And, of course, after all this, there is no indication one way or another that I would be any good at research or teaching in any capacity. I already know I don’t do well with teaching indifferent or uninterested students, which could be a challenge. On the other hand, research is undirected ultimately – a situation in which I also do not excel. That’s what I get for redefining my existence in my 40s.

Update: Just after I posted this, I received email from my favorite professor, which included in part this sentence:
“I have a potential Ph.D. thesis project if you are interested.” That may help narrow down my decision somewhat!