Archive for the ‘spring08’ Category


Another Semester Ends

May 18, 2008

The Spring 2008 semester is over, the grades are posted. I hear you breathlessly asking, “How did it go?”

Not too badly.

While I only registered for 6 credits this semester (3 lecture, 3 research), I actually sat through 9 credits of lecture. One extra class was by invitation from my research advisor. The other less invited, but he did not seem to mind (after all, I was a more consistent attendee than half the class). The full rundown then…

Senior Research Project – I talked a bunch about my research project here. I did not do any more flux work since my last post, but did continue working on vapor pressures of certain molecules (N2, CH4, CO and a variety of C2H* species) at very low (30-60K) temperatures. I originally was asked to turn in a sort of journal of my efforts for the grade. Before the semester was out, however, Dr. Summers let me know I had already earned an A (yay me!) for my work, but he still wanted me to turn in a paper which might be suitable for publishing on the low temperature vapor pressures. I finished writing that today and will submit it tomorrow for his review/editing.

Modern Physics – This was a very interesting class — a “survey” course (touching relatively lightly on a number of topics) covering special relativity, introductory quantum physics, Schrodinger’s wave functions, perturbation theory and similar fun. My one big regret is that we did not get to the last part of the book, which deals with subatomic particles (quarks and things). That was what I was looking most forward to! The instructor, Dr. Karen Sauer, is engaging and effective. I enjoyed her teaching and look forward to having her again for Senior Physics Lab next semester. The tests were not easy – GRE-based multiple choice plus course-based quantitative questions. No equations were given (just like in the GRE), so we had to memorize all the formulas as well as knowing how to use them. I studied harder for the final exam (5 full days) than I have for any other exam I have ever taken. Result (including her substantial curve to get the class average up to a B): A+ for the course.

Thermal Physics – I just sat in this class, not signing up for it (or talking to the instructor about it) because I was told it was critical for an astrophysics career (it probably is). However, it is not (currently) required to graduate – just one of a list of electives – and I chose to take a second semester of research for more fun. The instructor, Dr. Peter Becker, was not bad, if occasionally a goofball (humor is good, though). The book, however, was horrible. It was written in 1965 and completely unsuitable to today’s education environment – just page after page of text spamming your eyeballs without a gap. I could not take it and did not even crack the book after the first week or so. I still took very thorough notes throughout the semester in case it ever becomes important to me.

Atmospheric Physics – Another survey course! (Don’t we ever get to learn the real stuff?) This one was taught by Dr. Summers and I sat in it at his request. As expected, it was an enjoyable class full of great slides and interesting information about how the atmosphere works.

All in all, not a bad semester, although I started losing the urge to be in school somewhere in April (about par for me). One more semester of undergraduate courses – currently scheduled for Senior Physics Lab and Introduction to Astrophysics, although I may sit in one or more other classes as well again. We’ll see what happens!


Charon Research

May 2, 2008

Another semester nearly done and I have hardly posted at all. I’ll do a full summary once grades are in. For now, my classes are essentially done (one more on Monday night). Now I just have to finish writing up the journal/log for my research project, which I just realized I have not actually talked about before. Fairly briefly, then…

My last research project (with advisor Dr. Shobita Satyapal), done in Spring 2007, was based predominantly on Spitzer Space Telescope (and some older) infrared observations of a variety of galaxies. In that project I did a fairly rough, low sample comparison of various methods of determining star formation rate in galaxies (infrared, UV, visible light, etc.). Ultimately, I determined that infrared was the way to go for a variety of reasons. I am not sure how valid my results were (this was all new to me), but I got some interesting reactions from Shobita and one of her grad students, so that’s a plus.

This time around, I am working with Dr. Michael Summers, as I mentioned in an earlier post. He is working up a paper discussing the possibility of Charon having an atmosphere and the composition, density and lifespan of that atmosphere, if present. While the great bulk of the work (and all the theory) is his (and a collaborator’s), he has had me running some mathematical models using the IDL programming language. Technically-speaking, I am not really doing Charon research for much of it, because a lot of the models I am running (like determining equilibrium vapor pressures for a variety of gases at very low temperatures) has nothing to do with Charon specifically. Some of it, my earlier work (I actually started this work last May), used Charon parameters, however, so that qualifies. (Current direction of conclusions: yes, Charon most likely does have an atmosphere, which is picks up in part from Pluto’s evaporation while it is near enough to the sun.)

Since it is not really a full research project (I have no theory, no position, not much of anything), I am not sure how he will be grading it – hopefully just grading the quality of the programming output I did plus whatever journal I write up talking about my adventures making the models. He has used at least one of my output plots in a talk he gave to other atmospheric sciences, so I can’t be too far off in my models.

One thing I have learned about doing this research is that advisors are very hard to contact! Both of my advisors have been very out of the loop with my daily activities. In Shobita’s case, she delegated pretty much all of my handling to one of her post-docs. She was out of it enough that my conclusions were a surprise to her – she had not inquired as to my progress for many weeks prior to the final paper. I still have not gotten my graded paper back from her after almost a year of asking. In Mike’s case, he is a very busy man – two active NASA missions (New Horizons, AIM), one hopefully soon-to-be-approved mission (ARES) as well as papers he is working on and his class time. It is lucky for me I am sitting in on his atmospheric physics class this semester – it gives me 10 minutes each week to talk to him on our way to the parking lot after class! He apparently has a good number of grad students (like 6-8) working for him, although I only know two of them – neither of which gets much face time either, so at least I know it is not just me.


Faculty Candidate Interviews Redux

March 4, 2008

The final candidate (on Wednesday, not Monday OR Tuesday) spoke on the formation of terrestrial planets beyond our solar system. The topic was interesting, but the speaker needs a lot more practice. He was personable, but clearly nervous and lacking some polish. We did not feel drawn to him as a teacher, nor did he seem especially interested in teaching.

Our final recommendation – hire the first candidate if they want a teacher, hire the third one if they want a researcher, higher the last one if the first two say no and do not hire the second one under any circumstances (sorry about that). We will see how it all goes. The faculty committee makes its decision tomorrow and passes the recommendation up the chain.


Faculty Candidate Interviews

February 21, 2008

One of the more interesting things the Physics & Astronomy Department at GMU does is get students involved with the hiring of faculty. Last Spring and again this month, I have been on the student committee responsible for interviewing the short list of candidates for new teaching positions. We go to seminars the candidates are giving at GMU, then participate in an hour-long, student-only interview session with the candidate. After seeing all the candidates, the student committee (about 4-6 of us) sends in our collective commentary on each one, along with our hiring priority preference (including any opinion against hiring). The hiring committee takes the recommendations of the student committee very seriously – the last few times they have given the first offer to the students’ first choice (and they never offer a job to someone the students say not to hire, even if the other candidates all turn down offers).

Last year’s candidates were not too exciting for me – largely based on fields in physics (including neuroscience) where I had little interest and less knowledge (or maybe vice-versa). This year, however, the candidates are all in the field of planetary science, which is awesome.

Our first candidate presented some current research based on magnetic fields (called crustal fields) on the surface of Mars. This is new research, as the mission responsible for gathering the data is still orbiting the planet. He was very excited about his topic and a good speaker. Even better, based on our interview of him later on, he seems like he would be an interesting and engaging professor for freshman and sophomore students, especially those not already in a science field (hopefully getting them to choose a science major).

The second candidate was a letdown from the first. His research, on the possibility of earth-like planets in stable, habitable obits around binary stars, was fairly interesting (and the models of how planets may be forming in those systems pretty cool), but he definitely lacked the excitement value of the first one. His interview did not improve matters. We rate him a distant last place.

Today’s candidate discussed the current mission around Titan (and various other Saturnian moons) and the fact that, instead of finding 300m of methane seas around the whole planet, they found sand dunes! There seems to be a lot of methane missing and they are trying to figure out where it went (including the most obvious conclusion – the models are broken). He was an engaging speaker (after a shaky start) and very personable. I had lunch with him and several other faculty members and my opinion only improved. We feel he would be a decent teacher (he does not have the experience the first one does) and an incredible research advisor. I’d say he is either tied for first or a very close second place.

The final candidate will do his schtick next week (Monday or Tuesday – I’d better check). I almost hope he’s not quite as good as the two we already like – it isn’t too useful to send the hiring committee a recommendation to hire 3 of the 4 people they sent us (when just getting 1 of them will be tough).


Spring 2008

January 21, 2008

A new semester begins tomorrow. As I mentioned earlier, this time I am foregoing the wisdom of my advisors (sorry!) and dropping Thermal Physics in order to pick up another semester of research, this time under the direction of Dr. Michael Summers.

I purchased my text book for the Modern Physics class from Amazon. Got it “used but really new” for half price. Seems mint condition to me – the pages are still even slightly stuck together from cutting! There is a small binding error – the periodic table on the inside back cover is skewed and will need to be trimmed or, more likely, scanned and repasted in correctly so I don’t twitch every time I see it.

That is actually my only truly required text. I will be semi-auditing (showing up when I want for as long as I want) an atmospheric physics class, but I can check that book out from the library. I may try to sit in on the Thermal Physics class – we’ll see what vibes I get from the unknown instructor when I sit in on tomorrow’s class (I’m still technically registered for that class, not research). If I plan to do that regularly, I may have to see about picking up the text.

My big problem so far is that the Physics department redid their web site. While I applaud the move (the only one was very old tech and hardly updated), they seem to have broken more than they fixed. The new format is wiki-based, which I suppose is fine, but there is a lot of information which was there before that seems to be missing now. I suppose it will appear over time, but I am a proponent of having all your data set up before relaunching a site, especially in the week before classes start when some folks (ahem) are trying to dig up class information!