Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category


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)!


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.


Astronomy Cast

February 18, 2008

Astronomy Cast is a weekly podcast by Fraser Cain (of Universe Today) and Pamela Gay (from SIUE). They cover all aspects of the universe from just above our atmosphere to far, far away, from the very beginning to the theorized end. A tour of our Solar system. Dark Energy. Birth of the Universe, Galaxies, Stars, Black Holes. Tidal forces. Relativity. Monster telescopes. No astronomical topic is too large, too small or too complex for them to handle.

Each episode is about 30 minutes long. The format is very easy to listen to – Fraser and Pamela essentially have a conversation about the current week’s topic. In general, he asks questions and she answers them using very little jargon – no math (well, not counting the Drake Equation episode)! Occasionally, Fraser will branch off and try to rephrase an answer in a different mode to give users another chance at understanding some of the really complex issues they ably handle. Pamela is a master at getting across astrophysical concepts without coming across as talking down to anyone. Additionally, she has one of the most awesome speaking voices I have heard in many years. I could listen to her for hours in a lecture hall (come to GMU and guest lecture, Pamela!).

I have listened to all 76 episodes (plus a few bonus tracks) to date and it sits at the top of my list – if there is an Astronomy Cast episode to hear, it doesn’t matter what I am in the middle of listening to, I switch to that.


Out, Out Damned Apathy!

December 10, 2007

Another day of studying nearly done.

On a positive note, while firmly not studying earlier today, I was analyzing my remaining classes required to graduate. Looks like I can dump two of the courses I was not really interested in anyway (Thermal Physics and Quantum Mechanics) for one class I am interested in (Astrophysics) and a second term of Senior Research. While dumping those two classes goes directly against an advisor’s suggestion (because of applicability to future graduate studies), at this point grad school is not looking like a highly-probable event, so I am more interested in taking courses of interest than courses of future necessity.

I sat down with Dr. Michael Summers (my former astrobiology teacher) and we discussed some nice possibilities for research next semester. While many options are open, I will probably stick to work I started earlier this year–mathematical modeling of potential atmospheres for Pluto’s moon, Charon. It is interesting work and I also get to do some programming in IDL, which is not too bad (if substantially different from what I am used to in C/C++).

In any case, I am sufficiently recharged to finish studying tonight for tomorrow’s Applied Math and Classical Mechanics finals. I still cannot muster much desire to study for E/M Theory (Thursday exam), though. (Knowing I only need about a 44% on it to get a B in the class does not help much!)


Beyond the Mid-Terms

November 1, 2007

Well, I am glad THAT week is over. All three exams passed. A+ in E/M, B in Math (highest grade in class, though – I don’t know if he curves) and unknown in Mechanics. No idea how he’s going to curve that test when most of us did so poorly. I did complain about the one problem, however (the only one I did very badly on) – while I am sure he fully desires us to have every equation from Physics I memorized, he has been teaching long enough that he should not expect it. Having to pull a friction equation out of my head (from Spring 99 – same teacher, coincidentally) without any warning that such would be needed was a bit of unnecessary stress during the exam. I am guessing that I am running about a B/B+ in that class, only because of the curve (my exam scores are lousy, but they are still better than the average).

After that, it was slacking for the long weekend (something I am way too good at) and then last-minute prep for Halloween. On the positive side, I finally got to see Comet Holmes through both my 16×70 binocs and my 8″ SC telescope. Way cool. Too bad I did not get everything set up until after all the trick-or-treaters were done for the night!