Archive for the ‘research’ Category


Ringing in 2009

January 5, 2009

Not much of note since the last post. We are recovering from the holidays (and what a long vacation for the children that was!) and the house is beginning to look more like normal – not that that is necessarily a good thing, but at least the Christmas decorations are largely absent.

This household eagerly awaits January 20th and the hoped-for changes the event will cause. (It would definitely be nice not to be despised by the majority of the industrialized world again.)

Life in a Fishbowl

Life in a Fishbowl

Now that I have found most of my desk, school work of a sort begins again – I have research to restart, much to learn and studying for a dreadedly-anticipated Physics GRE to manage. This all will likely result in 2-3 days per week at GMU, because I have well-convinced myself that I cannot do serious work at home unless I am already totally in the grove (which will probably happen once I get seriously programming in IDL). It’s just way too easy to get distracted.

I also hope to get a lot more exercise this year, including regular krav maga sessions now that I no longer have a class schedule in conflict with training. We’ll see how that works out!

WWII Memorial and Washington Monument

WWII Memorial and Washington Monument

In the trickling way which will probably continue, here is another image taken from my Washington Photo Safari. In this one, I set up with my back to the reflecting pool (where I took this photo) and aimed at the area we had just left – the WWII memorial and Washington monument. I liked the setup, especially with the monument reflecting in the glass-smooth pool in the foreground. I definitely need to make my way back down to the monuments at night, alone or with another enthusiast, so I can take my time and get the shots I really like (instead of needing to stick with a group and being under a deadline).


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.


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)!


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.