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Fields of irony July 1, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, geology, geophysics, grad school, research, work.
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When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for grad school, I thought geophysics was a good option because I enjoy getting outside.  I figured that if I were doing something related to geology, that opportunity would present itself much more often than in electrical engineering.  I suppose this idea came because I was used to spending most of my time in a 10’x20′ windowless room…or a much bigger windowless lab.  Either way, cabin fever sets in quickly when one is deprived of fresh air and sunshine most of the day.

Unfortunately, I discovered I wasn’t as crazy about ‘outdoor’ geology but fell in love with computationally intensive topics.  I love getting outside and collecting rocks, but I view it more now as a hobby than as a career path.

Recently, however, I’ve been working with some people in another department on a project.  This new project will probably require me to spend some time outside doing field work.  It’s rather ironic that I may end up getting my outside time because of a project I’m doing in electrical engineering.

I guess it all works out in the end.  Now if I could find a way to teach programming outdoors…

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Repost: The varied and graphically-intensive world of nomograms March 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in electromagnetics, engineering, geology, geophysics, grad school.
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I spent a good chunk of time yesterday dealing with Smith charts, and I remembered in the recesses of my brain that I had once posted something about them in the old blog.  Sadly, it wasn’t as technically intensive as it could have been, but I still decided it was fun enough for a repost.  If you would like to read something with a bit more technical content, you can check out Fluxor’s post on Smith charts at EngineerBlogs.

A nomogram is an incredibly useful tool. It is a visual “solution” to an equation. Usually it is some sort of chart or plot that allows you to figure out “what you’ve got” and you can move from there to “what you need”.

Anyone who works on the analog side of electrical engineering often gets to play with Smith charts, which were of course invented by Baker*. They’re rather confusing looking things:

The usefulness in Smith charts is that they can allow you to determine things like how much more transmission line you need to get an impedance match in your device. Rather than trying to solve an equation using complex values, you can just move along the curve in a Smith chart. (Disclaimer: While I learned how to use Smith charts in my microwave engineering course, I unfortunately would need to spend some time with my buddy Pozar to remember how to do it now.) I’m also aided in my negligence by the fact that there are a lot of nifty software programs that will compute the necessary values, reducing the necessity of using a Smith chart. (Thank goodness for computers. If it weren’t for computers, I’d probably have to learn how to use a slide rule, too.)

What brought this up is that I was introduced to a nomogram used by scientists in the field of paleomagnetism. The nomograms in this case showed relationships in demagnetization of magnetic minerals. For instance, if you have a mineral that has been exposed to a temperature of 400°C for 1000 seconds in the lab, you can follow the line on the nomogram and discover that the same amount of demagnetization could be caused by sitting in a temperature of 350°C for 100 million years.

So why do I spend time mentioning this on my LJ? Could it be because knowing that there are graphical methods to approximate solutions to problems is good to know? It is good to know, but it’s not why I bring it up. The reason I felt the need to post about it is because I had an entirely different picture of nomograms when I was sitting in class:

tastee nom-o-grams

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*Just kidding. It was developed by Phillip H. Smith.

Students finding their direction June 23, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, geophysics, physics, research, teaching.
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The younger son’s birthday was this week, and we opted to host a pool party at a local hotel.  (IMO, pool parties are the best for the elementary school age group: they keep themselves busy and then go home exhausted.)  I was checking in when I noticed a young man standing at the other end of the counter.  He looked familiar, so I asked if I knew him.

“I took your class last fall.”

“Oh great!  How did the rest of the school year go for you?”

“Great.  I actually switched to business and am really liking it.”

“Really?  Why did you switch?”

“I just figured I liked business a lot better.”

“That’s why they have you take those early major classes – so that you find out you don’t like it before you get too far into it.”

I think the poor kid thought I would be mad that he had switched.  But I wasn’t mad at all.  If he feels like he’d be better off in a different major, then he ought to go for it.  And that is part of what I’m trying to set out in the class – this is what engineers do.  If it doesn’t look fun, then you ought to think about a different major.  That’s a perfectly valid choice, and no one should judge a student for it.

(Yeah, I know…I sit here and wring my hands because older son gets these obnoxiously high scores in math and science but wants to be a writer…I’m one to talk.)

But seriously, I actually think it’s sort of silly to make students choose a major really early on in school.  I think it’s a good idea to try to take a lot of classes in different fields before you really choose.  I say this as someone who major hopped a lot during undergrad.  I spent some time in physics, chemistry, journalism, and graphic arts.  I finally decided that I liked physics after all, but what got me excited was geophysics.  I happened to take a geology class when I was at Caltech because I had to take a lab course, and everyone told me geology was the easiest.  Turns out, I really liked it and did very well in the course.  (Of course, later on, I found that geology feels too qualitative and prefer geophysics, so it all worked out.  On the other hand, I think I would’ve liked geology better if it had all been field courses.)  🙂

I have run into people who got upset with me for this type of thing.  I was doing research with a professor in undergrad, but I felt like the research wasn’t going well and got sort of excited about a math project that I’d seen a professor give a talk about.  I talked to that professor to see if he’d be interested in having me as a student, which he was.   When I told the other professor that I was going to work with the math professor, all hell broke loose.  (I still think I made the right choice, though, especially since the first project really never did go anywhere.)  I have yet to figure out why the first professor got upset, though, and did some petty stuff, like kicking me out of the student office (despite no one needing a spot) and having the secretary take away my mailbox.  (This was silly, BTW, as I was president of the Society of Physics Students, so she ended up giving it back to me a month later so I could get SPS mail.)

And what did this do?  Certainly reinforced that I didn’t want to work with this person, but I could also see it making a student feel like this person is representative of a particular field.  Wouldn’t you wonder if a student would not want to go into a major because of the way the professors treat him or her?  I can (and did!), and it just shows how ridiculous the whole thing was.

No, students need  some time to explore their interests and getting mad at them for not doing what you think they should do is silly.  They are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of their choices, and if a student takes my class and decides they don’t want to spend the next five to ten years of their life studying engineering, then I think they’ve learned something very important and just as valid as anything else I have to teach them.

The geophysics (and 1 solar physics) linkety-link September 7, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in geophysics, science, solar physics.
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New View of Tectonic Plates: Computer Modeling of Earth’s Mantle Flow, Plate Motions, and Fault Zones: This article on Science Daily gives an overview of a new model that examines the interplay between mantle flow, tectonic motion, and fault zone behavior. (The original article is here, but it’s behind a pay wall.) The authors have taken an adaptive algorithm, which can create a finer mesh in areas where more detail is needed, and modified it so that it can be used on distributed computing systems. Many models utilize regularly spaced meshes. It would be really cool to develop a model that incorporates the behavior of all parts and scales of the Earth system, and this model may be a step in that direction.

ScienceNews had an article on what may have been an uber-fast magnetic field reversal. I’ll be interested to see what other people say on this one. One friend noted that the thermal history of the area is complicated and thus may not be a good candidate for this type of study, but I’m not sure how you could find this with something less complicated. Anyway, it would have some interesting implications if the field actually can flip this fast…or at least have an excursion.

Discovery News has an article on a proposal that the Yellowstone hotspot may have shredded the Juan de Fuca plate, thus slowing down the rate of subduction of the Pacific under North America.

And finally, Dave Jones from EEVblog sent this one out over Twitter: something from the sun, possibly neutrinos, might change the rate of decay for radioactive elements on Earth. That’s just cool.

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