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There are four lights! January 27, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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It’s hard being a physicist.  Pretty much every place you look, you’re seeing some cool physical phenomenon that just screams, “Newton (or some other dead guy) discovered me!”  If you’re lucky, the screaming isn’t followed by an apple hitting you on the head.  Unless you’re a Klingon who is reciting love poetry; then that might be lucky.

Anyway, one such event occurred when I was looking into my coffee mug, which happened to be filled with hot water and a touch of coconut oil for flavor (and medium-chain triglycerides).  Some bubbles were sitting there on the surface, breaking up the layer of oil, and behaving like a lens.  There was an interesting image on the bottom of the cup, which you can see below.



As you can see, underneath each bubble, there appears to be something that almost looks like a four on a six-sided die.  It took me a second to figure out what was going on.  Then I realized that, directly above me, were four lights.  If I shift my angle, you can see them quite clearly in the reflection, though the one on the bottom left is partially blocked by my phone.



This was surprising to me because this lamp is newly installed.  Our previous lamp in this room had only one light.  It took me a bit to realize that this was why I was so surprised to see an image in the bottom of my cup: it really was something new.


To get to the other side… September 30, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, older son, physics, teaching, younger son.
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If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may remember that I compiled a whole series of physics jokes.  I was posting them daily for about two months.  Some people loved them.  I think a bunch of people also unfriended me because of it.

When I did this, I had an ulterior motive in mind: I wanted to tell them to my classes.  I’ve found that students tend to listen better to teachers they think are likable.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the warm, fuzzy personality that many of my friends (particularly those in geology) have.  I come across, sometimes, as a mean, nasty type.

And so the jokes…

They really do work.  Students will loosen up and talk.  They relax a bit.  They smile.  And most important, they don’t think I’m out to get them.  Those endorphins do wonders.

The problem I’m having now is that so many of my jokes are physics related…and I’m teaching freshmen.  While they all know about atoms and noble gases and protons, electrons, and neutrons, many of my jokes cover more esoteric topics.  They give me blank stares when I talk about Heisenberg or Schroedinger or neutrinos…

There’s a part of me that would like to teach older students simply so that I have a more receptive audience.  Or maybe my problem is that I’m teaching engineers and not physicists.  Or maybe too many of them are from farms (see above comic).

But you, my dear reader, are a more receptive audience, right?  And my kids…my kids know what neutrinos are…kind of.  Maybe they’re just laughing at me because I sound funny when I talk about physics.

Incidentally, the punchline to the joke in the title, if you’re wondering, is, “Why did the tachyon cross the road?”

Friday fun: The best videos I’ve seen this week September 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science.
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In hearing about all the racism that surfaced regarding Nina Davuluri, I heard someone mention she’d done a Bollywood dance for her performance.  I had to check it out, and I have to admit that I’m very impressed.  Her kneeling spins are something else.

I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Bill Nye’s cha cha on Dancing with the Stars, but you have to admit it’s kind of cute (if a bit stereotyped).

And speaking of science and music (but not dance), I also came across this wonderful remake of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody called Bohemian Gravity.  I think this one is my favorite this week…it combines some pretty amazing talent with really amazing physics.



Making your mom proud (if she’s a physicist) August 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, physics, science.
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One of the classes that the older boy is doing this year is physics.  Rather than give him something very math intensive, I instead chose to have him study from Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics text.  It’s a book I came across after I’d already had a couple years of physics, and I regret not having had that book first.  It does a wonderful job of explaining how physics works and what the concepts mean without drowning the reader in math.

When I picked up the older son after his study session the other day, he began talking about how imbalances in forces are what cause objects to accelerate.  For instance, a car will move forward when the force created by the engine to move the car forward exceeds the forces of friction, gravity (if it’s on a hill), etc.  After listening, I asked the question, “What happens then if the forces become balanced?”

I fully expected him to say that the object would stop moving.  I really did.  This is what the vast majority of students in my physics labs assumed when asked that question.  Their assumption is that the forces must always be out of balance if the object is moving.

His response:

It would really depend on if the object were moving or still to begin with.  If it was moving, it would continue to do so, and if it wasn’t moving, it would continue to stay still.

My response was to yell, “Yes!!!!!” at the top of my lungs and pump my fist.  I’ve been proud of my son many times over the past few years, but few things make me beam as much as displaying a clear understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

Friday Fun: What is your favorite wavelength? August 2, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in electromagnetics, Friday Fun, physics.
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I want to know everyone’s favorite color…by their wavelength.  If you need help, here you go:


My personal favorite is right around 400 nm.  And it’s entirely for aesthetic reasons.

So what is yours and why?

(Yeah, I know…everyone is going to pick some non-optical frequency.  And yes, you have to stick to photons.  Maybe we can do sonic waves another week…)

Math is useless July 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in math, physics, Uncategorized, younger son.
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A lot of kids later become adults who think that math is a useless field of study.  Why would I need to know that?!  I’ve come across a lot of math books that are trying really hard to express how one can use math in order to motivate the learner by connecting it to an application as well as make it more interesting.  Connect math to the ‘real world’ is not something that comes easily to most people.

Independence Day motivated a lot of discussion with the younger son about fireworks.  While driving to our pyrotechnic fix last night, the younger son started asking what he would need to study in order to make fireworks.  Mike and I both said, “Chemistry.”  We both were assuming you need to know a lot about which chemicals to add to make particular colors.  I guess it didn’t help that I’d seen this image earlier in the day:


We were both surprised when the younger boy said, “And I’d need to know math, too!”  We agreed.  And then he continued:

You can calculate how much of each chemical you need, how high it will go (a bigger explosion should be farther away), how fast it will go, how long it will take to before the explosion happens, how hot it will get…

He elaborated on each point and ended up spending somewhere between five and ten minutes telling us all the ways one could use math in making fireworks.  I was completely stunned.  There is this huge difficulty in getting a lot of people to understand that you can quantify and predict (through physics) so many things we take for granted.  Yet, here is a kid who hasn’t even reached an age in the double digits who seems to understand that all of these things can have some sort of number associated with them and that they behave in ways that can be predicted by mathematical equations.  Mike and I both sat there with our mouths hanging open, shocked at what we were hearing.

However, as soon as the fireworks came out of the box, the little kid in all of us came out and just wanted to go blow things up.

Rihanna has it wrong! June 27, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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I heard Rihanna’s song “Diamonds” for the first time yesterday.  (I know…I live under a rock…though, unfortunately, not that kind of rock or I’d be rich.)  I rather liked the song except for the line that keeps popping up: “Shine bright like a diamond.”  Something about the way it sounds doesn’t quite fit the rest of the song for me, or maybe it was to repetitive.  But what really bugged me is that, every time I heard it, all I could think was, “Diamonds don’t shine!  They refract!”  I suppose refraction doesn’t sell as much pop music, though.  I will suggest, however, if any of you are aces at making music remixes, that the song would benefit from more accurate physics.  (Maybe she should take some notes from Britney Spears?)

Anyway, I hate it when science gets in the way of enjoying music.  When it’s not wrong, though, it can sometimes make the music more enjoyable.

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.

When I was at the conference… March 13, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in electromagnetics, engineering, physics, research.
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When I was at the conference last week, I had one fellow come up and look at my poster.  He is working on a similar problem but in a different application, and he made some comment about how he definitely thought what I was doing had merit.  (After seeing his talk, it made sense because he was trying something similar.)

However, we spent about 20 minutes arguing as to what we thought was going on in one of my plots.  He kept suggesting something that I had ruled out with experiment.

Tonight I’m looking at papers on some theory related to this project, and I think I have managed to find the answer to that mysterious plot.  Sadly, I was way off in my explanation, but I have to admit that apparently I wasn’t the only one.  The fellow I was arguing with had it wrong as well.

The real answer appears to be way cooler than either of us thought.  I love physics.

My theory on the Big Bang Theory January 30, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in humor, physics, science, science fiction, societal commentary.
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I really don’t watch much TV, but I do own all of the Big Bang Theory that’s available on DVD.  Most of my friends really enjoy it, too, and I have a theory why that is:  I think that it’s one of the few TV shows that nerds can stand to watch because it is far more factually correct than most TV shows.

Most of the nerds I know are the ones who annoy everyone else at movies by making commentary throughout about the impossibility or improbability of what they’re witnessing.  (In particular, my older son is this way.  Of course, he also likes to tell you what’s going to happen next, so he’s been banned from speaking during movies.)  Suspension of disbelief becomes a little harder when you’re faced with something you know cannot possibly happen.

I think this became obvious to me in one scene where Sheldon was waxing (un)poetic about how great Isaac Newton was.  Leonard made some comment meant in sarcasm, and Sheldon’s response was to say that Leonard disputed Newton’s claim that he invented calculus so Leonard wanted to put Leibniz at the top of the Christmas tree.

Most people who have no clue about calculus would probably laugh at this scene because Sheldon missed the point of the sarcasm.  On the other hand, those of us who know anything about calculus might have been laughing because we knew exactly to what he was referring.  And it made me ponder…would I want Newton at the top of my tree, or Leibniz?  For the record, I would have been fine with Newton at the top of the tree because he did a lot more than invent calculus…but I still am glad for Leibniz’s wonderful notation. Either way, you couldn’t have just thrown any mathematician or physicist’s name out.  It HAD to be Leibniz because the rivalry is so historic and well-known among mathophiles.

As I go through the show, I find little details like that a lot, and I really enjoy them.  Whether or not I want to, I tend to pay attention to those points and letting them go is tough.  Sometimes they even draw me in more than just the storyline does.  In the episode where Sheldon is attempting to teach Penny physics, I kept thinking, “There’s better ways to explain that.”  And when she was supposed to answer a question, it felt like sitting in a classroom and wanting to blurt out the answer.

It’s a real treat to watch a show that doesn’t use science as some sort of nifty backdrop to the story, where the science actually is important to the story or at least makes it more fun.  And better yet, it still manages to entertain all the non-physicists out there, too.

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