Recently in Physics Category


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I am teaching eight hours per day. I am sick. My throat hurts. I am a couple days behind in my grading. All I want to do? Is not fix that. I want to climb into bed now. Not in two hours, after my students leave. Now.

Inventing the Muon

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Muon Physics Advanced Laboratory Instrument by TeachSpin I am not precisely certain that I believe in this fantastical entity known as the "muon". I mean, really. It is like a couple physics majors had a drunken IMversation:
Dweeb: Yah, so like, cows, man. Dork: Are you done with the labs? Can I get your data? Dweeb: You mooch. Help me w/my senior project and I'll give you my data. Dork: ...ok? Dweeb: So, cows. Like, I was thinking, invent a new particle. A cow-shaped particle. Dork: ... Dweeb: Yeah, and we can design elaborate machinery to light up and make clicking noises and construct appropriately logarithmic charts of random data to support these cow particles. Dork: is this less work than real physics? Dweeb: JFC, COWS. *** Dork has gone idle. Dweeb: LOL We can call them moo-ons.
And that was basically how that happened.

Psychophysics Freakout

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I currently have the best job I've ever had in my life, as a teaching assistant in the physics department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Twice a week, I give a lecture on basic Newtonian physics (classical mechanics, mostly, plus a smattering of thermodynamics) that runs somewhere between 25 and 40 minutes. Following that, I assist anywhere between one and two dozen students through experiments using the material from my lecture. Each student turns in a writeup on the lab experiment a week later, which I then grade and hand back a week after that. I love my job. I really do! I love teaching, I love helping students, and I love physics at the level I teach. The money's not bad at all, either. But I've also been in a lot of jobs that weren't so great. I spent years in corporate America, where being five minutes later could mean a thirty minute lecture, or not making someone ultimately happy could mean your ass. That sort of experience fosters a sort of unhealthy paranoia and fear that can seriously eat you up. I very highly doubt that corporate life will ever be a direction I pursue again. As an instructive example, a little more than two weeks ago, I overslept my Saturday morning class. I was supposed to be there at 8 o'clock in the morning. At 8:25 a.m., I got a phone call. Me, bleary: ...hello? Student: Uh, where are you? Everybody left. Me, coming to: ...oh, crap! Student: What should I do? It's just me and one other kid here. Me: Uh. Ok, just - you and one other student? Alright. Go home, we'll make up the material next week. I hung up the phone and proceeded to FREAK OUT HARDCORE, as those who were online (or in the address book in my phone and under suspicion of having some sort of applicable wisdom) can tell you. I immediately emailed my boss, and proceeded to bite my nails waiting for repercussions that never came. I never heard back from him about it. Fast-forward to today. I'm talking with the department secretary about an email I sent her. "I haven't gotten anything from you," she tells me. My freakout starts all over again. What if, I hypothesize (as scientists are so good at), my boss never received my email explaining and apologizing for my absence and seeking guidance? If I go and talk to him and he didn't receive it, I look irresponsible and avoidant. If I don't go talk to him and he didn't receive it, he could find out about the debacle from someone else - ever more irresponsible and avoidant. So I go talk to him, stomach in knots. "Boss," I say, inserting his actual name instead of the word, "I'm wondering if you got an email from me about two and a half weeks ago?" He tells me he had, and he respon-- oh, wait, did he respond? He talked to the department head in case there were any students who complained or asked about it. The thrust of the advice - to teach the material even if there wasn't time for the experiment - was exactly how I'd been handling it. "I know how hard it is to wake up and realize you overslept," he said. "I'm not going to beat you up over it. I did appreciate hearing about it right away, though." I thanked him, and went on my way. ...and promptly started crying on the way back to my office. I really hadn't understood just how much stress I was carrying around simply not knowing everything was ok with this job-that-I-love. Neurotic to my last. (P.S. For those who may go :( at this entry, please note that I feel much better now.)
Because you totally need more evidence: 4:41:16 AM Tesla: Michelina's has a mystery dish which they list on none of their website-type-things. 4:41:24 AM Tesla: It is cheesy potatoes and broccoli. 4:41:32 AM Vance: Is it good? 4:41:34 AM Tesla: It is worth the WHOLE DOLLAR FIFTY. 4:41:36 AM Tesla: ... 4:41:42 AM Vance: >.> 4:41:42 AM Tesla: You decide what that means. :) 4:41:47 AM Vance: I can't say much. 4:41:52 AM Vance: I freaking eat their alfredo sometimes for lunch. ;) 4:41:58 AM Vance: Which is like $1.05. ;) 4:42:00 AM Tesla: Yeah, well. 4:42:20 AM Tesla: Soda from the machines at school is $1.25, and I usually don't finish a whole one. 4:42:21 AM Vance: So it means... UPGRADE! ;) 4:42:23 AM Vance: Hee. 4:42:37 AM Tesla: So cheap. 4:42:42 AM Tesla: But it's at least not revolting. 4:43:10 AM Tesla: But the microwave process they prescribe does do the funniest thing to the potatoes. 4:43:22 AM Tesla: Namely, makes them just slightly - and I mean -very- slightly - rubbery. 4:43:40 AM Vance: Kinda like the noodles in the alfredo. ;) 4:43:50 AM Tesla: Ah, you know of this effect! 4:43:54 AM Tesla: We should name it. 4:43:59 AM Tesla: The Tesla-Vance Effect. 4:44:02 AM Tesla: Or Vance-Tesla. 4:44:05 AM Tesla: I'm not picky. 4:44:15 AM Vance: They likely make the potatoes and noodles out of the same stuff. ;) 4:44:26 AM Vance: Neither am I. Either-or works ;) 4:44:29 AM Tesla: OMG IM EETING NOODLES EW 4:44:56 AM Tesla: Compromise: 4:45:23 AM Tesla: We can alternately call it The Quantum Tesla-Vance Effect and The Quantum Vance-Tesla Effect. 4:45:46 AM Tesla: When people ask us why we flip the names, we tell them that's the Quantum part, and their observation forced the moniker to 'take a stand'. 4:46:08 AM Tesla: BTW: That was hilarious if you both vaguely understand Quantum but not really and also hate it. 4:46:19 AM Vance: *snicker* This semester has warped me so thoroughly.
It's a podcast. It's a long podcast. It was actually fun to put together. If you're really not interested in Somalia - stick around past 2:35. The stuff about Somalia is good information, but sort of tangential. Listen to Somalia, College and Snobs [m4a format; iTunes recommended]. Depending on what y'all think of this one, I may or may not do podcasts in the future. Leave comments! (And if you're reading this on LJ, as always, I only see comments on the actual site.)
Visualize a sheet made of rubber, stretched tightly in all directions - flat, smooth, essentially featureless. Now imagine a heavy sphere, like a marble, placed on the sheet. Imagine the smooth, uniform, gradual depression in the sheet, the gentle curve in the material. Juggling this set of images, now add another: another marble, shooting across the surface of the sheet, leaving its own impression on the surface as it moves across. See in your mind this second sphere roll close to the first - just glancing off the very edge of the transformed sheet. Replay this in your head, sending the second marble closer and closer to the first, until the second marble can no longer escape the impression of the first, instead finding a circular path about the first. If in your head, you can conceptually extrapolate this image into three dimensions, you will have a vague picture of our current understanding of gravity; the marbles are massive bodies, like stars and planets, and the sheet is a two-dimensional slice of space-time. Gravity, as we understand it, is a distortion in space-time caused by these massive bodies. A conceptual framework like this is not necessarily a practical or necessary framework for everyday use, though. Einstein's elegant space-time distortion is still taught years after students learn the Newtonian model, because while Newton's model has the fundamental failing that it says nothing about what gravity actually is, it does give a simple mathematical framework for calculating the effects two bodies will have on each other as they pass. The formula essentially says that the magnitude of the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the mass of both objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance they are from each other. The effect is a function of two quantities - the masses - and distance. Both models of gravity tell us that two masses at a sufficient distance from each other will have essentially no effect on each other. They have very little way, even supposing a sudden dose of sentience, of determining that the other even exists. The events required to make these two bodies aware of each other are simple, straightforward, and yet desperately unlikely. The two masses must simply travel close enough to each other to move through the other's sphere of distortion, or sphere of influence. For an orbit to exist, the two must travel close enough for one to become trapped in the circling path about the other. For an orbit to be broken, some external force, strong enough to overcome the distortion, the mutual attraction, must push one object at an appropriate angle, such that it is not simply immediately recaught in a circular path about the first. And if that should happen, freely moving through essentially empty space, the two semi-sentient objects should eventually move out of range such that they are essentially where they began - without knowing that the other truly exists; out of influence range, out of touch. Think about that for a moment. Every single day that we make a phone call, or jump on one of these magic internet boxes, or watch a television show from the other side of the world, we violate in a limited, human way one of the most elegant laws of the universe. When we write a letter, we confirm the continued existence of our mass with one a thousand time smaller than ours. To be human is to have incredible power; the simple facts of our memory and indomitable will allow us to continuously confirm that which we have seen - that which has frightened us, that which inspires us, that which we reject, and most importantly, that which we love. Distance does not equal absence. (Cross-posted from All Write Already. Also, credit is owed to Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe for a good deal of the visualization/metaphor for the physics bits.)

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Update: I suck at the internet - the first time I tried this, I misread the Amazon instructions and assumed they'd be pulled from Amazon's server. Bad me.
  1. A bum wandered into the TA office.
  2. I spent 9 hours working on my optics take-home test.
  3. Someone mysteriously left a bag of tortillas hanging on my doorknob.
  4. My mom was released from the hospital.
I'll be crossing stuff off as I get it done. I have... nine days, and a total of eighteen items. I think I can do all of what I have to do, and a good deal of what I want to do, so yay!. First, the have-to-do's, in order of have-to-do-it-ness:
  • HOMEWORK: Write up four labs. Three of them were technically due last week, but they're really lenient about due dates for these.
  • TEACHING: Grade labs - four classes worth.
  • HOMEWORK: Optics, due 3/22.
  • HOMEWORK: Math Methods, due 3/24.
  • HOUSE STUFF: Fridge overhaul. Remove anything expired, green (as in, moldy) or unidentifiable.
  • HOMEWORK: Decide on a topic for my Optics term paper.
  • HOMEWORK: Start working on my Economics honors paper. Due 4/24, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to get less and less time to write stuff like this as the semester progresses, rather than more.
Then the want-to-do's, in order of want-to-do-it-ness:
  • PERSONAL: Neglect friends less. (You know who you are.) (Not that this can really be crossed off as "done", but I'm making good progress. It's not a particularly well-defined task or goal.)
  • PERSONAL: Work on the Protest Signs project. (Bought supplies and started on slogans for this. I'm satisfied that I can work on this in small spurts while in school, with this much out of the way.)
  • PERSONAL: Read Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time". (Review forthcoming.)
  • PERSONAL: Newestart design.
  • PERSONAL: Talk to Eric about photography for Mythos.
  • PERSONAL: Writing-foo.
  • HOUSE STUFF: Plan garden. Begin execution. (Sunday. Mom's coming over to lend her gardening brain.)
  • PERSONAL: Start reading Robert Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia". (Nozick's smart. I believe this may mark the first time I've gotten a book from a professor that I enjoyed. I'm working on the second chapter now, which is enough momentum to keep me going, I think.)
  • PERSONAL: Braindump at Sam about OpenNotes.
  • PERSONAL: Braindump at Tyler about Guilt.
  • PERSONAL: Sleep. Sleep as much as the rest will allow. (Sleep GOOD!)

Negligence and Fun

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I didn't post Thursday, and technically I didn't Friday either, though I post late usually so rolling into the next day isn't a huge hairy deal. Negligence, not laziness, is my excuse. I just simply forgot to blog. I apparently did wind up acing that ethics test. I called the professor this afternoon and asked, so yay. I had two classes this morning, then I came home, but not before I managed to plan a semi-impromptu barbeque at our place and invited most of the office. So then I came home and read while I waited for the gas guy to install a gas hookup for our new grill, and I read some of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Ran some errands when I went to pick up Sam, then came home, cleaned a bit, prepped for dinner, and we had our little shindig. It was a blast. We had tons of awesome steak and good drinks and played charades and acted ridiculously. Pictures to come. Spring break, ahoy!
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