Archive for the ‘academia’ Category

Adopt a Physicist

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Every October the the American Physical Society and other physics organizations arrange for high school classes to adopt a physicist.  Then for a few weeks the students get to ask their physicist questions directly, on topics ranging from what the current hot topics are, to what it is like to be a scientist.  If you want to volunteer for next year, or have your class adopt a physicist, go to www.adoptaphysicist.org.

This year I was adopted by Terrill Middle School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.  Here are some of the Q&A sessions.

What is the most interesting or unusual thing you have worked on?
John Terning Avatar One very interesting thing that I worked on was an idea about the hypothetical particles known as axions.  You may have heard that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating rather than slowing down as people used to think, and that the most likely explanation is that the Universe is full of “dark energy”.  The evidence for this acceleration comes mostly from distant supernovae (very bright exploded stars) that seem to be more dim the further away they are than could be accounted for by the expansion of the Universe without dark energy. We studied  whether photons (particles of light) could be converted to axions, which would then be invisible to us.  We found that over very long distances about 1/3 of the light from a supernova could have been converted to axions. If this is true then we wouldn’t need something as strange as dark energy.  You can read more at

http://particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/axion.php

Where do you find your inspiration? How do you think of original ideas?
John Terning Avatar It’s hard to say where inspiration comes from, but when you have worked on something for a long time it gets easier to spot where there might be possible new connections of ideas. After the Large Hadron Collider starts running we will be getting new data and there will probably be some surprises that cannot be explained by things we know already.
What sparked your interest in Physics?
John Terning Avatar When I was in High School I read a lot of science fiction, and my ambition was to become a science fiction writer. I thought I should study science at University, so that I would have a good grounding for my stories. When I got to University I found out that science was more interesting than science fiction.
How is your approach to science different from when you were in high school?
John Terning Avatar I think in high school I mostly approached science as learning a bunch of discovered facts about the world, but what I’ve learned is that science is a process for finding out new things about the ourselves and the universe.  It is a process that may never end.  The process is definitely more exciting than memorizing facts.
Is being a physicist hard at first and easy later, or hard all the time? Do you like your job as a physicist?
John Terning Avatar It is always hard because you are always trying to learn new things.  But as you do more of it the challenges are at a higher level, and it is not as frustrating as it can be at the beginning.  I love my job as a physicist!
I would like to know at what age did you show signs of interest at becoming a scientist and how much education you needed to succeed being a scientist.
John Terning Avatar I was interested in science in high school, but I was more interested in science fiction.  I did not decide to become a scientist until I went to university and learned more about it. I spent four years as an undergraduate and six years as a graduate (doctoral) student at university.
I would like to know what projects are you currently working on.
John Terning Avatar I have two main projects currently.  One is on how to deal with quarks in high energy collisions.  When quarks are close together they behave like ordinary electrons, except that in addition to emitting photons (particles of light) they can also emit gluons.  Gluons are much more complicated that photons since two photons can pass right through each other without having any effect on each other (you can try it with two flashlights, the beams really do go right through each other) but two gluons have a big effect on each other.  The effect is so big that one needs to run a gigantic computer simulation to find out what happens.  The results of such simulations suggest that when quarks are far apart they behave like they are always attached to the end of a string (the string is made out of gluons in a very complicated way).  That is why you never see just a single quark by itself, if you try to pull it away the string breaks and you end up with two strings that have a quark (or antimatter quark) on each end.  We are working on how to do improved calculations just using the string picture directly.

The other project involves monopoles.  Every magnet has a North and a South pole, but a long time ago P.A.M. Dirac suggested that there could be particles that have just a North pole or just a South pole, which are called monopoles (mono means one; a magnet has two poles, so it is a dipole).  We are exploring what would happen to massless monoples as the Universe cooled after the big bang.  In some cases the monopoles would behave like electrons in a superconductor and not only give mass to themselves but all the other particles we know.  This type of theory will be tested at the Large Hadron Collider which should start running next month.

What is the most fun or interesting part about your job?
John Terning Avatar The most fun part of the job is coming up with new models of how Nature works and then trying to test them against reality.
What skills or personality traits are important for someone working in your field?
John Terning Avatar As far a skills go the most important skill is imagination, after that a little math helps too.  For personality traits, I think that, as in a lot of fields, the most important factor is determination, also known as dedication, stick-to-it-ness, or just plain stubbornness. You have to keep trying, and trying, and trying again until you find an answer to your question.  Just as in sports or music the great players are people who practice, practice, practice because they are so determined to get better.  That probably means that you if you want to be really good at something, you need to find something that you love doing.
What is a typical day like?
John Terning Avatar A typical day involves:
1) checking email and looking at the latest research papers which appear each day on the web at http://www.arxiv.org/ especially http://www.arxiv.org/list/hep-ph/new and http://www.arxiv.org/list/hep-th/new;
2) there are typically so many new papers that I can only read a few of these;
3) lecturing to either undergraduate or graduate students on bio-physics, quantum mechanics ,or quantum field theory, this also requires preparing the lectures;
4) having discussions with students either to help them with their courses or the research they are doing with me;
5) having discussions with colleagues (usually next to a white board or chalk board so that we can write some equations) trying to generate new ideas to solve research problems;
6) doing calculations on paper or on a computer to see if our ideas actually work the way we thought;
7) typing up the results for a research paper (we use free software called LaTeX that makes it easier to include equations);
8) going to seminars where visitors from other universities present their latest research results;
9) occasionally I will attend a faculty meeting or committee meeting to discuss the operations of the physics department.

The Two Cultures

Monday, November 13th, 2006

the book cover of “The Two Cultures”

the book cover of “The Two Cultures”

I recently saw an essay about C.P. Snow’s famous lecture on the Two Cultures. In 1959 Snow observed that there was a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between scientists and “literary intellectuals”. This resulted in a furor of name calling and fence building, that seemed to have more or less died down until the Sokal Affair. In Roger Kimball’s essay he quotes several of Snow’s critics as well as laying out his own criticism that science is intrinsically incomprehensable: “because of the extremely technical nature of contemporary scientific discourse—think, for example, of its deep reliance on abstruse mathematical notation—that gulf is unbridgeable and will only widen as knowledge progresses.” He further complains that science doesn’t deserve to be thought of as a culture in any case.  Assuming that we can consider Roger Kimball a “literary intellectual” this just seems to add evidence to Snow’s case.

What I think is interesting is that even though the gap between scientists and “literary intellectuals” still seems formidable, the general public  goes to a lot of effort in attempting to understand the latest scientific developments.  They are buying science books, going to public lectures, watching NOVA, and participating in science cafes. Even if “literary intellectuals” don’t know what exactly is meant by mass, acceleration, or the second law of thermodynamics, the “person on the street”  probably has some familiarity with electrons, quarks, and string theory.

Higher Living

Monday, August 28th, 2006

real estate sign on the UBC campus

real estate sign on the UBC campus

I recently gave some lectures at a summer school held at the University of British Columbia. The campus and the city of Vancouver were stunningly beautiful, but I was surprised to see that UBC is selling off part of their endownment land so that developers can build $2 million  town homes.  This is expecially ironic in a city where new professors cannot afford even a modest home anywhere near the campus. While other West Coast campuses are building low cost housing in order to be able to recruit new faculty, UBC is going in the opposite direction. They have even adopted an ironic slogan, suggesting that they strive to be a seat of higher living rather than a seat of higher learning.

real estate sign on the UBC campus

real estate sign on the UBC campus