You may not know: physicists are giant kids with trained imaginations and cooler toys

by Shawna Hollen

In graduate school, I was working on publishing a paper with my advisor and another graduate student.  We had this new data that showed how particles called Cooper pairs act when they are stuck in an insulating film.  The 3D plot of the data looks like a giant wave with ripples and we were trying to decide what color to make it.  We couldn’t use blue, actually, because blue meant something else in the paper.  We needed a color that would stick out and remind people that the data represented an insulator.  We ended up picking “magenta,” which was science-language for bright freaking pink.  It was gorgeous:

It wasn’t until later that I realized that pink and purple were under-represented in physics.  Since the publication of the “magenta peak” I have taken a stealthy joy in incorporating these colors into my scientific presentations and diagrams whenever I can get away with it.

There are so many things in physics that inspire a childish glee. As a postdoc here at OSU, one of my projects involves making rainbows with lethal chemicals.  It actually terrifies me that the chemicals are lethal, but check out these rainbows!


Look at the diagram below the picture: the sample is a piece of silicon (that’s what computer chips are made out of) with an oxide layer on top.  The oxide is partly transparent, so the light that hits it reflects off of two surfaces and interferes with itself, like so.  If you’ve had any optics in physics yet, you’ll remember that light travels differently in different materials.  The interference effect that occurs when the light meets back up with itself at the surface causes one color (wavelength) to appear much more strongly than the others.  The “selected” color depends on the oxide thickness. So if you change the oxide thickness in steps, like I have with the lethal chemicals, then voila! A rainbow!  My wonderful husband, who is going to be a lawyer but also loves physics, pointed out to me that this is the same reason soap bubbles and oil slicks are multicolored.  You just need two surfaces and a partly transparent film of varying thickness to make a rainbow.  (Science note: in an actual rainbow, the drops of water in the atmosphere cause the interference effect.)

I also get to make sparkly things.  Sparkly things are just many reflective surfaces pointing in different directions.  The effect is way cooler when the surfaces are smaller than you can see, then you just see the sparkles.  I made a sparkly thing by making some very tiny (100 nm wide: close to one billionth of a meter) crossing lines in a grid.  All the raised lines reflected the light.  Even though I couldn’t see the lines with my naked eye, I sure could see the sparkles.  Oh, I also know someone in the department who is growing DIAMONDS! Real ones. Really really really tiny ones.  Nanodiamonds.  How awesome is that?

I love physics.  Part of my job is making things, part of it is prodding those things to see what happens to them, part of it is making pictures, and part of it is telling stories, and part of it is solving puzzles.  In some ways, my job is exactly what I wanted to spend all of my time doing when I was eight.  Of course, the most important part about being a scientist is that you’re making things and prodding them to answer important questions about how the universe behaves.  Your questions have to be good ones if you want to solve the puzzle. Then (you’re not done when you solve the puzzle) your pictures and stories have to be very carefully crafted to tell the world what you learned in the most efficient and least confusing way possible.  Sometimes, even the smartest people on the planet can’t understand you unless you show them the right pictures and explain your story in a way that makes sense.  Of course, this is also a lesson all children learn about adults.

Solving the puzzles of the natural world turns out to be very hard to do. Scientists have had to come up with new ways to describe what they observe and new tools for taking observations and turning them into more general rules about the way the world works.  When you are trained to be a scientist, you’ll learn how to interpret things that look like this:

Without being told where this equation comes from, you’ll already know that it tells a story about electrons hopping from one place to another in a 2D grid.  You’ll be able to tell that they prefer to move to sites that are empty because there’s a repulsive force between the electrons.  You’ll also be able to tell that there is a random component that makes some sites more attractive than others for hopping.  And if you have an imagination like mine, you’ll turn this 2D grid into a pond with slimy lilypads and the electrons into frogs.  (Yes, occasionally weird metaphors fall apart, but it’s always more colorful if you try them out anyway.)  So, I’d say I became a scientist because when I was eight I loved puzzles, stories, building things, and prodding stuff to see what it would do.  I’m just glad I found out (by accident) that all these qualities were those of a scientist.

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About Shawna Hollen

I grew up in Oregon (Newport and Bend) and then went to college at Occidental College in LA, where I first got involved in physics research.  After college I got a great job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, but soon decided that I needed to learn more physics.  I went to Brown University for graduate school where I studied superconductivity in very thin metal films. While in graduate school, I got the chance to teach science to elementary school kids in Providence, RI.  I also taught an upper level physics class at Wheaton College, which was a lot of fun. I recently started a postdoc here at OSU in the Center for Emergent Materials studying spintronics. Outside of physics, I love photography, hiking, and exploring with my family and my dog (Kodiak).

Contributing to an International Collaboration as an Undergraduate

by Paul Schellin

The evening before the physics GRE (a test required for my graduate school applications) I received an email from my advisor asking if I was interested in a project involving hardware work. I have been working on the hardware for two different ultra-high energy neutrino detectors (ANITA and ARA) for about two years now, so this was not unusual. The difference with this request was that the work would be in Taiwan, and that a colleague of mine, Eugene (a PhD student), and I would be traveling there for two weeks!

I can’t say that I when I began my undergraduate research I thought that I would have the opportunity to travel overseas to work on a project, and as such I was extremely excited about this request from my advisor. I got very little sleep thinking about it that night, but still I went in to take the GRE feeling pretty confident. The rest of the summer I spent preparing myself for the work by learning as much as possible about the systems that we would be working with and the measurements we would want to make.

Soon enough though, I found myself having taken the ~24 hour journey to Taiwan. During our first hour on the campus of National Taiwan University (NTU) we were already lost, but luckily a couple capable of understanding English were able to point us to the hotel where we would be staying.

The next day was full of introductions and acclimation, but it was made very easy for Eugene and I. We felt right at home in their laboratory and everyone was friendly to us and always offering to help. The communication in the lab was already in English on a day-to-day basis, as their research group is advised by a professor from South Korea (who does not speak much Chinese). During our stay there were also two visiting researchers from Japan, all working alongside us toward the same goal.

What I did in Taiwan is probably best explained by the flow of the average day:

We woke up in the early morning, having slept on these bamboo-ish mattresses. Showered, headed to Taiwan’s cafe-style version of 7-Eleven for breakfast. For breakfast there I generally had these triangles of rice and fish wrapped in seaweed, which were really pretty tasty.

After breakfast we walked through the early morning heat to the physics building. Every time I walked somewhere in Taipei, I was seriously dumbfounded by the amount of litter in this city. There isn’t any. None. This makes me reflect upon the respect individuals in East Asia seem to have toward their city, and I can’t help but compare this to Americans and Europeans.

Upon arriving to the physics building, we would swipe a card to enter. There are at least three security cameras to every room and hallway on the ground floor. We’d take the elevator (which normally tried to have some sort of conversation with me, but I could never understand exactly what the elevator was trying to convey…) up to the ninth floor, where the lab is.  Just like at American universities, the grad students tend to arrive a good amount after 9am.

The view from the lab’s windows is gorgeous. I can see the Taipei traffic come and go as well as the mountains around this side of the city.  You can actually see a good amount of the surrounding area too, since most buildings in that direction aren’t too tall.  Eventually, I have to stop staring out the window and actually do work.

The view from the lab in Taipei.

We would start off our day assembling the components to be tested. We were testing the radio equipment (coaxial cables, amplifiers, filters, and fiber transceivers) that would be deployed with a new station for ARA. These measurements not only allow us to verify that each component works, but they also enable more accurate simulations of the detector as well as improve analysis of the collected data after the detector is deployed. A lot of care had to be taken during these measurements, documenting which wire went to which component and recording every serial number combination. It was rather tedious, but I could at least talk to the other researchers in the lab during this time (there were a few electrical engineers and grad students who did arrive before 10am), so I was able to learn quite a bit about academic life outside of the West.

After we finished whichever component testing rig we were working on, the fun could begin. We would hop into the elevator with the rig, go down to the second basement, through a dark, abandoned parking garage, and through double doors. Inside, there are working lights and turning them on reveals the door to a large anechoic RF-shielded chamber.

The anechoic chamber.

We would run a bunch of tests on the components, measuring several electrical properties of each component and comparing them to either the expected values or the “ideal” values. For the most part the tests were executed properly, which was quite a rewarding feeling. The Antarctic-bound detector we were working on has a really strict shipping schedule, so it is very important that every component is carefully tested as any major setback has a chance to delay the deployment by an entire year. After finishing the tests, we would retrieve the components and return to the lab. By that time most of the group would have arrived, and we’d discuss things that needed to be done, things which were behind schedule, and results that others had attained. The rest of the day we typically spent compiling all of our data together into plots to be presented to the collaboration members. This was my least favorite part, but without it no one would be able to make heads or tails of what we were doing and what our results actually meant. When we finished the data compilation, it was around dinner time.

Every night (for two weeks!) we would have dinner at a different restaurant. There was a wide variety of food, mainly different East Asian dishes, all of which were excellent. I’ve added quite a few meals to my “to-attempt-to-replicate” list, so it will be a while before I run out of things to try to cook.

Since returning from Taiwan, I’ve resumed my regular class and research schedule. I have found that the work we did has improved my understanding of several concepts which have been useful in the development of detector simulations for my research, but also helpful in my classes, for example in my senior lab class I was able to apply techniques of making data less noisy, allowing me to take on and resolve a tricky data analysis predicament. The most remarkable thing which I’ve taken away from the experience, however, was seeing the results of the work that has been done at Ohio State and at all of the other collaborating universities being pieced together to form a complete, functional system. Seeing this after two years working on the project reminded me of the importance of every individual’s contribution to the finished product, a thought which I will not forget anytime soon.

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About Paul Schellin

I grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, hoping to study robot engineering, but after spending a year abroad in Germany after high school, my ambition shifted toward studying physics and astronomy, which I am currently doing as a senior at Ohio State. I am currently working on research focusing on detecting ultra-high energy (UHE) neutrinos and cosmic rays using the ANITA and ARA detectors. Next year I plan on continuing my physics education at the graduate level, though I’m not sure where just yet.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

by Amy Connolly

“There are 400 billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If just one out of a million of those had planets, and just one in a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life, there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.”  That is how Ellie Arroway, Jodie Foster’s character in the movie “Contact” makes the case that we may not be alone.  The movie is based on an excellent novel of the same name by the late Carl Sagan.  I read Sagan’s book when I was in college after my brother suggested it to me.  I couldn’t wait for the movie to come out when I was in graduate school and it did not disappoint.  The movie is one of the rare occasions when Hollywood portrays a female scientist fairly, and scientific life accurately.

It is difficult to imagine a discovery that would more profoundly impact how we humans view ourselves, than to find out that us hominids sitting on our little blue planet are not the only ones out there who can communicate, build and wonder.

Ellie Arroway is based on a real life scientist named Jill Tarter, who has led the real life scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) for decades.  SETI uses radio telescopes to look for signals that may have been broadcast by intelligent life beyond our solar system.  (You can even help out with the search for E.T.’s yourself by setting up SETI@Home on your computer:  http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/)

Next Wednesday evening, Jill Tarter will be giving a public lecture at The Ohio State University, the 6th Annual R. Jack and Forest Lynn Biard Cosmology and Astrophysics Lecture entitled “SETI at 50+; Five Decades of Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

I am extremely excited about this event, and not just because of her portrayal in a movie.  I think that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is probably the best way to illustrate how carrying out curiosity-driven, fundamental research benefits humanity as a whole.   All are welcome to this free event.  Bring a friend, bring your mom, bring your daughter for a night to wonder about our place in the universe.

The lecture will be Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 at 8:00 pm in McPherson Lab Room 1000, 140 W 18th Ave, Columbus, Ohio (map).  It is free and open to all, the poster is included below.

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About Amy Connolly

Prof. Amy Connolly grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she always knew she loved math but didn’t yet know that she would one day be a scientist.  She went to Purdue University and decided to major in physics when she saw how beautifully mathematics describes the physical world.  She went to University of California, Berkeley, for graduate school, and completed her PhD dissertation in 2003 on a search for Higgs Bosons in data from Fermilab near Chicago.  After graduate school she switched fields from collider physics to particle astrophysics as a postdoc at University of California, Los Angeles.  She continued this work in England for four years as a Fellow at the University College London, and has been an assistant professor in physics at Ohio State University since 2010.  She works on experiments searching for interactions of extremely energetic neutrinos in Antarctic ice using radio techniques.  She enjoys spending time with her family and keeps a winter vegetable garden.