Archive for the ‘physics’ Category

Awesome Evening of Science

13 October 2012

Yesterday when I got home from school, I caught the train into the city and met up with my husband. We had dinner at Sang Kee Noodle House and then took a taxi to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which was hosting the New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology program, a celebration in honor of John Templeton (born in 1912) and marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Templeton Prize and the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the John Templeton Foundation.

I might have ignored this event, but the star attraction was the lecture by Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality. I’m a fan of the NOVA series based on the first two books, and I have showed them to my students. Greene has also been on a couple of awesome RadioLab podcasts, The (Multi) Universe(s) and DIY Universe. So I convinced Greg we should go, and wrote in for free tickets.

The e-mail I got back said that the lecture was over-subscribed (the conference organizers had no idea that Greene was so popular?) so we arrived early to stand in line and get a seat. It was worth it. Before hand we chatted with a colleague and his students, and found out that one of his students had worked with one of my students over the summer. That student of mine was there with his brother and parents, and then I saw two others of my students there also! In fact, I got a photo of one with Greene!

This particular student plans to be a physicist when he grows up, and dreams of discovering a previously unknown law of physics.

After the talk, Greene answered a few questions. I asked if it was possible to observationally determine if there were in fact other universes outside of our own. The short answer is yes, IF another bubble universe bumped up with ours we should be able to observe the resulting “ripples” in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Then, there was a panel discussion featuring

  • Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth, who is interested in the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe
  • Geoffrey Marcy of UC Berkeley, who is a co-investigator on the Kepler extra-solar planet finding team
  • David M. Spergel of Princeton, who works with the data from the WMAP satellite, which distinguished fine fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background
  • Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts, who has developed the idea of the multiverse and works on inflation and cosmic strings.

Wow. What a collection of thinkers! They were given the questions

I. What was the earliest state of the universe?
II. Is our universe unique or is it part of a much larger multiverse?
III. What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?
IV. Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

and this is what the discussion centered on. Then they took questions. Partway through, Marcy commented that he was surprised that the audience seemed much more interested in the idea of the multiverse than with the idea of aliens from other planets.

Other interesting tidbits: we were seated right behind 97-year-old Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who invented the precursor to the LASER (the MASER, which stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and who is also a Templeton Prize recipient. According to Wikipedia, Townes is the only figure other than Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama to win both a Templeton Prize and a Nobel Prize. The conference organizer was Donald York, one of the Principal Investigators on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project for mapping all the galaxies in the visible universe. I have had my students use the data for projects through the Sky Server website. The data released is so comprehensive, a dedicated middle-schooler or high-schooler could ask a question and do research that could be eligible for journal publication. Finally, the panel moderator was George Ellis, also a Templeton Prize winner, who is a pre-eminent researcher in cosmology and general relativity, and who has co-authored a book with Stephen Hawking. The only way this evening could have been more exciting would be if Kip Thorne or Stephen Hawking had been there too. It was awe-inspiring to be in the same room with these people!


My kind of party

31 May 2010

I was invited to a party with a theme of science.  I was invited to bring whatever demos I wanted.  The host was one of my colleagues, and the party was in honor of a woman who is moving back to Hawai’i.  She felt that science was lacking in her education and requested a physics party.

The party was two days ago.

My colleague had acquired some liquid nitrogen, so he used it to freeze cheetos, which we all ate and “breathed smoke.”  He also exploded a few small plastic bottles, tossed some in the swimming pool, made ice cream with it, froze flowers and made them shatter, and shrank balloons down so that three of them fit inside a small metal pot.

He and his son had also created a small amount of thermite, leading to the quote of the evening: “Here, I’ll hold your beer while you light the thermite.”  We expected bright flames and sparks, but there was little to see.  Nobody got hurt!

I brought a 9-volt battery which I used to ignite some steel wool, which illustrates why you need fuses or circuit breakers in your home.  I also distributed “palm pipes” which are short pieces of PVC pipe that are “tuned” to produce certain notes when one open end is whacked against the palm of your hand.  Then I conducted several short tunes which the entire party could participate in performing.  I also brought along my geyser kit: some string, bricks, plastic bottles, a large plastic trash can, and some dry ice.  It turns out that when you fill the trash can with water, put some chips of dry ice in a plastic bottle tied to some bricks, seal the bottle and drop the bottle and bricks into the trash can, you get this:

Civil Engineering

9 May 2010

Last weekend I helped out at the 33rd Annual International Bridge Building Competition. It was held at a local high school, and our local Physics Teachers’ Association had helped to sponsor it. Students came from all over the country, having qualified in a regional competition earlier in the year.

While the Illinois Institute of Technology sponsors the competition, they try to hold the final event at a different location every other year, in between holding it in Chicago. This year our local Physics Olympics League had bid to host, and we won!

The goal of the competition was to build the most efficient bridge, materials-wise. Everyone had to use official competition basswood (which was specially dyed with a fluorescing dye detectable with UV light) and had to keep their bridge below 30 grams in mass. The bridges had to span a gap of 30 cm, and there were restrictions on height and the level of the “road” and there were requirements for the places where the load mass could be placed. Then each bridge was individually loaded from below with sand poured into a bucket until the bridge gave way. The bridge that supported the greatest mass of sand per gram of bridge mass would win.

The bridges were assigned a random order for testing, and as each student set up their bridge and started pouring sand the audience hushed.  The longer the time before breaking, the more sand and the more mass.  And the quieter the crowd.  Each crack of breaking bridge released a sigh and applause.  Then the mass of the sand was entered into a computer and the efficiency displayed on the screen above the stage.  The spreadsheet with the data was set up to display the rank of each bridge from most efficient to least, and the student with the number one bridge had to watch all the bridges after hers, hoping that none of them would be more efficient and displace her top score.

This is the winning design for this year:

The girl who made this bridge went home with an iPad and an offer of $15,000 per year for four years in scholarship money if she is accepted at the Illinois Institute of Technology!

Awesome Day

18 September 2009

Today I hopped out of bed, put on my comfy pants and one of my favorite shirts and my yellow sunshine necklace from NovaDesigns, and immediately solved a problem that has been bugging me for several years.

My comfy pants (Gramicci cotton pants with a built-in belt) are one of those items of clothing that I wear to school (we can “dress down” on Fridays if we contribute toward a fund benefiting needy students in the district) that have no belt loops.  A lot of these clothing items are skirts, but a couple are pants.  And the thing is, I like to hang my keys from my front right belt loop using a mini-carabiner.  If I have no belt loops, I hang them from a lanyard around my neck instead, and that is less desirable for two reasons: one, the keys swing in resonance with my step frequency so if I am walking anywhere I have to hold the keys anyway or else they swing wildly after a short time; and two, they weigh me down and make my neck hurt.

So this morning at about 5:30 AM  I realized that if I take a loop of twill tape and pin it to the inside of the pants in front and on the right side, I can pull it out of my pants to hold my keys, and tuck it into my pants on weekends or other times when I don’t carry my school keys!  You would think such a simple solution would have been obvious long ago.  Ah well, my next sewing project will be sewing the twill tape loops into pants and skirts!

But that was only the beginning!

I had students come to my class before homeroom to do work and get help!  Usually my conceptual-level kids just don’t care that much about their grade and don’t mind that much if they don’t understand something.  But this year there is something different in the atmosphere.  Another teacher I spoke to yesterday said she noticed it too.  There is a collective seriousness towards studying this year among the kids.  The other teacher speculated that word had gotten around that colleges are much harder to get into than they used to be, so you have to have better grades to get into less-competitive schools nowadays.  I don’t know that high school students generally think that far ahead.  And it is hard for me to believe that the president’s speech to kids really made THAT much of an impact.  Whatever it is, I am glad of it.  I love my classes so far.  My largest class has 20 students (!!!) and so far they mostly seem to be paying attention and trying to do the work and understand things.

Speaking of which, I had the BEST class first period today.  Well, all my other classes went well too.  But after first period, I was just flying.  We’re doing basic, beginning physics stuff–relating the slope on a position-vs-time graph to the velocity of an object, talking about having a frame of reference and a defined “start” or “zero” position, and the difference between graphs for things moving away from zero and things moving towards zero.  But I felt like everything went right, I was asking the right questions to bring the kids to realize what it would mean if two object’s graphs had the same slope, or how to tell by eyeballing the graph which of two objects is moving faster.  I asked questions, and then I asked the kids who answered how they knew they had the answer, and they explained it to me!

My other conceptual-level classes went well too, though I was a little giddy by 6th period and those kids clearly wondered what I’d been taking…nothing other than usual, I swear!  (actually, I forgot to take my usual vitamins, antihistamine, and anxiety meds this morning.  Oops!)  And then it came to my AP class.

Ah, my AP class.  Nice kids.  And one of them got into a giggle fit when I was jokingly suggesting reasons my random drawing of lab groups came out the way it did.  We were doing a projectile launch lab today.  It quickly became clear that goggles were a necessity!

This evening, I got to watch one of the funniest movies ever on TV, without commercials.  The Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.  In case you haven’t seen it, it hilarious, and it is based on La Cage aux Folles, a French film that I am pretty sure my parents took me to see when I was a kid.  I remember that I liked La Cage aux Folles, but I don’t remember anything else about it.

Could a day get any better?  Yes, it would have been better if the music played over the PA system this morning had been better.  Every morning the kids come up with music to play over the school system for about 10 minutes before homeroom officially begins.  Today’s music sounded like awful incomprehensible anime theme songs, and then they played Sandstorm.  Without that, it would have been a perfect day.  Instead, it was only awesome.


I love my job!

Fermilab-CERN rivalry

12 August 2009

There is a rivalry of sorts between Fermilab, in the US, and CERN, in Switzerland.  Both laboratories are racing to detect the Higgs boson, and last year the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was completed at CERN.  Last summer, a video of the LHC Rap was posted on YouTube, to the delight of physics teachers everywhere.

Fermilab is finally making a countermove, having asked funky49 “the Rapbassador” to create a rap for Fermilab.  I’ll link to the video when it is available.

April was two months ago

23 June 2009

Waaay back in April, I attended a local physics teachers’ meeting that I helped organize.  It was definitely one of the best such meetings we’ve had in years, though I must say we do a good job on meetings.  I don’t recall a bad speaker that we’ve had or bad food.

Our Friday evening we hosted a local top physics student and his physics teacher, part of our new outreach initiative.  We enjoyed a catered meal with adorable tiny and multitudinous desserts…oof.  Thank goodness for the exercise class I started taking at school!  Then we walked to the building next door and listened to University of Pennsylvania professor Ken Lande, who amazed us and grabbed us with his energy talk.  He’s nearly as good as Al Bartlett – certainly he is as alarming.  I started thinking about what I can do to help save the world.  (Follow the Al Bartlett link and watch his talk – I highly recommend it)

Saturday we had a talk by my NCSU professor, Bruce Sherwood.  He’s the one who taught me to use vpython and completely changed my view of introductory physics.  I’ve been promoting vpython with the local physics teachers and Bruce’s talk was very well received.

There were some short talks by members of the group and a business meeting at which I was elected “Corresponding Secretery” which means I took over the mailing responsibilities and I now write a bi-weekly newsletter.  But after lunch, we had an awesome experience:

Ollie brought members of the Eastern Electric Vehicle Club (EEVC) and their cars to explain electric cars, answer our questions, and show off their work!  I was impressed by the plug-in vehicles made by modding existing vehicles.  There was a guy with a  Ford 150 pickup truck that he converted to a plug-in gas-electric hybrid, a woman with a student-modified van, a guy with a Geo Metro convertible (link gives specs) turned into a purely-plug-in electric vehicle, and more!  Here’s the workings of the Metro:

under the hood

under the hood

in the trunk

in the trunk

The acceleration on these electric cars is very exciting – lots of delta v in a short delta t!  It comes from having a powerful electric motor and a low mass that needs to get moved.  The Metro got towed to the meeting behind a sexy sportscar, that’s how light it is.

Here is Ollie in a car converted to electric by high school students:


Ollie let us drive this car around the parking lot, and that was pretty cool too!  Those extra guages on the dashboard show the voltage across the batteries and the current drawn by the engine.  Multiply the two values together, and you will get the power in watts.  746 watts is 1 horsepower.  Mostly, you wouldn’t multiply while driving though…but you have to keep track of the voltage or you could find yourself stranded without enough “juice.”

I had a great time!  I am itching to find some crappy used car in decent shape, rip out the insides, and make an electric car for runs to the grocery store or whatever.  Yet another thing to put in the “future projects” file…


18 May 2009

I have so many posts to write, and I keep not writing them.  In the meantime, you can see the videos I made at Hershey Park at our annual physics field trip.  I put them on YouTube, where I now have my own “channel” at

Here is one of my videos:

Also at AAPT

23 February 2009
Rhett A.

Rhett A.

Going to the AAPT conference wasn’t all about my photo with Connie Willis.  One of the best things about the conference is meeting and talking to all sorts of interesting people who are doing interesting things.  I talked to some high school students who were presenting a poster on water purification, for example.  I spoke with a woman who has been teaching kids to program some optics simulations using vpython.  I learned about making stop-motion animation from Brian Gravel, of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.  You can read Rhett’s post about the software, SAM animation, at Dot Physics.  I learned about video labs from a high school teacher who works with a Rutgers University professor.  Dave Vernier of Vernier Software showed me how to use my LabPro equipment and a voltage probe to generate sine waves.  And I had a great talk with Rhett from Dot Physics after a session on “clickers,” at which Stephanie Chasteen presented a talk.  Stephanie is ScienceGeekGirl, and we had a good talk about technology and education over lunch on Saturday.

Stephanie C.

Stephanie C.

So the next step is following up on some of these conversations.  I have some slips of paper covered with URL’s (that’s website addresses) to investigate (not sure where those are right now…), a small pack of business cards, and some sticky notes from WebAssign that I have a few notes written on.  Somehow I missed getting the contact information from the Department of Energy woman I talked to, but I might be able to find her another way.  I also still have a business card from last year’s winter meeting, in Baltimore, which I still have not followed up.

Well, that is the way things go.  Here I am, blogging about these people but not contacting them, and I will now go and finish grading a batch of tests I have, but I won’t send e-mails tonight.  Maybe this weekend I will do that.  Maybe.

By the way, did you notice?  Stephanie is wearing a shirt from xkcd!


17 February 2009

One of the things I love about attending conferences is the chance to meet people and have great conversations. Then there are just those who I get to meet. I got to meet Paul Hewitt several years ago at a conference, and I got to tell him that I knew a woman who had taken his physics course and majored in physics because of him. I got to make him smile.

Paul Hewitt is the author of a physics textbook called Conceptual Physics. We use it at my school for the lowest level of first year physics, and I also have AP students read it. Many physics teachers admire Paul Hewitt very much, so it is actually pretty cool to have met him. I can also impress my students by recounting how I heard a talk by S. James Gates, who to my students is “the guy on the poster.” I’m not sure why it is so exciting to have seen in person a guy on a poster, but OK.

Well, this conference is the one where I got to have my picture taken with Connie Willis, one of my favorite authors! Woot! She even gave me permission to put the photo on my blog, so here it is:


When I was in high school, I first read Willis’s novelette Blued Moon, which was published in Asimov’s* (a magazine of short science fiction stories) in the 1980’s. I loved it, and thought that even my mother would enjoy it. My mom said she didn’t like science fiction, but this was a story about coincidence, language, and English majors.

Since then, I have read every book and story by Connie Willis that I have been able to find. I learned that he husband was a physics professor somehow, which made a lot of sense when I read At the Rialto and her novel Bellwether. At the Rialto is a short story that takes place at a quantum mechanics conference, and Bellwether involves someone who keeps alive the memory of her high school physics teacher.

I met Connie’s husband Courtney Willis at a conference in Madison, WI. I was heading out to find dinner one evening with my friend Liz, and Courtney was also on the same mission. We all found our way to an Afghan restaurant and had a good meal and a good conversation. Then a year or so ago I finally met Connie Willis when she gave a talk and a reading at Swarthmore College. She had a bad cold at the time, but she did the reading anyway and I hung on every word, and afterward asked her to sign my copy of her novel Passage.  The novel she read from that night will probably be published next spring (2010) and I am very much looking forward to reading it! It takes place largely in her favorite time and place: World War II, the Blitz. It features characters who are time-traveling historians, as in her short story Fire Watch and her novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

So, I still haven’t had a true conversation with Connie Willis, but I am still pretty pleased to have had several opportunities to say hello at the conference, and feel all glowy that I was at the same conference as Connie Willis. I also stayed at the same hotel Al Gore spoke in, in the same city where President Obama was spending the weekend, and I was in the same room as a Nobel-prize-winning physicist more than once! So I guess it was a pretty special weekend, but I still missed my husband and our cat. I’m glad to be home!

*short for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

Me time

13 February 2009


Well, I am just about ready to head for Chicago, hopefully on an earlier flight than planned by going standby.  So it will be a fairly long period of sitting and waiting in and on public transportation today.  I’ll be attending the AAPT winter meeting this weekend, learning stuff and hanging out with some of my favorite kinds of people: physics teachers!

I’m hoping to run into sciencegeekgirl and the dotPhysics blogger, meet the wife of my distance learning professor of the past year, have chats with some old acquaintances from various parts of the country, and also learn stuff about teaching physics.   There will be sessions on pedagogy, innovative labs/activities, uses for new technologies in the classroom, research on how to teach physics so that people learn it well, and current research/theories/news.  Nobelist George Smoot will give a talk, and so will pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin, who discovered that dark matter has to exist.  Since the AAPT meeting is being run in conjunction with the meeting of the AAAS, I might go to some of their sessions as well.  I’ve been told Al Gore will be speaking. (It’ll be today and I don’t think I’ll go, but I might…)

I’m off to finish packing and catch a train to the airport!  Buzz will keep my husband company until Monday night.