Friday, November 20, 2015

Turning Heads in 11 Dimensions

Nearly half a year ago, Dr. Ilarion Melnikov came to James Madison and was interviewed by students and faculty alike.  Not long after leaving the University with great first impressions, he was asked to join our team, and was "incredibly thrilled they decided to choose me."

A few months later, Dr. Melnikov became part of our Department, and has since made waves.  In our interview, Dr. Melnikov said that he spent his first weeks here "figuring out exactly where I fit into the scheme of things," much of which dealt with his transition from full-time research to teaching.  Melnikov said a lot of advice came from the the faculty, noting their welcoming and helpful nature.

However, it was our impressive student body who made the greatest impact on him.  While Dr. Melnikov said that he wasn't sure what kind of reaction he would receive from students of a primarily experimental Physics Department, he he was "really amazed at the response of students wanting to do theoretical things." Students were stopping by his office so regularly that Dr. Melnikov decided to start up a series of informal meetings on the subject.  He stressed that these meetings are "open for everyone," and will be pushed primarily by students, with him only guiding discussion.

When asked how he sees the theoretical seminars evolving, Dr. Melnikov said that the only additions that he finds beneficial would be increasing student involvement and introducing planned readings, saying that he'd rather "keep it fluid" and stress-free.  Dr. Melnikov is also very interested in increasing interactions with the Math Department, not only because it is closely related to his field of study, but also because it is "important to keep [a] dynamic nature" for interdepartmental work.

If you want talk with Dr. Melnikov either about his research, joining in his research, or just why String Theory is cool, stop by his office or go to his informal seminars Saturday mornings.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Updates from Infrared Power Generation

Justin Kaczmar, undergraduate student in Physics at JMU, presented a poster entitledCorrelation between the sinusoidal instability in radiation power and the hyperbolic instability in the voltage in infrared power generation” at the International Symposium on Clusters and Nanomaterials held in Richmond (VA), October 26-29 2015.  Justin came back very excited: many people stopped at his poster and asked him many questions!  Great job Justin!  Justin's poster is pictured below.
Dr. Scarel presented a poster on The nano-power generator fabricated with thin atomic layer deposited films” at the AVS 62nd International Symposium held in San José (CA), October 18-23 2015.  Dr. Scarel was the Program chair of the Thin Films Division for this year's edition of the Symposium and will is the chair of the Thin Films Division for the 2015-2016 social year.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather Visits

Our Department had the distinct pleasure of welcoming the esteemed Dr. John Mather to our University this past Thursday.  Our own Shanil Virani introduced Dr. Mather to us all in an HHS lecture hall packed with people of a variety of majors in attendance.  I've been at rock concerts less dense, but those bands do not compare to this rockstar of astrophysics.

After Mr. Virani recited the the Nobel Laureate's long list of projects and achievements, Dr. Mather began his presentation by talking about the history of observational astronomy, which has always carried two main themes; a theory, no matter how peculiar, can only be disproved by observation, and astronomers always need a better telescope.

Dr. Mather then went on to describe how he grew up with the advances in astro-based radiation detection in the 20th century.  These advances culminated in Dr. Mather's 1989 project to send the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) into space to observe the background radiation (an experiment which initially failed on Earth).  The results of the COBE observations produced both a background map of the night sky (which is still under investigation today) and a graph that fit the theoretical blackbody radiation from the Big Bang with an error of only a few parts per million.  This experiment, which won Dr. Mather and his colleague Dr. Smoot the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006, gave a true backbone to the theory of the Big Bang, and has been heralded as "The most important scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time" by physicists like Dr. Steven Hawking.

Dr. Mather then discussed his new project, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is set to launch into orbit in three years.  Dr. Mather emphasized that the JWST is not designed to replace Hubble, but rather study the infrared sources in our sky, which Hubble is unable to do.  We are very excited to see what sort of data JWST can provide for us, and will be sure to watch it launch into the night sky.  In the meantime, you can watch the JWST being built as it prepares for its voyage.  Thanks again to Dr. Mather for coming to our University!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Standing Out and Gaining an Edge in Pre-Med

When it comes to pairing a major with the Pre-Med track, only a few people choose to pursue Physics, with most people choosing either Biology or Chemistry.  Devin Buennemeyer and Premal Patel, however, go against the grain, and argue as to why more people should do the same.

"Physics gives you critical thinking skills required of a doctor," argued Premal, "both in planning and how to think on your feet...  These are essential in situations like ER."  Devin added on, saying that "[physics] has allowed me to understand my Pre-Med classes better... Now I can understand the processes within the body much better by applying my physics knowledge."  Such topics include fluid dynamics, pressure systems, Brownian motion, and even electromagnetism.

Despite these academic positives (along with a resume that stands out amongst a plethora of applicants), there are a great number of fears and myths that dissuade people from choosing a Physics & Pre-Med route.

When asked why most Pre-Med's shy away from Physics in general, Premal stated that "it's mostly rooted in their physics experiences in high school.  They think of it as a very big barrier in their life... and they don't want to do it again."  Devin agreed, "A lot of people have a bad initial exposure to physics...  They think it's impossible, and that it's ridiculous to be a physics major."  Premal added that too many Pre-Med's are timid of the math behind the physics.  "They're running away for the wrong reasons...  They don't realize that math is a form of logic, and they'll use a lot of math when they're doctors."

In regards to practically completing the route in four years, Devin answered, "Physics & Pre-Med is unique... And there are challenges that come along with being unique, such as less advice on scheduling."  "The Bio-Physics track has the same requirements as a Pre-Med, with a few more [physics] classes on top," said Premal.  "To do pre-med proper, though, there are a few more Bio & Psych classes to prepare for the MCAT."  It should be noted that Devin, in spite of these constraints, is set to complete the Physics & Pre-Med route in the planned four years this coming Spring, and has had enough time to participate in clubs, maintain a high GPA, and score very well on the MCAT.

"I looked into physics, and the reason I chose it was because I failed it," expressed Premal, who went on to explain how the major, despite its hardships could only add to his intelligence and skills.  "There are many factors involved in any problem as a doctor, just as there are in physics."  "Physics majors have the highest IQ score," said Devin, "and to study what the smartest people in the world study is daunting...  Don't let the challenges intimidate you, let them encourage you."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

By Students, For Students, and Bringing in More Students

The James Madison Society of Physics Students (SPS) has been providing a social outlet for the physics students here for years, and is truly a central aspect of the physics community.  I asked a range of students how they view the current SPS, and the different services and events they provide for the students.

When asked how inviting the SPS is, all of the students said that the current SPS does a very good job.  The SPS transmits information about the organization and its events very efficiently, and the newly renovated student lounge is very "relaxed and welcoming."  Underclassmen cited that this allows them not only to know the people in their class, but also junior and senior physics majors.

These initiatives, such as the mentoring program, help underclassmen with much of the intimidation they have of upperclassmen, particularly seniors.  Similarly, some expressed the importance of activities to create a sense of community among the freshman class early on in their first semester, since "240 is pretty spread out," meaning many freshman do not know each other.  This might help more students stay in the major.

When asked what other activities or events the SPS should host, it was suggested that the society hosts "topic studies," which involves students studying a topic together in an informal, yet productive, manner.  That said, everyone expressed their great satisfaction in the SPS, and said that the society fulfills everything that is expected of them.  To eveyone who helps make the SPS function, thank you for providing such a great community!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Physics Phun for Everyone

This past Saturday, the Department held an open house for prospective students to learn more about what it means to be a physics major at JMU. Dr.Virani, Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium, talked to the potential students and their parents about academic life, research opportunities, and how physics can benefit on an inter-disciplinary level.  After hearing Dr. Virani, the students then explored the Department and talked to the professors and students upstairs.

While Dr. Virani and the research labs were upstairs entertaining the students already interested in the major, a team of students were downstairs showing off the "phun" of physics to the general public, and getting even more students to consider physics at JMU.  Needless to say, we blinded them with science.

Here we showed people how great static electricity can easily be produced by the "rubbing off" of charges, even if the source of power is man-driven.  This setup also showed the public how those charges can break any insulation in the air to cause a small lightning strike, as well as how the distance between the two charged points increases the probability of discharge.

Audiences marveled at the long streaks of electricity produced by the Van der Graffe, and at how rapidly electricity could be shot from the charged ball to the grounding stick.

All while the user remains unharmed!

They were even more impressed when they saw the electric discharge go through an uncharged metal sphere to get to the grounding stick, thus completing a circuit.

As with any good physics demonstration, we persuaded people to trust us and touch the Van der Graffe so their hair would stick up.

Many did so, and even more talked with us about the physics of the charge distribution, how the circuit is completed using your own body, and what happens where your hands are taken away.

Thanks to all of the students and faculty who helped make the Physics and Astronomy open house a reality, as well as all of the people who visited us!

We hope to see you experimenting with angular momentum in our halls again!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

2016 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

The next Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics is approaching. The closest conference to JMU will be hosted by Old Dominion University and Jefferson Lab.  The conference will start with a welcome reception Friday evening, January 15, 2016, and ends Sunday afternoon, January 17
There are only 9 days left to apply for one of the 2016 Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. The application site is now open and closes October 16, 2015.  

The keynote presentation will be given by Ginger Kerrick, who is a flight director at Johnson Space Center, and will be webcast to all nine regional conferences.   The Saturday after dinner speaker at Old Dominion University is Dr. Kathryn Flanagan  the interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble Telescope.  In addition, we will have the following activities:
  1.  Presentations by professional physicists on their cutting edge research and personal career  paths; 
  2.  Panels featuring career opportunities outside academia, professional skills, and resiliency;
  3.  Workshops or panels offering guidance on how to get involved in summer research, the graduate  school application process, and preparing for and applying for jobs in industry; 
  4.  An opportunity for undergraduate attendees to present their research in a poster session; 
  5.  A tour of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility;
  6.  A graduate school and career fair with resources from national physics-related societies. 
Lodging and meals will be provided for participants who are accepted to the conference.

More information on the Old Dominion University/Jefferson Lab can be found onthe website: Websites for the other conference sites are given on the APS page at