Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lunar Eclipse

According to Wikipedia (that source of all things true and correct),  the eclipse on December 21, was the first total lunar eclipse to occur on the day of the Northern Winter Solstice (Southern Summer Solstice) since 1638, and only the second in the Common Era. Not sure that the timing makes it special, but it sure make it rare.

Here is a time-lapse video of the eclipse for those who could not stay awake or, like me, were in a cloudy spot.

You earn extra points for explaining the ruddy color of the moon during the totality and why it is not simply black (invisible).

Monday, December 20, 2010

What to do with a physics degree

Even if you know that you like physics, this can be a confusing question to answer. Fortunately, there are resources available to help you work through this decision.

And for a much broader view, check out Engineering, Science and Math Careers for an extensive list of possibilities to explore.

There are tons of career options and the list is growing as our society becomes more technically based. Physics (and Astronomy) are excellent choices for a broad range of science careers.

PandA@JMU is the very best place to start this journey. But you knew that, right?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fall semester has ended

Today was the December graduation ceremony. The house was full and everyone was happy and cheering. Three of our majors graduate this semester and we are indeed proud of them.

We're at the halfway point of the academic year. At this point we pause to catch our breath and celebrate the season with friends and family. We here in the PandA wish everyone a safe and happy holiday.

In January we are all busy again. Dr. Butner has a full schedule for the spring seminar series already. Among the visitors are James Green the Director of Planetary Science at NASA and Gary White the Director of the Society of Physics Students.

The Saturday Morning Physics program promises to be exciting. Enrollment is at capacity (about 60, last check) and we are preparing for bringing the excitement of physics to many students, parents and teachers in the region. The high school physics video contest is well advertised and we already know of several schools in the area that will have students entering.

We have many dedicated students working on research with our faculty preparing for the spring symposium (last year's is here). Several students will also be using the symposium as a preparation for taking their work on the road to regional and national conferences. We will recognize our outstanding students at the annual honors banquet on Wednesday April 6.

The first installment of our planned applied nuclear physics track will be offered this spring. Dr. Banu will teach a new course in introductory nuclear science and a lab to go with it. The new Madison Radiation Laboratory (the old RMH Cancer Center) is slowing beginning to take shape as we start through the licensing process so we can the turn on our linacs and x-ray machine.

A busy year ahead, indeed. Stay tuned as we move forward with these exciting programs.

Oh yeah. I forgot. We will also be teaching.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

...and a good time was had by all!

This year's holiday party was another success in a long line of successes. Everyone had pizza and sodas and great (read=silly) gifts were exchanged by the seniors and the faculty. There was dancing by Santa and his helpers (above, left to right: Gabriel Niculescu (Santa), Art Fovargue (Chief Elf), Adriana Banu (Mrs. Santa), and Kevin Giovanetti(Elf)) and great merriment. The senior video was well done and everyone had a good laugh.

The pizza and sodas were eagerly consumed.

See all the photos here.

Space Shuttle

For those of you out there that are devoted space shuttle fans, here's the video for you. I have always thought that the lift off was a graceful and dramatic event with the roll maneuver happening just after it clears the tower. On this lengthy video you can see it in slow motion.

The multiple camera angles and the high-speed photography are truly impressive. Enjoy this farewell to the end of an era.

PandA will soon have it's own memento of this amazing machine and the exploration it made possible. We have ordered a tile from one of the decommissioned shuttles. The thermal properties are still difficult to conceive even after all these years of seeing it work.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

USA Science and Engineering Festival 2010

Thousands of people gathered on the National Mall (Washington, DC) for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, which ran from Sunday, Oct. 10, through Sunday, Oct. 24. On October 24, Dr. Costel Constantin together with seven physics major and one nursing major volunteered with both Nanoscale Informal Science Education Networked/Material Research Society, and PBS WGBH/NOVA Making Stuff booths. The students who come with me are Anita Vincent-Johnson (Physics), Anthony Chieco (Physics), Jimmy Hauver (Physics), Cheyenne Shafte (Physicss), Denise McKaig (Physics), Alexandra Iuga (Physics), Christina Hanks (Physics), and Emily Schofield (Nursing). Our students explained how the properties of materials change with size. After the event, we were fortunate to be invited to the radio show “STEM SELLS” hosted by Prof. Brian Utter, and Prof. Mark Mattson from Physics and Astronomy Department. Related to this event, there is an article published in the Madison Magazine titled "Lego robotics, hydrogen cars, geospatial tech on the D.C. Mall". The article can be found at page 14, in the latest winter 2011 edition of Madison Magazine. Here I am carbon-copying the paragraph in which we were mentioned within the article “Dr. Costel Constantin (Physics and Astronomy) volunteered with both Nanoscale Informal Science Education Networked/Material Research Society and PBS WGBH/NOVA Making Stuff booths, with the help of JMU students Anita Vincent-Johnson (Physics), Anthony Chieco (Physics), Jimmy Hauver (Physics), Cheyenne Shafte (Physicss), Denise McKaig (Physics), Alexandra Iuga (Physics), Christina Hanks (Physics), and Emily Schofield (Nursing). They explained properties of carbon nanotubes, nano sands, and strengths of nanofabrics to Festival visitors.” I would like to thank all our student volunteers for doing a great job.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A New Look

We've finally upgraded the blog design. Hope you like it.

Annual Holiday Party is coming Friday

This Friday (December 10), we will again have a visit from the jolly fellow with the white beard in room 2122 at 2:15 as we celebrate the end of the semester in the department holiday party. You realize of course that the jolly fellow to which I refer is D. Gabriel Niculescu in disguise, right? You didn't really think it was Santa did you?

Come if you can. There'll be pizza, sodas and a good time have by all.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

This is what happens when you aren't a physics major.

As you may recall, in a previous post to this blog the strong preparation for medical school that a physics degree offers was pointed out. Let me see if I can add a little fuel to this fire.

In the journal in Diabetes Care we find the following article:

A mathematical model for the determination of total area under glucose tolerance and other metabolic curves. M M Tai 

Diabetes Care February 1994vol. 17 no. 2 152-154
From the title it sounds suspicious  already. Check out this excerpt from the abstract:
OBJECTIVE--To develop a mathematical model for the determination of total areas under curves from various metabolic studies. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS--In Tai's Model, the total area under a curve is computed by dividing the area under the curve between two designated values on the X-axis (abscissas) into small segments (rectangles and triangles) whose areas can be accurately calculated from their respective geometrical formulas. The total sum of these individual areas thus represents the total area under the curve. 
It seems the M. M. Tai has re-invented that process all physics (and math) majors learn in their second semester of calculus...we call it integration. Sort of sounds like the trapezoidal rule, eh? Clever that the author names the "model" after himself, isn't it?

While it is true that a physics major who becomes an MD would never try to publish this since it is old hat and we all know this, just think of all the new things you could publish: the energy required to lift a patient is proportional to the patient's mass and the change in height, the rate of flow through a hypodermic is proportional to the pressure applied to the piston, the time rate of change of a disease can be determine by the an examination of the change between two successive measurements. The list is endless. Why, you could publish your way into tenure at any hospital, no sweat. Just think of the wondrous new effects you could name for yourself!

Did I mention that this paper has 75 citations?


Chromatography of Hydrogen Isotopes, part II

The paper in progress over the summer by Dr. Whisnant, Travis Kelly and Patrick Hansen has been accepted by the Review of Scientific Instruments. Final corrections are in progress and it should be published early next year.

The figure shows the chromatogram and our fit to it for a sample that is about 6.6% H2 and 3.5% D2. The scale has been expanded by dividing the data for the HD peak by 10. As you can see, the p-H2 and  o-H2 peaks are well separated and the HD tail under the D2 is small. The fits are difficult to distinguish from the data since they are so good! There's no fit to the HD peak shown, it is numerically integrated.

They also have a nice model for understanding the plateau between the p-H2 and  o-H2 peaks in the region around 15 minutes retention time, but you'll need to read the paper to get the details.

Congratulations to Travis and Patrick...two more of our undergraduates published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

We have a logo!

In an effort to develop an identity for our department as we increase our marketing and outreach, we have created a department logo to plaster all over everything PandA. After many faculty meetings and much discussion, we have landed on this design. We went with monochrome to simplify reproduction. The design comes in the JMU purple and gold and in black as shown below. In addition to the versions listed here, we also have version with "transparent white" so the background color shows through. This will give us plenty of variation while still presenting the same design.

Look for one of this graphics to start showing up everywhere. The next step is to get this on all department web pages and start printing it up for distribution on stickers and the like.
We hope that soon, everyone will think of JMU PandA when they see this design.

Open House

Today from 9-12, the admissions office sponsored another open house. There was a larger total turnout for this event than the one in September by about 40%. This attendance was, more or less, reflected in our workload. The numbers in the formal presentations were about the same order of magnitude as before, but there seemed to be somewhat more activity in the hallways and lab tours.

If we are seeing about 15 or so each time, we're on track to another solid recruiting year. Perhaps not a stellar one with the economy in the tank, but a very respectable one, nonetheless.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Steve Whisnant is the 2011 CSM Madison Scholar!

Congratulations to our own Steve Whisnant who was recently named the Madison Scholar from the College of Science and Mathematics for 2010-11. Steve joins a list of esteemed colleagues in our college who have demonstrated the highest level of scholarship throughout their careers in their research and publishing and is the first in our department since Kevin Giovanetti in 2004. Next fall, Steve will give the Madison Scholar lecture to all of the college and tell us more about his work in nuclear physics. Join us in congratulating Steve.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quark-Gluon Plasma Created at CERN

The ATLAS collaboration is reporting evidence of the quark-gluon plasma. The results were submitted to Physical Review Letters and accepted in fewer than 24 hours. This is really (really, really, really) fast, indicating how significant this is.

Details can be found at The Canadian Broadcasting Co. and in the CERN press release.

Here's some interesting stats

So. This blog is interesting primarily if you are interested in PandA @ JMU. We do occasionally put a few things of more general interest up, but we mostly blog about our department.

Thus, this leads to my surprise to find that we are being visiting from around the world. Consider the statistics for the last week:

United States
United Kingdom

I understand that most are from the US and there are a few curious folks in the UK or Latvia, but this week, like every the entire time the blog has been up...there are consistently folks in Russia and Germany checking us out. Germany and Russia are always in the top two spots after the US.

This could be navigation accidents, but to keep this up for months sounds like real curiosity about us. Isn't that interesting?!

Welcome one and all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Helping out at Explore More

On Sunday, November 21, the folks at the Harrisonburg Childrens Museum (now known as the Explore More museum) held an open house to show off their beautiful new space on Main Street in downtown Harrisonburg. They invited JMU Physics and Astro faculty to come help out in the science lab room. Drs. Anca and Costel Constantin entertained the kids with images of galaxies and stars and fold up paper "buckyballs". They also showed kids the power of electricity and magnetism with the museum's collection of magnet toys and Van de Graaff generator. Later, Dr. Chris Hughes joined them and showed the kids and their parents how things like spinning tops and slinkies look different at high speed. We're always glad to help out in the community and congratulate our friends at HCM on their move to a new facility.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

The students are all home by now. The faculty are scattering as well and the university is settling into an angle of repose that is only possible when it is quite and empty. Everyone is now preparing for an excessively large meal of their favorite dishes.

Have a safe and happy holiday. See everyone in a week.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Video Contest!

Here in the PandA@JMU, we are always excited by new opportunities to learn and explore new physics phenomena. We want to get you excited as well, so we announcing the First Annual Video Contest. This is where you create a video to compete for cash prizes for you and your school. Here's how it works: your team creates an original video which demonstrates and explains something related to physics. You submit it to us for judging and the top 5 teams will be invited to JMU for an awards presentation.  All finalists will receive a monetary prize.

To submit an entry in this contest, a video less than 3 minutes in length must be emailed to Scott Paulson. The deadline for submissions is 9:00 a.m. EST March 14, 2011. All standard video formats will be accepted.

For complete details, visit the video contest web page.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Meet the Scientist: Saturday Morning at JMU

In spring semester 2011, PandA in collaboration with the Office of Outreach and Engagement cordially invite high-school students and secondary-school teachers to take part in an engaging learning outreach program.

Participants will explore fascinating cutting-edge research topics in physics and astronomy in six easy-to-follow scientific lectures. Each lecture is followed by a visit to the John C. Wells Planetarium. There will be interactive quiz sessions... fast-paced competitions using electronic clickers to buzz in with a response. The students will have the chance to win prizes and review what they have learned at the end of each Saturday morning lecture.

Certificates of attendance, College credits for students and CEUs for teachers can be earned.

No pre-requisites necessary! (except for your curiosity…)

Register soon and Start your adventure! For details see our web site for details.

Keep up with the fun and excitement on our SMP facebook page as well.

To go directly to the registration page and bypass the department page, visit official registration page here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Balloons, Bowling, Bots & Warm Gas

On October 15th, the 2010 JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year, Professor Joseph Howard from Salisburg University, came back to campus. Things were a little bit different from when he graduated in 1990. The Physics Department has moved from Miller Hall over to the new Physics and Chemistry Building on the east side of campus. It also has changed its name to become the Physics and Astronomy Department with over a hundred physics majors, four major research groups, and 20 faculty.

Professor Howard also experienced a lot of changes after he graduated from JMU in 1990. He went on to the University of Oklahoma where he got an MS (1993) and a PhD (1998). From there he went to Salisbury University where he became an assistant professor, then associate professor, and is now the Chair of the Department. He is active in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) research - looking for ways to improve STEM teaching for college bound high-school students. He has been a two-time winner of the CUL Salisbury University Faculty Member of the Year, and nominated for several teaching and mentoring awards.

As the 2010 JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year, Prof. Howard talked to our current crop of physics students about the great opportunities that a degree in physics can prepare you for. In his case, his research includes detailed studies of nebula in the nearby galaxy M101. That lead to balloon borne astronomical studies, and involving his students on analyzing the data. A student project led to a long-term project for he and his students developing robots. Most recently, he and his students worked on a detailed study of bowling ball physics. All of these projects reflect his attitude in research; that you have to prepared for unforeseen opportunities. Professor Howard pointed out he learned at JMU that a background in physics can give you the flexibility you need to explore lots of different opportunities; be it studying distant astronomical objects floating in space, launching rockets, building robots that can learn, going bowling, or ...well that last one is up to you!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

The moons of Jupiter attract a crowd!

On October 1st, the JMU Physics and Astronomy Department held a "planet" party at our Astronomy Park, located just behind the Physics and Chemistry Building. The guests of honor were Jupiter and its 4 major moons - this fall they are making their closest approach to earth in the past 50 years. Clear skies and light breezes made for good viewing conditions. Jupiter and its moons were seen by over 400 people through one of our two 10-inch telescopes during the 3.5 hour "planet" party.

Every semester the JMU Physics and Astronomy Department hosts several "star" parties - where we use several of our 10-inch diameter telescopes to probe the night sky. Such shows are free and open to all JMU students, staff, and the general public. We announce the star parties through the main JMU webpage a few days in advance. The telescopes are also used by the JMU Astronomy Club, who can often be found at Astronomy Park checking out the moon, planets, galaxies, and other astronomical objects.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Six methods for Successful Learning

In a recent article by Roald Hoffmann and  Saundra Y. McGuire in the September-October issue of the American Scientist, the magazine of Sigma-Xi, we are given a list of valuable methods of successful learning and teaching. The full article is found here. The learning strategies are:

  1. Take class notes by hand, don't rely on handouts. Each evening, rewrite your notes, compressing and adding to make sure that you really understand.
  2. If you miss a class, get notes from a friend that you must copy and work through. Again, avoid class handouts as the sole source of information.
  3. Form study groups and mix individual study with group study.
  4. Treat textbook examples as worked homework problems. Master the method, not simply the solution. Practice working problems without assistance (as in an exam setting).
  5. Teach the material to others.
  6. Set your goals realistically.
You will recognize here several notions that are often repeated to our physics students. The sooner you can master these techniques, the more quickly you can master physics. One interesting technique for doing well on exams is to practice making your own version of the exam. What would the instructor ask and why? What is important to know to master the material? Asking yourself this sort of questions and figuring out the answers is a valuable technique for mastering the exams and the material.

The teaching strategies are also important and can give a learner good ideas about how to best learn. See the article for more details.

Friday, September 24, 2010

JMU Physics now making book cover art!

Dr. Brian Utter recently authored a chapter for a new book on soft condensed matter physics. The book, Experimental and Computational Techniques in Soft Condensed Matter Physics is being published by Cambridge University Press. An image from Brian's lab has been featured as the cover of the book. In the image, the propagation of stresses through a network of polymer particles can be seen by using polarized light. More information about the book can be found here.

Well done by Brian and his students.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Open House

Today we had the first of two open house days for us folks in the STEM fields. These events, created by the good folks in admissions offer the opportunity for prospective students and their parents to visit JMU and see what we are all about. We open the labs and give tours. There's a time to hear a set presentation about the department. All around, it is good time to meet and greet.

While there was over 1000 students plus their parents here, as usual, few were interested physics. Best estimate is that fewer than 20 students and their parents visited our department, probably closer to 15. While this sounds like small numbers, it isn't so bad. Consider: our freshmen class runs about 25-30. If 15 come now and again on December 4 for the next open house, that's a pretty good turn out.

It is always the case that our best tool for recruiting is one-on-one contact. Having a chance to talk with these 15 or so students today is a good way to increase the likelihood of getting them to come to JMU. If today we encouraged a few more to apply for admission, then we have another chance to get them on campus during the scholarship exam season. Another chance to communicate one-on-one.

We continue to build a strong program and today's effort is part of this process. A politician once noted that 99% of everything that is done during a campaign is a waste. Think of the money we could save if we only did the right 1%. The problem is that no one knows what that right 1% happens to be. The same is true of recruiting.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fall Picnic

Today there was glorious weather for the annual fall picnic for PandA. We had a great turnout with at least six freshmen attending (maybe more) and goodly cross section of the upperclassmen. Costel Constantin took charge of the ritual cooking of the of the burgers and 'dogs and a fine job was done. There was lots of games and fun with the students enjoying themselves with the faculty children as well as each other. See more of the fun and games.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fall 2010

The time has arrived for the summer's research to fade into the fall's teaching. The new semester is upon us and the new faculty are with us. As part of our day of meetings on Friday, we all gathered for a few minutes to take a photo.

Standing from left to right: Chris Hughes, Sean Scully, Kim Emerson, Adriana Banu, William Alexander, Giovanna Scarel, Geary Albright, Anca Constantin and Steve Whisnant.

Seated in the middle row: Shanil Virani and Costel Constantin.

Seated in the front: Mark Mattson, Scott Paulson, Art Fovargue, Kevin Giovanetti, Harold Butner, Brian Utter, Klebert Feitosa and Dorn Peterson.

Not present: Ioana Niculescu, Gabriel Niculescu and Don Chodrow.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

JMU research presented to the collaborators at NCSU

On Friday July 16 2010 Dr. Scarel presented to the collaborators at NCSU the work on "Modeling transmission infrared absorbance of oxide fibers prepared using atomic layer deposition". The work was performed by Dr. Scarel partly with the NCSU collaborators and partly with the JMU students Anita Vincent-Johnson (Physics) and Kyle Vasquez (Chemistry). A paper on the topic will be submitted soon!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gas Chromatography of Hydrogen Isotopes

Over the last couple years, Patrick Hansen has made steady progress on the gas chromatography system used to separate H2, HD and D2 in Dr. Whisnant's lab. Building on the work of Laurence Lewis, Travis Kelley and Ryan Burke, Patrick has now put the system in a state where it can be reliably used to assay gas from the distillery before it is sent to JLab for use in polarized target production.

He has reviewed the literature and found that no one else has obtained results as good or had been so quantitative about the interpretation of the results. Thus, at the moment, he is busy writing his results up for publication.

Paper in progress. Stay Tuned.

JMU HD Distillery

The HD distillery, housed in the basement of the HHS building, has been struggling for the past year as attempts have been made to get it working after a long hiatus. The majors problems appear to be ones related to too much heat in the wrong places.

Dr. Whisnant's collaborators at JLab are working on a redesign on the distillation column now. The new piece should be in-hand in late July and the process of starting up will resume.

In the mean time, Brittany Rash, has made good progress on a major computer (hardware and software) upgrade for the facility. The previous system used two very old computers (one dating from 2001!) to monitor and control pressure transducers, boil-up power and the vacuum pump. All this is now moving to a new computer with dual monitors (Dr. Whisnant is known for his love of a two monitor system!). Brittany has one program up and going and is working on the second one. With improved software (and stability!) and some additional hardware to clean up the computer-instrument interface, the revived distillery shouild purr like a kitten in August.

Stay tuned.

Road Trip!

Starting on the 6th of July, Dr. Whisnant will be taking James Hauver and William Henderson to Duke University for two weeks to do some photon scattering. The reaction of interest is photon induced neutron emission. The targets under consideration include Sn, Ta and Cd. There will also be data taken on U and Pu as well later on in July.

Most of these targets have been studied before with this reaction. The new thing is that we will do it with polarized gamma-rays. The plan is to help establish a database of reaction data that can be used to look  fro fissile (and non fissile) materials in shipping containers.

So, bright and early on July 6, the adventure begins!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

JMU-Physics at ORNL

Early results on "Infrared energy harvesting using surface phonon-polaritons in thin atomic layer deposited oxide films" were presented by Giovanna Scarel on June 8 2010 at the Center for Nanophase Materials Science - Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge (TN).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A little chemistry, just for fun

Students are busy this summer...

Preparing for a night out under the stars doing some observing.

Learning their around the machine shop with Dr. Peterson

Interpreting the FTIR output in Dr. Scarel's lab

Or thinking (and trying to look busy) in Dr. Whisnant's lab.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

What can you do with a Physics Degree?

Although many people think that a physics degree is only something you get if you want to do research or teach, there are a myriad of possibilities. Among these are medical and law school. The American Institute of Physics has a statistical center that collects information about what physics graduates do. Recently posted is the average MCAT and LSAT scores for 2009 sorted by major. Using data provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Law School Admissions Council, the AIP have posted two tables that give the full results.

The short version is that Biomedical engineering and Physics are at the top of the list on the MCAT. Scores are given in three areas. Physics is best in Physics sciences (duh!) and tied in verbal reasoning. Only in biological sciences do the engineers pull ahead.  For those of you who still think it is OK to major in Biology to go to med school, note that Biology is next to last in the list. The only major worse if Premed!

On the LSAT, Physics is the clear leader. Once again, Pre-law and criminal justice are at the bottom of the list. Even Political Science, where most applicants major is well down on the list.

The clear moral of this story is that if you want to be a lawyer of a doctor, Physics is the best place to start. Of course, if you want to be researcher, teacher, engineer, business person, or anything else, choose Physics.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Graduation 2010!

Another exciting year is behind us now and a new crop of graduates are out finding their way in the world. This year's graduation speaker was our own Bill Ingham. He did an outstanding job of connecting James Madison (the man) to the qualities of our graduates and their challenges.

Except for the strong winds we had on Saturday morning, it was a beautiful day. Congratulations to all our fine graduates!

Bob Gordon does 50 years!

On April 22, we celebrated 50 years of Bob Gordon teaching in our department. Even though Bob retired in 2001, he has continued to teach part-time. As you might expect, Bob's idea of part time is what the rest of the faculty consider full-time. Even though Bob will be cutting back in the fall, he's still here teaching the next generation of budding scientists. We are honored to have such a wonderful and capable education in our department. Here's to the next 50 years!

There was a good turn out for the reception with many of Bob's former students showing up to join the festivities. More photos are found by visiting the department web site.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A new Fourier transform infrared spectrometer has arrived ......

A new Fourier transform infrared spectrometer has arrived at the department of Physics and Astronomy! The new tool can perform infrared spectroscopy at normal and variable angle in transmission and reflection. All kind of samples can be analized: insulating, semiconducting and metallic samples have no secrets for this tool.

Monday, May 03, 2010

JMU Students Present Their Research AT NCUR

This year's National Conference on Undergraduate Research was held on April 15-17 at the University of Montana. Missoula, MT. Dan Downey from Chemistry went with 13 JMU students to present their work at this national conference.

Out of the 13, 5 were from physics: Nick Herge, John Kroon, Chris Willis, Winston Hensley, and Joe Hardcastle. By all accounts, everyone had a good time and did a good job in presenting their work.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

STEM Sell - 04/21/10

Another Wednesday, another edition of "STEM Sell". We were finally able to break the vicious stranglehold of JMU faculty on the coveted guest position. We interviewed Dr. Rajeev Vaidyanathan (pronounced "Vyed-ye-NA-than"), a researcher at SRI's branch in the Shenandoah Valley, the Center for Advanced Drug REsearch (CADRE). Rajeev is investigating insect-borne viruses, particularly the diseases dengue fever and leishmaniasis. These diseases are not so well-known as many other diseases, but dengue fever, prevalent in many more tropical areas of the world, is starting to make inroads in the southern U.S. Leishmaniasis is being reported in increasing numbers among U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East. The biochemical interactions between the virus and insect and human host are exceedingly complex and it's a fascinating challenge to unravel this Gordian Knot.

As usual, Brian and I engaged in witty repartee--at least, that's how I like to remember it--as we reported on some STEM-related tidbits in the news (a recording of the show is available at the STEM Sell website):
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on the cusp of a first-ever-in-the-U.S. vaccine for cancer. This vaccine is specifically for prostate cancer. The whole process of performing trial treatments and analyzing the results and performing new trials has lasted many years. The company seeking the FDA's approval started the trials in the early 90's. Therefore, the technology behind it, although sounding rather sophisticated as it involves tailoring the vaccine to individual patients, is actually 15-20 years old and there are more up to date treatments being studied.
  • The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced "Oh-WAH-de-LU-na-yam", say it loudly and quickly for best effect) has precedents in the recent past, according to the historical record. And among those eruptions, there was often a second, larger eruption in the nearby volcano Katla with the most recent pair of eruptions occurring between 1821 and 1823. Naturally, scientists are keeping close tabs on Katla.
  • Researchers at the University of New Mexico have performed painstaking analyses of the genomes of 1983 people taken from all around the world and come to an unexpected obstacle. Assuming the rate of genetic mutation has remained more or less constant, comparing the genomes of the different populations with what is known about human migration patterns over the last 100,000 years, there appeared to be two distinct events of genetic disturbances that required another explanation. The researchers hypothesized that Homo sapiens populations interbred with Homo neanderthalis populations on two different occasions in two different locations to create these changes. The first hypothetical interbreeding took place about 60,000 years ago in the region of the eastern Mediterranean and the second 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Bolstering their hypothesis is that the genomes of people from Africa show no such disturbances.
  • Current wisdom among paleontologists is that Homo erectus populations may have existed as recently as 30,000 years ago. However, there is now some controversy over the radioisotope dating of the rock layers on the island of Java in which the H. erectus fossils are found, indicating that they may have been buried about 550,000 years ago. Scientists will undoubtedly be wrangling over these results for the foreseeable future.
  • One of the tools used in the relief efforts following the recent major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China are high-altitude overhead flights with high-resolution optical cameras able to identify objects as small as 1 foot across. These cameras survey the affected area and, using computer analysis, are able to distinguish between structures that have collapsed and structures that have not collapsed. These observations allow rescue workers to quickly identify locations where survivors might be trapped.
  • NEPTUNE-Canada is an oceanographic project in which cameras and sensors of all sorts have been placed in different locations in the vicinity of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The cameras and sensors offer free, real-time feeds on the internet for anybody to observe.
  • Physicists working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado have set a new record for the smallest measurable force, lowering the bar to 174 yN (that prefix "y" is a metric prefix meaning "x 10^-24"). They did this by putting together 60 beryllium-9 ions into a flat plane and shining a laser beam on it and determining where the reflection went. After disturbing the plane of ions ever so slightly, they measured the change in the orientation of the beam's reflection to determine the force. To achieve this, they had to lower the temperature of the ions to an astonishingly low 0.5 mK to minimize thermal disturbances. While there are no applications of this technology on the table, researchers suggest that this technique may some day be used to measure tiny quantum-level fluctuations and maybe even the effects of quantum gravity.
  • Many extrasolar planets in young solar systems exhibit retrograde orbital motion, orbiting their primary star in directions backwards relative to the rotations of both the star itself and the cloud of dust and gas surrounding them. Some other planets have planes of orbital inclination at a relatively large angle of 20 degrees. Gravitational perturbations from a second, large body are naturally assumed to be the culprit. The Kozai Mechanism is one possible explanation of this phenomenon.
  • We here at "STEM Sell" suggest another candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize--researchers at the Zoological Institute and Museum of the University of Hamburg have discovered that males of a particular common species of European orb-web spider can more successfully mate with their own sisters than with unrelated females. Here, "successfully" means "does not get eaten afterwards".

And so we let the tale of arachnid incest bring this week's entry to a close along with our traditional admonition, "You have a brain, don't be afraid to use it."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

STEM Sell - 04/14/10

Last night's edition of "STEM Sell" is now one with eternity. Our guest this time was Sean Scully, meaning that we could trade lots of geeky physics jokes while on the air. We got him to expound upon his interest and research into cosmic rays both of the low energy and high energy varieties. Their relationship to the Big Bang model as well as determining if there was evidence that went against the predictions of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity were also on the docket. We spent a little more time discussing his role in the Astronomy Park and the types of activities performed by his research students.

Apart from Sean, there were the usual tidbits of news accompanied by verbal nonsense ranging from inanity to depravity. Fortunately, Brian was more coherent, although both of us almost fell off the Monty Python precipice towards the end. Here's a rundown of what we talked about:
  • JMU is hosting a talk by Chad Mirkin, a very renowned nanotechnology scientist who is known as the most cited chemist in peer-reviewed literature. He'll be on campus April 19-20 and will deliver the Faraday Lecture in Science while here.
  • DNA identification techniques were used to discover that high-end restaurants in Santa Monica, CA and Seoul, South Korea, were using illegally obtained whale meat in their sashimi. The California restaurant has since closed.
  • In an ironic environmental twist, oil companies are paying good money for carbon dioxide, not out of any sense of obligation but because they pump the gas into underground oil reserves in order to build up pressure to bring oil to the surface.
  • Finally, some good has come from Texas Stadium, former home of the most justifiably reviled team in professional sports ;-) . With demolition scheduled for April 11th, geologists in the area mobilized an array of seismic wave detectors. When the sequence of explosions occurred, the ground waves generated from them were measured. Analysis is ongoing, but scientists are hoping that the measurements will improve our understanding of the geology of the region, known as the "Oauchita Deformation", which is somewhat interesting as it was the site of a collision of supercontinents about 300 million years ago.
  • British scientists have successfully transferred genetic material from one fertilized human egg to another that had its genetic material removed, where "successfully" means that some of the retooled eggs started to develop into embryos. The result is remarkable in that only the genetic material was transferred, the rest of the structure of the cell was essentially left behind. This procedure could prove useful in treating diseases involving mutations in the cell outside the genetic part, such as in the mitochondria of the cell (mitochondrial mutations give rise to type II diabetes and some neuromuscular diseases).
  • Turtles have displayed a greater than expection level of cognition. Some turtles were trained to perform a particular task to obtain food. Other turtles observed the first group of turtles while a third group didn't observe the first group. The second group was more successful at performing the same task as the first group than the non-observers were. This offers some unexpected data in the development of reptilian brains.
  • The amount of wind energy in the United States was briefly discussed with a little bit of surprise over the fact that the state of Iowa now gets 14.7% of its electrical energy from wind-powered turbines.
  • The ability of small, non-conductive particles to spontaneously gain significant electrical charge was briefly discussed and the implication that understanding could have in the manufacture of some materials such as polyethylene.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Another fine picnic ...

In Purcell park and Shelter 2 (the one next to the castle playground), the department spring picnic was held on April 10th. A good crowd gathered to enjoy the burgers and 'dogs cooked by Gabe and served out by Sean.

There was climbing on the children's playground:


whip cracking:

and soccer:

Oh yeah, everybody had something to eat as well:

A good time was had by all.

Congratulations to our newest Tenured and Promoted Faculty

The official word is out...

Gabriel Niculescu, Scott Paulson and Brian Utter have all earned tenure and promotion this year.

Also this year, Chris Hughes is promoted to full professor.

Congratulations to four people who have worked hard to make the department an outstanding place for students to learn through research, to learn in the classroom and grow into the next generation of physicists.

The department is proud of their many accomplishments and look forward the continued fruits of their labors.

Research Support from the NSF

March is the season for hearing from the National Science Foundation about the success (or failure) of a proposal. This year all the nuclear physics folks - Steve Whisnant, Kevin Giovanetti, Ioana and Gabriel Niculescu - were on pins and needles as all waited for the news on pending proposals.

The good news that both Ioana and Co. and Steve were funded!

Ioana, Gabe and Kevin submitted a proposal entitled "RUI: Probing Subatomic Physics Via Lepton Interactions" For the three years of the grant, they've been funded for $358,000.

Steve's proposal, "RUI: The Study of Photonuclear Physics with Polarized Beams and Targets" was funded for three years for a total of $171,000.

This means three more years of student research opportunities in nuclear physics. Three more years of student participation in nuclear research both on- and off-campus. And three more years of quality preparation of our students for entry into the workforce and graduate school.

Congratulations all around.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"STEM Sell" - April 7, 2010

Another airing of STEM Sell, the radio program devoted to issues in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, has come and gone. Our guest was Kristen St. John from JMU's Department of Geology and Environmental Science. From our perspective, the interview went by very rapidly and we found ourselves at the end with a lot of questions we still wanted to ask. Nevertheless, we were able to discuss her work in extracting and analyzing cores taken from deep sea beds. She's able to use those cores to study the Earth's climate for as far back as 100 million years! Too bad she gets seasick during those ocean voyages. We also discussed her ongoing efforts to improve curricular materials by incorporating inquiry-based learning techniques as well as up-to-date results from her research.

In addition to the interview with Kristen, Brian Utter and I discussed the following topics, often interspersed with stream-of-consciousness thoughts that had little bearing on the subject at hand:
- A report on how the United States government is considering establishing a free online database accessible by anyone for science publications that were partly or entirely funded by taxpayer dollars
- The synthesis of the nucleus of element 117, an element within an "island" of relative nuclear stability that exists around element 118
- Animals--small on our scale of life but visible to the naked eye, making them decidedly larger than microbial life--existing without oxygen in deep sea deposits at the bottom of the Mediterranean
- The surprisingly large costs of doing an internet search, thanks to the maintenance necessary for the huge numbers of dedicated servers
- A study published in the prestigious journal Nature that shows how pigeons in a flock follow the leader (I personally think this study is a candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize, thanks to the backpacks that researchers placed on the pigeons)
- The discovery on the Phillipine island of Luzon of a new species of lizard, heretofore unknown to science, that is about 2 meters long and, according to natives, is rather tasty
- The susceptibility of thousands of different protein molecules towards the development of fibrils along the "sticky" parts of the molecule and how that can lead to such conditions as Alzheimer's Disease
- The editor of the last of the non-peer reviewed journals in mainstream science literature, Medical Hypotheses, has been told that it's time to go to a peer reviewed system, which will disrupt the journal's reputation as being a resource for some more controversial ideas
- The search for what gave rise to the seeds of the weak but gigantic magnetic fields generated by galaxies

The next airing of STEM Sell is Wednesday, April 14th at 8:00 p.m. on WXJM 88.7. And please remember that you have a brain, don't be afraid to use it!