Saturday, February 20, 2010

What do physics majors do when they graduate?

Anything they want to!

Perhaps a more complete and useful answer is found in lots of places on the web. For example, WorldWideLearn has a nice discussion of physics and notes that

[W]hile some physics majors go on to become professional physicists, the majority pursue careers in fields where they can put their knowledge to more practical applications. Nearly 90 percent of all "physicists" are working in medicine, education, industry, or other professions.

With their skills in problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, computer programming, and organizing and interpreting scientific data, physics grads can move into government and industrial jobs that require an ability to think logically and creatively. Physics majors are well-suited to jobs that require step-by-step problem solving using math skills and good observational and communicational skills.

Some of the better-known careers for physics majors include academic and industrial research, electronics, alternative energy development, communications or the vital area of medical physics. Physicists are in demand for their analytical skills in many financial, fund management and research roles, in law, as weather forecasters, computer programmers, and as physics and science teachers.
The Canadian Association of Physicists notes that
Despite popular belief, physics graduates are actually highly sought after employees. A physics education emphasizes problem solving and abstract thinking and this training makes physics graduates very desirable employees in a wide variety of areas including education, finance, and journalism. These fundamental skills as well as training in practical subjects such as optics, lasers, computer interfacing, image processing and electronics also make them very desirable employees in high tech companies.
and the American Physical Society offers guidance for deciding what is the right career choice for you along with advise on how to get there. Included in the advice on how to maximize your undergraduate experience is the following points.

  • Take lots of science and math courses
  • Get involved in research as early as possible
  • Get to know your professors
  • Join the Society of Physics Students

PandA@JMU is ideally suited to pursuing these goals:

  • As a large undergraduate department, we can offer a wide variety of courses for our students. There are several courses that we take turns teaching with the math department.
  • Our students commonly get involved in research in the summer after their freshman year and some even start in their second semester.
  • All your physics (and astronomy) classes at JMU are taught by full-time faculty. You will get to know them (and they will get to know you) very well. Perhaps better than you wish!
  • We have an active SPS chapter that engages our students in lots of fun activities.
Bottom line...a physics major can be anything you want to be and JMU is ideally suited to getting you there.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Liquid Hydrogen at JMU

In the process of preparing high purity Hydrogen Deuteride (HD) for the production of frozen spin-polarized targets for the study of the nucleon (protons and neutrons), the gas is liquified and distilled in a unique low temperature distillery.

What you see in the photo above is a webcam view of the liquid hydrogen in the distillery. The still is equipped with narrow windows on either side for viewing the liquid. The webcam comes with with a fixed focus lens so an additional lens is added and held at the right distance with a cardboard tube...hence the circular vignette. This permits a close focus on the boiling liquid. On either side of the window is a frame held in place with bolts. The liquid is seen boiling away between the middle two pairs of bolts.

The top of the distillation column is held at 17K at the moment and the bottom of the still, near where this photo is taken is near 25K. The liquid is being caused to boil by the application of heat by passing a current through a resistor on the bottom of the still. The heater power is set at about 1 W. Liquid hydrogen appears to have a viscosity close to that of water and is colorless.

Just not something you see every day.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

People are Beginning to Notice...

Every so often, PandA must go through an extensive self-study process and review by an external comittee. The external review happened in the spring of 2009. As a direct result, some good things are beginning to happen.

One of the external reviewers was Dr. Ruth Howes. She is one of the PI's on the SPIN-UP project. The Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) is organized by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics. The Task Force received support for SPIN-UP from the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and a generous grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation. Between 2000 and 2002, visits were made to 20-odd physics departments that were deemed to be "thriving" to try to learn about what makes them so. Now the SPIN-UP folks are trying to use what they learned to help others departments also thrive.

One of the observations in the initial study was that the number of graduates (and total number of students) and their increase is a pretty good surrogate for other less easily measured characteristics of a thriving department. Given that our number of majors has grown from a bit over 60 in 2001 to about 110 now, we are identified as a thriving department.

As a result of Dr. Howes' visit to learn about our department, Dr. Whisnant was invited to discuss our program at a SPIN-UP workshop in Raleigh, NC, September 11-13, 2009. This went very well. This all leads to the current news...

On February 15th, Our department will once again be showcased as an example of a thriving department. This time it is at the joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society in Washington, DC. This gives us a national forum to tell everyone about the good things that are going on here.

So, we've arrived on a national stage as an example of what a vibrant undergraduate department can be. To give just a flavor of the progress we've made in the last decade:
  • Since 2000, the number of majors has doubled.
  • Since 2000, the number of graduates/year has tripled.
  • Since 2000, the number of faculty has doubled.
  • In 2008, our faculty brought in over $3.3M in external grants to support research with our undergraduates.
  • We've added an astronomy park, the planetarium underwent a major upgrade, added astronomy to the department name, moved to a new building, and we're about to initiate a major new track in applied nuclear physics.
  • According to the number of graduates, the 2008 AIP report places JMU ranked 9th (13 departments larger) among undergraduate only institutions and 30th (70 departments larger) among all physics departments in the US.
There's no telling what might happen as a result of this new opportunity to tell everyone about our department.