Friday, December 23, 2011

Shanil Virani, Planetarium & Recruiting Director

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is delighted to announce that Shanil Virani will begin his duties full-time as Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium in January 2012. He brings planetarium experience both from Yale University as well as JMU. He is an enthusiastic and capable educator and is already working to move the planetarium program forward.

With our annual planetarium attendance near 10,000, there is already a vibrant program in place. Shanil already has many ideas for extending the reach of our programs both on- and off-campus. If you would like to discuss ideas for how the planetarium as a full-dome video facility, a star projection facility or as a unique auditorium can fit with your educational plans, please contact Shanil at

The Wells Planetarium is an amazing venue with capabilities unique among planetariums of its size. Come join Shanil in exploring the universe with the greater JMU community.

In addition to Shanil's duties in the planetarium, he is also charged with student recruiting. As many know, Dr. Jon Staib continues to orchestrate our winter recruiting/scholarship efforts that have done so much to grow our department into a nationally recognized program. However, since he retired several years ago, we've been living on borrowed time, hiring him part-time to continue with his successful approach.

This spring, Jon and Shanil will work together on the recruiting to pass the baton on to Shanil for the future. This combination of outreach and recruiting put Shanil in a central position to take our department to the next level in our quest to be the biggest, best and most amazing undergraduate physics department in the nation.

Join us in welcoming Shanil to his new position.

PandA Holiday Party

On the last day of classes, December 9, we hosted our annual department holiday party. As can be seen above, the pizza was a welcome component of the festivities.

Santa's helper, Dr. Butner, delivered a welcome round of joy and presents. The students also roasted presented gifts for the faculty.

A complete set of photos is found here.

As always the holiday video was met with howls of laughter and a good time was had by all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mystery of the Christmas Star

The John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU and the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy are pleased to present a special full-dome planetarium movie entitled "Mystery of the Christmas Star" beginning THIS FRIDAY & SATURDAY evenings at 7pm! This movie allows audiences to journey back 2000 years to Bethlehem in pursuit of a scientific explanation of the star the wise men followed to find the baby Jesus. This modern retelling of the Christmas story is sure to charm and captivate audiences of all ages. All shows are free and seats are first-come, first-seated! Each performance will be followed by a live star talk featuring the Harrisonburg night sky.

The John C. Wells Planetarium is located in Room 1103 of Miller Hall.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Astronomy at the Market II

If you missed Team Awestronomy at Harrisonburg's Farmers Market last Saturday... you missed another good show (wondering about our debut? it's been immortalized here)! The team had a rain (snow) check appearance for the event scheduled for October 29th, when the weather was just impossible for any solar view or relaxing conversations about the Sun, Galaxies, Binary Stars, Big Bang, the History of Astronomy, you name it, only it has to be astro-wise...

On November 5th, the day was gloriously sunny, and the expected (and existing) cold temperatures did not seem to bother anybody eager to watch the Sun in action and understand its whereabouts. And it paid off: there were three quite obvious flares a the edge of the solar circle, and two other little bunches (sunspots come in pairs, usually) smack in the middle, very clearly spotted with the ... sunspotter.

Witness the team in action:

Do you know why the team was there last Saturday, and will be there again next semester (planned for every last Saturday of the month, weather permitting)? Read this, they confessed:

Emil Christensen: The reason I wake up at eight AM on some of my Saturdays is for science. It may sound corny, but it is true nonetheless. I have a lot of fun with the team taking astronomy to the market. There is a great sense of camaraderie in our group, and it makes it that more of an enjoyable experience. Also, it gives me a chance to share what I know, and hey, who would't want to play with liquid nitrogen.

Anthony Saikin: My reasons for doing this:
-Its not everyday that you see a group of people out with a telescope, It truly sets a person's day apart from others.
-The public usually isn't that Astro-literate. It's nice to educate the public.
-The conversations wi
th people. Those who stop by often are interested in what we are doing there and sometimes the conversation will stray from Astronomy into some local science education issue, and how more opportunities for science education should be available.
-Its fun. Especially making Edible Comets, and serving them to people.

Jimmy Corcoran: I enjoy bringing Astronomy to the Farmer's Market because it's a great way to share and spread scientific knowledge within the Harrisonburg area. It surprises me everytime how many people, of every age, show their interest in science when given the opportunity.

Nathan DiDomenico: Science’s positive effects on society are numerous and sizeable. Along with other parts of our culture such as politics and fine art, science has sculpted our civilization into what it is today. Artists and politicians often have large groups of fans that they rely on for success , but the public seems removed from the process scientific discovery and therefore many feel apathetic towards the field of science. This cannot be allowed because progress in the scientific pursuits also relies heavily on how many fans it has. You don’t have to be a scientist to be a fan of science; you only need to recognize the benefits and beauty of scientific curiosity and discovery. The reason I am happy to bring astronomy to the market is because astronomy is a very astounding and wonderful field in science and I think that by talking about it with people I can play a small role in creating more fans of science.

Kyle Eskridge: Astronomy at the market is a good opportunity to get the community excited about astronomy and science in general. It is particularly good to get children excited about science because it may inspire them to one day become scientists or engineers which we could always use more of.

Thanks everyone for the smart questions and comments on how science fills up your everyday lives!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Support Don Chodrow

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is nominating Dr. Chodrow for the College of Science and Mathematics Teaching Award. Please send an e-mail to Dr. Scully ( telling why you think Dr. Chodrow deserves this award. How did having him for mechanics (or other courses) change your life, your career path, your understanding of physics? Time is short. Get your e-mail to Dr. Scully by November 1.

This is your chance to thank him for that mental kick he gave you to start you on the path to success. Help us help him get the recognition he deserves.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

3 Astronomers Share the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics!

This morning 3 American astronomers received the call of a lifetime when they were notified by the Nobel committee that they would share the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics!

Prof. Adam Riess of The John Hopkins University/Space Telescope Science Institute, Prof. Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/UC Berkeley and Prof. Brian Schmidt, an American now working at the Australian National University, were recognized “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble discovered that the Universe is expanding. He found that the further a galaxy is from us, the faster it moves away. If you play this movie backwards, it provides an independent piece of evidence that there was a Big Bang. Today, these 3 astronomers are being recognized for their 1998 discovery that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating and not linear like Hubble discovered. This accelerating expansion is being driven by a mysterious force called "Dark Energy" about which little is known except that it makes up ~70% of the Universe! The group that discovers what Dark Energy actually is will likely also win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

That these 3 astronomers won the Nobel Prize for their work is not surprising since it was recognized immediately after publication that their result has a profound significance on our understanding regarding the evolution of our Universe. Indeed, both teams shared the 2007 Peter Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize -- a gold medal and $500,000 -- and Science magazine dubbed their work as "The Breakthrough Discovery of the Year" in 1998.

Congratulations gentlemen on a very well-deserved honor!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

We took the Astronomy at the Market, literally.

One astro faculty and a group of astro students (you'll see exactly which ones soon) took the department's Coronado solar telescope at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market. Along with the telescope, they also sported asunspotter, also to catch the Sun of course, just a little bit differently, in a clearly safe and simple way. The group also "cooked" edible comets (tasting suspiciously like ice cream), and showed how they can form their tails when the future eater pretends to be the Sun and blows a bit of "solar" wind on them.

The kids enjoyed probing cratering on potential planets' surfaces with a variety of impactors (i.e., peebles). Imagine all these while we all talked a lot about astronomy:

The black holes were surely a hit, mainly because Nathan DiDomenico was there to answer the questions:

Kyle Eskridge mastered the Sun:

Jimmy Corcoran went extragalactic:

Anthony Saikin delighted audience with details about binary stars:

Emil Christensen illuminated on the history of astronomy, geo- vs helio-centric systems, telescopes, distances to stars, etc…

Anca Constantin featured the big bang and the history of the universe:

You can see here many more pictures with us and the curious people who surrounded us on that first day of October (also our 1st, and thus our debut with the "Astronomy at the Market" Show).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our first thin film obtained with the ALD reactor

Today marks the first successful thin film growth of Titanium Dioxide on Silicon substrate with the new ALD reactor built last summer in Dr. Costel Constantin's lab. This will enable us to grow oxide nanolayers or nanowires on semiconducting surfaces that can be used in building more efficient field effect transistors. A crucial role in this success were the efforts of Matthew Chamberlin, Kristen Deganais (REU student from University of Maryland Baltimore County), Bojan Ljubovic, and Renee Ahern who joined our group at the beginning of this semester. Renee helped a lot with setting up the ALD reactor for several growth attempts preceding today's growth.

... More on radiative polaritons at JMU!

On October 19-22 2011 the 78th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Section of the APS will take place at Virginia Tech. At the event, Anita Vincent-Johnson, undergraduate student in Physics at JMU, will present the results of the study she performed this summer under the guidance of Dr. Giovanna Scarel and in collaboration with Dr. James Hammonds of Howard University in Washington DC. The study investigated computationally and experimentally the dispersion relations of radiative polaritons in thin oxide films. The team was finally able to demonstrate the radiative nature of the polaritons excited in thin oxide films by infrared radiation. These results will have great impact on the ongoing effort of the team to exploit radiative polaritons for harvesting energy from infrared radiation.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Radiative polaritons at JMU!

Today Applied Physics Letter has published a paper reporting the discoveries made by a group of researchers at JMU. The paper is entitled “Heat recovery mechanism in the excitation of radiative polaritons by broadband infrared radiation in thin oxide films”. Anita Vincent-Johnson and John Bridstrup, undergraduate students in Physics, and Kyle Vasquez, who graduated in Chemistry last Spring, worked on the project between Summer 2010 and Summer 2011. Andrew Masters of Custom Thermoelectric (Bishopville - MD) developed the devices. Harry Hu contributed in improving the set up for the measurements. Giovanna Scarel led the team. The hope of the authors is that this research would trigger new work in buildig cells capable to harvest infrared radiation and convert it into electricity. Since infrared radiation is available day and night, the cells should work without interruption.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Superluminal Neutrinos

The paper reporting on the faster than light neutrinos observed at CERN is on the web. It is clear that is not a simple time-of-flight measurement. It is also clear that a tremendous amount of work went into measuring the times and determining the distance.

Fall Picnic

To start off the semester we enjoyed our annual fall picnic on Sunday afternoon September 18. We met at Purcel Park to enjoy the culinary delights grilled up by Costel Constantin. There was much good food brought and soccer for the ambitious.

See the full set of photos here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

JMU in the ALD firmament

On September 20 2011 the Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology A published the paper “Wetting properties induced in nano-composite POSS-MA polymer films by atomic layer deposited oxides”. The paper reports the work performed by the JMU students Kyle Vasquez and Anita Vincent-Johnson under the guidance of the JMU faculty Chris Hughes, Brian Augustine, and Giovanna Scarel. The JMU team worked in close collaboration with the partners at NCSU: Kyoungmi Lee and Gregory Parsons. This paper will be included in a special issue of JVSTA totally devoted to Atomic Layer Deposition and will introduce JMU in the ALD firmament!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Could relativity be wrong?

From LiveScience
Physicists have found that tiny particles called neutrinos are making a 454-mile (730-kilometer) underground trip faster than they should — more quickly, in fact, than light could do. If the results are confirmed, they could throw much of modern physics into upheaval.

If this is verified, hang on to your hat. The ride will be wild. Overturning the universal speed limit changes everything.

I suggest not betting heavily on this being true.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Do basketball like a theoretical physicist

Just in case you thought that theoretical physicists were only occupied with quarks, big bangs, phase changes, and Bose-Einstein condensates...think again. Alan Gabel and S. Redner at the Center for Polymer Studies and Department of Physics, Boston University have made an excellent examination of scoring in basketball. The abstract spells it out:
We present evidence, based on play-by-play data from all 6087 games from the 2006/07–2009/10 seasons of the National Basketball Association (NBA), that basketball scoring is well described by a weakly-biased continuous-time random walk. The time between successive scoring events follows an exponential distribution, with little memory between different scoring intervals. Using this random- walk picture that is augmented by features idiosyncratic to basketball, we account for a wide variety of statistical properties of scoring, such as the distribution of the score difference between opponents and the fraction of game time that one team is in the lead. By further including the heterogeneity of team strengths, we build a computational model that accounts for essentially all statistical features of game scoring data and season win/loss records of each team.
Now you can tell your friends you were studying physics the next time you watch an NBA game on TV.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Department Picnic

The annual Fall PandA picnic is Sunday September 18th at 1:00 PM. As usual, we will be in Purcel Park.

Come join us for the fun.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Matt's first paper has been accepted!

Matthew Chamberlin who worked (really HARD!) with Prof. Costel Constantin since 2010 will publish his first paper in the Material Research Society Symposium Proceedings Journal.

The paper is entitled “Zinc and Zinc Oxide Nanowires Grown on PEDOT:PSS/SiO2 Conductive Polymer Thin Films by Vapor Phase Transport Deposition” and a copy of the paper can be found here. Matt is very intrigued by neuroscience, and I hope this paper will encourage him to apply to graduate schools where he can pursue his dream.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How is Science Done?

We live in extraordinary times. We know that our Universe began with a Big Bang 13.76 billion years ago, plus or minus 0.11 billion years (~1% precision!). We have learned that we really don't know what ~96% of the Universe is made of (i.e., "dark matter" and "dark energy"). We have very strong observational evidence that not only does our own Milky Way Galaxy harbor a supermassive black hole, but that every galaxy has one. Big puzzles remain as to how they grow to their large masses, and why some black holes are active and some are dormant. These scientific results are all a consequence of the scientific method, exemplify how progress is made and our knowledge advanced.

But do all members of our society and media truly understand how science is done and its importance? Indeed, in the last blog entry, we talked about a Physics department in trouble at UNC-W and the need for more physicists. In an intriguing article published online today and making its way around the internet, an astronomer who was part of the team that recently found evidence for a "diamond planet" calls into question whether our society truly understands how science is done and the consequences it has for us. If you have not already read it, I encourage you to do so. You can find the article here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Physics Department in Trouble

The University of North Carolina-Wilmington has announced its plan for dealing with the 15.8% budget cut imposed on it by the state of North Carolina. Part of this is to merge the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography with the department of Geology and Geography to form one department. This will, according to the administration result in the saving of about $80,000/year due to the reduction of one administrator and one staff position.

There is a petition seeking to reverse this decision and you are urged to visit and read what others have said and express your opinion.

We need more rather than less physics in the world. Add you voice to those who are trying to preserve this educational opportunity for the UNC-W students.

Friday, September 02, 2011

What Students Think...

With the start of the new semester, students return to the classroom eager and excited to learn! Well, ok maybe not everyone. Nevertheless, students do walk into our classroom with preconceived notions about how the world works, some of which are just wrong. A classic example is the cause of the seasons, where in survey after survey, a majority of respondents claim the cause of our seasons is the changing Sun-Earth distance (not right!). Curious to learn what my students think when they hear the word "Astronomy", I asked my Astronomy 120 (The Solar System) students to write three words on an index card. The wordle below is the result of this exercise.

Wordle: Astronomy

Saturday, August 27, 2011

PandA Photo

On Friday, we took time to gather (nearly) everyone together for our annual department photo.

Standing, left to right:
Anca Constantin, Deepshikha Shukla, Kevin Giovanetti, Costel Contantin, Gabriel Niculescu, Art Fovargue, Shanil Virani, Shaleen Shukla, Chris Hughes, Mark Mattson, Giovanna Scarel, Harry Hu and Steve Whisnant.

Seated, left to right:
Sean Scully, Ioana Niculescu, Harold Butner, Brian Utter, Scott Paulson, Klebert Feitosa, Adriana Banu, Geary Albright and Kim Emerson.

Not present:
Don Chodrow and Elizabeth Jeffery.

We have an amazing and diverse faculty. Our size is impressive, comparable even to some PhD granting institutions. We are up to 21 full-time faculty now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Nanoparticles and atomic layer deposition

A team of researcher from NCSU and JMU has discovered a method to fabricate FePt nanoparticles using atomic layer deposited Al2O3! The paper is published online by Nanoscale: A.C. Johnston-Peck, G. Scarel, J. Wang, G.N. Parsons, and J.B. Tracy, “Sinter-free phase conversion and scanning transmission electron microscopy of FePt nanoparticle monolayers”. G. Scarel - JMU - has deposited the Al2O3 layers.

For us, its tomorrow...

While students are flocking in (except for freshmen, who are already here) this weekend for classes to start on Monday, for the faculty, it begins tomorrow. We have a day filled with the joy of meetings: all faculty in the university followed by a college meeting and finally one for the department.

On the other hand, we do get fed twice, once by the university and once by the college. But by the department meeting we're all full and just ready to go home. Thus, it starts with a meeting of mostly announcements and is over pretty quickly. There will be another department photo this year, so watch for this next on the blog.

So, all you students and former students, just realize that the work starts sooner for us (and in May lasts longer). While you are out having the last party before classes this weekend, we're having a last fling as well home making final preparations for class and getting our syllabi and notes in order.

Welcome back. See you on Monday.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Spend your money on "Awesome"

This morning one of our 1985 graduates, Gregory Meeks, send along a link to a video that gives a good explanation what NASA is doing and why it should be supported. Gregory is the NASA Liaison to the State of Florida and works at the Kennedy Space Center.

Thanks to Gregory for passing this along

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Phys 105

This fall we have 33 enrolled in Phys 105. This isn't quite a record, but it is within a few of our largest class. According to the declared degree programs and majors for these folks we have

  • 1 major pursuing a BA degree, 32 in the BS program.
  • 2 majors in the pre-physician assistant program.
  • 3 in the pre-med program.
  • 1 in pre-law
  • 1 in pre-professional secondary education
  • 8 are women
The pre-professional students in the program indicate that the word is getting out that physics is the best place to start such a career. We are trying a combination of making this explicit in the catalog and educating the orientation advisors.

Secondary education and the BA degree continues to appear in very small numbers. Nevertheless, they are still present. With a new effort starting this fall to encourage students into teaching, having only one on the list now is not indicative of the graduation rate down the road four years. The BA degree, in its current incarnation, will always be appealing to a small number of students.

Perhaps most encouraging is the presence of 8 women in the class (yeah!). This puts us at just shy of 1/4 of the class being female. This is a strong showing and is just a bit on the high side of the national norm.

Since Phys 105 meets on a Tuesday in a 75 minute time slot, we are going to start taking full advantage of this and schedule two faculty presentations in most class meetings. Thus, instead of a 50 minute presentation on one topic, we'll get two 35-minute discussions by two different people. This way, the entire faculty fits into the semester with room left over for pizza and demos.

Looking forward to the beginning of an exciting new year.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

JMU Researchers Get Gold to Stick to Plastic

Getting gold film to adhere to plastics is a tricky task. Finding a sure-fire, low-cost way to accomplish it would be a real breakthrough for a number of industries from biomedicine to computer chip manufacturers. Professors Brian Augustine (JMU Chemistry) and Chris Hughes (PandA), along with students they advised, are on to something.  Check out their story in the latest issue of  Madison Scholar.

Another way to look at things...

Information is routinely posted here about the size of our major as measured by the number of students. Today we look at the number of faculty. Consider the chart above. This shows the average size of physics departments in the US sorted by the highest degree granted. A data point has been added to show the current size of our department at 21. While individual departments vary in size and finding a few much larger than the average is possible, we are larger than the average size of both BS and MS granting departments by a lot.

For every MS granting department our size, there must be, on average, two with 7 or 8 faculty. It gets hard to imagine a successful MS program with a faculty this small. For every BS granting department our size there must be 7 with, on average, 4 faculty. Departments this size certainly do exist and are quite common.

This puts us in rare company, indeed.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Now for some good news!

Since I fear that the last post left everyone feeling kinda down about the whole business of studying physics and having a rewarding career, consider this from

Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees. Typical starting graduates have 2 years of experience; mid-career have 15 years. See full methodology for more.

In case you were worried about studying physics at JMU, fret no more. Nearly everyone of the career paths opened by these degrees is available to a physics grad. And even physics is doing pretty good. Except for petroleum engineering, the mid career salaries are all with errors. Who wants to crawl about on an oil rig any way!?

This kind of plot sorts many things into one pile. The 'physics' category must include all us academic types who don't really get paid $100,000/year. (We wish!) That means there must be lots of jobs out there with even better paying jobs.

Buck up campers! The world is a good place for physicists.

Just so you don't feel that I've shorted the other sciences, here they are

DegreeStarting Median PayMid-Career Median Pay

Physics $49,800 $101,000

Applied Mathematics $52,600 $98,600

Mathematics $47,000 $89,900

Geology $45,300 $83,300

Chemistry $42,000 $80,900

Biology $37,900 $71,900

Microbiology $38,500 $70,100

With these options, what will you choose?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hard Times for Physics Departments

In these uncertain economic times, physics departments are among the first places states and universities look for budget savings. Enrollment is typically low and laboratory based programs are expensive. Here at JMU we are fortunate to be a large department that is thriving in spite of the troubles. However, we have neighbors that are struggling to survive.

The July issue of the American Journal of Physics has an editorial in which the authors, Anura Goonewardene, Marian Tzolov, Indrajith Senevirathne and Donald Woodhouse, describe a new nanotechnology minor and applied physics track in the major at Lock Haven University. With this addition, they are finding success in growing their program and staying alive.

Although their success is to be applauded, the background against which this effort is undertaken is scary.
In Pennsylvania, according to this article, there are 14 universities. Of these, one does not have a physics major and one of the remaining 13 is closing in 2012. The article states that the state of Pennsylvania says,
Programs that averaged less than 6 students per year for the past 5 years are deemed “low enrolled” and are subject to review.
Of the 12 currently continuing departments, 9 are in danger. The authors note
The remaining programs are scrambling to develop strategies for survival, including collaboration with other schools and online delivery of low-enrolled upper division courses to reduce costs. If fewer than 6 graduates per year becomes the criterion for a low-enrolled program, 73% of the 505 bachelor’s-only degree granting institutions in the U.S. is “under enrolled.” Some, if not many, of these programs might be eliminated or significantly scaled back to the status of a “service” discipline unless they take active steps to increase enrollment. In these times the benefits to students of a thriving physics program are often secondary to the bottom line. 
This is a terrifying prospect for physics in this country.

Although we graduated only 13 this year, we have been averaging 18-20 in recent years and there's reason to believe that the 2012 graduating class will be of a size more typical for us. Nevertheless, being among the top ten largest undergraduate departments in the nation with graduating classes still in the teens is worrisome.

Physics programs are always small. It is not a topic for everyone -- we understand that. Let's just hope that legislatures realize before it is too late that even graduating small numbers, physics departments make a significant impact on our increasingly high-tech economy. If success is only measured by dollars spent and seats filled in a classroom, we are all in trouble.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tantalizing Possibilities at CERN

ATLAS and CMS at CERN are reporting:

Scientists may have caught their first glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson, which is thought to give mass to the basic building blocks of nature.
Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particlephysics lab near Geneva, announced the findings at a conference on Friday.

Perhaps this time it will persist in the data and will be the real thing.

A Blog Addition

A new feature has been added to the blog - Apture. This is a web site enhancement app that makes it possible to explore topics more easily. Now, if you highlight a word or phrase, you will see a "Learn More" button. If you click (or even hover over) the button, you'll get a new window with the results of a search on that topic. It will also search the blog to show (possibly) relevant information. If a word or phrase is selected often enough, it will automatically be given an underline and be turned into a link for everyone.

Fun for everyone! Those who know what the phrase means already can laugh at the stupid web answer and those who don't get to learn something. Great fun for all.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Save Your (and My) Telescope!!!

So yesterday was the last shuttle launch. To the crew of STS-135: the last safe travels!

You know what else happened in the past day or so? The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has recommended: “$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level." The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This is not the end of JWST, but it is no good news.

While it is undeniable that the project has had large cost overruns and is behind schedule, it is also very clear that the project, once complete, will be a tool of enormous worth to the (world-wise, not only the U.S.) scientific community — and, through them, to the general population.

In case you wondered (from

JWST is recognized as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and will ensure US leadership in space astronomy for the next decade. The telescope is the cornerstone of future space astronomy and is the foundation upon which the 2010 Astronomy Decadal Survey, "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics", was built.
  • JWST will see the first stars and galaxies, and follow the Universe's ionization history.
  • JWST will study the assembly and evolution of galaxies and their dark matter, stars, and metals.
  • JWST will find liquid water on planets around other stars.
  • JWST will reveal the births of stars and planetary systems.

  • JWST is the “Hubble” for the next generation of young scientists and engineers. Its research accomplishments and images will be equally profound and the discoveries will be just as unimaginable. JWST will explore the Universe beyond what Hubble could see. Much like it happened with the Hubble Space Telescope when it was designed and lunched, many things JWST will find are so revolutionary they’re simply beyond our ability to predict.

    There are so so so many reasons for which it would be senseless to throw away the $3 billion already spent on JWST and to forego discoveries we can only imagine right now. To see just a few (in plain English):

    Here's a list of members for the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee who recommended that the JWST be stripped of funding:
    And here's how to contact each member:
    Every email, call, and letter counts!

    fyi: here is The American Astronomical Society (AAS) response to the possible cancellation of the JWST:

    Atlantis is Away!

    STS-135 is underway...Atlantis is in orbit.

    You can follow the mission at NASA.

    Hope to have a video of the launch to post later.

    UPDATE: Here's the promised video.

    Monday, July 04, 2011

    Job Search Now Open

    A search is now underway for a position that combines two critical components of our departments activities. The successful candidate will be responsible moving us forward with our astronomy outreach programs and for orchestrating our annual recruiting efforts. The review date is set for September 10 and, with any luck, we will have a new person in place by January. Just in time to learn the recruiting ropes from Jon Staib.

    If you happen to be interested, applications are submitted online.

    Sunday, July 03, 2011

    Freshman Class

    According to the June 28 numbers from the folks in Freshman Orientation, we have 28 freshman majors coming this fall. Another good class coming in.

    Saturday, July 02, 2011

    It seems that there is a movement in the math world that is slowing gaining some attention. The idea is that , the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, should be replaced by , the ratio of the circumference to the radius. This replacement, argued by Bob Palais, is much more natural and leads to frequent simplification in many cases. For example, 1/4 of a circle is radians not . Using , the fractions always match making it easier to remember and avoid mistakes. There are also many math and physics equations where  appears (for example:  ) that are simpler to write and read with this substitution. Euler's equation, , becomes , a much nicer thing to write.

    OK. So you are not convinced. Consider this: With this substitution, we have  day instead of (in addition to?)  day. this moves the celebration to June 28th. March is cold and we're all in school. June is warm and we're all on the beach (mentally at least) and it is clearly a much better day to be celebrating.

    If you are still not convinced, give this a look. This is a video of  being set to music. It is really quite nice.

    Fine. So we we won't be switching to  any time soon. But it is good to know that the mathematicians are thinking about such things and preparing the world for ever more rational thought.

    I wonder if we can find a way to set Newton's laws or Maxwell's equations to music? The lagrangian for Quantum Chromodynamics (that describes the strong interaction) might just be a delight to hear.

    And, lest you think that you'd have to go relearn  in place of  and are worried since you've got  to 20 or 30 digits, consider the plight of this young woman...

    Atlantis lifts off on July 8.

    Last time.

    Last one.


    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    New Possibilities on the Horizon

    On Friday Giovanna Scarel and Steve Whisnant attended a meeting in Newport News at Jefferson Lab to learn about current facilities and new ideas for light sources. JLab currently has a free-electron laser (FEL) that can produce light in the wavelength range from microns to about about 300 nm. In addition to this facility, there is a plan developing to build a new, so-called, Next Generation Light Source (NGLS) that can provide light (not coherent in this case) up into the soft x-ray region. This facility will provide unprecedented brightness and luminosity.

    What is really interesting about this idea is that it would put a world-class light source a short drive from JMU. This will make it possible to expand the horizons of our faculty and students to explore the world in new ways. We are at the beginning of the process. Much work to do to make this happen.

    Wednesday, June 08, 2011

    And now for a change of reference frame...

    This video of a camera attached to a hula-hoop gives a nice perspective of how the world looks from a different reference frame. Think of this as the person in the middle representing the sun and the spot on the hula-hoop representing the earth. From the perspective of the person in the middle, the motion is fairly simple and easy to understand. From the perspective of the camera, life is quite different.

    Of course, with multiple planets all moving at different speeds around the sun, the motion of the solar system appears to be much more complicated from the earth. We see planets that appear to move sometimes faster, sometimes slower, and sometimes even in reverse. Add to this the motion of the moons around the planets and the solar system is an apparently complicated place indeed.

    However, if you put the camera in the right place it all gets easy to understand.

    Thursday, June 02, 2011

    The passing of Maurice Goldhaber...

    From the LA Times...

    Maurice Goldhaber, one of the pioneers of modern physics whose experiments helped create the current understanding of how the world works, died May 11 at his home on Long Island, N.Y., after a short illness. He had celebrated his 100th birthday less than a month earlier.

    Goldhaber was "one of the world's most distinguished nuclear and particle physicists," the U.S. government said in 1998 when it presented him the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. His innovative and thought-provoking experiments provided much of the foundation for the standard model of physics that now paints our view of the universe, and his leadership and vision as head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory during the 1960s led to three Nobel Prizes in Physics for the Long Island institution.

    Wednesday, June 01, 2011

    Endeavour is Home

    Endeavour safely home while Atlantis is being moved to the launch pad. One step closer to the end.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011

    Summer has begun!

    Well, OK, not by the calendar, officially. However, the students appeared today to start the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) season and the rest of the faculty funded separately from this materials science program are also up to full speed.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    Goodbye Spirit

    More signs of the changes in the wind...

     Spirit, the scrappy robot geologist that captivated the world with its antics on Mars before getting stuck in a sand trap, is about to meet its end after six productive years.
    Spirit has been incommunicado for more than a year despite daily calls by NASA. The cause of Spirit's silence may never be known, but it's likely the bitter Martian winter damaged its electronics, preventing the six-wheel rover from waking up.

    See the full story at the NYT. 

    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Last Launch of Endeavour

    Today the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted gracefully into space for the last time. A beautiful and impressive event.

    From the NASA web site:

    The crew members for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission are Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori. 

    During the 16-day mission, Endeavour and its crew will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and spare parts including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank and additional spare parts for Dextre.

    The final flight honors go to Atlantis on STS-135. The target date for the launch is June 28.

    Friday, May 13, 2011

    A Better Way To Teach Physics?

    Tell someone that you're an 'astrophysicist' and the reaction that I typically get is "physics?! You must be so smart to spend your life studying that subject. I hated physics in school.” Of course, momentary ego-boost aside, what you're really being told is that these otherwise intelligent folks had a frustrating, intimidating experience with a subject I love. So how best to teach physics?

    Usually faculty teach physics the way they were taught. Hey, if it was good enough for them, it's good enough for you too! But this traditional "teaching-by-telling" or "sage-at-the-stage" approach just doesn't work! Over the past several years, much research has been done to determine how students learn and how best to teach them (much of it lead by physicists!). The model that has emerged is one in which students are engaged and are active participants in the classroom rather than passive note-takers. One popular method used here at JMU and other institutions is via "clickers" (remote polling devices) to gauge student understanding and to identify misconceptions immediately. The idea is to confront students head-on with their misconceptions so that you can replace the incorrect model they have in their mind with the correct one. Many studies have shown this "intense engagement" to better performance as measured on tests, and one would hope, better understanding. However, as you might imagine, there are many questions that arise in determining whether this active method is truly better than the lecture method.

    In a research article published in today's Science, a group of investigators purport to provide a "clean comparison" between the active, student-centered approach versus the traditional, teacher-led approach. The research was conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is led by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman. Wieman has devoted the past decade to improving undergraduate science instruction, using methods that draw upon the latest research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and learning theory. What they did was take two large first-year introductory engineering physics classes (one class had 267 students while the other had 271) and teach one section using this "deliberative practice" approach (really just means clickers plus group tasks) while the other section was taught by a "motivated faculty member with high student evaluations" using the standard lecture format. Before the experiment, the instructors for both sections agreed to cover the same unit on electromagnetic waves and on what learning objectives would be covered. A typical 50-min class in the experimental section consisted of a clicker question, instructor feedback, another clicker question, more feedback from the instructor but students can then discuss and change their vote. This was followed by a group task with a demonstration and another clicker question. After 1 week (3 1-hour classes), both sections were given the same 12-question multiple choice test. The students in the "active" section scored more than twice as well as those in the "passive" control section. Just as importantly, 90% of the respondents in the "active" classroom agreed with the statement "I really enjoyed the interactive teaching techniques during the three lectures on E&M waves". So how physics is taught does make a difference!

    This is an interesting result and clearly more work is left to be done! To read more about this work, check out this article from Science Now which summarizes the work and its impact. The New York Times presents a more critical review of the work.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Unbelievable View of Our Galaxy

    What would you see if you could see at levels thousands of times more faint than the dimmest star? That's the question that astrophotographer Nick Risinger set to answer. The result, after stitching together nearly 37,500 exposures, is a 5,000 megapixel photograph of the entire sky. What dominates is our beautiful, Milky Way Galaxy, home to our Sun and our solar system.

    What an incredible mosaic! Check it out:

    Posters in California

    On May 2, James Hauver and William Henderson presented posters on their work from the summer of 2010 on photoneutron production with polarized gamma rays. Linearly polarized gamma rays provide a new window into these reactions and are particularly interesting for the student of fissile nuclides.

    The targets Jimmy and William studied are Ta and Sn. The interesting observable is the ratio of the neutron yield in the plane of polarization divided by the yield at right angles to the beam polarization direction. This ratio, R, is a function of photon and neutron energy and provides a characteristic response for nuclei that is often enough different from other nuclei that some identification of the target can be made. This is particularly true for fissile material.

    More targets will be studied this summer including La, Ce, Dy, and Hg.