Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Banner Recruiting Season

As of the last update from Dr. Staib on Saturday afternoon, we have set a new record of 48 students scheduled to visit to sit for the scholarship exam. This exceeds our previous record by five, give or take.

Although there is another week of visits, it seems that our big day was Saturday (2/26) when 10 prospective students and their parents attended.

If you are one of those who wants to come and have not yet scheduled your visit, time's a'wastin'! It is much to early to know if the record turnout will lead to any increase in the freshman class of 2011. However, it is clear that we will have another strong class with many excellent students.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two planets found sharing one orbit - New Scientist

Two planets found sharing one orbit - space - 24 February 2011 - New Scientist

A summary of 132 launches

Not only is the shuttle the most complicated machine every built, it has the most complicated lift-off of any rocket.  As you can see in an earlier post, the main shuttle engines are not pointed straight down but rather at an angle to the thrust of the solid fuel rocket. This causes the entire shuttle to lift off at a bit of an angle.

Then there's the roll maneuver that starts just after clearing the tower. Then the jettison of the external tank and the release of the solid fuel rockets. Beautiful. Breath-taking. Awe inspiring.

Perhaps the future will bring us an even more amazing piece of technology. Don't hold your breath.

Salute the end of an era

Space exploration will never be the same. Many have spent their whole lives knowing that the shuttle Discovery will fly again soon. All good things come to an end.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Saturday Morning Physics Lecture 5: Let's Get Small: Studies in Nanophysics

This past Saturday, Feb 19, Profs. Chris Hughes, Scott Paulson and Costel Constantin presented the 5th lecture in our Saturday Morning Physics program. The title of their presentation was "Let's Get Small: Studies in Nanophysics". Approximately 50 students, teachers and parents learned about why nanoscience is so exciting! From hands on activities, like DNA origami which everyone loved, to having the 3 faculty members discuss their science, a great time was had by all. Slides and the video podcast of the event will be available on online at our facebook page and the department's SMP Outreach page.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to a close. This Saturday, Feb 26 at 9:30AM, Prof. Brian Utter will present the last talk entitled "Jamming, Avalanches, and Unpredictability: Nonlinear Dynamics and Complexity in Granular Flows". In the afternoon, we will have a special treat as Physics & Astronomy Chair, Prof. Steven Whisnant, will deliver the closing talk entitled "Outlook on College/Career Path in Physics". Please join us!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Saturday Morning Physics Lecture 4: Exploring Fundamental Ideas About How Our World Works: Tools and Challenges

Incredibly, our inaugural Saturday Morning Physics @JMU program is quickly coming to a close! This past Saturday, we had our 4th lecture in our 6 part series. Prof. Kevin Giovanetti gave a great talk on "Exploring Fundamental Ideas About How Our World Works: Tools and Challenges" to a large room of ~50 high school students, their parents, and even a few teachers. :)

You can find a podcast of his talk (don't miss his exploding pop can demonstration!), presentation slides and photos of the event at our Physics & Astronomy SMP Outreach webpage.

This coming Saturday, our 2nd last lecture (!) of the series, will feature Prof. Chris Hughes who will talk to us about Let's Get Small: Studies in Nanophysics. Nanotechnology/Nanoscience is one of the really "hot" areas in Physics today so this promises to be a great talk! Please join us this Saturday (Miller Hall, Room 1101) at 9:30 for Prof. Hughes' talk to learn more about this exciting area of research!

Monday, February 14, 2011

From Granular Flows to X-ray Emitting Pulsars

It may sound like a journey, and it may in fact be, but you are going to guess how that is done. Here, you're going to read about the astronomical end of this journey, which, may be a beginning in itself. Richard Knoche, one of our PandA seniors, sent us some notes on what he experienced while attending the 217th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the largest astronomical meeting where the science in hot, the schmoozing is essential, the students are promising. And all in spite of the fact that during the semester/class time, Richard's been concentrating on understanding various properties of the granular flow at JMU. Which only says: summers are special, and they deserve to be treated well, i.e., with some astrophysics.

Like one of those who saw the light, Richard undertook an REU appointment in astrophysics at NASA Goddard last summer. His enthusiasm and hard work won him a trip to Seattle to present his results, to meet other astronomy aficionado undergraduate and graduate students, and surprisingly even for him, to get new ideas about research he might pursue in the future:

Last summer I was lucky enough to have an internship at NASA Goddard. I worked on two projects there, one studying gamma ray bursts and the other studying x-ray emissions in pulsars, and was awarded a travel grant for my work. My research advisor and I decided it would be best to use the grant to present some of my findings at the national AAS conference in Seattle, so at the beginning of this semester I took a week off from school and flew across the country to my first big conference.

I wasn't sure what to expect before I arrived in Seattle, and was pretty nervous about how my presentation would go. Luckily, I had a day off before I presented so I had plenty of time to walk around and attend some of the talks and poster sessions. For the most part the talks covered subject matter that was a bit over my head, but it was still exciting to hear about the cutting edge research that was going on in astronomy. Even more exciting was the people I got to meet. I was able to meet plenty of other undergraduate students, current graduate students, professors, and even a Nobel Laureate; and each person I met had interesting and useful information to share about research, graduate school, or the conference itself.

The next day my presentation went off without a hitch. Foot traffic in the poster area was very busy, and there were plenty of people who seemed interested in my research. I was expecting the poster session to consist of me giving a similar presentation to people all day, and not getting much out of it for myself. However, I found that the researchers at the conference were much more engaging. Although there were some tough questions asked, there were plenty of people that shared insight into what would be interested to look into next with my research.

Overall the conference was a great experience. I learned a lot about graduate school, researching in astronomy, and even what I could do next with my own research. I'd definitely recommend going to a conference like this if any students are offered the opportunity.

Here is the big smile that proves what's been said above is true:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Recruiting season begins

This week begins the annual freshman recruiting season for PandA. Those of you that have been through the process will remember it well: the phone calls from Dr. Staib (still doing our recruiting after all these years!), the visit, the scholarship exam, lunch with faculty and the department tour.

Between now and the first week of March we will host perhaps 40 prospective students and their parents. Not all will choose to attend JMU. Our job is try to convince that they should be here. The range of research options and opportunities for getting involved in the freshman year is central to our pitch. We are the place to be in Virginia.

The university is continuing the Madison Achievement Awards (MAS) and the Second Century Scholarships and the department continues the Presidential and Gordon Scholarships. Altogether we have about 14 scholarships total to award! Given the size of our typical freshman class, this means that nearly 1/2 of the freshman class will be on scholarship. This is an amazing ratio.

We're looking for the best and brightest for in-state and out-of-state (the MAS are targeted to out-of-state students). The number and quality of applicants in recent years have make a clear impact on our program. These scholarships are having a clear effect. This year we will continue on this path of growth and improvement.

In the histogram at the right is distribution of the number of graduates from undergraduate only physics departments in the US for the 2009-2009 school year. This data is the most recent was collected by the American Institute of Physics. The largest department graduated 30. In 2010, we graduated 21. This growth and the steady improvement in the quality of students (both due, in part, to the number and quality of scholarships we have to award) mean we are slowly but surely on track to be one of the very larges undergraduate physics departments in the country.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Saturday Morning Physics Lecture 3: A Tale about Fundamental Ingredients of Our Universe and the Interactions Between Them

We are now half way through our inaugural 6-lecture program, Saturday Morning Physics at JMU!!

This morning Prof. Niculescu of JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy talked to us about "Building Blocks for the Budding Scientist: A Tale about Fundamental Ingredients of our Universe and the Interactions Between Them".

Podcast and pictures to follow!

Why Study Physics?

The American Physical Society has a very good web page that gives lots of reasons why it is to your advantage to study physics. I'll just highlight one here. The one you are thinking about. Money.

Consider this:
You will note that the starting salaries for physics majors is very competitive with all the highest starting salaries in fields like chemical and electrical engineering. Fields like chemistry and biology are distinctly lower. This makes physics an especially advantageous choice for those who are considering medical school. Even if you don't get in (and physics will improve your chances of doing this), you've have better prospects of a high paying job starting with physics.

You can learn more about what's good about a physics degree at the APS education web site.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Saturday Morning Physics Lecture 2: Unveiling Star Formation

This past Saturday, Professor Harold Butner gave a fascinating talk entitled "Tracing the Invisible: Star Formation Behind Closed Curtains" as part of the inaugural Saturday Morning Physics program. Well over 50 participants and their parents attended the talk and the accompanying planetarium show "Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity". The lecture was taped and will soon be available to be streamed online at:

You can also find photos from the event and Prof. Butner's slides at the same location.

This upcoming Saturday, Feb. 5, Prof. Gabriel Niculescu will deliver lecture 3 entitled "Building Blocks for the Budding Scientist: A Tale about Fundamental Ingredients of our Universe and the Interactions Between Them". You can find more details about this lecture and the remaining SMP lectures at as well as via our Facebook page at

Shanil Virani