Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bad Science Night at JMU's Planetarium!

“The only way to save Earth from catastrophe is to drill down to the core and set it spinning again.”

The science in this "so bad it's kind of cool" movie speculates what might happen to us if the Earth lost its magnetic field. It turns out that the magnetic field of the Earth is changing, and the Earth’s magnetic field does protect us from charged particles in the solar wind, but the movie is not scientifically accurate.

We’ll enjoy some snacks and drinks, watch the movie on the big dome in 5.1 surround sound, make fun of the bad Hollywood science, and then talk about what really happens when the Earth’s magnetic field flips over every few million years.

Interested? RSVP:

Thursday, April 7 @ 7pm, Miller Hall

Our Blog Activity is Growing

With our busy and productive semester and the activity on the blog, our hits have reached new heights! Eleven more views before midnight and we'll break 1000 for the month of March. This may not seem like a lot but it is a milestone for us.

Thanks for your support. We are working to bring more information about PandA and our students. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

NanoDays/Making Stuff Event Was A Success!

Despite the snowy weather, NanoDays/Making Stuff event was a success! More than 240 visitors came today to Please Explore More Museum (downtown Harrisonburg) to enjoy our science show. The people who made this possible were: Dr. Costel Constantin, Dr. Brian Augustine, Dr. Chris Hughes, Dr. Scott Paulson, and students Chris Durcan, Richard Knoche, Jake Carrey, James Hauver, Anthony Speziale, John Birdstrup, Anita Vincent-Johnson, Benjamin Foltz, Kyle Vasquez, Victoria Brown, Bojan Ljubovic, Collin Wilson, and Denise Mackenzie.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

PandA Symposium 2011

On Saturday, March 19, PandA hosted the annual department symposium at which our students present their research from the past year. This year was another excellent year. In addition to a fine collection of student researchers, we were honored by a visit from Dr. Michael Vogeley, the director of the physics graduate program at Drexel University. He presented the seminar on Friday afternoon entitled ''Neighborhoods in the Universe'' that focused on results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

The best of the best are selected by the faculty and recognized at the annual honors banquet, this year to be on April 6. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners this year are:
  1. Matthew Chamberlin
    Zn and ZnO Nanowires Grown on PEDOT-PSS Thin Films Conductive Polymers by Physical Vapor Deposition
    Faculty Mentor: Dr. Costel Constantin

  2. Nathan DiDomenico
    The Spectral Properties of Galaxies with H20 Maser Emission
    Faculty Mentor: Dr. Anca Constantin

  3. Catherine Nisson and Matthew Burton
    PMT and Scintillator Testing for the Super High Momentum Spectrometer at Jefferson Lab
    Faculty Mentor: Dr. Gabriel Niculescu
Photos of the event make clear that we had a strong collection of presentations and a good time was had by all.

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    JMU Teacher Nano Working Group and Explore More Discovery Museum Team Up for NanoDays 2011 on Sunday, March 27.

    Local high school educators, JMU Nanotechnology faculty, and the Explore More Discovery Museum are partnering for the first annual NanoDays Celebration on Sunday, March 27 from 1 - 4 pm at the Explore More Discovery Museum in downtown Harrisonburg.

    NanoDays is an annual event developed by science museums around the country through the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Network). The first NanoDays events were started in 2008 to enhance public awareness of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

    NanoDays celebrations will combine simple hands-on activities for children with events exploring current research for adults. NanoDays activities demonstrate different, unexpected properties of materials at the nanoscale -- sand that won’t get wet even under water, water that won’t spill from a teacup, and colors that depend upon particle size.

    Faculty and students from JMU will be on hand to answer questions about nanomaterials, nanotechnology and current research in nanoscience.

    High school faculty are also going to host NanoDays Celebrations during the first week of April at their respective schools.

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    Introducing the JMU Physics Podcasts!

    Are you teaching a non-calculus freshman physics class or even AP Physics at a High School? Or perhaps you are a student taking the traditional 2-semester survey course in physics and you are looking for help on how to solve a homework problem. For example, perhaps you have struggled with mastering the "right hand rule" to find the magnetic force or still find it difficult to apply Kirchoff's rules to a closed circuit to find the current through a given device. If so, our new JMU Physics Podcasts are just the thing for you!

    JMU Physics alumnus Robert Turner (and current Science and Math Learning Center Physics tutor) and I are pleased to introduce a new set of short (~5-10 min) video podcasts covering some of the introductory material found in the 2nd semester of such a course (ie, Physics 150 here at JMU which covers electricity, magnetism, optics, etc). As the semester continues, we will add to this growing library. Our intent is to model for our viewers problem solving techniques that a student can then apply on their own to solve their homework problems. For instructors, these podcasts provide your students with the opportunity to see how they can apply the theoretical material they have learned in class to real physics problems.

    Feel free to link to these videos on your blackboard or course website if you are an instructor! And by all means, please email us suggestions if there is particular content that you would like us to cover in a subsequent podcast! Our current library of podcasts (as well as links to them on JMUtube) are listed below.

    Shanil Virani

    JMU Physics Podcast #1: Current & Circuits

    JMU Physics Podcast #2: Simplifying Resistor Circuits

    JJMU Physics Podcast #3: Capacitors & Simple Circuits

    JMU Physics Podcast #4: Kirchoff Circuit Analysis

    JMU Physics Podcast #5: Magnetic Force

    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    Happy Vernal Equinox Day!!

    Otherwise known as the start of Spring.

    Today at 7:21pm EDT will officially mark the end of Winter and the start of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite is true: today marks the end of their summer and the start of their fall.

    Astronomically, what does this mean?? The Earth's rotational axis is tilted by ~23.5 degrees with respect to the plane of the "ecliptic" (the apparent path the Sun takes across the sky over a year as seen from Earth). BTW it is precisely this tilt which is the cause of the seasons (NOT due to changes in distance)!! If we now imagine extending the Earth's equator out onto the night sky (the "celestial sphere"), and call this the "celestial equator", the equinoxes mark the 2 times in the year that the ecliptic and the celestial equator intersect. In March, we call this the vernal equinox, and in the fall, we call it the autumnal equinox. The consequences of this intersection are:

    1) Today we will have approximately equal hours of daylight and darkness. As we get closer to summer, our hours of sunlight increases until we reach the Summer Solstice (the highest point the Sun will reach in our sky; see diagram). This pattern is symmetrical in that we will again have equal hours of daylight/darkness at the autumnal equinox.

    2) On this day, the Sun rises due East and sets due West. Various cultures built structures to keep track of the Sun's motion -- really a calendar! Indeed, one of theories that attempt to explain what Stonehenge is has to do with its ability to predict the equinoxes and the solstices.

    For us Northerners, the start of Spring is welcomed as it marks the beginning of warm, sunny weather full of colors as flowers blossom and trees bloom. It also tells us we survived the end of an another cold, snowy winter. For me, it reminds me of the start of the major league baseball season (Go Blue Jays!) and that beach weather is right around the corner!

    To learn more, consider attending one of our public star talks at JMU's John C. Wells Planetarium! We have exciting dome shows every Saturday at 2:30 and 3:30, followed by star talks, during the school year.

    Shanil Virani

    Saturday, March 19, 2011

    Messenger Satellite Reaches Mercury!

    MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging), a NASA satellite launched in August 2004 has finally reached its destination: Mercury, the innermost planet in our solar system. This is only the second spacecraft in our history to reach Mercury! Mariner 10 in 1974-1975 flew past the planet; MESSENGER will actually orbit Mercury to carry out its scientific mission.

    MESSENGER reached its intended orbit earlier this week, on March 17, and engineers will take the next few weeks to check out all 8 instruments and spacecraft systems. On April 4, the mission's scientific phase will begin. Exciting times for planetary science!

    The spacecraft's arrival at Mercury is fortuitously timed with our ability to see the planet in the twilight sky! As the Sun sets, look west. The bright "star" that will catch your eye is actually Jupiter, but just near it lies Mercury which is a little dimmer than Jupiter (see this link for more info on where to look).

    Viewing Mercury with the naked eye is a rare treat for even the seasoned amateur astronomer so don't miss this opportunity! And as you look at the planet, just imagine a human-made spacecraft orbiting that planet for the first time getting a slightly better view of our innermost planet!

    Shanil Virani

    Friday, March 18, 2011

    Don't Miss Tomorrow's "Super Moon"!

    By now, you've probably heard of various media reports touting tomorrow's "Super Moon". Why all the hype? Is it even really a "super moon"?!

    The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is not a perfect circle; it is slightly elongated meaning that there are times when the Moon is closer to the Earth than it is at other times in its orbit (see this diagram). Tomorrow's full moon just happens to coincide when the Moon reaches its closest point to Earth in its orbit (termed "perigee").

    What effect does this have for tomorrow's full moon? Some calculations suggest that the Moon will appear 14% bigger and 30% brighter than when the Moon is at its furthest point from Earth ("apogee"). Moreover, apparently this rare alignment of a full moon coinciding at perigee only happens every ~19 years although the last such event was just 3 years ago. It's not clear how this 19 year period was calculated. A better question to ask is will you notice a larger moon tomorrow night compared to last month's full moon or next month's full moon. Here the answer is probably no. Still, if this event gets people outside to enjoy our night sky that is slowly disappearing because of light pollution, then I think that's "mission accomplished"! So if it is a clear night tomorrow, make sure you do take a moment to step outside, look up and enjoy this celestial treat!

    When you do, the bright object to the lower left of the Moon is the ringed planet Saturn! And below Saturn, will be the bright star Spica!

    NOTE: Be careful of the bad science reports you may have seen online suggesting this rare alignment triggers natural disasters. This is just poor reporting by people with poor critical thinking skills. Just for example, consider the fact that the two previous "super Moon's", in March '93 and Dec '08, passed without any incident whatsoever. This full moon will bring with it "perigean tides" but these extra high tides should be nothing to worry about according to NOAA. According to their reports, lunar gravity at perigee will cause the tides to be higher by an inch or so than normal. No big deal.

    Shanil Virani

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Optical properties discovered by non-science students

    During class time, students in a General Science course (GSCI-101) have performed the simulation of the interaction between infrared radiation and very thin oxide films. The students worked in pairs using up-to-date codes. Each pair worked on different systems. In one hour, the twenty pairs of students collected information that the instructor (Dr. Scarel) finds very useful for her research. It would take Dr. Scarel months to collect that information without the help of the students!

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    Amazing video of Saturn Fly-by

    The Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn in 2004, sending the clearest images of the most striking planet in the Solar System. Stephen Van Vuuren used those photos to create a stunning video. There is no CGI and no 3D models in these images. Just images from NASA.

    Jump to 0:56 to see things put together in full color. 

    Almost makes you wish you were onboard for the flight!

    Tuesday, March 08, 2011

    GET INVOLVED in the AGN-LAIR: memoirs of a biology major doing astronomy research

    As the title has it, here are some thoughts about getting involved in research work, albeit of astrophysical nature. Need some help deciding in what kind of research you could chose for your credit, training, or spirit? Read along Greg Minutillo's little story:

    Fellow science duke dogs! I wanted to talk about the amazing opportunities over on the east side of campus, and those available through Dr. Constantin in particular. I worked in her lab last year, in 2010. I was the only bio major in our lab, and at first it was quite intimidating. I was surrounded by physics majors! In fact, one of the lab members was my tutor for Physics 240. I met Dr. Constantin through him, and she said she needed help with her research. As a transfer, I had lacked research on my transcript and jumped at the chance to do it. It was a great decision. She gave me tasks within my capabilities, and I learned some physics as well. Some of the things I learned even complemented my learning in Physics 250, especially when the lab members would talk about energy emissions. These emissions revealed the type of matter rotating around black holes. It was a nice change to talk about something other than cells and bacteria.

    I created a database that combined X-ray data, and optical imaging for about 600 galaxies. Both types of information are usually not compiled together, and thus astronomers have to look up the information individually. Now, there is a unique group of galaxies with both types of data available. I also had to classify each galaxy based on its morphology. This type of information is very important to astronomers. Once I learned how to do that, I was good to go! I even presented all my work at the physics symposium at the end of the year. As a bio major applying to medical school, I think it looks very unique to see research and involvement in a discipline like physics.

    Not only was Dr. Constantin accommodating me when I needed help with her research tasks, but she helped me on any math/physics class I was taking at the time. I was enrolled in calculus over “Maymester” when I was continuing my research, and I was struggling to say the least. The pace was incredibly quick. I almost dropped the class and took it at a community college, but Dr. Constantin actually worked with me and found some of my problems. Keep in mind she had no obligation to do such a thing. I had a great experience in the lab, and would advise anyone in the sciences to look into joining it if they’re looking to get involved.

    Greg has the medical profession as his carrier goal. He is currently applying to a post-bac program to strengthen himself as a candidate for medical school. He promised to keep us posted with news.

    Saturday, March 05, 2011

    Saturday Morning Physics Lecture 6: Jamming, Avalanches, and Unpredictability: Nonlinear Dynamics and Complexity in Granular Flows

    As the old proverb states, all good things must come to an end. Last Saturday, Lecture 6 and the last of Saturday Morning Physics 2011, was delivered by Prof. Brian Utter. The title of his presentation was "Jamming, Avalanches, and Unpredictability: Nonlinear Dynamics and Complexity in Granular Flows". A packed auditorium came out to see his interactive talk on nonlinear dynamics. You can find the podcast of his presentation, as well as his lecture slides, on our department Outreach website!

    Following Prof. Utter's presentation, Prof. Steven Whisnant -- Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy -- made a very compelling argument that no matter what your goal is after college, whether its Law School, Med School or even grad school, you are better off having physics as your major. You can find the podcast of Dr. Whisnant's presentation, "Physics and Your Future", on our Outreach website.

    Lastly, as this was the last meeting of Saturday Morning Physics for this year, we had our Award Ceremony to close the program. Over 50 students and high school teachers received their certificate of participation in our inaugural program! While SMP may be over for this year, the large turnout and the strong feedback we have received from participants means there will be another SMP program next year. We will continue to use our Facebook page for news and announcements, so make sure to 'like' us!

    Shanil Virani

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011

    A Solar 1st of March

    Yesterday, on that superbly sunny 1st of March, one of the side walksof JMU's campus got the rather rare chance to host astronomy students busy at work and eager to set up some solar observations. Although no solar storm was expected and the sunspot activity was quite mild, the excitement was high for playing with JMU's Physics and Astronomy Department Coronado solar telescope (with its sheltering H-alpha filter) and a Sunspotter (the safest solar telescope human beign ever invented). The Astr221 students saw for themselves the active Sun (sunspots and flares), and attempted to present this phenomenon to as many of their JMU colleagues as would venture on the (our!) side walk during that noon hour.
    The Astr 221 classmates Thomas Redpath (senior), Kyle Eskridge (sophomore), and Andrew Rowe (sophomore) estimate that they were able to explain various things about energy production in the core of the Sun or about the origin and properties of the sunspots to at least 15 students who were brave enough to spend a few minutes with us on their way to or from their classes. Senior Collin Wilson happily joined us initially for a few minutes, but as it turned out, he found it impossible to leave us alone with the Sun.

    Many thanks are due to Sean Scully for his help with finding the best spot for the observations, recalling that counterweights are needed to stabilize the telescope and for finding such weights in a fashionable time. He claims to be rewarded by the sight of his colleague(Anca Constantin; the Astr221 instructor)'s crazily enthusiastic efforts to convert every single passer-by into a scientist.