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.