Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Renee Ahern, Christina Hanks, Anita Vincent-Johnson, Liz Visosky, and Nora Swisher attended the Southeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (SCUWP) at the University of Tennessee, January 12-15, 2012.  Here's what Nora says about the experience.                   

Over the long weekend we got to attend talks from successful women in physics, present our own research, interact with other women in physics over free meals, and listen to panels discussing careers, grad school, and undergraduate research.  We also got to tour Oak Ridge National Laboratory and see some of the incredible resources there, like the Spallation Neutron Source and their supercomputing facility. This is actually the 2nd year I’ve attended this conference (Anita and I went to it at Duke University in 2010). I thought both trips were great experiences. SCUWP and other women in physics events provide the opportunity for young women to network and gain motivation and support to continue physics.

It is not O.K. that there are so few women in physics in the United States. Because of societal cues given to us our whole lives, women tend to have more self-doubt in their STEM abilities, and people have internal bias against women in STEM fields whether they realize it or not (women need to higher credentials in order to be judged as equally productive as men). To fix this we need the current women in physics to stay and continue breaking the mold. We need role models and mentors for young women, and we need to keep improving the climate by continuing to have good family policies, flexible schedules, and speaking out when colleagues make inappropriate comments. As an anecdote, I have experienced some inappropriate conversations, although the men probably did not realize it was uncomfortable for me. Once during a class, the professor and students discussed a system to rate female physical attractiveness. That might not have happened in class with a different female student ratio.
Although, women have some equalities (equal pay not being one of them), women still have many stereotypes to overcome. Unfortunately some of these stereotypes are preventing physics from gaining all the contributions that women and other minorities have to offer. I know it’s a subtle and difficult problem to fix, but it should be fixed before we can call our society truly equal, developed, and rational. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Planetarium Shows, Public Star Parties and the End of the World!?

With the start of a new semester already in full swing, there is a lot going on that John C. Wells Planetarium this semester! This month the 2:30pm family show is "Legends of the Sky: Orion", while the the 3:30pm feature show is "Stars of the Pharaohs". Following each show, a live star talk featuring the Harrisonburg night sky will be presented. Both shows are FREE with seats available on a first-come, first-seated basis! You can find our full schedule of shows that will be presented this semester at the Planetarium website.

A brand new initiative we are launching this semester is monthly star parties at Astronomy Park, located in the meadow behind the Physics & Chemistry building. The first star party will take place on Friday, January 27 starting at 7pm with subsequent public observing sessions on the last Friday of each month! Since these observing sessions are weather-dependent, the decision to proceed with observing or to postpone to Saturday (our back-up night) will be made by 4pm on each day. This decision will be published on the Planetarium website, the Planetarium facebook page and via the Planetarium twitter feed. If you have never seen Jupiter with its Galilean satellites, Saturn and its majestic rings, Mars, Venus or even the Moon through a telescope, you definitely do NOT want to miss any of these star parties!

Lastly, with calendar turning the page to 2012, no doubt you have heard of the many ridiculous doomsday scenarios circulating online and in the tabloids you see at the grocery store. All these end-of-the-world prophecies, from the Mayan calendar ending, to the Earth's magnetic field suddenly reversing polarity in 2012, are all baseless and without any scientific merit. I've written my own short "Debunking 2012 Doomsday Prophecies" which you can find at the Planetarium website.

I hope to see many of you at the Planetarium or at a star party this semester!
Clear skies!

Shanil Virani
Director, John C. Wells Planetarium

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hard Times for Physics Departments Everywhere

In the APS News ,December 2011 (Volume 20, Number 11) the Back PageThe Economics of Education: Closing Undergraduate Physics Programs, by Theodore Hodapp describes a pretty dismal state of affairs for physics Departments in this country. The heart of the matter is given in this paragraph:

These recent decisions in a number of states indicate that the era, if it ever existed, of a program existing because it is unthinkable not to offer physics is over. Dominating the current academic landscape are huge numbers of business, psychology, communications, and life-sciences majors. Physics undergraduate degrees accounted for 0.88%2 of all majors in 1966. Now they account for 0.32%. Figure 1 shows how physics has fared compared to the aggregate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. The total number of physics graduates is roughly the same as it was in the late 60’s at around 6,000, but as a fraction of the undergraduate degrees it has fallen by almost a factor of three from its former standing. Further, if you normalize the data to the US population, which increases at roughly 1% per year, the data indicate that other majors have successfully lured away students who previously would have majored in physics. As a colleague recently said to me, “Who is better equipped to deal with the challenging problems that currently face our society–physics or psychology majors?” Psychology graduates increased from roughly 17,000 to 100,000 in those same four and half decades.

All pretty sobering stuff. Have a look at the full article for all the details.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Grant awarded for research on radiative polaritons

The Jeffress Memorial Trust has awarded a grant in support to the research that Dr. Scarel and her students are pursuing to understand the interaction between infrared radiation and matter. The funding will support an experiment in which infrared radiation with electric field perpendicular to the surface of a planar oxide film will excite radiative polaritons. A linearly polarized electromagnetic field, such as that used in the proposed experiment, is shown in the picture above. This experiment is expected to unambiguously correlate the absorption of infrared radiation with radiative polaritons. Dr. Scarel and her students hope that in the future the results of this research will inspire the design and development of devices to harvest and transform into electricity the infrared radiation from the sun and the atmosphere.

Jeffress Research grant awarded to Dr. Adriana Banu

Nuclear astrophysics research program at JMU is up for a good start in 2012!

The Thomas F. Jeffress and Kate Miller Jeffress Memorial Trust has approved a Jeffress Research grant of $25,000 to James Madison University in aid of Dr. Banu's project - "Studying the (alpha,p)-process in X-ray bursts using rare isotope ion beams". Dr. Banu and one of her research students, Brent Glassman, will conduct the research experiment, in collaboration with a team of scientists at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M University, most probably in late spring this year. Stay tuned for the results! For more information, contact Dr. Banu at banula@jmu.edu.