Sunday, August 26, 2012

The 2012-2013 Academic Year Begins

So, here we are again.

Beginning of the school year and there are once again a few new faces in the crowd. For those of you who haven't visited us lately (and why aren't you stopping by?!), here's the key in order from left to right...

Front row:
Adriana Banu, Harold Butner, Sean Scully, Keigo Fukumura, Anca Constantin, Steve Whisnant

Second row:
Kim Emerson, Costel Constantin, Klebert Feitosa, Elizabeth Jeffery, Ioana Niculescu, Gabriel Niculescu

Third row:
Art Fovargue, Shanil Virani, Jarrett Lancaster, Kevin Giovanetti, Herb Slade, Chris Hughes

and hiding in the back;
Giovanna Scarel and Mark Mattson

Missing here are Brian Utter who is on sabbatical in Germany this year and Scott Paulson who is taking his Research Semester this fall and is working at UVa.

And so, with smiling faces (most of us any way), we greet the new year and prepare to excite our record entering class of 36 new physics majors!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

7 Minutes of Terror: Mars Curiosity Lands TONIGHT!

On Saturday, November 26 at approximately 10:02AM (EST), Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) lifted off from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41 en route to Mars. After more than 8 months in flight, MSL arrives very LATE tonight! The SUV-sized rover it is carrying, called Curiosity, is expected to touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet at 1:31AM (i.e., early Monday morning). After traveling 566 million kilometers, imagine a remote-controlled Cadillac Escalade landing in a dust storm.

This will be no easy feat. In fact, arriving and surviving touchdown would be an enormous scientific and engineering accomplishment. The landing sequence is incredibly risky (see image and 7 Minutes of Terror) and of Mankind's 39 missions to Mars, we've been successful only 15 times. I fully expect very late tonight to be the 16th time we've been successful in landing on Mars but it is important to be aware of the risk of failure and to recognize the extraordinary accomplishment if successful.

Despite the poor odds, we continue to go. Why? Mars Curiosity will open a new opportunity to study the habitable environment of the Red Planet. If you have come to the John C. Wells Planetarium recently, you will have heard me say during my star talk that in my opinion, the greatest discovery in science would be the discovery of life outside of Earth. While NASA's Kepler mission has done an extraordinary job discovering exoplanets, some even in the so-called "habitable zone" where water (should it exist) would be in its liquid form, the best evidence of life outside of Earth may come from within our Solar System, Mars in particular.

Previous missions to Mars has confirmed the hypothesis that Mars had liquid water in its past. But does Mars host life currently? Did it in the past? The answers to these questions have been inconclusive so far. This is where Mars Curiosity comes in. It is landing in Gale Crater, a carefully-chosen landing site after 5 years of analysis. This ~93 mile-wide-crater is an ancient impact basin for which there is very good evidence to suggest an ancient river once flowed through it. It is also a site with mineral-rich terrains and a mountain right in the middle where Curiosity will spend most of its time working to learn if it had an environment where microbes may have thrived.

This story begins tonight! Join me on twitter tonight where I will provide updates and commentary. You can watch NASA TV's feed online if your cable tv carrier does not carry it. Note that once Curiosity lands, it will be 14 minutes for us to receive telemetry that touchdown was successful and another 14 hours to get the first high resolution images that Curiosity will snap from its landing site.

My 2-year old son and I watched the launch on that Saturday morning after Thanksgiving Day and I am going to try to keep him up tonight for this historic landing!

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The 2012--2013 Academic year

This year's incoming class is a new department record: 34 freshmen and 2 transfers for a total of 36. In addition, one of the freshmen is our first ever Dingledine scholar,  Devin Buenemeyer. This is a real honor for the department. We are extremely proud of her and delighted that she has chosen physics and our department. The graduating class this year was small (13) but next year's promises to be sizable (20 or more). With the addition of Shanil Virani as our recruiter, we have great expectations. Shanil has many excellent idea and a tremendous amount of energy. Jon Staib has passed the baton with a clear lead for the department and Shanil is ready to run (forgive the Olympics metaphor). Don't be surprised if remarkable things happen.

We have a strong incoming class this year. We have some very excellent students as upperclassmen. We are growing and getting better.

This year we add Keigo Fukumura and Jarrett Lancaster. Elizabeth Jeffery is staying with us for another year or two and searches to fill open positions are going to commence in a month or two. Costel Constantin is moving into a tenure track position. Brian Utter is going on sabbatical in Germany and Scott Paulson is taking the Research Semester in the fall to spend time in Charlottesville. Both are moving their research interests towards biological systems.

The department reached a new high this year in external funding with a total of over $4.77 million. The only tenure track faculty without external funding in the department are the new folks, Costel and Keigo, and they will be funded soon at the rate things are going. Such vigorous research is rare in undergraduate departments and actually not all that common in research institutions We are a young department with only three faculty (Kevin Giovanneti, Chris Hughes and Mark Mattson) hired before 2001.

We are still pushing to open the Madison Radiation Laboratory asap. and proposals are being written to obtain money for experiments there. Discussions with the university administration is continuing.

Every year is better that the last and this year is no exception.

Come visit.

Be part of the amazing PandA@JMU.