Friday, September 23, 2016

Meet the Visitor: Justin Finke, from the Naval Research Labs

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The first guest speaker for Seminar this year was Justin Finke, a physicist at the Naval Research Labs, who gave his talk entitled ‘Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes and the Connection to Black Holes in Ultraluminous X-Ray Sources.’

Dr. Finke visited us on the day after the first anniversary of the discovery of gravitational waves (an article about this anniversary can be found on LIGO’s website here).  On September 14, 2015, gravitational waves were first detected with the merging of two of black holes. This event happened exactly as general relativity had predicted and additionally lead to the realization that black holes greater than 10 solar masses exist.

Gravitational waves are waves produced by an extremely accelerated mass. Usually these masses are orbiting black holes or neutron stars. Throughout his talk, Dr. Finke mentioned how pulsars (a neutron star that rotates at extremely high speeds) helped to show the existence of gravitational waves, before gravitational waves were observed.  Pulsars can be used because they emit pulses at an extremely regular rate, allowing them to act as a “clock.”

In order to thoroughly investigate gravitational waves, it is important to find the merger rate of Binary Black Holes (BBH). Dr. Finke explained that his work involved inferring the BBH merger rate by looking at the formation of Ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs). A ULX is an object which exceeds the Eddington limit, which is supposed to be the maximum brightness that an object in space can have. To some degree this limit is related to metallicity, which for astronomers, means the fraction elements heavier than H or He. The less metallicity a celestial object has, the greater the brightness.

In the future, Dr. Finke and his team hope to find the relationship that links ULXs and metallicity.

After Justin Finke finished his seminar on gravitational waves, we approached him for an interview. Dr. Finke was kind enough to answer the following questions we had for him.

Was your work on gravitational waves done in collaboration with LIGO?

Dr. Finke explained that he was inspired by the LIGO findings when he saw the connection between Ultraluminous X-Ray source formation rate and the Binary Black Hole merger rate, but he did not work together with LIGO.

What were you working on before gravitational waves?

Justin Finke said that he usually works on gamma ray jets shot out by Supermassive Black Holes. Dr. Finke commented that he did this research using the FERMI Gamma Ray Telescope, which circles the globe every 90 minutes in a low-Earth orbit.

Why did you choose to become an Astrophysicist?

Justin Finke joked that he did not have any big story that convinced him to become a physicist; he had always been interested in physics and math, and thought that astrophysics was the most interesting subject to research.

How did you end up working at the Navy Research Lab?

Dr. Finke recounted that, while going for his PhD, he collaborated with someone from the Navy Research Lab. The person Justin Finke worked with helped him get a job at the NRL, and is now Finke’s boss.

Breaking down the interview, Dr. Finke’s comments provide some good advice for aspiring physicists. Pursue the work that interests you, and interact with your fellow physicists. You never know where a work opportunity might come from, or when you’ll find inspiration for an interesting research subject, so always keep an open mind.

Monday, September 19, 2016

CALL FOR NOMINATIONS for the JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year Award

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at JMU is now accepting nominations for the JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year Award!!

The award will be given to a high school physics teacher nominated by former students who are currently enrolled or have been enrolled at JMU in STEM majors. The nominee should be an individual who exhibits exceptional dedication to teaching physics and has an outstanding record of going above and beyond in providing education and guidance necessary for the success of the students.

 ALL high school teachers who are nominated will be notified that they have been nominated and by whom.

 NOMINATION DEADLINE: Friday, September 30, 2016

MAKE YOUR NOMINATION here: JMUHighSchoolPhysicsTeacherOfTheYearAward

Friday, September 16, 2016

Our Student Bloggers for 2016-2017: Yvonne Kinsella & Joseph LoPreto

For the 2016-2017 academic year we are rolling with not one, but two student bloggers. There seems to be so much passion for writing this year, some weren't gonna keep those talents hidden.
Let's meet them, in no particular order:

Yvonne Kinsella: is currently a junior physics major here at JMU. Being from Massachusetts, she refers to Dunkin' Donuts as "Dunks" and uses the word "wicked" as an adverb. She claims that JMU has given her the unique experiences of school being canceled for less than an inch of snow and a winter that lasts less than six months. And, of course, so much more: Yvonne is a member of Dr. Hughes' research group and worked as a Learning Assistant for Physics 240 last fall. Now, she is thrilled to have gotten the opportunity to be a writer for the Physics & Astronomy blog.

"Growing up," she says "I always wanted to be a writer. I was writing as early as age nine or ten, and rediscovering things you wrote at age ten when you are nineteen or twenty is a hilarious experience. I also have a love for science; otherwise, I would not be a physics major. I am excited to be able to bring my long time love of writing and my dedication to physics together this school year here on the Physics & Astronomy blog!"

Joseph LoPreto: is a third year student at JMU studying Physics and Secondary Education. He grew up in Front Royal, VA, which is an hour north of Harrisonburg.

 More about him, in his own words: I have always enjoyed science-fiction, and eventually that led me to physics. I just love how diverse the field is, ranging from quantum physics to astrophysics, mechanics to electromagnetism to thermodynamics. Besides that, there are so many fun little experiments you can try in physics, like lighting grapes on fire with a microwave.

Aside from physics, I also really love reading. Going back to the bit about sci-fi, I am currently trying to read as many Philip K. Dick books as I can get my hands on (a popular one you may have heard of is, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, which is what the Blade Runner movies are based on).

Other fun facts about him: he did theatre in high school, he has been to Greece, Italy and France, and more recently, he has worked as an intern at Jefferson Labs during the summer of 2016 (and highly recommend any of you other students applying for the SULI internship if you get the chance). He promised a blog post about this particularly enlightening experience.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The new and the old: starting again

The 2016-2017 academic year has kept us busy for a few weeks now!  It's been an abundance of new colleagues, classes, and new students to think about and prepare and mentor, and the old stuff that kept us busy during the summer didn't magically disappear. The lab measurements still needed fine tuning, the calculations still needed further testing, the papers and the proposals still needed to be finalized and submitted.  But who's complaining.    

The long meetings before the first day of classes were over, and we prepared our smiles for you to meet us all, on two rows: 

Starting from the back row, from left to right, you see: Herb Slade, Giovanna Scarel, Kim Emerson, Scottie Pendleton, Chris Hughes, Jason Sterlace, Ioana Niculescu, Marcelo Dias, Adriana Banu, Geary Albright, Tahani Finch, Costel Constantin, and Scott Paulson.

Then back on the first row, from right to left, you'll find: Sean Scully, Klebert Feitosa, Kevin Giovanetti, Keigo Fukumura, Jacob Brown,  Anca Constantin, Masoud Kaveh-Baghbadorani, Ilarion Melnikov, and Mark Mattson.

Missing from the photo this year are Harold Butner, Harry Hu, Gabriel Niculescu, Shanil Virani, and Bradley Newcomer.

Steve Whisnant is surely missing us.  You'll believe this so long as you don't check out his blog, about his new chapter.  He is the same funny guy.