W&M at PhysCon 2012

For the College of William and Mary, PhysCon began bright and early on Wednesday morning as the eight attendees met outside of Small Hall, the College’s physics building. With a thirteen hour drive ahead of us from Williamsburg, Virginia to Orlando, Florida, we prepared ourselves accordingly- with Classical Mechanics and Quantum homework, naturally. The intent was to caravan from Virginia to Florida, but due to differences in driving techniques and varying need for food the two cars ended up largely being on their own. We did try to meet up for dinner around Jacksonville, but our lack of knowledge about the area ended up making that a bit of a bust. Still, as this was our first multi-state trip the drive went about as well as we could hope. As a chapter that is particularly dedicated to community outreach, we were thrilled to be attending PhysCon to see what ideas other chapters and the various speakers could provide us. We were particularly thrilled to attend PhysCon as our chapter has been striving to become more of a force on our campus, so the opportunity to connect with other SPS chapters and participate in the workshops offered was one we did not want to miss.

Perhaps because of that, our chapter loved the fact that the speakers from the weekend attended events and talks just as we did. “Having the speakers just there in the audience so that you could just randomly bump into them and ask them whatever question you didn’t realize you had until the next,” was a high point for Reed Beverstock. It really made the conference feel like a meeting of the minds of all stages of study, rather than a series of talks that separated the students from the professionals. Paolo Black in particular was reduced to childlike glee at the chance to just run into Freeman Dyson among the crowd, and Elana Urbach happened to run into Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Mercedes Richards prior to an unrelated talk and couldn’t resist asking for a photo.

Elana Urbach snagged a photo with Mercedes Richards and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

“It was great to see how much everyone loved their jobs,” Elana elaborated, “plus it was interesting talking with other students from different backgrounds during the workshops.” As communication is a vital but often overlooked part of a physicist’s job, the fact that the conference facilitated discussion amongst students and speakers alike was fantastic and fascinating training. The topics for the workshops were particularly interesting, especially the workshop on science policy. That one certainly got a roaring debate going as it cut to the heart of a very pressing issue that every scientist has to grapple with: funding. I know my table had some sparks fly when a comment I made was misinterpreted, but it was resolved quite nicely- again, stressing the importance of being able to communicate one’s point clearly!

Another group favorite was the fantastic Kennedy Space Center tour. We would be lying if we said we weren’t geeking out in the extreme as our bus drove up to the famous shuttle launch countdown clock by the press site or when we got out on the crawler path leading up to the launch pad (you could see the burn marks on the signs from shuttle launches!). For me, having grown up watching the shuttle launches, crying unabashedly during STS-135, and finding my love of science through the shuttle program, standing at the base of the path leading to the launch pad was a truly powerful moment. So, too, was talking to the scientists currently working to continue our study of our universe and beyond. I again had a personal connection to what Bob Youngquist in Applied Science was discussing, as he demonstrated the Schlieren system to us, the development of which I had studied over the summer via an internship at NASA Langley.

The lab tour that was part of the press bus tour was one of our favorite parts of the entire weekend. Hearing about all the problem-solving that the applied science lab had to undergo emphasized just how creative a research job had to be at times, and seeing some of the cutting-edge developments being made for future spaceflights was incredible.

Jesse Evans, Paulo Black, JJ Hoo and Will Bergan examine the spherical star map in the Visitor’s Center of Kennedy Space Center.

It’s impossible to gush about every talk as we would love to be able to do, but two talks definitely stood out to our group. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s was particularly fantastic as we loved, in Rachel Hyneman’s words, “listening to nearly every single “end-of-the-world-in-December” theory destroyed with science”.  Considering that these ill-founded theories are things that some of our peers might honestly put some faith in, it was refreshing to be able to joke around about them.  Burnell’s talk felt very at home with the talk by Minute Physics creator Henry Reich, as both talks sought to address how science is communicated to the public. For Burnell, the focus was on how misinformation becomes popular and deconstructing those incorrect arguments; for Reich, the focus was on scientific outreach in an accessible way for all (something I’m sure Burnell is also in favor of).

All of our PhysCon expenses were covered by funding from our college and our physics department. One of the ways we could get additional funding was by presenting posters, so we have to admit that the main reason half of us presented posters was to get necessary extra funding from the school to cover the cost of attending the conference. However, we found the poster session to be particularly valuable once there. One of our poster presenters and reporters, Elana Urbach, explains: “It was a lot of fun talking to different people who visited my poster because they were interested in the subject or it just caught someone’s eye. I had a great time doing my research project over the past summer, and it was nice to be able to share my excitement with others. It was also fun talking with the people on either side of me. Some people came who were presenting on Saturday, so I got to visit their posters the next day, which was really fun and informative.” Being able to share our research and learn about the research being carried out by our peers around the world was fascinating, and a great way for younger physics students to get exposed to the possibilities awaiting them in the world of research.

Elana Urbach explains her poster to Rachel Hyneman during Friday’s poster session.

That really sums up our experience at the conference, actually: it was just incredible to be surrounded by people of all ages who shared our love of physics.


Op-ed: Why Government Funding for the Sciences Matters

What has government-funded science ever done for us? Besides for the space program and all the spinoffs it produced (LASIK eye surgery and properly preserved food with nutrients intact, anyone?), astounding leaps in particle and neutrino physics, medical advancements beginning at the basic level, research programs at universities that both provide the breeding ground for the next groundbreaking scientists and generate new approaches to age-old problems, and a whole plethora of developments that fall under the umbrella of “blue sky” ideas that would never be undertaken by a private sector as they aren’t near completion and immediately profitable, anyway.

Monty Python references aside, it would take far more room than I have to rattle off every modern thing we take for granted that owes its existence to government-funded programs stumbling upon a practical, exciting application that was then taken and ran with by the private sector. That’s how scientific research in America works, really: the government funds the basic and broad research that seeks to understand the why, and once that why is understood the private sector can then run with it to make it profitable and (ultimately) vital to every-day life.

No private sector could do what government-funded research labs do because it isn’t immediately profitable. Does that mean the research isn’t worthwhile? I don’t have a way to put in written words how absolutely wrong that assumption is. It’s quite the opposite. Government-funded research has the ability to look into those “technologies of tomorrow” that the private sector will ultimately utilize and the public will want to use in everything from the next generation of smart phones to more efficient, safe and affordable ways to heat and cool their homes. Research labs funded in this way don’t have the looming pressure of “will this be profitable?” that the private sector does, so they can focus on doing good science and actually making strides in our understanding, rather than making it work so a product can be out in time for some deadline.

What would budget cuts to scientific research look like? In a word, stagnation. When we as a country are concerned about our standing in the global sphere, concerned about preserving our position on the cutting edge of science and technology, how can we even think that science funding and education is a thing we can cut? How can we think it’s not vital when it feeds into everything from defense (something we know the government is a fan of) to medicine to the economy (science-related industries provide vast quantities of jobs, including the private sector, but those jobs can’t exist if the science that enables them isn’t done!).

PhysicsFest 2012!

Your humble blogger and my father, setting up the radio demo station. While my dad is a licensed amateur radio operator, I am not (much to his constant teasing). This station also had a radio handmade by one of the PhysicsFest planning team!

If the ice cream cones are anything to go by, approximately 200 people attended this year’s PhysicsFest (give or take a few people that couldn’t resist going back for seconds of our fantastic liquid nitrogen ice cream, anyway). The annual event … [Continue reading]

The Coming Posts!

PhysicsFest 2012! If you're in the Williamsburg area it would be a crime to miss the annual open house held by the Physics Department. PhysicsFest hosts lab tours, demos, student poster sessions, and the much-beloved and ever-present liquid … [Continue reading]

The Importance of Animal Studies According to Research Students

For many students, working with animals is the first true hands-on taste of biology offered in the classroom. Via dissection they are able to see with their own eyes the structure of body that, while vastly different from our own human ones, bears … [Continue reading]

Astronomy Night Liveblog!

I assure you the dome is FAR less creepy looking in person- ah, the joys of using a camera phone in the evening!

7:05 PM - A beautiful, crisp, cloudless day has turned into an equally clear evening, and now all that's left to do is wait for it to get just a bit darker. There's not much to see just yet, according to Professor Vold, but the Hercules Cluster … [Continue reading]

Upcoming Posts!

This week an article will be posted Thursday rather than Tuesday, as there will be no article next week. More importantly, it will be a particularly special post: a liveblog! William and Mary's Astronomy Club (currently an offshoot of the Society of … [Continue reading]

Apples to Oranges: Why Reading the Study is Different from Listening to the Media

The intent of science is to further understanding of the world around us. While much of it takes place at a level above what the average person would be able to immediately understand (think the BEC from last week), certain things are seen as … [Continue reading]

“Getting to the Starting Line”: Achieving the Bose-Einstein Condensate

The above image shows a video of the BEC trapped on an atom chip provided to the College by the Thywissen Group at the University of Toronto.

For five years Professor Seth Aubin and graduate students Megan Ivory and Austin Ziltz have been working towards achieving the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), a unique state of matter of gas achieved at ultra-cold temperatures. Rather than … [Continue reading]

Tuesday’s Quick Blurbs

Bose-Einstein Condensate Achieved! For five years Professor Seth Aubin and two graduate students, Austin and Megan, have been working towards a set-up capable of attaining the Bose-Einstein Condesate. As of September 2012, this five-year processes … [Continue reading]