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!

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 held by the W&M Physics Department is planned by students and professors alike and is aimed at the broader community of Williamsburg, particularly kids in grade school, and utilizes interactive hall demos, a poster session, lab tours, a playroom and a demo show led by the department’s personal Bill Nye the Science Guy (according to many of our guests) as a way of not only giving the department a chance to show off a bit, but more importantly to instill a love and interest of science in kids of all ages. This year, the particular theme was the electromagnetic spectrum. The demos spanned everything from radio to gamma waves and ran the length of the first floor of Small Hall, anchored by the playroom at the starting end.

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!

Arguably the most popular demo from the spectrum was the microwave. Volunteers were able to entrance kids and adults alike by using a standard, if a little out of date, microwave and common household items. Small light bulbs flickered on and off when popped in the microwave for a few seconds, grapes almost cut fully in two arced plasma, soap and marshmallows expanded rapidly in size and CDs gave off a spectacular (if brief) dancing spark show that revealed the pattern of microwaves utilized by the specific device. While some of the demos could be a bit finicky (I myself never really got the trick of making the grapes work), it was still a crowd-pleasing demo that drew a constant audience.

Graduate student Valerie Gray shows just how interesting things can get with the right items and a microwave (disclaimer: as we said all day at this demo station, do put random things in your microwave to see what happens, unless you have adult supervision and don’t intend on using that microwave for food ever again.)

Not only is this cool because you can see our fantastic photographer Joshua Hill reflected in the microwave door, but you can actually catch a glimpse of what happens when you microwave a CD. Spoilers: it’s a fantastic light show that also holds the secret to how your specific microwave works!

Other demos gave visitors a glimpse of famous science experiments such as the double slit experiment (visible light) or the cloud chamber (gamma rays). Some took over entire rooms almost like secondary playrooms with a specific theme (infrared and ultraviolet). All of them gave visitors the chance to interact with student volunteers and ask them any questions they might have, both regarding the demos before them and regarding being students of physics at W&M in general. For Reed Beverstock, an undergrad volunteer that helped with planning the event (the UV room in particular), this was particularly interesting when alumni were visiting his stations. “I really enjoyed talking to the alums and hearing about what they did while they were here and what they do now,” Beverstock explained. He also noted with amusement that one man he spoke to had the same Quantum Mechanics professor that Beverstock currently has when he was a student. Interacting with alumni, particularly more recent ones, is an incredibly useful thing for undergraduates and graduate students alike wondering where their post-W&M life could lead, and PhysicsFest provides a way to both share with the alumni and learn from them in turn.

For visitors looking for a glimpse into the world of academia and research, the poster show held in the morning and the lab tours that went on throughout the day were the big hits of the event. Four labs were open to the public, where the professors that run the lab and their students, both undergraduate and graduate, explained their research. Many visitors were getting a look at experimental for the first time, so these lab tours provided a new look into one of the many ways that physics is done. The poster session gave a more specific look into research by focusing in on specific projects that had been carried out by the students. Students had the chance to gain experience delivering talks on their work (an essential skill, as any student will tell you) while sharing their work with the community and fellow students. The eleven students that presented their posters were also entered into a competition, won by Elana Urbach (Class of 2014) with her poster on extracting DNA from carbon nanotubes. Four talks were also delivered throughout the day by professors on topics as diverse as the Enigma machine and how the structure of things alters their visible properties such as color. These talks were lauded as being fascinating looks into scientific concepts that were very accessible to people with little to no science background.

Grad student Anne Norrick at the poster show, talking to (who I believe to be) an undergraduate presenting his research.

Professor Irina Novikova (left) and undergraduate Elana Urbach (right) at the poster show. Both of them were also essential leaders in planning and organizing PhysicsFest!

According to fellow W&M students, alumni and the looks of the faces of the kids in the audience, the true stand-out of the event was the hourly demo show. Tim Milbourne (Class of 2014) astounded visitors with larger demos utilizing liquid nitrogen to shatter flowers, lasers to pop balloons, a Halloween candy bucket as a pendulum, and a tube of fire to demonstrate how waves work, among others, all while keeping up a clever and engaging rapport with the audience. The finale was a demonstration of a hovercraft built by the Society of Physics Students that some guests even got the chance to ride themselves. Guests left declaring him “the next Bill Nye”, and not just because of his nigh-trademark bow tie. Earlier in the day Milbourne had also delivered a poster talk about reworking the way physics is taught at the grade-school level, a personal project of his. His goal is to make physics “phun”, and if the comments from his demo show audience are anything to go by he is well on his way to achieving it.

Tim Milbourne and undergraduate volunteer Deborah Wood set up for the Demo Show, an always-popular and exciting event at PhysicsFest. Note how Tim is one of the few volunteers who did not sport our bright green Physics Department t-shirts (he just couldn’t give up his jacket and bow tie!).

Professor Mike Kordosky (left), Tim Milbourne (center) and undergraduate Em Pierce demonstrate the Rubens’ tube, a device that uses fire to show how sound waves behave by showing the relationship between sound waves and sound pressure. Professor Kordosky is on hand with the fire extinguisher just in case (and, unlike Professor Nelson later on, he never abused his fire extinguisher privilege!)

Of course, it’d be remiss to ignore the PhysicsFest signature item- liquid nitrogen ice cream. There’s something about eating a sweet treat made with science that just excites everyone, kids and volunteers alike. There’s a reason attendance was partially measured in ice cream cones; it’d be a shame to come to PhysicsFest and miss out on it.

Two undergraduate volunteers artfully prepare a batch of liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Those of us involved in the planning for PhysicsFest never seem to get enough of it- we’re always discussing new demos that we find that we might want to incorporate into the next year’s event. We can’t help it- PhysicsFest is our chance to show off just how absurdly cool physics is, and we constantly strive to make it the best, most entertaining and informative event we possibly can. The PhysicsFest team, led by Professors Irina Novikova, Wouter Deconinck and Tricia Vahle (plus input and help from so many more, including Mike Kordosky, Ale Lukaszew and Jeff Nelson), is always a dedicated, imaginative and passionate bunch. If you missed out this year, don’t worry- as I said, it’s an annual event, and it just keeps getting better and better.

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 nitrogen ice cream (we’re quite the connoisseurs of it by now). I’ll have the full write-up with pictures, interviews, and maybe even a video- I’ve got my sights set on recording the hovercraft (yes, hovercraft) demonstration.

The Month in Science Days

October boasts two significant days to the science community; one is, well, today! Mole Day (after Avogadro’s number, 6×10^23- 10/23, get it?) is a celebration of science used to get kids interested in chemistry and physics, often celebrated with the creation of cute little stuffed moles (make your own with this pattern, they’re easy). Another one, more personal to the college, William Small’s birthday. Been wondering about that heading of mine, “A Small Scientist”? Well, it’s because of him and how his name was given to William and Mary’s physics department!

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 enough of a resemblance to be informative and, for some, inspiring. It’s one of the most essential lessons to learn going forward with animal experiments:  even though what one sees in the animal trial may not directly translate, the techniques and underlying principles present in the trial translate to humans and provide vital information when hypothesizing how a trial may affect a human.

When it comes to psychology, nothing can replace witnessing with one’s own eyes how fundamental concepts such as conditioning “click” into place when working with lab rates, Danielle Weber (’14) says. Danielle is a psychology major at the College and worked with conditioning rats as part of her research methods course. “You realize that it can take just a few mistakes on your part to through the learning off track; it can be frustrating but also extremely rewarding once the rat learns. You can’t understand that just by reading a textbook.” Animal studies, according to Danielle, help snap concepts into focus and really bring research out of the theoretical realm and into reality.

For this reason, when Judith Graham posted to the Association of Health Care Journalists critiquing the coverage of animal trials in the media, stating “researching findings in other members of the animal kingdom do not tell you anything about what will happen in people, necessarily”,  it ruffled more than a few feathers. This argument challenged fundamental practices about research, mainly you start with trials on animals (such as lab rats, worms, and insects), see how the experiment or trial affects them, and use that knowledge to decide whether or not to go forward with the trial should be brought to humans.

Based on Danielle’s comments and those of Brianna Waller (’14), a neuroscience major, Graham is missing a fundamental point. Even if the research does not directly translate to humans, the practices therein do, or at least provide a basis for what is not a viable option.

Graham takes issue with animal studies being reported en masse, as she feels they could raise false hope or provide false information. It’s certainly true that the media has jumped the gun on research in the past, but this does not invalidate the worth of the indications animal studies provide (and is usually the fault of the media rather than the science, when it’s really boiled down to it- I’m looking at you, anti-vaxers). Briana’s experiments, both in her research lab and in her biology courses themselves, have had her experiment with altering conditions on frog embryos and elucidating the biological pathways of nematodes with the intent of applying the knowledge gained to human diseases and their treatment; now, it would be ridiculous to argue that a frog and a human embryo are identical, but it’s a fair guess that if something is harmful to a frog embryo it will be harmful to a human embryo, and that’s essential information for pregnant mothers to know. These studies provide an indication, and that indication can be the difference between life and death.

“It always drives the point home that we, as humans, are animals even though humans as a whole forget this,” Briana states. However, she does warn against relying too much on animal studies- not because she believes them to be irrelevant or to not translate, but because of the ethics attached to animal experiments.

The utility of animal studies, however, when in the hands of those who respect and understand the value of their animal subjects (as Briana emphasizes), cannot be contested. A student of neuroscience or psychology can assure you of that.

Astronomy Night Liveblog!

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 should be visible soon along with other objects. It should shape up to be a great night for the Meade telescope to be put to good use! For now, there’s general chatter in Small 122… about breathing fire with cornstarch?

We’re a safe bunch here at the SPS.

(We are also providing tutoring, as is always done on Thursdays at 7 PM, which is a great resource to take advantage of!)

7:14 PM-

We’re on the roof! Setting up scopes, the big dome is open- things are starting to get well under way! It’s also still a beautiful night, so it’s quite pleasant just to be outside. A discussion of where the North Star is under way (we THINK we found it) so that we can aim in that general direction, but first the scopes need to come out. Professor Vold and Professor Hancock are on hand setting up five different telescopes in addition to the dome (the large telescope on the roof). The first stars are beginning to make themselves readily apparent so we’ve got something to aim for.

EDIT: Turns out those telescopes were set up for an astronomy class. Whoops. Well, we helped set them up anyway!

I assure you the dome is FAR less creepy looking in person- ah, the joys of using a camera phone in the evening! Still, pretty fitting for October…?

7:26 PM –

Whether you’re a professor or a student, it’s still always useful to keep in mind that telescopes work best with the lens cap off. Further vital advice is to always focus the telescope, but to be gentle with it; cranking the focus knob one way or the other does much more harm than good, as typically the telescopes are roughly focused and just need a bit of fine tuning (keep this in mind, GER Astro students!). Also, how do you know if the star you’re focusing in on is the North Star a.k.a. Polaris? Answer: it doesn’t move too terribly much.

8:13 PM –

Apologies for radio (internet?) silence, but I’ve been in the dome! It’s a fascinating mix of computer-reliant tracking (I’ll explain that in a minute) and manual fine-tuning to get the best possible focus. I was in there for approximately 45 minutes, and in those five minutes we utilized the computer tracking software to observe two star clusters and a double-double star system, as well as an initial bright star that the telescope had been tracking for half an hour constantly keeping it in the center of the scope.

8:38 PM –

Note to self for future liveblogging endeavors: ALWAYS remember your charger. Now that I have power again, I can continue, with one quick aside. As I was walking back to my dorm I was struck by just how noticeable the difference in star visibility was between the roof and the walkways. Now we definitely have non-negligible light pollution- Williamsburg may not feel like a city, but it still has the light pollution of one -but it really is apparent how just getting above it a bit can help. On the ground, I was lucky to spot five or so stars; on the roof? Whole different story. No Milky Way spottings, let’s not get carried away here, but definitely far more than a handful or so.

Anyway, returning to the recap! One of the really impressive things regarding the telescope in the dome is that since it’s hooked up to a computer it can be set to track on one star and stay tracked all evening. As I was saying regarding the North Star, it can be determined because it doesn’t travel in the sky; it’s the North Star and it’s a pretty fixed point. Other stars, however, do move across the sky- if you get one perfectly centered in your telescope’s sight and come back a half hour later it won’t be there anymore. The program used by the telescope in the dome is pretty fantastic as once it’s calibrated (which Professor Vold did by cataloging as many stars as he could identify which provided the program with a star map basis) and locked on to a star it will track. To ensure that it’s visible, “slaving” the dome to the telescope is necessary. This means that the dome’s opening is locked on to the direction the telescope is pointing and follows it.

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 Physics Students) will be hosting their first Stargazing Night this Thursday, and this blog will be updating a post throughout the night with pictures and live accounts of what’s going on at the event. If you can’t make it out, you can still experience it in part right here!

Also in the works is an interview with artist Jim Sanborn, a fascinating artist who utilizes scientific (specifically physics) themes in his artwork, covering topics from the Manhattan Project’s trinity test, radioactivity, cryptography and implied geometries. His techniques are just as intriguing and remarkably scientific, causing his work to demonstrate how science and art are nowhere near as separated as one might think.

Another idea being toyed with is looking into the benefits of lab studies utilizing animals. Recently there’s been some questioning into whether or not animal experiments actually provide any information of what will actually happen in humans. As so many clinical trials are first carried out utilizing lab rats, this is a pretty significant claim to make! To look into this, I’ll talk with some of the labs on campus in the biology and psychology department to see how they utilize lab animals and what information they glean from them, as well as what their thoughts on these claims themselves are. (My money’s on the good old standby of ‘every case is different, and one failure does not invalidate other successes’, but hey, biology and psychology definitely aren’t my area of expertise!)

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 relevant immediately. Medical breakthroughs, technological innovations-  obviously practical things that touch everyday life in an obvious way are of distinct interest to the layperson, as the change the breakthrough can have on their life is immediately seen.

What, then, occurs when a scientific study presents something the public (or a subsection thereof) doesn’t want to hear? For approximately 8,000 people, the answer is start up a petition or two demanding the retraction of it.

On September 4th a group of scientists at Stanford University published a metastudy that looked at the nutritional content of organic foods versus those grown as treated with standard pesticides; the study did not seek to place one type of food over the other, nor did it seek to negate the positive aspects of organic food or blot out the negative ones of pesticide-treated food. It merely analyzed their comparative nutritional content and concluded that there was no significant difference in this regard.

This was not received well.

 These petitions call into question the validity of the study, claiming that one of the authors has a bias due to a precedent of working in favor of tobacco companies and implying they suspect confirmation bias at play in the study itself. In essence, this is not a negative thing; it is always a sound idea to critically approach scientific studies to examine for errors that the authors themselves may not catch, and this critical nature is indicative of a scientifically literate public: they seek the facts and the evidence, not some glossed-over version. However, the petitioners fall victim to the same practices they suspect in the authors of the study: their own confirmation bias makes them incapable of accepting a challenge to their firmly-held beliefs, and the knee-jerk reaction presented by the petitions (which went live after the study was published and run through the media) demonstrates that the creators of the petitions did not thoroughly examine the study they are attempting to challenge itself but are reacting to a version of it carefully worded to garner attention.

In reality, the study confirms many of the principles of organic food that the petitioners value, specifically the undeniable fact that organic food is exposed to fewer chemicals than the alternative. It does not, however, comment on this in a positive or negative light: it is merely stated as fact. This absence of praise has been interpreted by the petitioners as a dismissal of significance, when really the absence is due to the fact that that simply was irrelevant to the question the study sought to answer. While the study itself is not free to read, all of this essential information- the intent of the study, its findings, and its distinct lack of condemnation or praise of either type of food –can be found in the free to access abstract.

The intent was significant, as a 2010 Nielsen study found 76% of consumers who purchased organic foods did so because they believed the food to be healthier. As organic food is on average 25% more expensive than conventionally grown food, knowing definitively whether or not it actually is healthier is significant, particularly in difficult economic times. Now, for people who purchase organic out of different motivations, such as environmental concerns, a desire to support local businesses, or out of concern regarding chemical contaminants, this study makes no difference: it does not contradict their views in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it supports them, as it does indeed find organic food less exposed to chemicals, and explicitly states in the publicly-available abstract “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

No contact information could be found for either petition starter; I could not find a way to begin a discourse with them, thus I could not better glean their intent. However, from the comments and the statement of intent, it becomes clear that the petitioners find that their way of life, or the way of life most beneficial to them in their experience, seems threatened by the study; there is a high degree of distrust of ‘big business’ and of the government itself. They denounce the study as potentially encouraging families to risk their health by consuming “GMOs [genetically modified organisms], mercury and aspartame” and, ironically, warn that letting the study stand posed a risk to the legitimacy of science itself… all while they can’t even get their own facts straight, for they interpret the study as declaring “organic food is the same as conventional”, which it in no way does.

Their beliefs come across as significantly less scientific based on this; rather than opposing the study on well-founded doubts regarding its scientific validity, it becomes apparent that the average signatory on the petition does so because they don’t like what the result is telling them and assume that for that reason it is a lie backed by some malicious agenda. They are reacting to the media coverage of the study, not the findings of the study itself. They are looking for ways to undermine the work from the outside rather than analyzing the study for the science it has done and looking for a flaw in those practices.

This presents an alarming reality that citizens find it is their right to reject facts based on a personal bias, and rather than choosing to personally ignore the facts they feel it is their duty to enforce their believes upon others. It is fantastic when citizens exercise scientific literacy by critically approaching information as it is presented to them, examining it for validity, but when the grounds for rejection boil down to a personal bias, things become much more of a concern. Personal disagreement is no justification to reject facts, or at the very least to reject the right of the public to be exposed to them by calling for their retraction.

 

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

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 producing experimental results as most other experimental labs on campus do, the Ultra-Cold lab has been undergoing a feat of engineering just to “get to the starting line”. At least 75% of the rather impressive experimental set-up was built by hand or modified by the lab group to attain the extremely cold temperatures needed just to begin to be in the range of the critical temperature (Tc) for the Bose-Einstein Condensate. Joining the Ultra-Cold Atomic, Molecular and Optics (AMO) lab didn’t just provide experience in that field according to Megan; working towards the BEC has provided experience with electronics, vacuum and laser science (yes, laser science- as lasers are actually incredibly ordered, they are also incredibly cold and can be used to cool matter). What’s more, this is all before the intended experiments could even begin.

Knowing that most of the equipment you rely on was created by your own hands can add a bit of pressure to the situation. “How many things that we built have to go right and not break themselves?” wondered Austin, thinking on all the electronics projects he worked on for the BEC set-up. If something goes wrong, there is no manufacturer to get a replacement from or lodge a complaint with, after all. “There was lots of finger crossing.”

When it all goes right, though, it’s an indescribably thing, and that is exactly what the lab got to experience upon attaining the BEC. At first it felt a bit bittersweet, Austin explains, because the first glimpse of the BEC occurred late at night when only Professor Aubin was present. The pictures were blurry, however, so all three were present for the first proper pictures taken of the BEC. When asked how he felt upon attaining the BEC, Austin’s first response was a very honest, “tired.” However, once people started coming into the lab to see it, it became increasingly exciting

What makes the BEC so significant? Well, for one (very cool) thing, it is quantum mechanics you can literally observe. “Learning it all is abstract,” Megan states, “but for the BEC you can literally see it on screen.”

But that’s getting just a bit ahead of ourselves.

The Bose-Einstein Condensate occurs at extremely low temperatures close to 0 Kelvin; Aubin’s lab attains temperatures between 10 to 100 nanoKelvin (that’s 1×10-7 Kelvin). At such low temperatures the atoms in the gas statistically prefer to be in the ground state, or the unexcited state with no energy added. The trademark of the BEC is the cigar-like shape it makes when atoms cooled to the critical temperature are kept in a bowl-shaped trap. The atoms are bounded on three sides, but they are tightly bound on only two in the horizontal direction; as a result, when the trap is turned off and the atom cluster begins to fall due to gravity, it rapidly expands in two directions (the tightly-bounded two), but not in the loosely bounded one. This is due to the basic quantum mechanical equation . This shift from cigar-shaped cluster to elongated ‘blob’, for lack of a better word, is the key signature, and can be seen in the gif below.

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

The Bose-Einstein Condensate is an interesting type of matter due to the fact that all the atoms are identical as they have all gone to the ground state; it’s idea for controlled conditions. Now that it is attained Aubin’s lab will proceed with experiments that utilize its unique nature. The study of the BEC can lead to innovations in other areas, too, including quantum computing and atomic clocks. For now, the lab is working on increasing the quantity of atoms kept in the trap when the BEC is excited and on getting BEC using potassium atoms as well as the already-successful rubidium atoms.

Attaining the BEC is just the beginning for Aubin’s lab. As he said, all the work up to this point has been getting to the starting line. As far as starting lines go, though, it really is quite an impressive one.

For additional information about Aubin’s lab and research, you can visit his site here. For further reading about attaining the BEC at William and Mary,read Joseph McClain’s article on the physics department page here.

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 has finally “brought them to the starting line”. So, what is Bose-Einstein Condensation, why did it take so long to attain, and where will the lab go from here? Find out later today as this is this week’s featured blog post!

The CoS Garden and Organic Food

Lately there’s been some debate over what, precisely, the impact of organic food is on the environment as well as the health of those who consume it. As W&M’s Committee on Sustainability funded an eco garden over the summer (and throughout the school year), what do they think of these recent doubts regarding organic food?

Speaking of organic food…

Of Research and the Public Opinion: Who Has the Last Say?

In light of the Standford study regarding organic food, which did not find any evidence that organic food was significantly better in terms of nutrition or growing risk, multiple petitions have been started by civilians calling for the retraction of the study, claiming it is ‘fatally flawed’  and citing one of the author’s links to tobacco companies as a reason why it shouldn’t be trusted. Are these types of petitions harmful considering they lack any scientific basis and are, in essence, attacking a scientific study because they don’t agree with what it has to say, or do they provide a valuable fact-checking source that seeks to address researcher bias and ensure important things are not overlooked?

Scientific Literacy in America: Not as Bad as the Media Wants You to Think

It’s a commonly heard thing nowadays: America is falling behind foreign nations in terms of math and science education, and the average American knows and cares less about science than they do, too. Is there truth in this, or is it an exaggeration taken and run with by the media? How do Americans express interest and knowledge in the sciences compared to other countries?