steuard: (lake)
Saturday, April 6th, 2013 10:33 am
Every time I start teaching quantum mechanics in intro physics, I wind up feeling a little disappointed. To most students it's just another set of equations to memorize; they don't understand how much of a radical departure it is from everything we knew before. I suppose that's inevitable to some degree, since modern kids are raised on a diet of atoms and electrons and what seemed radical a century ago is familiar today. But I'd still like them to understand that this is something New, and Important.

So I spent entirely too much of the past week writing something akin to a live-action role playing game. In class on Friday (and continuing into at least part of this coming Monday), the students became world class scientists trying to figure out the "newly discovered" photoelectric effect. They're each a supporter of one of two competing theories of how light (classical electromagnetic waves) interacts with a metal surface to eject electrons and cause current to flow. On Friday, I welcomed them to the conference in the role of the physics department chair at the host institution:

[I stole this picture from a student's public Facebook post, by the way: thanks David T!] In their two big groups and then in six smaller lab groups, the students assembled a set of graphs illustrating their competing predictions, and then the leader of each main group presented their results to the conference.

And after that, the experimental data came in ("from the experimental conference down the hall"). Both groups got some things right, but fundamentally, everyone was wrong! So on Monday we reconvene to see if we can puzzle out the true story. I have absolutely no idea how that's going to go. I've tried to seed elements of the real (quantum!) explanation among them, and if anyone is particular clever or eager to get it right they might think to actually read the textbook. (On their own!) We'll find out! If nothing else, it was clear that they had a lot of fun with the activity, and they really were thinking hard about what their predictions should look like. I feel good about it.

In case you're curious, I'm including a glimpse of one character sheet here. I'll stick it behind a cut: The first page of Prof. Parma's character sheet. )
steuard: (lake)
Sunday, January 27th, 2013 04:02 pm
Jonathan Coulton has decided to respond to Glee's plagiarism of his "Baby Got Back" parody by raising money for charity. If you can, contribute a buck by buying this (fun!) song. It's already outselling the Glee version, and the better it does the stronger our message that artists deserve credit for their work. Here's JoCo's post with purchase links:

Here's a nice up-to-date article that summarizes the situation:

[Again, I suspect many folks here already know about this, but I want to record it here if nothing else.]
steuard: (lake)
Friday, January 25th, 2013 08:22 pm
Glee-fan friends: I hear that last night's episode featured a fun cover of "Baby Got Back". I hope you liked it! It's a great parody arrangement written by Jonathan Coulton, one of my favorite singers today. You should check out his music; some suggestions to get you started are here:

For what it's worth, the Glee folks were pretty cruddy in the way they treated JoCo. They didn't give him any sort of credit on the show; in fact, they didn't even tell him they were using his work. NPR had a great writeup about it here: Meanwhile, Coulton's own blog about it is here: As a JoCo fan, I wish that Glee had found a way to express some gratitude to him.

Oh, and a final comment: When Ace Books used a copyright loophole to print an edition of The Lord of the Rings behind Tolkien's back, Tolkien added a note about it to the next authorized edition: "This paperback edition, and no other, has been published with my consent and co-operation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it, and no other."

If you share that sentiment, here's a direct link to a page where you can buy JoCo's recording of the song:

(And, y'know, at least Ace Books printed Tolkien's name on the cover.)

[I'm guessing that a lot of my friends here are more likely to know the JoCo side of this story than the Glee side, but I wanted a more "solid" home for these comments than Facebook.]
steuard: (lake)
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 04:17 pm
It is cold in Alma today. When I walked in this morning, the temperature was right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill was something like -8F (though the wind chill forecast had been for -17F; maybe we lucked out).

I bundled all up before leaving the house: long underwear, jeans, a warm coat, gloves sealed in at my wrists, a hat, and a ski mask covering the bottom half of my face. So I had no exposed skin: just my glasses peeking out in front. I plunged out into the cold, and started to walk the 3/4 mile or so to work.

It actually wasn't that bad, though the chill did immediately start trying to seep through the chinks in my armor. But as I headed west toward campus, an SUV slowed down next to me. I nodded politely, but kept walking: walking fast enough to generate some warmth was important. The driver rolled the window down and asked, "Do you want a ride to campus?" I said, "No thanks!" as I kept going, and my cheerful tone wasn't really even forced: I do enjoy braving the elements from time to time. But she said, "Are you sure? It's awfully cold." And I looked over and thought, "Oh, it's Sandy, the photography professor who got us our cats! Why the heck am I saying no?" So I said, "Thanks!" and jumped into the passenger seat.

Once I was belted in, I pulled down my mask so I could breathe a little better, and I smiled and went to thank her again. And we looked at each other. "Oh! You're not who I thought you were!" she said. I laughed, because neither was she! So we introduced ourselves, and she still gave me a lift to campus. I would have been fine, but I was grateful anyway. I don't think I would have been quite so careless in Chicago, though.

So that was my weather-related excitement for the day. Walking home should be fun, too, though it's supposed to be much warmer: +8F (though the forecast says it'll feel like -8F).

[In other news, I'm wearing my winter coat at my desk. (Not zipped up, though.) What brilliant architect decided that *metal* window frames were a reasonable choice in Michigan? Or anywhere? Metal is one of the best heat conductors out there: that's why we cook in metal pans!]
steuard: (Tolkien)
Thursday, December 27th, 2012 02:48 pm
I saw The Hobbit a few days ago, and I enjoyed it. I started to write up some brief comments on the movie to post here, but they got a bit out of hand, so I've posted them on my Tolkien website instead. For those who are interested, have a look at my full review; comments are welcome!
steuard: (physics)
Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 02:55 pm
On Monday afternoon, I got the official word from the college's Provost that I've been recommended for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. That's fantastic news: I don't need to suddenly hunt for a new career, and I can keep doing a job I love. (And then I came home, posted a cryptic comment on Facebook, and graded final exams and papers and things for about 20 hours straight, with occasional breaks for meals.)

I've been optimistic about how my review was going to go, and all of my senior colleagues here who commented on my prospects were highly encouraging. (Last week, one of them said, "Well, be sure to let us know once you hear the good news.") But it's not real until you get the official word. (Technically, it's not really real until the Board approves it in February, but the odds of them overturning the decision of the President, Provost, and faculty promotions committee are negligible.)

So, yay! I can finally relax for the holidays (and in general).
steuard: (Default)
Friday, October 19th, 2012 11:41 am
[Steuard is finally catching up on old stuff he's been meaning to post here.]

A while back, a friend of mine linked to one of the comics below, and I eventually tracked down the whole series. I don't know what I would have thought of them five years ago, but given where my life is today I find them all tremendously sweet. When you have a look, it may help to remember that Francis Bacon was a philosopher, too.

Here are the first, second, third, and fourth entries in the series; I think that's the complete list.
steuard: (physics)
Friday, October 19th, 2012 11:28 am
I'm up for tenure this year, and as part of that process I'm required to submit a portfolio that "makes the case" that I've fulfilled the college's requirements for tenure and promotion. That's been hanging over my head for months, but at long last it's finally finished! I turned it in on Tuesday, which means that my part of the process is essentially over. (I may have one or two more peer reviewers visiting my classes over the next couple weeks.) Now I can just forget about the whole thing until the end of the semester: I won't hear anything one way or the other until then, so there's no use worrying.

I'm optimistic about the outcome. I feel pretty good about my portfolio itself and about the accomplishments that it describes. On the scholarship side, I got to include the peer review response from my latest journal article: the reviewer didn't have any suggestions to make other than adding a few references, and I directly quoted its concluding line: "In summary this is a high quality piece of work that addresses a well known question and answers it!" For teaching, while there's always room for improvement, I think I do a darn good job, and I decided to pull a few favorite quotes from my end of semester teaching evaluations: "Lots of work, but I’m smarter than I was when I started.", "Most enthusiastic teacher I've ever had since kindergarten. ...This nutjob truly loves this class & loves to teach physics and is the coolest prof I've had to date.", "I had always disliked Physics so I had to put in a lot of effort, but it turns out I like it more than I thought.", and perhaps the highest tenure-credit-per-word quote of all for a liberal arts college, "I look at the world in a different way now."

Classes have been awfully intense, too, but maybe I can finally start getting caught up, without dreading all the high-stress work that the next week will bring my way.
steuard: (Default)
Monday, August 20th, 2012 10:13 am
I was thinking about color this morning (yes, I do these things), and I was struck by a disturbing thought: when did I last see violet? Not purple, which I see all the time, but actual violet. [I'm not the first person to wonder this: here's a very thorough discussion.]

Purple, as you no doubt recall, is a compound color: it's what we perceive when we see a mixture of red and blue light. But violet is a pure color: light with wavelength somewhere a little over 400nm. (Side question: anyone have a clue as to why purple and violet are perceptually similar?) So what's the problem? RGB monitors, that's what. The shortest wavelength of light produced by an RGB monitor is blue, which is probably around 460nm or so. That means that your monitor is incapable of producing a violet color. Looking at a picture of a rainbow on your computer screen is inevitably a less vibrant experience than seeing one in person.

So, fine, look at a printed photograph. Well... not so fast. I don't know how all the different types of photo printing work, but a lot of printers are RGB or CMY themselves (and I think that CMY has the same problems as RGB in this regard, or worse). I have no idea what the process is (or was) for traditional photo printing from the analog era, but I'm willing to imagine that there are photo printers today who are capable of printing with actual violet dyes. But wait: what sort of camera took the photograph? Again, I don't know how good traditional film cameras were at capturing violet, but today's digital cameras are (as far as I know) also RGB.

So: when did you last see violet? Think back: what does it look like?
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, August 19th, 2012 12:48 pm
Walking around town, you occasionally see things that seem a bit funny. This sign, for example, is in the window of a local bar:

They clearly take underage drinking very seriously.

I've wondered about this sort of thing for a long time, actually. It's surprisingly common to see folks apparently using quotation marks to denote emphasis. Where does that come from? It's easy for me to imagine that folks who don't read as much as I do might not be familiar with the usual "quotation marks indicate some sort of qualification or doubt" usage, but what is the source of people getting it exactly the other way around?

And while I'm posting puzzling things, our campus bookstore has started selling "PooPooPaper", which is based on fiber harvested from animal dung. It seems like a clever idea in general, but their comment on Step 1 of their process confuses me:

They collect the poo, but don't worry, "It's not gross - they don't eat meat!" What on earth are they talking about? I've seen my share of cow dung, and let me tell you, it's plenty gross. (Is there some insular vegetarian subculture that believes that their own poop is no longer at all gross, because of their diet? I'm kinda weirded out by that thought... I hope the folks who make PooPooPaper still take the time to wipe.)
steuard: (physics)
Monday, August 6th, 2012 01:12 pm
This is an absolutely stunning image: the Curiosity rover spotted while descending to the Martian surface, dangling under its parachute. It took some tremendously careful calculations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team (and some good luck) to snap this shot of a fast-moving object in the few moments available (they had to aim the camera in advance, tell it when to take the shot, and hope). The Bad Astronomer gives a bit more detail. (Click the image for a larger version.)

(Image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona )

I honestly yelped out loud with glee when this image showed up on my screen. (Good thing my office door was closed.)

I'm still in awe that this insanely complicated landing scheme worked; for once, the reality of space exploration turned out to be just as awesome as what science fiction promised us fifty years ago. I mean, heat shields and parachutes are old hat, sure, but to follow those up by setting the one-ton rover gently on the ground using a crane suspended from a hovering rocket platform? That's just crazy talk. (Here's a nice video summary, for those just catching up.) And it worked. IT WORKED. (Sorry... I seem to have something in my eye.) Now we get to find out what remarkable science we can do.

EDIT: For those who aren't following all this on their own, a couple of followups. First, it turns out that the same (large) image by the MRO also includes the heat shield that had separated from Curiosity a minute earlier, still falling toward the ground. And second, there's already a rough video of the landing as seen from a camera on the bottom of Curiosity itself. (It sounds like they'll eventually have the whole thing in high definition, too!) This just keeps getting cooler.
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 08:21 pm
[Phone rings. I pick it up.]

Me: Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood speaking![*]
Caller: Is this... Dr. Jensen?
Me: Yes! This is Dr. Jensen.
Caller: I'm with the University of Chicago Alumni Relations, and we just wanted to talk for a few minutes and update your contact information. Uh... are you at work, sir?
Me: No, just at home.
Caller: Oh, okay. Is this a good time?

[* Because it's fun, that's why.]
steuard: (Tolkien)
Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 09:04 pm
In thinking about The Hobbit today, I've hit a guess as to the proximate reason that Jackson decided he wanted three films. (The studio's reason is clearly "more money".) I think it may be significant that nobody has ever said a word about where Jackson planned to split the story into two films. My guess is that after watching a rough cut of most of what he's filmed, Jackson couldn't find any good place to make that split... but with a bit more work, he he could see a good way to split it in three.

My guess is that film 1 will run from the start of The Hobbit to the final escape from the Misty Mountains: an intense sequence fighting with goblins and wargs and a rescue by the eagles. Film 2 will be a lot like Jackson's The Two Towers: those on the primary quest will travel slowly toward their mountain destination until everyone but a single hobbit is locked up, while a secondary thread will split off and wind up occupying most of the movie's runtime with a single battle scene blown wildly out of proportion beyond the attention Tolkien actually gave it (the White Council driving Sauron from Dol Guldur, in this case). Film 3 will center on the escape to Lake Town and the various confrontations with Smaug, and will wrap up with the (overemphasized) Battle of Five Armies (and "too many endings" again). (All three films will pull in substantial chunks of historical or auxiliary content from the LotR appendices.)
steuard: (Tolkien)
Monday, July 30th, 2012 10:26 pm

Peter Jackson confirmed today that he will make The Hobbit into three movies, rather than two as formerly planned. To my eye, this is a spectacularly bad idea. Why, you ask?

Good question... )

EDIT: I just saw a wonderfully concise statement of the issue elsewhere online: "Bilbo's reaction to the announcement of a 3rd movie was actually already quoted in The Lord of the Rings: 'I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.'"

steuard: (Default)
Sunday, July 15th, 2012 11:31 am
Charged particles released after the big solar flare last week have been reaching the Earth all weekend, and there's a good chance of an impressive aurora tonight! (I probably ought to have said something yesterday...) There's a good Aurora Forecast page from the University of Alaska that will show you what to expect where. In fact, if it weren't sunny right now, their Short Term forecast map seems to imply that auroral activity would likely be happening right over Michigan (and Montana and Maine and possibly even farther south than that) and that it might even be visible on the horizon as far south as New Orleans. Who knows whether it will be anything like that tonight, but try to have a look!
steuard: (physics)
Sunday, July 8th, 2012 08:24 am
I've finally finished mucking with my poster of the solar system!

I made some last minor adjustments to the look of it (the black goes all the way to the edge, now, as does a "throwaway" portion of the Sun image), I clarified the license terms (with explicit permission to pay someone to print a copy of your own), and I put up a link to buy the poster on Zazzle. (I don't see much need to also list at CafePress... right?)

I still don't know for sure whether the college will actually decide to print a bunch of these for marketing in August or September. If they do, I might be able to buy a few from them at cost for anyone who'd like to have a copy, which would presumably be cheaper than what you'd get from Zazzle. But you're obviously welcome to just buy the things online, too, and that would give you more flexibility about the size you want. (If you do, let me know how Zazzle's quality is!) If you have any suggestions on making the interface at Zazzle a little easier to use, I'm all ears: it's a bit annoying that I can't specify a minimum size, for instance (and that the "this aspect ratio only" option is more trouble than it's worth).

This'll be my last post about the poster for a while, honest! (Kim will no doubt be glad to hear that.)
steuard: (physics)
Wednesday, July 4th, 2012 11:58 am
The rumors were true! Both experiments at the LHC that were searching for the Higgs announced discovery-level evidence early this morning. This is a Big Deal, even if we did pretty much expect that the LHC would produce a result like this eventually. There's a lot to say (and lots of good discussions out there at various technical levels), but for a nice layman's overview I might recommend Bad Astronomy's Higgs post. The quotes near the beginning of this post by Tommaso Dorigo are good, too.

The very short version is this: a new particle has most definitely been discovered, and CERN found it by looking in all the places that one would look for the Higgs. Its properties aren't nailed down very well yet, but they appear to be broadly consistent with the properties we expect for the Standard Model Higgs. But, enticingly, there are tentative hints of some differences from that expectation, too. Further data over the next few years will (we hope) show us whether those differences are just random noise in the detection system or whether they reflect entirely new physics. (Most of us really, really hope it's the latter.)

Edit: I've seen some folks linking to a nice video explaining the Higgs from PhD Comics a couple of months ago. Also, since the topic of Comic Sans came up in my blog last week, I'm sad to see that the things I grumbled about last December were still a problem for the real announcement.

Edit2: Strassler's post lists a few more specifics in a nice, clean way.
steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012 11:04 pm
Wednesday may prove to be a very exciting day in physics: the two LHC teams searching for the Higgs boson are scheduled to give a seminar, and pretty much the entire particle physics community expects their announcement to amount to a discovery (though either experiment on its own may or may not pass the official threshold this time). This is a Big Deal: finding the Higgs was one of the primary goals of the LHC (perhaps the primary goal), and it's the very last piece of the Standard Model of particle physics whose existence has not yet been confirmed. These groups presented some very tantalizing evidence last December, but now that they've taken more data we may finally be there for real.

The really interesting thing to watch for in this announcement is whether the particle they're seeing seems to behave exactly as the Standard Model predicts, or whether its interactions are different in some subtle way. Most of us really, really hope that there are differences, because the behavior of the Higgs is sensitive to many types of "new physics": it could give us the first fundamentally new experimental evidence about the ultimate laws of nature that we've had in a decade (or maybe even three decades or more, depending on what you count as "new" and how narrowly you focus on particle physics). Nobody expects tomorrow's announcement to make solid claims about any of that: it will take years of data to really start to understand the details. But December's data seemed to have weak hints of something unexpected, so people will be watching carefully to see whether those hints get stronger or whether they fade away as the statistics improve.

I'll presumably post something all excited in the morning. But if you're interested, keep an eye on Cosmic Variance or your favorite particle physics blog for news. The seminar is at 9am in Geneva, so that's 3am Eastern. I expect to be envious of everyone on the west coast who gets to see the results live at midnight!
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 10:01 pm
When our college president sent out his monthly campus update, I was pleasantly surprised to see my picture: he was happy about the very successful public viewing event that another professor and I arranged for the transit of Venus on June 5. (I'm up for tenure this fall, so the recognition is good!) We got an article on the front page of the local paper that morning, and between that and a campus email we wound up sharing the event with something like 150-200 people over the course of the evening.

It was a lot of fun. We gave people three ways to view the transit. They could stand in line to look through our good telescope (with its solar filter). (That's what's pictured above, though this was just my attempt at a hasty, imperfectly-focused shot right before I had to leave. You can barely even make out the cool sunspots in my picture.) They could look at a fairly large image projected on the wall (pictured below), which wasn't as clear but allowed lots of people to look at once. And finally, they could use my Harvey Mudd solar viewing glasses (thanks, HMC!): it was just possible to make out the round black disk of Venus blocking the sun without magnification, but that was one of the coolest parts of the experience for me.

I won't clutter up everyone's friends pages with pictures... )

That last picture shows an impromptu scale model of the inner solar system that I set up on the football field (right next to the telescopes). I put a picture of the Sun on the 25 yard line, with the right scale to match Earth right on the goal line. Venus then wound up on the 7 yard line. If you click to zoom in on this photo, you might just be able to spot the tiny picture of Earth printed there (which is also to scale, along with the Moon and the distance between them). The solar system is big, and it's something of a miracle that these tiny little planets with their differently-tilted orbits ever manage to line up enough for transits at all. In fact, I got rather excited talking about all this to the crowd: a friend took a video of me giving my last "welcome chatter" of the night, after the crowd had thinned out a lot. (The college made its own video of the event, too. But it doesn't look like anyone thought to take pictures of the long line that we had for the first hour or so.)

Finally, the fun of the event and of tracking down pictures of the sun and planets for my scale model got me interested in making a poster of the planets to put up outside our planetarium. I spent a block of time hunting around NASA websites for big chunks of a weekend and a few evenings, and assembled this:

The full-resolution PDF will print 4'x3' with a resolution of at least 120dpi (and considerably more for many objects); I'll eventually be sharing it under a Creative Commons license. I'm pretty proud of it: you can't read them on this little picture, but each planet and moon comes with some interesting fact about the object. (There are very few posters like this based on real images, and too many of those obsess over dull numerical data instead of remarkable things like Mars's seasonal dry ice caps or Triton's probable geysers of liquid nitrogen.)
steuard: (Default)
Monday, June 4th, 2012 06:48 pm
Tomorrow (Tuesday, June 5) starting at about 6:04 Eastern time, the planet Venus will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun. This is a Rare Thing: the next time will be in 2117. There's been a lot of good science done using these transits in the past (like the first good estimates of the size of the solar system) and they still provide neat science opportunities today (like the plan to refine exoplanet detection by looking at the moon that I wrote about previously).

So look around locally for a chance to view the transit in person! Lots of observatories and planetariums and other groups will be organizing viewing events, which is probably your best bet. If you want to view it yourself, you can look at the official Transit of Venus site for some suggestions. (Don't look directly at the sun! Don't point an ordinary telescope at the sun!) Or look for some of the many webcasts out there: the Bad Astronomy site is planning what sounds like a good one, and there are others from NASA and other places. But you should really try to have a look: it won't look awe inspiring, but watching this sort of thing as it happens and thinking about the vast celestial objects in play can inspire great thoughts on astronomy and our place in the universe. Good stuff!