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. )
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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: (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.)
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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.)
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Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 03:05 pm
In a brief lull after lunch today, I happened upon a link to a cool-sounding science story: Giant Triassic Kraken Lair Discovered!. The gist of the story is that there's a fossil bed of ichthyosaurs in Nevada that's puzzling: nine bus-sized fossils were found in the same place, with no sign of how they all died. There's evidence that the location of the carcasses was in deep water when they were deposited: how did they all wind up in the same place?

Now paleontologist Mark McMenamin claims to have the answer. Based on some etching on the bones, he suggests that the icthyosaurs died elsewhere and were carried to this central location by some other creature. Modern-day octopuses collect bones in that way, so he suggests that there was a vast Triassic cephalopod (which he dubs a "kraken") that collected and indeed hunted these bus-sized aquatic reptiles (in the same way that a modern octopus may attack a shark). Why have we never found any trace of this kraken? Because cephalopods are made almost entirely of soft tissues that don't fossilize well.

But that's not all! Some of the bones in the fossil deposit are arranged in surprisingly regular patterns, with the disk-like vertebrae packed close together almost as if placed there intentionally... so McMenamin, looking at the huge patterns of close-packed circles, goes on to claim that the bones were knowingly arranged by the kraken as a self-portrait of the suckers on its arms! In words from his conference press release, the "vertebral disc 'pavement' seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait," and the kraken "could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever".


On the one hand, I'm tremendously intrigued: I've long wondered just how certain we can be that intelligent life has never arisen on Earth before. But it only takes a moment's thought to develop a lot of skepticism about this story. On the basis of a single moderately confusing reptile fossil site, McMenamin has hypothesized not just a race of ginormous killer octopuses (no trace of which has ever been found or previously suggested) but a race of intelligent, artistic ginormous killer octopuses. Cool though it may sound, the leaps of logic in that story are laughably vast.

Does this Geological Society of America conference by chance have a crackpot session? (And why are they issuing press releases about this sort of raw speculation?)
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Friday, September 2nd, 2011 06:38 pm
Ah, what a nice day to eat lunch in the courtyard behind my office!

Or maybe not.
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Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 11:25 pm
Just before finals last year, I put up some workplace safety posters around our building:
(I thought about making my own, but it was hard to find good raptor art so I just went with the best existing version I could find online.) I added post-it notes denoting "21" days, then "22", then "23", and a fair number of students seemed to be amused by the whole thing. (I even admitted responsibility to a few of them.)

Flash forward to this past Monday, when I walked into the building and found these:
I have no idea who might have done it, but I was so, so proud. I can only assume it was a student (or more than one).

(Sadly, I realized today that these two posters had disappeared. My first assumption was that a housekeeping person saw the "vandalized" posters and took them down without thinking, but it struck me that it's also possible that they were taken by people who found them as funny as I do.)
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Sunday, July 24th, 2011 04:38 pm
After two years, I've finally managed to download photos from my phone's camera. So here are a handful of random images that seemed interesting:

A few years back, Harvey Mudd advertized the upcoming reunion weekend by sending us a set of word magnets for the refrigerator. We haven't had a set of our own (maybe we should), so there were only so many sentences we could form with them. Here's the one that's been on our fridge for the past couple of years:


For a few months, Kim and I saw this billboard every time we drove to Lansing, and it always made us laugh: we thought it would work much better if we snuck out one night and changed the "L" to an "R".


And a few more... )

Maybe I'll eventually track down some new baby pictures, too. :)
steuard: (cats)
Sunday, June 12th, 2011 08:21 pm
Our cats appear to be big fans of the new glider rocker (and matching ottoman) that we bought for comfortably rocking the impending baby to sleep. It's rare to find them all clustered in one place these days, but...

One more pic behind the cut... )
I can't blame them: it's a really comfy chair. (Very well constructed, too.)
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steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 05:11 pm
It's been a long, long time since I wrote anything here: I've just finished teaching an intensive one month "Spring Term" class on Medical Physics that met two to three hours a day, five days a week. This might have been less stressful if I'd ever taught (or taken) a class on the subject before (or if I hadn't spent the whole week between my previous final exams and the class starting writing and giving a conference talk in Chicago). But it seems to have gone well, and I've now officially hit summer vacation! That means that I get to procrastinate on baby preparation and paper writing by sharing cool recent science tidbits.

The first is serious physics, and has the potential to be tremendously exciting if it pans out: the CDF experiment at Fermilab may have found the first direct evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics! For a nice layman's summary, my friend Sean Carroll has a good writeup at Cosmic Variance; for some more detail, follow the links to posts at Résonaances. I won't try to repeat them here; I'll just show the exciting data:

and comment that the red line is the expected Standard Model result and the blue bump above would presumably correspond to an entirely new neutral particle about 150 times heavier than a proton. This result still isn't 100% solid: it's a "4.8 sigma" result, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen by chance, but until it's reproduced by Fermilab's D0 experiment or by the LHC there's always the chance that someone forgot to carry a two during the data analysis.

The second thing to share is a beautiful time-lapse video of the Earth rotating under the stars that was recently adapted from an earlier video of stars rotating in the sky. It's a vivid demonstration of the Earth's motion through the heavens that makes you rethink your assumptions about what's really moving when you watch the sky. Here's the video; seriously consider watching it full-screen in HD!
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011 01:52 pm
It's Kim's birthday today, and in lieu of a cake she asked me to make her the decadent Quiche Lorraine recipe that we got from Cooks Illustrated a few years ago. It's absolutely delicious, with multiple yummy cheeses (some in the crust) and home-cooked bacon bits and a custard made with more half & half and sour cream than egg. It comes out looking pretty, too:


Meanwhile, we've been mostly focused on our pregnancy recently, so we haven't said much about our cats lately. They continue to be adorable, and they're growing up quite nicely. Here are a couple of pictures of the three of them lounging on the radiator together:


(From left to right, that's Nia, Callie, and Polly. Little Callie is almost as big as her sisters now!)
The cats' latest achievement around the house is the discovery that various cupboard and closet doors around the house can be opened if you maneuver your nose and claws just right. Kim woke up this morning to find the linen closet door open (a first!) and the three catnip toys that we keep there scattered around the hallway, all completely soaked with kitty drool.

Oh, and in case you've wondered, we did finally get rid of that fallen tree in our yard. The neighbor called a friend with a chainsaw, and we took the thing apart and left it on the curb for the city's yard waste pickup. (Though in fact, someone randomly drove by later and picked up a lot of it for firewood.) It came out pretty thoroughly, too: the split in the trunk went low enough to break through the main roots, so we don't even have a stump!
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Saturday, March 26th, 2011 12:17 pm
The world here had begun to warm up and start looking like spring, but a few days ago Winter decided that it wouldn't go away without throwing one last, nasty punch. So we got a layer of ice, then a layer of wet, heavy snow, then another layer of ice, and finally another layer of wet, heavy snow. That made clearing the sidewalks and driveway a real pain: doing any shoveling by hand was hard because of the solid ice layer in the middle (and on the bottom), and even our pretty spiffy snowblower usually needed two passes or more to clear the ground. (It would often start by just plowing on top of the middle ice layer.)

But the worst victims were the plants. The initial coating of ice was a perfect surface for heavy snow to accumulate on, and the second ice layer just served to lock the snow in place. The weight proved to be too much for an old tree in our front yard. Toward the end of the storm, it ended up splitting down the middle. A big segment fell across the sidewalk, and the rest fell to the side, crushing the fence and the neighbor's bushes. Here's a picture taken after I'd already gotten the sidewalk clear:

For comparison, here's what the tree looked like (from another angle) when we bought the house: I'll tuck the other pictures away off of your Friends pages... )
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Tuesday, November 16th, 2010 10:04 pm

This could easily be the cover of a science fiction novel. When I saw this picture as the Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday, I was struck with a sense of awe: we're living in the future. It's taking a lot longer than everyone once hoped, but we're getting there. This picture is beautiful, and I'm delighted that it's real.

(I hoped to post this yesterday, but I didn't have the time. Then today, I saw [livejournal.com profile] springbok1's post with this title and it brought the picture to mind again, and later I saw [livejournal.com profile] pmb link to a blog with much the same reaction, so I figure it's post now or never.)
steuard: (cats)
Monday, August 30th, 2010 08:44 am

In my last post, I shared a picture of the cat who was visiting our porch:

He's still been around today, and Kim made a surprising connection. Waaaaaay back when, we posted pictures that we'd taken of the house when we were still deciding whether to buy it, including these:

Those pictures include Gilbert, the cat who belonged to the previous owners of the house. It's pretty convincing that this is him, but I have absolutely no idea how he made his way here. (Maybe he came with the house after all!)

In fact, Kim just called our neighbors, who have now peered out their window and confirmed that it is indeed Gilbert. They're going to see if they can get in touch with the previous owners' daughter, who lives not far away. Meanwhile, we've put out some water: it's hot today!

steuard: (cats)
Sunday, August 29th, 2010 08:53 am

For the past half hour or so, Callie has been absolutely fascinated by a visitor who showed up on our porch:

Disappointingly, interacting with the visitor hasn't been as easy as she'd like. Not only does the strange cat not respond when Callie gets up into her attack poses, but any attempt to follow through on that threat with a paw or a leap is blocked by some sort of hard, invisible wall.

Somehow, I get the impression that this new cat understands windows a bit better than Callie does. (Polly has started to express interest, too, but she has yet to try to fight through glass.)

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Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 07:07 pm
I'm really trying to figure out what happened here:

My best guess (which still seems crazy) is that the person designing these measuring cups looked up a conversion factor from ounces to metric and from cups to metric, and the two factors were rounded differently, so they decided to put both (different!) scales on the cup.

It's amazing how much less that makes me trust the thing. What else did they get horribly wrong? (And how did this ever get past any sort of quality control?)

Edit: Oh, hey, just ask Wikipedia. Apparently, the people making this measuring cup decided that the people using it in the US where it's being sold would surely intend to use "metric cups" (250 ml). A customary US cup is about 237 ml. Strangely, the legal definition (for nutrition labeling) of one cup in the US is 240 ml. Meanwhile, an Imperial cup is 284 ml. A Japanese cup is 200 ml, which for some reason differs from the traditional Japanese "gō" which measures 180 ml (all of which explains why the cups that come with rice cookers are so confusing).
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Monday, July 19th, 2010 09:12 pm
Today's xkcd comic raises point:

It seems awfully likely to me that graphing calculators have stagnated for some of the same reasons that textbook prices have skyrocketed. They're selected by people who don't have to pay for them, institutions tend to standardize on something and stick with it out of inertia, and their cost gets lumped in with the high cost of education (public or private).

I don't know what to do about graphing calculators (short of having everyone buy computers or something that they're likely to use ever again), but there are bound to be new possibilities in the works for textbooks. I'd think that some sort of free, "open source" textbook series could do quite well (especially if there were a reasonable way for college bookstores to print it on demand). Anyone out there know of such a thing in the physics world? (Intro physics especially.)
steuard: (cats)
Monday, June 14th, 2010 09:12 pm
We got a new chair a few weeks ago (we brought it home from my mother's house in Nebraska), and I've been meaning to post a note about how much our cats seem to like it (especially Polly):

But my goodness, it's been a while since I've posted anything about them. And I'll put this behind a cut for the sake of those who'd rather keep it that way. )
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Monday, June 14th, 2010 08:25 pm
When we moved into our house, Kim and I knew that an early maintenance priority would be replacing the roof of the garage. The damage was easy to see; in this picture from last year, it's especially obvious along the left edge:

Earlier this spring we arranged for someone to do it once the weather was good enough, but we hadn't heard back about their schedule yet.

Flash forward to yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. We were excited that Aaron Lamb was going to stop by for the night on his way to go hiking in northern Michigan, since we hadn't seen him since college. In the middle of the afternoon, we got a call from the roofer: assuming it wasn't going to rain, would Monday morning be good? Eager to get the job done, we said that sounded good.

Aaron showed up as planned, and we had a great time catching up and kept talking well past midnight. We set our alarms for 8am, to make sure we'd be up when the roofers got here. Turns out, I hadn't thought to ask when to expect them in the morning. At 6:30 AM, I woke up to voices behind the house: the roofers were already setting up scaffolding beside the garage. We watched them stripping old shingles and starting to lay new ones over breakfast (mmm, yeast waffles), and Aaron headed out by mid-morning. Somewhere around 1 PM, the noises outside ended and the new roof was done:

So while we didn't get enough sleep, we're thoroughly impressed that we went from "how does tomorrow sound?" to "new roof complete" in less than 24 hours.