Sunday, March 23, 2008

Overheard in the Study Room

Two students doing a problem for classical mechanics, arguing over a pulley system. One argues his point by saying to the other, "it's an ideal world, right?"

I love this line because you hear something like that uttered so rarely, and it's even more rare to hear someone reply immediately by saying yes. (For non-physicists, an "ideal" system is one where cumbersome things like friction and air resistance do not exist.) For better or worse, physicists are a bunch of Don Quixotes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

The "favorite science fiction authors to die within the past year" trifecta has come to pass with the passing of Arthur C. Clarke yesterday (the first two were, of course, Kurt Vonnegut and Madeline L'Engle). Clarke is of course best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey but was also a prolific writer of short stories, and was the guy who thought up the concept of geostationary orbit for a satellite.

Clarke is tied with Ray Bradbury as my favorite science fiction writer not as much for the 2001 series but rather because of the short stories. I discovered them in high school and happily spent weeks working through the telephone-book thickness of The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. I loved the originality and complexity conveyed in just a few short pages for each miniature masterpiece, but most of all the hope and fancifulness of science fiction really made it all a lot more fun. I mean hey, we were going to find obelisks on the Moon and life on Jupiter V and survive the sun going nova on us and all sorts of things! No wonder space travel in actuality came as a disappointment.

I confess one thing though: I might have read every single thing he read, but with the notable exception of Rama (and the subsequent trilogy) I never fell in love with Clarke's longer works. He lost direction easily, and towards the end of the 2001 series he started just explaining things away by saying "well there were new advances in physics in the future that makes this freaky levitation possible! yay!" and what not. I will also further confess that I never actually did see all of 2001 the movie- I was in elementary school when my dad rented it once, but decided it was boring about 10 minutes in and never got a chance to watch it again. I'll have to get on that.

So if you've a moment, get yourself a drink and page through a few of the old stories. A master writer does not leave this Earth without leaving a long-reaching record behind.

"He was now master of the world, and he was not sure what to do next. But he would think of something..."

Friday, March 14, 2008

California, Here We Come

Summer is upon us, and so is the exciting time of year when everyone finally hears back from their summer jobs and the like. As I am not planning on graduating until December 2008 (unlike most everyone else wrapping things up in May from my year) I fall into the interesting position of still qualifying for undergraduate funding for summer programs. Combined with the fact that I also hold more research experience than most anyone else applying to such programs- not many juniors out there completing a senior project!- I submitted my application to a few choice REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates- a US summer program at various Interesting and Exciting Locations) to see what would happen.

Result: I will be spending my summer working for Dr. Jill Tarter in Mountain View, California, on the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Hooray! The ATA is a new radio telescope array being built in northern California (~5 hour drive from San Francisco) jointly between UC-Berkeley and the SETI Institute. Right now there are 40-odd dishes but the array will involve several hundred when completed, and will have an unprecedented field of view and simultaneous frequency range in radio astronomy. My job, more or less, will be to look at the current breakdowns the radio telescopes are cropping up with and database them and see if there are correlations in that etc. In short, a great project to get my hands dirty when it comes to learning about radio astronomy, as this is something I have wanted to do for a very long time.

Oh, and incidentally, yes, I will be working at the SETI Institute but will be doing good science so it evens out, and Jill Tarter is a rather impressive radio astronomer who I'm very excited to be working with (as far as the "notability" test goes, she does have a page on Wikipedia which is kinda nifty). And for those who don't know, Mountain View (yes, where Google is headquartered) is about an hour south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley, and because Auckland reminded me of what little I remembered of San Francisco last time I was there it should be sweet. At the very least, I am looking forward to redwoods, a vibrant city, and learning about radio astronomy!

Here's to summer. Looking at the things I need to do in the next few weeks (finish senior project, take the Physics GRE, regular classwork...) I am kind of wishing I can fast forward to then, but at least this way I'll relish it all the more when it comes.

Women in Science

I've been bad at the blogging thing lately, so really quickly before I forget here is a column I wrote a few weeks ago on the exciting topic of women in science. Due to a reference to a particular incident about a year ago referenced the article generated quite a bit of discussion, most of which was very supportive and I loved hearing so many people's takes on the issue (and before anyone asks, yes, I'm fine, and no, this was a rather isolated incident so far as my experience within the physics department).

And that's really all I have to say on this issue because I'm kind of tired of discussing it and have more pressing things to do (senior project, Physics GRE, and classes come to mind). This isn't to say I don't find the lack of females in fields like physics upsetting, it just means I'm in school to study physics and not any sociological ramifications! Hope that makes sense.