Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Talk

Me giving my first "real" physics talk to a room of about 20 physicists (aka my senior project presentation). It was well-recieved, which is always good, and I've discovered that I have a tendancy to crack jokes when nervous. I'm certain this surprises absolutely no one...

Be back in this space when exams are done. Cheers!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Modest Proposal

Today is the last publication of the year for The Observer, meaning I am out of a writing job for about four months. I am sure this will be a very sad thing once I'm done with my finals and have time to reflect on it, but that's a week and some days off just yet.

So as my last hurrah of the year, I wrote a piece titled "A Modest Proposal for a New Alma Mater." The modest proposal bit is, of course, a tip of the hat to Jonathan Swift and an indication that it shouldn't be taken too seriously, but it turns out the adviser to The Observer is uncultured and didn't get that. There was some arguing over a certian stanza- I'm sure you can guess which one- but once I reminded my editor it's the last issue so she doesn't have to worry about printing letters anymore we ran it as is. Hooray! Column in full-

One thing I never quite understood about commencement at any institution is the singing of the alma mater. The alma mater is, of course, the official school anthem which you might have heard once four years ago during orientation, except you don't remember it because you were too busy checking out new classmates to see if any were cute. In hindsight, you feel kind of silly that you fell for that blockhead idiot whereas it might have been avoided had you paid attention to the alma mater in the first place, so during convocation you will try your best to sing along from the sheet to cover up this prior transgression.

Let's all admit it together: it's a farce. No student knows the words or the tune to this song, and there's no reason for our relatives to magically know them either. (In fact, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't know the CWRU alma mater is Shine On, Case Western Reserve, written by a student who graduated in the early 1990s, unless I told you.) So why do the organizers of convocation feel obliged to put it in the program each year? You're not going to suddenly start feeling nostalgic for your time at university thanks to a song you never heard while attending. It strikes me very much as one of those traditions in convocation we have because it feels like we should have because all the other universities do, even if our alma mater was written fairly recently and no one knows the words or tune.

Personally, if this were up to me we would sing a song – I'm the sort always looking for a socially acceptable excuse to sing in public – but the song would be revamped. Something to properly evoke nostalgia for my college years, which would go something like this:

Dear Case Western Reserve, that great fountain of knowledge,
Where we hung out and did our four years of college,
Our time would be incomplete unless we do acknowledge
The things that shaped us to who we are today.

There were those humid stifling nights and horrid winter squalls,
The doors that locked behind you in the residence halls,
And there were those obligatory late night homework calls
To see if anyone knew how to do number three…

There were the sporting events that we never attended,
The pranks which, in hindsight, should have got us suspended,
And those labs which dragged on and never ended
But were pretty damn sweet nonetheless.

And of course the friendships forged which were truly incredible
While pondering if Leutner's food was actually edible,
How the "Macarena" in the jukebox was truly regrettable,
And cool, they have brownies today!

And there was the guy over 21 who bought us our liquor,
And those shots we took down quick, and then quicker,
To that subsequent morning where we couldn't feel sicker,
(Because hey, this was college after all…)

Soon we'll scatter, each toward a separate vocation,
But fear not: regardless of your means or location
You'll soon get letters asking for an alumnus donation
To our dear school, Case Western Reserve!

Anyone who finds him or herself singing the above words at convocation will receive my utmost respect and adoration, if not necessarily a diploma. Either way, thanks for a great year everybody! It's been fun, it's been grand, and we'll see you next fall.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Garfield Minus Garfield

I came across a website today called Garfield Minus Garfield. Basically some insightful soul went through a bunch of old Garfield comics and deleted Garfield himself from all the scenes, thus leaving Jon as the only one to carry the show. As someone who is deeply saddened that Garfield went downhill in recent years (and I checked the older collections- it's not just me growing up, they were funnier), it was good to laugh at a few strips even if they were sort of missing the main guy in the show.

(By the way, I am vaguely aware that in recent years Jon and Liz are now dating and, yes, this means Jon actually has a girlfriend. What?)

(Second comic courtesy xkcd, of course.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Star Trek

The semester is winding down, and I devoted my second to last column of the year to Star Trek, and how I've never seen it. In my particular line of study this stands out as a rather odd state of things, you see, and I've gotten quite a few interesting reactions!

I hate the headline though- I forgot to make one up again so one was made for me. Even if I learn nothing else from writing Quarked this year it should be that you should always take a second to think up a good headline, as there's no reason for the layout editor to be clever in your stead.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

My First PR Shot

Remember how I went to Boston several weeks ago to the AAAS conference because I won that snazzy science journalism award? Well when that happened the chair of my physics department decided to tip off the university public relations people in charge of writing press releases and what not for around here, and they came and interviewed me and took a few shots of me standing by the setup of the Michelson-Morley Experiment in the basement of the physics department (my favorite of which is on the left, though they chose another for the article itself). Then for about two months nothing happened as the university has a several month backlog on press releases, so I'd forgotten about the whole thing.

Then last Thursday while I was taking a break from my GRE Physics exam studying (I took it on Saturday) someone in the hall told me "hey, saw you in the Case Daily!" The Case Daily is the university's email newsletter where they print various articles regarding what's going on on campus, the university in the news, and, of course, the latest batch of press releases. I go to check it out, and promptly laughed upon reading the first line. The main headline for the day was "Now reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in Boston... senior Yvette Cendes," and the article begins as follows:

Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss—a writer of popular science books—may have some future competition for the bestsellers' list. Recently the National Science Writers Association (NASW) chose senior physics major Yvette Cendes as one of 10 undergraduates to participate in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston...
Full text of the article can be found here. Or you can go to the main website of CWRU, aka, and click on the link there as my name's on the main page, which is neat.

So now I have PR shots, which will surely come in handy when I need something for the dust jacket of all those bestsellers I'm apparently going to write soon.

Oh, and because I forgot to mention it then, this is actually my second PR thing as of late. The first was me being one of the March staff members of the month for the Journal of Young Investigators- quite nice of them seeing as I hardly ever find time to write for them anymore- and you can see that press release here. And before I forget something else, my picture is also in the March issue of QST, the largest Ham radio magazine in circulation, because a picture of me doing ham radio is in their files and they like to pull it up periodically for random articles...

Alright, this will end now because while it's always nice to have your accomplishments noted the limelight gets embarrassing. That and your thesaurus starts running out of different things to say when every conversation with passing acquaintances you have is on the lines of "hey, I saw you in the Case Daily..."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

All The News That's Fit to Print

A few people who know me know that I often like to set things in motion that end up being a big deal even though I am no longer associated with it. Usually I keep these end results to myself because I tend to think I'm more important than I really am, but when The New York Times gets involved I feel like perhaps it merits a mention.

These past few weeks, see, we've been having a few letters and guest columns that appeared as the result of my column a few weeks ago about women in science. This was written well over a month ago, but it has sparked the longest running dialogue this year in our campus newspaper's editorial pages, including a letter from the dean, a guest column, a letter saying this was an overreaction, and yet another letter from the women's studies center saying it wasn't. The guest column was particularly noteworthy- it was written as a secondary response to my original piece, and detailed an incident in the writer's engineering class where a lecturer showed an image of a topless woman when discussing a new advertising technique.

I won't go into details about the classroom incident because the actual seriousness varies depending on who you ask. (Though I am no longer on speaking terms with the physics major who told me it was an overreaction by stating "It was silly for that girl [who wrote the column] to be upset. She's not attractive at all so no one's looking at her like she's a piece of meat anyway.") Further, this extended dialog happens quite often in university newspapers- it's one of their charms honestly- and when done right the person who had the first say fades out pretty early on. My name stopped getting mention in the third week or so, which I was perfectly okay with to be honest because I have enough else to do than get heavily involved. Only a very narcissistic person would think their initial column should be the focal point several weeks into the future anyway, as this implies your work was too weak to allow the debate to evolve beyond it to the issues themselves.

Then, of course, The New York Times showed up and decided to do an article about the advertising technique from the engineering class, which is a rather silly effort to place bar codes around campus. Because the human element is always nice, sure enough our dialogue and the sexist incident in particular worked its way in there. (And they quoted my friend, the lovely news editor and physics major Ms. Alison Dietz. Yay!) As I've already said, how much this has something to do with me is arguable, as this was not the primary focus of the article, but it amuses me nonetheless that a newspaper of international repute has reported on our campus exchange. A columnist above all likes to get people talking, and I think it's fair to say that I've achieved that.

And as a final postscript to those interested, I have now learned more about sexism at my university than I ever cared to know. The stories are not mine to share so I'm not repeating them here, but any decent person would be upset at some of them and we definitely still have a long way to go on this issue.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

From the Evolution Debate

"I would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a man who ridicules serious scientific discussion." -Thomas Huxley

I'm writing a paper for my history of science class about Darwin, and came across this. It's from a famous debate about evolution at Oxford in 1860 against a man named Wilberforce, and the above was apparently the pinnacle of the debate. Several people gasped, and one woman fainted outright.

God I love history. Even if I have to feel a little sad because I've never been to a scientific debate so intense that people fainted.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chicago, Chicago...

Whenever I mention it, a lot of people have had a hard time believing I'd never been to Chicago. It's right there, just a few hours drive away from Cleveland, and apparently if you've been to four continents it's assumed you've already hit up the major cities near you. Dunno why, but that's the way it is, and fact of the matter is I never got around to visiting Chicago until last weekend.

I will say though, now that I've been I'm very happy I have. It really is a lovely city, filled with wide streets and impressive skyscrapers combined with one of the nicest waterfronts you're likely to find anywhere. If you get the chance to spend some time there, you really should.

But anyway, we spent our day starting off at the waterfront of Lake Michigan, admiring the clear skies and skyline. Our first stop was at the Art Institute of Chicago, but there was a line literally wrapping around the block for tickets so we just admired the outside briefly-
And then, realizing there's only so much to do on the outside of a museum, we wandered over to the world-famous Field Museum of Natural History a bit further down the lakefront. As we were all geeks anyway, this was not a problem, but I don't think even non-geeks would have an issue with the Field Museum as it's a magnificent place.
The entrance hall to the Field Museum, originally built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (yes, the same one in Devil in theWhite City). It's impressively large even today.

This dinosaur is Sue the Tyrannasorous Rex, who lives in the main entrance hall. Sue is the most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world (~90% has been found), and she really is a lovely old gal... We spent most of our time wandering around the plant section, resulting in many "oh, so that's what tea looks like when you grow it!" moments (ok I won't lie, we were most interested in the section on hallucinogenic plants), but what impressed me most was the exhibit covering 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. They redid it just a few years ago, combining the world-class fossils the museum has with some new graphics, and it has to be the most impressive such display I've seen anywhere.
Basically, the display starts you off with the origins of life- nothing too exciting, just single-celled organisms, except this is the Field Museum so if you pay attention you'll notice they have the oldest rock with amino acids on display and the first fossils showing multicellular growth. Sweet! Then life evolves, and you get treated to a view of what the pre-Cambrian ocean would have been like (shown above) along with the fossils laid out below so you can match pictures with fossils and really get a sense of things. Whenever you're done you just walk on, and as the display is linear you eventually reach other eras, ranging from dinos to the first mammals to the first humans... you get the idea. You pass through the extinction zones too, which are rather interesting in their own way because it gives you perspective on how things fall into place.
An example of one of many wonderful fossils they have at the Field Museum. This thing is perhaps six feet tall and tell me, have you ever seen a perfectly preserved palm frond with fish randomly added in anywhere else in the world?
A giant sloth that's part of the exhibit. I never really thought I could find something scary that's stupid enough to grab its own arms thinking they're tree branches and fall to death (no really, they do that!), but this guy would scare the hell out of me...
The last Field Museum picture, coincidentally also the last from the evolution display, which is a montage of images around Charles Darwin's famous quote, "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." That sums it up wonderfully...

Anyway, we left the Field Museum and headed towards Michigan Avenue, slowly making our way north toward the John Hancock Center...
If you ever want to study skyscraper architecture, by the way, Chicago's got to be the best place in the world to do it. Skyscrapers really are, for the most part, an American thing and if you go to a place like New York City they're not as well spread out to be admired (as Manhattan's only got a set amount of space to work with), but in Chicago everything is a clear and glittering work of steel and glass. They're still building gigantic ones too, like the new Trump Tower, which is impressive in itself as most cities in the USA haven't done such a thing in several years.
If you ever plan to go to the West, take the highway, that's my way, that's the best...

For some odd reason, I have a mild fascination with Route 66- I think it has to do with the romantic idea of the road, coupled by the fact that everyone I know from outside the US thinks it's a big deal whereas everyone from the US knows it's been decommissioned years ago as an actual highway (and that no one within the US really bothers now that the Interstate exists, including Okies). So there was a disproportionate amount of happiness on my part to discover that Historic Route 66 begins just across from the Art Institute on a side street if you're walking up Michigan Avenue, to the point that it merits mention here.
Another stop was in Millennium Park, which is a bunch of outdoor art done at the turn of the millenium. This picture is of "the bean," a giant shiny stainless steel sculpture which reflects the Chicago skyline and the numerous tourists around it. Unfortunately this is the best picture I got, as my camera started getting rather finicky and stopped taking pictures for a few hours, but you get the idea.
Anyway, we wandered north on Michigan Avenue, stopping to sample some famous Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (verdict: it's awesome if you're ravenously hungry, which we were), heading towards the John Hancock Center. The Hancock Center is the second largest building in Chicago after the famous Sears Tower of course, and we heard that firstly the view is better from up there and secondly it's a lot cheaper. As it turns out, the Hancock Center has a lounge area on the 96th floor, so you can go up for free (as opposed to paying $11 for the observation deck) and have a drink instead, which we figured would work out cheaper and better so that's what we did. It ended up that we spent so much time admiring the view from various parts of the floor (there are several different sides, the one in the picture above is facing north) that we decided to leave without said drink and we got to admire the skyline for free!
The John Hancock Center from below. I consider it to be a modern marvel in itself that I took this picture and the one preceding it no less than five minutes apart!

And after that, as it was getting late and we were still driving back to Cleveland that night, we headed out on the El to our car and began the long ride home (and it should be noted that I've now been to more than half the states even by the most frugal estimates, as we passed through Indiana as well). Chicago really is a fun place to poke around, and I'm glad I got the chance! Perhaps I'll pass through it again in a few months if I end up driving out to San Francisco.


There's a famous story amongst physicists about Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermilab who played a huge role in the development and construction of the facility. Once, when pressed by a US Senator on whether Fermilab would do for national security, Wilson retorted by saying "it has nothing to do with the defense of our nation, except to make it worth defending."

I was thinking a lot about this this weekend because our Physics and Astronomy Club got the wonderful opportunity to visit Fermilab, and let the record show that Wilson is absolutely right. It really is a great place, filled with world-class research that is downright exciting to see for yourself!
This is the main building at Fermilab, which was our first stop of the day after waking up really early in the morning to drive the ~6 hours from Cleveland to Batavia, Illinois. We were supposed to meet at 6 but I didn't wake up until my friend called me at 6:25 asking where I was, which prompted a loud "why the [censored] did my alarm not go off?!?" followed by frantic scurrying out the door. Our car was actually on the road by 6:35 though, so no problem getting there (and I confess I don't remember much of the drive, as I spent most of it napping in the back seat there and back).

But anyway, if you ever go and tour Fermilab you'll probably be taken to the top story of the building above, which is a museum of sorts for the facility and has a great view-

This picture is looking out from the main enterance. Don't be fooled by the decorative-looking ponds, they're actually there to drain in case the giant Tevatron accelerator's superconducting magnets stop doing their job correctly.... Fermilab for the most part doesn't look that impressive from above for the simple reason that most particle experiments are done underground, but they've creatively made up for this by making the place the biggest restorative prairie in the state of Illinois. There's even a herd of buffalo wandering around the place.
This is another view from the 15th story, this one looking towards part of the Tevatron (the entire ring is four miles in circumference or so, so I couldn't even begin to see all of it, let alone get a decent picture). Essentially the point of the Tevatron is to speed up ionized hydrogen gas so it travels just a tiny fraction under the speed of light, then smash together the particles and see what we see. It's sort of like if you had a clock and smashed it to have all the parts fly apart and tried to reassemble the clock based on what you find. Doesn't sound very effective in a sense, but this is really what particle physicists do except for atoms and for Fermilab this proved to be quite effective- the top quark and bottom quark were discovered here.
We couldn't go into the Tevatron itself but there was a mockup with mirrors so you could step in and sort of get a feel for what it's like. Currently the Tevatron is the most powerful operational particle accelerator in the world until the Large Hadron Collider turns on later this year, after which the Tevatron will be shut down (as the LHC will be several times more powerful). We also learned that the Tevatron gets an electric bill of approximately a million dollars a month, making me conclude that the local electric company really hit the jackpot when Batavia won the rights to build it.
We did get to take a look at the control room for the Tevatron, which is pictured above. I must say the operators had a great sense of humor about it- there's a large glass panel all the tours stop at, so they put up a "do not feed the operators" sign on the door for good measure. Further, at one point one of the operators abruptly turned us and snapped a picture of us with his own camera as retaliation for all the ones we were taking, and I thought that was hilarious.

We also checked out one of the smaller experiments on site, known as MiniBooNE. This one tests for neutrino mass via neutrino oscillations, and they specially built a tunnel 300 feet below ground to do it (so ~30 stories). It's a pretty long elevator ride!
Here's what the tunnel looked like underground. I think I prefer looking at the sky.
This large box is part of an experiment in the tunnel trying to find dark matter. Basically there's a bit of water inside and a particle passing through leaves a bubble trail, so you're looking for a bubble trail that would be left over from a dark matter candidate... Of course, you get noise from things like cosmic rays that find their way in even down here and radioactive decay from the glass holding the water and all sorts of things most people would never think of, so no dark matter yet. You can hear the machine go "ping" once a minute or so thanks to all the false positives.

And this is in no way a critical judgment against my friends who are dedicating their lives to the dark matter search, but I decided within five minutes this is not exactly my sort of project. This is, of course, the amount of time the novelty of being 30 stories underground wears off on you, and don't know if I could spend years obsessing over if my glass is radioactive and what not. Different strokes for different folks...
This is the origin of the neutrinos in miniBooNE, which are generated here on the order of a billion neutrinos pulsed every 2.5 seconds (so standing in front of it means you're in the most concentrated beam of neutrinos on the planet- luckily they pass right through you harmlessly!). The neutrinos then tunnel underground to another detector in a mine in Soudan, Minnesota several hundred miles away- leading physicists to joke that they're using Wisconsin as a drift space- and they vary the type of neutrinos produced so they can see if there are any differences between the pulses upon detection.

Explaining how exactly you make a neutrino beam takes a fair amount of time and I don't want to make this much longer than it already is/ will be, so if you're interested take a gander over here.
Finally, our group underground (there were actually 20 or so students on this trip, but only so many of us could be underground at a given time). Now that I look at this picture, all I can say is I'm the one who really stands out compared to all the dark colors everyone else was apparently wearing!

As one last entertaining postscript, we went to the visitor center while waiting for the last group to finish touring, which is filled with cute little science displays you usually find at science centers to entertain little kids. Needless to say we had a blast, but I was particularly enamored with this one-
I really can't pretend to know why it was there, but in short it's a scintillator panel cosmic ray detector, which is something I'm using in my own senior project setup! So if I don't get mine to work, think they'll let me hang out in the Fermilab visitor center and collect data?

But anyway, that was the end of our time at Fermilab as we were off to a swanky restaurant to hang out with some members of the Case Alumni Association who were kind enough to foot our trip bill. I spent a lot of time talking to Cyrus Taylor, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and speaker for the night, and we spent a great deal of time discussing things like women in science, string theory, and Dean Taylor's crazy backpacking trip through Tanzania after he got his PhD which involved an economic meltdown and him getting sick with malaria for three weeks. You know, normal physicist talk!

And last but not least we were all exhausted having gotten up so early, so we went back to the hotel to crash. Because after all there was a big day ahead of us, with the city of Chicago looming nearby...

Playing with Physics

Who is this crab, and why is he hanging out on the roof of a building on campus? The answer can be found in this week's "Quarked," where I discuss the interesting phenomenon whereby physics is one grand excuse to play with toys.

By the way, there are four crabs and we named them officially today. Their names are Sebastian, Pinchy, Cake, and Turtle... That's the second thing physicists do a lot of, of course- naming things that wouldn't be named normally in an attempt to be clever.