Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Physics Explained

I'm at the Array right now, waiting for the last of the data to finish up so we can drive back tonight. Until then, I just wanted to share an entertaining list explaining physical theories as women. You know, like how Newtonian mechanics is like a high school girlfriend as she's your first encounter with physics and hence amazing...

For whatever reason, it reminds me of the time I went through and decided to write accurate descriptions of the physics undergraduate course catalog. Don't think I ever shared it here, so I'm hoping everyone will enjoy it as getting a post ready gives me something to do while waiting for the all-clear to head out.

Undergraduate Course Listing- Physics

Physics 101- Introductory Physics I

Required by all majors where people are required to think, such as engineering, math, astronomy, and of course physics. You will spend a lot of time learning elementary kinematics, a version of physics that has been disproved from being completely true but is nonetheless confusing enough on its own.
Prerequisites: Grade 12 mathematics

Physics 110- Physics for Pre-Meds
This is the course taken by all the people who are required to take a physics class for their major (biology, chemistry, etc.) but have nightmares over words like 'calculus' or 'integral.' This course also fills the 'charitable benefit to humankind' requirement for the department, as its curve ensures that no one completely stupid will ever get into medical school.
Prerequisites: Grade 8 mathematics

Physics 120- Physics for Poets
(cross-registered with 'Rocks for Jocks' and 'Computers for the Clueless')
This is a blatant attempt on behalf of the department to increase the number of enrolled students in physics. If all the other departments get to do it, why not us?
The professor currently listed is either someone looking for paid early retirement or someone not to be trusted with the actual physics majors. Topics include discerning between 'up' and 'down,' listing the colors in a rainbow in proper order, and a bunch of historical anecdotes that have nothing do with actual physics.
Corequisites: Firing neurons, a pulse

Physics 150: Introductory Physics II
This course is designed as the place where your dreams go to die: that's right, the weed-out course for everyone who survived the first semester of Introductory Physics! We will be covering the topic of electromagnetism, which requires intimate knowledge of the vector calculus you're not learning until next semester.
Prerequisites: Physics 101

Physics 200: Modern Physics
We will introduce and explore the revolutionary ideas and experiments during the last hundred years without explaining any of the maths which would allow you to do something with this knowledge. This is kind of nice for the professor who has a smoke-screen to hide behind whenever he's not entirely certain of what's going on but doesn't want to admit to it.
Prerequisites: Acceptance that everything you learned in Physics 101 is not really true

Physics 300: Mechanics
On the first day of class, the professor will ask anyone expecting to learn about car maintenance to leave, which will thin the crowd down to approximately ten people. Those ten students will then proceed to learn enough about missile trajectory to take over the universe.
Prerequisites: Physics 101

Physics 310: Thermodynamics and Sadistical Mechanics
Have you ever looked at the nothingness in the room and found yourself thinking 'gee, I wonder what quantum and statistical mechanics have to say about the movements of 1,000,000,000,000 gas molecules in a confined space? And have a really crappy textbook which references future material during explanations of key issues?' Well look no further, because this is the course for you!
Prerequisites: Physics 101, Math 666

Physics 320: Quantum Mechanics
This is the class where we finally teach you everything we couldn't teach you properly in Physics 200 because you had no knowledge of linear algebra or partial differential equations. You still don't, but we think anyone who's made it this far should be able to absorb all that during the first week of the semester.
Prerequisites: Physics 200, any math class you can get

Physics 350: Senior Thesis
Despite your paid laboratory assistantship during summer months and the previous school year(s), we are going to start making you pay us for the privilege of doing so by making this a required class. In this way, we hope to sufficiently strap you for cash so as to simulate the graduate student lifestyle for those of you still idealistic enough to consider further education in physics.
Prerequisites: three years of undergraduate laboratory experience
Course fee: your soul

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rediscovering California

Confession time: I have very mixed feelings when it comes to the topic of living in California. A lot of it has to do with being in Silicon Valley- most of it was built within the past 20 years, meaning it's incredibly generic so you could be anywhere, and you need to drive most everywhere, and I'm really not a fan of either point. I really don't think you will catch me going out of my way to live in Silicon Valley in the future.

On the other hand, the rest of California I get along with because it's some of the most gorgeous scenery to be found anywhere and some very unique towns and cities (read: not Silicon Valley). As a result, I've been spending the past few days restoring my faith in California, which involved heading to some great towns to the south of here. The first of these was Santa Cruz on Thursday afternoon- my roommate attends UC-Santa Cruz and had a few errands to attend to, so a few of us tagged along. I still have no idea where the roller coaster is located (the first thing everyone's asked), but I've learned a few important things. Like how, for example, when visiting UCSC, you need to watch where you're going-
That's right, tree protesters. UCSC is built on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside (resulting in a view that makes one ponder why one went to school in Ohio exactly) and it's built on an old ranch purchased with agreements that you cannot build on over 30% of the land or have buildings taller than the trees. As a result the entire campus is gorgeous and it's like going to school in a giant forest- yielding many more "why Ohio?" ponderings from me- but they want to cut a few down around the science parking lot to build a new building and some people don't like this. As a result, they snuck into the trees a few months back and have stayed up there ever since.
The best shot of the tree protesters I got- if you look carefully, you can see their blue tarps covering their platform and their sign hung between the trees. I was advised to not get closer for a better picture, however, because there's a likely chance of them throwing stuff at you...

By the way, I also learned that these are professional tree protesters. Apparently mere amateurs are not good enough to protest in trees... Though I wonder now what kind of person ends up as a professional tree protester. Someone who really had a thing for tree houses as a kid perhaps?
A shot taken of me in a store in downtown Santa Cruz modeling a really colorful hat. I always wondered where hippies get their gear, and the answer is if you go to places like Santa Cruz there are whole stores devoted to the hippie "look" under the guise of being a store carrying stuff from all over the world or some such. This particular store was of that variety to an actually entertaining degree- they even had Maori jade necklaces right down to the same symbol I have, but my stone is obviously much prettier. I'm sure everyone in New Zealand will be happy to hear that they're hippies according to the stores in Santa Cruz.

Another note: the Santa Cruz bookstore is now close to the top of my list of favoritest bookstores ever, which is really saying something. One could probably devote a whole day there easily, and my roommate was telling me how whenever her dad comes to visit her going to the bookstore is always the first thing he wants to do. Not surprised, really...

But anyway, with that I will shift an hour's drive south on the coast to the town of Monterey, which I hit up this past weekend. Nice little spot though it was crawling with brumbling motorcycles (apparently there was a big race there this weekend) and the weather was a bit chilly and foggy as it is prone on the California coast. As is an indication to how perpetually sunny it always in my part of California, however, I actually loved the fact that it was cloudy all the time since it was different.

When going to Monterey there are a few things it is obligatory to check out, such as the world-famous aquarium and Cannery Row, but my favorite attraction hands-down were the sea lions. They (and the otters, though to a lesser degree) are quite ubiquitous in the water and on the shores around and they're really cool to watch-
A beach covered in sea lions. We only noticed them the second time walking this way, actually, since they almost looked like a bunch of rocks, but of course it's just a bunch of lazy sea lions. So cool, so cute...
My favorite sea lion, who can be seen in the water in the lower left of the previous shot. As it turns out, while sea lions are very agile in the water they really aren't on the land, meaning they move a little with their front flippers but mainly by wriggling their front bodies and slowly bouncing forward. This probably isn't the most fun thing to do and this guy was apparently too lazy to attempt it, as the tide was coming in but he was staying put. As a result, with every wave all he'd do is raise his tail up high so he wouldn't get completely wet, and continue on with his lounging. Silly lazy sea lions.

So in short, I rather like California but on a selective basis (which would make sense, as we're talking about a rather big region here). Will have to pick something new to explore for the rest of them I think... oooh, or I could go to the Santa Cruz Bookstore again...

Come on out, boy, it's WINDY!

So the other day I came upon the realization that I need to be a little more aware of my surroundings sometimes. Why? Because I often seem to overlook things that are painfully obvious- for example, did you know that the very same base I've called home the past several weeks is also home to the world's largest wind tunnel?
I mean, you think I would've picked up on this. It's huge! To be fair though, I'd only ventured to this part of the base once before (it's in a gated research area) and I'd only been there once, ahem, late at night, when I wasn't on a mission to learn the trivia of the area. But there was a tour of said wind tunnel a few days ago advertised to all the science interns associated with NASA Ames, so it made sense to check it out.

By the way, it goes without saying that they still test some military stuff here so you aren't allowed in if you were a forgein national. But then this is a bit loose, as I saw a pack of German guys get let in and they had no problems with pictures getting posted on the Internet-
So this is what the world's largest wind tunnel looks like inside. How big? Well wind tunnels are referred to by their dimensions in the industry and this is the "80 by 120", meaning it's 80 feet by 120 feet (sorry I can't recollect how long). No word as to why the industry doesn't use metric.

A bit of perspective in this picture: it was taken from the very front near an air grate in the front, and there were two side vents where the air comes in from. As the end result here, the top wind speeds in the tunnel of 300 knots. In fact, when originally built the air flow heading out was hurling rocks and boulders towards a nearby gate, so they needed to change the design. They ended up just directing the air upwards- sure, a plane caught in the draft would immediately crash, but they can call up the FAA when doing a test so no worries (and this is also why, by the way, I live in a nationally restricted airspace!).
While we were visiting, the test set up to occur right after us was an important test for the next generation Mars rovers. Currently the method of choice to land on Mars involves a parachute landing (see video), and the place to do it is here. In fact, there was a great Nova episode awhile back on building the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity- they came to the 80x120 to test them, only to discover frightfully close to the launch window that they didn't work and would result in a rover smashed on the surface. Oops... luckily the mistake was figured out, and here's a picture of it deployed in the tunnel courtesy NASA-
This time around they showed up with plenty of time to spare and the first tests went off without a hitch from what I hear (launch is September 2009). One interesting detail though: whereby the Mars rovers were, say, a golf cart in area, the next Mars rovers are going to be the size of a minivan. Here's a picture just because I happen to have one-
To take into account the large mass, of course, you need a bigger parachute. The current parachute diameter is a whopping 60 feet across, meaning there's only ten feet of clearance on either side. Really not that much... and, of course, this means Mars missions after this one will need to think up a new landing method if we keep doing rovers. I'm pretty sure your method is deemed unmanageable when the world's largest wind tunnel can no longer accommodate your size.

As you can imagine, though, a lot of stuff has been tested here over the years. In fact, outside is a miniature park of old airplane models tested in the wind tunnel- a lot look like they were headed to the junk heap but no one could be bothered to take them, but this one caught my eye-
They tested the Space Shuttle here! Ok, to be fair this is a mere model of the Shuttle a third of the size and made of wood, but it's still pretty.

Anyway, I just wanted to share all this because it really was a pleasant surprise to find such a national treasure in my backyard, and it's always fun to have a connection to the NASA missions. You get loads more nerd bragging rights that way.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Invading New Zealand

A lot of people lately have been asking me lately why this blog is called "The Chocolate Fish." Answer: they are a type of candy in New Zealand (chocolate covered in marshmallow, in fish shape), where I studied abroad from February-June 2007, and for which I originally started this blog. Proof that they exist-
But anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about today. No, what I wanted to talk about is how I heard today of a new campaign in Australia to forcibly annex the nation of New Zealand. It has gotten to the point where they are running TV ads to build support for the New Zealand invasion, such as this example-

Well, I'm sold! In case you're not yet, here's another ad from the initiative, and the full clip from the show that originated the idea. Cheers!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Found the Higgs!

Ok, it was actually my friend Alison who directed me towards The Particle Zoo, but I've decided to be nice and share it with you guys too-

I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or buy a cuddly dark matter particle for my friends who search for them.

One point I'm confused on though- how do they know what these particles look like anyway? Unlike plush microbes it's not like you have a clue, though props to the entrepreneurs for details like taking mass into account and giving the antiparticles faces on the opposite sides.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Bernie Falls

One last set of pictures from the night before I turn in, this set from Bernie Falls. It was well over 90F last Friday, a hot enough temperature that gets most people thinking about swimming prospects, so as there was little else to do on late Friday afternoon a small handful of us headed over to the local state park for some swimming. We'd heard there was a waterfall, of course, but nothing prepared us for this beauty-
All in all, a 150ft waterfall cascading down a cliff with rivulets of water all around it. The secondary waterfalls came straight out of the ground, as they were essentially snowmelt (meaning the water temperature was about 45F). Here's the view from the bottom-

Getting to the bottom was also refreshing because it was about 20 degrees colder than it was at the top of the waterfall. Hooray for natural air conditioning!

Because our group was so enamored by this waterfall (which is one of the prettiest I've seen, and that means something from a girl who toured New Zealand), we ended up spending a lot of time here, primarily occupied by staring at the falls and trying to see how wet we dare get in the freezing water from the tiny side waterfalls. Here's a good example of them-
Basically, if you stood on the edge you could still get into the freezing stream and get your hair wet or whatever, but the water was just too cold for swimming. So we ended up going to the state park's lake for a more respectable venue, which was also cold but actually swimmable.

Friday was alas our last day up at Hat Creek, meaning we headed back here to Mountain View on Saturday. The most eventful thing on Saturday by far happened just a few hours back to here in a story I want to share now lest I forget it...

The setup: there were 19 people on this REU trip, so in order to get around we rented two 12 passenger vans for the week, one driven by Jill Tarter and the other driven by an older student. Jill was going a bit over the speed limit on the way back, which isn't a big deal in California until a cop notices you, which this one did... and he was not happy. When he came up to our van to talk things over, no one doubted for a second that she was going to get a ticket.

Then the cop went back to talk to the passengers in the second van and we waited. And waited. Upon looking back, we noticed that everyone in the second van was laughing, including the cop, and after a five minute discussion he came back all smiles and let us off with a warning. We were on a cell phone within moments of him leaving with the second van in an attempt to find out what had happened.

Apparently what happened was this- the cop had asked who our group was and where we were from, and the student driver told him we were from the SETI Institute. Upon hearing this the cop got really excited, even mentioning something about an acquaintance of his in Texas who had seen a UFO- something that made Jill visibly cringe in the telling. She needn't have, however, because the student driver had been quick to retort "oh, well we look for real aliens!" which was enough to send everyone bursting into laughter for what seemed an eternity.

So all in all, the cop let us go because we were SETI. I didn't realize this summer job had an element of celebrity when I started, but it's definitely given us a story to joke about for the rest of the summer!

Hiking in Lassen

Our second day in Lassen National Park promised to be longer and a bit more work than the first one, as we were spending it hiking through the backcountry to look at the more interesting geothermal areas in the park. Unfortunately backcountry means it's a bit more difficult to get to the start than what it usually takes, meaning we had to head out at 730am from Hat Creek. I remedied this early start by sleeping most of the way in the morning in the van, on the grounds that I was making up for the time I would've spent in bed anyway.
A sign that you see posted everywhere in Lassen (and I can't remember seeing in Yellowstone- they must use a different sign company). Basically the sign is imploring you to not be an idiot.
A look over an area we hiked to called Devil's Kitchen, filled with steam vents and geothermal activity. What was also impressive to me was how even the streams were dangerous- they'd have a pH of 3 (aka acidic) and be above 60C, meaning you tried your best not to step into them of course. Further, every stream would have its own range of microorganisms that called it home, which is arguably an even more impressive thing.
My favorite odd thing of the trip- a lake made entirely of battery acid! One of the biggest in the world! Yay! We hiked a loop around the lake (from safe distance) and what was particularly neat about the whole thing was just how alien the landscape looked. Nothing grew on the edge of the lake of course (though there are things that live in it) and the surface was all red from iron oxide rust, leading us to joke that we were on Mars. There was also a bit of boiling mud and steam vents on the edges of the lake and the lake itself was bubbling a more-or-less constant amount of carbon dioxide- we were assured it wasn't methane bubbling as the lake had never caught on fire before...
My shot of the documentary crew. This pair of guys were interesting because they basically followed us around for a week or, rather, followed my boss Jill around and we just happened to be there too. The documentary is supposed to follow projects that will take a very long time to complete, meaning SETI is in that category next to people like the guy who wants to build a vertical city in the Arizona desert.

I wasn't sure what to make of the documentary guys- on the one hand, they ran me over once or twice in an effort to get the perfect shot, but on the other hand I spent some time talking to the cameraman and it was really cool listening to all the projects he'd worked on over the years. Perhaps if they suddenly decide to give me tickets to their premier I'll cut them some slack.

And while I don't have pictures of the activity itself, it should be noted that we spent most of this day hiking (between 5 and 8 miles, depending on who you asked). This was really enjoyable to me, but there was a fair bit of volcanic ash around so you could end up nice and dirty regardless of original intentions. When I was taking off my hiking boots, for example, I noticed there was a thin but dark line of volcanic ash around my socks that was a pain to wash off later. So it goes.