Archive for March, 2011

It is possible!

On Wednesday, my fellow graduate student passed her PhD defense with flying colors. She began graduate school one year before I did and faced a time setback when she moved from one group to our current one (a very good move for her, though). But she took her time and produced an excellent project that made a great thesis. As we celebrated yesterday afternoon with delicious cookies, cake, ice cream, and a glorious chocolate fountain, it really got my appetite whetted for a defense of my own.

I’ve been looking at the graduate school calendar for the fall semester, and tomorrow I will fulfill my goal of the week by meeting with my advisor to look at the feasibility of graduating then. I do hope it’s possible, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and definitely have my hopes up. Hopefully yesterday’s encouraging experience will stick with me and keep me motivated to accomplish it.

While it seems like an impossibly tall mountain to climb, I am surrounded by friends and co-workers who have done it before. It is possible! I just need to take one step at a time toward the finale.

“A Solution Without A Problem”

About a month ago, DH sent me this interesting article from Ars Technica. It talks about the world’s first “anti-laser,” recently built and demonstrated by a group at Yale University. I haven’t done a tutorial for you all yet on lasers, but you probably understand at least that lasers are sources of light. Therefore, an anti-laser is a device that “snuffs out” light instead, particularly light at specific wavelengths.

The idea was proposed in a paper in July 2010, and by February of 2011 it had been constructed. The proposal was just an interesting idea, not a fix for an actual existing problem. While it has been affectionately called “a solution without a problem,” there are many possible applications it could be used for, from medical imaging to quantum computing.

If you’re interested in the details, you can read the whole article here. Otherwise, I thought it was just a neat idea. So many times the innovations from research are driven by problems that someone wants to solve (and by someone willing to pay for it). Historically, though, much of science has developed from pure inquiry with many developments coming afterward to try to explain the what or why of a discovery. Also, many technologies developed for one application in research find unexpected success in mainstream technology…two examples of this are the internet and, you guessed it, lasers. One truly never knows the outcome of a technology when it becomes mixed with the culture of the moment.

The two most powerful questions in science:  “why?” and “why not?”

Second Chances

A couple of months ago, I noted in a post that I was in the machine shop drilling some holes for a box that would hold some photodetector electronics for a set-up in one of our experiments. We decided to construct a second, identical set-up that required another identical box for a second photodetector. Since I still had my wiring and drilling schemes all laid out, I decided I could go ahead and make the second box myself. I got the supplies I needed and went to work on Friday.

We don’t always get second chances to fix things we messed up in the past. When I constructed the first box with the help of one of my colleague in the lab, we made a few mistakes; none of them were dire, and we were able to work around them to finish the box. However, given the opportunity to make the box again, I was excited to rectify those issues. I made sure the holes were in the right place and that I used the right sizes of drills and screws to mount the connectors to the box. It still wasn’t perfect, but it was a little better. Then I soldered wires to the connectors inside, remembering to put heat shrink everywhere and to not touch the soldering iron (very hot!) to anything plastic to cause it to melt. While my soldering skills are still not very good, I thought the wiring turned out better this time. I felt very satisfied with my effort.

However, coming to work on Monday I discovered that I had accidentally switched the +15 volt wire and the -15 volt wire, causing the photodetector to fry when my co-worker hooked it up Friday afternoon. I felt very bad about busting the detector, especially since they aren’t exactly cheap. All my excitement to redo the box to be better than the one before was crushed upon finding out I had caused a mini-catastrophe. After an exploratory autopsy on the photodetector, we did realize it was just stunned and not really completely dead. We are going to try to fix it and get it up and running again. And next time we’ve both learned to check our home-made electronics first before plugging important stuff into them.

It happens, though. We all break things in life, and we just have to do what damage control we can, live with the consequences, and move on. We are never guaranteed a second chance, but we can still learn something and apply it to a future circumstance. If there is a second chance, hopefully we learn from our mistakes and don’t make the same one twice. And if we just make another mistake, well, hopefully the third time’s a charm.

Goal of the week

It’s Monday, and I would like to introduce a new weekly segment to the blog. Each Monday I will set a specific goal or goals for myself that I want to accomplish during the week. These goals will be professional (relating to work and my research), personal (relating to spiritual, mental, physical, or emotional habits), or practical (relating to general life tasks that need doing), or a combination of the three. I want the goals to be very specific and not that complicated, something I can easily accomplish in a week without feeling overwhelmed or even guilty if I don’t fully complete them. Sharing some of them here will keep me accountable to you all for completing them, as I would surely get all sorts of scathing letters and comments from you should I fail. 😉

While I will attempt to accomplish goals in all three of these categories, I’ll share my professional goal for this week with you and the results of my attempt to complete it. This week I will try to have a meeting with my research advisor to talk about where I am in my project, what’s left to do, and how long it might reasonably take to accomplish these things. If the end of the year looks feasible, I’d like to set up a tentative time line to keep me on track for graduating then, so chatting with my advisor will help me determine this. It will also help me stay focused on the important projects instead of getting distracted, and it will also put into perspective why I’m doing some of the more annoying, nitty-gritty tasks that I typically don’t like.

I never consider myself to be a “goal-maker” or to be “goal-oriented,” particularly long-term life goals for bettering myself or chasing a career or stuff like that.  However, I am a list maker extraordinaire, and that’s really a method of making a certain type of goal for myself, is it not?  Maybe it’s good to have longer-term goals, but, in reality, a bunch of small goals strung together can make a big goal, too. This is particularly effective if I’m keeping track of my small goals and can see how they fit together; then I can create new small goals that build on the progress I’ve already made. Hopefully this new practice will help me do that in many areas of my life.

So, that’s the challenge for this week. Tune in next Monday to see how I did and for another installment for the following week!

Cerebral Obesity: A Rampant Epidemic Among Graduate Students

I had a realization last week at my exercise class, a ray of light that burst through the proverbial clouds and made so much sense. My neck always gets tired while lying on my back doing crunches and stuff. No matter how carefully I try not to pull on my neck as I support it in my hands, it still gets weary. Then I finally realized, duh! My head is so full of useless science garbage, no wonder it feels like it weighs a million pounds!

Okay, the science stuff is not useless and it’s not garbage, but I feel a bit like a glutton, sometimes a glutton for punishment but always a glutton for information. I do like to cram data into my brain; some is more interesting than others, but some is much more useful. It’s a lot like eating. At work it’s like eating vegetables; definitely not my favorite, but I know it’s good for me, and I have to eat a lot to keep my “mental calorie” count up. Playing on the internet is usually like junk food, delightfully mind-numbing and nutritionally void. There are some things I do on the internet that are a little more worthwhile than others, but I could compare that to eating granola versus frosted flakes…definitely more natural with whole grains and nuts, but still lots of sugar!

Does too much mental junk food, and even too much of even the okay and good stuff mental diet, make one cerebrally obese? If so, how do we shed excess “mental calories” ? Because I’m thinking I would like to go on a diet, please! Maybe a fast from work for a while? No? Oh…well, okay. I guess I could also look at it as ramping up for a big fight, eating lots of nutritious food and working out so I can be a doctoral candidate “heavyweight” for my thesis defense. I might be in trouble if I gave the thesis committee a literal one-two punch, though. Better save that for the Power Point slides.

April Showers Sorely Misplaced

Tuesday I was in the lab and noticed I was feeling a little moist. I looked up and, sure enough, I was getting dripped on from a leak in the ceiling. Not only is it too early for April showers, I don’t think our laboratory full of expensive equipment and ultra-precise experiments was quite the right venue for precipitation, either. Such is research when you are located in a 60-year-old building.

Sadly, this wasn’t the first time a leak has sprung in the ceiling in our lab. Just a few months ago one appeared in roughly the same location as this current one. Both of these, we found out from the maintenance staff who answered our call for help, were related to leaky steam traps in the heating pipes. Fortunately, these were small, although it’s a little terrifying to look up and see the huge, room-spanning cracks in the concrete layer between floors, particularly with water dripping from them. About a year ago there was a much larger leak, almost a flood, a few feet away in the same room, and that really made a mess and damaged some instruments. I’ve also had air conditioning units overflow in three separate places at three separate times in my previous lab.

Other features of our old building are single-pane windows that don’t latch and blow open with our frequent gusty days or leak cold air when it’s below freezing, steam heat during the summer and air conditioning in the winter, and an elevator that’s constantly breaking down. I never use the elevator unless I’m rolling heavy equipment to another floor on a cart, and then only before noon so someone could get me out before quitting time if I got stuck (it happens…frequently!). However, they are actually replacing the elevator as we speak, which will be great, though I still prefer to take the stairs. We also get lots of power glitches, which is a nightmare for people taking data for days at a time or running necessary equipment that could be damaged with power surges. While it’s better now that they put in a new site-wide power and utilities plant (the power was out for hours at times before then), a sudden jump can still turn off computers and make uninterruptible power supplies (UPS’s) start beeping. We also have a building-wide fire alarm that cries wolf, whether it’s a bagel burning in the toaster or particulate dust; one day we’ll have a real fire and no one will actually go outside because they think it’s another false alarm.

Fortunately, we will be moving into a brand new building in about a year from now. The state-of-the-art facility will house sensitive experiments much better without the temperature fluctuations, slamming doors, power glitches, and random leaks of our current accommodations. Then the old building will be completely renovated for offices and such. I don’t know if I should be excited about the facilities and stay a little longer even if I graduate beforehand or try to defend ASAP so I don’t have to help move the ridiculous amount of stuff in our lab! Either way, it will be nice to not have to wear two coats while sitting at my desk in the winter or have to bring an umbrella into the lab.


It’s time for another quick lesson in the basics. Today I’d like to talk about frequency and how it is related to time. First of all, frequency is a rate; that is, how many “somethings” happen in a given period of time (units of  “per (unit of time)”).

Take a watch with a second hand. The second hand “ticks” sixty times during every minute. Its rate of ticking is sixty ticks per minute. Since there are sixty seconds in one minute, that also means that the second hand ticks at a rate of one tick per second. The standard SI measurement of frequency is “per second,” and the official name for this unit is the Hertz [Hz]. The namesake, Heinrich Hertz, was a 19th century German physicist who made significant contributions to the field of electricity and magnetism (no pun intended ;)), and we honor him with this unit.

Since a rate describes something happening repeatedly, it can often be rightly assumed that the action in question is identical every time. When the identical action happens repeatedly, we call that a periodic action. Period is the inverse of frequency; that is, how many seconds happen between actions. For example, if you get paid two times per month, then the period of your paychecks is roughly two weeks. The whole course of action from when something occurs to when it occurs again is often called one cycle (by the way, ladies, these words aren’t coincidental!).

Consider a kid on a swing at the playground. Actually, swinging is one of my favorite things to do, so let’s consider me on a swingset! Once I seat myself and get going, I can keep myself swinging at a pretty steady rate. Since the seat is confined on a chain, I can define a certain path that I travel and cannot deviate from. I can also define a certain point on this path as a starting point; let’s call it the very bottom of my motion. The time it takes me to swing from the bottom, up to the front, back through the bottom, up to the back, and return to the bottom is one cycle of my motion. If it takes me two seconds to complete one swing cycle, my frequency is one swing per two seconds, or one-half cycle per second, or 0.5 Hz.

This is a very basic example of what we call an oscillator. An oscillator is anything that, well, oscillates! But physically speaking, we like to limit it to oscillators that are very regular in the length of the cycle. And what better example of an oscillator than, you guessed it, a clock! Like we mentioned at the very beginning, typical clocks and watches tick at a steady rate of 1 Hz. But the clock in your living room or on your wrist will eventually slow down as the battery dies, or as the pendulum swings down, or even as the components wear out.  Some clocks are made from quartz, which is a material that has the peculiar quality of oscillating at a very steady frequency when an electrical current is applied. However, even its frequency will wander off a little due to the nature of the atoms inside. For you and me day-to-day, this isn’t a big deal. But, as I mentioned in my previous post about time, for ultra-precise measurements it can make a big difference.

So the name of the game in my field of work is developing clocks that tick at a frequency that does not vary, up to fifteen or sixteen decimal places…or more if we can! The current basis for these oscillators is the internal workings of sub-atomic particles, but that’s a story for a different day. The next step will be taking what we have learned about time and frequency and start making the connection to light and lasers…in bite-sized pieces of course! Thinking with your brain full is very impolite—and sometimes dangerous. We’ll take it slow, I promise. 🙂


Appendix: Sine and Cosine Functions

If you want a little more math, read on! Oscillators can be modeled with the mathematical functions sine (sin) and cosine (cos). The position, x, of an object undergoing steady oscillation can be mapped out as a function of time, t, by the equation x(t ) = A sin(ωt ), if we know the amplitude, A, (the maximum distance away from the center of motion) and the frequency, given by the Greek lower-case letter omega, ω. Here’s a very basic graphic for a refresher.