Posts from the ‘Physics’ Category

In Nobel company

Yesterday, the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Serge Haroche and David Wineland “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.” Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.

And did I mention that Dave Wineland is from the Time and Frequency Group at NIST in Boulder?

Dang straight, people; this is the third award in Physics given to people associated with our division in just over a decade. I can’t tell you how much I love NIST and how amazed and lucky I am to have been a part of this organization. My only regret is not having been on site yesterday to witness all the festivities firsthand but I’m proud that all my friends and colleagues are having this moment.

David Wineland; This image is Copyright Geoffrey Wheeler, NIST

The work cited in this award has many applications, but the two biggest are ultra-precision clocks and quantum computing. As you can imagine, I am particularly interested in the former application, though the world of quantum computing is definitely interesting. However, I am much more familiar with the techniques of trapping ions quantum particles and manipulating them to access stable transitions used as clocks. These techniques are currently paving the way for the most precise and stable clocks in existence. I am ridiculously excited that advances in precision time and frequency are held in such high regard by the scientific community as to warrant multiple Nobel Prizes and other prestigious awards over the years. I ridiculously love my field of research. Congratulations Wineland and Haroche on the significant recognition of your work!

Justify your existance

I presume that a lot of scientists know how to pitch their work in a way that makes it sound useful to somebody, or else they never get any funding, right? This was also a huge part of my thesis preparation, as your committee likes to see that your research means something to somebody. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there’s some aspect of your work that might only be tangentially related but that, when Aunt Ruth asks you what you do all day, you can pull out of your back pocket so they feel like they actually know what you do (I personally find that “Well, Aunt Ruth, you know that “atomic clock” on your wall that updates itself automatically for daylight saving time? I work in the group that does that” is usually a lot more enthusiastically accepted than “I measure the amplitude-to-phase conversion of semiconductor photodiodes in the context of generating ultra-stable microwaves from optical signals”).

However, while I’m quite tired of all the things I’ve been doing, on occasion I do feel as if I’ve justified all the work I’ve done by the people who have genuinely expressed interest in it. I often have one or two people really quiz me at conferences about measurements I’ve done and the questions they have about similar things. However, I have on a number of occasions received emails out of the blue from people all over the world asking me specific questions, usually about very technical aspects of research I have published in papers. So in reality, some number of people have sought out my work to help them work out a problem they were having in their research, and a handful of them have gone so far as to contact me to ask questions about it. While I often still feel like a doofus about science and am constantly reminded about what I don’t know, once in a while I can feel good that I am actually an “expert” about some small sliver of scientific knowledge and that the work I’ve done has helped them accomplish research in even more areas that just what I’m doing. I guess that’s a pretty decent way to end a week.

The light at the end of the fiber

When a short pulse of laser light goes into one end of a very long optical fiber, the pulse stretches out as it goes through the length of the fiber. It also might lose some energy along the way, so occasionally amplifiers are inserted every once in a while to give the signal a boost. So when the light reaches the other end of the fiber, it may have been jostled around a bit, stretched out, had some energy sucked out of it. However, it still reaches the in relatively intact, and with a lot of experience from along the way.

The light at the end of the fiber is, evidently, warm and diffuse, not sharp and overpowering like a coherent beam of photons with a small beam diameter. It’s comforting, providing relief and rest. I’ve now, finally, after almost eight years, seen the light at the end. I’m still processing this change, but, ladies and gentlemen, I am now officially a PhD.

In the beginning

Happy Pi Day, everyone! It’s March 14 (or 3-14), the day to celebrate everybody’s favorite irrational number. You can check out my post from last year to learn all about pi and Pi Day.

I will, unfortunately, not be celebrating Pi Day by making a pie, as is customary. I just don’t have the time this year. It’s crunch time, as we all know, and I’m rushing to get everything done.

Yesterday I took a big bite out of the introduction. It’s amazing to me how difficult it often is to write the first sentence of anything. I stared at my intro for a long time, even typing out later paragraphs of it months ago, but I had no clue how to begin. There were about fifteen different approaches I could take to introduce my project, but I didn’t like any of them. Finally, I sat down with my advisor, and we talked about the big picture of using perfect sine waves as a “ruler” for time and distance measurements. The closer your sine wave is to perfect, the more accurate your ruler is (that is, the “one inch” mark is definite, not kind of fuzzy so you don’t know where in the width of the fuzz the actual one inch mark is). Noise makes fuzz in the the zero crossings of a sine wave, thus giving some uncertainty about the exact duration of “one second.” Since making a truly perfect sine wave is impossible, the whole point of our research is making sine waves that have as little fuzz around the zero crossing as possible, making for a more accurate measurement.

That’s the route I finally decided to take to introduce my project, and it flowed quite naturally out of that. I stayed extra late last night to make some progress on that chapter, and now I have just one more section to write and I should be done with this draft. All that will leave for completely original writing is the conclusion, which should be straightforward to write given the arguments that have been presented in the rest of the paper. I would say that completely finishing the initial writing stage by the end of the week is totally on the radar.

I still have lots of revisions to do (once my advisor gives me back his comments on all the chapters he now has) and still that stupid, lingering data problem (which is slowly working itself out, but, unfortunately, not to a clean and tidy end). However, I really hope that the majority of changes will not require lots of onerous effort. Then it can go quickly, like an avalanche down to the final end. I know there will still be hiccups, but I’ve got my eye on the prize now, and I can just taste the freedom coming my way.

So, today I hope to finish the introduction and get started on the conclusion. Then I’ll go back to revisions I got previously and work on those while I wait for more feedback. Wednesdays haven’t been that motivating or productive the last couple of weeks, but I’m ready to buck the trend today!


Spring forward

Yes, it is that time again. I will not subject you to a fresh diatribe on Daylight Saving Time, but feel free to read all my eloquent thoughts on the subject from last year’s post. I can’t say that my feelings about the matter have changed. I mean, who needs it to be light out until 10:00 p.m. in June? Isn’t 9:00 p.m. quite late enough? And it’s already dark so much later now than it was in January; coming from that dismal period, evenings are already a treat and only going to get better. Plus, there’s always the shock of losing that hour in the fall when we could just gradually accept our fate of a few months of darkness dictated by our astronomical situation. Furthermore , it’s exceedingly evident to me that nobody on the “Daylight Saving Time committee” either has children or owns a farm.:p

And we’ve already discussed multiple times on this blog how time is completely relative anyway, so hopefully you now feel an appropriate superposition of nonchalance as well as existential quandary at how one can actually “change time” a couple of times a year.

So, I’ll try to keep my ranting reigned in and just wish you all a great weekend. Also consider this your public service announcement to set your clocks forward and check the batteries in your smoke alarms and CO detectors!

Happy Leap Day!

Happy leap day! I hope you are enjoying your extra day of the year. I suppose I should be thankful for one extra day, but I think the graduate school just shifted all the graduation deadlines forward to offset it. :p

A leap day is probably one of the most obvious and impacting timing corrections made on a regular basis. Since the Earth doesn’t have an orbit of exactly 365 days around the sun, our calendar would eventually get off course with the actual seasons (dictated by the Earth’s location in its orbit). Therefore, every four years we pop an extra day into the calendar to accommodate for the slow shift.

It’s always interesting to be reminded that the calendar isn’t our timing mechanism at all; it just  counts the “ticks.” Every “clock” has two parts: the part that provides constant and relatively consistent oscillations, and the part that keeps track of how many have gone by, generically called a counter. In an actual timepiece, the oscillations are given by a pendulum or a quartz oscillator, something that has constant cycles. The counter is the face of the clock, either hands or a digital interface that tells you where you are. But even then, you have to look at a calendar to see what day it is to know where you are in the overall Flow of Time. Of course, since we don’t know when “time zero” was, we are only measuring Flow of Time relative to some arbitrary start date, but it works well enough for timekeeping on the scale of Earth’s history, at least. It’s still mind-boggling, though…time seems so simple, yet it is so complex!

As I mentioned in my last post, my “time counter,” the calendar, indicates that March is tomorrow and that I am gung-ho about pushing to the end. Monday and Tuesday were quite good this week, but today I’ve hit a bit of a wall. I am sick of the writing and don’t care about the data, so that certainly doesn’t motivate me to keep going. But I have to, regardless of how I feel. I just feel so crappy about it all. Hopefully I’ll have a change of heart soon and not be so pessimistic, but I still have to plow ahead despite my temporary existential quandry.

Six weeks from tomorrow…


Sometimes, the truth Hertz

I know, two blog posts in one day, gasp! But I just found out that today is the 155th birthday of Heinrich Hertz, German physicist and one of the pioneers in electromagnetism and frequency. You probably recognize that we honor him with the unit of frequency, the Hertz (one cycle per second). He was the first to conclusively provethe existence of electromagnetic waves and did many experiments that shape our modern understanding of the field. His discoveries would later enable development of such technologies as wireless telegraph, radio, and eventually television. He died at the untimely age of 36 from Wegener’s granulomatosis.

Google has honored him today with a Google Doodle on their search page.

I should also note that he obtained his PhD at the age of 23. Overachiever.

And while we’re also talking about important birthdays on this date, we also give a shout-out to George Washington, whose 280th birthday is today and was observed on Presidents’ Day on Monday. And finally, lest we tire of old geezers, happy birthday to my best friend Laura! I’m so glad I’m not the only 30-year-old anymore. 😉

So, is there cake somewhere?