Posts from the ‘Science’ 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!



It’s my last Monday, at least for this job. If you’re read my blog at all you know that sometimes Mondays and I didn’t get along very well. However, we’ve managed to make it through the last seven years here, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more Mondays at another job or jobs, God willing.

Of course, while today hasn’t been all that bad in principle, it is a typical Monday in that there is a bit of an unexpected, annoying hiccup at work today. Evidently, the air conditioning in our wing went out early Sunday morning. When I walked in the building this morning, I didn’t notice anything amiss until I went into our lab, which was a balmy 33 degrees Celsius (around 91 degrees F) according to our lab temp monitoring equipment. With the doors closed for 24 hours, all that electronics equipment made a nice little oven in there. Somebody had opened the doors, and we began turning off as much unnecessary equipment as possible to keep from heating it up any more. Also, since most of our optics and lasers are quite sensitive to temperature, it goes without saying that nobody will be getting much done in the lab today. That’s a little bit unfortunate, since I need to complete one final measurement before I leave (there’s always one more measurement to get done, right?).

According to the latest email from facilities, they might have things working again late afternoon or evening. If that really is the case, it might be cool enough to do measurements by tomorrow, but we’ll just have to see. These last few data might just fall to my colleagues to finish up on their own, but I’m sure they can do it just fine. Meanwhile, it’s starting to get stuffy in our office as the day warms. At least it’s not going to be a 100-degree day, but even in the dry heat of Colorado, any interior is going inevitably warm up. That means by afternoon I don’t know if even I, who generally likes being warm instead of cold at all, might not be able to stand it. I may have to escape to our lab space in the new building for a few hours.

Well, at least I get to go out with a bang. There’s nothing like a significant building malfunction to leave me with fond memories of working at this old place. Power outages, lab floods, fire alarms, radioactive spills…just another day in an old government research lab.

Transit of Venus

You might have heard that about a unique solar event that occurred yesterday. For a few hours, Venus could be seen crossing the Sun from here on earth. Such an event happens twice within about eight years and then not again for well over one hundred years. DH and I are always interested when we hear about notable astronomical events, but we’re usually pretty bad at actually getting out to see them. I do remember watching the Hale-Bopp comet in high school (thanks, CHS Astronomy Club!) and seeing various interesting moon effects over the years, but I do inadvertently miss a lot of interesting stuff. We even missed the solar eclipse a few weeks ago because the weather was a little crummy and we also didn’t have eclipse glasses.

We were in town Monday night, and we decided to remedy that second item by purchasing glasses at our local hardware store. We were all ready for Venus viewing on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate; it got windy with lots of high clouds rolling along in the afternoon after it started. However, that did mean that the wind pushed the clouds through the sky pretty fast, thereby creating a few moments of sun viewable from our back deck. During those breaks, we tried a few times and finally were successful! Venus was so small against the sun without any magnification from telescope or anything, but you could just barely make it out with the eclipse glasses.

I’m glad we were able to catch this event, first because of its rare nature and secondly because we often miss things because we aren’t intentional. Yet again, it all comes back to being intentional! Now, time to start planning for our next celestial event.

And remember….Murphy says, always practice safe solar viewing!





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!


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?