Posts from the ‘Technology’ 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!

Powerful points

Today I began putting together my oral presentation for the defense. In some ways I can just toss together some slides from previous talks and figures from the thesis, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in graduate school is the fine art of assembling graphics for Power Point slides. Now, I’m no expert of course, but I have spent many hours of my graduate career putting together slides for myself and others, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, sometimes you can’t avoid words and lists of things; however, it is in general preferred to have more pictorial representations of things. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And if you can spend an extra few minutes adding a little color and even some depth and shading, your drawings really start to pop. There is a point of diminishing returns, though, so don’t waste too much time on tiny details unless it’s very important. ­čÖé

Graphs are a must-have for a scientist. Often, you will have multiple graphs to show on one plot, and it can get quite messy to look at. One of the greatest tricks I’ve learned is how to take multi-plot graphs from Excel and pick them apart in Power Point. Using custom animations, I can make a single plot appear at once, then gradually stack the multiple curves as I talk about each one individually. The visual difference when a new plot appears is enough to draw the attention of the audience to the present topic instead of trying to painstakingly point out an entire line with just words or a laser pointer.

Animations can also be great to demonstrate motion or change in a physical system or the progression of an experiment. However, it’s easy to get carried away, so keep it simple! Also, cartoon representations of physical systems can be quite powerful, especially when paired with some simple and well-placed animations.

Other than some tricks in preparing the slides, I’ve found that excessive and repetitive practicing is probably the number way for me to achieve a successful talk. Think about it–you wouldn’t take a leading role in a play without painstakingly learning your lines! Your presentation tells a story about your work, and while you don’t want to sound scripted or even read directly from notes (though it’s sure tempting sometimes), you do want to essentially memorize and practice presenting all the points you want to make. That also helps you stay on time, which is usually a major consideration for a scientific talk. Don’t get me started on presenters who just drone on and on at conferences!

I also try to keep the tone light, especially if I have a little bit of extra time (which I don’t usually). Sometimes you just have to power through with an all-business attitude, but depending on the audience you might do well with ever-so-slightly less formality. Portray yourself as a real human, not just a scientific drone (though I know some people who just are, hehe). A little humor usually doesn’t hurt, given the appropriate context, of course. But while I feel that I’m quite clever and witty, I find many people don’t quite get my puns and plays on words. :p In which case, I mostly just avoid outright humor altogether.

For this presentation, in order to make sure I am sharp and brilliant regarding every possible question about every possible nuance of my project, I really have to do more than just prepare the talk. I have to carefully study the fine points and concepts. I mean, let’s face it…this is essentially an oral examination! You wouldn’t go into a test without studying, and I can’t stand before my committee unprepared either. The problem is that I’m so wiped out from writing my thesis that studying takes a lot of will-power; my body and brain feel a lot more like resting. It’s particularly challenging to do something purely cerebral when there isn’t an actual physical item to produce, something tangible with visible evidence of completion. I can’t neglect this, though. At least a couple of practice talks with my group will keep me accountable.

Two weeks from tomorrow–in a way I wish it were sooner, though I know the full two weeks will be beneficial for my preparation. I am still feeling the calm, as if I really have passed through the storm and am walking slowly back into the light of day. Yet I must stay steadfast still toward the final goal.

TeX-nical difficulties

Today I met with my advisor and had a status report update. He’s been busy and traveling, so it’s been a little while since we met in earnest. It was encouraging that he seemed pleased with my writing progress, and while there is still quite a bit to go, at least he feels confident about it getting done. Maybe that’ll help me not freak out so much when I see that there’s barely a month left!

In a day or two he’ll send me some more revisions and I will send him a couple more chapters. These are mostly finished unless we decide that one or two more pieces of data would really make the “story” complete. But since the main structure of the chapters is there now, I can just pop a plot in with a few words at a later time if needed with little fuss (except for the getting data part :p).

Now that revisions are in full swing, I have decided to take the next step with formatting and start migrating the manuscript from MS Word to LaTeX. While Word is great for simple documents, formatting and equations can get a bit burdensome for such a large document. If you aren’t familiar LaTeX (pronounced “Lah-Tech”), it’s basically like writing a computer program whose output is a spiffy type-set PDF-like document. The idea is similar to creating HTML code in a text editor and using an internet browser to translate it into a website. Now, I won’t deny that “burdensome” also applies to essentially writing a bunch of code and making it do what you want, but it’s quite a powerful system that makes things like overall format, figures, tables, references, and equations consistent.

Some days I wonder if I missed my calling as a computer programmer. Then I look at my husband’s job and decide that I didn’t. ­čśë But there is something about working with code that makes me very focused and satisfied. While I have an impossible time concentrating on writing my thesis, I have no trouble TeXing steadily for three hours before I decide I should probably take a break. Yes, it’s frustrating when something works and the problem is buried somewhere you can almost never find it, but seeing something substantial pop up on the screen after a day of work makes me feel like I’ve really accomplished something, created something that wasn’t there when I started. I can take data all day long and have a bunch of numbers that I’ve plotted, or I can work in the lab putting together an experiment, but none of these have given me the sense of accomplishment I get when coding something, particularly with LaTeX.

It has been kind of slow getting things going; I’m a little rusty since I haven’t done heavy typesetting for a couple of years, but it’s coming back to me. I’m nipping more problems in the bud before the compiler even has a chance to complain, though I do occasionally hit a gnarly snag that I have to track down once in a while. If only this was all I had left…but I do still have the introduction and conclusion chapters to finish, the final data to decide on, and all the revisions I know are coming my way. But at least I had a productive day today and am motivated for the time being. Hopefully this give me substantial momentum going into the week, even if I still have to do some of that less fun stuff.

Back to the lab

Last week I went back to my thesis to assess my status there, and I even did some writing to fill in some sections that I had previously started. However, I do have a few measurements left that I need to include in my final reports, so I have headed back to the lab this week to plow through as many of those as I can.

As I’ve said many, many times, this is absolutely not my most favorite measurement. There are so many little pieces within all three major components–the laser system, the photodetector, and the measurement setup–that must all work reliably and together at one time in order to get the final result. I’m sure most advanced, state-of-the-art technology development is this way, but that doesn’t make it less overwhelming! Looking at the experiment as a whole, it feels overwhelming and defeating; however, if I just ignore the big picture and just take each step as I know how to do it, eventually it does get done.

I had everything going before I left for Christmas, so most everything was there at least. It’s an occupational hazard, though, that when you leave an experiment unattended for more than a few days parts start walking off. I did have a few pieces of equipment that I had to scrounge from other people, but most of it was still intact.

With all the parts in place again, I managed to get things going again yesterday, despite my best efforts to be dumb and keep it from working (evidently, 1 GHz is not equal to 10 GHz, even though the numbers look so similar on the screen!). I even got a decent data set in the afternoon. I wish I could say that would totally finish up that particular measurement, but, of course, we have big plans for improvements to the laser, so I have to go back yet again when those are done and redo it. However, I at least have some data right now for the laser. In case something gets hosed during all the “improvements” and I can’t get back to it, I do have something.

Now I am ready to move my setup to the back of the lab where I will do the same experiment with a different laser and a few different combinations of detectors and operating parameters. It’ll take half a day or so to get set up there, but the measurements themselves shouldn’t take too long. Is it reasonable to hope that I might be done by the end of this week?…

I will feel greatly relieved when these measurements are done. While I would like just a few more results using the detectors in an actual experiment, my advisor and I agreed that this is something we could live without if there just wasn’t the time. Our priority is to get the thesis done by the deadline, and we’re confident we have enough nice results to show if time just runs out on other experiments.

I did find out yesterday that if you don’t meat the defense deadline for the semester yet can still defend and get paperwork turned in before the first day of classes for the following semester, then you can technically graduate in the next semester without having to enroll in classes and pay tuition. While I still intend to push forward to get everything done in the spring semester, it’s nice to know I could have a few extra weeks if absolutely needed.

As with the experiment at hand, if I stare at the overall picture I get overwhelmed by the end result as a whole. However, if I forget about the enormity of what’s happening and just take each task for the day and complete it, soon I will find myself at the end and having done it all. April still seems scary, but I cannot wait to be on the other side.

The 10,000 Year Clock

Today I read about something that I was honestly quite shocked to have never heard of before. It seemed like the perfect topic to feature here on Physics Friday.

Evidently, in the desolate mountains of west Texas, a site is being prepared for a monumental clock that is designed to keep time on its own for ten thousand years. The obvious questions is, why on earth do we need a clock like this? According to the clock’s inventor, Danny Hillis, part of the premise is just to get people to ask the question and bring awareness to the idea of the long term. It’s hard to refute that our current culture is fast-paced and focused on the now. We don’t know the future, but does that mean we can completely neglect all thought of it? It’s evidently about our generation interacting with generations not even imagined yet. Plus, I’m sure the challenge of such a large-scale project is satisfying on many levels to those who are working on it.

The idea of the clock was established in 1995 by electrical engineer Danny Hillis, and with funding from the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, the clock is becoming a reality. The site is being precision excavated inside of a mountain, and the pieces of the clock are coming together in California. To construct a completely mechanical object that will run continuously for so long presents many challenges in design, choosing materials, and sustainability.

For the clock to run continuously for 10,000 years, it has to be robust. The all-mechanical system is made of durable materials such as stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic; however, none of these materials has been tested to a fraction of this timescale. The chamber will be as air-tight as possible, though eventual gumming of the unoiled gears is always a possibility. The pendulum is designed with a period of ten seconds instead of one; this reduces the overall wear by a factor of ten.

For the clock to run continuously for 10,000 years, it has to continuously tick on its own with no external human assistance. To accomplish this, the clock is synchronized to the outside world, essentially to the cycles of days. This will most likely be done by detection of changes in the outside temperature between day and night, which will be a variation of tens of degrees for the remote desert location. Recalibration involves slight speeding or slowing of the pendulum. Human interaction is only needed to operate the clock chimes and show the actual time. The ten chimes are controlled by “the world’s slowest computer”–twenty Geneva wheel gears that generates a unique melody each time instead of the same tune over and over; with 3.5 million combinations, a chime will never be repeated. And instead of having the clock face constantly update with each tick, the current time will only show when certain gears are wound. Thus, the next visitor to the clock will always know when the previous visitor was there.

In order to visit the clock, it’s a day-long trek into the desert and back. But it’s important to consider that at some point during the next 10,000 years, the clock might be long forgotten. That’s an important consideration. The design of the clock had to be such that someone who possibly just stumbles upon it would intuitively know what it is and how to work it. Thus, the design of the experience of going to the clock was designed even before the actual clock itself.

But there are so many more questions. In ten thousand years, will humans even still exist? Will they even be able to perform a physical task such as winding the gears? What about catastrophic change of the face of the planet…might something happen that changes the geography so drastically that the cave and clock are ripped apart or submerged under an ocean? The answers to those questions are unknowable, of course, but that does not stop the clock designers from strongly believing that a project on this physical and philosophical scale is important to undertake. For me, I understand the importance of living today while also preparing for the future, but I can’t say that I have totally wrapped my mind around this whole concept quite yet. Due to my personal beliefs, I might be inherently skeptical of our world lasting that long, but I certainly won’t tell you that it’s entirely impossible, because that’s impossible to know.

So, I’m still pondering my thoughts about this project, and I hope you will, too. I do think that things like this are important to ponder, at least for a little while. I encourage you to read more about it, as I have only given you a brief glimpse of this project here.

http://longnow.org/

Faster than the speed of light?

You might have seen an article about it somewhere in the last day or so, but such a controversial topic in physics can’t be neglected here! Evidently, researchers at CERN, a high-energy research facility near Geneva, have observed that a type of neutrino, a super small sub-atomic particle, beamed to a receiver facility in Italy is actually making the trip about 60 nanoseconds sooner than a particle traveling at the speed of light. This means that these particles appear to be traveling faster than the speed of light–a claim that, if true, would rock the foundations of the last century of modern physics.

Einstein’s theory of relativity is fundamentally based on the assertion that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. To do so has multiple ramifications, the most tantalizing of which is that of time travel. While we shouldn’t be dusting off our Delorians yet due to this announcement, if this claim is proven to be a reality, not only will proponents of time travel be somewhat vindicated at least in principle, the whole of modern physics as understood by 20th and 21st century scientists must be completely reviewed and possibly revised.

Rest assured, however, that nothing can be definitively concluded just from this claim alone. This was a phenomenon observed multiple times over three years by one group, evidently solid enough for them to come forward to the scientific community as a whole as if to say, “well, what now? Let’s all scratch our heads a bit over this one” while not making a bold, radical claim lest a reasonable explanation comes up and they look foolish (which has happened a few times before in science history!). Now that it’s out there, many groups of researchers will put their efforts to ferreting out what’s actually going on, and maybe one day we’ll have an explanation of the matter.

History is peppered with many scientific discoveries that were utterly shocking and seemingly unthinkable at the time. Claims that the earth is round, not flat. The idea that it rotated around something, not all things around it.┬á Quantum mechanics. Every time, the models we had constructed and that worked for us for centuries, even millennia, were shown to be inadequate as new breakthroughs in technology allowed us to dig deeper into realms never before explored. This could very well be another of these events; however, it’s just as likely to be a false alarm. Either way, rigorous experimentation and corroboration of evidence will eventually show one way or the other whether the speed of light is the ultimate limit in the universe, or if the rules are, indeed, made to be broken.

A possible solution to spam texting?

This summer I blogged about one of my biggest pet peeves in the entire world…text messaging. Not that I have a problem with texting, but I have a problem with the lack of control over incoming messages, particularly since DH and I don’t have texting plans and are charged when any doofus sends us some junk text.

In the last three days, I have gotten four unsolicited, spam text messages from who the heck knows who. All I can see are dollar signs and all I can hear is the ca-ching! of the cash register every time one of them comes across. I know it’s only a few cents, but it’s the principle that I am charged for something I can’t control and don’t want that really irritates me. HOWEVER, spurred on by this annoying increase in text spam, I did what any self-respecting twenty-first century woman would do….I googled!

After hearing from a friend who had his texting shut off completely because he had no other recourse to prevent unwanted incoming messages, I didn’t hold out much hope. But I guess I had some shred of hope since I thought it a worthy enough topic to search. To the contrary, I actually came up with a possible solution! This is so astounding to me that I just have to share this with you all in hopes that it can bring even one other person relief from this frustration.

Here are the two links that I clicked on that talked about this problem:

How to┬á stop SMS text spam…..from theinternetpatrol.com

How do you block annoying text message (SMS) spam?….from howtogeek.com

The first one I read, well, first. There I learned that most spammy texts are actually sent from the internet to your phone via a special email address that is something like yourcellphonenumber@yourcellcarrier.com (check the article to see the actual formats for your cell carrier). Instead of blocking all texts altogether, some carriers give you the ability to completely block all SMS messages that are generated from the internet. That means some spammy bot sending out a thousand texts to people from a computer can be dissed, while your friend messaging you from her phone can still go through. This article tells you to call your carrier and get them to set this up for you and also complain until they remove the charges for those unwanted texts (if that works). It also claims you can report text spam to the FCC, although it’s debatable whether that will actually make much difference.

The good news is that this blocking option is available for AT&T and Verizon customers. The bad news is, as far as I can tell, Sprint and T-Mobile aren’t much help to you┬á here.

The second article describes a few ways you can attack the problem based on which phone or carrier you have. Since I have an iPhone, there isn’t much that Apple is going to let me do from my phone to filter my incoming messages; Androids seem to have some options in that regard. My option was to go through my carrier, which is AT&T.

So, if you have any phone on AT&T, here’s what you can do:┬á first, go to mymessages.wireless.att.com and set up an account (even if you already have an AT&T account, this is a separate service, for some strange reason). Then, under Blocking Options, check the two boxes for blocking all incoming texts and multimedia messages coming to you as an email. Also select “Block” to prevent messages coming to you as yourcellphonenumber@yourcellcarrier.com.

Now, it might be possible that someone you know does want to be able to send you texts as emails (it is, indeed, cheaper for them as they don’t have to pay for an outgoing email as a text). What you can do is set up an alias; instead of yourcellphonenumber@yourcellcarrier.com, go to message options and create an alias, preferably something sneaky that won’t be picked up by spam rovers, so that you can be reached at yoursneakyalias@yourcellcarrier.com instead. If you have bots as friends, be sure not to give them your alias! It’s probably okay to give it to your grandmother or something.

I am subscribed to a few legitimate text alert systems, such as one through the university that alerts students and staff to campus incidents, closures, and the like. For such a large listserve, they probably do their sending via emails such as I just blocked. I do, however, get actual emails to my student address, so the next time I get one of those I can check to see if I got the text as well. I check emails pretty often, so the text alert isn’t as big of a deal, but if it doesn’t work I can figure out how to change my options at that time.

I promptly took these actions just now, so we will see how it goes. To be honest, I don’t usually get that many spammy texts, but I’m not a fan of the ones I do get. And given the recent influx of text spam, I wonder if I am now on somebody’s list or something, in which case I hope this works immediately. Maybe they were just out of the blue, too. At any rate, I’ll have to update if it turns out to be an abysmal failure.

I am also waiting impatiently for Apple to release their new iOs5, which claims to have iPhone-to-iPhone free texting capability. So many people we would consider texting with do have iPhones, so that will be a huge and awesome help to us. Still waiting, though.

Well, I hope that this information helps someone out there who was as annoyed as I was about text spam. If you have success, let me know, and also spread the word to others so we aren’t all helpless minions of our cell phone companies! Oh, what am I saying. I’m as addicted to my phone as the next guy; I’ll be in their clutches forever now. ­čśë