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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, April 25, 2003

$40,000 Here, $40,000 There, and Pretty Soon You're Talking About Real Money

My grant application got approved. Woo-hoo!

It wasn't without a touch of suspense, of course-- I had a voice mail message from a program officer when I got done with my class, saying that he had called about the grant, and asking me to call back. No word as to whether having him call was good or bad, and of course, he wasn't in his office when I called, so I spent two hours knowing that they had decided, but not knowing what they had decided... This was not the most attentive I've ever been at a department colloquium...

Since then, I've just been marking time to happy hour...

Yay, external funding!

Posted at 4:38 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Geographic Vagaries

I do feel a little guilty about the lack of physics posts recently, but the fact is, they're very hard to write-- a lot of fiddling goes into finding a coherent way to present the topic in question, and then there's a great deal of self-editing needed to ensure that I don't say anything actually wrong about the physics of whatever thing I'm talking about. Yeah, I know, this goes against the grain of one of the prevailing versions of the blogging ethos, but then, I've never been a True Believer in the whole "transformative power of weblogs" thing, and I'm just not that crazy about saying stupid things in public forums.

So I'm doing the mix tape thing again, because, well, why the hell not?

This one dates from summer/ fall 1997. '97 was a weird year, on a personal level-- my sister got married, which was a lot of fun, but that same summer, a favorite uncle was diagnosed with brain cancer, and died very quickly. And, really, that's '97 in a nutshell...

The title refers to the fact that, at the time, I was in a weird situation where I kept meeting interesting and attractive women who lived quite a long distance away from me. I was carrying on lengthy correspondence with three different women through a lot of 1997, and I'm not sure there was any point during the year when all of us were in the same country, let alone the same time zone...

It's also one of the best sing-along-in-the-car tapes I've ever recorded, possibly because I spent a lot of time traveling that year.

Side One:

Side Two:

Posted at 10:42 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Best. Lecture. Ever.

On a vaguely related note, the most impressive lectures I can recall from my college days were actually in a couple of history courses I took as a break from physics and math, one on modern Japan, the other on Vietnam. The professor who taught those classes was a touch on the eccentric side, but he did some really neat stuff, and his courses were extremely popular.

In both courses, the lectures followed the same general pattern. At the end of the previous class, he would have assigned some reading, or possibly a movie to watch, that would make absolutely no sense at all-- I vividly recall a couple of deeply odd Japanese movies (one about some famous lovers who committed suicide, the other about a tyrannical exam tutor), and some long essays about ancient Chinese history published in Chinese academic journals in the late Sixities. When the students came in to class, he would've covered the blackboard with seemingly random scribbles-- a few proper names here and there, a handful of Japanese words, occasional English phrases-- and again, it would seem like there wasn't any conceivable connection between most of what was on the board and the subject of the course.

And yet, by the end of the class, it would all make sense. He would start talking about some topic relating to the course, and along the way, the various proper names would be identified, the Japanese words would be defined, the English phrases would be explained, and everything on the board would turn out to fit together, and fit in with the course. Even more amazingly, the seemingly absurd readings and movies turned out to be excellent examples of the phenomena being discussed-- the best example being the articles on ancient Chinese history, which turned out to represent opposite sides of a debate as to whether to get involved in Vietnam. Each article was written by a high Communist Party official-- a few months after their publication, one was still a high official, while the other had been arrested, tried, and shot, and the Cultural Revolution was underway.

It was an impressive experience, and those two classes stick in my mind even better than most of my physics classes. Physics doesn't really lend itself to that sort of thing, but I hope someday to do something half as cool as that in the classroom.

Posted at 10:45 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Story Is a Force of Nature

There've been a bunch of posts over on Jo Walton's LiveJournal regarding the mechanics of writing, and the details of the writing process (see this post, for example. My primary reaction to the ensuing comments thread was to think "Good lord, everybody else in the world is planning to write a novel," but I was also surprised to realize that some of the things Jo and the others talked about reminded me of the process of writing lecture notes.

Putting a lecture together is a slightly strange process. Some of the people I work with seem to just go through the entire course syllabus in order, creating a single continuous set of notes spanning the entire term. I really can't work that way, though, largely because there were few things I hated more, as a student, than a lecture that just sort of broke off in the middle. It used to drive me nuts when a professor would realize that the end of the class period had arrived while he was still in the midst of a thicket of algebra, and just stop without bringing things to a satisfactory close. The mid-proof break ends up ruining two lectures, for me, as picking things up in the middle of a messy stretch of derivation is terribly disorienting.

As a student, I liked to have things broken up into fairly coherent chunks that more or less filled a class period, and had some sort of unifying theme, so I try to structure my classes in that way, but that's a little difficult to manage, especially when I haven't taught a particular subject before (and it's doubly difficult in cases like this term, when I'm teaching a class that nobody on the faculty has taught in the last five or six years...). I've picked up a few rules of thumb regarding the timing of things-- a 65-minute class period covers six to eight legal-pad pages of hand-written notes, or between 14 and 20 PowerPoint slides-- but I still sometimes end up scrambling to wrap things up before the class runs out, or adding new material on the fly to pad a class out by a few more minutes. Still, I'd rather let the class out early than start a topic I couldn't bring to a good stopping point by the end of the class. I'd even prefer to keep the class a couple of minutes late, and risk pissing students off, than break off in the middle of a topic.

The easiest lectures to write are ones that naturally have a story sort of form, where I can see the beginning, the middle, and the end, and how to get from one to the other in a natural way. The "Modern Physics" class I taught last fall was good for this, as I could usually mix in a little historical context to provide some sort of flow: "The earliest model of the atom was a "plum pudding" sort of thing, but Rutherford's back-scattering result blew that out of the water, so they moved on to a Solar System kind of thing, electrons orbiting a nucleus, but that hits a snag with classical electrodynamics, and so Bohr had to cobble together a model from bits and pieces of ad hoc assumptions..." This term's class on Optics has provided a few nice "stories," too, though the structure there tends to involve a lot of switching back and forth between points of view, taking some macroscopic behavior, and showing how you can build it up from a microscopic picture of lots of little atoms as little oscillating dipoles being driven by an electric field. (I'll write up "Why Polarized Sunglasses Work" to post here one of these days...)

The very worst lectures are those where I'm stuck with a large assortment of facts to be presented, and no particular unity to the whole thing. There's nothing quite as annoying as having to list off a bunch of unconnected factoids, save maybe being a student having to copy all those tidbits down, and learn them for the exam. Those are far and away the hardest lectures to write, and the least satistfying to deliver.

As with anything else in life, the typical lecture falls somewhere in between those extremes. Wednesday's Optics lecture is a pretty good example: On Monday I started talking about lenses, and how a single lens works to form images. Having wrapped that up, and having introduced the idea of ray tracing, I needed to talk about systems of two or more lenses.

Unfortunately, the techniques needed to deal with multiple-lens optical systems really don't take all that long to lay out, and this isn't supposed to be a class on geometrical optics, so there wasn't much point in the classic lecture-padding technique of working through fifteen complicated examples (and, really, anybody who actually does this stuff with more than two lenses uses a computer program to figre things out, anyway...). The next topic in line (lens aberrations) will fill Friday's whole class (at least), though, so I didn't want to plow on into new material, as then I'd have to break things off in the middle.

I ended up doing fifteen or twenty minutes on the basic technique and ideas, working one modertely tedious example on the board, and then going on to why it is that you should care about systems of multiple lenses, by explaining a couple of common examples of two-lens systems (vision correction, and the compound microscope). Wedged between those was a quick mention of the concepts of "f-number" and "numerical aperture," which are on the list of "Words I would expect someone with 'Optics' on their transcript to have heard before," but don't really fit anywhere else. And, of course, vision correction doesn't take all that long to explain, so I killed a few extra minutes telling stories about grotesque eye injuries incurred by people working in laser labs...

It ended up going reasonably well, I think. I'm still not entirely happy about the aperture stuff stuck in the middle, but other than that, it had enough of a flow that I felt fairly comfortable with it. The applications are worth knowing about (if nothing else, they're now prepared to dismiss Lord of the Flies as unscientific crap...), and seemed to go over well. And the gross eye injury stories were a big hit with the class...

Of course, when I draw these things up, I'm working under the assumption that what works for me will work for the students, as well, which may be a big leap. But on some level, I'm stuck with this-- while some students might be happier with a different presentation of the material, I wouldn't be as comfortable presenting it, and that tends to undercut the effectiveness of the lecture.

Posted at 10:26 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, April 21, 2003


A few minor updates: I added a couple of recent entries to the index of physics posts, fixed the address to Calpundit to reflect his newly Movable Type, added Digby's Hullabaloo to the blogroll because I didn't have any blogs beginning with "H" yet, and uploaded a picture of R. D. (who just left with my parents-- it's wonderful to be free to blogroll without feeling guilty for leaving Kate to handle the little terror by herself...). Truly, he is the cutest dog in all of the world, at least when he stops bounding around trying to bite, well, everything.

Posted at 8:47 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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