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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Long Summer is Nigh

Aside from a brief flurry of "I'm back!" posts, my return from DAMOP has been pretty much indistinguishable from the time I spent away at the meeting. I blame our lousy academic calendar-- while most colleges and universities are already on break, we're on a trimester system, so the Summer Conference Season actually begins during our school year. The week just finished was the last week of our Spring term, so I had to teach classes, run a review session, grade a big pile of old homeworks, and make up a final exam to give on Monday. It's a big hassle, but at least Sean Carroll feels my pain.

I also spent a couple of days gearing up for Long Summer I, coming soon to a lab near you. I'm officially on sabbatical in the Fall and Spring terms next year, which means I'll be focussing exclusively on research until December. On Tuesday, I spent most of the afternoon doing mechanical drawings (somewhere, my eigth-grade shop teacher sprains something laughing at this idea) for a custom vacuum chamber to be part of the apparatus, while on Thursday and Friday, I arranged to spend a couple thousand dollars on miscellaneous electronics and spectroscopy gear to be used by my students this summer. There'd be a blog post on the corrupting influence of Big Money on Science here, but really, this is chump change.

(I would, however, like to take this opportunity to remarks that Newark Electronics has what may be the least useful catalog and web site in the history of useless catalogs and web sites. They sort the thousands of different integrated circuit chips they carry by manufacturer, which is quite possibly the least helpful thing ever-- I'm looking for a goddamn op-amp. I don't care who makes it, I just want a buffer op-amp, and I don't want to look on seventeen diffferent catalog pages for it.

(Their web site, hard as it may be to believe, is actually worse-- you can search for a part by its Newark stock number, but not by the manufacturer's part number. Well, that's helpful-- if I knew the Newark stock number, I wouldn't really need to be looking it up in the catalog, now, would I?)

Anyway, at last, the term is done. It's all over but for the parading around in silly robes. And the final exams. And sillier end-of-year actiities like this afternoon's faculty-student basketball game for charity...

Posted at 8:24 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

What're the Odds?

A colleague from my alma mater turned out to be on the same flights to and from DAMOP as I was, so we spent a bunch of time talking about physics. On the way out to the meeting, though, we had a three-hour layover in Las Vegas, which he spent over in the neighborhood of the gate for the next flight, while I wandered off in search of food.

After a mediocre Tex-Mex dinner, I headed back to the gate, and stopped at a bank of video poker machines. I threw a dollar into one, and spent half an hour playing one quarter at a time until I got four of a kind (four fours, to be exact), which brought my total up to $20. Firguring that that was a pretty good return on my investment, I cashed out, and went to the gate.

On reaching the gate, I ran into my colleague again, and mentioned that I'd won $20 at video poker. "Really?" he said, "So did I. I got four fours, and cashed out right away."

Two machines within a bank of eight or so came up with the same hand within twenty minutes of each other. It's not hard to see how gamblers become so superstitious.

(That, or Diebold has started making gambling machines...)

Posted at 12:45 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sunday, May 30, 2004

If Not for Optics, We'd Just Be Damp

DAMOP, as Kate explained in a comment to the previous post, is the American Physical Society's Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, or more specifically, the annual meeting of same. As our Canadian brethren can tell you, there are worse acronyms to labor under.

It's a great big geek-fest-- more than 700 people were registered this year-- and it's one of the rare conferences without a big, obvious lull in the programming, so despite being in an interesting place (Tucson, Arizona), I saw very little of the setting. This is how they get away with scheduling next year's meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska-- it's a strong enough meeting that the location doesn't make much difference.

I haven't made it to the last two DAMOP meetings, as I haven't had anything to present (which would let me get money from the College to go), so it was nice to be back. It was sort of an odd experience, though. The last time I was there, I was a high roller-- a member of an important group with exciting results, there to give an invited talk, and hob-nob with other top-flight researchers. This time out, I was a lowly poster presenter, as a junior faculty member at a small college, setting up a lab to do research in a little niche off to the side of the main thrust of the Division. You can't go home again, and all that.

Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to spend a week thinking about physics at a higher level than calculus-based intro E&M, and hear about the latest and greatest developments. It was also good to catch up with people I haven't seen in a while, many of whom are doing very well indeed. My poster was well received by the small number of people who came to see it, and I had several very helpful conversations about it. One guy pointed out a few technical problems I hadn't been considering, but after a bit of discussion, I think they can be overcome. Another pointed out that a problem I had thought was a serious limitation can probably be solved in a simple but unexpected manner, which was nice to learn. Everybody agreed that the measurement we're proposing should work, so the next step is to start seeking money for the project, which is no end of fun...

A random selection of other things I learned in my week back in big-time Physics:

All in all, a good meeting. I came back fired up about physics again, with some ideas for things to try out both in the lab and on a funding level, and a better sense of the state of the field. It was a lot of fun, and reminded me of why I got into this business originally.

Of course, before I get to start playing with real physics again, I've got lab reports and homework sets to grade, lectures to deliver, and a final exam to make up, give, and grade...

Posted at 8:10 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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