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...
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...)
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:
- It sometimes pays to arrive really late at night. The hotel clerk very apologetically told me that there were only two rooms left in the hotel, so they had had to put me in a handicapped-accessible room on the ninth floor. The oxymoronic nature of that aside, this meant that I was on the "concierge floor," with a free breakfast, two free newspapers (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, both worthless), and chocolates on my pillow. Yeah, that really needed an apology.
- There's a lot that can be learned from the search for the electric dipole moment (EDM) of the electron, and particle theorists are starting to get antsy over the fact that current experiments have started to rule out otherwise promising theories. Of course, the suitability of atomic and molecular systems for EDM searches seems to be directly proportional to the hassle of working with those systems-- all the candidates are toxic, corrosive, or require that experiments be conducted at ridiculous temperatures. Sometimes all three.
- It's all Feshbachs these days. Feshbach resonances in quantum-degenerate Fermi gases, that is, used as a tool to explore the crossover between Bose-Einstein Condensation (BEC) of molecules and Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer (BCS) pairing of fermions. I'll try to explain what those terms mean at some point. There's lots of interesting physics in this area, and there were at least a dozen talks on the subject from one angle or another.
- Georg Raithel doesn't think small. This does not surprise me, as I knew him when he was a post-doc, but he seems to deliberately seek out the most technically challenging projects conceivable. He generally makes them work, too, though I must say the thought of running 300 A through two meters of water-cooled conductors inside a vacuum chamber is a bit more of a gamble than I'd be comfortable with...
- Ultra-cold plasmas are pretty interesting, too. I knew this already, having been tangentially involved in the early experiments at NIST, but Tom Killian, one of the post-docs on that project, has gone on to do some pretty impressive stuff with it. He's got what will probably end up being the method to study this stuff with.
- Wojciech Zurek is younger (younger looking, at least) than I expected. He's also a very good speaker, at least in terms of making me think that I understand what in hell he's talking about. Upon reflection, I don't think I did, but he had me going for a while.
- It's apparently really easy to make BEC by all-optical means. At least if you listen to a bunch of talks by people who aren't Nathan, you begin to think that, and he wasn't there to provide a reality check...
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...