Archive for August, 2008

Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself…

(Props to those who caught the Jay-Z reference)

So I’ve decided that a few more specific details will make this blog better (at least it will make it more enjoyable for me to write).  Because I wasn’t sure what level of personal detail I was comfortable with revealing, I never really introduced myself properly, I’ll take the opportunity to do so now:

I am a first-year grad student studying physics at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where I intend to get into high energy theory research.

The University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota

Continue reading ‘Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself…’

Thinking Like a Physicist: Super Mario and Problem Solving

My two-week orientation with the physics department began this week.  This program entails some getting acclimated to the program, the department, and the university at large, as well as our first free shot at the qualifying exam (more on that after I finish failing it tomorrow).  However, the bulk of the time will be devoted to learning how to be an effective TA for labs and discussion sessions.  The first part of the TA training has been to think about what the phrases “thinking like a physicist” and “problem solving” mean to us.  In order to help me crystallize some of these thoughts, I have decided to blog about them.

Thinking Like a Physicist

We were told to ask our advisers their opinion on these topics when we met with them to discuss course selections for the upcoming semester.  My adviser had some interesting ideas about “thinking like a physicist.”  The main thing that he said is that he finds learning physics to be more personal than learning math.  By this, he means that physics is done more by feel and concept than symbol manipulation, which he thinks is more emphasized in math.  Because of this personal basis for physics, the instructor is very important, as the students try to emulate him when they set out to solve problems for themselves.  The students must also work to go beyond simply solving the problem and make sure that they can extend the conceptual reach of the problem.

I agree with this idea to a certain extent.  I do believe that a conceptual understanding of the system is the key in understanding a system.  Simple “plugging and chugging” may get you the right answer, but this is useless if you don’t have an idea what this answer means.  This is why physicists often employ the “limiting case” concept: if you can understand how the system behaves as certain parameters get very large or very small, then you go a long way to understanding how the system really works.  I disagree, however, that math is very different in this regard.  My best undergrad math teachers repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding what was going on by visualization and drawing pictures of the situation, rather than depending on some formulaic “recipe” to spit out the right answer.

How Super Mario Saved the Princess

An important distinction made in our Instructor’s Handbook is the distinction between completing exercises and solving problems.  I think that for my generation, a handy analogy can be drawn to video games.

Continue reading ‘Thinking Like a Physicist: Super Mario and Problem Solving’

Back to the Blog

Well, it’s been awhile since my last post, since I’ve been busy with the move to my new city to begin grad school.  I’ve spent the past week getting settled and acclimated, and today I began orientation run by the physics department.

As I was looking at my Google Reader feed at my lunch break, I saw that Sean at Cosmic Variance has updated his blog roll.  Scrolling down, I was surprised to find the name of my blog linked on CV!  Of course, this link caused a huge spike in the number of visits to my blog today.  So welcome to the new visitors!

With grad school starting now, and with a few posts under my belt, my blog should really start rounding into shape now.  This blog is intended to show a peek into the mind of a physics grad student as I journey through the “first excited state” of being a physicist: grad school.

However, there is one question that I have not answered for myself during this feeling-out stage, so I turn the question to my blog readers.

Continue reading ‘Back to the Blog’

First Protons in the LHC this Weekend!

As reported by Scientific American:

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), nearing readiness outside Geneva, Switzerland, was designed to smash protons together at the highest energies ever achieved in hopes of unlocking new secrets of the universe. But to date, all that’s traveled through its circular beam pipe are ping-pong balls to test for obstructions.

That’s all about to change. This weekend, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, plans to test a key component of the accelerator by injecting a low-intensity beam of protons clockwise into the LHC and letting it travel three kilometers (two miles) through the machine.

Assuming all goes as planned, the lab announced today that it will send the first beam around all 27 kilometers (17 miles) of pipe on September 10, the machine’s official start-up date.

Continue reading ‘First Protons in the LHC this Weekend!’

Rooting for the LHC

With the Large Hadron Collider coming online soon, people are starting to discuss what might discoveries might be made there and when we can expect results.  (Well, at least it’s starting to be discussed in the blogosphere as well as in more popular news outlets.  Experts in the field have of course been discussing these things for much longer.)  Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance has the most interesting take that I’ve seen for a semi-informed audience.  He even gives odds on various discoveries that may or may not be found at the LHC.  It’s a very interesting and entertaining article, and I recommend that you read it, if you haven’t already.  So… time to start placing your bets!

I’m actually kind of surprised that I can’t seem to find any online bookies taking bets on the results at the LHC.  In addition to the odds posted on Cosmic Variance about what new discoveries will be made, there’s a bunch of other stuff to bet on: What’s the over-under on the Higgs mass?  When will it be found?  What will the doomsday prophets say when we’re not eaten by micro black holes?

Anyway, in spite of the lack of traditional betting on the LHC, many particle theorists have much more at stake on the experiments at CERN: the validity of their work throughout their careers.  With the new range of energies to be explored, the plethora of predictions that theorists have made over the last few decades will begin to sort themselves out.  With all this at stake, it’s only natural that each scientist is probably rooting for a spectacular confirmation of his pet theory within the next few years.

As a student preparing to enter the field of theoretical particle physics, the results at the LHC have a large amount of personal meaning for me as well. Continue reading ‘Rooting for the LHC’

LHC Rap Video

You might have seen this already, but it’s just too good not to post:

The vibe is decidedly old school, with straight delivery reminiscent of early rappers like Kurtis Blow or the Sugar Hill Gang.  (In fact, since the rapper is a woman, it actually kind of reminds me of Blondie’s foray into hip hop, if you can call it that.)  And for some reason, they decided to resurrect one of the most annoying samples in hip hop’s history, the “Hoo! Yeah!” from Rob Base’s “It Takes Two.”

Continue reading ‘LHC Rap Video’