What Is the Higgs Boson and Why Do I Care?

July 4, 2012

With today’s announcement of what could be the first evidence of the discovery of a Higgs boson, I thought it would be a good idea to write out some things that I’ve noticed the media has missed in its coverage of what happened and how.

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The Standard Model is the Duke Basketball of Physics

August 24, 2010

As I was reading an article on quantum mechanics in New Scientist the other day, Ann asked me why I still read quantum mechanics articles since the pace of discovery has slowed so much. I told her that mostly I was hoping that a flaw with the standard model might be found, opening up at least the possibility of new physics and cool technologies. Today it occurred to me that I am a standard model hater. Just as Duke draws television viewers hoping to see them lose, I am hoping to see the standard model fail.

This should sound familiar: Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the amazing achievement that the standard model represents. I am not trying to disparage it. I just would like to see it upset.

So it was with a bit of glee that I heard about the following series of papers. Apparently the decay rates for heavy isotopes varies slightly as the earth orbits the sun. This variation is consistent with the position of the earth relative to the sun and may be consistent with the rotation of the core of the sun, assuming that that rotation is slightly slower than the surface. What’s really cool is that the decay rates seem to alter a day and a half before solar flares hit the earth, implying a wave of faster moving particles washing over the earth’s surface. What they are and how they interact with nuclear decay are unknown.

As in His Master’s Voice, the discovery was made after searching for a good random number generator.

Bob in Physics Today

September 25, 2009

Those of you who aren’t current in your APS subscriptions might miss this “Quick Study” article by Bob in this month’s Physics Today.

Physics Thunderdome

May 28, 2009

Pardon me for talking shop for a minute, but I have a question for the group.

The subject of a coming controversy in my program has to do with the curriculum. As it exists, the four “upper level” physics courses undergraduates are required to take are mathematical methods, analytical mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. In addition, one must take four other science or math courses numbered 300 or above, the reason being that the degree is Applied Physics, whatever that means. One choice is, of course, quantum mechanics.

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Grant Wishes

May 22, 2009

I suppose I can now call myself a real scientist. I have applied for funding from the NSF.

I’m listed as a co-PI on a Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grant proposal. We’ve called it Improving the APplied Physics Laboratory Experience, or iAPPLE. The purpose of the grant would be to create a junior-level lab course sequence,

Artist’s conception of iAPPLE.

Artist's conception of iAPPLE.

which hasn’t existed to date. Instead of doing the “classic” experiments, though, students would propose, design, and carry out independent projects. They would have to create mathematical models (using Mathematica, naturally) for the phenomena they’re investigating and produce some sort of physical apparatus of demonstration equipment-level quality. In turn, these would be folded back into the introductory courses, and the lab students would be responsible for assessing the quality of their work as it’s used in the intro classes. Therefore, a feedback loop is created, in which students come into the program and learn from materials more advanced students have made, then they make more materials for the next “generation”. These educational materials would accumulate in our department over time. It’s win/win/win… or so we believe.


The grant-writing process itself has been hectic, especially toward the end. I was gone on vacation for a week, though, so I missed a lot of the slog of writing and editing. I feel a bit guilty about it, but my responsibility in the actual execution of the grant is quite significant. But the last few days since I’ve gotten back have been a constant cycle of re-writes and edits and meeting to talk about grammar and re-formatting. We submitted it today, though, so the pressure’s off. We think we have a very good shot of getting funded. We’re all very excited about the project anyway, regardless of the NSF’s decision.

Now, it’s on to write another NSF grant about starting an REU program here…

Is grad school a cult?

April 12, 2009

I recently stumbled across an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which “Thomas Benton” (a pen name) makes the case that graduate school is something like a cult. He’s driven to this conclusion largely by his sense that most graduate students, especially in the humanities, would be better served outside academia. He quotes the following rules of thumb for identifying a cult, taken from the anti-cult Freedom of Mind Center webpage:

  • Behavior control: “major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals”; “need to ask permission for major decisions”; “need to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors.”
  • Information control: “access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged (keep members so busy they don’t have time to think)” and “extensive use of cult-generated information (newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.).”
  • Thought control: “need to internalize the group’s doctrine as ‘Truth’ (black and white thinking; good vs. evil; us vs. them, inside vs. outside)” and “no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate.”
  • Emotional control: “excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)”; “phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave”; and “from the group’s perspective, people who leave are ‘weak,’ ‘undisciplined.'”

Of course, there are plenty of points to pick at — it may speak more to the “definition” given above than it does to grad school — but I think it’s an interesting observation.

In Memory of Sir Olaf Pol

April 1, 2009
Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sad news, everyone. I heard from his son today that Sir Olaf Pol passed away early this morning. As you may or may not remember, Sir Pol lived in Durham for many years. He was an amateur quantum physicist who presented his findings to a group at Duke several years ago, coincidentally on this date. His most striking—and controversial—contribution to his science was taking the “gedanken” out of the “gedankenexperiment” of Schroedinger’s Cat. A shocked audience listened to him describe how he took in stray cats of the streets of downtown Durham and Chapel Hill for these practical applications. Sir Pol’s son reports that three and a half of the cats survive.

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