Tuesday, December 29, 2015

APS elections - reminder

Sorry for the year-end lull in posting.  Work-related writing is taking a lot of my time right now, though I will be posting a few things soon.

In the meantime, a reminder to my APS colleagues:  The APS divisional elections are going on right now, ending on January 4.  The Division of Condensed Matter Physics and the Division of Materials Physics are both holding elections, and unfortunately there were some problems with the distributions of the electronic ballots, particularly to people with ".edu" email addresses.  These issues have been resolved and reminders sent, but if you are a member of DCMP or DMP and have not received your ballots electronically, I urge you to contact the respective secretary/treasurers (linked from the governance sections of the division webpages).   (Full disclosure:  I'm a candidate for a DCMP "member-at-large" position.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Big Ideas in Quantum Materials - guest post, anyone?

Earlier this week UCSD played host to what looks like a great conference/workshop, Big Ideas in Quantum Materials.  Unfortunately, due to multiple commitments here I was unable to attend.  Would anyone who did go like to write a guest post hitting some of the highlights or summarizing the major insights from the meeting?  If so, please respond in the comments or contact me via email and we can do this.  (I'd rather do this as a post than have someone try to squeeze it into the comments since the format is more flexible, incl links, etc.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rice Academy of Fellows

This is a non-physics post, as I struggle to get done many tasks before the break.

Rice is jump-starting a new endowed postdoctoral fellow program (think Harvard Society of Fellows/Berkeley Miller Institute).  The first set of fellows is going to be "health-related research" themed, with subsequent cohorts of fellows having different themes.  Here is an announcement with additional information, if you or someone you know is interested:

The Rice University Academy of Fellows is accepting applications for its first cohort of scholars through January 11, 2016.  Scholars who want to pursue health-related research can find details and apply at http://www.riceacademy.rice.edu.    Applicants must have earned their doctoral degree between September 1, 2012 and August 31, 2016, and postdoctoral fellows are expected to begin September 1, 2016. All Rice professors are eligible to host Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellows.  

Joining the Rice University Academy of Fellows is a fantastic opportunity for young scholars.  The postdoctoral fellows will join a dynamic intellectual community led by the Rice Academy Faculty Fellows.   The standard stipend is $60,000 (the advisor, host department, or some other entity must contribute towards the stipend $20,000 and the corresponding fringe).  Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellows take a concurrent adjunct non-tenure track faculty appointment.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Advanced undergrad labs - survey

To my readers at universities:  I am interested in learning more about how other institutions do junior/senior level physics undergrad lab courses.  My impression is that there are roughly three approaches:

  • Self-guided or not to various degrees, students pick some set of predefined experiments that are presumably meant to teach pieces of physics while exposing the students to key components of modern research (more serious data acquisition; statistics+error analysis; sophisticated research instrumentation beyond what they would see in a first-year undergrad lab, such as lock-in amplifiers, high speed counters and vetoing, lasers, vacuum systems).  Sometimes students would work with an instructor to commission a new experiment rather than do one of the existing set.  This approach is what I saw as an undergrad - I remember running into a classmate late at night who had been doing some classic experiment confirming the \(1/r^{2}\) form of the Coulomb force law, and I remember three friends working as a team to commission a dye laser as part of such a project.
  • More topically narrow but intense/sophisticated labs.  For example, when I was a grad student I was a TA for a dedicated low temperature physics lab, where students chose from a list of experiments, designed some apparatus (!), had the parts machined by the shop (!!), and then actually assembled and ran their experiments over the course of a quarter.  It gave students a real sense of serious experimental research in its various phases, but only aimed to expose them to a comparatively narrow slice of modern physics.  I've heard of similar lab courses based on optics or atomic physics projects, and entire courses about electronics.
  • Some hybrid, where students do a combination of pre-fab experiments and then do a one-semester experimental project actually in an active research group, as part of their lab training and credit.
Questions for readers:  Am I leaving out some approach that you've experienced or run across?  If you're a faculty member in a university physics department, what does your department want/hope the undergraduates get out of these lab experiences?  Are there approaches to more advanced formal lab training that you particularly like and find successful (not counting having individual undergrads work in research groups, which we always encourage anyway)?  Students, were there particular labs or approaches that you really found valuable?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Various items - solids, explanations, education reform, and hiring for impact

I'm behind in a lot of writing of various flavors right now, but here are some items of interest:

  • Vassily Lubchenko across town at the University of Houston has written a mammoth review article for Adv. Phys. about how to think about glasses, the glass transition, and crystals.  It includes a real discussion of mechanical rigidity as a comparatively universal property - basically "why are solids solid?".  
  • Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has come out with another book, Thing Explainer, in which he tackles a huge array of difficult science and technology ideas and concepts using only the 1000 most common English words.  For a sample, he has an article in this style in The New Yorker in honor of the 100th anniversary of general relativity.
  • There was an editorial in the Washington Post on Sunday talking about how to stem the ever-rising costs of US university education.  This is a real problem, though I'm concerned that some of the authors' suggestions don't connect to the real world (e.g., if you want online courses to function in a serious, high quality way, that still requires skilled labor, and that labor isn't free).
  • Much university hiring is incremental, and therefore doesn't "move the needle" much in terms of departmental rankings, reputation, or resources.  There are rare exceptions.  Four years ago the University of Chicago launched their Institute for Molecular Engineering, with the intent of creating something like 35 new faculty lines over 15 years.  Now Princeton has announced that they are going to hire 10 new faculty lines in computer science.  That will increase the size of that one department from 32 to 42 tenure/tenure-track faculty.   Wow.