The title of this particular post is what I am currently pondering, as I sit at a remote observing station in a forlorn basement, hitting a timer to ensure a telescope knows I’m still alive (as if an inanimate object cared) and praying that the star fields I’m observing will finally get to low enough air masses so I can take a two hour nap before I take the rest of the data at dawn.  Normally I have no problem doing crazy things in the name of science, but tonight I’m particularly whiny because I forgot to buy energy drinks and seem to have lost my ability to do arithmetic.

Ever since I made the decision to major in physics, everyone in my life has always asked why.  After all, my parents expected me to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something else of the sort.  Growing up, I had little interest in math, thought computer programming was for video game-obsessed boys, and wasn’t particularly enthused by my first physics class.  I actually wanted to be an engineer, simply because it involved math, which I was semi-decent at, and I could make a very comfortable living doing it.  Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be filthy rich, and now spend my days around chalkboards arguing with smelly boys and my nights in a basement, controlling a telescope across the bay.

What happened?  Well, I could tell you about my overly-romanticized notion of science, watching far too many PBS specials, or the cool toys I get to play with, but that’s not what changed my mind.  It was actually my sophomore year of college, on the last day of my introductory Electricity and Magnetism course.  It was an 8 AM class, so I was armed with my trustworthy cup of coffee and was fully prepared to frantically scribble down notes of what could possibly be on our imminent final.  Instead, our professor quickly stated that none of what would be an onslaught of equations would be on the exam.  I, like the rest of the class, was slightly annoyed, but figured that since I was already up, I might as well stay and watch my professor frantically scribble down math with no particular end in sight.  After all, it would be a shame to waste a perfectly good cup of coffee.  Well, as I would later discover, our professor happened to be deriving the speed of light from Maxwell’s equations; the very same equations we had spent the better part of a semester studying.  As I followed his steps, I came to an epiphany: this really isn’t very difficult.  While you need a lot of preparation in order to understand the equations (namely a year of calculus and a couple semesters of physics) but what you were learning was simply the grammar of a language; a language spoken by the entire universe.  The speed of light was not some magical number, determined by nerdy guys in lab coats measuring light in vacuums, it was a fundamental constant of nature, with all the components of the universe simultaneously agreeing on a single number (which, incidentally, is confirmed by nerdy guys in lab coats).  Furthermore, this deep realization did not come from some obscenely difficult calculation; it was something that lower division physics students could’ve done, with a bit of prodding.  It was simple, elegant, and beautiful.  After coming to that realization, I came to the conclusion that I had to know more.  If something that fundamental can come out of such simple manipulations, what else is out there, just waiting to be discovered?  I, quite simply, would never be happy doing anything else.

So, that’s my story.  What’s yours?

Incidentally, if you’re curious, this is a quick explanation of Maxwell’s equations and the derivation I’ve been rambling about.


Update from New York!

September 2, 2010

So, for those of you not in the know, I’ve been gallivanting about New York City the past few days.  Thus far, I have concluded that the city is dirty, the drivers are jerks, the food is amazing, and the boys are cute… ahem.  Also, there is no sales tax on clothing, and a good number of museums and shows.  I think I could get used to this.

Artist's depiction of a black hole

I was in the Museum of Natural History the other day, when I stumbled upon the astronomy exhibit.  Everything was going fine, until I saw a short film on black holes and flew into a tremendous nerd rage.  The sentence that ignited this flurry of scientific fervor?  “If you went inside a black hole, you would see nothing.”  Argh!  While this could be true, it’s a mis-statement, really.  If you observe a black hole from Earth (or anywhere else outside the black hole), you see nothing emitted.  Everything that crosses the event horizon of a black hole, be it matter, radiation, etc. will not be able to return.  Since our observation techniques all require some form of emitted radiation for us to see, black holes appear, exactly as their name implies, black.  However, inside a black hole, it’s another game entirely.  Think about all the matter, all the light, that the black hole has absorbed.  There isn’t emptiness in a black hole, there is a good deal of matter being compressed to infinite density and light being shifted to shorter wavelengths (and thus infinite energy).  So, there would probably be a great deal of light produced, but it would only be visible to our eyes for a very short period of time.  However, all this light being produced will never be able to cross back over the event horizon and be seen by an outside observer.

Long story short, don’t see a kiddie science exhibit of something you’ve studied in-depth before.  Moreover, don’t bring your child to a kiddie science exhibit when there’s an infuriated scientist on the loose.  Whoops.  Well, we all have our moments, right?

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...
Image via Wikipedia

At the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Malay Mazumder, a research professor in Boston University‘s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, presented research on solar panels that employ a self-generated electrical pulse to shake off dust.  That’s right, solar panels that clean themselves.  Frankly, I think the little Roomba vacuum they sell at Coscto is pretty exciting (I often wonder exactly which optimization algorithms they used for George; it’s a tricky thing to clean a whole room efficiently while avoiding arbitrarily-placed furniture and walls), so this absolutely blows my mind.

Since a dust layer of 4 g/m^2 can decrease solar power conversion by 40%, you can imagine the ramifications of a self-cleaning solar panel.  Mazumder and his colleagues have developed an electrodynamic transparent screen by depositing indium tin oxide (ITO)—on glass or a clear plastic sheet covering the solar panels.  Electrodes produce a traveling wave of electrostatic and dielectrophoretic forces that lift dust particles from the surface and transport them to the screen’s edges. The researchers found that 90% of deposited dust can be removed by the transparent screen in less than 60 seconds.

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