Friday, April 29, 2011

April APS Executive Board & Council Meetings

I've arrived at the site of the APS April Meeting after a few delays in my flights (the storms in the south and mid-west on the 27th required flight plan changes and congestion at airports).  As long as I make my connections (which I did since I had a 3.5 hour layover), I don't mind since I have a Kindle full of books (vampire books are my guilty pleasure).  However, I did land over an hour late at the Orange County Airport and after taking the SuperShuttle, I arrived at the hotel over a half an hour into the Executive Board dinner.  I was disappointed since the food is usually wonderful and the conversation even better but it wasn't horrible to jump into the shower and get to bed early.

The Executive Board Meeting started at 8:30 am on the 28th.  Like the last Board Meeting, strategic planning for the future years of the Society took up more than half of the day.  This planning is led by a facilitator to focus our discussions on a topic and organize the brainstorming conversation that results.  The experience has been a fulfilling one since I had a few ideas develop in the process and feel that they may become a reality in the future.  It feels good not only to have your ideas valued, but to feel like you are making a lasting impact on something.

Today is the Council Meeting.  Since I am writing this during this meeting, I don't have much to share so far.  However, the schedule for today is very similar to the meeting I described last November.  I did take a short walk to the back of the room and I thought you might be interested in what a meeting of the Council looks like:

Here, we are discussing the budget for 2012 and comparing it with the actual income and expenses for different activities (like publishing journals and professional meetings) of the society in past years.

As far as the April Meeting is concerned, over the last two days preparations for this have become apparent.  Registration booths have gone up outside of the hotel lobby, and display boards for research posters are up (see this post about what professional conference posters are like).  There are also more physicists milling about.  I find it interesting that I can identify other physicists but I'm not exactly sure what it is about a person that indicates that they are like me...  Is it they way they carry themselves?  Or is it they way they dress?  Or is it that these are the people who don't look like they are planning a day of fun at Disneyland (just up the road)?  By tomorrow, it will be very easy to tell since all of us will have name tags!

Well, it is almost break time in the Council Meeting...  I write more soon.  Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Off to the APS April Meeting & Another View Out of My Office Window

This week I will be heading out to the American Physical Society's (APS) April Meeting.  There are 2 main meetings of the APS every year - the March Meeting and the April Meeting.  These meetings are separated by sub-fields of physics.  The March Meeting hosts materials physics, polymer physics, biological physics, condensed matter physics, chemical physics, etc.  The April Meeting hosts astrophysics, gravitational physics, particle physics, etc.  Since the communities of the April Meeting's sub-fields are fairly small (but related), the April Meeting is the smaller of the two.  I work in gravitation, so I go to the April Meeting (although I did get to go to the March Meeting for a day last year since I was invited to give a talk on the work done at the Science Education Center here at LIGO Livingston [read that abstract here]).

I plan on giving you a first hand account of the meeting from my experiences!  Thursday and Friday I will be in the APS Executive Board and then APS Council Meetings (which I've written about in the past when discussing professional service), and then the meeting itself starts on Saturday.  I will be giving a talk on Tuesday afternoon (the last day of the meeting); you can read the abstract for my talk here.

Until the excitement begins, I wanted to share with you a sight that I see out my window from time to time:

What you see here is the #2 dewar being filled with liquid nitrogen (you can see a condensation cloud to the left of the truck).  There are 4 such dewars on site, two on each arm with one being just outside of the corner of LIGO and one just before the end of the arm.  This liquid nitrogen is used to cool segments of the arms to near absolute zero (about 77 K) so that any stray gas that may have been introduced into LIGO (this includes residual gas from work being done within an end or corner chamber) freezes to the side of the segment and does not contaminate the vacuum in the rest of the arm.  The arms themselves have not seen atmospheric pressure since around 2000.

LIGO is one of the largest ultra-high vacuums on the planet with over 300,000 cubic feet of volume with a pressure about 1 trillion times less than the atmosphere.  And the scene above is one of the ways we are able to maintain such a high quality vacuum over long periods of time.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More on LISA & Giving Public Tours with My Hubby

Since I've last posted, I've gotten to work with my husband (Derek) on two public tours of LIGO.  That's something that doesn't usually happen since he doesn't work with visitors on a regular basis.

1:  The first tour was on the 9th to the local chapter of the AIAA (to which my husband is a life member) based out of Stennis Space Center in MS.  I took the engineers and their families around the site and answered their science questions while Derek discussed his work at LIGO and his dissertation work (helicopters).

2:  The second tour was the monthly Science Saturday open house this past weekend.  The theme this month was "Rockets" in honor of the 50th anniversary of humans in space and the last shuttle launch later this year.  Since Derek is an aerospace engineer, he was recruited as our local "rocket scientist" to interact with the visitors.  I helped find some interesting footage of rockets for him to discuss during a short presentation which he presented wonderfully (yes, I am a proud wife).  As usual, I took visitors on tours of the site, but you are probably getting tired of listening to me go on about that :).  Below is a super-slow motion video of the Saturn V rocket for Apollo 11.  It was filmed at 500 frames/second over a little more than 30 seconds.  This video is over 8 minutes with commentary on what is going on.  It's awesome (and even better in full screen)!

If you want to see it in real time, it's here (with corny music):

In my last post, I discussed LISA, what it is and how NASA had recently withdrawn its partnership with the ESA (European Space Agency) in this project.  Below is the official statement from the Albert Einstein Institute on the ESA's response.  The original document can be read here, but since it is a PDF, I copied the text below for your easy reading:
NASA withdraws from partnership with Europe. ESA Science team begins to rethink LISA design.

It was just in February this year that ESA kicked off the process of picking the next major mission in its Cosmic Vision program, with presentations at a meeting of Europe's astronomers and planetary scientists in Paris. Among the favorites was the first gravitational wave observatory in space, called LISA, which had already been given a high scientific priority in the USA by NASA's 2007 Beyond Einstein review and by American astronomers' 2010 Decadal Review of Astronomy. But now NASA has admitted that cost overruns on its James Webb Space Telescope mission will remove so much money from its program that it cannot commit to being an equal partner with ESA on any major science mission in the near future.

ESA's management has reacted swiftly to this news because it must still find the best use for the whole of its space science budget for the rest of this decade. The LISA project team, as well as those of the other two missions -- IXO (a proposed space X- ray observatory) and JGO (a proposed mission to explore Jupiter's moons) -- have been asked to rethink their designs and scientific objectives to see if they can fit within a European-only funding envelope and still return good scientific results. Over the next year it is expected that ESA will officially adopt a new strategy in view of the NASA withdrawal, and then decide which of the three missions will best fit that strategy. Meanwhile, ESA scientists and engineers are supporting the science team of LISA as well as the other missions so that they arrive at the best possible redesign in a very short time.

The Albert Einstein Institute, as the world's largest research institute dedicated to exploring all aspects of Einstein's theory of gravitation, general relativity, is a major contributor to the LISA mission. “The European LISA team is working hard on the redesign now. We are optimistic that we can fit the new conditions and still deliver outstanding science by opening the gravitational wave window in space”, says Karsten Danzmann, European Mission Scientist for LISA and director at the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany. “We hope that NASA will at least become a minor partner in a redesigned, smaller and less expensive LISA mission, and meanwhile we are benefiting greatly from the input of our US colleagues, who want to see LISA fly and do its unique science even if they do not get full partnership in it."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

NASA Cancels LISA and More Info on the "Big Dog"


LIGO has updated its news page giving more details about the "Big Dog" event that I discussed in a previous post.  Please go here if you would like more details!


An artist's depiction of LISA, in the foreground, in solar orbit behind the Earth with gravitational waves from a black hole, in the background, arriving.

In breaking news today, NASA has officially wiped its hands of the LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) project.  Before today, this was a NASA/ESA collaboration to build a space-based detector (similar to LIGO) orbiting the Sun 20 degrees behind Earth in its orbit.  Below is an animation by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK that shows the LISA satellites in orbit around the Sun (be patient, it will seem like the animation isn't working for the first second or so):


LISA is important to exploring the Universe with gravitational waves since it will be able to detect gravitational waves with very low frequencies (few cycles of the wave every second) that will be impossible to do on Earth due to the constant seismic activity that is going on (just the waves in the oceans shake the Earth constantly - this is called the microseism).  LIGO has its best sensitivity between 100 Hz - 1000 Hz which is perfect to catch the merger of dense, massive objects (like black holes) and the death throes of stars (supernovae).  [See illustration below.]  But black holes can orbit each other for millions of years before merging into one while giving off low frequency gravitational waves the entire time.  LISA would be able to detect those.  As a matter of fact, since there is such a large number of low frequency systems producing gravitational waves all the time, the major noise source for LISA was the confusion limit (when you are detecting so many gravitational waves from many sources at the same time it is difficult to distinguish one from another).  Imagine that - having a major source of noise be gravitational waves themselves!  That would be a wonderful (and unattainable) problem to have here at LIGO!

Below is a gravitational wave amplitude vs. gravitational wave frequency graph showing where LISA and LIGO are sensitive along with what sources they could detect (this is not an all inclusive list).  Note that BH = black hole, NS = neutron star, and SN = supernova:

All of this does not mean that LISA is dead - it has just taken a major hit.  The ESA is still committed to this venture and there will be a flurry of new proposals to make LISA without the investment from NASA.  Will this mean that it will sacrifice sensitivity?  Perhaps.  But LISA has been a project for over 14 years now and there have been many advances in technology in that time.  I am not an expert in this so I cannot talk in specifics, but hope is not lost!  However, I have a few friends doing LISA research funded by NASA that very well may lose their jobs.

Read more about it here:  Cosmic Variance | Dynamics of Cats

Friday, April 1, 2011

Visit and Seminar at Rice University

Last Monday, I gave a seminar at Rice University on LIGO and gravitational wave astronomy.  Rice does not have a LIGO group or a group that works on relativistic physics, so the talk needed to start from the foundations of gravitational waves.  I do this sort of thing all the time at work when I do outreach, but I assume that the visitor isn't a physics expert.  So, I was a little worried about pitching it too low and insulting the audience or pitching it too high and having no one really understand what I'm talking about.

It turns out that I was worried for no reason and this was one of the most enjoyable talks I've ever given.  The topic is very dear to my heart since the entire reason I became involved with LIGO when I started grad school in 1999 was to be part of this new field of gravitational wave astronomy.  Through this talk, I got to start with the basics about gravitational waves and LIGO and then go into all of the personally exciting fronts on gravitational wave astronomy.  The audience was not shy and asked questions throughout the talk (which I usually interpret as them being excited about the topic).  In the end, the talk & questions went on for an hour and a half (the seminar was scheduled for 55 minutes) and only a few people who had other commitments (like teaching) had to leave early.  It felt so fulfilling to give a talk to such a wonderful group of physicists.

After the talk, the organizer mentioned that the older gentleman who asked me a few questions was none other than Dr. Robert Curl, the Nobel Prize winning (1996) chemist who was one of the scientists who discovered C60 (Buckminsterfullerene or Buckyballs).  In case you are not familiar, buckyballs are spherical shells of carbon atoms that resemble the geometry of the geodesic domes (think Spaceship Earth at EPCOT Center) that Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller popularized.  These buckyballs began the new field of research in carbon nanotubes which is full of promising new technology.

I can't believe that I held my own with a Nobel Prize winner!  (Not that I am usually proud of myself for answering questions correctly, but I'm usually not questioned by someone so famous.)

After the talk I was treated to a tour of campus.  I must admit, it is one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen in a long time.  The week before, they dedicated their new physics building.  Outside on the top of the support columns, were symbols with physics themes (this is common on other buildings on campus with the symbols showing the respective subject of study).  On the top of one column was a diagram of a mass warping space-time and a schematic of how an interferometer works:

I was also told the story of the founding of Rice.  I won't spoil all of it here, but it is a murder mystery where the butler really did do it (along with a corrupt lawyer).  The day was topped off by dinner with the organizer and her husband.  The food was excellent and the conversation even better!

The cherry on top of this trip happened 2 days before the talk.  Nearly 6 years ago I donated bone marrow to a 16-year-old young lady with ALL.  We communicated through the donation coordinators for a year (we were not allowed to know each other's identity for a year due to privacy issues) and then signed the paperwork to release our personal information to each other.  She and her family live outside of Houston, TX so I took this opportunity to meet her for the first time in person.  She is beautiful both physically and in spirit!  The most meaningful thing I have ever done with my life is help her beat her cancer (she has been cancer free since the transplant).

If you are interested in learning more about registering to donate bone marrow or peripheral stem cells (basically what they need from bone marrow that can be taken from the blood), visit The National Marrow Donor Program.  Most people will never be a match to someone in need.  I was called in the first 9 months and haven't been called since.  However, I would welcome the opportunity to do it again.

P.S.  If you are interested in my donation story, you can read it here:  I wrote it shortly after donation and it could use a bit of editing, but the story is complete.