Monday, October 25, 2010

Busy Last Week: SESAPS Meeting and LaserFest Teachers' Day

Sorry for the lack of posts but I have been completely knackered after the events of last week:

SESAPS Meeting @ LSU

The American Physical Society (APS) has regional section meetings across the country and the end of last week saw the Southeast Section Meeting of the APS Meeting at LSU.  Since Initial LIGO was decommissioned a few days before, LIGO opened up a few of its vacuum chambers to the SESAPS attendees to show off the optics that were contained within.  This was indeed a rare opportunity as the chambers are only opened in between science runs AND only when there was crucial work to be done on specific components.  I work on site and I have only ever gotten to see inside a few of the chambers before.

Over 100 (and I believe I am being conservative) guests visited LIGO on Thursday afternoon and toured the Science Education Center, control room and LVEA (Laser Vacuum Equipment Area, otherwise known as the corner of the LIGO detector where all the neat stuff is).

Above is the inside of HAM6 (Horizontal Access Module - it has a table inside in instead of hanging the equipment from the top of the chamber) which is the output of the LIGO detector.  The taller piece of equipment on the table is the Output Mode Cleaner (OMC) which will help insure that the laser light has optimal intensity and phase to be used to detect gravitational waves (you can read a more detailed description of this kind of mode cleaner here).

This is what is inside of BSC1 (Beam Splitter Chamber - the kind of chamber where the equipment is hung from the top of the chamber).  This mirror (which looks like glass, but the front surface has a transparent light purple coating to make it reflective to infrared light which is what our laser is) is called ITMY (Intermediate Test Mass on the Y [south] arm).  (Test mass is our complicated way of saying mirror.)  This mirror sits just after the corner beam splitter of LIGO to intercept the light returning from the end mirror to bounce it back to the end mirror - this bouncing happens about 100 times before the light gets past the ITM to recombine with the light coming from the X arm and go to the output (which you just saw in the previous picture).

This is a picture of me and my husband, Derek (who is an engineer at LIGO).  The bright light you see shining from the left is the spot light that is illuminating ITMY.  This isn't the best picture, but I just had to have a picture of us in front of this mirror before they closed the chamber up - which is exactly what they did just after this picture was taken!

LaserFest Teachers' Day

I've been talking lately about the workshop I've been planning for middle/high school teachers of physical science and physics.  Since 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, this year is also LaserFest.  To that end, the professional societies whose research have benefited from lasers all got together to sponsor LaserFest and to promote the educational outreach of lasers.  Since the SESAPS Meeting was taking place at LSU with physicists from all over the region, I decided it would be great to organize a LaserFest Teachers' Day to focus on the classroom kits the APS is distributing for free to teachers and to invite the meeting physicists to have lunch with the teachers and chat about what they do.

Organizing this event was quite the journey.  The first thing that needed to be done was to find the funding for the event (even if the kits are free from the APS, there are costs for food, recruiting and other miscellaneous supplies) which was supplied by the APS Forum on Education, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the Optical Society of America (OSA).  Then I needed to recruit teachers from the surrounding areas.  I was lucky here since I work with the LIGO Science Education Center and was able to advertise this event through their contact who also helped to spread the word.  Then there is making sure that the supplies arrive in time, contracting catering for the event, making sure that the teachers know when and where to be and insuring that you have all the incidental supplies that are needed (e.g. the kits contain everything a teacher would need except things they should already have like scissors and tape - but I needed to make sure that we had those for the workshop).  I know that none of these things sound like a lot, but this reminded me a lot of the last days before my wedding when all the details needed to fall into place at the same time.

The day started at 9 am with breakfast followed by a wonderful talk by Dr. Ken Schafer who introduced us to the basic concepts that make a laser work, their history and their applications.  We then proceeded to the first of the 4 activities in the 2009 PhysicsQuest kit (which included a laser pointer, and LED light, polarizers, glow-in-the-dark vinyl and colored light filters).  At noon, we broke for lunch and chatting with some of the physicists visiting for the SESAPS Meeting.  The rest of the afternoon saw us working through the remaining 3 activities and the day concluded at about 3 pm.

The picture above is some of the teachers hard at work doing the laser activity where we measured the width of our hair by measuring the diffraction pattern made by shining the laser on the hair.  That explains why the teacher on the left is giving herself a hair cut!

The APS has put together a useful page on arranging a Teachers' Day of your own - see it here.

I know that there are many people out there with poor opinions of our education system and the teachers within it, but I was truly inspired by these teachers who attended this workshop on their own time and without pay so that they can learn how to do these activities and take them back into their classroomsThese teachers definitely went above and beyond to better themselves and their students!