Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Past Week

This week I've done both outreach and science.  If you aren't familiar, outreach is working to bring science to people who don't do science for a living; to educate the public.  This is a particular passion for me (hence this blog) since outreach lets me share my excitement for what I do with people who are interested.  It lets me remind myself of why I do what I do everyday.  Let me give you an example: looking for gravitational waves is getting the chance to discover something that no one has ever gotten to directly detect before (not that I am the only scientist looking for gravitational waves [I will do a post on the large LIGO-Virgo collaboration later] and we do know that gravitational waves exist [the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the proof]) which is very exciting, but there is a huge amount of detailed work, that can sometimes seem removed from gravitational waves, that needs to be done to reach that goal.  That means, that sometimes I sit in my office and think, "Why am I so concerned about X?  This doesn't feel like it is going to make a difference."  That's when you need to take a step back from the work and see where in the big picture your work fits in.  Then I feel my motivation return.  But when I get to do outreach, I get to share what I do with someone who may have never heard about gravitational waves before.  I get to see the awe in gravitational waves that sometimes get buried in the daily work that needs to be done.  When I do outreach, I return to my desk with a vigor that I would have not had otherwise.

Last Saturday, I came into the observatory to give a tour to about 25 first year physics students from Tulane University in New Orleans.  Since I don't get to work with college students much, this day went a little differently than when I work with middle or high school students.  The questions are sometimes a little deeper (I say sometimes because you would be surprised at the insight that a 5th grader can demonstrate) and I don't need to rephrase my responses as much (meaning that I can sometimes use the big words without explaining them).  The one thing that is always the same no matter if the group is middle/high school, college, or public is that when they get to explore the exhibit hall in the Science Education Center everyone becomes a kid again.  Everyone darts from exhibit to exhibit for the first 5-10 minutes until they find one that really catches their attention and then they start experimenting on deeper levels.  I often tell groups the best part about my job is that I have a key to the Center and I know how to turn all the exhibits on (and it is the truth).

Then on Wednesday and Thursday I got to give tours of the observatory to middle school students.  The most rewarding part of working with these groups is hearing the students talk amongst themselves about how they want to work as a scientist or engineer someday.  Hearing that reminds me of when I was their age and dreamed of being a scientist.  That really makes going back to your office and doing all of the details that need to be done easier - I get to live my dream.

So, what kind of science did I do this week?  Well, I specialize in creating computer programs that go through the enormous amounts of data we take everyday to look for gravitational waves in the sea of noise that comes out of our detector.  That means that many of my issues I need to work through involve computer programming and statistics (I hope you can see now why sometimes I lose sight of the bigger picture).  To that end, I am also a 'librarian' for the computer programs that are written in MATLAB in the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration; this library is called MatApps.  I work with others from Penn State to help keep MATLAB easy to use for the collaboration and to help keep the programs we have written in a central location.  So, this week I spent time working on a tool to make it easy for MatApps users to use the programs it contains.

I also worked on reviving a project that I started about 2 years ago that will help us evaluate if any candidate gravitational waves are real by checking that the measurements are physically possible based on the detection time difference between each detector and the strength that each detector saw the signal.  I am reviving this so that I can collaborate with a friend to tailor this to the needs of the physicists that look for gravitational waves from two stars or black holes rotating around each other and merging to become one (I specialize in looking for short duration gravitational waves from unknown or unmodeled sources call bursts).  We also hope to write of the results of this work and publish it in a scientific journal.

Outside of some doctors appointments (I've had recent troubles with a kidney stone that clogged up the works), this was pretty much my week.