Monday, December 20, 2010

Total Lunar Eclipse

Tonight (really, very early tomorrow morning), there will be a total lunar eclipse viewable in the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Lunar eclipses are caused by the Moon passing through the Earth's shadow.  Now, if you sit down and think about it, you might ask why we don't have a lunar eclipse every month during the full Moon?  The reason is that the Moon doesn't orbit the Earth exactly on the plane (flat 'imaginary' surface) that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Instead, the plane on which the Moon orbits the Earth is very slightly tilted (about 5°).  These two planes intersect on two points of the Moon's orbit.  When the Moon is at (or very near) one of these points during a full Moon, a lunar eclipse results.

Below is a very nice animation from Wikipedia on what tonight's eclipse will look like (UT is Universal Time - subtract 5 hours for Eastern time, 6 for Central, 7 for Mountain and 8 for Pacific):

The two circles that you see show the two parts of the Earth's shadow.  The outside circle (black) is called the penumbra and the inside circle (gray) is called the umbra.  The penumbra is a region where only part of the Sun's light is blocked from the Sun and the Moon will have only subtle darkening.  The umbral region is where all of the direct light from the Sun is blocked, but the Moon has a red/orange shine to it.  This red illumination is caused by the Earth's atmosphere acting like a prism and separating the colors of light and bending the longer wavelengths (like red) toward the center of the shadow.  It is this bent light that causes the Moon appear red.  The illustration below shows how the Earth acts like a prism:

The top half of the image is looking down on both the Earth and the Moon and shows how the Earth's atmosphere separates the colors of light.  The bottom half of the image shows what the Earth may look like from the Moon during an eclipse.  (This beautiful image was also taken from Wikipedia.)

If you would like to observe the eclipse but it is too cold outside or there is cloud cover, you can watch it live on NASA streaming video here:

For those of us in the Central time zone (that would be me), the eclipse starts 11:27 pm tonight, totality begins at 1:40 am, the greatest eclipse (peak of totality) is at 2:17 am.  If you get up very early in the morning, you can see the last bit of the eclipse before 5:06 am.

Clear skies!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Becoming a Physicist II - The Cost $

One aspect that I didn't discuss in my last post about becoming a physicist is how to finance your education.  Here are some thoughts and advice based on my experience...


Going to college can be expensive.  I know that first hand and this was a huge factor on where I chose to get by bachelor degree.  I didn't have the best grades (yup, that's right - you don't have to be a genius to be a scientist) but they were nothing to sneeze at either.  I ended up getting a large scholarship to a small school in western Maryland that almost no one has ever heard of (Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD) and smaller offers from more notable schools.  I chose Frostburg because I knew when I was in high school that I would need a graduate education to be the kind of physicist I wanted to be.  And, honestly, not many people care where you got your bachelor degree from once you have your doctorate.  A big name school can help you get into a good grad school, but it doesn't carry as much weight as you may think.  At Frostburg, I was truly able to spread my wings and distinguish myself more than I feel I could have at a bigger school.  (However, I don't know that for sure since I never really gave the big schools a chance.)  It was these distinctions that made me attractive to graduate schools (for example, I graduated in less than 4 years with a good GPA).

In the end, I got a good education and into a great graduate program with a minimum of cost.  Overall, I think I made the right choice for me.  Remember, your situation will be different from mine - you need to do what is right for you.


One of the questions I get asked most often when I talk to undergraduates about going to grad school is, "Great...  And how much will that cost me?"  They are almost always surprised when I tell them that you usually get paid to get a graduate degree in physics (or biology, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, etc.).  The only science centered graduate training that I know costs a lot of money is medical school (and since this is what most people are familiar with, they apply the cost for med school to any graduate science training).

When you are accepted into a graduate program (usually Ph.D. - many physics programs, at least, do not require you earn a master degree on your way to your doctorate), you are usually accepted with a tuition wavier (meaning you don't pay any tuition) and a stipend you earn through an assistantship (usually a teaching assistantship in your early years and a research assistantship when you are performing your thesis research).  I paid nothing for my Ph.D.  They paid me to work as a physicist (remember in my last post I mentioned that grad school is more like an apprenticeship than course work? - this is an example of what I meant by that).


When working to become a Ph.D. physicist (or pretty much any scientist other than a medical doctor), the major cost involves getting you bachelor degree.  After you are accepted into grad school, costs like tuition usually disappear and you start getting paid to do what you love (I hope you love it at this point!).

This picture (about Fall 2005) is of me and some of my best friends while we were in grad school.  We all gathered at one of our apartments and made pizza from scratch - crust and all.  It was a great time!  I also like this picture because everyone in this picture ended up getting married!  (The now wife of my friend third in from the left was taking this picture.)  My husband and I are the last two on the right.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Becoming a Physicist

Lately, I've been looking back on the experiences that brought me to the point I am at now - working with LIGO as a scientist.  It made me realize that many things happened throughout my education which brought me here today.  So, for any readers out there who are thinking of becoming a scientist (not just one for LIGO) here is my advice.


The bottom line about the high school experience is to learn as much as you can.  It was a little bit disappointing when I got to college that no one cared about what great things I did when I was in high school.  Colleges and universities stop caring about things like that once you have gained admission.

Therefore, the most important thing you can do is learn as much about what you want to do as you can.  I was lucky to already know what I wanted to do when I was that young, but if you don't that's fine too!  Just learn about what interests you the most at that time.  It may turn out not to be something you want to do for the rest of your life but you will still have the knowledge you gained which will help you do whatever you end up doing.  And you never know - your interests in high school may end up being your calling.

Since I knew that I wanted to be a physicist, I took all of the science that my high school offered me.  In the end, I had 1 year of biology, 1 year of chemistry, 2 years of physics, a half year of astronomy, a half year of geology and a half year of ecology.  If your high school doesn't offer this range of topics, that's fine!  Just learn as much as you can in general.


In college is where you start to make choices.  What do I want to major in?  What do I want to do with my degree?  Do I want to continue on to grad school for a masters or Ph.D. or do I want to stop with a bachelors degree?

Don't panic!  Most colleges do not make you declare a major until the end of your sophomore year BUT some majors require four years worth of coursework.  Look at the requirements for the majors you are seriously considering and start taking some of the introductory classes.  This will help you figure out if this is something you want to do for a living while making sure that you have some of the course work done if you decide it is (and if it isn't, introductory classes usually count towards your general education requirements).

Once you have decided to be a scientist, you need to think about what kind of scientist you want to be.  I'm not talking about subject matter (biologist, chemist, physicist, etc.) but how much education you will need to do the work you are most interested in.  This is a good time to seek out your advisor and start telling them about what you want from your education overall, and ask what degree you will need to do that work.

If grad school appears to be in your future, you need to make sure that you get the best grades you can in the classes that are part of your major (and overall too, but a bad grade in economics is easily overlooked when you have good grades in your major field) and gain some form of research experience.

A student who has research experience has an advantage over students who don't when applying to grad schools since research is the largest component to earning a graduate degree.  There are many programs out there for you to get this experience over the summer.  For example, the NSF gives grants to colleges to have undergraduates work with professors over the summer on their research.  This program is called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU - click here for more info).  There are also similar programs out there.  Caltech has the SURF program (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) that do a lot of work with LIGO (including at the observatories in Livingston, LA and Hanford, WA) and the University of Florida has an International REU program where you can work on LIGO related research in a different country.  (Find out more about these programs on here.)

If you are going on to grad school, you will also need to think about what you want to specialize in.   Let's say you are finishing your physics bachelors degree.  All of your work so far has been very broad and covered the foundations of physics.  In grad school, you will specialize in a particular part of physics.  I specialized in gravity.  Therefore, I am an expert on that subject matter, but if you ask me something about particle physics (like the Large Hadron Collider) I will only be able to tell you very general things about that since I am not an expert.  It is a lot like asking your neurologist (brain & spinal cord specialist) about your upset stomach - he knows generalities but you would need to see a different specialist for a deeper answer.  Having a good idea of what you want to specialize in will be helpful when applying to grad school so that they admit the right number of people for each specialty.  That's not to say that you can't change your mind later, though.


Now you have your bachelors degree in hand and you have been accepted to a grad school to work some subfield of your major.  Your first year will be filled with very challenging classes that will make you think again about if this is something you REALLY want to do.  Don't lose heart!  The first year is always the hardest and when you make it through that, it gets much better.

Make sure that you find an advisor to start performing research with.  After your first 2 years or so of grad school, the rest of the time you are there will be doing research for your thesis.  Many people think that grad school is like signing up for more school like you had from 1st grade through college - classes.  Grad school has some of that, but most of it is learning by doing research.  Grad school is more like an apprenticeship than "school" as we normally think about it.

Fast-forward a few years.  You are finishing your thesis and you are getting ready to finish your masters or Ph.D.  What now?  Well that depends on what you plan on doing next.  Many people with masters degrees go on to work in industry.  Most Ph.D.s are planning on going to a position in academia (college/university faculty positions).  The interesting thing to consider is that most of these people will end up in industry and that's not a bad thing.  For those getting Ph.D.s, they have been guided to this point by other Ph.D.'s who have usually never worked outside of academia.  Therefore, they are being guided by people who don't necessarily have the experience to talk about doing anything else with their degree.  Surveys have shown that those who move on to industry are just as happy, if not more so, than their classmates who went on to become college faculty.

If you are getting a Ph.D., chances are that you will be doing a postdoctoral (postdoc) appointment next.  This is what I am doing right now and it allows to you better establish yourself in your field by doing more independent research and publishing your results.

Regardless, you are a bona fide <whatever it is you majored in>.  One of the best but scariest things about my life right now is what lays ahead...  Can I find a permanent position where I am (I would love that) or will I have to look elsewhere?  Where am I going to end up?  I really don't know the answers to these questions (yet) but I do know that I love doing LIGO research and will continue doing that wherever I end up!


If you have any questions about becoming a scientist, feel free to contact me.  Just leave a comment below or email me at and I will be happy to talk with you!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

APS Executive Board, Council & Thanksgiving

I hope all my US readers has a nice Thanksgiving holiday!  It's been a while since I posted, so let me tell you a little about what I've been doing...

APS Executive Board & Council Meeting

My last post was about how doing professional service was a part of an academic life.  That is exactly what I went off to do between 18-19 November at the APS Executive Board and Council Meetings.  The first day, I flew out to Long Beach, CA where the meetings were taking place and, in the evening, I went to the Executive Board Dinner.  I always like these more informal gatherings since it allows me to learn more about the others and am serving with and I always learn some thing new, be it about physics or some other bit of wisdom.

 This is the view from my hotel room at the Long Beach Hyatt.  This is one of the best views I've ever had.

During the day of the 19th was the Executive Board Meeting and the Budget Committee Meeting.  This meeting is where a smaller group of people go into much more detail on topics that will be brought to the Council.  Basically, this is where many issues are debated first so that the Council Meetings proceed much more efficiently.  This was a full day of meetings for me as the Executive Board Meeting was followed by a meeting of the Budget Committee (on which I also serve).  This meeting of the Budget Committee saw the approval of the budget for next year.  While I'm not enthralled by accounting, I've learned so much about how a large society like the APS stays afloat.

The evening of the 19th was the usual Council Reception and Dinner.  This is just like the Executive Board Reception and Dinner, but we were treated to a special viewing of the Division on Fluid Dynamics' Gallery of Fluids in Motion (the Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting took place starting the day after the Council Meeting).  Then we were able to watch the incredible videos illustrating current fluid dynamics research (you can see them too here - you can also find the still images linked from that page).  My favorite one was the "Wet-Dog Shake" (found here - find the movie under "Ancillary Files" to the right of the page).

On the 20th was the Council Meeting (where I represent the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs).  These meetings are open to the membership and the usual agenda proceeds as follows:
  • Approval of Minutes (8:30 AM)
  • Report from the President
  • Report from the Executive Officer
  • Report from the Treasurer/Publisher
  • Report from the Editor in Chief
  • BREAK (10:10 AM)
  • Fellowships
  • Panel on Public Affairs
  • LUNCH (Noon)
  • Report from the Canadian Physical Society
  • Report on Education and Diversity
  • Report on Outreach
  • BREAK (2:10 PM)
  • Report on International Affairs
  • Report from Washington
  • Unit Bylaw Changes
  • New Business
  • CONCLUDE (3:30 PM)
There were several extra points to this regular agenda.  First was a debate on the merit of several proposed new prizes and awards to be awards by the APS or one of its units.  Next was a discussion on the formation of a new unit called the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public (units are special interest groups, called forums [non-research area specific] or topical groups or divisions [based on the number of members in the unit]).  Also, at every November Council Meeting, there is an election of 2nd year Councilors to the Executive Board and I was very happy to see colleagues of mine be elected.  The best part of the meeting was a lunch talk by one of APS members who worked in estimating the oil flow from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill this summer.  It was fascinating learning how these scientists went about making the estimates and why the estimates changed several times (basically, not all of the flow was oil [there was a significant amount of methane gas] and the oil was spewing into the Gulf from many different places).

My place at the APS Council Meeting.  Even though this meeting is open to the membership, I didn't want to take a picture of the other Councilors since I didn't have their permission to post their photo on this site.

I flew home on the 21st only to ship out again to visit my family for Thanksgiving on the 23rd...

Visit to My High School Alma Mater

Since I went home to visit my family, I contacted my old high school and asked if they would be interested in me coming in and talking to students.  They were nice enough to have me (and my husband) and we got to talk to the AP Physics class about what we do at LIGO; I talked about physics and my husband talked about engineering).  The most rewarding thing for me was that I was in that class with the same teacher (Hi, Mr. Bowman!) when I went there.  And it was there that I first fell in love with Relativity and gravity.  So it was great to come back full circle.  I also got to give a few copies of the poster I worked on with the APS to them (FYI, I'm not beyond shameless self-promotion.)


Thanksgiving went about as well as any family gathering goes.  It was great to see everyone, but it wasn't without its own stress.

Thanksgiving day was full of baking and cooking and eating :)  It was nice to get to see my family - especially my younger siblings!

I also got to have Thanksgiving, Round 2 with my husband's family on Saturday.  That's one of the nice things about marrying your high school sweetheart - their family usually lives close to yours and you don't have to chose who to visit on the big holidays.  Needless to say, I am very sick of turkey.

That's about all I have to talk about right now.  Maybe later I will bore you with a post about catching up on work after a trip out of town :)