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.