Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How I Came Into Blogging

I never thought that anyone would be interested in what I had to say, especially in an ongoing basis.  I go to work (albeit to a pretty cool job), go home and do normal things that everyone else does.  Who'd be interested in that?

But then I thought about how scientists are usually perceived.  I've noticed that people who were having a normal conversation with me will talk to me differently when they find out I'm a physicist.  I've had adult visitors to LIGO be in awe and mention that they have never met a physicist before.  My response to that is that they don't really know that - the person in line behind them in Walmart could have been a physicist and they would never know it.  When scientists are portrayed in media, there is usually something about them that puts them apart from the "everyday" person.  I admit that the characters on CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" have gotten a lot of the quirks right (I can label the characters with my friends) but the show only shows the interesting parts of their lives where their quirkiness comes to the fore - I can guarantee you that if these were real people, their 'boring' times are just like everyone else's.

Still, I didn't think that this was enough to base a blog on.  Last February "Astro Guyz" David Dickinson requested a tour of the LIGO Livingston facility so that he could blog about it.  I was more than happy to take him around (regular readers of this blog know that I LOVE to talk about LIGO to anyone who will listen).  After showing David and his wife around we talked about their experiences blogging (they are both experienced bloggers).  They were very encouraging and I was intrigued.  Read Astro Guyz blog post from his visit to LIGO here.  Below is a picture of William Katzman (LIGO Livingston Science Education Center lead), me, and David Dickinson from this post:

Astro Guyz also gave me my YouTube debut:

Months later, on my birthday, I decided that there is no better time than the present to start my blog and see if anyone was interested in following what being a scientist is really like (not just the stereotypes).  Now I had to find a way to let others know that the blog exists.  For that I turned to Astro Guyz and (a blog run by Stephanie Chasteen - a well known science education and communication expert who I was acquainted with).  They were both very helpful in giving me hints and their common advice was along the lines of "if you write it, they will come" and to "use Twitter".

And here you are!  :)

I hope that this blog is serving its purpose by letting you see what I do on a daily basis.  I know not everything is thrilling (like this post) but every now and then I get to tell you about a bit of excitement (like the "Big Dog" blind injection - which was picked up by Discover Magazine's Cosmic Variance blog and Discovery News).

I'd love to hear your thoughts!  Is there anything you would like me to talk about?  Just drop a comment below or send an email to

This xkcd Comic Hit Home With Me: "Teaching Physics"

xkcd is a comic that tends to be a bit on the academic side but I think their warning disclaimer tells you better what this comic series about than I can:
"Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)."
Of course, this warning is tongue-in-cheek but it does give you a flavor of what the comic series contains.

My husband forwarded this comic from this a few days ago called "Teaching Physics" (click on it to see the full size image on

Now, I have talked at length on this blog about doing education outreach at LIGO.  In that process, I interact with many students, teachers and people from the public and I use the 'rubber sheet' analogy often when describing that gravity it really an effect of the curvature of space-time.  However, this only works if one thinks about a real rubber sheet that they could interact with on Earth, i.e. there is still gravity around to pull masses down on the sheet.  Most people have no problem overlooking the fact that we are using gravity to describe the curvature of space-time but there are the few who bring up the paradox to me.

This is where I disagree with how the instructor in this comic handled the situation.  To me, the correct response is not to sigh and dismiss this useful (if imperfect) analogy.  Instead, I recognize that the observation is a valid one and compliment the person on being insightful (usually including that most people don't see the problem).  I then ask them to take the gravity around them for granted and just use the rubber sheet as a visualization tool.  After all, there are many analogies in physics but if you think about any of them for too long you start finding imperfections in them.  (Like using water waves to describe properties of light [electromagnetic] waves - a few problems with this include that water waves need a medium [water] to propagate and water waves are easily damped when light isn't.)

I'm not criticizing the author of this comic!  After all, I don't think this instructor is doing "outreach" as much as teaching in a formal education setting.  I've had a lot of experience there too and, depending on the student (like are they the kind that try to be difficult at every turn or are they truly being insightful), I very well may have had the same reaction.  And I just love that there is a comic out there that makes me jump up and say, "That's happened to me!"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Giving a Talk on Behalf of LIGO & APS April Meeting Wrap-up

Sorry for taking so long to round out my summary of the APS April Meeting.  My talk was on the last day of the meeting (3 May) and by the time I got home the next day I was suffering from a nice case of jet lag.  I know that there is only a 2-hour time change between Pacific and Central time, but it really hurt me this time.  I am just glad that I was able to recover from it over the weekend!

Let's talk about giving talks as a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.  When we speak on results that took a substantial number of people to produce (which is most of our results) we need to give talks "on behalf of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration."  Not only does this let the audience know that the person giving the talk isn't taking all the credit for the work, but that the talk has also been reviewed by the respective collaborations and approved.  This process isn't meant to be censorship; it is meant to ensure that there aren't people claiming to have results that are later refuted or otherwise change before a paper is published (like "we detected gravitational waves yesterday" [we didn't, this is just an example]).  That being said, my talk was on behalf of LIGO and Virgo and discussed the work we have been doing to collaborate the EM observatories to image parts of the sky where we think a gravitational wave may have originated.  My talk needed to be done at least a few days in advance to be sent out for review to the specific committees that give the final OK and to the working groups that produced the results I was speaking on (I sent my talk out on Friday and my talk was on Tuesday afternoon).  The final approved talk that I gave can be seen in the LIGO Document Control Center (DCC) here.

The talk went well with the one exception that I ran a little long in time.  I tend to like to talk about things that get me excited, and the topic of my talk certainly did!  However, I had only 10 minutes to talk followed by 2 minutes for questions.  I did finally wrap it up before they got the hook out for me though!  :)

In a previous post, I talked about the "Physics of Hollywood" session at the APS Meeting that included some Hollywood veterans.  The APS "Physics Buzz" blog also covered this in much more detail than I did.  If you would like to read more about it, you can read the first post (Q and A with Q, et al) here and the second (Writing Science Fiction: Trying to Avoid “The Button”) here!

Finally, I want to continue what seems to be a tradition of mine in sharing some of the more mundane views from my life by sharing the view from the 15th floor of the hotel I stayed in while I was in Anaheim, CA: 

This is facing south, if I was only facing north I would have had a peek at Disneyland!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Weekend at the APS April Meeting

The APS April Meeting started in full swing on Saturday 30 April.  The meeting is composed of many (~12 or so) parallel sessions during the day (form 8:30 am to 5 pm).  These sessions are composed of invited talk (about 30 minutes each) and contributed talks (about 12 minutes each).  In the evenings, there is usually a feature presentation and on Saturday night was on of the best ones I've been to.  This event was titled "The Physics of Hollywood" with panelists Bill Prady (executive producer and co-creator of "The Big Bang Theory"), Bruce Miller (executive producer of "Eureka") and John de Lancie (the character "Q" from "Star Trek: The Next Generation").  Junnifer Ouellette (author of "The Physics of the Buffyverse" was the moderator.  The picture below is from the back of the room when they were showing a clip from "The Big Bang Theory":

The panel at the front is hard to see here, so here is a zoom:

The people seated by the screen are (from right to left): Ouellette, Prady, Miller and de Lancie.  It was great!  They even answered one of the questions I have wondered about for a while:  Exactly what positions do these characters hold at the university?  They are clearly not grad students but they don't seem to be faculty members either.  Well, it turns out they are just like me...  They are postdocs!

I also had another "in the wild" sighting of the "Gravitational Waves" poster I worked on with the APS.  The picture below is the poster as it was distributed on the APS outreach table:

After another full day of listening to talks (I primarily go to sessions focused on gravity or education, unless there is something I don't specialize in that seems especially appealing) on Sunday, I had the Executive Committee Meeting of the Forum on Education (I serve on the Committee as an APS-AAPT Member-at-Large).  The FEd is just one of many units that members of the APS can join that address their special interest and their executive committees are the way these units are governed.  (Perhaps I should write a blog post detailing the governance structure of the APS - but perhaps that is more bureaucracy than anyone is really interested in...)  I may be very early in my career, but I have always felt welcomed by these physicists who are much more distinguished than myself.  So, I love going to these meetings (we only have one face-to-face meeting a year) and I get fed too!

That pretty much sums up my weekend at the APS April Meeting!  There are 2 more days left and I speak on the last day (Tuesday).  I am in the final stages of getting my talk approved by the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations since my talk is on their behalf.  I will write more about this process, how the talk went and about a few other things I got to do while at the meeting.