Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Guided Tour of the World of Experiments

Time has gone by so quickly! I am still in shock that tomorrow is my last day of class. Even thought we are so close to the end, we continue to learn more about the way experimental physics works in the real world. One thing that has changed in the final couple days is that we are beginning to learn about it from many different sources. In addition to the guest lecture today I heard from my fellow classmates (and got to teach them a thing or two myself) as well as some of the grad students that populate the basement of our building, working on some groundbreaking studies with radio telescopes, carbon nano-tubes, and soft matter.

The day started off with a very interesting guest lecture about the construction of SNO (Subdury Neutrino Observatory), a huge neutrino detector placed at the bottom of a nickel mine to shield it from unwanted background information. By studying these subatomic particles that can travel the distance between us and the sun in just over eight minutes, we can learn a lot about the nuclear reactions occurring at the suns core currently. It turns out the data also proves the Standard Sun Model, which had previously been questioned because previous experiments did not account for oscillations that can change the "flavor" of neutrinos. The most interesting part of the lecture for me was seeing the journey from the first detector that failed to collect conformational data and the confusion that insued, to the construction of SNO and the steps that led scientists there. That is truly what experiments are all about: dealing with confusion.

Another great part of the day was listening to the experiences and findings of the classmates who worked on different interest groups than me. Groups gave presentations on cloud chambers, measuring cosmic rays, using radio telescopes, and a number of other really fascinating things. Something really exceptional about the presentations was not the data they got (although sometimes, when they came really close to the accepted value that was also neat) but the experimental process that each group preformed, and in some cases designed.

To be completely honest, my favorite part of the presentations was the part where my group got to share our experience with quantum mechanics and electron/photon diffraction. It was a really cool feeling being able to tell a group of people about the data that we collected ourselves and the significance of it, especially because particle/wave duality is such a mind-bending phenomenon that is crazy just to think about, let alone explain. My group faced the challenge quite elegantly and we sat down knowing that each of our peers knew a little bit more about the amazing concept that we could prove with our own data.

After lunch, we went on a tour of the grad labs, which gave me more of an idea of what the field of physics actually looks like than anything we've done in class before. Young students with excited smiles and scraggly beards showed us the equipment they worked with and explained to us why they were interested in the field they were currently researching. It was clear it was a lot of hard, and possibly tedious work, but it was also clear that each of them was genuinely excited about what they were doing and confident that the work they were doing was both significant and completely awesome. It was an environment I can see myself fitting right into.

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