Friday, July 8, 2011

Off to the Races

Today began like the days before it, with a shower, breakfast, and then a walk to class. Once we got to class for the day however, things changed. Instead of a brief lecture and then labwork, Bill’s lecture was a bit longer than usual.
Because we had begun discussing the duality of light (how light is both a particle and a wave), today we learned about waves. Bill began not with the definition as many teachers might, but with many examples of waves. He had a cool demonstration tool where we could easily see a wave traveling along. He then transitioned into more complex topics such as how, when waves meet, depending if they are in phase or not, they cancel or reinforce each other. An effective demonstration of this was a large circuit of PVC pipe that Bill constructed himself. At one part of the circuit, a speaker was mounted, and it was set to play at only one pitch. Because the speaker was centered, and the opening in the PVC where the sound could get out was equidistant from both sides, the waves from the speaker split, and then went opposite ways around the circuit until they collided. Once the waves collided, we could clearly hear the canceling effect of the waves. Similarly, when the PVC on one side of the circuit was pulled out a bit so that the wave going that way had to go longer, the waves collided in phase, and the sound was amplified.

After this, we began a quick lab where with the objective of determining the wavelength of a laser we were given. By splitting a laser beam into two beams, measuring several different angles and lengths of the beam, and doing some trig, we calculated the wavelength of the beam. This was a cool lab, but we all had our minds set on the field trip of the day, the Simeone Foundation car museum. I went to lunch with some friends, and soon enough, we were boarding a bus to the museum.

We arrived at the museum just in time for some torrential rain. It was weird to have a downpour when it was still almost 80 degrees out, but it was fun to have a change in weather, and soon enough we were inside the museum. Inside the museum, Bill and his assistants had set up a bunch of tracks on the floor, and had a large pile of brooms and bowling balls set out.
The purpose of the experiments was really to solidify the idea of inertia in our heads. While anyone can recite the definition of inertia as, “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest”—which I frequently use as an excuse for not wanting to get out of bed—this lab really helped show what inertia is. By rolling a bowling ball down a ramp, and then only being able to use a broom to push the ball, we had to steer the ball along many curvy tracks. All of us quickly realized that keeping control of the bowling balls was difficult, and that even though we were racing the clock, speed was not the way to finish first.
Our experiments were a lot of fun, but when you’re interested in cars, and there is about a quarter of a billion dollars worth of classic sports cars around you, you tend to get distracted. I saw car after car that had won various international races, set speed records, and simply were full of innovative ideas and technology. Involved in these cars were thousands of physics principles such as spoilers to create a downward force, fancy tires to get better traction, and careful weight distribution for fast cornering. I could describe these cars for hours, but I'll throw in a couple pictures instead.

Bowling Ball Broom-Pushing: The New Olympic Sport

Today, class was the most interesting day of the course so far (of course it was also the day I forgot my camera, so apologies for the lack of photos today).

It started out with a really cool demonstration about refraction index. First, Bill placed a beaker of water in a larger beaker of water and we noted that we could still see the edges of the beaker. However, when he filled the two with corn oil, we found that the smaller beaker virtually disappeared. He explained to us that this was because light moves through corn oil at the same speed it moves through plexiglass, so no refraction occurs and the boundaries between the materials are difficult to detect. The demonstration gave us a physical experience that we could couple with the formulaic information we got yesterday. Bill thinks it's really important for us to not only memorize formulas but to experience the physical phenomenon we are learning about first hand.

He went on to describe the superposition of waves and the way we can use those laws to determine that light acts as a wave. We then quickly went into the lab where we used those laws to determine the wavelength of the red light of our laser was. It was exciting because we were able to get results fairly close to the accepted value.

But it was after all this (and lunch) that the fun really began. We all got in a bus and drove to the Simeone Foundation Museum, home to over 100 million dollars worth of exotic racing cars. Once there, before going on the tour, we did a "lab" investigating inertia and centripetal force. We used a broom to push bowling balls around on a number of different tracks, trying to get the fastest times. The first was just a straight track. The challenge was accelerating the ball constantly, but also knowing when to begin decelerating in order to successfully stop it at the end. We discovered that it can be quite difficult to change an object's path if it has a lot of inertia (a 12 pound ball for instance).

The next track was circular and the ball was rolled toward it with a fair amount of speed. Time was not an issue for this track but rather the broomer's ability to keep the ball on track. In order to do this, one had to continually apply a force in the direction of the center of the circle. After these two labs, "inertia" and "centripetal force" became actual tangible concepts, not simply memorised definitions.

The final track was really just for fun. We broke up into our lab groups, each with four people and pushed our bowling balls around a track with plenty of twists, turns, and hard right angles, one at a time in relay-race fashion. The team with the fastest time and the least number of deviations from the track won. My lab group came in 4th out of 8 (not too shabby). It was loads of fun to see classmates start to get legitimately competitive about it.

After the times were recorded, Bill gave us a tour of the museum (he had been there so many times, he knew it by heart). The cars were arranged in more or less chronological order, starting in about 1905 and dating all the way up to the 70's. He pointed out to us the changes in design in tire size, width, and tread pattern (early tires were simply imprinted with the words "non skid"). We also looked at the development of suspension, which, in race cars serves the purpose not of comfort but of keeping the wheels on the ground. Design changes made to the body of the car for aerodynamic purposes was also very interesting. Not to mention, the cars themselves were beautiful. They could be considered works of art. In fact, one of the cars was one of only two like it and the other is now on display in the Louvre. It was truly an amazing museum.

When we returned home, it was raining like crazy. So much so that our trip to the art museum was cancelled, so instead they took us to watch a slightly immature movie. I was a little disappointed, but I still enjoyed myself and the counselors promised us a reschedule. After the movie and our nightly chill-sesh in the lounge, I got to bed to get some rest for tomorrows trip to New York City.

Week One: Complete

Week one here at Penn has come to a close. It has not yet been a full seven days, but our first week of class has concluded, so I think that counts. It has been a phenomenal week. I’ve experienced one of my favorite school subjects in a whole new way, made a lot of new friends, and seen a lot of a fantastic university campus. This was the perfect way to begin my four week excursion here at Penn.

Today’s class was very fun. The lecture this morning was all about waves and how they behave in certain situations. Bill decided to give an extra long lecture today. Our lectures are scheduled to be an hour long, but they usually run for around an hour and fifteen minutes. Today Bill lectured for close to an hour and forty minutes! I was astounded that I was able to stay focused on a lecture for such a length of time without a break. Bill really has a way of captivating the students in his class. I did not even realize how much time had passed until one of our class’s TA’s mentioned that he needed to wrap up pretty quickly if we were to get to the lab. Today’s lab was the first (and last) that my group (Team Not Last) was actually able to complete fairly quickly. We measured several characteristics, such as wavelengths, of light when put through a filter. My group picked it up fairly quickly and we were able to complete the experiment and come to the correct conclusion. I was proud and sad at the same time. Proud because we had finally completely come together as a team and succeeded, but sad because we will be in new lab groups next week. I will miss working with Ana, Greg, and Sarah because our group had excellent chemistry, even when our labs weren’t exactly going well.

Following the lab, Brian, Julia, and I met Fred for lunch at Houston Market. We had to eat quickly though because Julia, Brian, and I had to return to the dorms so we could embark on our first physics field trip to the Simeone Museum of Historic Cars. This is where we would perform our mechanics lab of the day. We were tasked with applying what we had learned about acceleration, forces, inertia, etc. to guiding a bowling ball around a “race course” with only quick brushes from a broom. I assume this location was chosen because it had wide, open, flat floors that we could use for our lab. This lab was actually quite a challenge and it was harder than I expected it to be. Every group was timed and, true to our group name, we weren’t last! We actually got second to last, but we had quite a few mishaps on the track, so I’m okay with it.

After we completed the lab, Bill gave us a tour of the museum, which housed at least one-hundred cars in an old hangar. Bill told us the other day that he was a bit of a car fanatic. Today he lived up to his statement. He was able to give us a detailed history of every car in the museum as well as explain the physics behind design details that were used in making them. I was truly astonished today when we completed the tour. I took about one-hundred and thirty pictures in the museum. I still haven’t been able to look through all of them to decide which of them I’d like to share on the blog, but when I pick my favorites I will post them. There were some genuinely beautiful cars in there, one of which was an Aston Martin DB1. That was one of the most gorgeous cars I had ever seen. I’m not even close to being a car enthusiast, but this museum was able to blow me away.

We returned to the dorms around our normal time (about 4:00-4:30) and hung out with Fred and talked about our day in physics. Later we went to dinner and then returned to the quad to meet our enormous group of over 80 students to go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I can honestly say that my mouth was hanging open for over half of the movie. It definitely redeemed the series after Rise of the Fallen. Not only was the movie good, but I sat next to Brian and we were making funny comments throughout the movie.

The week has come to a close on the ILC Penn cohort. After experiencing all that I have in the past week, I cannot thank Mr. Ramsey, Ms. Kronenberg, Don, the sponsors, my parents, and everybody else involved in the ILC for giving me this life-altering opportunity. Thanks to all of them, I am able to gain knowledge that will help me in my career and meet a lot of great friends in the process. This is truly a marvelous program, and I still have another three weeks to go.