Monday, July 18, 2011

Tales from the Antarctic

Today Alex and I got up at the usual time to get ready for class. We got our stuff together and then walked over to the dining hall. In lieu of my usual fast breakfast, I went for the slightly more substantial pancakes and potatoes. All things considered, I’ve found the dorm food to be quite good at UPenn which was a surprise considering how bad many adults have told me the food used to be. I quickly polished off my pancakes, Alex also finished his meal, and we went back to our room to grab our backpacks and notebooks for the day. We had about half an hour to spare, so I spent a while catching up on a summer assignment for my English class, and then I spent a little time reading a physics book. The book I am reading right now is called “50 Ideas You Really Need To Know about The Universe”. I enjoy the book a lot because it is excellent at presenting many wildly different ideas in short articles. When I find an article that is particularly interesting, it is easy for me to further learn about the idea that I might not have otherwise been exposed to.

The walk to class was fairly typical, but every day I enjoy the beautiful campus and casual conversation with my friends. I arrived at class and enjoyed saying hello to all of my fellow students who I now know almost all of. In class, Bill began to lecture us about modern physics. We went over the ideas of special relativity and prepared for our guest speaker. In preparation for our guest speaker, we watched a documentary of the speaker who is named Mark Trodden. The video showed the last 8 years of Mark’s work which began with an idea for how to research the cosmic microwave background. For those that don’t know, the cosmic microwave background is the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. After the Big Bang which was extremely hot, huge amounts of very high energy waves were emitted. Because the universe is expanding, these waves hit the Earth as microwaves. The problem that Mark had to overcome to research these waves was that microwaves can’t travel through the atmosphere without being significantly altered. Therefore, Mark either had to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars for a satellite microwave telescope, or find some other way to get a telescope above the majority of the atmosphere. The idea that Mark had was was to use a weather balloon to carry his telescope to 135,000 feet above sea level which is above 99.5% of the atmosphere and therefore the microwaves strike his telescope with very little interference.

Mark’s story about his attempts at scientific discovery truly taught me about perseverance and why people always say that failing and learning from your mistakes is the most valuable thing you can do. Mark’s first attempt at launching a balloon was from Sweden where the balloon circled the North Pole for a few days and then parachuted back to Earth. While the launch went smoothly, the worst case happened and they found out right away that their telescope was not properly focused and therefore the trip was a bust. Mark’s next attempt was in Antarctica where the winds were more favorable and they redesigned the telescope from their mistakes. This time, they designed the telescope so that they could refocus it after launch and they redesigned the primary mirror which had fractured on the last launch. This time, 6 years after he began the project, Mark’s team finally got the data they were searching for. The telescope was perfectly focused and the data box with their hard drives full of their precious data parachuted down to Earth. Everything went perfectly until the data hit the ground where the parachute acted as a dragchute and dragged the entire several ton telescope for 120 miles and destroyed everything. On a stroke of luck, Mark found the data box which was white and nearly invisible on the Antarctic ice. The project was saved, and the data turned out to be extremely high quality and useful. I enjoyed Mark’s talk very much because he truly showed us what it can be like to be a scientific researcher. Who knows if it’s what I’m cut out for, but I really enjoyed the insight into such an interesting and progressing field.

Black Holes Burn Bright

Week three of Summer Discovery at Penn has begun. We began class today with Craig lecturing about modern physics and relativity. He told us that modern physics is when the perspective of physics changed completely. The lecture today was half history and half concept. First he discussed how Einstein questioned some of the basic principles about light and time. Craig explained that the laws of physics are the same for all observers moving at steady speeds with respect to each other. He also said that before modern physics, people believed that time was a universal constant. Einstein proved that light, not time, is the universal constant and that time is relative. This transitioned into the conceptual lesson of the day, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the resulting equation E=mc^2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light. I really like Craig’s style of lecturing. He’s very energetic and he teaches almost as if he’s telling a story, which makes it very engaging. All of the TAs have great lecture styles, but I think Craig’s is my favorite.

After lecture, we watched a documentary called BLAST, which was about a Penn cosmology professor, Mark Devlin, and his research into other galaxies. He and his team constructed a telescopic satellite, which they launched from Antarctica, and were able to capture photos of distant galaxies. Eventually, the satellite crash-landed, but the data survived, so it was still a success. Our guest lecture was interesting as well, especially since it was given by the same professor that we just watched a documentary on! Mr. Devlin told us that BLAST stood for Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope. He also mentioned that if you want funding from NASA, you need your project to have a good acronym (which if you think about it seems to be the case). He told us a lot about cosmology and explained some of the phenomena that are occurring in the nearby galaxies. For instance, the Whirlpool Galaxy is currently colliding with one of its neighboring galaxies. He also explained that the universe is a fluid that is coalescing and being drawn together. However, the most interesting tidbit of information he gave us was that black holes are some of the brightest things in the cosmos because of all the matter they suck in, which in turn gives off light and energy. He gave a fascinating lecture.

After lunch, we returned to class and were assigned new groups for this week’s lab work. I was mistaken before when I said that this week would be dedicated to studying Newton’s Law of Cooling. Instead, we were put into groups based on what we chose when given a choice of five topics to research. I was hoping to study Ooblek, which is a mixture of corn starch and water that changes properties depending on how force is applied to it, but I was given my second choice, radio telescopes. I am glad I was given radio telescopes though because I am one of the few groups who has the opportunity to study with another Penn professor. My group, which consists of Onur, Berke Tezcan, Faith Waldron, Danielle Ziaja, and Shreya Jain, will be studying under James Aguirre. James has been a professor at Penn for a number of years and recently returned from researching in South Africa. Unfortunately, we did not have time to discuss this at great length, but I plan to ask him about it at some point this week. He gave us a brief introduction to studies involving radio telescopes and we even did a mini-experiment using one he had in the lab. A couple of the advantages to using a radio telescope over a visual one are that you can measure things such as temperature and electrical properties with them. He demonstrated this by observing a fluorescent lightbulb using a telescope he constructed using a Direct TV satellite he hooked up to a frequency scanner and oscilloscope. All the craftsmanship and ingenuity I’ve seen here thus far has really inspired the scientist within me. Today we had a great session with James and I look forward to working with him and the rest of my group as the week progresses.

After class, Onur and I ran to the Penn bookstore and I helped him pick out some music. I let him listen to a couple of my favorite bands on my phone and he actually bought one of the CDs I recommended. Hooray for cultural sharing! I only wish I understood Turkish so I could listen to his music too. Once we left the bookstore, we made our way back to the quad so we could go to the Penn Admission Information Session. This meeting was a great way for prospective students to learn about Penn. The speaker gave an extensive speech about how applying to apply to Penn She then opened the floor to questions. Most of the information was basic stuff and I already knew a lot of it, but I was still able to glean some more information about test scores and other details about the application process. I took extensive notes so anyone who is interested can learn a little more about Penn.

· When you apply to Penn, you apply to one of four schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School of Business, the School of Engineering, or the School of Medicine.

· For the School of Engineering, there is a graduation requirement that all students in that school must design something. The idea is to create something (anything really) that shows ingenuity and innovation using what one has learned as an engineer.

· Each of the schools has its own core curriculum.

· In the application process, Penn reviews GPA/class rank, transcripts/rigor of courses, test scores (ACT/SAT I and II), and extracurriculars.

· Penn values well-rounded students AND well-lopsided students, as long as lopsided students are heavily invested in an area of their interest.

· Penn IS NOT a score choice school, which means they ask for all of your test scores, no matter what the score.

· Penn requires the SAT I and two SAT II Subject Tests OR the ACT with writing.

· The median SAT score is around 2000-2200 and the median ACT composite score is around 32-33.

· Interviews are not required, but they help.

· Penn has many study abroad programs (none were listed specifically, but I’m sure the information can be found at Penn’s website).

This is only the tip of the iceberg regarding admission to Penn, so for anyone interested in applying, I strongly recommend checking out the Penn website or contacting an Admissions Official via phone or email (they love it when you do!).

The rest of our night was spent relaxing and talking about our respective days. Since Brian was assigned the Ooblek group, I had a lot of questions about what kind of experiments he would be doing. Today was another excellent way to start off the week, and I am looking forward to my studies. My only regret is that my time at Penn becomes less and less as the days pass. I just have to make my remaining days count, and that is certainly what I plan to do.

An Intro to Quantum Mechanics

Today was an especially exciting day in the physics classroom for a number of reasons. First of which was that our morning lecture was on a particularly fascinating and thought-provoking realm of physics: the Theory of General relativity. It was only a few moths ago, towards the end of my physics course at El Cerrito, when I first started really understanding the concept of motion bending time and space. The explanation I was given back then was that it was impossible to go faster than the speed of light and that the speed of light never changed, which allowed me to understand the vague concepts, but didn't offer any real-world explanations as to how we know that or why that is.

The morning lecture today discussed some of the experiments that were performed with rotating mirrors and other methods of diffraction that measured the speed of light and proved that it is a constant. We also watched a video depicting one of Einstein's thought experiments that explained that things that are thought of as simultaneous from the viewpoint of a stationary observer are not perceived that way from one who is in motion. It was all very fascinating and it definitely helped to further re enforce my understanding of relativity.

Another reason today was particularly exciting was that we heard from a guest speaker named Mark Devlin, a graduate from Princeton who did graduate work at our very own UC Berkeley and is now a major player in the UPenn faculty. He studies cosmic background radiation, energy left over in the universe from the big bang. Before he came to talk with us, we watched a documentary about some of the research he has done in the last ten years. The film showed Delvin and his crew of fellow researchers and grad students launching extremely sensitive microwave detectors with huge focusing parabolic mirrors and a Helium 3 refrigerated heat sensor. They launched BLAST (Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope) using a huge balloon that inflates to the size of a football field instead of launching it with rockets because it allowed them to perform the experiments using only 1 or 2 percent of the funds. They chose to do most of their launches in Antarctica where there are fewer thing to hit and the winds are circumpolar so after a week or so, if all goes well, the balloon should drop the telescope back off where it was launched.

That's in theory. However, the movie described the mechanics of actually launching the thing, and showed the perils and possible disastrous situations involved on attempting to collect data in Antarctica. It turns out, it's tricky business and the methods used to reduce error are really quite amazing. I recommend checking out the movie "BLAST" it is very entertaining and informative and definitely worth an hour of your time.

The talk given right after the movie was even more so. While the film focused of the mechanics of the experiment, Delvin himself talked to us a little bit more about the physics behind the data collection and the implications of the analyzing that they were able to do with it. He discussed how we can learn about the formation of stars by recording images of galaxies billion light years away, and therefore studying light that is reaching us just now but was originally emitted billions of years ago. It was really cool hearing about what Delvin did from the formation of his experiment to the collecting and analyzing of data.

It was especially cool because after lunch, we got a taste of how we are going to be experiencing that process first hand this week in the first day of our special interest groups (which is the third reason why today was particularly interesting). I ended up in my third choice which was quantum mechanics where we will be studying the diffraction patterns of electrons and singular photons and discussing what those patterns tell us about the way the world works on a sub atomic level. Even though it was not my first choice, it is clear that I am going to learn a lot and that every day of the four-day course will be packed full of interesting material and experiments. Today we set up a laser beam in a photon multiplier and we could hear the electrical signals hat were being sent as singular photons were interacting with the electrons. It was very cool and I was actually sad to return to my dorms.

I only had a few minutes after class to gather my things and tidy my dorm before we all met in the quad to go the the admission session regarding Undergraduates at UPenn. The admissions councilor who came to speak to us was very friendly and told us very useful information about the four undergraduate colleges, the admissions process, what specifically UPenn is looking for in perspective students and other useful and interesting information. I'm surprised how many of these information sessions I can go to and still learn something new. It's incredible.

Afterward, we ate dinner in a particularly crowded dining hall and threw a football round. I went back to my dorm and looked over some of the information about what we will be doing tomorrow in our photon/electron lab before I went to sleep. I can honestly say I am excited for class tomorrow.