30 July 2009

Oklahoma Alternative Education Conference

Yesterday I drove to Stillwater one last time to meet with Dr. Khanov and try to get my data analysis finished. I didn't quite get it done since we are having a little trouble with finding a data file that fits our parameters. I only meniton that because it means my research done! I'll have to finish some writing and work on a little bit more data, but for the most part, I'm done. It was a great 5 weeks and I am glad I took the opportunity. Very glad.

Today is the Oklahoma Alternative Education Conference. Its a conference for teachers who work with students in alternative education programs, such as the Putnam City STRIVE program (credit recovery) or the Putnam City Academy. I was asked to present (still haven't figured out why) by the state department of education Alternative Ed. director. I decided to talk about stellarium and Exploring your Universe. Stellarium is an open-source virtual planetarium developed by some french folks who are interested in Astronomy. Exploring your Universe is a companion lab manual, designed to go along with that software. It takes students through the process of first learning to use the software, then some exercises which teach them about constellations, coordinate systems, and even has them recreate Galileo's observations of Jupiter's 4 largest moons way back in the 1600's. Its a really useful tool which I will be employing in my Astronomy/Meteorology class next year.

I'm a little nervous, but very excited to share a resource I have with some very special teachers who work with some very special students.

As always, thanks for reading


24 July 2009

why am i so fortunate?

Call it blessed, lucky, fortunate; it doesn't matter what name you give it, its me. Over the last year I have been blessed with so much technology, I don't know what to do with it all. Since January of 2008 I have received two laptops (1 PC and 1 Mac), a SmartBoard, a Cosmic Ray Detector, and basically anything else I ask for to outfit my classroom for student learning. I don't know what I have done to deserve this. I'm not anything special in the classroom. I don't "brown nose" to get what I want (do I?).

I know teachers who ask for this kind of equipment and never see half of what they ask for. I, on the other hand, don't even have to ask for stuff and I keep getting it! What's the deal? Just this week, my research mentor asked me if there was anything I would like to have for my classroom, physics related. She said they had some money left over from a grant and would like to buy some equipment for me. I thought to myself, "self, you'd better jump on this opportunity because this isn't going to happen very often". So I said Sure! I can find somethings I need. She encouraged me to ask for more than what I really wanted just in case the grant person decided it was too much to spend. I looked at some dynamics carts, motion detectors, and photogates (along with a few other things). I came up with about $1600 worth of stuff thinking "at least I can get the dynamics carts and track". Wrong! They approved it all! Of course my first thought was "I should have asked for more!" Then I realized what an arse that made me and I got into a thankful frame of mind.

I have no idea why these good things happen to me; but I sure am happy about it. So, thanks for the physics equipment, thanks for the MacBook, thanks for the SmartBoard, thanks for mounting my SmartBoard on the wall. Why thank you? Because ultimately its your tax dollars that are paying for these things and I really appreciate them!

as always, thanks for reading


20 July 2009

Signal to Noise ratio

This post is from my Summer Research summary which can be found here. Its long and probably a bit boring to many of you, but if you are interested in how I've been spending my time, check it out. I am only publishing this because I am proud of the analogy about "Where's Waldo" and wanted to share that with a broader audience. I had to post all of it, because the analogy alone wouldn't make any sense without some background.

Any time I hear this phrase (Signal to Noise Ratio), I always think of the guy who once came to my house to work on my cable service. He told me they can sit in their truck and measure the amount of background noise that is leaking from bad connections or improperly insulated wires. They even once told me the signal was turned up/amplified too much which was causing my On Demand problems. (it generally wouldn't work and kept giving some sort of error code)

In particle physics, when you talk about signal to noise, you are not too far away from this same idea. During particle collisions, there are processes that occur in which we are not really interested. This is called background. That doesn't mean its not important, it simply means for the particular process at which you are looking, its just not something you want to observe. You would like for your detector to measure this background so that you can then calculate a value for it and subtract it from the actual signal. If you tune out all of the background, you won't get an accurate depiction of the event in which you are interested. The signal is a value which is predicted (theoretically) by the Standard Model and can be verified (with a particle accelerator) experimentally. If you know the value of your signal, and by know I mean verify a theoretical prediction experimentally, you can then go on to look for new physics above and beyond the energy level at which you are working.

While driving from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, I had an epiphany on how to explain the concept of "signal to noise ratio". Think about the popular children's books and games called "Where's Waldo?" Remember those? (try it by double clicking the picture to find Waldo) You stare at a picture looking for a goofy-faced kid who is wearing a red and white striped sweater with a similarly-colored knit cap. You look and look and look until finally he pops out of the background, plainly obvious and you wonder "why didn't I seem him sooner?" The key is the red and white striped sweater. If not for that, it would be nearly impossible for you to see Waldo. He would blend into the background.This is especially true as you advance to harder and harder levels of the game. There are more and more people in the picture, therefore Waldo is harder and harder to spot.

Studying the Z boson, as we are, is the "putting on of the sweater". We are painting a better picture of what the signal, the actual Z boson looks like. When we advance to the next level of the game, i.e. searching for the Higgs, we will have a better understanding of what the background looks like so scientists may then look at whats left and determine whether there is evidence for the Higgs or not. If not, the Standard Model will have to be revised.

Let me know what you think and as usual, thanks for reading.


40 years ago today

40 years ago today the United States was about to accomplish an unprecedented feat: we were about to land on the Moon. I know, there are people who don't "believe" we landed there, but I think there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that we did. Especially in light of the photos that came out this week from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Way back then, I was just a few days short of 4 months old, so I don't remember the event. In fact, as a kid, I doubt, based on my interests, that anyone who knew me would have ever expected me to teach any kind of science, especially not physics. So I probably wouldn't have cared had I even been old enough to remember. However, when I look back on my life, its really not a surprise to me that I became a physics teacher. I learned electricity in the Army, I have always been fascinated with the internal combustion engine, and I was a whiz a trajectories when riding (and wrecking) my motorcycle. What does surprise me is that I ever considered Pre-Medicine as a major. What was I thinking? Biology? Applied Chemistry? Come on! Everyone knows those are just extensions of Physics.

So, let's get back on topic: the amazing-ness of the Moon landing. I can actually understand why people so readily buy the notion of us not going to the Moon; not based on physical evidence such as videos or pictures, but based on the fact that the Physics that got them there was 300 years old! The only Physics you need to know (other than the radio technology) were discovered by Isaac Newton way back in the 1660's when he formulated his 3 Laws of Motion (he didn't publish these until the 1680's). That blows my mind and here is the reason: the basic Physics I teach in high school are all you need to calculate a trajectory to get to the Moon. Newton's 3 Laws of Motion and his Theory of Gravity are pretty much all you need to understand to get there. Wow. It reminds me of "The Astronaut Farmer", which is a story about a (modern day) guy who builds a rocket in his barn and goes into space.

As I sit writing this, I am listening to the recording of the Apollo 11 mission which can be found here. It really is quite exciting to listen to, although much of what they are saying doesn't really mean anything.  What it does do is let me be a part of what they did. I imagine that I am a NASA worker, sitting in Mission Control, listening to all of it while it is actually happening. Ah, the wonders of modern technology. It is the epitome of virtualness. I am no longer in 2009; I am transported back to 1969. Hmmm... sounds like a Time Machine of some sort. I like it.

As a side note, while looking around for some links for this post, I found this. I think I'm going to try to by one of the US landing sites. Or maybe, I should find the next proposed landing site and buy that. Then I could charge NASA usage rights.

thanks for reading,


14 July 2009


I find, in my life experience, skepticism is healthy.  This trait can become a crutch or that which makes you a better scientist. I'm looking to encourage the latter. I try quite hard, in my classes, to teach my students to be skeptical of pretty much everything, save their beliefs. I teach that belief requires some measure of faith and that there is no room in The Science Classroom for faith. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean people of faith (read religious leanings) have no place in science; quite the contrary, I am not ashamed to tell students that I am a Christian.

My understanding of history is that Man first began looking around him at the Universe to look for God. They wanted to grasp the enormity of God and how He fits in the Grand Scheme (or how the Grand Scheme fits Him). So, I am NOT teaching students to be humanists or atheists or any other "anti-religion", although that may be a result of things that I teach.

What I try to do is get the point across that there is no place in the DOING of science for any kind of faith. There is a great quote from 1905 by Henri Poincaré in his book "Science and Hypothesis" which says: "Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Its one of my favorite quotes and I think it says a lot about what science is and what it is not. Science is intrinsically a human endeavor. There WILL be errors because scientists are human. However, science is not simply a collection of facts (that's called wikipedia). I would define science as a collection of EVIDENCE and the interpretation of said evidence.

This is why I teach students to leave their beliefs at the door and search for the evidence. The human part comes along with the interpretation of that evidence. I can give them evidence that the Earth is flat. Just go outside and look at it and explain to me how you "know" Earth is round. I doubt any student (or reader) would "believe" me when I say the Earth is flat, but I also doubt they could give me evidence to the contrary. I could give students evidence that that Sun is revolving around that Earth and that all of the planets are following suit. In fact, the data collected in the early days of Astronomy (circa Tycho Brahe) would support that assertion even better than the data would support a Copernican (Sun centered) system. So, I ask you, which is correct? Is Earth at the center of the Solar System? Why do you think that? What evidence do you have? Why does the data support a geocentric instead of heliocentric solar system? (hint: check out Kepler's Laws for the answer).Image courtesy of EditorB on via http://www.flickr.com

My goal is to have students question everything they have been taught.  And by everything, I mean everything! We begin class in this way. I call it "the Nature of Science". We play some games, take some notes, and generally discuss what misconceptions or preconceived ideas they have about science. One of the tools I use is an open-source program called Stellarium. Its (obviously) free and is a great virtual planetarium for those days when the Sun makes looking at The Stars difficult. In case you are confused, that's everyday since we attend school only during a time when the Sun is above the horizon. What I do with this program is this: I ask the students what their ideas are about Astrology (not Astronomy, there's a big difference). Most, if not all, know their astrological sign but fail to realize what it means to be born under a certain sign. Some have ideas about positions of the planets and Sun, but don't know that being a Sagittarius means the Sun was (should have been) in that constellation on the day they are born. Enter Stellarium, rewind time to the date of their birth and show them (~97%) that they have been taught wrong their whole life! They are actually NOT the sign they thought, but the zodiac is shifted by one astrological symbol. I also introduce them to the much overlooked 13th astrological sign. Maybe you are learning something new?

Here is the crux of my thought: even after showing students that astrology is a bunch of bunk, many still go out of the classroom "believing" the horoscope they read in the newspaper (or now on the internet). Why is this? Why are we raising a generation (or two or three) who refuse to have any skepticism, even a healthy dose? Many teachers talk about students being "vessels to be filled". I disagree! They are full enough! (I won't say of what.) Some of what they "know" needs to be poured out and replaced with a whole new body of knowledge. Maybe its the teacher's fault. Maybe they have passed this "vessel perception" on to students so they sit there like sponges, soaking up everything coming out of whatever information giver they happen to be sitting before at a given time. We need to teach students to digest information.

Application. Analysis. Synthesis. Evaluation. These skills are at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy. Did these teachers who just fill students up miss those pedagogy classes? Isn't that what we were taught to teach? Come on educators! Get with it! You do your students a disservice when you just spout information AT students. We need more discrepant events! Only then will students begin to learn.

thanks for reading,


13 July 2009

i know, this is only interesting to me...

Image courtesy of wikimedia.org

But since I am getting so much information during my research, I am going to just throw some of what I am learning out there. Its not groundbreaking, in fact, this really is "just" a confirmation of what is already

known about particles according to the Standard Model.  I think its really interesting; even more so when I am actually able to understand some (most) of it. What I hope to accomplish is just to put down my thoughts on the very informal lecture I got today.  So, here goes:

I am studying a particle called the Z boson. It was designated "Z" back in the 60's because it was thought at the time that this was the last particle that would need to be named. Boy, were they wrong! See the Particle Adventure for a glimpse at the enormous number of particles that have been discovered and/or predicted since then.

The Z boson was predicted in the late 60's (1968 I believe) when the electroweak theory was described by three guys who shared the 1979 Nobel prize for it. Zed (as I have taken to calling him) was actually discovered at CERN in 1983, but the theory was given a significant boost in 1973 when Fermilab (using the Gargamelle Bubble Chamber) found evidence for what are called "neutral current reactions". These had been predicted by the electroweak theory.  By the way, Zed is a neutral particle (no electric charge), hence, neutral current reaction.

What does it do, you ask? Zed is one of two particles, yes, I said PARTICLE that is responsible for the weak nuclear force. This is how scientists are best able to interpret the data; force are "carried" by an exchange of particles, i.e. gluons(responsible for the strong nuclear force) and the as-yet-undiscovered graviton(which, it is thought, is responsible for gravity.)

Zed and his brothers (cousins?) the W+ and W- are very, very, very massive particles, relatively speaking (no pun intended).  These three particles are also very short lived. You just THOUGHT a mayfly had a short life (about 24 hours); the particles only "live" on the order of 10^-25 seconds! After that, their most likely decay channels are either a pair of muons (μ) or an electron-anti electron pair(e- or e+). The data with which I am working are primarily μ pair decays (tomorrow I should see some elecctron-anti electron data).  The cool thing about this is that these types of decays have a VERY specific energy range which shows up in a particle detector. My energy range is about 91 GeV (that's giga-electron volts or billion electron volts). While that may sound like a lot (it is for a particle), its not that much on the scale of everyday life.

My data is such that all of the "events" are those that have a specific energy above 15 GeV (now you know what that means) AND have two (or even three) muons showing up in the muon detector. Without going into a lecture on Quantum Mechanics (thanks Mr. Bohr, Mr. Heisenberg, and Mr. Schrödinger), I get a peak, or maximum number of events that are in the 80-110 GeV range, with a peak right around 90 or 91 GeV.  This means that the rest mass, or invariant mass, of the Z boson 91 GeV. In plain english, that means that the amount of energy a Z boson has, at rest, is 91 billion electron volts. Our purpose is not to verify that, because our in the case of a muon detector, it isn't set up to measure with the highest degree of accuracy (although there are detectors with that purpose, such as the electromagnetic calorimeter part of the detector).

So, what you ask, is the purpose? Well, I haven't yet figured that out and frankly, I'm a little afraid to ask! I'm sure I WILL ask, but it hasn't come up in conversation or lecture just yet.  According to Mr. Einstein, "if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research". I like that. I am going to keep that in the forefront of my mind when I'm not sure what I am doing and when I am not sure what I am supposed to be doing. I will just call it research. I can't wait for some of this information to digest in my brain so I can figure out how to make this relevant for students. Indirect observation anyone?

thanks for reading,


09 July 2009

the downfall of humanity

I lost my wallet yesterday. Dumb. My fault. The only thing I can think of is that I pulled my keys out of my pocket and it pulled my wallet out, which consequently fell to the ground. This must have happened at the gas station yesterday morning. Yes, I should keep better control of my personal effects, but the fact remains that someone else found my wallet.

What would you do if you found a wallet with $6 and three credit cards and a debit card inside? Would you try to contact the person? They had my address. It was on my license. Recently I found a purse in the middle of the street. I returned it. As you can see from the title of this post, that was not the case with my wallet. They took the wallet, proceeded to a convenience store about 3 miles away and charged $100 worth of who-knows-what. This is extremely aggravating to me. Fortunately, I won't have to pay for the charges because I promptly reported the card lost which became stolen status thereafter.

Here are my questions. Feel free to comment. Why could the person or persons finding my personal stuff not return it? Why do you have to take something that doesn't belong to you at the expense of other's misfortune?

Now a tie in to science...I recently finished reading "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown. Great book, very interesting, I highly recommend it, especially if you liked "The DaVinci Code". In "Angels and Demons", the question of whether science is too far ahead of morality is raised. In other words, can technology, as a result of science, police itself? Does it need the church to "help out" in that area? I guess I have to say "Yes!" Based on the events of the last day or so, people are basically not honest. Not good citizens. I know, I am generalizing here, but I am simply analyzing the evidence as it is presented to me. Give me more evidence to disprove my hypothesis. In case I haven't stated it, my hypothesis is this: people are bad and science is too far ahead of humanity for its own good. How can science be expected to "take care of itself" when people are at the root dishonest? I know this is a stretch, but how many of you have ever done something dishonest at someone else's expense? (I am point the finger at myself and will gladly admit I have been dishonest before.) If science is a human endeavor, which is one of it's basic tenets, how can it be expected to do the right thing when new technology is produced? Who even decides what is right? If we can create anti-matter (we can just not in the amounts in the fictional "Angels and Demons"), should we? If we can clone species (we can just not humans) should we? I posit that there is an argument for both sides. I could argue either question from either point of view and be reasonable.

Solution? I don't know. Maybe the church needs to do a better job of being relevant? I'm talking about the  church as a whole, I feel the church I attend IS relevant, otherwise I would look elsewhere. Maybe science needs to do a better job of policing itself? Maybe people need to put the needs of others before themselves? Maybe I need to maintain control of my stuff? Of course these are all good answers, but none will be the end-all solution (except maybe the last one for my immediate problems). I guess what I really needed here was a rant. Mission accomplished.

thanks for reading


08 July 2009

what we do with our time...

On the drive in this morning, I was listening to an interview with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The interviewer, Bob Edwards, asked them "what would you do different?" The unanimous response was "not take drugs, that wasted a lot of time". This statement got me thinking, "what would I do different?"

I've been reading a biography about Werner Heisenberg, the guy who developed the aptly named "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle". This principle states (my interpretation) that you cannot know both the position and velocity of a particle (such as an electron) with any degree of certainty. The reason for this that the mere act of measuring either the position or velocity will change the other value. I know, its deep and hard to grasp (for me at least). Anyway, I have been reading, in depth, about his family and his early years (I'm still at the beginning of the book) and it goes into detail about how young Werner spent his idle time. It seems that he didn't have much idle time, actually. He spent a good deal of time doing schoolwork. This raises a question for me: "what would I do differently if I didn't have the internet or television or other "Time Wasters".

Where would we be as a society if we didn't have as much free time? Does our dependence on technology make us more lazy since it gives us so much more free time? One of the goals of technology is to make life "easier" and I think in many ways it has done that; but has it also made us a group of people without the same work ethic our parents or grandparents had, simply because technology encourages a lifestyle of ease?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying technology is bad. I'm really asking myself these questions while my kids are still at home and I have some time to make a difference in their lives. Should I be working harder? Should I be studying and working to gain knowledge? Should I be just "doing" whatever I can to spend time with my kids? Should I try to set an example to them to spend their time wisely? Or should I enjoy life and reduce the amount of stress in my life by letting technology "do its job" instead of placing a huge guilt trip on myself?

Of course I ask these questions after telling you I have been reading a book about a physicist. I write this as I am preparing for my day while working on a physics research project. But, I did watch a couple of hours of TV last night when I could have gone for a bike ride with one of the most amazing teenagers you will ever want to meet. On the one hand, I did do some house cleaning, but on the other hand there is still more to do. Of course I realize the house will always be there to clean.

So, how do you spend your time? Looking back, how would you spend your time differently? Should you make some changes to what you do? Should you make some changes to how your kids spend their time? Would we, as a society, be in a different place if our kids had less free time?

Thoughts? Comments?

thanks for reading,


07 July 2009

some thoughts on mass and energy

In Physics we teach students about both Conservation of Mass and Energy. Before we can do that, students have to understand what mass is. One of the ways I teach students about it is to describe mass as the inherent "laziness" of an object. In other words, the more mass an object has, the lazier the object is; the harder it is to get the object to change its motion (or lack of). I was thinking this morning that I may have to change the way I teach that.

I was listening to my mentor lecture about the mass of a Z boson which is right around 91Gev (giga-electron volts). Its a very massive particle and therefore very short lived. It decays to other particles within about 10^-25 seconds. That being said, you have to understand that when talking about particles, it doesn't matter if you are talking about energy or mass, they are measured in the same units because they are effectively the same thing. In high energy physics, scientists don't create matter from nothing. They collide particles with enormous kinetic energy (energy of motion) and that energy, coupled with the mass of the particles (usually protons or electrons) are converted into other particles.

So, if a particle has a lot of mass, (following my previous logic) it has a lot of laziness. However, following the logic of particle physics, if a particle has a lot of mass, it has a lot of energy. Therefore, using those two statements, something with a lot of energy is very lazy. Hmmm... yeah, I'm gonna have to change the way I teach mass, because that doesn't really make any sense, now. :-)

Thoughts? Comments?

Thanks for reading,


06 July 2009

Research Week 2

Here I sit, frustrated staring at 3 lines of code, trying to understand why the program keeps telling me I am trying to divide by zero. I honestly have no idea. I'm not sure just why I refuse to go and ask my mentor. I'm sure it's probably just a single variable out of place. Its amazing that coding can be so frustrating and so enjoyable all at the same time. I have made a ton of progress as far as C++ goes and my understanding of it; my ability to make it do what I want. But as I said, here I sit, frustrated.

On a positive note, as soon as I can get this figured out, I am going to start working with some real numbers, not with made up randomly generated numbers. I am looking forward to that! I want to see some real data.

And just that quickly, with another quick glance...its like putting my glasses on and seeing the code fresh and new! I realize that I have (for the umpteenth time) tried to abbreviate "parameter" as "p" instead of "par" as it should be and the program starts to work for me.  Now if I can just figure out why parameter #0 is "infinitely out of range". Curious.

edited update: of course! I had one single variable out of place and once fixed it worked perfectly!


04 July 2009

Physics on the 4th

Any of you who have ever taken one of my classes will know I can't resist the urge to encourage thinking in terms of physics. Basically, I get joy out of ruining movies, football games, and the like. So, why should a fireworks display be any different?

I was reading one of the many physics blogs I follow this morning and thought the exercise to find the size of fireworks displays was quite interesting. I mean, who among you has never thought about it? I constantly (and I am being totally serious) think things like "how do they get those fireworks to be big circles?" and "would this display look the same from everyone's perspective?". If you are interested in a simple method to determine the size of these fireworks, using only your brain, your eyes, and your knuckles, try this. If you have ever done any astronomical observations with me, you will find this method of measurement is remarkably similar to some exercises we have done together. In fact, while you are waiting for the fireworks to start, use the moon to see just how accurate your calculations are. The nearly full moon will be rising right around sunset, so you will have some time to kill while you are waiting for it to be completely dark (look East or opposite of Sun). Be careful! The equation given uses time to measure distance and it is in feet. I don't think you want to know the diameter of Moon in feet.

Sure, it will be mentally challenging, but if everything were easy, where would the fun in life be? Please, if I have ruined fireworks for you, let me know about your experience with a comment! Happy 4th of July to each of you and your family.