Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Careers for Physicists

Interested in an academic career in physics? Consider attending a presentation titled "Careers for Physicists: Becoming a Professor" tomorrow afternoon.

Finding a job in academia has become a job--and part of your education. Learning how to market yourself and your research has become a must. The Astronomy Department is currently running a semester-long seminar, taught by post-doc Ben Brown,called "Being a Professional Scientist" that deals with similar issues.

For advice on how to plan a course of study that will lead to teaching your own courses, look into these books!

A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science
Peter J. Feibelman, 2011

How to Succeed as a Scientist: From Postdoc to Professor --also available electronically here.
Barbara J. Gabrys and Jane A. Langdale, 2012

The Academic Job Search Handbook
Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong, 2008

Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times
Marc J. Kuchner, 2012

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Read Up on Women in Physics

Last week we had a post regarding an article that discussed the lack of women in physics. To follow that post, below are a few books dealing with great women in the history of the science. Though, according the article in Symmetry, there is a disparity between men and women in physics today, that doesn't mean there haven't been great female physicists that have come before!

Strohmaier, B., Rosner, R. W, & Dvorak, P. F. (2006). Marietta Blau, Stars of Disintegration: Biography of a Pioneer of Particle Physics. English ed. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press.

"She was considered extraordinarily gifted by Albert Einstein and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Physics, twice by Erwin Schrodinger. On the other hand, no obituary was ever published on her. The biographical part of the book which includes personal recollections by friends, describes Marietta Blau's life in Vienna before 1938, her emigration to Mexico, her move to the USA in 1944, her work at leading research centers in the US, her return to Vienna in 1960, and the last decade of her life in her hometown, where she continued to work at the Radium Institute for four years."

Rife, P. (1999). Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Boston: Birkhäuser.

"Lise Meitner, a contemporary of Einstein's, was a remarkable nuclear physicist whose discovery of nuclear fission paved the way for the Manhattan project, although she was unaware of the project itself. She did not share in the credit for that discovery, in any case, having been passed up by the Nobel Prize committee, while her collaborator, Otto Hahn, did receive the prize in 1945. How these circumstances came about, and how they fit into the evolution of her social conscience and her abhorrence of war are some of the fascinating subjects discussed in the biography by Patricia Rife."

-Gary R. Goldstein, Tufts University
(Full review)

Byers, N., & Williams, G. A. (2006). Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

"The strength of this book is, of course, the compelling nature of the stories themselves. We learn about the critical contributions made by these physicists and astronomers, many of whom are unknown to most of us, told by people who are able to fully appreciate what these women achieved...This book should be a source of encouragement to female students interested in physics and astronomy and it should be on a bookshelf in the office of every physics and astronomy professor or teacher or anyone else who is in a position to give career guidance to young students."

-Marty Epstein , California State University, Los Angeles
(Full review)

Kiernan, D. (2013). The Girls of Atomic City: the Untold Story of the Women who Helped win World War II. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

"Kiernan’s concentration on the women’s role provides a necessary focus to her account, and as a historical glimpse, “The Girls of Atomic City” is fascinating."

"With her book, Kiernan preserves these rich stories for future generations."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Local Author Interview Series: Thad Walker

The flurry of new books by local authors seems to have subsided.  We're going to take this opportunity to go back to books published within the past several years by local authors and give them the chance for their moment in the blog spotlight.  In this post we're talking to Thad Walker.  Thad co-wrote a book, Optically Pumped Atoms, with William Happer and Yuan-Yu Jau in 2010.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing Optically Pumped Atoms?

The purpose of the book was to present a new approach to making practical calculations of the evolution of atoms subjected to light fields,  including not only effects like spontaneous and stimulated emission, but collisions, diffusion, etc.  In other words, present the fairly well-known theory of these processes in a unified manner that facilitates accurate computer modeling of real experiments.  What surprised me is that the resulting formalism was actually simpler and easier to understand than the usual methods.  It also made for surprisingly simple codes for doing very sophisticated modeling.  A key part of this is that the book is written using Liouville space in which the NxN density matrix in the usual approach becomes an N^2 element vector.  This greatly facilitates dealing with dissipative processes in a clear, compact, and easily programmable manner.

Did you come across any unexpected challenges while writing? 

Communication between three distant co-authors was one of the challenges.  Another was getting sleep.  Getting all the equations right, both from physics and typesetting, was nightmarish.  However, I'm fairly proud of only having found 9 errors in it after 3 years.  Especially considering the awful state of the original proofs given us by the publisher.  I spent many hours pouring over the proofs in the library, fixing all the superscript  and subscript errors inserted by the publisher.  It seemed almost a willful intent to mess up the equations.

How is writing a book different than writing a journal article?

In this case, there was quite a bit of original work so in that sense it was similar to writing an extremely long journal article.  It was different in the sense that the book did not undergo peer review.  We had to be extremely careful to get things right.  There was an extensive amount of effort that went into checking the physics by writing simulation codes.  I don't think my co-authors were aware that I was writing my codes in a different language (Mathematica) than they were using (Matlab), and was used for the published codes in the book.  It was a good test of the formalism, that it works well in multiple languages.

The codes were also a different experience as compared to journal articles, in which codes rarely explicitly appear.  The book contains many short codes that illustrate example simulations.  That they could appear verbatim in the book is testimony to the concise formulation we achieved in the book.  We also published the codes electronically.  For this we took advantage of a nice service of the UW libraries, called MINDS@UW, where we deposited the codes with a permanent URL and with the promise of the library to maintain access to the codes permanently.  [See http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/35675

I think it is going to take some time for the book to make its full impact.  A year or so ago I was contacted by someone from the Navy who was trying to model an atomic clock.  Their ability to understand the clock using the model was greatly hampered by the fact that the model took a week to run (no joke).  Using the methods from the book, I was able in a few hours work to produce a model that could calculate in 30 seconds what they were getting out in a week.  This example was likely exceptional, but I think that after a few more incidents like that people will take the time to learn our new approach.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring physicist or suggestions for the young student about further studies, etc.

Physics has been and continues to be an exciting and fulfilling way to spend my life.  My advice is to find your passion, i.e. physics, and then--"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might", says the Teacher.  For students: remember, the classroom is an artificial environment.  The real way to learn and experience physics is to get going on research.

What are some books that have inspired you, either professionally or personally?

I think everyone wanting to do something never done before should read "The Last Place on Earth", by Roland Huntford.  It's far and away the best account of the race to the South Pole in 1911-1912.  That book will show how to, and how not to, get it done.

Physics books are rarely inspiring, though journal articles sometimes are.  Helpful, yes; inspiring, no.  Books are usually published after their contents are scientifically mature.  They are great for learning what is well-known, for getting background in a new area, but the real good stuff is in the journals and on the archive.

I do find biographies of famous physicists sometimes inspiring for the same reasons I like the book mentioned above;  you get some insight into how the best people go about making marvelous discoveries.

Most people, even in the supposedly impersonal physics world, will attest to inspiration coming from other people.  In my case 2 professors at Abiliene Christian University, my Ph. D. advisor at Princeton, and my post-doctoral advisor at JILA were all exceptional people who somehow saw promise in a gawky young lad long ago.  They ignored the superficial evidence and gave me some great opportunities to take advantage of.