CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
I don’t often quote the band, Muse, but this week I had this bouncing around in my head:
Glaciers melting in the dead of nightMuse, “Supermassive Black Hole,” from the album “Black Holes and Revelations” (2006)
And the superstars sucked into the supermassive
You set my soul alight
While the song itself is about something other than supermassive black holes, there is a line that stuck with me over the years: “Glaciers melting in the dead of night.” Here we have the image of an object, adrift in a frigid ocean during the coldest time of day, that nonetheless is melting. Why? It’s as if something unseen were heating it. While invisible, this force is nonetheless detectable because it lays waste to the ice. In fact, this line beautifully describes a key technique that physicists have used successfully many times: observing the side-effects of an invisible thing in order to infer its very existence.
Which brings me to the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded on Tuesday morning. Half went to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and half to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” Coming quickly on the heels of last year’s theoretical and experimental astronomy and astrophysics award for the development of modern cosmology and the detection of extra-solar planets (exoplanets), the committee elected again this year to highlight a similar blend of themes: deep theoretical physics insights (Penrose) and hard-core astronomical experimental work (Genzel and Ghez). This prize was all about an invisible thing whose effects can nonetheless be predicted and, it turns out, detected.
The Nobel Prize is an imperfect means by which to spotlight breakthroughs in a single field. The problems of the Nobel Prize are well documented, including the limit of awarding the prize to not more than three living people connected to the work; the fact that it doesn’t include mathematics as a subject area worthy of note; and the fact that it is tied to a highly secretive nomination and deliberation process whose details are hidden from public view until decades after the award is made. The committee’s mean time between selecting physics awardees who are also women was 57 years until this year, when for the first time in history they named an awardee who is also a woman while the previous such awardee is actually still alive. All of this, of course, says more about the process of selecting Nobel Laureates than it does about the people conducting path-breaking research.
In truth, all human instruments for recognition are imperfect at measuring accomplishment (students will relate here when reflecting on instructor grading scales and grade apportionment, and especially the use of grade “curving,” to assess mastery). Nonetheless, as a proxy for achievement the Nobel, and many other awards (American Physical Society prizes, the Breakthrough Prize, etc.), can still be useful for sharing the process and findings of science with the general public. Even if I and others have complaints about the process, nonetheless the science and the story of how it unfolded is exciting; we can, perhaps, inspire a new and diverse generation of people to engage in science.
In fact, I am very excited about the subject of this specific physics prize … because we have an amazingly well-aligned series of events coming up that all cluster around the subject! In this issue, we sneak preview the Astrophysics Lunch on Monday, where we’ll all get a gentle introduction to black holes ahead of the Monday seminar on the very same subject! (I swear, we didn’t know this was going to happen). You’ll also meet the newest postdoctoral researcher in our department, James Lasker, who will conduct research with Prof. Robert Kehoe as a member of SMU’s Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) research team.
This year’s Nobel Prize has a strange little Dallas, Texas connection. Roger Penrose recalls in an interview that it was during a conversation with his friend, Ivor Robinson, that he had the great insight that allowed him to do the calculation in the general theory of relativity that proved it predicts the existence of black holes. At the time in 1963, Robinson was working at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS). In early 1963, SCAS was actually housed in “a windowless cube on the Southern Methodist University campus.” The SCAS would relocate to a former cotton field in Richardson, TX in 1964, and eventually go on to become UT-Dallas in 1969. (that’s a whole other SMU story …)
In 1963, with a number of relativity theory experts in the Texas region (UT-Austin, SCAS), there was an effort to stimulate discussion, thinking, and intellectual critical mass by organizing a conference. This became the first Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, held in December of 1963. The event was to be focused on quasars, which were then newly discovered and quite mysterious. From this first symposium would emerge the hypothesis that quasars were fast-rotating black holes; ultimately, they would be identified as related to a range of phenomena, including blazars and galactic jets, explicable using a single hypothesis: supermassive black holes.
Here’s to all the (slightly nicer) windowless cubes still to be found on the SMU campus, and to all the great ideas that will emerge from the students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty engaged in scientific exploration today!
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
Welcome Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. James Lasker!
We want to welcome to our department James Lasker, a postdoctoral research fellow who joins us from the University of Chicago. James’s Ph.D concerned a measurement of the Type Ia supernovae rate for the Dark Energy Survey (DES), which uses the Blanco 4m telescope in Chile. Additionally, James worked on the absolute photometric calibration of DES and on corrections of supernova photometry due to atmospheric variations in the effective survey transmission function. He joins SMU’s DESI research team with substantial responsibilities in operations for the experiment, and will be strongly involved in the groups efforts on analysis of baryon acoustic oscillations as exhibited in the large scale structure of galaxy clustering.
REMINDER: Fast Machine Learning For Science (Virtual) Workshop at SMU, Nov. 30 – Dec. 3 – Register Today!
A four-day event, “Fast Machine Learning for Science”, will be hosted virtually by Southern Methodist University from November 30 to December 3. The first three days (Nov 30 – Dec 2) will be workshop-style with invited and contributed talks. The last day will be dedicated to technical demonstrations and coding tutorials.
As advances in experimental methods create growing datasets and higher resolution and more complex measurements, machine learning (ML) is rapidly becoming the major tool to analyze complex datasets over many different disciplines. Following the rapid rise of ML through deep learning algorithms, the investigation of processing technologies and strategies to accelerate deep learning and inference is well underway. We envision this will enable a revolution in experimental design and data processing as a part of the scientific method to greatly accelerate discovery. This workshop is aimed at current and emerging methods and scientific applications for deep learning and inference acceleration, including novel methods of efficient ML algorithm design, ultrafast on-detector inference and real-time systems, acceleration as-a-service, hardware platforms, coprocessor technologies, distributed learning, and hyper-parameter optimization.Workshop Description
The organizing committee for this event consists of Prof. Allison Deiana, Prof. Tom Coan, Dr. Rohin Narayan, and Elizabeth Fielding from the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute. More information, including registration information, is available at the workshop website: https://indico.cern.ch/event/924283/
Physics Speaker Series Continues with Colloquium: Dr. Laura Blecha (University of Florida) to speak on “The Dynamics and Multi-messenger Signatures of Supermassive Black Holes”
The Physics Department Speaker Series continues on Monday, October 12 with Dr. Laura Blecha (University of Florida). She will speak on “The Dynamics and Multi-messenger Signatures of Supermassive Black Holes.” This seminar continues the October theme, “Probing the Unknown.” She will discuss supermassive black holes, whose masses are millions to billions of times that of the Sun. These are of great interest both as critical components in galaxy evolution and as the dominant sources of low-frequency gravitational waves, which could be detectable with various approaches in the coming years. Mergers between massive black holes are highly energetic gravitational wave events that could be observed across most of cosmic time, including the epoch where the seeds for these supermassive black holes are thought to have formed. Zoom connection information is available to SMU-affiliated participants; the public YouTube stream is available for everyone.
Next Astrophysics Lunch: Prof. Krista Lynne Smith to Sneak Preview the Monday Seminar on Supermassive Black Holes
At the next Astrophysics Lunch on Monday, October 12, our own Prof. Krista Lynne Smith will guide a discussion about supermassive black holes ahead of the Monday seminar (see news item above). If you want to hear or ask about the basic ideas, terminology, and approaches to studying these fascinating cosmic objects, join in for a scintillating lunch discussion. You’ll be ready to hit the ground running at the seminar later that day! To learn how to connect, contact Prof. Joel Meyers.
Learn more about the Astrophysics Lunch: https://astrohep.org/organizations/smu/dokuwiki/doku.php?id=astro_journal_club
Miss a Colloquium or Seminar? Don’t Panic … They’re Recorded!
If you missed an event in the Department Speaker Series, never fear! A positive side-effect of remote-only talks is easy recording. You can find all events so far this semester streaming online here:
Most Recent Talk: Dr. Tim Hobbs (SMU)
Prof. Krista Lynne Smith Delivered the October 6, 2020 Public Lecture at the Kavli Institution of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC)
Her timing could not have been better. Just that same morning, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2020 prize in physics to a few physicists who had key insights into the mathematics and actual existence of black hole. Thus it was that Prof. Krista Lynne Smith found herself giving one of the most timely public lectures on the subject of black holes that you could possibly hope for! Please enjoy below this recording of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) public lecture, “Black Holes through the Kaleidoscope”!
Prof. Jodi Cooley Delivered the October 5, 2020 SMU “Town and Gown” Lecture
The Town and Gown Club “ … was founded in 1927 by both Southern Methodist University representatives (gown) and prominent Dallas residents (town). The original goals of the organization were to promote fellowship, intellectual stimulation, and dialogue between Southern Methodist University and the greater Dallas community.” This past week, our own Prof. Jodi Cooley delivered a lecture to the Town and Gown Club entitled “Fantastic Dark Matter and Where to Find It,” explaining the problem of the universe’s invisible mass and ways that physicists and astronomers are working to make sense of this puzzle. There were about 20 participants in this all-virtual event. She received questions especially about the identity of the dark matter, what could compose it, and how sure we are that it exists at all. She is grateful to the organizers for inviting her for this event, and to all the participants who made for a vibrant and engaging evening.
Staff In-Office Schedule for Week of October 12
The in-office staff schedule for the week of October 12 is as follows:
- Monday: Lacey
- Tuesday: Lacey
- Wednesday: Michele
- Thursday: Michele
- Friday: Lacey
Of course, both are always available on Microsoft Teams, by Email, or by phone.
Full staff in-office calendar for October:
We have no student news items this week, so we simply remind everyone that if you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of students in research, the classroom, internships or fellowships, awards, etc. are very welcome!
If you are an alum of the doctoral, masters, majors or minor programs in Physics at SMU, or have worked in our program as a post-doctoral researcher, and wish to share news with the community, please send your story to the Physics Department and we’ll work with you to get it included in a future edition.
THE BACK PAGE
REMINDER: Bryson DeChambeau “Fermi Problem” and October Physics Teacher Physics Challenge
The Bryson DeChambeau “Fermi Problem” is still open for submitting solutions. The deadline is October 16, 2020. Send your solutions to Prof. Randy Scalise. The original problem is in the September 25, 2020 Newsletter.
In addition, you have until the end of the month to submit to The Physics Teacher, and to Prof. Randy Scalise, your proposed solution to the October Physics Challenge. You can find this printed in the October 2, 2020 Newsletter.
The first student who is current member of the SMU Society of Physics Students and who submits a correct solution to Prof. Scalise is eligible for a prize from the department – see the above newsletters for details!