In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we have a look at a luncheon with undergraduate advisors and celebrate a visiting scholar whose presentation at TWEPP earned an award!
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
“A Moment of Pure Joy”
The ten, small, blue paper bags stood arrayed on the table at the front of the lecture hall. What lay inside them? The students did not know. All the students knew was that they were feverishly discussing in their groups how they might keep an egg from breaking if dropped from one, two, and then three meters. They had to establish a framework for possible solutions to the problem before actually knowing what building materials were in the bags.
At the ten minute mark, we invited the students in their teams to come down and select a bag. They had 45 minutes to build. At the 45 minute mark, we drop eggs.
This is one evening in the Honors Introductory Physics class. All the classroom and textbook discussions of motion, acceleration, forces, momentum, and conservation laws boil down to this: don’t let your egg crack open. Of course, the exercise comes with an analogy. Imagine, for example, that you are tasked with protecting an astronaut inside a capsule who must reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land safely and intact on the ground.
Since this semester’s class theme is “The Physics of Cartoons,” the deeper inspiration for this exercise is a scene in the show “Phineas and Ferb” where the kids build their own amusement part, launch a roller coaster train into orbit, and then de-orbit, landing safely in a tree in front of the house (which then catches on fire). Students in Honors Physics are exploring the physical realism of scenes like this and trying to understand how one would really survive this kind of insane scenario.
Which brings us back to the egg drop competition. My learning assistant, Elena, and I field questions during the build. “Can we use the paper bag as part of the build?” Great idea. “Can we use part of our materials to alter the landing zone? No – the idea is to land on concrete or hard plastic, so focus on vehicle design. The air is filled with the sound of buzzing students, ripping tape, scissors cutting through twine, paper folding, and pipe cleaners gently rustling.
At 45 minutes we call time and usher all 27 students out in front of the Fondren Science Building. An orange ladder stands there, holding a vertical two-meter stick whose bottom marks the 1-meter drop point and whose top marks the 3-meter drop point. In round one, every team’s design is dropped from 1 meter. They can make no alterations after each round – the design must be reused immediately again in the next round … if the egg survives. Cracked eggs are okay, but leaking eggs (or shattered eggs) disqualify you from further play. The egg must be accessible to inspection after each drop, then placed back in the vehicle.
We then proceeded in three rounds to drop the vehicles. Some designs are “floaters,” based on a parachute-like design. Some are “dunkers,” designs with little drag but immense cushioning around the egg. Round one goes well for all. By the end of round two, only four teams (half) remain.
In round three, the first design hits the ground … and the egg is shattered. The second team’s design hits the ground, and the egg is destroyed. The third team’s design lands … and all on-board are killed.
There was an air of dismay hovering about the front of Fondren Science Building. Would all four designs fail to meet the challenge of the three-meter drop? Team RKMD handed their design over to me. “The handle is about to fall off [the top of the small drag chute]. Drop it as soon as you can,” I am cautioned. I count down quickly. “Three … two … one … ” Their “lunar lander” design, a capsule on a tripod of legs with a drag chute attached to the top, falls to the concrete below.
There is a moment of tension, a sense that there is no way this egg survived. There is a silence. I join a member of Team RKMD on the ground as she is pulling open the capsule. The egg is revealed, and we inspect it. It had survived.
A scream, forged of the purest happiness, shattered the night air. It was a moment of beautiful triumph that seemed, for a moment, to beat back the memory of the last 2 years. Honors Physics students, amassed in the twilight outside the Fondren Science Building, huddled around an orange step ladder, were punctuated by one student shoving their arms into the sky and declaring to all with a scream that “We have won!”
Moments of pure joy like this … students overcoming odds through cleverness and care and sweat and team work … this is why I teach.
In this issue of the Friday Physics Newsletter, we look at a recent luncheon with undergraduate advisors, report on the awarding of a Ph.D. recruiting grant to the Physics Department, and celebrate a Visiting Scholar whose presentation at the TWEPP conference won top honors.
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
REMINDER: No Speaker Series Events from Sep. 27 – Oct. 11; Catch Up On Past Events!
The Department’s Speaker Series have paused for a few weeks starting Sep. 27. We encourage you to catch up on past talks from the series, available in the playlist below. We’ll resume events in October after fall break.
Learn more: https://www.physics.smu.edu/web/seminars/
All past speaker series events since August 2020 are available in our YouTube playlist.
Physics Department Hosts a Luncheon with Undergraduate Advisors
Prof. Simon Dalley, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Physics and the Assistant Chair for Undergraduate Studies, organized a department-sponsored luncheon for University and School undergraduate advisors. About 20 people from University Advising, Dedman College, the Lyle School of Engineering, and other programs participated in the event, which was hosted in the Founders Room at the Meadows Museum. In addition to the many advisors who were able to participate, members of the department involved in administration and undergraduate education also attended. These included Prof. Durdana Balakishiyeva, Physics Advisor; Prof. Jodi Cooley, Director of the Biophysical Science program and its advisor; and Prof. Stephen Sekula, Department Chair.
Prof. Dalley used the lunch to pass along information about new and exciting features of our department, which may be more attractive now to undergraduate students with an interest in physics. For example, the department revised the Physics Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree over the past two years. This update was approved at the SMU Board of Trustees meeting in May, 2021, and will appear in the SMU Course Catalog next year. However, having been approve by the board, we are now allowed to advise students to pursue this degree plan. The BA now consists of 38 credit-hours (previously, it was 46 credit-hours), 18 of which are in elective courses. The degree plan encourages diversity and is intended for students with broader interests (e.g. in law, medicine, engineering, philosophy, music, or other intellectual and creative pursuits).
Prof. Dalley also shared the existence of the Physics BS degree with a Specialization in Astrophysics and Cosmology. This does not require more credit-hours of work than the nominal 41 credit-hours in physics (and 15 in mathematics), but instead prescribes a series of elective courses that deliver the intended focus. This program is already listed in the SMU Undergraduate Course Catalog.
Advisors were provided with a concise table explaining how existing physics courses map onto the areas of the new Common Curriculum. It was the considered opinion of advisors at the lunch that such a resource from any department is a major advising tool as we continue to move forward through the Common Curriculum era. In addition, Dr. Dalley explained the attractive PHYS 1010 “Honors Introductory Physics” add-on course. Members of the department present at the lunch noted that this course is for all students, not just those in the University Honors Program. Thus, it provides a chance to engage in physics, putting the lessons of the introductory physics classes into action, in a diverse and team-driven environment.
The department looks forward to more opportunities to work with advisors across the university and welcomes questions from advisors about our programs.
Department Receives Ph.D. Recruitment Grant from Moody School
The department was notified that it has received a Ph.D. recruitment grant from the Moody School for Graduate and Advanced Studies. The grant proposal was coordinated by Prof. Fred Olness, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies, with significant content provided by Prof. Jodi Cooley, who serves on the graduate committee, and editing provided by Prof. Stephen Sekula. The grant is aimed to support recruitment with a focus on regional institutions with strong physics programs whose students are representative of the population of Texas and its surrounding states. The goal of this grant support is to increase the number of applicants from regional institutions that would normally not know about, or give strong consideration to, SMU for graduate studies in physics.
What’d I Miss?
We all get too many emails from the University and College. Here are a few things you might have missed this week.
- All: The Department of Mathematics’s next seminar event may be of interest to members of the department. The event will be help on Wednesday, Oct. 13 from 4-5pm, and is Zoom-only. Here are the details: “Department of Mathematics Colloquium. The Department of Mathematics welcomes Dr. Devin Matthews of the SMU Department of Chemistry. His lecture is entitled, “Tensor Hypercontraction and Other Tensor Factorization Methods Applied to Scaling Reduction in Quantum Chemistry.” The Schrödinger Equation is central to the quantum-mechanical study of atoms, molecules, and materials. However, an approximate form of the wave function and/or Hamiltonian is critical to practical, accurate, yet cost-effective quantum chemical methods. One of the most successful families of approximations, coupled cluster (CC) theory, results in methods scaling steeply with system size N as O(N^6) or greater. We consider tensor factorization as one approach to reduce computational scaling, in particular the tensor hypercontraction (THC) approach. A successful application of THC to CC requires the solution of a number of numerical and mathematical problems: numerical spatial integration, non-linear non-convex optimization, low-rank matrix approximations, tensor network optimization, and the representability of Coulomb, exchange, and correlation kernels to name a few. We address several of these issues and provide a brief outlook on the future of THC-CC. For more information, please contact Brandilyn Stigler at firstname.lastname@example.org.” (From “This Week at Dedman College: October 11-17”, sent on Oct. 7).
- All: The Allman Lecture, sponsored by the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, will be held on October 18 at 5:30 pm in McCord Auditorum (Dallas Hall 306) and virtually online. Faculty are especially encouraged to remind students about the event and incentivize them participating in this particular lecture, especially in-person if possible. To register for the event, visit https://smuhayhoe.eventbrite.com/.
The speaker for this event is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (Texas Tech), a climate scientist deeply invested in matters of policy on this crucial issue. Dr. Hayhoe earned a B.Sc. in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto and then an M.S. and Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “For climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, the key to convincing climate change-deniers that climate change is real is helping them see how climate change affects their own lives. The author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (Atria: One Signal Publishers, 2021), professor of public policy and public law at Texas Tech University, and chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy will present this year’s Allman Family Lecture at SMU.” The recommendation of Dr. Hayhoe for this distinguished lecture was submitted by Prof. Tom Coan and passed along by the department to the college. The DCII is responsible for collecting nominations and making final decisions, and we are very pleased that this caught the attention of the organizers. (Original announcement was on Sep. 24, 2021 and sent by email from the DCII email account, dcinterdisciplinaryinstitute)
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of your activities in research, the classroom, and beyond are very welcome!
Prof. Cooley’s Lecture Notes from the Les Houches School on Dark Matter Available on the arXiv
Prof. Jodi Cooley reported this week that the notes she prepared for her summer lectures at the Les Houches School for Dark Matter are now available on the arXiv (https://arxiv.org/abs/2110.02359). The lectures cover the detection of classical particle-like dark matter candidates, with masses ranging from the MeV scale to the TeV scale.
One of the highest priorities in particle physics today is the identification of the constituents of dark matter. This manuscript is a supplement to pedagogical lectures given at the 2021 Les Houches Summer School on Dark Matter. The lectures cover topics related to the direct detection of WIMP dark matter, including the distribution of dark matter, nuclear scattering, backgrounds, planning and designing of experiments and a sampling of planned and ongoing experiments.Abstract for the lecture notes by Prof. Jodi Cooley
The notes of all lectures from this summer school will be collected and published, and will include a wide range of topics.
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Academic Operations (Lacey Breaux) and Research Operations (Michele Hill). They can be contacted for assistance, or to make appointments for input and help, through the Department Main Office (FOSC 102).
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!
Visiting Scholar Hanhan Sun wins Poster Award at the TWEPP Conference
Please congratulate Hanhan Sun, a visiting scholar at SMU working with Prof. Jingbo Ye in the Opto-electronics Laboratory, who was awarded honors for her poster presentation at the Topical Workshop on Electronics for Particle Physics (TWEPP) Conference. TWEPP is hosted annually and as they note on their website:
[TWEPP] covers all aspects of electronic systems, components and instrumentation for particle and astro-particle physics experiments such as: electronics for particle detection, triggering, data-acquisition systems, accelerator and beam instrumentation.
Operational experience of electronic systems and R&D in electronics for LHC, High Luminosity LHC, FAIR, neutrino facilities and other present or future accelerator projects are the major focus of the workshop.
Hanhan is a Ph.D. student and visiting scholar from Central China Normal University (CCNU). Her work is focused on the development of ETROC, the readout Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) for the Compact Muon Solenoid’s (CMS’s) timing-based detector. This major system is part of CMS’s upgrades for the high-luminosity era of the large Hadron Collider (LHC), known as “Phase 2.”
Hanhan also contributes to R&D projects in the Opto-Electronics Laboratory. These projects build the foundation for future proposals. The work she presented in this year’s TWEPP conference is aimed to identify solutions to a long-time problem in particle detector optical links: radiation-induced performance degradation of the p-i-n diode that is used to turn optical signals back to electrical ones. She won the award for her presentation of the poster, entitled “QTIA, a 2.5 or 10 Gbps 4-Channel Array Optical Receiver ASIC in a 65 nm CMOS Technology.” You can view the poster online.
Hanhan is one of four students from CCNU (http://www.ccnu.edu.cn/) who work at SMU as Visiting Scholars and all hail from the school of physical sciences and technology at CCNU. CCNU is home to particle and nuclear theory as well as efforts on particle detector electronics. As an institution, they are involved in the LHC but not with the ATLAS Experiment, which is SMU’s affiliated LHC project. Instead, CCNU is a member of the ALICE Collaboration, a heavy-ion collision-focused detector whose goals include the study of the quark-gluon plasma state of matter.
The visiting students at SMU are supported by the CMS ETL project. ETL stands for the “endcap timing layer,” a high-precision time-information detector upgrade planned for CMS. In addition, these visiting scholars are supported by the ATLAS Inner TracKer (ITK) pixel-upgrade project. Both the ETL and ITK are aimed for deployment in the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) phase in the late 2020s and through the 2030s.
The presence of visiting scholars, working along side SMU Ph.D. students and research staff, is part of the enriching experience of this kind of program. The work conducted by the visiting scholars also contributed to their own Ph.D. research.
High-Energy Physics (HEP), as in any research area where the questions are fundamental and the answers are hard to discover, benefits from collaboration. This allows the field to survive, thrive, and improve in a community-driven way. The work in the Opto-electronics Laboratory benefits greatly from national and international collaborations. We work with Fermilab, Brookhaven National Laboratoru, the SLAC National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UT-Dallas, UT, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Boston University, CERN, Oxford University, IN2P3 in France, the Institute of Physics Academia Sinica (IPAS), Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP), University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), Nanjing University (NJU), and CCNU.
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
The Physics Teacher’s October Physics Challenge!
Society of Physics Students Faculty Advisor and our department’s informal “Puzzle Master,” Prof. Randy Scalise, invites you to try to solve this month’s physics challenge from The Physics Teacher. The first correct solution he receives (email@example.com) from a student member of our Society of Physics Students will be awarded a prize. Join our SPS chapter today to make yourself eligible! (contact Dr. Scalise if you want to do this – you needn’t be a physics major or minor to join the SPS).
Fun fact: Prof. Scalise is again noted in The Physics Teacher (see below) as one of the people contributing correct solutions to these challenge problems, cementing again his position as “puzzle master” for this activity!
For now, the prizes continue (unclaimed!) to be the same as last year. The winner will get to select from the following four books,
- Gleick, J. “Chaos: Making a New Science“.
- Crease, R. P. and Mann, Charles C. “The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics“.
- Thorne, K. “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy“.
- Greene, B. “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality“.
Solutions must be complete enough to understand your strategy, reasoning, and methods; providing answers with no explanations are not acceptable. Dr. Scalise urges submitters who believe they have the correct answer to, of course, also submit their solution to The Physics Teacher using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to follow the journal’s guidelines for submissions (see below). The deadline is the last day of this month.