In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we look at the exciting Winter Colloquium coming up on Monday, as well as the final project presentations by the Honors Physics students that same evening, and the graduate core proficiency exams in December and January.
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
“Last (Full) Week”
Thanksgiving was, for many people, the break that wasn’t. Certainly, this was true for me. Others have confirmed feeling the same way. We were so eager for a vacation from the punch of this semester that we dropped whatever we were doing before the holiday, went all-in on family and friends and food, and then re-emerged facing the same workload we had just put down. I certainly had a blast with my family, limited though the engagement was in size. However, there I was on Monday morning processing 108 “must do” emails.
This week, however, is truly a hallmark of the end-of-term. The last day of classes is Monday, December 6, and I don’t know about you but I am finally feeling like the conclusion is truly in sight. I think my computational physics students really want the end to be in sight. If they never see again the finite square well, transcendental equations, and ordinary differential equations with initial and boundary value constraints, they will probably live a happy life.
A sense of relief is becoming palpable on campus and in the Department. This has, of course, been twinged with sadness. We said a surprise goodbye this week to Academic Operations Coordinator Lacey Breaux, who has been a part of the Physics Department for almost 7.5 years and has been a driving force behind cementing us as a Physics Phamily that takes Phriday lunches seriously. While Lacey remains actively working on academic matters until the end-of-term, officially she has begun her new position in the Department of Economics as of December 1, 2021; our two departments have entered into an agreement to share her time until graduation so that any must-do academic items get done for our students and the Department.
For those of you who weren’t in on it (in some cases because I missed them in the emails organizing it … sorry, Jasmine … I owe you for this one!), the “colloquium” this past Monday by Prof. Joel Meyers was a cover for a surprise party for Lacey. Staff, faculty, and students gathered in FOSC 123 under the ruse of a colloquium that never was. Lacey was lured to the room by an urgent “A/V problem” and the need for a laser pointer for the speaker. She entered the room to about 50 people yelling “Surprise!” as she stood there, stunned, still wondering if this was just a moment of fun before a colloquium.
“Joy tinged with sadness.” I think that summarizes this semester. We have returned to a kind of togetherness that still isn’t normal. We’ve said a lot of goodbyes this year, some temporary and for the best reasons, and some more difficult and permanent. Let’s remember, as we move though this season rich with holidays and festivals and celebration, all the good that we have accomplished under difficult circumstances. Students have learned. Research has been advanced. Funding has been attracted. We are a strong Physics Phamily, even when we have to say a small goodbye as people move forward.
We go on as a Department in that spirit. Lacey’s position will soon be advertised for a replacement hire, and we will be joined on Monday by a temporary staff member who will help handle the day-to-day operations of the main office until we identify a new, permanent Academic Operations Coordinator (officially, the title is “Coordinator 2”). I hope to make introductions in the coming weeks of new faces in the main office.
This week, we look at the exciting Winter Colloquium coming up on Monday, as well as the final project presentations by the Honors Physics students that same evening, and the graduate core proficiency exams in December and January.
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
The Winter Colloquium: David Nygren to Speak on “The Art of Experiment and the Pace of Discovery in Particle Physics” on December 6 at 4pm
The Winter Colloquium, the culminating event of the fall Department Speaker Series, will feature Dr. David Nygren.The event features Prof. David Nygren, Presidential Distinguished Professor at UT-Arlington. Among his many accomplishments, he is known as the inventor of the Time Projection Chamber (TPC), a detector technology capable of producing high-resolution 3-dimensional images of subatomic particle interactions.
Dr. Nygren will present a talk entitled “The Art of Experiment and the Pace of Discovery in Particle Physics.” He will speak on the outcome of a century of exploration that has led us to a powerful understanding of nature with hints of new laws of physics. The evolution of technique — the art of experiment — will be shown to be interesting not only for enabling experimental contributions to scientific discovery but also for important aspects that were sometimes, and surprisingly, overlooked. Remote participants can connect via Zoom, which is password-protected. For more information and/or access to the Zoom link, please contact Steve Sekula at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Winter Colloquium will be a chance not only for intellectual delight, but also for the Department to share in a community event. Following the colloquium, a reception will be held for the department. This will be a chance to relax, socialize, and unwind after the last day of classes of the fall term. In addition, this will be a chance to engage with Dr. Nygren in a more relaxed setting. Members of the Physics Department and its community have received invitation letters by email containing details about the event. If you are a member of our community and have not received an invitation, please contact the Department Chair.
Learn more: https://www.physics.smu.edu/web/seminars/
All past speaker series events since August 2020 are available in our YouTube playlist.
Honors Physics Students Present Projects on Evening of December 6
The SMU community is welcomed to the poster night event for the Honors Introductory Physics course (PHYS 1010). The course is a project-driven and immersive experience that emulates the research environment at the level of introductory physics. Students have been working for 13 weeks on the topic of “The Physics of Cartoons,” applying their learning from PHYS 1303, PHYS 1304, PHYS 1307, PHYS 1308, PHYS 1105, and PHYS 1106 to the assessment of physics depictions in animated or cartoon media.
Students will present their work in a casual and vibrant event in the Mack Ballroom in the Umphrey Lee Building. The public phase of the event begins at 6:30pm and ends at 7:30pm (see poster below). The SMU community is welcomed to tour the posters, meet the teams, engage with them on their work, ask questions, and even submit reviews that count as part of their final project grade.
This is the largest enrollment in Honors Physics in the history of the course, which was initiated almost 7 years ago and has resulted in a teaching guide for a course like this as well as an article explaining the course structure and methodology published in The Physics Teacher. The course has taken inspiration both from physics education research as well as popular media like “Mythbusters,” “The Physics of Superheroes” by James Kakalios, and “What If?” by XKCD author Randall Munroe.
Help support SMU students, both in and out of the University Honors Program (enrollment is not limited to UHP students), by participating in this event. If the projects look interesting, enroll in the Spring 2022 PHYS 1010 course to engage in an exploration of physics through the lens of a new theme!
What’d I Miss?
We all get too many emails from the University and College. Here are the most important things you might have missed that affect our community.
- All Employees: The University has determined that all employees must be vaccinated, in accordance with Federal policy. This policy has been futher clarified over the past couple of weeks as the university has determined that this mandate is a Federal requirement that it must meet. Here is the original announcement: https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/2021/11/19/important-information-for-smu-employees-about-federal-vaccine-mandate/. Dean Thomas DiPiero provided details pertinent to Dedman College faculty, staff, and students in an additional memo sent on Nov. 29, 2021 at 3:49pm. (“Dedman Town Hall on Vaccine Mandate,” Dean Thomas DiPiero, sent on November 29, 2021)
- Graduate Students: The Moody School is again offering the chance for graduate students to get free professional head shots. Take advantage of this opportunity, which would normally cost at least $100 if done privately. (“Free professional headshots for graduate students, Dec. 10: Sign up today!”, sent by the “SMU Grad” account on December 1, 2021)
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!
Electron-Ion Collider Detector Experiment Proposals Submitted to U.S. Department of Energy
Wednesday, December 1, was the official deadline set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the submission of proposals for new detector experiments to be sited at the future Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. SMU has been a key member of a proto-collaboration called ATHENA (A Totally Hermetic Electron-Nucleus Apparatus). ATHENA is one of at least three proto-collaborations expected to submit proposals for review, presentation, and final decisions by the DOE. This process will take months and the proposals are not public.
The DOE intends to provide support for one detector experiment. A second one could be possible with sufficient international partnerships and support, but that path is not entirely clear yet.
SMU’s primary role so far has been in the assessment of charm jet identification. This has several applications, including probing the gluon structure of the proton (via g → cc̅ and charm dijet reconstruction, as well as the Sivers Asymmetry), the probing of single-jet production ratios in proton and heavy-ion collisions with leptons (ReA studies), and determination of the strangeness content of the proton via conversion of intrinsic strange quarks to charm quarks. Prof. Stephen Sekula is the co-convener of the ATHENA Jets, Heavy Flavor, Electroweak, and Beyond-the-Standard Model group. SMU Biophysical Science Major and Hamilton Research Scholar Stephanie Gilchrist contributed to the use of single kaons to identify charm jets and is a co-author on the proposal as her work was represented in the document.
The larger EIC effort at SMU involves multiple faculty, including foundational theoretical physics efforts from Profs. Pavel Nadolsky and Fred Olness, as well as graduate and undergraduate students and even an area high-school student from Highland Park High School. The EIC-related work of Profs. Olness and Sekula is currently supported by a generous grant from the Dedman College Dean’s Research Council. This support has already resulted in the submission of two major external funding proposals this year.
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Academic Operations (position currently vacant, but receiving ongoing support from 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!
Graduate Core Proficiency Exams: December and January
We remind the Department that the graduate Core Proficiency Exams (CPEs), which are offered multiple times this academic year due to the difficult 2020-2021 pandemic year, are coming up again. The two official attempts offered only for this year have been broken into three periods: fall break in October, the end of final exams in December, and January 2022 before the beginning of the Spring term.
The passing rate for the CPEs was about 75% in 2020 after the department undertook significant reform efforts to harmonize the exam structure and process, as well as to put checks and balances in place on the construction, grading, and return of the exams. For example, the policy now is that all department faculty are welcomed to submit problems to a common pool (recyclable over a multi-year period); a committee of four faculty construct the 4 exams from the pool but cannot invent whole-cloth their own questions (they can work with the pool authors to refine questions, of course); the exam is taken and graded blind, so that the committee does not know what student is being graded; the results are agreed upon by consensus of the committee (including more than one grader per student and exam); and then the results are “unblinded” to reveal who specifically passes and fails the exams.
However, despite the successes in predictability of the exams in 2020, the 2021 CPEs (conducted online-only in January 2021) had only a 21% passing rate. A student survey collected before the grading outcome was known identified that students consistently noted the inability to study together in physical spaces as a strongly concerning factor. Physics education research is clear on the positive benefits of peer mentoring, something our community largely lost in the 2020-2021 academic year. This resulted in a faculty vote that overwhelmingly supported nullifying any fails resulting from of the January 2021 exams for any student who took them and offering those students an additional official attempt this year. This then required the Department to offer two cycles of exams: one in the fall term and the regular one in January of 2022.
The October break was used to conduct the classical mechanics and electromagnetism exams. The passing rates have rebounded to above 75% (it’s important to note that no first-year students took the October exams, which skews the results toward much more experienced graduate students where a much higher passing rate is expected). The December exams, scheduled for Dec. 16 and 17, will comprise statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics.
The regular January 2022 exams will be tentatively conducted on January 13, 14, 21, and 22 (one exam per date). The cycle returns to normal in the 2022-2023 academic year, with the next cycle of exams being offered only in January 2023.
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 December Physics Challenge!
NOTE: We are pleased to expand the audience of the physics challenge to include faculty, staff, and students (physics Ph.D. and Masters students, as well as undergraduate Physics Majors, Minors, and Biophysical Science Majors, or SMU SPS members). Let the games begin!
Society of Physics Students (SPS) 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 an SMU Physics faculty member, staff member, or student (Ph.D. or Master’s candidate, SMU SPS member, Physics Major or Minor, or Biophysical Science Major) will be awarded a prize. Students are encouraged to join the SMU SPS. Prof. Scalise can help you with that!
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.