In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we look at the next Astro Lunch event and otherwise reflect on those unexpected teachable moments.
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
“Those Unexpected Teachable Moments”
“This is coming from a place a love, but just so you know that number on the white board has been co-opted by certain groups as a symbol of hate.”
I paraphrase, but those words were not what I was expecting to hear just as the student work period in my class got underway. Those words were, indeed, spoken from a place of love … a student genuinely concerned that, unbeknownst to me, the participation code for today’s class was a number corrupted by hate groups. The student came and told me on the side of the class. It must have taken a lot of courage to do that, not knowing why that particular number appeared as the code for today’s class.
I felt horror drip from my heart into my stomach like molten pig iron. Whatever had happened, it was not what I intended. This moment capped off an already crummy morning, one in which was I was behind in my work by a day due to illness on Thursday, an endless series of audio/video equipment problems in my classroom, and now an conspiracy between random number generators and the intentional ruination of numbers by certain hate groups.
When students come to my PHYS 1303 class, they have already been assigned reading and lecture videos. Fridays are generally “student work periods,” where they work on problem-solving related to the week’s concepts. To incentivize participation, just by coming to class and entering a code advertised in class they earn 100/100 points for the day (showing up is important!). For every correct problem they do in class, I add a point on top of that perfect score. This “extra credit” over 100% in participation, which is just 5% of their final grade, is meant to help motivate them to do the basic problem-solving activities. This, in turn, prepares them to start the homework, which prepares them later for mini- and macro-exams.
The participation code is a 4-digit random number. The only condition I place on those numbers is that none repeat during the semester. It takes an instant to generate a list of 4-digit non-repeating random codes for the whole semester. The process is inherently random and done with the Python programming language.
What is not random is how certain groups have sullied certain numbers, adopting them as signs of their message and using them online and in the real world as dog whistles for their cause. The intentional corruption of some four-digit numbers had suddenly clashed with a pseudorandom number generator in my class.
I thanked the student for educating me. I announced to the class that the number is fraught with peril and will be erased from the board. I was sorry that I had not caught this, and now I know to look for these hate symbols disguised as numbers. A teacher had become a student of humanity for a few painful moments. Now I have to go and find these numbers on the web and make sure that they are excluded from my participation codes, to avoid seeming like I am complicit in this nonsense.
One day, I hope that humanity will come to its senses and stop corrupting all that is simple and good in the world. Numbers didn’t do anything wrong, but people have done wrong and this, in turn, sullies those poor numbers. A moment like this has nothing to do with physics, but left unaddressed can cause students to think that there is something wrong with the physicist at the front of the class. I am grateful to that student for having the courage to talk to me about this, and I thanked them again after the event in class. I just felt so sad, and so sick, on a day that had already gotten off to a bad start.
No one tells you this when you become a teacher: that these are the perils of the job. But the truth is, these are the perils of the job, and how the students and us work together to address them is all that matters. No one wrote a manual to prepare us for these events, but they are the moments that make or break trust in a room. I only hope I did not break trust today.
In this issue of the Friday Newsletter, we just have some basic updates for the department, including about the next Astro Lunch event!
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
Next Astro Journal Club Event: Eric Guzman to Lead a Discussion on “Reconstructing Patchy Reionization with Deep Learning”
The Astro Journal Club began again this semester on January 24 and continues strong on Monday, Feb. 14. Graduate student Eric Guzman will lead a discussion on the paper “Reconstructing Patchy Reionization with Deep Learning”(https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.01214) co-authored by himself and Prof. Joel Meyers.
The event is a brown-bag affair, so bring a lunch and your curiosity to FOSC 202 from 12-1pm!
No Speaker Series Event on February 14
There is no Department Speaker Series talk scheduled for February 14. Take advantage of the extra time in your schedules to relax, catch up on work, or other diametrically opposed activities!
REMINDER: Physics Department Casual Social Events On Hold
The Department Chair announced at the beginning of the term that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will necessitate a pause in casual Department-sponsored social events. These are the Friday Department Lunch and the Wednesday “Hbar Coffee Bar.” Department leadership continued to watch the case counts on campus and in the surrounding region. We will begin to review this pause starting next week. We are past the peak of Omicron’s wave but not quite back down to levels we saw in mid-fall of last year, especially as regards community spread.
Structured social events with a fixed guest list, like the monthly graduate student lunches, are permitted to continue so long as the faculty organizer requests a waiver from the Department Chair if they wish to have Department funds support the event. The event must have a controlled guest list to be approved.
The Department Speaker Series has been spartan due to limited availability of potential speakers this spring, but in principle it can be conducted in a hybrid format. Snacks will continue to be available in FOSC 16 before the speaker series event (they become available around 3:30pm on Mondays when there is an event). Guests are requested to grab a snack and take it up to FOSC 123, where talks are held, to provide for more social distancing opportunities than are possible in FOSC 16.
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.
- Faculty: If you wish to teach online courses or hybrid courses going forward, the University now has and requires a training program. (“Online Learning Policies Message to Campus,” Provost Elizabeth Loboa, sent by email February 10, 2022)
- Graduate Students: The event formerly known as “SMU Research Day” is now expanding to better encapsulate and highlight the outstanding research ongoing at SMU. The Moody School announced that March 28-April 1, 2022 will be “Research and Innovation Week.” Please see the announcement about this, especially the invitation to present posters on graduate research at the event. If students need support in printing posters, please contact the Department Chair for more information. (“Research and Innovation Week 2022, Graduate Poster Session March 30,” sent by the SMU Grad email account on Feb. 10, 2022)
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!
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Academic Operations 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!
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
Learning about Deep Learning
To get pumped for the Astro Lunch on Monday, why not settle into a nice punchy lecture series on neural networks and deep learning? This tool plays a key role in the paper that will be discussed on Monday. Enjoy!