In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we celebrate the accomplishments of one of our Research Faculty, look at Admitted Student Day, and think about the night sky.
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
Spring is generally considered a time of renewal. For department chairs, it is (at first) a time of reflection as we are required to evaluate the previous calendar year. At the same time, the Department is also supposed to think ahead about courses in the summer and fall (which we detailed two issues ago). It is also the season in which we make offers to prospective Ph.D. candidates who have applied to our program. In many ways, this is the biggest investment for the future as we try to attract new talent into our program with the twin goals of providing for them a graduate education and world-class research opportunities.
The Graduate Committee in our department serves also as the admissions committee for our Ph.D. program, and since December they have been hard at work reviewing and ranking applications and making first-round offers with an eye to candidates who, in some cases, are also strong contenders for special Moody School fellowships. The Department is extremely grateful to the committee for their hard work and to the faculty outside the committee who took time to review applications and offer their own feedback to the committee to enlarge the picture of these applicants.
This was a particularly record-breaking year for Ph.D. program applications. By early January, our department had received over 40 applications; at this same time last year, we had half that number at most, and last year was a “big year” for us already in terms of applications. We currently have 48 submitted applications, 44 of which are complete for review. This has been incredible. We are particularly grateful to the Moody School for Graduate and Advanced Studies for awarding our department a recruitment grant last fall. This clearly had an impact, one we aim to sustain going forward.
Today we welcomed nearly all of our current prospective Ph.D. candidates to campus. There were introductions, overviews of the department, tours, a chance to engage one-on-one with current students or faculty of interest to the prospective students, and a joint reception between the Departments of Chemistry and Physics in the foyer of the Fondren Science Building. It has been wonderful to meet these students whose applications put them at the top of our list of potential Ph.D. students for Fall 2022. I am grateful to my counterpart in Chemistry, Prof. Elfi Kraka, as well as their faculty, for sharing in the planning and execution of our joint event. It is marvelous for STEM departments to be able to come together to share, celebrate, and engage.
We are almost half way through the spring term, and we are looking ahead to summer and the matriculation of new students in the fall. It is wise and comforting to be able to look to the horizon at moments like these.
In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we celebrate the accomplishments of one of our Research Faculty, look at Admitted Student Day, and think about the night sky.
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
Scenes from Admitted Student Day
We share some photos from the bustling social event that capped the departmental activities today on Admitted Student Day!
REMINDER: Possible Power Outages Due to Electrical Work Upcoming on March 5 and March 12
February 26th’s planned work seems to have had no noticeable impact on our building, but remember that electrical work will continue for two more Saturdays. Oncor will be conducting work at the Greenville electrical station on three upcoming Saturdays. The work may lead to short outages or power glitches in Fondren Science Building around 8am on any of Feb. 26, March 5, or March 12. Everyone is recommended to do the following:
- For a non-essential computer, make sure it’s powered off when you leave on the Friday preceding each day.
- For an essential computer, make sure it is plugged into a battery backup and that the battery backup is in good working order. If you cannot plug it into a battery backup system (e.g. a UPS), make sure it is plugged into a surge protector to prevent electrical energy spikes from damaging the equipment. This would also apply to any other sensitive equipment.
For more information, please contact the Dedman College Facilities Manager, Scot Montague.
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!
Dallas Morning News Editorial: What if We Couldn’t See the Stars Anymore?
by Prof. Krista Lynne Smith
This past Sunday, Prof. Krista Lynne Smith had an editorial published in the Dallas Morning News. Her piece was front-and-center on the Sunday Opinion section of the paper. The original published version of this piece is available online, and we reproduce it here for our community.
What if we couldn’t see the stars anymore?
How SpaceEx, Amazon and other satellite companies threaten the joy of stargazing.
If you live in the heart of North Texas or any large metropolitan area, you are probably familiar with a light-polluted sky. Even at midnight, the sky glows a dark blue, fading to dusky yellow near the horizon. At most, you can see a handful of the brightest stars reduced to dim pinpricks.
However, if you drive just a few hours outside of town, you can experience a breathtaking sight: a night sky filled with glittering stars, the shimmering swath of the Milky Way arcing overhead, and if you’re lucky, a few bright planets like steady jewels among them.
Such a sight is viscerally awe-inspiring in its natural wonder, hearkening back to our ancestors looking up and asking the kind of questions that led to all of human endeavor. Our species has since learned to read the secrets of the universe in the light we receive from the heavens. We have built technological marvels: observatories with instruments sensitive enough to collect the photons, little individual packets of light, sent to us from distant stars, galaxies and planets around other suns.
Now, due to a catastrophic failure of technological innovators to communicate or consider the consequences of their actions, both the scientific pursuit of the nature of the universe and the beautiful dark sky that is the birthright of all humans are under immediate and dire threat.
In 2019, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX initiated the first phase of Starlink, a vast network of satellites occupying a web in low-Earth orbit to ostensibly lay the groundwork for worldwide internet access. The sudden deployment and lack of regulatory concern shocked astronomers, but not as much as the satellites themselves. Unexpectedly very bright, the satellites were easily visible to the naked eye; many appeared brighter than most stars.
Such orbital networks are called satellite constellations, and SpaceX is not the only player in the game. Starlink’s upcoming phases, as well as those from OneWeb, Amazon’s Kuiper constellation, the gigantic Chinese Guowang constellation, and others, will result in approximately 100,000 of these satellites in low-Earth orbit in the next 10 years.
There is no robust regulatory framework in place to vet and stem these plans; some of the best legal attempts are based on the ancient international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which says “States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.” There is currently little to no requirement for companies to evaluate the harmful impacts of their satellite constellations on the night sky, or on the environment, which may also face serious threat.
Even now, with only about 5% of the planned satellites in place, the effects are noticeable to the casual sky observer and alarming for professional astronomers. You can observe the Starlink trails yourself, without leaving the city. They appear as a straight line of bright objects moving across the sky, not transient like meteors, but persistent. It is a fascinating sight.
However, fascination fades when you realize that you can’t escape the satellite constellations. Even if you travel to the most remote location on Earth, with the darkest skies in the world, these constellations will be visible. They are in orbit. There is no way to avoid them.
Once there are hundreds of thousands of satellites in the sky, it will be difficult to see the stars from anywhere on the planet. The awe-inspiring sky of our ancestors will be gone. In addition to the thousands of new bright objects, sunlight refracting off of the mega constellations will cause a general brightening of the sky similar to light pollution in cities, but worldwide. Humanity’s view of the true night sky will be cut off. No human born after this decade will be able to see it.
Astronomers are in even more urgent straits, as the satellites are already causing major problems for observatories worldwide. Even when darkened by mitigation strategies, rendering them less visible to the naked eye, satellites are still millions of times brighter than the sensitivity limits of our telescopes.
One need only look at this image of Albireo, a bright double-star in the constellation Cygnus, to see what these constellations do to otherwise beautiful and scientifically useful astronomical observations, causing streaks of light across the image. Darkening efforts by SpaceX have still utterly failed to reduce its satellites to a level that does not severely disrupt ground-based astronomical observations.
Even worse, earlier this month NASA wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission expressing grave concern that even orbital telescopes such as Hubble are observing the satellites, and that the upcoming Starlink phases will imperil science and human spaceflight missions.
Over the past two years, professional astronomers and activists alike have been raising the alarm and attempting to hastily build communicative relationships with these companies. In addition to the scientific impact, there are serious concerns about the effects of de-orbited or failed satellites on the atmosphere and the oceans. These concerns are highlighted by the failure of a recent Starlink fleet, when 40 new satellites were forced to reenter the atmosphere and burn up after encountering a geomagnetic storm.
Some companies have responded positively to astronomers’ efforts. Industry representatives have participated in workshops with professional astronomers to learn about concerns and attempt to develop mitigation strategies in satellite design. Changes in the shape of the satellites and their orbital parameters can significantly reduce their visibility. Detailed catalogs of orbital parameters of existing constellations enable observatories to anticipate and mitigate their effects on the data.
Working together through officially supported channels, we can reach technological compromise driven by innovation. While the ideal situation for astronomers is for no satellite constellations to exist at all, scientists recognize that this is not practical. Satellites are critical for important technology.
SpaceX says it intends to bring low-cost internet service to remote areas of the world, and the goal of worldwide internet access is noble and worth pursuing. Other options, such as ground-based fiber internet, are potentially workable. But even if satellite constellations are the best answer, the environmental and scientific impacts must be vetted as part of any proposals.
An explosion in the number of constellation fleets over the next decade with no regard for the environment is inevitable without the urgent development of up-to-date, modern, scientifically informed protections.
Publicly holding SpaceX, Amazon, and other companies accountable for disregarding the consequences is one important step; the other is urging lawmakers at the state and federal levels to support the action items put forward by dedicated groups of scientists, environmental activists, and industry representatives from meetings such as last year’s Satellite Constellation 2 (SATCON2) workshop organized by the American Astronomical Society and the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab.
Perhaps the most straightforward recommendation is that the night sky be officially considered part of the environment, and therefore subject to the protections of the National Environmental Policy Act, which has so far exempted the satellite constellation industry from its restrictions.
Each year, more applications are filed by companies intending to launch constellations. Even if the U.S. gradually establishes regulations, the typical timeline will be too slow to prevent degradation of the sky. The situation is urgent, but there are paths to compromise and preservation, and the groundwork is already being laid.
Actionable reports produced by industrial and scientific collaboration exist. Recommendations include establishing SatHub, a proposed database of satellite orbital parameters, mitigation software, and training curricula and requiring satellite operators to consult invested groups like scientists and indigenous communities. Corporations and scientists must continue joint engagement in workshops like SATCON2. Further, environmental protections like NEPA must extend to Earth orbit. Above all, governments must have a coordinated approach to enforce regulation of the satellite constellation industry, and slow down of launches until this is established.
It is vital to bring astronomers, industrial representatives, environmental scientists, and the general public together to preserve the scientific quest to explore the universe, and to protect the uncorrupted night sky of our heritage as a natural resource for all future generations.
Krista Lynne Smith is an observational astrophysicist and assistant professor at Southern Methodist University specializing in star formation in distant galaxies and the environments of supermassive black holes. In her research, she uses a wide array of telescopes on Earth, in orbit and on the International Space Station. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
Research Professor Datao Gong Starts New Position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
Dr. Datao Gong, a Research Professor in the ATLAS Group at SMU, started a new full-time position at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL) this week. Dr. Gong has been a researcher at SMU for 15 years and in that time has worked on a range of projects in the Optoelectronics Laboratory. He continues to work with SMU on important projects even as he begins in his new position.
Datao earned his PhD in physics from the University of Science and Technology of China (UTSC) in 1999. He joined the SMU Department of Physics in 2007, coming from a post-doctoral position at the University of Minnesota. There he had been working on data analysis in the CMS Experiment, one of the large multi-purpose Large Hadron Collider experiments.
Datao came to SMU to aid in the revival of a Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) program, a major component of the research and development that, at the time, was needed for the Phase-1 upgrade plan of the ATLAS Experiment. Prof. Jingbo Ye, who supervises the Optoelectronics Laboratory at SMU, writes, “As many of us, Datao demonstrated the quality of a physicist: to be able to learn very fast. He picked up ASIC design in 3 months and delivered a serializer (LOCs1) of 5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) in one year, the highest in speed anywhere in the world in high-energy physics (HEP) at that time.”
Datao has been the chief designer of a family of ASICs known as the “LOC ASICs” (specifically, architectures designated LOCx2 and LOCld) for ATLAS Liquid Argon Calorimeter (LAr) Phase-1 upgrade. In addition, he led design of VLAD (a 4-lane driver for an array Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser, or VCSEL) and LOCld65. Note Prof. Ye, “Several thousands of LOCx2 and LOCld are now running inside ATLAS. VLAD employs an on-chip charge pump to automatically raise the supply voltage to the VCSEL it drives to mitigate radiation effects. This is a first in HEP. LOCld65 holds the record of 25 Gbps in HEP.”
Datao leads the team to contribute to lpGBT, the ASIC developed by CERN for data communication of all High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) detectors. HL-LHC is the last major planned upgrade of the LHC and its experiments. The past year saw the first PAM4/serializer ASIC, called GBS20, reaching 20.48 Gbps per fiber, doubling the speed of the state-of-the-art distinction held by lpGBT.
Datao now leads the design of GBCR, an ASIC for the readout of the forthcoming ATLAS all-silicon tracker detector, ITk), as well as ETROC, the readout ASIC for a novel time-based detector in the CMS Experiment. As Prof. Ye notes, “The list of ASICs developed by Datao or under his leadership is long. Datao is a living example of how useful and productive an engineer born from a physicist background can be.”
Congratulation, Datao, on your new position and many successes!
That’s No Squirrel!
Prof. Jingbo Ye sent in an interesting tidbit this week: a bit of beauty and some fun for this week. He writes:
Two years ago I built a small owl house and put it up in a tree. It was soon taken by squirrels. Last weekend, I noticed something different at the front hole, so I took my camera out and this (see photo below) is what I found. I think this is an Eastern Screech Owl, which is common in North Texas.
If you would like more information about the Eastern Screech Owl, Prof. Ye sent along a resource with additional information: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/overview.
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Research Operations (Michele Hill) and Academic Operations (Benisha Young). 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
The Physics Teacher’s March 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 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. You needn’t be a Physics major or minor to be a member of the SPS, and all students with an interest in physics 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.