Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Testicular Fortitude

The latest Tempest in the Electoral Teapot suggests a new symbol for the Clinton campaign:

This concept combines the latest redneck icon (truck nuts) with the obvious pun.

You saw it here first! (No one can be as nuts as I am.)

This unauthorized snark was not approved by the Clinton campaign, nor even by me.

I'm just glad I found a picture of those fine pink! attachments on a car with a bumper wide enough for the bumper sticker that popped into my semester-addled brain.

Note added:
For a different view of Hillary, check out this recent youtube video that may or may not come from the Obama campaign.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Superheavy Nuclei Redux

Today I feel 32 years younger as I recall the excitement of an APS Nuclear Physics Division meeting that featured a special session on the reputed discovery of a primoridal superheavy nucleus in monazite inclusions ... allegedly found via PIXE (proton induced x-ray emission) by Robert Gentry. (Oddly, his wiki bio does not mention that part of his past research work given that it rated mention in the NYTimes after it got in PRL.)

This nostalgic flashback took some time to form. I saw the story in Chad's blog and glanced at the arxivblog article someone wrote based on a cursory read of the preprint that was posted a few days ago, but did not pull up the preprint until tonight. My jaw almost hit the keyboard when I say the author list.

I don't have time tonight to blog about the past and the physics of stable superheavy nuclei, but will come back to this when I get a chance.

For now, I'll just say that I am not an experimental physicist so I will defer to the commentary about mass spec by a nuclear chemist at Berkeley. Later I will go dig out my papers about nuclear structure calculations in this mass region and see what I can explain about the physics of stability. What I remember says what I posted in Chad's blog: Going from the known nucleus [118]294 to [122]292 is adding 4 protons (bad) and removing 6 neutrons (worse).

The wiki article on this physics is fairly incomplete and struck me as dated. Also dated, but more relevant, is a 1997 web article by Moller (of Moller and Nix) showing a nice calculation consistent with the heavy nuclei that have been found out past Rg in the past decade.

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Academic Economics

A recent article by Dean Dad (mirrored in his regular blog and on his IHE blog) drew a fairly naive set of comments by "SoonUnemployedAcademic" on the IHE version. Although I commented on them there, I thought I should elaborate on my answers here. [That is why I linked my signature to my blog.] My comments were running a bit long on IHE yet didn't begin to address most of the questions raised there.

Up here at the top I should also add that there was a carryover discussion on adjuncts and academic economics in DD's blog about shopping for value at a CC. I refer you there for things I will not discuss here. A comment by EliRabbet towards the bottom, for example, illustrates the economic situation at a mid-tier university. In the spirit of both of DD's articles, I will be looking at the issue primarily from the CC side but will also add my insight from my many years on the research side of a major R1 university.

I'll take up the rhetorical questions and observations from two separate comments by "SoonUnemployedAcademic" one by one:

[B]ut why don’t departments simply refuse to teach any students they cannot afford to teach with tenure-track faculty?

Short answer: It is not their choice. A professor who refused to teach a class required by their contract would be fired, whether "tenured" or not. Further, the faculty in a department have no role in deciding whether adjuncts or t-t faculty are hired or not. That is up to the chair or the Dean. A department chair who didn't do what the Dean or Provost asked would be fired and sent back to the classroom (if tenured) or out looking for a job. A Dean who didn't do what the President or Provost asked would be fired and have to look for a new job. And a President has to work with the resources provided by the legislature and/or the Board and serves at the pleasure of the Board. Granted that does not explain the decisions those administrators make that impact faculty and students, but you might guess that the unnatural selection process makes those decisions fairly predictable.

Longer answer for an R1: The premise that t-t faculty were hired to teach students is false. They were hired to generate funds for the university while creating new knowledge through research. (Granted I am looking at this from the science side, but this is also true in the social sciences. Liberal arts faculty, such as English, are probably always in the red on the Provost's spreadsheet. The others make up for that.) The research budget at an R1 is much bigger than the income from students, even including legislative funding. The cynic would say that an R1 views students as a justification for faculty numbers. (The cynic and scientific observer in me says that this becomes increasingly true as you move up the admin ladder.) The high quality of an education at many of those schools results from the dedication of the faculty, not tenure decisions or resource allocation.

Obligatory self-contradiction: At the R1 where I did my undergrad work, every instructor I had was a professor - with the sole exception of a senior grad student who taught me differential equations in my very first term as a freshman. He did a first rate job. While there, I taught recitations as an undergrad TA. This was also an important part of my education and was well supervised. I'd agree that the first group probably lost on the deal, but they got more than their money's worth by the time I was a senior.

Longer answer for a CC: We are an open admission college. We do not have the luxury of turning away students because too many show up. We only have the luxury of running out of classrooms. (I am not exaggerating. I need to move a class from one hour to another this next fall and it was a logistical nightmare. Every room was being used.) Our faculty are here because they value this environment and the opportunities it offers. (OK, some are here just for a job, but others are dedicated to teaching HS material to an audience that sometimes actually wants to learn it this time and most take the "from where they are to where they need to be" CC motto really seriously.) The idea of doubling or tripling tuition to reduce the numbers is anathema. We could pay part-time instructors a salary with benefits if we got more resources from the state. Otherwise we could only maintain our enrollment within our current state budget and tuition levels by doubling the student-teacher ratio ... and cutting student contact with faculty in half. This is not an option.

We refuse to have classes larger than 50 or 60 and (when recitations are needed) we put the same professor in the recitation that is teaching the lecture. We cannot teach 8-10 classes per semester and deliver the service expected of us. All of our organic chem labs, half of my physics labs, and about half of the intro chem labs are taught by a full-time professor. The others use adjuncts whose qualifications are higher than those of the 1st year grad students doing labs at the nearby university. The trade off for our smaller classes is the need for adjuncts to cover sections that must be opened due to the current level of demand. The universities already have high tuition and restrictive admissions and big classes for those who prefer that option.

Other institutions fall in between these extremes.

If the administration forces a department to hire adjuncts or takes punitive action, well, then the department can make a big stink — go to the press, the ranking reports, etc. Then the horrific exploitation that is ruining the promise of university education is on the administrators’ hands.

That is exactly what the faculty do, although most of them know the blame lies well above the administration and address the real problem: falling appropriations for higher education. IMHO, most of the blame lies with those who underfund higher education so they can reduce taxes on their supporters. Every change I have seen on the budget side of a college has reflected the reality of state budget cuts and (for universities) increased reliance on research grants to "grow" the institution. Our biggest problem at ICC is the per-student funding we get from the state.

I also think the decision to use adjuncts in an intro lab for a "service course" so that full-time faculty are available to teach a small upper division class is generally supportive of the promise of a university education. Besides, that grad student should be learning something in front of the classroom, something that is also part of a university education, and some might even agree with me that adjuncts are not always bad teachers. I can think of several instances where adjuncts appear to do a better job of getting students to learn than some full-time faculty.

Side remark: One of our organic chem profs is worshiped by the students as a fantastic teacher. This person was an adjunct at Wannabe Flagship before being hired to teach here at ICC, and came with glowing recommendations. (That does not stop some advisers at Wannabe Flagship from lying and saying that our chemistry program is inferior to theirs because ... we use someone they regretted losing?) Every top notch professor was, at one time, an adjunct in one form or another. One of our long-time adjuncts went straight from his PhD to a faculty position at a mid-tier teaching-intensive university.

Why do faculty continue to do the dirty work for grossly-overpaid administrators (I mean that relatively, not absolutely: faculty should all be paid in the range of mid-level administrators or, in other words, what used to be a middle-class salary decades ago).

Several false premises here.

First, we don't do any of the dirty work for administrators. A few faculty are in quasi-administrative roles at our CC because we don't have department chairs who don't teach. However, they do not have final hiring authority and do not make the decision on whether a new section can be opened. At a university, most department chairs are administrators and some could even be hired as a "head" rather than a faculty member. They do have hiring authority, but they are not "the faculty". They serve at the whim of the Dean.

Second, the faculty at our CC make more money than mid-level administrators, although I could be confused about what the writer considers "mid level". The number of admins making more money than our faculty is far fewer than the number of faculty. (I am not counting professional support staff with MA degrees who some might count as part of the administration. Our counseling and academic support staff are part of the faculty pay system and exist to further our classroom mission.) Our mid-level staff are paid squat.

I also don't know what the writer thinks is "middle class". The $100,000+ salary plus full benefits typical for a professor at a major university is solidly in the top 20% for household income in the US. The starting salary at our CC is solidly in the middle of household income in the US (and substantially above the median family income in our region of the US, a better measure of the cost of a given lifestyle). Our faculty are already middle class. I think some confusion results because the middle class circa 1960 seemed better off because they weren't house poor (real interest rates were low and houses were smaller) and they didn't waste money dining out or impulse shopping.

The sad fact of the matter is that administrators have been given an impossible task. There is no immediate exam that will measure outcomes across-the-board. Education is much more complex and long-term than that and the more administrators kow-tow to corporate trustees, the worse the system gets for everyone.

That is a straw man. Only Giant-Bureaucracy Republicans seem to think there is a one-size-fits-all-majors exam that would measure college success at the lower division level or upper division level for every state in the nation. I believe there are good measures for outcomes at a CC, ones that take into account the long-term nature of the process, but I'm not going to blog about them today. I'd rather hear what a Dean thinks they are, so I can compare his views to those of my Dean and Provost. I've asked DD several times, so I hope he will talk about it.

What I meant was why do tenure-stream faculty accept that it is their job to meet the outrageous demands of administrations?

Most un-tenured (tenure-stream) faculty will do and say whatever it takes to earn tenure. You can guess why. At research universities, that means doing research, earning grants, and publishing papers. Elsewhere it might mean passing students who don't know the material to keep retention at the expected level, or what they think is the expected level. Most people call this "keeping a job" by "meeting expectations". I have heard that people also meet the outrageous demands of their bosses out there in the business world, but those are only rumors here in academia. [Maybe The Thomas could enlighten me, anonymously in the comments if necessary.]

Why do they acquiesce so readily to administration demands, especially when they know that it shortchanges students and even themselves (lecturing in front of a classroom of 200 students surfing the internet who will really be taught by grad TAs really sucks the lifeblood out of teaching).

None of the above applies in our CC because we don't have any 200-student classes and we don't use TAs in recitations. It also contains the false premise that any professor is shortchanging a student when it is the student who made the conscious choice to surf the internet rather than engage in the class. That student is shortchanging himself or herself, by choice. It is called personal responsibility.

When the budget is cut or the department loses a tenure line, why do faculty do administrators’ dirty work by hiring adjuncts or teaching increased class sizes?

We don't do that. Well, some actually ask for an extra class or a bigger class because they need the extra money (we get paid extra if our teaching load exceeds what is in our contract), which actually reduces the need for adjuncts.

Why, to top it all off, do they then make up some fancy webpage crowing about the wonderful education they are providing?

The fancy web page is not made by faculty, nor is it approved by faculty. It is a pure creation of the marketing arm of the college or university. If there is a single question that shows the naivete of SoonUnemployed, this would be it.

Tenure-stream faculty can create a bottleneck of students who need a required course if they simply refuse to hire enough adjuncts to teach the number of students the administration tries to shove down their throats.

We could if we hired them, but we don't hire them. And no one shoves students down our throats. They simply drive up and say "I think I'll go to college today". This statement must reflect a specific situation at a specific school.

There is also the budget reality that you need to be pretty sure you will have the money to pay someone for 30 years or more before you put them in a t-t job. I watched some serious budget problems develop in the late 70s when the baby boom faded and student enrollment simultaneously moved from the social sciences into business and engineering. Since a Professor of Social Work can't teach engineering mechanics, this is a major problem.

NOTE ADDED: I am also watching some serious budget problems right now, but the present ones are economic rather than inherent in the structure of the college. The origin of the problem does not change the need for caution.

Tenure-stream faculty would, of course, have to tell students what the problem is in order to redirect student anger at the administration. Right now, most students treat the faculty as the primary cause of their woes — a reasonable position since student evaluations only rate instructors and not class size or setup, placing all the blame on instructors for the inadequacies of the system.

Those must be the students who are web surfing rather than paying attention in class. If they pay attention, they probably know they can write a free response to go with that evaluation form that addresses any of their concerns. They can even write a letter to the college's student paper. They could even register earlier and pick a smaller section.

And, yes, there is an accreditation issue here. Adjuncts teach some of the most difficult classes, the ones that require broad perspectives and years of insight to synthesize diverse topics and explain why boring (to students) subject X is important.

I see several different issues here.

The most difficulty upper-division classes were not taught by adjuncts at the few universities (all R1) that I have experience with. I never had an upper division class taught by an adjunct, although I did have one graduate class taught by one (he was a visiting professor from another university, but still an adjunct).

At our CC, the most difficult classes (including prep classes as well as majors classes) are generally taught by a 50-50 mix of full-time t-t faculty and adjuncts. We try to keep that ratio on the 51-49 side, but fluctuating enrollments and limited state money make this an on-going challenge. We compensate by tending to put fewer resources into general-education courses that are "terminal" (not required for another course) than we put into majors classes. This is unfortunate for public scientific literacy, but is a perfect example of the Academic Economics issue that is the title of this article. However, someone who wants to learn gen-ed material from an experienced professor (or adjunct) only has to register early for the right sections.

The assumption that a broad perspective and an ability to motivate bored students is acquired automatically over time is not well founded in my experience. The fact that the great prof you liked had more experience does not imply that everyone with that experience is great. That one person was probably selected for that class and the others sent where they could do less harm. (Teaching grad students is one common assignment.) And that one person might have been just as good a decade or two ago as a graduate student. Remember, only the top 5% (by some measure) get jobs at an R1.

But it could be worse. You could get a t-t faculty member assigned to an important class who (the Dean discovers much too late to do anything about it) is utterly incompetent at teaching it and even incapable of realizing he is incompetent. Been nearby, seen that.

Finally, this all begs the question of why a student chose to take up a major if that student is bored with it. Reminds me of a student who complained about having to take physics with all of those boring problems about forces when he only wanted to be an engineer. That kid is in the wrong major.

Say what you will about adjunct enthusiasm and devotion, but few adjuncts have the experience to critique the biases of master narratives and comprehensive approaches to their fields. And, they’ll never get it as adjuncts, spit out when the initial attractiveness of their Ph.D. is usd up.

Will they get it if they are hired into a faculty position? Then why wouldn't the same person get it as an adjunct? A better question to ask is why your particular university does not have an adjunct training program. My undergrad college had one before you were born.

Universities risk poor instruction from junior tenure-stream faculty because they know it is one of the start-up costs to getting a mature faculty member. What, aside from the financial savings, justifies less experienced instruction in gen. ed. courses? That has to speak to quality.

There is a non sequitur here. If junior faculty and adjuncts are equally bad, where is the advantage in replacing an adjunct with a professor? There is also a hidden assumption that a junior professor who is a bad teacher will magically become a great teacher after a few years. I think that is a bad assumption, particularly if at a university where the entire emphasis is on not wasting time on teaching that could be spent writing a new grant proposal. I can only think of one person who went from being an awful teacher to one who could at least communicate to seniors, but it took 20 years. Most people who knew him thought it was a miracle.

Read Entire Article......

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Race Photography

In my comment on Profgrrrrl's blog about making photographs of fast-moving vehicles, I mentioned my experiences at Indianapolis "last year". Actually, it was 2006 or it would have been in my blog from last summer! These were taken during open practice, where parking and admission together were $5, during a pit stop in the middle of a 600 mile drive. Made me late for dinner, but worth it.

Here is one of them (all three photos were cropped to 2400x1200 out of the full frame, reduced to 600x300, and "saved for web" to save space so not nearly as nice as the originals).

Details and two other examples (one spectacularly lucky) below the fold.

The key detail is that Tony Kanaan is going 219 mph when this was taken, which is 321 ft/s. I had set the camera to shutter priority at 1/200, meaning a blur distance of 1.6 feet. I was tracking the car, so the background is blurred. You will also notice that the tires and wheels are blurred, because I am only freezing the linear motion of the car.

The first pictures I took were awful (frozen car), but then I remembered that I could calculate the right shutter speed in my head. Long ago my dad taught me the conversion rule that 60 mph = 88 ft/s. Useful for driving safety, among other things. I didn't do long division, just estimated that 220 is between 180 (3x60) and 240 (4x60) miles per hour so the speed was between 3x90 (270) and 4x90 (360) feet per second. That meant 1.5 feet at 1/200 and 3 feet at 1/100.

OK, so can I get the car blurred and the background in focus? Easier said than done when using a telephoto lens. I deleted lots of photos with half a car or no car before I got a handle on my reaction time. (The camera has no delay other than the mirror flipping up, but human reaction time of 0.15 s means the car travels almost 50 feet in the time it takes to react. Shoot when you see it in the viewfinder and it is gone.) The trick I came up with was to focus the camera the way I normally do (one eye closed) but then open both eyes. My right eye kept the camera centered on the Indy logo and the track. I pulled the trigger when my left eye got a glimpse of the car appear to the right of the camera, and I got lots that look like this one:

I think that is a "3" on the car, so this is probably Helio Castroneves. I'm pretty sure this was made at 1/100, since there are others that don't have quite this nice smooth blur (and where you can read the numbers).

Those pictures were all taken from the Tower Terrace near the end of the front straight, looking down over the fence so there is a clear view of the track. This last one was taken on the backstretch looking through the fencing from one of the viewing mounds.

This is Danica Patrick in her "T" car. This is back at 1/200, but you can see how the fence in front of me is blurred from both depth of field and motional blurring. Only the horizontal parts of the fence show up.

Closing remark about animated films:
Motional blurring is a big deal in getting realism in digital (or hand) animation. Freeze any frame from a movie and you will see what I mean. If you go back to the beginning of digital work (Tron), you will notice that some of its lack of realism comes from how they handled motion back in 1982.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quickee Links

A couple of links from the BBC News feed that deserve reading.

Science explains brain fade! A study out of Ye Olde Homie Town of Bergen has found evidence that dull jobs numb the mind and detected a brain signature that indicates when you are likely to make a mistake by going on autopilot.

In typical British understatement, the BBC seems to be trying to find a way to tell India that Cricket is not supposed to be fun. It would seem that professional cricket in India is using American football as its model, right down to importing American cheerleaders and wearing stupid headgear in the stands, while adding its own Bollywood version of a Superbowl halftime show.

I was laughing at "The result is very few are actually watching the game at all." because my major professor made it pretty clear that he viewed cricket as an excuse to drink Gordon's gin.

Number two on the list of "top north west wales stories" was about some guy who dressed up as Darth Vader by pulling on a black trash bag and assaulted two members of the Jedi Church. That he had consumed most of a 10 L box of wine (that would be over two gallons!) might have been relevant.

Finally, and old technology story describes a video game controller that interfaces directly to the brain. Can't beat that for vegging out.

Read Entire Article......

Mentoring New Faculty

I guess I can do requests. Profgrrrrl picked up on a detail in one of the items I put in a to-blog list in my anniversary blog and asked for some information about our new faculty mentoring problem program. [That was a nice slip.]

I'm not going to give specific details about what we do here at Ishkabibble Community College, since this institution shall remain pseudonymous, but I'll try to describe both the good and bad sides of it.

Formally, our system for mentoring new faculty is two fold. Each new faculty member is assigned a mentor from among the t-t faculty, and the entire group of new faculty participate in a formal orientation program. There is also an informal third component whereby various faculty (such as the nut cases that populate our floor of the building) provide additional guidance, advice, and heads-up warnings about whatever is going on at a particular point in the semester ... and filling in the gaps and countering the non-science bias in the formal system. Besides, someone has to tell that now-tenured faculty member that "next month you're going to get a request to turn in X within a week or two, so start now." They are long out of the program, but there are things we do after tenure that we never did before it!

I should first mention a key detail: I was hired before the current system was put in place. Those who went through it would say it differently: they would say "I was spared going through the new system". (I would put it a different way: It would not have survived having me in it or ICC would be missing one of the few faculty to get perfect scores on student class evaluations. But I should also clarify that the current system has changed significantly during its lifetime due to feedback from the faculty who went through the first ones. One group was the Beta test, and you know what that means.) Indeed, I question whether I even had a formal mentor, but I can guess who was assigned to me and know full well why I would jump to that conclusion. More on that issue next. But I did have an excellent mentor/coordinator for the first class I taught at ICC, and got everything I needed from the wonderful nut cases on my floor, including one who was just two years ahead of me. However, there were some things I did not get that our new faculty get from the system we now have in place. One of those is camaraderie across the college within each group, but I still know several of my "class" on other parts of campus despite a very different system.


The role of individual faculty mentors seems diminished in the system we have, which is a bad thing unless the mentor is ineffective (as some appear to be). We do assign an individual mentor, but what happens there varies a lot depending on the inclination of the parties involved. It is not our main official way of getting faculty adjusted to this college.

One of my concerns is that some mentors do not seem to be well chosen. I would not assign as a mentor someone who punches a time clock with office hours. Who never goes to faculty governance meetings. Whose classroom expectations are so slack that a student wrote an article in the campus paper complaining about how unfair the departmental final was because the A students failed it. (Yep, that prof did not cover the syllabus or give tests that reflected the learning objectives of the course. This prof was also a product of the new mentoring system.) My mentor, if it was who I suspect, is much too casual to even mention being my mentor and probably limited involvement to asking me how things were going. Not that I needed any, but a walking tenured disaster case did need a lot of help and did not get it. (Not that he would have taken any advice, but that is a different story.)

I think we need a mentor training/mentoring program! Or, perhaps, more of an "it takes a village" approach to the new faculty. One of our problems as a CC is that we are too big to have intimate faculty meetings like at a small college, but also don't have the research groups that play that role at a large university. That is what I am thinking about for next year.

I also think several of us are going to increase our efforts this next year, because we are seeing some parts of the college culture and history slipping into oblivion.

Formal Orientation:

OK, to the main event.

I went through a multi-day orientation as a new faculty member that was incredibly intense. The proverbial drinking from a fire hose experience. About all I took with me was the knowledge that there were things out there that I needed to know more about. It was so rushed that I actually didn't even know where one of the places was. I had to get directions when I finally needed to go there later that year. That probably worked OK when they were hiring only a few at a time, but the new system of spreading this out over a year is a big improvement. More of a "just in time" approach. The part that was done that way for us, advising, was really effective. We got some specific training, then we worked side-by-side with someone who knew what they were doing.

In our current system, the new faculty are given a small reduction in duties on the service side (mostly advising and committees) in exchange for scheduling one meeting a week for orientation. They meet for a longer time before the fall semester for a total focus on HR (that took one day of my orientation as well) and first-day issues. There is also time for each Dean and department head to spell out how each fiefdom operates. Everything else (advising, governance, college culture, teaching philosophy, etc) is done in meetings that take place every week or so.

This part is run by our tiny faculty development operation, which is run by an in-house hire that I don't really respect. No significant classroom experience is a non-starter. It would be quite different if we had hired the candidate who did have that kind of experience, plus lots of experience with a variety of development tools (student interviews, classroom visits), but I suspect he turned us down (probably was on a pay-raise job hunt). Some of the presentations now come from faculty guests, and I think there will be more changes of that sort next year. If you go this route, the person in charge is crucial and it must be evaluated objectively each year.

Side comment: I did get some really good ideas from the talk given by the failed outside candidate, and got a great deal out of trying one of them this year.

The flaw in our present system that stimulated the comment in my "to blog" list is that the newest hires are uniformly clueless about how our college governance system works. I was too, but I had been deeply involved in governance at the university level as a graduate student, so I knew how one system worked. Nonetheless, ours has some idiosyncrasies that it took years for me to figure out and the lack of involvement by the new faculty had some consequences this past year. They did get a presentation about it, but it was clearly ineffective or did not connect.

The biggest problem with this one-size-fits-all approach is that one size does not fit all. We have hired faculty with years of teaching experience elsewhere (one recent hire came from a 4-year school that was easing its MS people out the door with dreams of being an R1) as well as total newbies (zero experience running an entire course at a college, or only experience with middle or high school classes). It is pretty insulting to treat both the same way. Actually, it is very insulting to tell someone how to teach when they are already a first-rate teacher ... maybe better than the person doing the telling.

Before going on to what else bugs me about this approach, a few words on what really works well. There are some things where one size does fit all. One of those is tenure and promotion. They spend many of their weeks on this, including work on their binder (I think they use the newly fashionable "portfolio" for this) and what it will have to include. If you (Profgrrrrl) are going to be bringing in several new faculty at a time into your department as you have alluded to, this would be a really good investment of someone's time. It is much narrower and clearer for our faculty than it might be for yours, but some things are universal and MUST be done right! Why not tell everyone the same story, and do an informal walk-through of what you need to put in it from the first year, second year (they also meet a few times during the second and third year), etc. Expectations. Tricks of the trade.

Aside: I was taught back in my post-doc days how to use a calendar to log things that need to go in annual evaluation documents, and that still pays off today. You can put it in a W*rd file or a folder, but the key idea is to note it as it happens so it is easy to pull together when you need it. Record keeping is essential.

What mistakes to avoid?

It is insane (I mean this literally, not figuratively) to pretend that methods that are the current fashion in a College of Education for a 20 person course on high-school writing skills or middle-school math skills or an upper-division philosophy seminar have any relevance to a 50 person lecture on Microbiology or the "majors" math and science classes we teach. A New Yorker cartoon showing students being asked how multiplication made them feel before they move on to division has made its way around our hallways. There is lots of research on teaching physics, but the little I have read is infinitely more than the person running the program has read. I am reminded of what Chad, aka Chad-zilla wrote about wandering around an active learning classroom in his 6'6" 260 pound rugby player body. Doesn't work. Terrorized students are not engaged students.

There are significant differences even within our own area (the sciences), because what works for majors does not work for non-mathematical gen-ed classes. We really should shift some of that program into our department, and use the opportunity to learn what other senior faculty are doing while helping the new ones figure it out.

There was also an element of indoctrination in the program. Some of it was good (they definitely need to know what to say and not say if they want to earn tenure) and necessary, but some of it strikes many of us as dangerous. That "some of it" has to do with a "student centered" philosophy where the only measure of learning is the fraction that pass a class. Now our college administration (both the Provost and the President) are on record as saying they view "learning" as what is measured by how a student does in the next class, but not everyone (or every Dean) is convinced. Worse, there are faculty who send students on to my classroom with the odd view that they should get two tries at every test and earn extra credit by going to office hours, and seem to have picked this up in the orientation and mentoring process. Those students will only get one try at my tests, and will be expected to still know the trigonometry they did not know when they took the final exam.

One of my goals for next year is to see if I can find out (in the form of actual data) how my students do after transferring to Wannabe Flagship University to study engineering. The idea is to get disaggregated data for kids who passed one or both of my physics classes before transferring and compare to "native" students and ones who transferred from ICC with their 60-credit AA degree but without taking calculus and physics at ICC. [The ones who go straight from being coddled to being herded are unlikely to do as well as my grads tell me they are doing, but I'd like to see the data.] I might also start looking at the math background of the kids who can't do algebra when they arrive in my class and see who gave them that B or C.

Read Entire Article......

Happy Earth Day!

Hard to believe it has been 38 years since the first Earth Day.

In celebration, here is a Day Lily that is probably blooming early because of a really warm microclimate in a corner next to the house ...

... or is it global warming? (I have no way of knowing, because this is the first year for this particular variety in my yard. It was transplanted late last spring.)

Some parts of the country have gotten worse since 1970, particularly some around where I live, but others have spectacularly improved. For example, the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire in Cleveland, Ohio, and the water quality in Lake Erie has improved some ... albeit with the help of the invasive zebra mussel.

Read Entire Article......

Monday, April 21, 2008

World War I blog ... and movies

I have been following the "Harry's War" story, the letters sent by a WW I soldier that are being posted exactly 90 years to the day after the letters were sent home. Since we don't know if he even made it home alive, the one to two week gaps between letters leave us hanging and must have been harrowing for the family.

I knew a lot about the Great War from my grandfather, who was (as I recall) over there or on his way via crowded troop ship by now (meaning April 1918). He enlisted in 1917 after the end of the spring semester at college. When November 11 rolls around I will have to post his story of Armistice Day. But this soldier was fighting on the Italian front, so this blog has opened up a whole new story for me. Among other things, I now know where Asiago is located. Turns out it is more than a cheese; it was the site of a major battle in late WW I ... a battle that could play a role in the life - or death - of the man we are meeting through his letters. Through the miracle of blogs and the web, there is now a parallel site showing satellite images of the terrain where this all takes place.

If you have not checked it out, you should, but this note is also about what is showing this next month on Turner Classic Movies.

April 27, 8 pm
J'Accuse (1919) is a silent film that I am looking forward to seeing for the first time. Click for TCM (includes video clips) and IMDB info and a TCM article. The film contains footage shot during the war, and this is reportedly the original 3-hour version that was banned in France.

May 24, 8 pm
Paths of Glory (1957), by Stanley Kubrick, is showing as one of "The Essentials". I've seen this several times, and it is just as fresh (and harsh) each time. Click for TCM (includes video clips) and IMDB info.

Along the way, Rebecca (1940) is showing on May 3 at 8 pm as another of "The Essentials". Click for IMDB info. This just another of Hitchcock's great movies. I think it is spookier than some of his more popular ones. Another, Psycho, airs on May 31.

Now if they could only find a way to work in La Grande Illusion (1937), where Erich von Stroheim has a spectacular supporting role in another film about the futility of war. Click for TCM and IMDB info. (TCM has several video clips.) The timing of that film, just before WW II, might give an indication of why France was still recovering from its losses in WW I and utterly unable to resist Hitler. (Imagine if we had lost 5 million killed and as many maimed in the five years we have been in Iraq.) The most interesting thing to me is that these two aristocrats are multilingual, and the film assumes the viewer is as well!

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Belated First Blogiversary

This blog started a year ago on March 13, but that detail completely slipped my mind in the hectic end of the semester.

And this one has been more hectic than most. At least that leaves a full plate of pent-up topics to write about.

I really need to blog about a few things in the next few months, during the quieter time of early summer. If the past year is any indication, the mania that carries over from the pace of spring makes it easy to blog while only teaching the single class I choose to teach in summer while preparing for next year. What is on the agenda?

  • A year on the biggest college governance committee. I can't touch the biggest item with a 10-foot pseudonym, interesting as it is, but there are some committee management and snark topics that need discussion. (done and done)
  • I am long overdue on wrapping up the "jobs" series I started last summer.
  • Some recent nice articles on tenure-track info mean I need to update one of the ones I completed last year.
  • I also learned some things that our new faculty never picked up in the mentoring system we have, so I should blog that. (done)
  • There are some teaching items in draft form about labs (done and done) , and one other about teaching students to work hard.

I really need to fix in my mind the simple detail that the blog started just before pi day, now renamed "talk like a physicist day" by some science bloggers. That should be easy ....

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tax Day

Aside: I'm only bothering to post this so I can offer some solidarity to Becky Hirta as she hacks away at the forms for a trust in addition to those for her own income. See the idea below the fold.

Another year, another shipment to Uncle Sam. I always view it as a good thing, looking back at another year of income and outgo, since you only owe more taxes if you make more money. My only irritation was that the "worksheet" for the Alternate Minimum Tax was so conservative that we had to download the form and instructions just to prove that we are not even close to needing to pay it. It was worth it, however, just to appreciate those beautifully written instructions. Not.

My father has an excellent solution to that sort of nonsense:

Pass a law that simply forbids any elected official in the Federal Government, or any member of the executive branch that has to be confirmed by Congress, from using any paid or unpaid tax preparer when filling in their tax form. They could only get help by calling the IRS help line.

Congress and the President would have to do it all by themselves and face the consequences if they misinterpret the instructions or get bad advice from the IRS.

Guaranteed tax reform within one year.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, April 12, 2008

No Accent Here

Found over at The Little Professor's place:

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Not too far off.

Because I do speak standard english! It is everyone else who has an accent. One interesting thing is that I did hang out with someone with an accent containing elements similar to what is heard in Philly, so no surprise to see that up there.

And if you read this far, a recent article by the Little Professor about the number of English majors was rather interesting. I went back there today to give it another read ... and see a priceless comment that appeared since I first saw it. That info about English sounds like the comments among physicists about physics degrees. The fraction of grads is going down even when the number of degrees increases. This is especially true of advanced degrees. And it is not a bad thing.

But say what? Someone is complaining that they only have 45 faculty and they only have 90 English majors? And they used to have a ratio of 55 faculty to 120 majors? Just be happy you have service courses to teach or you would only have 5 or 6 faculty!

Read Entire Article......

Superconductivity Press Release

Friday's links post at Uncertain Principles included a pair of press releases, one from Princeton and the other from the NSF, about an article published Friday in the journal Science. I should make it clear that I have not read that article nor am I an expert on superconductivity other than what most nuclear theorists know about BCS and Bogolyubov theory from the nuclear structure perspective. I'm just putting on my critical reading hat here.

My comments here are in response to a question in the comments to "explain what the heck that article about superconductivity is about". My reply is here because it requires a picture:

Click on the image for the larger version; comments below the fold.

Short answer: This is an experimental paper whose main point is that they now have clear experimental results that say the mechanism for high-Tc superconductivity is significantly different from that of the BCS theory that applies to low-Tc superconducting materials. The reason you don't see much of a discussion or explanation of the mechanism is that smart experimentalists know better than to dabble in theory! Just the facts, ma'am.

Longer answer: The essence of their result is that there is an anti-correlation between electron behavior in this material at temperatures well above and well below the transition temperature. What is red becomes blue and what is blue becomes red. My middle picture shows those regions as purple, and helps clarify that they really do appear at exactly the same place. It is not perfect (a perfect anti-correlation would have the same color everywhere), but it is quite striking.

Their point is the simple one that this behavior is quite different from what is seen in BCS materials, providing a strong argument for a different model and a specific result that such a model would have to explain. Along the way, they provide additional evidence that electron pairing definitely plays a role in high-Tc materials just as it does in low-Tc materials. (This is not news.)

I'll add that this strikes me as a positive step. The problem has always been that BCS theory predicts an upper limit on the transition temperature between the normal and superconducting state. A crude way to put it is that the interaction between the "Cooper pairs" of electrons and the lattice is through phonons (a quantum particle of sound), and this is messed up by the random vibrations of the lattice at temperatures above something like 20 to 30K. (Compare that to the 90K transition temp for the YBCO material found by Wu and Chu in 1987 and you see the problem.) Showing that it is not like BCS, and thus does not require phonons, might send theory off in a more productive direction. (If you don't know what I mean by Cooper pairs, take a look at the Wikipedia article on superconductivity. It does a decent job.)

About making the picture:
I took the jpeg photos in one of the press releases and simply combined them by overlaying the cold one (below Tc) over the warm one (above Tc) with an opacity of 50%. Their color coding must have been normalized in each one, because 50% seemed visually optimal.

Materials comment: They used a compound of Sr, Bi, Ca, Cu, and O. The original YBCO material is Y, Ba, C, and O. If you look at a periodic table, you will see that variations in the recipe (there are many others) take place around certain columns in the table.

Side remark: I still remember the excitement in February 1987 when the Chu and Wu paper leaked out of PRL to the NYTimes. Entire experimental research programs changed direction within weeks, and everyone with a theoretical hammer started pounding away whether they were used to working on a nail or a screw. The huge response compared to the invisible paper by Bednorz and Muller a year earlier must have been partly because Wu and Chu pushed the transition temperature well above 77K (Liguid Nitrogen temperature) where superconductivity becomes more practical, and partly because the german group did not put out a big press release.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Great Moments in Sports Commentary

NCAA Men's Championship.

Overtime approaches. Someone (Billy Packer?) says that Kansas has experience with overtime in a championship game. [??wtf??] Then elaborates by saying the experience was in 1957. Oh, yeah, now I remember why I forgot about that. We didn't get a TV until later that year, CBS did not broadcast the game, and that happened five years before the Kansas coach was born!

If it is really true that will have the entire CBS broadcast available for the watching with the commentary intact, you might still get to revel in that one along with the clang and clunk of bricks hitting the rim from the foul line.

The real keeper showed up in the post-game discussion between ESPN's little stable of expert coaches. There was a back-and-forth battle between Bobby Knight (who thought Calipari definitely needed to use a timeout with 10.8 to go and a three point lead) and some guy from Notre Dame (who insisted there was no need to call time out because this is a situation you would cover in practice every day). Leaving aside the exhaustion factor (Memphis might have been able to catch up with Kansas and commit a foul with another minute of rest) and the brain fade factor (you forget things when there is no oxygen getting to your head), there is the prep school factor. Being a preppie at an Ivy League college is a good thing, but being a preppie (and there are at least two at Memphis) in college BB means you didn't leave high school with an education. Digger might have had rocket scientists at ND, but I think Knight was a bit more realistic about reminding the team of "down and distance".

Will add more later, elaborating on the comment below, which was posted on Chad's blog:

I was equally mystified by the box and one, but I think I understood better late in the game and in overtime. They were whipped. They also cut down on screens and motion on offense for a time. Memphis was also worn out, slowing the game to a walking pace at times when they were on offense. At the end, and in OT, Kansas was back to running pick after pick after pick until Memphis left them open for a shot.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Space (radiation) Madness

It is time to put on my nuclear physicist hat.

A recent article by Astroprof and a related comment by Elias address questions raised in the media about radiation exposure to astronauts. I will direct you to Astroprof's article for a discussion of the magnetosphere and other areas where he has expertise, but just about every paragraph in his article reminded me of some things that need to be said. I'll put them here (below the fold) rather than fill up his comments section. Italicized quotations are from Astroprof unless otherwise identified.

By the way, it starts with the earliest research of interest to Dr. Pion!

Concerning Physicists have known for many years that radiation is coming to Earth form space.

Ah, the good old days when particle physicists were mountain climbers. Seriously. Most of the early research in particle physics was done by sending equipment up with a high altitude balloon or by hauling it up onto a mountain. The pion was discovered in cosmic ray experiments done on top of a mountain. It is really quite remarkable how much can be accomplished with data acquired under circumstances where you don't have any control of the energy or intensity of the source.

I should also add that the nuclear emulsions (basically thick photographic film) developed for that research are still used to monitor radiation exposures, both on earth and during space flight.

Units used to measure adiation exposure used below: There are two systems in wide use. The "correct" (SI) one uses the Sievert (Sv), while I was raised on the rem (roentgen equivalent man). They differ by a factor of 100, so a typical background radiation exposure can be stated as either 250 millirem/year or 2.5 mSv/yr. Both measure the same thing, the effect of ionizing radiation (x rays, gamma rays, alpha particles, protons, etc) on a human body by correcting for the different biological effects of energy and the mass and charge of the particle.

Concerning People living at high altitudes, therefore, receive more radiation exposure than people living at lower altitudes.

In addition, local geology will also affect background radiation levels. Simply living in Denver will increase your radiation exposure (higher altitude), but not nearly as much as some places. Natural background levels can be as much as 10 times higher than the average value listed above: e.g. 2.5 rem per year or 25 mSv/yr. For comparison, 5 rem (50 mSv) per year is the maximum allowed for radiation workers [in the US, less in some other countries].

Concerning I was surprised in my research to find that airline crew members can receive more annual radiation exposure than many people working with radioactive materials.

Not widely known, but important for a number of reasons. The most important one is that the exposure from regular air travel could be comparable to what might result from a minor "dirty bomb" in a big city. Objective measures of such things might be essential to help manage the subjective response (terror) to an involuntary exposure that is not significantly more risky than many voluntary ones.

Anecdote. I know of one case where a theoretical physicist working at a national lab as a regular visitor (consultant) was ordered to leave his radiation monitoring badge at the lab when he left. It seemed that he was getting measurable exposures at a level that would trigger administrative interest, except he was never in an area of the lab with any radiation. The problem: He flew. A lot. Really a lot. (Quite possibly more than flight crews are allowed to fly.) He commuted across the country from university to lab to Washington, and his badge was always in his brief case. It also went through airport x-ray machines, but that was a small part of the total. There are probably corporate executives who get more radiation exposure than a radiation worker at a nuclear plant.

Concerning But we don’t really know just how much radiation exposure astronauts might get outside of Earth’s magnetosphere.

You are selling short all of the work done by astrophysicists studying the output from the sun. Surely they have been measuring the charged particle flux in the solar wind? The really high energy stuff has been studied on or near the earth by physicists for almost a century. The complications are that the flux does change due to solar dynamics and the actual radiation exposure depends on the design of the spacecraft. Much of the radiation in a spacecraft (and an airliner) comes from secondary particles produced when the cosmic ray hits the skin of the craft.

What results is not exactly unknown (there is a vast collection of data on what happens when particles of various energies interact with matter, and it is easy to fill in any gaps in the data), but does require serious modeling specific to an actual design. That, along with acquiring additional experimental data, is probably where the research money needs to be spent. Since this is basically what high energy experimentalists do for a decade or so while simulating what data will be produced by a new detector (like the ones at the LHC in CERN), there is even a barely-employed bunch of physicists ready to do the job. This makes it a financial, not a physical, problem.

Concerning the comment by Observer about a conspiracy nut case [*] ignorant of the exposure rate in rem (or any other unit for that matter) for a human in the Apollo capsule:

I spent some entertaining time [**] browsing what can be Googled out of the various data bases available on the web. The answer is that the exposures (for an entire mission) ranged from 0.4 rem (4 mSv) to 1.4 rem (14 mSv). This is well under the annual exposure rate and comparable to common medical procedures. A whole-body CT scan is, IIRC, in the middle of this range (and a single large dose is more risky than one obtained over more than a week). Remember, the "radiation worker" dose is based on estimates that getting 5 rem (50 mSv) every year of your working life will increase your cancer risk by 1 to 2 percent.

[*] Simple question for the nut cases: If we did not go to the moon, how can we bounce a laser beam off of retroreflectors left by the Apollo astronauts? What would motivate so many people to lie about those observations?

[**] Maybe you don't think it is entertaining to read about independent estimates of radiation exposure of Apollo 16 astronauts made by comparing the isotope distribution of elements found in the urine and feces before and after the trip, but I do. There appears to be almost no limit to what nuclear chemists will study!

Exposures can sometimes be higher for long duration missions (radiation exposure is one of the limits for workers in the ISS) and were fairly significant (170 millirem or 1.7 mSv) for an Apollo-Soyuz mission, if I read the report correctly. By the way, NASA sets its occupational exposure levels significantly (10 times) higher than those for terrestrial radiation workers. I suppose the rationale is that (1) they are volunteers who know the risks, (2) they don't make that many trips over a career, and (3) they really want to do it. Sort of like the way the military discounts the risk of bullets when it needs to go to war.

Closing remark:

I had to go through several different training sessions regarding radiation exposure and the work environment. Even a theorist who works in a lab needs to know what else is going on there, what behaviors are not safe, and why and when monitoring devices of various types must be used. At the time this was annoying, but in the long run it provided valuable information about a wider range of risks we are exposed to and the ability to comment professionally about matters of public interest, like this one.

Read Entire Article......

Friday, April 4, 2008

Gen Ed Critical Reading?

I was thinking of you, Dr. Crazy, and my blog comments about reading and physics problems that others can probably find by hitting the "reading" category, when I read the IHE article about revisions to the general education curriculum at Trinity University in Washington DC.

There was that magic word in the key sentence:
This fall, the 631-student women’s undergraduate college introduced a revamped general education curriculum, built on the bedrock of first-year classes emphasizing “foundational skills” — critical reading, written communication, oral communication, critical reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.

If they agree that critical reading is a "foundational skill", then why is it taught so rarely today? My students say they only write reaction papers (how did long division make you feel) in their English composition classes in college, and ditto for high school. Critical reading seems limited to sophomore literature classes.

I find that I have to teach critical reading to teach physics, and it has been something I have been working on trying to master for more than a year. Right now I am thinking about using a homework reading exercise (rewrite in your own words and see if your neighbor will agree) as a way to attack weaknesses they have with problem identification on the final exam. I think it works, but I'm not very good at using those techniques in the classroom.

There was one other striking comment in that article:
So-called urban learners “tend to come from big urban public high schools where they’ve been educated in chaotic and unsatisfactory ways.” Ah, that is not just a problem with big urban high schools. Our feeder schools are nothing like the ones in Washington, DC, but chaotic seems to describe everything in their educational program that is outside the specific topics and question types covered by the state exit exam.

Chaotic and unsatisfactory might make a good school system motto if it was in latin.

Chaos et ???

OK, its not really all that bad, but the lacunae in their basic knowledge (little things, like the area of a sphere or the quadratic formula) can be shocking. It seems that the only way to fix it is to add a topic to the exit exam so it gets taught systematically in the schools.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Freshman Curriculum: Thermodynamics

The understanding of thermodynamics in terms of statistical mechanics is not much older that quantum mechanics, if you date QM to 1905 rather than 1925. I think this negatively affects how this subject matter is taught in physics, but also in chemistry.

A few quasi-rhetorical questions for an open thread:

Why do we start with "heat" instead of internal energy?

Can we change the name of "specific heat" to something that indicates it really originates in the internal structure of the material?

Will U, with its implication that internal energy is a potential energy, ever be replaced throughout the chemistry, physics, and engineering world ... rather than here and there when Eint gets used in a freshman textbook?

I'll add others when I think of them.

Read Entire Article......