Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Earth in the 21st Century

At first I was going to title this post "pictures from another world" or something like that. But it struck me that the pictures I was going to link to weren't from another world, really. What's more, they aren't from another time. They're this week's news.

I came across these when I clicked on a misfiled photo and found myself watching the slideshow labelled "Muslims Offended by Danish Cartoons" on Yahoo's news site.

There's a lot of ugly images in that slide show. Lots of pictures of burning flags of various nations, free speech protesters in London with the cartoons on their signs, protestors in Jakarta with banners saying Condoleezza Rice wasn't welcome, a dead Palestinian girl, victims of shootings by "suspected Islamic militants" in Thailand, funerals in Pakistan and India... Grenade wounds. Angry crowds. Blast sites. Tear gas. A picture from Guantanamo Bay.

But there are four that really struck me. They don't really have anything to do with the stories mentioned in their captions. They're just everyday scenes. And they're not from another world, and they're definitely not from another time.

A skyline

A man reading

Kids being lectured

A woman in the city

And then from the Afghanistan slideshow:

A kid with a kite

A cup of tea

The beginning of spring

(Here's another stunning picture of that and one of
women celebrating

Of course, not all the pictures look like this. Some are ugly, like I said. And some just look like the kind of candid snapshots we all have in our albums. But some of them are magic, a kind of magic our culture doesn't know (though we have our own kinds, of course). Can you blame anyone for wanting to preserve this way of life, or for seeing us as a threat to it?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Life in the Lab

I'm really enjoying Chad Orzel's "true lab stories." I linked to his first post in the series, which involved a two-liter soda bottle filled with liquid nitrogen, sealed, and dropped in the bathroom sink. The key words were "earth shattering KABOOM."

He's followed up with a link to a similar story involving a whole tank of liquid nitrogen. This time the key words are "all of the remaining walls of the lab were blown 4-8 inches off their foundations."

Most recently, he's posted a story of his own involving a lab flood. Our lab has had a couple of those, but no really bad ones since I got there. If you don't work in a lab, you probably think the most horrifying words in this story are "the fire department had already been called by the people in the lab downstairs, who came in to find a little waterfall running over the circuit breaker boxes on one wall of their lab"

But our lab has almost exactly the same technology that he describes in this post (only not two but *three* Ti:sapphire laser, each pumped by argon lasers... Or actually, four of each, if you count the ones that don't work. I won't get into the other lasers.) These are fussy, touchy, bad tempered machines that get sick frequently, and have to be painstakingly nursed back to health with days of tweaking. So I know that the most horrifying words are "The external cavity module was literally full of water-- when my supervisor picked it up and turned it on its side, it took a good ten seconds for all the water to drain out. We had to dismantle the whole thing, and clean every single surface."

And the idea of having to remove and clean every single optic (an "optic" is a mirror, a lens, a prism pair, or anything else that the laser beam hits on its way from the laser to the atoms you're aiming it at. There are dozens of things in each beam path, hundreds on a table) makes me shudder. It may give me nightmares.

I doubt that people who aren't optical experimentalists will fully appreciate these stories, but just in case anyone reads the blog in order to get a flavor of what life as a scientist is like... Well, even these stories make it sound more glamorous than it really is. But they're more accurate than any science fiction I've ever seen. A lot of science is trying to fix things that got broken in stupid accidents. When anything works, you don't change it, even if it could theoretically work better. It's almost impossible not to be superstitious, when so many things seem to happen for no better reason than that the universe it out to get you.

I have stories like this from our own lab, of course, but I think I'll wait until I've safely graduated to tell them in public.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What's the Matter with Kansas Revisited

Fred Clark's posted something I agree with on the reasons why Republicans keep winning elections, in spite of the fact that the nation keeps getting less peaceful and less prosperous under their rule.

Of course, I nearly always agree with Fred Clark, but in this case, he's saying what I wanted to say after I read that book.

It's amazing how many liberals really don't understand. They think these pro-life voters are really anti-sex, or anti-woman, or anti-progress, or that it's a class thing (Tom Frank's argument) or a religious stricture, not having abortions, like keeping kosher if you're Jewish or not cutting your hair if you're Sikh.

But listen, Fred Clark's right. It's not any of those things. Pro-life people really do believe that abortion is murder. It's not a slogan. When they say that, they mean it as a simple statement of fact. How can they support any candidate who sanctions legal murder, whatever their positions on other issues?

Lance Mannion understands too. This is the real debate. Pro-choicers who argue about "not imposing your religion on others" or about women's rights to privacy are fighting straw men, though they don't know it. Knock those religious and misogynistic arguments down if you want. Those aren't the arguments that convince people to vote Republican. The argument that convinces people to vote Republican against their own economic self interest is this one: "Abortion is murder."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's the Point of Having a Blog...

If you're not going to brag?

Those are the pieces I made in the machine shop class. Two sets of bookends, four candle-stick holders, a plumb bob, and a paperweight/pencil holder. The silvery ones are aluminum, and the goldish ones are brass. We used a grinder, a horizontal band saw, a vertical band saw, a milling machine, and an oxyacetalene torch, to solder the tubes on the candlestick holders to their bases. It was not, technically, welding. But I did have to light the torch myself.

One of my bookends has an extra set of holes on the bottom. That's because, in trying to make the holes threaded so that I could put a screw in them, I accidentally broke a tap off in one of them. Also, one of the ring-shaped handles on the candlesticks is loose, because they too are held on by little screws, but I went too deep with the center drill and made my hole a little too big for the tap, so that there are only one or two threads in the hole, and the screw doesn't tighten well.

Still, I did better than I thought I would, considering my general level of clumsiness, and the inability to erase mistakes.

The guy who taught the class, Jim, is retiring this quarter after forty-something years of doing this. He has infinite patience and is good at explaing things without making you feel stupid, even if it's the fourth or fifth time you've asked. I feel lucky to have gotten to take the class with him.

All in all an experience I am grateful to have had. Even if I'm also grateful not to have to get up so early on Tuesday mornings anymore...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Neat Toy

Google maps pedometer. Useful for planning running or walking routes. Saturday, which was the nicest day in human history, I apparently went 5.6 miles, passing through three different municipalities as I did so. And one of them, I went all the way across, northern city limits to southern city limits. Yes, I was so impressed with myself that I had to post it on my blog. Pathetic, I know.

Still, that makes six different cities that I've run to or through from where I live, counting the one I start in. Chicago suburbs are so small.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Long Days

Have I missed the weekend again? It just doens't feel like a weekend, is the problem. We worked yesterday.

Not an unsucessful day at work, actually, but to do anything these days takes longer and longer. First we have to turn on the cooling systems, and turn on, warm up, and tune the lasers. The tuning by itself can take all day, if we're unlucky.

Then align all the beams. This involves turning little screws on the back of the mirror mounts to change the angle. We have little targets set up to help us aim them correctly, irises which open when you're done with them to let the beams pass through. You have to start from the first mirror and go down the line, because if you're off by a small angle at the beginning, you'll miss mirrors entirely, toward the end. Also you have to make sure the beam is passing through all the different lenses and frequency shifters correctly. With so many beams and such long paths this always takes a couple of hours, and is tedious and repetative. If we have to change the beam paths for any reason, that can take an extra hour, or all day.

Parts of the beam are split off and sent through rubidium vapor cells, where, if they are at the right frequency, they are absorbed. We have electronics to adjust the lasers if the beam stops being absorbed (meaning that the laser frequency has drifted). But the electronics are complicated and don't always work. So getting that going can take a while too.

Meanwhile Ken has turned on the heaters that vaporize the rubium for the trap. Once everything is ready, assuming the vacuum pressure is okay, he opens the valve the releases the stream of rubidium vapor into the main vacuum chamber, and looks for a trap. He gets it every day now, reliably. But usually it starts out weak, and more alignment has to be done, and frequencies adjusted, before it will get big and bright.

Now we set up and mount any equipment we will be using for today's trial. Oscilloscopes, high voltage power supplies, light detectors, function generators, etc. Our post-doc does most of the electronic configuration. He's very good. We run lots of cables. More alignment, to make sure the light is getting onto the detectors.

Now, finally, we are ready to begin. We turn off the lights. (These detectors are sensetive. Room light could damage them.) I babysit my laser, changing the frequency when called upon, and making sure it doesn't change when it shouldn't. Ken babysits one of his lasers, and pours liquid nitrogen into the part of the vacuum system from time to time (this helps keep the pressure down.)

Lately his job also includes casting a shadow on the detector, which is picking up light sources we can't control. If he moves, it stops working.

Our post-doc watches the function generators and oscilloscopes and calls out instructions for us, parameters to change. Make this beam stronger. Make this beam weaker. Change the frequency. Scan the frequencies. Block this. Block that. Make the pulse longer. Make the delay shorter. He is looking for certain effects on the light the detector picks up. If he sees them, he saves a trace and calls us over to look.

Not every day is like this. Sometimes we are assigned other projects to work on. But this is the priority, and it always comes back to running this experiment in the trap.

Yesterday we saw an effect we were looking for -- two of our beams prevented one another from being absorbed by the rubidium in the trap. (This is supposed to be useful one day in making the basis elements of a quantum computer. If you don't exactly see how, join the club.)

Today... We get to do it all over again, probably.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Power of Procrastination

I usually skip the speakers invited to talk by my department. I went a couple of times at first, but didn't find it rewarding. What these speakers are usually trying to do, is impress you. This means they use a lot of jargon and complicated graphs, and try to cram every result they've ever gotten into a one hour presentation. So you, as an audience member, have little to no chance of understanding what they're talking about at all. First, because they don't leave themselves time to explain the basics of their field. Second, because if you understood, you probably wouldn't be as impressed.

But last night I made an exception. Our whole lab attended a talk by Jorge Cham, the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper. You know, that comic strip I keep linking to.

He was great. It was like stand-up comedy with Powerpoint. Why don't more stand-up comedians use Powerpoint?

It was also thereputic. The thing about these comics is, we've all had these experiences. We've all been humiliated. We've all been ignored. We've all panicked. We've all been depressed. We've all been desperate. We've all felt like imposters. We've all considered quitting. According to a study Cham cited, 10% of us have considered suicide, and 1 in 200 actually attempted it. But we never see each other. We all think we're alone. The strip is nice because it tells us we're not. This guy we've never met knows exactly what we're going through. And he has thousands of readers. And he told us to look around the room and see how many people from our own university were laughing at these painful jokes, about being ignored by your advisor. About getting nowhere on your project. About having your ego crushed. About feeling overwhelmed.

At it was really nice to see all these people, to laugh with them. (Our post-doc was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. That was nice to see.)

The title of the talk was "The Power of Procrastination." The message was -- yes, there are more important things you should be doing right now instead of attending this talk. Or watching TV. Or hanging out with your friends. Or being outside. But there will always be more important things you should be doing. You can't ever be finished with them. So you have no real choice but to put them off, if you ever want to do anything else. Try not to feel so guilty about it.

There were also some words of warning, now that he's graduated -- writing your dissertation will nearly kill you. You will not be happy with your work. And no one will ever read it. But the tenure process makes getting your degree look easy. This is why your professor has no sympathy for you. The academic job market sucks (but you don't have to stay in academia.) Get used to being rejected.

Man, for some reason when I say it, instead of him, this stuff sounds a lot less hilarious...

Interestingly, this morning, I followed a link from Word Munger to a page postulating that the reason there aren't more women in university science departments, is that jobs in university science departments are terrible. Their only attraction is as booby prizes in a sort of pissing contest, and women don't do pissing contests. Those jobs do seem more attractive if you are from China or India, where the standard of living is lower, but immigrant work forces are usually composed mainly of men. (In case you're wondering, Americans are traditionally the minority among physics grad students at major universities.) This sounds pretty cynical, but last night when Cham said the Big Question of grad student life was "Why?!" he got one of his biggest laughs. It's funny 'cause it's true.

Sounds like a depressing talk, but really, it put us in a good mood. It's just so reassuring to be told that it's not us, it's the system. We may feel like failures, but so does everyone else. And there's nothing wrong with a little procrastination. It was exactly what we needed to hear.

Thank you, Jorge Cham.