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Report from Tampa: The 2005 APS April Meeting

By Sergio Tafur, with contributions from Sohang Gandhi, Richard Jerousek, & Jeremy Croteau, University of Central Florida

Afternoon SPS Presentation Group.  

Saturday, April 1
Sohang C Gandhi and Sergio Tafur

Although APS conferences have a reputation for being highly successful and for including many notable scientists as speakers, I was especially anticipating this April's meeting since it was devoted to a topic to which I am somewhat partial—elementary particles. As a bonus, it happened to have been held in Tampa, Florida, only an hour-and-half drive from my school, the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. I was also drawn by the opportunity to present some of my own research in one of the SPS sessions.

The conference far surpassed expectations. In addition to particle physics, the conference contained a wealth of astrophysics as well as many events and activities in commemoration of Einstein's centennial.

Amongst the sessions devoted to Einstein's legacy was Dr. Lawrence Krauss' highly captivating lecture entitled "Einstein's Biggest Blunder: A Cosmic Mystery." Other notable speakers included Nobel Laureate, Frank Wilczek, author of "The Elegant Universe," Brian Greene, and noted string theorist, Hessamaddin Arfaei.

The SPS sessions were a big success. It is through the outreach efforts of the APS and AIP that SPS can function. As president of APS Dr. Marvin L. Cohen stated when asked about how he thinks the physics community assists with reach out in education, there is a lot of work now in studying physics education. Studying it is a problem itself. We need to study how people learn and the best way to teach them. Carl Wieman showed that if you just stand up and lecture and you say too much this is bad, so that more turns out to be less. Even though there has been a lot of progress on studying how people learn people come up with completely different views so that there definitely isn't a consensus.

I think that everybody is right. Our biggest challenge is K-12 because we feel that students are not getting what they should get. Particularly in high schools even though we have dedicated physics teachers many of them were not trained in physics. So the idea of getting people trained who have high salaries and a lot of respect if they take jobs teaching physics in K-12 in particular in high schools, science in general and physics in particular in high schools will do much better. We need more work on that and there is a lot going on. We are trying to get more funding and I certainly have spoken with the National Science Foundation and some of the new projects going on the department education so we are trying hard.

There was a general enthusiasm amongst the audience for all of the student presentations. Perhaps the most enthused was Dr. White who expressed his curiosity by engaging the presenters in many thoughtful questions. Of note was invited speaker and winner of last year's SPS Outstanding Student Award for Undergraduate Research, Olga Ovchinnikov. Ovchinnikov is working with the Compton group at the University of Tennessee; the group which first coined the phrase bucky-dumbbell to refer to the molecule formed when a carbon chain bridges two C60 molecules. Her presentation offered interesting detail into a photochemical means to the formation of such molecules as well as the molecule's notable properties.

Amongst the many interesting contributed presentations was Samson Alva's discussion of Applying Quantum Mechanics to Simple Graphs. Alva discussed using simple graphs-structures formed out of nodes and links-to model a discrete structure of space at small scales-an effort perhaps relevant to current attempts at quantum gravity using a discrete space at the Plank-scale. Alva illustrated using the quantum mechanical propagator to define distances between nodes and presented analytical and numerical methods for obtaining results.

Alexander Petro exhibited remarkable skill as an orator. Petro sparked a great deal of interest with his discussion of detecting Lorentz invariance violations using the resonances of electromagnetic cavities, a project which also has potential relevance to new Planck-scale physics. John Carruth discussed his research on the effects of after pulsing on the photo-multiplier tubes used in the KamLAND Neutrino Detector and invited speaker Anthony Moeller presented research on molecular devices which could potentially offer a much smaller alternative to semiconductor devices. And all of this is but a sampling of the quality presentations at the SPS sessions on Saturday. But neither session would have been complete without Dr. White insisting that the presenters display their novelty, 'World Year of Physics' pens alight for a group picture.

Saturday ended with a delightful session entitled "Einstein's Legacy: What we know and what we don't know." The speakers did an excellent job at bringing concepts at the forefront of cosmology and quantum gravity to the lay. Dr. Rocky Kolb discussed the conundrums facing cosmologists, particularly those related to inflation rates, and the alternative approaches to their explanation dark mater/energy and modified gravity while interjecting jokes that invoked roaring laughter. Caricaturizing the basement of cosmologists, Kolb facetiously suggested that the hit show "Desperate House Wives" be replaced with a new show entitled "Desperate Cosmologists."

Dr. Donald Marolf discussed the problem of quantum gravity and introduced one of the first examples of a successful intermingling of quantum mechanics and general relativity, Hawking Radiation. He went on to give a captivating description of the connection between black holes and thermodynamics. Dr. Michael Kramer presented the exciting possibilities for tests of general relativity and other theories of gravity using the double pulsar system discovered by his team.

Sunday, April 17—Sergio Tafur
On Sunday it became evident that APS is presently under great pressure on all facets exposed to its enveloping society. As stated by current APS president, Dr. Marvin L. Cohen, One of the most pressing issues [currently facing APS] is visas:

We had all these restrictions that made it very difficult for students to come over to study from foreign countries, particularly China and the former Soviet Union. It was taking a long time to process the visas. In addition, currently there are collaborations between American physicists and foreign physicists. When these people would come over they would either be prevented from coming in or they would be delayed. This was very difficult for our collaborations. We also had postdoctoral who would come over from foreign countries, say for approximately two years, who needed to really know whether or not their visas were going to be processed. We lost many of [these physicists] to other countries. As a result the Canadians were in better shape than we were since the physicists who wanted to go to English speaking countries went to Canada and Great Britain. There were also a lot of [physicists] that went to Germany. At the senior level we had difficulty bringing in people from foreign countries. For example, people with the highest honors, like a noble prize, even they were scrutinized.

It is clear that attempting to answer all questions relating to physics, ranging from the composition of space and time, to how our proteins are able to store energy, to condensed matter, which blissfully plague this great society are currently generating a great challenge in the midst of current international politics. However, the pioneering spirit of the American Physical Society, with great resolve, continues to tame this most aggressive but kind universe as well as the socio-political environment within which it operates.

As Dr. Cohen stated at the conference, ...APS got very much involved [to facilitate visas for students] and got involved with other scientific societies and we put a lot of pressure on the government to at least investigate where the hang up was. Indeed, [the government] found out that in the processing there were things that could be changed. Now in fact it takes less time for students to get a visa to enter the country than it did before 9/11. We are getting visas processed in under 30 days. However, we have lost our image as a great place to go and that of great concern to us. So it is important that we be more hospitable than we usually are, that we treat people coming in from other countries with more courtesy and more respect and hopefully we can gain back the confidence from foreign students. Now the problem is that we don't have enough American students going into physics.

The second annual APS conference held between the dates of April 16-19 in the alluring city Tampa, Florida was a great success. The presentations given ranged across the board starting with the study of deep galaxies, quantum loops and the black-hole information paradox, a particle fest, Greek philosophy in physics, plasma acceleration, improved efficacy in physics education, searching for gravity waves, and dealing with visas in the post 9-11 political ambient. The material presented can be described by analogy to the material that Dr. Cohen shared with us during the interview when asked what research he was most proud of:

When I was young I [theoretically] predicted that semi-conductors, if you put impurities in, could be super conductors and later it was experimentally found. I developed theories that allowed you to predict the structure and properties of material just by knowing the atomic number and atomic mass of the atoms that go in. For example, I was able to predict that if you took silicon and you squeezed it, it would become a metal and it would be a super conductor and that there were two different phases present. The experimentalists did the experiment and everything was right. The material turned into a metal the lattice constant was right, all the electronic properties were predicted correctly and it was super conducting.

I used the same approach to predict that you could make a nano-tube out of boron and nitrogen (nano tubes had been discovered made out of carbon). I was on an airplane and figured this out and came back and tried to get one of my graduate students to do a computer simulation, but because I run such a democratic group we decided we had more important things to do. It took me six months to get one of the graduate students and post doctoral's to spend the time to do it and the got it on the computer. We went to the experimentalists and they found these nano-tubes. Turns out that they are very interesting and that we can use them for a lot of physics and in many applications.

Another august and inspiring physics member of APS that was willing to spend a few minutes with us in a short interview was string theorist Dr. Brian Greene. Dr. Greene was a presenter at the conference on the relationship between the CMB project and string theory, currently under development at Columbia University, and is author to "The elegant Universe" as well as "The Fabric of the Cosmos".

Dr. Brian Greene at the Loops, Strings, Black Holes and the Big Bang News Conference.  

SPS News
Dr. Greene, how do you feel that were able to captivate such a wide audience with your books?

Dr. Greene
...I feel that people have a great interest in the fundamental ideas of how the universe began, how [the universe] evolved such as what is space and what is time. I think that the hunger to know answers to those questions exists. ...All I did in the book was try to phrase some of the discussions, some of the answers [on this topic] in a language that was accessible. A language that didn't use math which intimidates many people. A language that really focused upon the stunning ideas, and I think that tapped directly into what many people want to know about.

SPS News
What do you view as the most impressive discovery of String Theory?

Dr. Greene
I think that string theory's most impressive discovery is the explanation of the so called entropy of black holes. ... We learned in the 1970's that black holes always embody a certain amount disorder, or in technical terms entropy (this is from the work of Steven Hawking and Jacob Beckenstein). Nobody could really explain [the entropy of black holes] from a completely microscopic point of view until string theory came along [and] two string theorists Cumrun Vafa and Andrew Strominger showed how to calculate the entropy of black holes from string theory.

SPS News
What are some persisting issues with string theory?

Dr. Greene
The main issue is to understand the theory completely. Strangely enough we've been working on it for 20 to 30 years and we understand bits and pieces of theory. We understand some of the equations of [string theory], but we have to really understand what it is, fully and formally, and mathematically understand it completely. ...That is what we need to do.

SPS News
Could please give a brief description of the CMB project that you've been working on.

Dr. Greene
What we are trying to do is make a calculation motivated by string theory but not really within string theory to, perhaps, make predictions for what the pattern of tiny temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background radiation might be if a theory like string theory is correct. People have done these calculations ignoring the new kind of physics that might emerge on a very very tiny distance scale. We are now trying to fix up those calculations by including that very very tiny distance scale physics. It may not make a difference, it may make a difference, and this is the kind of thing that calculations ... can settle.

SPS News
Where do you see String Theory in two to three years?

Dr. Greene
I think that the main area of growth is applying string theory to cosmology. For instance, universities like Columbia have an institute dedicated to [this goal], the CMB being one, or trying to understand where the extra dimensions are as another. Could [the extra dimensions] grow big too, like the dimensions that we know about? Does cosmology force [the extra dimensions] to always be tiny and unobservable? These are the kind of questions that I think are going to have tremendous progress in the next two to three years.

SPS News
Why is it that Calabi-Yau manifolds best fit string theory?

Dr. Greene
You need the extra dimensions to solve the equations of the theory. Calabi-Yau manifolds are one class of manifolds that solve the equations. You then look at the physics that emerges and indeed, from some of the properties [of the manifolds], you do get physics that's pretty close to what we think the physics is. The physics describing elementary particles. Ultimately we are driven by the theory. For example, what does the theory say about the extra dimension and what they can look like. Calabi-Yau manifolds are one class [of manifolds] that solve the equations.

After this quick interlude in my progression through the planned events of the meeting, I went to lunch and then onto the next scheduled presentation. In this presentation Dr. Barry Muhlfelder, from Stanford University, presented an update as well as some theory on the gravity probe currently orbiting Earth. The project was designed to be a controlled physics experiment that will measure the geodesic and frame-dragging effects predicted by the General Theory of Relativity. This experiment houses four redundant, nearly perfect, gyroscopic spheres that should be precessing about their spin axis relative to the distant star IM Pegasi.

Overall, this meeting contained information on newly acquired knowledge, progress, and the core of what makes science worth studying. As the meeting progressed I realized how the the few presentations of the conference that I could attend had been imprinted onto my memory. In the words of Dr. Cohen

"...when I think back to my favorite conference of all time I think back to my first conference, and I think you will too because those are very memorable."

Monday April 18—Richard Jerousek, Jeremy Croteau, & Sergio Tafur
Monday at the APS conference was a real treat. We met at 6:00 am and prepared for the drive to Tampa by pigging out on energy drinks and genus 1 manifolds, some glazed, others sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We woke our colleague, Sergio, at about 7:30 and again at 8:00, and finally arrived at the conference around 9:30.

After getting registered, and donning our chic "SPS News" name tags, we became consumed by the excitement that was already in the air. The first set of talks we attended covered gravitational wave detection, including Minimizing Mechanical Loss in Fused Silica and Lowering Thermal Noise in Advanced LIGO by Steven Penn of Hobart and William and Smith Colleges, Acceleration Noise Measurements for LISA by Stephan Schlamminger of the University of Washington, and Observing Massive Black Hole Binary Coalescence with LISA by John Baker of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The talks got a little technical, but as astrophysics holds a special place in my heart, I didn't lose interest.

We had a lovely lunch of hotdogs and beans in the press room. With so many interesting talks going on, it was difficult to decide which one to see next. Sergio informed us of the "Lunch with the Experts" function, where physics students can eat and interact one-on-one with scientists representative of their fields, which included science journalism, nuclear astrophysics, dark matter and dark energy, and many others.

Our second lunch satisfied our intellectual appetite with a conversation with Dr. Darren Garnier, a plasma physicist from MIT. Dr. Garnier was more than happy to share with us his expertise on matters of plasma confinement, fusion, and tokamaks. I was entranced by the lucid manner of speech and vivid imagery as he delineated the complexities of his work. He explained his work on LDX (Levitated Dipole Experiment), in which a levitated super-conducting ring is used to confine a plasma, possibly solving some of the problems that have beset deuterium fusion in the past two decades.To cap off the experience, Dr. Garnier bestowed us with an exclusive viewing of a video from one of his plasma experiments gone terribly awry, featuring unstable Helmholtz coils, sparks and explosions, oh my.

After filling our bellies, and our minds, we headed back to the Marriott to hear more of the exciting presentations on cutting-edge physics. We listened to Julian Krolik, of Johns Hopkins University discuss galactic nuclei and super-massive black holes, and Heather Ray of Los Alamos National Laboratory present an "extra dimensions detector".

Our next stop was Dark Energy I. Dark energy seemed to be a topic of paramount concern at this conference. Mark Phillips of Las Campanas Observatory gave an interesting lecture on using type Ia supernovae as standard candles for measuring the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. After that, we headed to the public lecture by Dr. Lawrence Krauss, "Einstein's Greatest Blunder: A Cosmic Mystery Story."

Dr. Brian Greene at the Loops, Strings, Black Holes and the Big Bang News Conference.  

Before the lecture we ran into Jarren Leisenring, one of the SPS members that presented earlier that weekend. When asked about his favorite presentation Jarren said, "The Le Monde des Galaxies presentation had some very interesting new takes on dark energy theory even though I don't necessarily agree with the model."

This was fitting since that presentation correlated with the presentation we were about to enter. During the presentation Dr. Krauss was witty, entertaining, and full of life. He spoke a little about what we know and what we don't know about dark energy, using mostly elementary principles. Looking around the audience, I could see his presentation charmed the layman and the professional alike.

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