Wooster Physics in Amsterdam, the Netherlands!

As regular blog readers know, I am currently on a research leave for the year.  A good part of my leave has been spent in Wooster, but I believe it is important to spend a significant time outside of Wooster as well in order to get fresh ideas and perspectives to inform my research and ultimately my mentoring and teaching of students.

To get to Science Park, just follow the bike path.

So, as part of this time outside Wooster exploring new ideas, I spent the last half of March in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands!  I had not been to the Netherlands before, so this was a completely new experience for me.  This trip was focused on getting a broader perspective on our beadpile research project.  Specifically, I wanted to learn more about the field of soft matter, a branch of condensed matter which is not standard solid state physics.  Granular materials like the bead pile fall under the broader area of soft matter.  Several years ago at the March Meeting, I met Dmitry Denisov, who had been a post-doc with Rinke Wijngaarden and was then a postdoc with Peter Schall.  Wijngaarden and his group were responsible for some really lovely papers about avalanches in piles of rice (and some other grains) in a quite different geometry than our conical pile of beads.  At this meeting, Denisov was presenting some quite impressive work from Schall’s group with shear on a 3-d collection of beads, submerged in an index-matched fluid and imaged through the depth of the pile by using a laser sheet to illuminate the beads one slice at a time.  Shortly after this meeting, I decided to create an opportunity to visit these groups!

Fortunately, Peter Schall was very happy to host me in the Soft Matter group at the University of Amsterdam for a brief visit.  I have to say that this is one of the things that I appreciate so much about physics — at least in the research areas that I am active in, researchers are so open to having guests visit.  The open exchange of ideas is really in practice.  I know there are more competitive areas of physics, but in my experience, scientists are almost always happy to talk to me about their results and discuss what I am doing.  It is all too easy to take for granted how unusual and how different from a business environment this openness is.

Science Park flags on a clear, windy day, with the Café Restaurant POLDER (in a historic farmhouse) in the background, and one of the many bike paths on the left

All of the science departments at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have recently moved farther from the central city to a new area known as Science Park.  Science Park hosts a number of research institutes and start-up space in addition to the entire science faculty from the UvA.  The faculty from the UvA are in building 904, a massive building which houses all types of sciences, and an attached but decoupled building to house all of the labs.  The design is intended to allow more collaboration between different scientific disciplines, and this intent does seem to be working. Overall, like most modern buildings I’ve visited in Europe, there was a great deal of natural light.  And, of course, communal space with coffee machines and tea kitchens so that those working there can get together for coffee and tea breaks, or eat lunch together.  This aspect is something I miss in the U.S. — I keep thinking that I should start a regular coffee and cake time, but it hasn’t seemed to work out.


Walking up to Building 904 for the first time


The lobby of building 904, home to the UvA Faculty of Science

During my visit, I spent a very productive morning talking to Dmitry Denisov comparing the rice pile results to my bead pile results.  And I talked to most of the graduate students about their different projects and toured the labs, which is always the best part for me as an experimentalist.  I was really struck by the variety of things that they are working on, and also by the number of ways that the Casimir effect can come into play.  Since I previously only remembered the name of the Casimir effect and not the actual effect, this was good information for me to learn!

The transition from the lab building (on the left) to the office building (on the right).


In addition to visiting the University of Amsterdam, I traveled all the way across the country to the University of Twente!  Located in Enschede, it’s only a few kilometers from the border with Germany, and it took me about two hours door to door from my rental apartment in Amsterdam.  There are quite a number of researchers working on soft matter in the Netherlands, so I wanted to visit as many as possible.  In Twente, I got to learn quite a bit more than I knew about non-Newtonian fluids (like the famous oobleck mixture of cornstarch and water) and also talked for a long time about craters and avalanches resulting from drops of liquid impacting a granular base.

The lovely, open campus of the University of Twente, on a bit of a grey day




Besides visiting Twente, I also visited the University of Wageningen. Wageningen and Twente are both much newer universities than UvA.  Wageningen has been building rapidly in the last 10 or 20 years, and its campus is very modern.  One thing I really liked as a visitor was that the name of each building was incorporated into the building itself, so that you could tell from a huge distance away which building is which.



I was visiting the Helix building, which was plainly this building here:

The Helix building at Wageningen University

Another view of the Helix building, just because I like the picture with the reflections in the windows.

The brightness of the sun may make it a little difficult to read in the small photo (click for full size!) but in person, you could see HELIX from quite a distance.  And, inside, the space inside the HELIX-marked windows was a three-story atrium with public spaces and of course, coffee and tea kitchens.

Wageningen is organized rather differently than a typical university, which I found interesting.  It is focused on life sciences and the environment, and so the physicists there are working on things related to those areas.  Overall, very interesting.  And when I saw the room of 10 confocal microscopes just waiting to be used, I nearly swooned.  I don’t use confocal microscopes yet, but I know what they cost, and if I had access to a room full of 10 of them, I’d figure out something to do with them!

De Boelelaan 1081 at the VU. Note the cool griffin on the sign — the griffin is the university’s emblem, and its wings form a V.





Finally, near the end of my visit, came my meeting with Rinke Wijngaarden at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, or the VU.  The VU was founded in 1880 — the fact that it is Vrije or “free” means that it was not controlled by the church or the state, so that it was free to pursue knowledge in the general interest of society.

Professor Wijngaarden has changed research areas and no longer works in granular material, but we had a very productive discussion about some of his results in rice, and how his findings might relate to our beadpile experiment.  There are a number of differences in the behavior of our spherical beads and their rice grains, and there are also a number of things about the system that they were easily able to measure that we have a hard time measuring, because of the difference in our pile geometries.

Overall, the discussions with Wijngaarden and with Dmitry Denisov about the bead pile and rice pile were absolutely the scientific highlights of the trip.  I came away with many new ideas about tracking the pile and analyzing the data.  Very exciting!

This post is already rather long, so I will have to make another post with more of the tourist-type activities and photos.  I know you need to see some tulips (I did!), so that will come shortly.  But in the meanwhile, here is a lovely canal and windmill for your viewing pleasure.

Just another walk home from Science Park, with beautiful light on the canal and a windmill in the distance.

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Engine of Computation

Chaotic systems are extremely sensitive to the initial conditions and parameters that define them. Minute perturbations of the parameters can even convert chaotic motion to periodic motion. This alliance between control methods and physics — cybernetical physics — opens the door to many applications, including dynamics-based computing. We recently published an article that introduces nonlinear dynamics and its rich, sometimes chaotic behavior as an engine of computation. After reviewing our previous work demonstrating how to compute using nonlinear dynamics, we describe the interrelationship between invariant measures of a dynamical system and its computing power to strengthen the bridge between physics and computation.

Our article was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s first and oldest science journal, which previously published work by Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. Of course, no comparison between our work and theirs is intended, except via a logarithmic scale. 🙂

Title page of volume 1 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world's first and oldest science journal

Title page of volume 1 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s first and oldest science journal

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Thermal exam on the plane

Robin missed his Thermal exam – because he presented his research on ‘Posters on the Hill’ in Washington, DC.

But Wooster offers exceptional experiences as, for example, taking your make-up exam on the plane back from DC to Cleveland.

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March Meeting 2017 – Guest Blog by Michelle Bae ’19


March Meeting 2017 — New Orleans!

The hotel lobby. Quoting Jackie here, “Not a dump.”


When we arrived at the hotel I had a mini scream-out-of-excitement inside. Yes, because it was fancy and was my first time seeing a bathtub since winter break, but mostly because there was a sign for the times for the APS meeting shuttle in the lobby, and people were walking around with APS name tags and fancy poster holders. I was there for the first conference of my life and this was the official stamp that I was there.


The highlight of the meeting has to be presenting my summer research at the poster session.  Just before the poster session started, my advisor Dr. Lindner asked me to go over my presentation for the poster, and I was so nervous that I completely froze, just standing there not saying anything. Then my phone rang so I took advantage of the excuse, and Dr. Lindner went to check out another poster while I talked. By the time he came back to check on me, the phone call was long over, and I had been explaining my summer research work to a professor from a Korean university. This was pretty awesome!  Since I knew where he was from, we briefly spoke Korean, and he explained graduate programs at his school if I was interested in studying there. It was really nice to see people from all over the world come to collaborate on and discuss physics, especially since I have lived overseas for most of my life.

Dr. Lindner suggested the stadium shape when I wanted a non-traditional poster but could not make an ellipse work. I think the poster turned out great!

It is amazing how natural everything felt during the presentation. I stood by my poster for three hours but the time passed by so fast that I felt I could go on much longer. It was also amazing how the assumption was that I was pursuing at least a Masters degree, or even a PhD. Those people who realized I was an undergrad did so because they recognized The College of Wooster name. One person exclaimed, “Is this another one from Wooster?” and stood there looking astonished.

A screenshot of my schedule. Apparently I missed the “phone books” they used to give out and had to download a phone app instead.

After my presentation was over there were still so much to do. I attended a couple of smaller talks, as well as larger sessions by Nobel Laureates and the author of the Physics of Superheroes James Kakalios. Most of the physics was beyond me, and I could not even understand the questions that people were asking the presenters, but it was still great to see how the researchers in the field were interacting, and the wide range of topics open to pursuit. My favorite talk was the Physics of Superheroes, which included such sensitive questions such as which comic universe is more scientifically accurate, DC or Marvel.





A more personal memory from the conference, we picked up these lighting up toys from the Mathematica booth. My dad and grandfather used to bring back little toys like this from the conferences they attended when I was younger, so me bringing back a memento from a conference I attended makes it feel official.

A lit up stellated icosahedron AKA ‘Spikey’



I am still not 100% over the trip. A part of me is still at the conference, with the excitement, the thousands of people at one large convention center all for one purpose of exploring physics. I would encourage anyone who is interested in their field, to attend the meeting and present their work, even if they are shy like I am. Attending the March Meeting has been a great experience and I look forward to attending the meetings to come.

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March Meeting 2017 — Cool Science Equipment – Guest blog by Zane

Guest Blog by Zane Thornburg ’18

I think besides my presentation, my favorite experience from this year’s APS March Meeting was my interaction with the wonderful scientists from TeachSpin. They had a booth in the Exhibit Hall that was open the whole week. I remember walking up to it on Monday simply because of our school’s use of some of their advanced laboratory apparatuses. The gentleman at the booth Monday evening invited us to breakfast the following morning and gave me the flier for the breakfast. In the morning, I was the only one awake and raring to go at 6:30 AM on Tuesday morning, so I went by myself. I showed up early as I do and got to speak with the gentleman from the night before and another scientist from TeachSpin over some beignets and coffee. Others slowly leaked in and after a small amount of time, I realized that everyone else was either a scientist for TeachSpin or an instructor at a college or university.
I soon discovered that the breakfast was a meeting for the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association (ALPhA). I was asked five or six times how long I’d been teaching at The College of Wooster because I looked like a younger instructor. Each time, this was followed by me saying that I am a student and then being asked what year of my PhD program I am in. To everyone’s surprise I am an undergraduate student who was invited to the breakfast. Everyone there was very kind though, and I even met a friend of College of Wooster President Sarah Bolton from Williams College. At the meeting, TeachSpin unveiled their newest apparatus that can be used for a slew of condensed matter experiments. I was awestruck by the thought and creativity put into the new apparatus. After seeing it used for only a few experiments, I think it should be in every advanced undergraduate laboratory lineup of apparatuses.
Apart from the meeting, my conversations with the scientists from TeachSpin throughout the week were among the most pleasant and thought-provoking. They encouraged me to think about my future in different ways than I have been recently, which has lifted my spirits quite a bit. I also got to have conversations about some very intriguing physics around the new condensed matter apparatus as well as conversations about my own research interests. They also inquired if I was presenting this week and I told them I was to give an oral presentation. They were very encouraging and helped to lift a lot of my fear surrounding my talk. I felt bad that so much of the conversation seemed to be around what I think–I did listen to a lot of their thoughts as well, but I would have liked to hear more about them and what it is like to work at TeachSpin and what the rest of their careers have been like. They have just started a “Food Truck for the Physics Mind”, and I hope they get to bring this truck of experiments to Wooster in the coming year.  I would very much like to speak with them again and hear more about their lives as physicists in laboratory education.

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March Meeting 2017 – Presenting at the Meeting – Guest blog by Zane

Being an undergraduate presenter in a room full of research faculty

Guest Blog by Zane Thornburg ’18
For this year’s APS March Meeting, I decided that it would be a great idea to give an oral presentation on my summer REU research with Dr. Paul Bonvallet on Osorb from this past summer. I didn’t give any thought at the time about what sort of crowd would be present in the room and would be presenting around me. On the first day of the conference, I sat down in another session and realized all the presenters were research professors mixed with an occasional graduate student or post-doc. I became very nervous for my presentation immediately and worked every night to make it better between Monday and Thursday afternoon. I thought it was done upon arrival, but I will always find ways I want to change my work.


Zane presents his work in New Orleans

There I was, Thursday afternoon. I showed up to the start of the session to get a feel for how all the other talks before me went, of which there were nine. I had gone through my presentation multiple times that morning in preparation so I was feeling pretty good. I was nervous the whole week about the presenter before me, because I had looked him up and it turned out he is a distinguished professor working on polymers and I have 10 weeks of experience. I became nervous for a different reason at the end of his presentation, though. He ended up going several minutes over his allotted 12 minutes, which seemed to me to increase the tension in the room, so I had to start my talk with that feeling in my head. I ended up finishing right before the 10 minute mark out of my 12 minutes, which was the fastest I had ever given the presentation. The others in the room seemed pleased with a concise talk. I received a single question at the end, which I was able to answer quickly since I had just reviewed Dr. Bonvallet’s specific aims for the project moving forward that morning.
Overall, I feel like it went really well and I encourage anyone who does any interesting research to present at this conference. Even if you don’t have years of work to report, presenting is still an exhilarating experience.

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Frustration & Perpetual Motion

Momentum conservation (or Newton’s third law) ensures two-way or bidirectional coupling for typical media like guitar strings and spring mattresses. One-way or unidirectional coupling enables the propagation of solitary waves or solitons with diverse behaviors in otherwise dissipative media, but at the expense of both momentum and energy conservation. Nevertheless, one-way media are possible, provided the coupling is powered to conserve overall momentum and energy.

We recently published an article in Chaos describing the design, construction, and dynamics of low-cost mechanical arrays of 3D-printed bistable elements whose shapes interact with wind to couple them one-way. Periodic boundaries enable solitons to annihilate in pairs in arrays with an even number of elements. Solitons propagate indefinitely in odd arrays that frustrate pairing.

Topological frustration and the power of invisible wind ensure perpetual motion, as in the video below. The mechanical analogue of an electronic ring oscillator of inverting NOT gates, the one-way array is a mechanical clock whose ticks are the reversals of its bistable elements. The design, development, and construction of the array involved five undergraduate co-authors and incorporated two Wooster yearlong senior thesis projects and one NSF REU summer project.

Wind blows down, soliton move right. Each bistable element and the gears were 3D printed in nylon plastic.

Wind blows down, soliton move right. Each bistable element and the gears were 3D printed in nylon plastic. The parity (odd) of the array guarantees perpetual motion.

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Wooster Physics at the University of Oregon

Last week I had a wonderful trip to the University of Oregon in Eugene to give a colloquium for the Department of Physics.  This was my first visit to the university, and actually my first visit to Oregon at all!

Wooster Physics and Oregon Physics are connected in a number of ways — Dr. Leary did his Ph.D. there, and he recommended the department to several Wooster physics graduates.  So there are now four Wooster alums doing their graduate work there!  Saul Propp and Amanda Steinhebel are both second year grad students and they recommended me to the colloquium organizers and set up my schedule.

The Wooster physics crew: Nicu, Saul, me, Amanda, and Andrew.  

I spent the morning talking about active matter, flocking, and granular flow with a number of different faculty.  This might have been my favorite part of the day — as a curious person, I find it so wonderful to just sit down with a really smart person and have them explain their current research to you.  For me, these kinds of discussions are where I really see how various areas of physics, which may seem totally different at first, really fit together and complement each other. I love seeing these connections between different fields.  Over my physics career, I’ve changed areas several times (always as a condensed matter experimentalist), so I know a little about a lot of subjects, and I think that gives me a good starting point for these conversations.  I saw some amazing cell behavior, learned a new video analysis tool that I can use right away in my own work, met a post-doc who I knew previously as a grad student at Illinois, talked about gender issues in physics, ate pizza and got totally quizzed by the grad students, talked about art and physics, saw an awesome new AFM and other enviable equipment, and saw some photon anti-bunching results that were only a few hours old.  Sweet!

Atrium at Willamette Hall, the main physics building at the University of Oregon

The physical space at Oregon was really attractive.  I know Oregon has more than its share of cloudy days, and it was raining while I was there, but the physics building is designed with large windows and a central atrium, so that despite the grayness outside, it still felt light inside.

There is a lot of art incorporated into the building as well, although it might be helpful to have some obvious signs explaining the meaning of the art.  The Feynman diagrams in the floor are pretty straight-forward to recognize (if not understand!), but I didn’t find out the meaning behind the cool starry metal-work at the top of the atrium.  Maybe they are just stars… Or hyperbolic surfaces?  Somehow related to DNA?  It’s a mystery, but great art.


Metalwork art installation at the top of the atrium

I am totally a physicist and not a biologist, but I am a gardener and I enjoy seeing how plants are different across our country and in different landscapes.  For example, this tree just outside Willamette Hall was just covered in moss, so you can see this silvery green outlining the trunk and limbs.  And the crocuses were in full bloom elsewhere on campus, while here in Ohio, the snowdrops (which are an earlier bulb than the crocus) have just started blooming in my yard.


Moss-covered tree on campus













I will say it was a lot of travel from Ohio to Oregon for a one-day visit. I was lucky to get a good flight though, so that I only had to change planes once in each direction.  And, the change of planes was in Denver.  I used to live in Denver, so it always feels like home when I fly through the airport.  On the way out, we landed just as the sun was setting behind the Front Range, and it was beautiful.  As my plane left Denver for the trip farther west to Eugene, I made full use of my window seat and played a little game of “what can I recognize”.  It was fully dark by then but I recognized the patterns of the lights, and followed the trail of Interstate 70 from downtown, past our old neighborhood on Sheridan Boulevard, out to Denver West and Golden and up into the mountains.

Sunset behind the Front Range in Denver

All in all an excellent trip!  I have a few more trips planned during this research leave — a research trip coming up soon and another trip to give a colloquium.  Sadly, I’m going to miss the March Meeting in New Orleans, so I am relying on my colleagues (hint, hint!) and the students to blog about that always-amazing meeting!


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PhysCon 2016: A Wooster Student in San Francisco –Guest Blog by Zane Thornburg

View of mountains from our plane window on the way to San Francisco

When I began studying physics, I had no idea that scientists travel so much. In the fall of 2016, I attended the Quadrennial Physics Congress, PhysCon. Before I get to talking about the conference itself, I think it is worth mentioning that this was the farthest I have ever traveled, so I had a lot of excitement knowing it was the first time I had ever been in a different time zone.

The flight there had very tight timing, and we were to have a tour of Google X very soon after our flight was to land. When we arrived and found that we had made it in time for the tour, I was absolutely ecstatic. We stood in a lobby containing over 100 physics students and got to socialize while we waited, and although I had not slept in over 24 hours, I was having a blast meeting physics students from across the country.

The tour of Google X was not at all what I expected. It was more of two and a half hours of talks about their public projects followed by a twenty minute walk-through of the first floor of one of their buildings. At first I was mildly upset, but then I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I am not sure why I ever expected them to show us anything truly confidential, as we were only a bunch of undergraduate students. I must say, though, I highly encourage anyone to look up the public projects of Google X and read about them. The work being done on those projects is astounding.

Justine, Nathaniel, Emma, and Zane in front of Google X

After we got back from Google X, we had a snack and were directed into the ballroom for the opening session and the first plenary speaker. There were over 1000 physics undergraduates in that room, and it was a beautiful sight. The first plenary speaker was Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discussed many exciting recent discoveries as well as unsolved mysteries in astrophysics. Although I have never had much interest in astronomy beyond being an amateur astronomer, she made me feel like I am missing out by not studying astrophysics. At the end of her talk, the floor was opened to questions. This was promptly ended when a student rudely inquired about her feeling of “being cheated out of a Nobel Prize.”

The next morning we had breakfast with volunteering professional scientists. I sat down apart from the rest of the group with a younger woman who works at Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory. Some of the other students at this table seemed very self-centered with the conversation and kept interrupting as I tried to listen to her stories, one of which may be the most hilarious lab safety story I have ever heard. I have tried telling it, but she told it much better.   We then had the pleasure to hear Dr. Neil Turok speak. I don’t think I got much out of the science in his talk other than laughter from hearing him tease the ideas of theories such as multiverse theory and string theory. What I really picked up from his talk was something he said at the beginning that was something along the lines of saying, “In science, there is still room for individual brilliance, but the day of the independent scientist is over. The big problems of today are too difficult for any one person.”

View of the bay from our hotel in San Francisco

The afternoon consisted of a workshop in which groups had to make something that solved a problem out of construction paper. The required materials and functions were given by drawing three random cards from a deck. Brainstorming and working with individuals from across the country was compelling since we had many different thoughts and ideas from having different backgrounds. The group Nathaniel Moore and I worked with designed mobile greenhouses to traverse the surface of Mars to stay with the sunlit side of the planet. This was followed by a talk from Dr. Persis Drell, which I found to be inspirational in the area of diversity in STEM. During the questions after the talk, a white male asked her what actions white males should take to want to make STEM environments more comfortable for women and minorities. I found this question to be important and have decided to ask that question myself whenever I can because I cannot understand what needs to be done since I do not experience the discomfort of not being a white male. Her response to the question was for white males to not be afraid to stand up to people who are discriminating against others and to not show strange behavior that might make someone feel they are out of place. After the plenary session, there were three workshops from which we had to choose one. Nate and I went to “What is Grad School Really Like?” It turned out to be a panel session from which I feel I did not learn much. I’m not sure what all I hoped to get from that session, but I don’t feel like I learned much that will be useful to me.

AIP President Robert Brown and Zane at the PhysCon dance

The events of the evening are still one of the best highlights in my mind. After dinner, we had the opportunity to go to a PhysCon dance party. Not half an hour after it started, I noticed that the president of the American Institute of Physics, Dr. Robert Brown, had showed up. I thought it was amazing that he showed up to see all of the students dance, but then he handed his jacket to someone and joined us on the dance floor. I thought I had to be dreaming. There I was, doing the Cupid Shuffle with the president of the AIP. He was done dancing after just a few songs, so I went over to him after he was finished and introduced myself and told him that I admired him for joining us on the dance floor. He gave me some advice in response, “Never stop being around young people.” The rest of the dance was great too, even though my dancing skills are quite poor and mostly involve flailing around. Also, I have never heard so much music from the early- to mid- 2000s in one night.

The last morning and early afternoon were composed of a plenary talk by the string theorist Dr. S. James Gates and two other workshops. Later in the afternoon, there was a plenary talk given by Dr. Eric Cornell. I found his plenary talk to be very inspirational in several regards. To begin, he told us that he would not be discussing the Bose-Einstein condensate, but would be discussing his more recent research in trying to measure the dipole moment of an electron. I found it difficult not to laugh at one of his comments. He was giving us the introduction to the research and he said that he had some difficulties with some of the background regarding ions when he started. This is where he inserted the comment, “My chemistry level is that of a high school freshman at best.” I just found that comment to be amusing. Near the end of the talk, he spoke briefly about his feelings toward taking on a completely new area of research. He told us he felt that he was in way over his head with the new area of research at times and told us to always challenge ourselves. Hearing a Nobel laureate say that he is in over his head is something I never thought I would hear.

At the end of the talk, the floor was opened to questions and Dr. Cornell told us that we could ask him about anything including his asymmetry (he is missing his left arm if you aren’t aware). Someone did ask about his arm, which turned out to be a tear-jerking story. One of the other questions asked was for a brief description of the timeline of his career since he had mentioned his regular life events accompanying his work leading to the Nobel Prize. We ended up getting a five to ten minute overview of his life, which I think was one of the most influential things I have heard in a research talk. I felt awestruck and happy to hear about the life of a Nobel laureate that sounded very commonplace. He also made some comments regarding his recognition he was given and his gift that were hilarious. His comment after being given his gift was, “Swag!”

After the talk, the second poster session began (we had missed the first). There were literally hundreds of posters being presented by undergraduates. I could write another entire blog post purely on everything I learned during that poster session. The quality of the work being presented as well as the presentations was incredibly high, and even included work in physics education and outreach. As the poster session was ending and I was walking out of the poster area, but I noticed someone was walking the opposite direction into the poster session. After closer observation, I noticed that the person was Eric Cornell. All of the other plenary speakers had been hounded by students after their talks, so I did not get to meet any of them. I knew he wanted to get to see some of the posters, so I did not want to take up a lot of his time. I walked over to him, though, since there was no one else gathering around him, and meeting him one on one was truly delightful and humbling.

The last events of PhysCon were a banquet followed by the last plenary talk given by Patrick Brady. Sadly, the banquet was not very enjoyable. The food was very good, but I felt uncomfortable at the table we had seated ourselves at. After the talk began, I realized it was going to be another LIGO talk. I understand that it is one of the most astounding experiments in recent physics, and I find it to be amazing and exciting, but I had already heard talks about it multiple times. This combined with my discomfort at the table and my desire to sleep before our early morning flight led me to leave and go to sleep.

Overall, PhysCon is a true highlight of my undergraduate career in physics. I would recommend the event to anyone and everyone who can find their way to the next one. I am so glad I have chosen to go into physics, not only because of the incredible ways we find to explain and predict physical phenomena, because the people I have met and the places I’ve gone and will go are astounding.

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Harvesting Wind Energy for Signal Detection

Wind is free and ubiquitous and can be harnessed in multiple ways. We recently published an article in the Physical Review demonstrating mechanical stochastic resonance in a tabletop experiment that harvests wind energy to amplify weak periodic signals detected via the movement of an inverted pendulum. Unlike earlier mechanical stochastic resonance experiments, where noise was added via electrically driven vibrations, our broad-spectrum noise source is a single flapping flag.

This research results from a novel collaboration between The College of Wooster and Grinnell College over several years and includes six undergraduate coauthors. The first version of the apparatus was created in the Taylor Hall’s shop at Wooster and used wooden wheels and grocery-store syrup for damping! The design evolved over several years, with the final version at Grinnell sporting shiny aluminum U-channels and 3D-printed plastic wheels.

Mechanical Stochastic Resonance

Schematic of the mechanical stochastic resonance apparatus. At lower right, a wind-blown flapping flag delivers noise to the main axle via a slipless pulley. At lower left, a rotary motor delivers a subthreshold sinusoidal signal to the main axle indirectly via a tensioned slipping belt. At upper left, a bistable inverted pendulum rotates back and forth between two stops.

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