Friday, December 28, 2007

Fall 2007 Finals

I survived another round of finals with better-than-expected results.

E/M Theory was predictably nightmarish, with a full semester of memorization required and no hints as to what might be needed. As it turned out, he did not ask any questions at all from the last two chapters, which is just plain silly (but hardly my only complaint of the instruction), as those were the only two chapters we had not been tested on. That did not keep me from totally blowing two questions, but they were not hard questions - just happened to require formulas I did not memorize (of the couple hundred possible). I had already estimated that I only needed a 45% on the final to receive a B for the course (but an 85% needed for an A), so the final grade surprised me. Course grade: A-

Classical Mechanics was not as tough as it could have been, although I could have done better. Just as in E/M, I blew two questions, but in this case, it was just plain brain meltdown. They were not hard questions; I was just under temporary idiocy. Thanks to the marvels of heavy curving, I managed to come out on top. Course grade: A

Introduction to Applied Mathematics finally started getting interesting in the last few chapters (Complex Analysis). I studied the hardest for this exam for some reason, going over nearly all of the suggested practice problems throughout the entire semester. Given that I was going into the final with a low- to mid-80s average, I was surprised at the final grade. I suspect I managed to pull off nearly 100% on the final. Course grade: A-

My cumulative GPA has now been scratched (3.95), which is bad news in some ways, although still quite good, of course. As long as it was a perfect 4.00, I had a vested interest in having the best scores in class - now an A- does not seem as bad. Fortunately, I have only 4 more classes (well, two lecture-based classes, a major lab and a research project) remaining.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Out, Out Damned Apathy!

Another day of studying nearly done.

On a positive note, while firmly not studying earlier today, I was analyzing my remaining classes required to graduate. Looks like I can dump two of the courses I was not really interested in anyway (Thermal Physics and Quantum Mechanics) for one class I am interested in (Astrophysics) and a second term of Senior Research. While dumping those two classes goes directly against an advisor's suggestion (because of applicability to future graduate studies), at this point grad school is not looking like a highly-probable event, so I am more interested in taking courses of interest than courses of future necessity.

I sat down with Dr. Michael Summers (my former astrobiology teacher) and we discussed some nice possibilities for research next semester. While many options are open, I will probably stick to work I started earlier this year--mathematical modeling of potential atmospheres for Pluto's moon, Charon. It is interesting work and I also get to do some programming in IDL, which is not too bad (if substantially different from what I am used to in C/C++).

In any case, I am sufficiently recharged to finish studying tonight for tomorrow's Applied Math and Classical Mechanics finals. I still cannot muster much desire to study for E/M Theory (Thursday exam), though. (Knowing I only need about a 44% on it to get a B in the class does not help much!)

Finals Week

It's that lovely time of the semester - trying to remember things your prof mentioned in one class back in August and September which you hoped you would never see again. Alas for the Comprehensive Final Exam. Of the three finals (two back-to-back), only one is not comprehensive (which is good - that one will be hard enough).

Unfortunately, E/M is comprehensive and that is very possibly the hardest course I have had so far. Adding to the pain, the prof has indicated that no equations will be given and refused to tell us which of the over 200 formulas covered this semester we might need to have memorized for the final exam.

Math should be relatively painless (only relatively - dealing with Green's and Stoke's respective theorems can often be painful, even though they are meant to make things easy).

Mechanics is the only exam that is not comprehensive, which is good for us - with a class average of only around 60% for the prior two exams, I think he was worried that nobody would even bother showing up for a comprehensive final.

A full sense of apathy has taken over my brain, which is not helping matters. Ah well... back to studying. Now, was it Green's 1st or 2nd Identity which had the Laplacian of g? Oh, right, it's in both, but in a different place... sigh.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Continuing Education

Courses continue in a sort of lackadaisical fashion (in terms of my participation, not necessarily the course information).

Classical Mechanics has gotten around to Orbital Mechanics as of today, so we could be seeing some cool stuff now. (Kepler's Laws out of the way.)

E/M Theory is just plain uninteresting. I don't think a single chapter topic has sparked an interest.

Applied Math is actually interesting right now. We're on Complex Analysis which is, a) surprisingly easy (considering the topic name) and b) sort of fascinating, the way it can be applied to the number work we're all used to seeing, but revealing a depth behind how things work which was pretty much hidden in all prior coursework.

I have registered for the next semester already - Thermal Physics and Modern Physics with Applications. One taught by prof unknown to me, the other by someone I have never had but respect based on my encounters with her to date.

Two other courses offered next semester (of the slim variety available) look interesting, but the most-intriguing of the two, Atmospheric Physics, is only offered Mondays from 7:20pm-10pm, which is not intriguing. The other, Physics of the Interstellar Medium, might work, though - it takes place immediately following my (current) last class of the day. I might see if I can get permission to sit in and listen to the lectures without actually signing up; I have no desire to receive credit for - or pay for - classes that are not necessary for me to graduate. I suppose that makes me somewhat of a leech, but I consider it more a pursuit of random knowledge - I would go broke very quickly if I paid for all the random information I access.

Second to last mid-term exam in a week (E/M). At least, I think it's the second to last. I know I have another Math exam (some day) and that I do not have another Mechanics exam (prior to finals). I am pretty certain this is the last "mid-term" for E/M as well. Bleh.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Beyond the Mid-Terms

Well, I am glad THAT week is over. All three exams passed. A+ in E/M, B in Math (highest grade in class, though - I don't know if he curves) and unknown in Mechanics. No idea how he's going to curve that test when most of us did so poorly. I did complain about the one problem, however (the only one I did very badly on) - while I am sure he fully desires us to have every equation from Physics I memorized, he has been teaching long enough that he should not expect it. Having to pull a friction equation out of my head (from Spring 99 - same teacher, coincidentally) without any warning that such would be needed was a bit of unnecessary stress during the exam. I am guessing that I am running about a B/B+ in that class, only because of the curve (my exam scores are lousy, but they are still better than the average).

After that, it was slacking for the long weekend (something I am way too good at) and then last-minute prep for Halloween. On the positive side, I finally got to see Comet Holmes through both my 16x70 binocs and my 8" SC telescope. Way cool. Too bad I did not get everything set up until after all the trick-or-treaters were done for the night!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mid-Term Hell

Since I am taking three courses this semester, of course all three profs must decide to give exams in the same week.

E/M down... Mechanics and Applied Math to go. Either E/M was a lot easier than I expected it to be (and that it should be), or I have utterly failed the test. We'll see!

Thursday night is de-stress night. I don't care where I am or what else I may be doing, I will be doing a lot of relaxing in any way I can find.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Joined Facebook today, under subtle peer pressure from the Physics Club (which uses that for updates and communication over the somewhat slower second-hand method of the school website). Another distraction!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

First Exams Passed

The first exams have come and gone in both my physics classes (math still to come). I did tolerably well (barely, in my view).

In Mechanics, I completely blanked on a very easy problem, which ended up comprising most of the points lost (15 of 21 points lost out of a total of 90 on the exam). Lousy score, but apparently most of the class did much worse, so it should turn into a B or even A - the professor has not stated how he will curve things. E/M went slightly better 88% (B+). No curving apparent in this class, but he is pretty generous on grading.

As always, I will continue to do things at an unreasonably late time period - apparently, one cannot entirely beat procrastination out of one's system. At least I do not (usually) wait until the night before to do homework anymore (although slacked two extra days this week - damned Halo 3!).

Also as always, the Physics and Astronomy Club scheduling is problematic for me. Meeting times are either Tuesday late afternoon (giving me a 3-4 hour break on campus without too much to do - I suppose I could study!) or Wednesday afternoon, which conflicts with Beta's chess club (for which I am a volunteer helper). I'll try to make all I can! Fortunately, Astrophysics & Space Physics Journal Club is perfectly scheduled (mid-day on alternate Wednesdays. Now if I could just get the rest of the world to schedule to my convenience.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Current Publications

Scientific American: Decided to keep this one going. While not deeply useful for astrophysics, it has interesting articles still.

Technology Review (MIT): They changed their subscription to 6 times per year. It is good enough reading to keep it going.

Science: I decided to let this subscription drop. While very interesting, it is nearly entirely over my head (even when the topic is familiar – entirely over my head when on topics I do not study). The weekly delivery also makes for massive data overload for me. If I could learn the trick of only scanning it and cherry-picking the data I pull out of it, it might be more useful. However, it still is mostly over my head, so not really worth the trouble. I will stick with just downloading necessary articles for Journal Club. Oddly enough, even though I let the sub lapse in June and was called in mid-July about it (and told them I would not resubscribe at this time), the magazine kept coming into late August!

Maybe I can find a subscription which is only monthly (at best) but still appropriate for my studies. In the meantime, I get a lot of current science-based news online.

Atypical Non-procastination

In an entirely unusual move for me, I have completely updated the blog from the "diary" I had been keeping (taking out commentary on various persons I have met - not really appropriate for a possibly public blog). I'm all up to date!

Now I just need to survive the semester.

Oh yeah, while I mentioned back an earlier post that I had given up computer games "forever," that of course has not stuck. Some addictions cannot be put off forever. I play one online game mildly (and should even cut that back) and a number of console games. Hopefully I can keep it under control.

Typical Procrastination

In my typical fashion, I have put off any work on this blog until a moment of boredom. This time it took me just shy of a year - that may be a record for computer laziness for me.

I'm in my third semester back at GMU - only two more to go after this one until the B.S. in Physics is mine. While I have slacked on the blogger aspect, I did at least keep a log. Unfortunately, that's on my desktop machine and I am sitting here with my MacBook at Conservatory Conservatory while Beta daughter (second-born of the Twin Dragons for whom this blog is named) takes her lessons, so no reference notes. Look for more details of the past two semesters "later."

This time out, I am taking Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetic Theory and Intro. to Applied Mathematics. The Math and E/M Theory courses required as core courses. Mechanics is on the Electives list - the standard "pick 12 credits from this list of classes" thing. While my preference would be to take something more interesting to me - Intro to Astrophysics is a big one available this semester - my advisors have suggested Mechanics as a better foundation for ANY field of physics I might go into later on, including astrophysics. So here I am.

The big coincidence of the semester is that Classical Mechanics, essentially a sequel to University Physics I (just at a much higher level - Junior level vs. Freshman), is being taught by the same prof who I had for Physics I back in Spring 1999. It's also odd that one student sharing both my physics classes is, by my reckoning, a first semester sophomore and another, also in both of these classes is a last semester senior - a very odd mix for a Junior-level course.

So far, it is not stressing me too much - but the first exams will be in about two weeks (and looks like two on the same day, lucky me). Those always generate stress for me because I usually put off my textbook reading until exam time. (Yes, I should have learned by now. Some things do not ever change.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Spring 2007

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

• MATH203 – Matrix Algebra – Instructor: James F. Lawrence. A somewhat rambling instructor, the issue isn’t helped by a number of very rude students who heckle him on occasion. Grade: A.
• PHYS262 – University Physics III (no lab this semester, though) – Instructor: Robert Ehrlich (Physics Dept. Chair). Seemed much more interesting this time than I remembered from my first attempt at it in Spring 2000. Grade: A.
• ASTR428 – Relativity and Cosmology (Removed from course plan 12/1/2006) – Instructor: Joseph Weingartner. Even though this course requires Physics III (which I am taking the same semester), and parts of it not taught until the end of the semester at that (modern physics), Joe recommended I take it. He classifies it as very hard, but it is only offered every odd Spring semester, so it’s either now or 2009! He recommended I study up on Maxwell’s Equations (the differential forms), applicable Physics III material (relativity, etc.), vector calculus (esp. the Del operator) and start reading David Griffith’s “”Introduction to Electrodynamics,” which is the textbook for PHYS305 (Electromagnetic Theory), which I am not due to take until at least Fall 2007. I will have only two weeks to evaluate the course for difficulty before the Drop date passes for no tuition cost. Ultimately, it turned out better to not take it – not because of the difficulty, but due to time constraints on other upper level classes, several of which are also only offered every other Spring. Unfortunately, I am not likely to get this course now until perhaps as a graduate student, if pursue my grad work at GMU.
• PHYS408 – Senior Research – Instructor/Advisor: Shobita Satyapal. I would be doing this research anyway this semester. However, instead of being paid for it, it will give me three credits towards my graduation requirements. At the end of the semester, a paper and presentation (before faculty and students) was required. Technically, my first senior-level course, but I will save the real “senior” celebration for when I take an actual 400-level lecture or lab course (402, 407), likely in Fall 2008. My project ended up as a study of various methods for determining star formation in other galaxies (concentrating on infrared methods, but also addressing some visible light and ultraviolet). End result - not a statistically-significant sample, but my results showed that infrared made a far-better spectrum for this study than anything else. Grade: A

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fall 2006

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

Back in the action. Funny how all the other students look so much younger than they even did last time. (What a difference between looking at them with a 33-year-old’s eyes in Spring 1999 versus my now-ancient 41-year-old’s eyes.) Oy vay.

Since I am technically a senior (those Temple credits again), I get a lot of senior-related mail (and I get to register for courses first!), such a graduate information announcements and such. I even got put on a listserv for postgraduate fellowship information, which they do for GMU’s “most accomplished undergraduates” (must be the 4.0 GPA). Thanks in large part to all those extra emails, I have become pretty psyched up about grad school and have begun to do prep work for it now already. Anything which keeps my enthusiasm active is good. I do not want to backslide into heavy fiction reading again or, even worse, into computer games.

The only bad thing about being back nearly full-time at school is that it cuts heavily into my physical hobbies – kung fu, bicycling, etc. I need to come up with a way to add workouts back into my schedule without giving up family time! I suspect this will eventually result in getting up at 6 AM (or earlier) in order to do some physical stuff then and still be back in time to get the kids up for school at 7.

Scientific American: We have been getting this for years, of course, although they target the writing for a very general audience. I may drop it next time the subscription comes up. There are publications I can read which are more appropriate to my studies.

Technology Review (MIT): Very interesting, but also not oriented towards hard science (although it reports on some of it).

Science: I joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( as a professional (need to be a full-time student for student access – bugger!). That gets me the weekly Science magazine, which definitely contains current, high-end research papers (most of which are entirely over my head) as well as online access to every issue of the magazine back to its first issue in July 1880 (funded by Thomas Edison).

PHYS262 – University Physics II (audit) – Instructor: Neil Goldman. I backed up a semester in Physics for fear of being totally lost. It was probably a good idea – in fact, backing up to Physics I would even have been a good idea if I wanted to lose yet another semester. The first exam went well. No dropping out now anyway, but at least it’s not for grade. The instructor is mediocre – while I do not actively dislike him, I almost certainly will avoid taking any class by him in the future. Second exam went poorly, for which I blame the instructor in large part. Due to conflicting schedules (Astrophysics journal review on alternate Thursdays) and my (now) dislike of the instructor, I am ditching all recitations of this class and will no longer bother to show up for exams. The last month of classes I pretty much skipped altogether.

MATH214 – Differential Equations (audit) – Instructor: Stephen Saperstone. Back for a third time with him! He sure looks a lot older than he did last time. Oh wait, so do I. Oh well. I still enjoy his teaching, although I hate some of the Java apps he likes. (Maple 10 rocks!) I started slacking on homework about 2/3 of the way through and due to a time crunch (he brought his last exam forward two days just as the last Astrobiology exam moved back a week to the same day, plus normal weekend/family duties), I decided to ditch the last two exams (because of the study time involved).

ASTR301 – Astrobiology (credit) – Instructor: Mike Summers. This was my only course for credit this semester and my first junior-level course (301). Mike is a good, personable instructor (and a scientist on three separate NASA missions or pre-missions at once – New Horizons, ARES and AIM) and he is actually generating some interest for me in this topic, which I did not even know existed as a science before picking courses for this semester. The hard part (maybe) is that the course is so much different than anything I have taken for a long, long time. No number crunching. No equations, theorems and procedures to memorize. Test questions are answered in sentence or small paragraph format (no calculators needed!). Only 7 students total in the class, which is also an unusual format for me – I like the feel of it. Biggest problem is the biology orientation of the course (unsurprising, given the topic) – biology was never really my strong point and it shows in how easily those chapters lose me. Grade: A.

Worked with Dr. Shobita Satyapal and her post-doc Brian O'Halloran to learn some astrophysics-related tools (CUBISM, SMART) which I will use next semester. Did some data crunching, but ultimately did not use any of that information.

After much course research and discussions with advisors Philip Rubin (physics) and Joe Weingartner (astronomy), I have come up with a course load for the remaining semesters here. I could conceivably graduate as early as Spring 2008, but that would require a vastly overloaded schedule, especially in Fall 2007 (15 credit hours, including a 9-hour lab section). Since I am not likely to be able to sustain that kind of workload, I have opted for a graduation target of Fall 2008, using 9 credits in each of the 2007 semesters and then 13 credits total in 2008. That should allow me to keep up my side of the family support without proceeding unreasonably slow in my coursework.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Spring 2006

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

I applied to GMU to enter as a Returning Student. Got accepted with no problem (sure, it has been over 6 years, but I also have a 4.0 GPA). Began studying some calculus to try to get back into the swing of things, but it fell to the wayside (no surprise). Continued wasting my life in computer games until May or June, when I gave them up (hopefully) for good. Unfortunately, this was just before the kindergarten school year let out, which kept me too busy for the rest of the summer to concentrate on studying. Heading back to school cold!

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Dark Ages (of my Physics education)

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

A 6-year hiatus from studies while I helped raise our kids. Martial arts hobby embraced. Far, far too many hours of my life lost in computer games. And then… magic! The girls headed off to 1st grade in Fall 2006, freeing up my schedule from 8:30am-4:00pm every school day! Back to school!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Spring 2000

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

I started this semester and then dropped out just before the deadline. We had moved into the new house, but were having a ton of trouble getting the contractors to finish things correctly (6 months after closing!). Also we were working on creating a family, which added to mental stress. Finally, none of the topics were particularly thrilling to me at the time (although all were required).

University Physics III (dropped) – Instructor: Indubala Satija (I think – not 100% sure). Not sure whether it was the subject matter, the instructor, or the home/house stress, but this class never jelled for me. I was definitely happy about my decision to drop.
University Physics III Lab (dropped) – No idea who was instructing this one. Dropped along with everything else that semester.
Differential Equations (dropped) – Instructor: Stephen Saperstone. I liked him enough to sign up for another of his courses. Although I eventually dropped, it was not related to his class.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fall 1999

(This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.)

Jumped to sophomore-level courses this time.

University Physics II (credit) – Instructor: Maria Dworzecka (Physics Department Chair). Good instructor, interesting class. A, of course. I wish I could have her as a prof again.
University Physics II Lab (credit) – Instructor: Joseph Lieb. Not too fun, for all I like lab work in general. Incredible emphasis on error estimates and such which seemed to take far more importance over the rest of the curriculum (which, possibly, was the intent). A grade.
Analytic Geometry and Calculus III (audit) – Instructor: Stephen Saperstone. Good teacher, patient with the need to sometimes explain complex issues over and over. (Maple V rocks!)
Computer Science II (credit) – Instructor: Kevin Mayo. C++ programming. This was all new to me and very interesting. Probably my favorite course so far (oddly enough, since I am not a CS major) and Kevin was a good, fun instructor. If he was teaching the CS III course, I would probably sign up again. Since he is gone, I will let the CS course load drop – those projects take up massive chunks of time.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Spring 1999

[This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.]

Entered George Mason University as a, technically, senior in the Physics program (due to credits transferred in from Temple University). The courses I was taking were all 1st and 2nd semester freshman level, though.

University Physics I (audit) – Instructor: Robert Oerter. Lots of info I should have remembered from the last time I took it, but didn’t.
Analytic Geometry and Calculus II (credit) – My worst course at Temple (D). Don’t remember who taught it. Aced it this time.
Computer Science I (credit) – Instructor: Richard Carver. Okay class, but late in the day (4pm) and nearly 100% review for me. I dozed through much of it. Easy A.

Monday, January 01, 2007


[This post has been backdated to put it the proper order sequentially. It was actually written sometime in early 2007.]

Originally, I was intending (thinking it necessary) to get a B.S. in Physics, followed by a Masters in Physics or Astronomy and then maybe a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. I have since learned that Masters and Doctoral paths are not necessarily linear. They are two different paths to professional life (although some Ph.D. programs grant you a M.S. partway through – that is not quite the same thing). A Master’s degree is not necessarily less-prestigious than a doctoral degree (and for many jobs it is much more useful/valuable), but a Ph.D. grants a much-better chance at landing a research position or a job at a university (teaching or researching or both), my current goal. The disadvantage, of course, is that a Master’s can be pulled off in two years (or even one, if you like pain). A Ph.D. will almost never be pulled off in less than five years and usually even longer (average for astrophysics is 7 years, I understand). But even as a graduate student working towards a Ph.D. I will, by definition, be doing research, so it will be a good experience either way. Of course, the beauty of it all is that, although I do have family obligations to keep, I do not have to worry about income, so no needing to hold a steady job while trying to pull off all this graduate work. Even if it does not help me speed things up, it should reduce some stress. I also do not, technically, need to get a B.S. in Physics – I already have an engineering degree which is sufficient qualification to enter GMU’s (at least) grad program (along with good GRE scores, etc.), but I will probably stick with it at this point – it should get me good recommendations, if nothing else. Time will tell, since my earliest graduation date is Spring 2008 in any case (and more likely Fall ’08 or Spring ’09).