Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another Semester Ends

The Spring 2008 semester is over, the grades are posted. I hear you breathlessly asking, "How did it go?"

Not too badly.

While I only registered for 6 credits this semester (3 lecture, 3 research), I actually sat through 9 credits of lecture. One extra class was by invitation from my research advisor. The other less invited, but he did not seem to mind (after all, I was a more consistent attendee than half the class). The full rundown then...

Senior Research Project - I talked a bunch about my research project here. I did not do any more flux work since my last post, but did continue working on vapor pressures of certain molecules (N2, CH4, CO and a variety of C2H* species) at very low (30-60K) temperatures. I originally was asked to turn in a sort of journal of my efforts for the grade. Before the semester was out, however, Dr. Summers let me know I had already earned an A (yay me!) for my work, but he still wanted me to turn in a paper which might be suitable for publishing on the low temperature vapor pressures. I finished writing that today and will submit it tomorrow for his review/editing.

Modern Physics - This was a very interesting class -- a "survey" course (touching relatively lightly on a number of topics) covering special relativity, introductory quantum physics, Schrodinger's wave functions, perturbation theory and similar fun. My one big regret is that we did not get to the last part of the book, which deals with subatomic particles (quarks and things). That was what I was looking most forward to! The instructor, Dr. Karen Sauer, is engaging and effective. I enjoyed her teaching and look forward to having her again for Senior Physics Lab next semester. The tests were not easy - GRE-based multiple choice plus course-based quantitative questions. No equations were given (just like in the GRE), so we had to memorize all the formulas as well as knowing how to use them. I studied harder for the final exam (5 full days) than I have for any other exam I have ever taken. Result (including her substantial curve to get the class average up to a B): A+ for the course.

Thermal Physics - I just sat in this class, not signing up for it (or talking to the instructor about it) because I was told it was critical for an astrophysics career (it probably is). However, it is not (currently) required to graduate - just one of a list of electives - and I chose to take a second semester of research for more fun. The instructor, Dr. Peter Becker, was not bad, if occasionally a goofball (humor is good, though). The book, however, was horrible. It was written in 1965 and completely unsuitable to today's education environment - just page after page of text spamming your eyeballs without a gap. I could not take it and did not even crack the book after the first week or so. I still took very thorough notes throughout the semester in case it ever becomes important to me.

Atmospheric Physics - Another survey course! (Don't we ever get to learn the real stuff?) This one was taught by Dr. Summers and I sat in it at his request. As expected, it was an enjoyable class full of great slides and interesting information about how the atmosphere works.

All in all, not a bad semester, although I started losing the urge to be in school somewhere in April (about par for me). One more semester of undergraduate courses - currently scheduled for Senior Physics Lab and Introduction to Astrophysics, although I may sit in one or more other classes as well again. We'll see what happens!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Charon Research

Another semester nearly done and I have hardly posted at all. I'll do a full summary once grades are in. For now, my classes are essentially done (one more on Monday night). Now I just have to finish writing up the journal/log for my research project, which I just realized I have not actually talked about before. Fairly briefly, then...

My last research project (with advisor Dr. Shobita Satyapal), done in Spring 2007, was based predominantly on Spitzer Space Telescope (and some older) infrared observations of a variety of galaxies. In that project I did a fairly rough, low sample comparison of various methods of determining star formation rate in galaxies (infrared, UV, visible light, etc.). Ultimately, I determined that infrared was the way to go for a variety of reasons. I am not sure how valid my results were (this was all new to me), but I got some interesting reactions from Shobita and one of her grad students, so that's a plus.

This time around, I am working with Dr. Michael Summers, as I mentioned in an earlier post. He is working up a paper discussing the possibility of Charon having an atmosphere and the composition, density and lifespan of that atmosphere, if present. While the great bulk of the work (and all the theory) is his (and a collaborator's), he has had me running some mathematical models using the IDL programming language. Technically-speaking, I am not really doing Charon research for much of it, because a lot of the models I am running (like determining equilibrium vapor pressures for a variety of gases at very low temperatures) has nothing to do with Charon specifically. Some of it, my earlier work (I actually started this work last May), used Charon parameters, however, so that qualifies. (Current direction of conclusions: yes, Charon most likely does have an atmosphere, which is picks up in part from Pluto's evaporation while it is near enough to the sun.)

Since it is not really a full research project (I have no theory, no position, not much of anything), I am not sure how he will be grading it - hopefully just grading the quality of the programming output I did plus whatever journal I write up talking about my adventures making the models. He has used at least one of my output plots in a talk he gave to other atmospheric sciences, so I can't be too far off in my models.

One thing I have learned about doing this research is that advisors are very hard to contact! Both of my advisors have been very out of the loop with my daily activities. In Shobita's case, she delegated pretty much all of my handling to one of her post-docs. She was out of it enough that my conclusions were a surprise to her - she had not inquired as to my progress for many weeks prior to the final paper. I still have not gotten my graded paper back from her after almost a year of asking. In Mike's case, he is a very busy man - two active NASA missions (New Horizons, AIM), one hopefully soon-to-be-approved mission (ARES) as well as papers he is working on and his class time. It is lucky for me I am sitting in on his atmospheric physics class this semester - it gives me 10 minutes each week to talk to him on our way to the parking lot after class! He apparently has a good number of grad students (like 6-8) working for him, although I only know two of them - neither of which gets much face time either, so at least I know it is not just me.