Posts Tagged ‘experiment’

Fermilab Double-Checking CERN’s (and their own) Math

September 27, 2011 1 comment
Detector used in the MINOS experiment at Fermilab.

Of course the big news of the past week is the OPERA experiment’s measurement of neutrino’s travelling faster than light.

The paper is up on arXiv. I’ve gone through it and nothing jumps out as to what they could have possibly done wrong. Chad Orzel on his blog Uncertain Principles has written a really nice summary of the paper and what the group actually did.

(Aside: I just read How to Teach Physics To Your Dog by Orzel, and I would definitely recommend it to a reader with a budding interest in quantum mechanics.)

Now it looks like the US based Fermilab is going to go over some old data to see if they can support (or contradict) the results of the OPERA experiment.

It was back in 2007 that Fermilab announced the results of their MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) experiment. They also found neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, however they had a much larger margin of error than the OPERA experiment, so they did not receive much attention.

Now, they are going to go back over their old data, as well as add some new data, to see what they find.

“The MINOS experiment has plans to update their original 2007 measurement with a number of improvements, including 10x more data,” wrote MINOS spokesperson Jenny Thomas, a professor of particle physics at University College London in an email to TPM’s Idea Lab.

“We should have a result in 4-6 months as the data is already taken. We just have to measure some of our delays more carefully,” she added. [TPM]

So in 6 months (I know, science is slow!) we will hopefully add another chapter to this fascinating story.


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Build Your Own Cloud Chamber!

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Cloud chambers are nifty little tools which physicists used in the 1920s to 1950s to study ionizing radiation. They were responsible for the discovery of the positron in 1932, which garnered Carl David Anderson the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936.

After the 1950s, the Bubble chamber became the more useful tool to study radiation, but cloud chambers remain the simplest and easiest to build.

In fact, you can even build one yourself! Here’s a cool video demonstrating how they work and how you can build one:


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My Top 10 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels: #2 – Flowers For Algernon

April 29, 2011 1 comment

#2 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)

This is the only book I’ve ever read that has actually made me cry.

Yup, this 200 pound dude has actually starting shedding tears while sitting and reading a book. This  book.

Algernon is a laboratory mouse which has undergone a procedure to increase its intelligence. When the procedure works, the scientists decide to try the procedure on a mentally challenged person named Charlie.

The book is written in the first-person from Charlie’s perspective. Charlie was asked to write progress reports before and after the experiment, and this creates a very unique reading experience.

The first few reports are before the procedure. Charlie has poor grammar, spelling mistakes and finds it difficult to write very much. But you gain a sense of connection with Charlie, especially when he discusses how he is treated by his family and co-workers.

As the procedure begins to take effect, Charlie’s writing becomes more lucid and he actually starts to do his own scientific research. He falls in love. Basically, he begins to live a normal life.

Then, Algernon begins to deteriorate, and Charlie wonders if the same will happen to him.

Despite being published 45 years ago, the themes of ethical scientific research and treatment of the disabled are still very much relevant.

It’s an incredible book that shared the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966.

“all my life I wantid to be smart and not dumb and my mom always tolld me to try and lern just like Miss Kinnian tells me but its very hard to be smart and even when I lern something in Miss Kinnians class at the school I ferget alot.”

– Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

All Entries

#10 – Watership Down

#9 – The Harry Potter Series

#8 – The Wheel of Time Series

#7 – The Stars My Destination

#6 – To Say Nothing of the Dog

#5 – Doomsday Book

#4 – Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

#3 – The Farseer Trilogy

#2 – Flowers for Algernon

#1 – The Martian Chronicles

Teaching Electricity and Magnetism: Part II

March 30, 2011 2 comments
This is the second part of my posts about teaching Electricity and Magnetism (EM). Part I can be found here, which dealt with the confusion of students in learning electricity and magnetism together. Part II deals with a paper looking at ways to help improve teaching methods for EM. The paper is entitled “Using multimedia learning modules in a hybrid-online course in electricity and magnetism“.

When I was still TAing (about 2 years ago) the University was starting to implement a new way of performing tutorial sessions. They were going to do it online. This was done by the students logging into a virtual classroom with the other students and were able to type out questions to the TA. The TA was in a computer lab somewhere and outfitted with an electronic on-screen writing tool (don’t ask me what it’s really called) and would work out problems on their screen by hand, which the students were able to see in the virtual classroom.

When asked if I wanted to participate in this type of tutorial, I refused. Call me a dinosaur (I’m only 26, but whatever) but I wanted to be in the room with the students when I taught them.

But do online and multimedia learning tools help? Or are they worse? That was the topic of this study.

A multimedia learning module (MLM) was developed by the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and implemented as a pre-lecture assignment to students in an introductory physics course. MLMs are interactive online exercises which include flash animations which introduced physics concepts to the students. The MLMs were about 12-15 minutes long.

So the goal of the study was to determine if using MLMs prior to learning the concepts in class resulted in better grades for the students and a better student experience. The study tried them out in an introductory Electricity and Magnetism course in the Fall of 2008 at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

They used two different sections of the course as the control group and the experimental group. The control group (N = 48) had only the traditional coursework. The experimental group (N = 34) used traditional coursework in conjunction with the MLMs. To make sure any increase in performance was not simply due to increased time spent on the material in the experimental group (i.e. classtime + time spent on MLMs) the amount of time spent in the class was reduced by one-third for the experimental group.

Students in the experimental group viewed the MLMs prior to learning the material in class. Both groups were approximately equal in academic performance  prior to taking the course, as determined by a survey.

Student performance after the term was measured by a multiple choice test, as well as the results of answering questions in class using a personal response system called a  “clicker“. Students were also asked to fill out a questionnaire to rate the usefulness of different aspects of the course, such as the textbook or the MLM.

Students who used the MLM showed an 8% higher normalized gain than those in the control group (45% compared to 37%) in their multiple choice test. In addition, students who used the MLMs answered a slightly higher percentage of in-class clicker questions correctly (60 +/- 4.0%) compared to the control group (54 +/- 3.0%). This leads to an effect size of 0.25, which is considered a small effect.

Finally, students rated the usefulness of the different course material on a scale of 1 (not useful at all) to 5 (extremely useful). Students in the experimental group rated the MLMs higher (~2.5) than the course textbook (~1.3).

So does multimedia course material improve student performance? Well these results show that it is no worse than traditional coursework. One thing to note is that any increased improvement of the group which did MLMs compared to the control group is very small. With a sample size of about 40 students in each group, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

In addition,

It is worth mentioning that the comparison of final exam scores between students in the control and those in hybrid-MLM group showed no significant differences.

So at the end of the day, students did roughly just as well in both groups.

But this is an interesting study nonetheless. Probably the best thing to do would be to offer the MLMs as an optional and additional resource to the students, without cutting out the in-class learning time. Everybody learns differently, whether it be through visual stimuli, auditory or simply repetitiveness. The important thing is to make resources available so people of all learning styles can benefit.

I felt I could teach my students best face-to-face, so I declined to use the new fangled technology for online tutorials. But I understand they are still being used, and some students actually prefer them. So I guess in the end, this study showed that no single manner of learning is better than any other. Do what works for you and stick with it.

Sadaghiani, H. (2011). Using multimedia learning modules in a hybrid-online course in electricity and magnetism Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.7.010102

Science in the Courtroom: Is Pizza a Solid?

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Defense attorneys will use whatever trick or loophole they can for their client. But this one was maybe not such a great road to go down.

It seems that in October of 2010, one William James Fennie III threw a slice of pizza at an oncoming car on East Market Street in West Chester, PA. This act was witnessed by Officer Stuart Smith. According to the court document:

Officer Smith contacted the Defendant and asked for identification, a request with which the Defendant repeatedly refused to comply. When advised by Officer Smith that he was under arrest, the Defendant physically struggled and resisted to such an extent that Officer Smith used a taser to subdue him.

Fennie’s lawyer tried to convince the judge, one James P. MacElree II, that the arrest was unlawful. This is because the law states that it is illegal to throw any “solid object” at a roadway, but pizza may not qualify as a solid object.

The judge was not impressed by this argument, but endeavoured to perform his own scientific analysis of the problem to reach a conclusion.

Using NASA’s explanation of the different phases of matter, the Judge systematically tested the properties of pizza to determine its phase. So, using his “own funds” he ordered a pizza for delivery.

The first thing I noticed is that it came in a box (a.k.a. container). It was resting in the bottom of the container, held in place by gravity, and did not take up the shape or full volume of the container. I therefore concluded it was not a gas.

That’s one phase of matter down. But is it a liquid?

My  next experiment was to attempt to slice the pizza into six pieces because I was not hungry enough to eat eight pieces. I observed that the slicing process actually  produced six separate and distinct pieces which did not re-form to take on the shape of the bottom of the container.  I therefore concluded it was not a liquid.

Perhaps in my university days, when I was about 25 pounds heavier, I could have eaten 8 slices of pizza. But I think 6 is a reasonable amount. Oh, and it turns out that pizza is NOT a liquid.

But is it a solid? The Judge decided to attempt to eat the pizza in order to find out.

I was able to bite off one piece which required some chewing before I could swallow it. I put the remainder on top of a paper towel and observed that it stayed in place, did not spill onto my desk, and held its shape (less one  bite).  I therefore concluded that it was  a solid.

So, while dripping with sarcasm, the judge’s decision is actually a useful exercise in basic critical thinking and the scientific method.

But what did the Judge think of the defense attorney’s arguments after having performed these lengthy experiments? In short, he was not pleased…

I would  like to thank the esteemed defense attorney for giving me the opportunity to order an early lunch and  spend the rest of my lunch time writing this extremely weighty opinion.  I hope his client enjoyed paying his lawyer for the time used in making his completely frivolous argument. I am inclined to assess the defense attorney a $500 summary penalty for advancing such frivolity which wasted the time of the District Attorney, the police, and the Court. (emphasis mine)

Mmmmm. Justice tastes almost as delicious as pizza.

Need A Valentine’s Date? Act Like You Don’t Like Her…

February 10, 2011 1 comment

This is a pickup trick that guys have used for a while now, but science has now backed it up.

If a guy likes a girl, you will often hear his friends tell him to “act like you don’t like her” or “ignore her” or “subtlety insult her”.

It sounds a bit cruel, but most guys will swear that it works. Of course, anecdotes should not be considered evidence, so let’s stick to real science.

This study appears in this months issue of Psychological Science and is entitled “‘He Loves Me, He Loves me Not…’ Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction”.

The study involved showing a group of women the Facebook profile of 4 guys. The guys were not real, however.

The girls were then told that each of the 4 guys had seen their profile as well, and rated how much they liked them. There were 3 categories:

  1. The guys liked the girl “a lot”
  2. The guys thought she was “average”
  3. The guys were uncertain if they liked her “a lot” or  just “average” (called the ‘uncertain condition’)

And the results?

Participants in the uncertain condition were most attracted to the men—even more attracted than were participants who were told that the men liked them a lot.

Why is this? The authors hypothesize that it is because the women reported thinking about the men in the uncertain condition more than the other men, which ma have led them to be more attracted to them.

I guess we can all relate to this because we’ve all had crushes on people who didn’t reciprocate those feelings. Somehow, that just makes you like them more, doesn’t it?

Stupid feelings.

Faux Mars Mission Makes it into Orbit of the Red Planet

February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Group photo of the Mars500 crew. (Photo: ESA)

Since June 2010, 6 men have been sealed inside a science experiment. It is called the Mars500 mission, run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and is designed to test the physiological and psychological effects of isolation on a long-term voyage to Mars.

So after an 8 month journey, the crew is preparing for their landing and first “Mars-walk”, which will take place on February 14. After spending 30 days on the “surface”, they will depart the fake Martian terrain (which is actually just a sandy room near their living quarters) and begin the 240 day trip back to Earth.

So it’s actually 520 days that the experiment runs, not 500. But Mars500 just sounds cooler.

The mission, so far, has gone off pretty well. As reported in the BBC,

“So far, I must say we’ve had no major problems,” said Martin Zell, who heads up the Esa scientific programme on the International Space Station (ISS).

“There is permanent monitoring, so we understand their health very well. We have a lot of data now on their mental state and on how their bodies are reacting. That’s important because there is a link between the two,”

The crew seems to be doing well too. They have enough space on board to walk around and receive emails from home. They are even able to check Twitter now and then:

Being in the same small space with the same 6 people for 500 days I can only imagine would be quite taxing. I think the danger of interplanetary spaceflight is secondary to the danger of killing one another, so it is always important to break up the drudgery of every day living with some fun.

The Mars500 crew celebrating Halloween. Science rules. (Photo: ESA)


Ancient Humans Ate Eachother Then Took The Day Off

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Several examples of bent ends of bones chewed by Koi people. From the Journal of Human Evolution

The results of this study, to be published in January in the Journal of Human Evolution, were derived from experiment to identify patterns in teeth marks on bones after chewing.

The authors actually had 4 groups of people chew and gnaw the bones of barbecued short ribs and boiled sheep, as well as some raw pork rib bones and sheep leg bones. They also studied the chewing patterns of Koi people from an experiment done in the 1960s, and studied the patterns of the bite marks on the bones.

The study claims that there are several types of markings left on bones after chewing. A certain combination of markings is indicative of human chewing. The results of the study state:

The main traits that characterize a pattern of human chewed bones from this experimental study are ends of bone bent, crenulated edges of bone or chewed ends, and punctures and linear marks on the bone surfaces.

The results from these experiments, i.e. the pattern of chewing thought to belong to humans, was then compared to fossils to determine if the bite marks are human, or if they belong to some other animal. And in a couple of cases, they were a match.

So why would ancient humans want to eat each other? From Discovery News,

“Think that a member of your group dies,” Fernandez-Jalvo told Discovery News. “The body can give one day off from hunting, which was always dangerous at that time, and what to do with the dead body that may attract other dangerous carnivores that may attack the group.”

“This could be a good solution,” she added, reminding that cannibalism does not always mean the cannibal killed the consumed individual.

So this was more about an efficient means of getting nutrition and disposing of a body that could potentially attract predators, than any kind of ritualistic killing of fellow tribe members.