ellipsix informatics

Ellipsix Informatics: the personal website and blog of David Zaslavsky.

I'm a graduate student styudying theoretical particle physics, and I also do a lot of computer programming. Find me elsewhere online:


A return to blogging

It's been three months since my last blog update. Writing a dissertation really doesn't leave time for anything else! Thankfully, it's now done, so I can get back to posting cool physics stuff any day now.

In other news, this fall is the 10th anniversary of ellipsix.net! I started this site a decade ago, just after starting college, because I wanted a little project to tinker with building dynamic websites. Hopefully I'll have time to put some special content up to commemorate the occasion.

For now, I'll be at the meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Section of the American Physical Society this weekend. I'll be posting updates on Twitter if you want to follow.


All Quiet on the Blog

It's been a month and a half since my last post, so I figure a quick update is in order. I'm working on writing my PhD thesis this summer. Writing a thesis, especially on such a short schedule, is not compatible with doing much of anything else, including blogging, so updates will be quite sparse for the next month or so.

When I have time, I'll catch up on some of the posts I've promised, perhaps including a look back at results from Quark Matter, and definitely at least a couple more posts on my research. Until then, catch me on Twitter....


Kicking Off Quark Matter 2014

Just a quick update from Darmstadt (Germany), where I'm spending the week at the 24th Quark Matter conference. Quark Matter is the largest conference series in nuclear physics (but not that nuclear physics or that other nuclear physics), and has been held about every year and a half since 1980, also in Darmstadt. You may remember my coverage of the last Quark Matter here on the blog; I won't be posting quite so much this time because I've got a lot going on, but you may see a couple updates from me this week.

By the way, the decision of the Quark Matter 2012 organizers to give out (nice) backpacks as swag was, in my professional opinion as a physicist, the best thing in the history of the universe. Probably half of the people attending this conference came with their distinctive QM12 backpacks. The satchels they're giving out this year aren't bad, but they don't quite measure up.

picture of QM 2014 swag - satchel

Today was Student Day, the day before the official start of the conference when everyone receiving student support (a waiver of the 500 Euro registration fee) comes to attend a set of lectures summarizing the various areas of physics covered by the conference. These lectures are given by leaders in the field, targeted at grad students and postdocs. Every Quark Matter features a Student Day, but one thing they did differently this year (at least different from last time) was have two parallel sessions on each topic: Observables and Concepts, a relatively introductory-level overview of the important concepts of the field, and Recent Developments, more of a high-level overview of recent progress in research. Personally I stayed in the Observables and Concepts room the whole day. (6 hours of physics, yikes!) I happen to think that you can never understand the basics too well, and even learning something you supposedly already know can still give you a new perspective which can come in handy. And indeed, I was not disappointed. Even though I've already been through one Quark Matter conference, and I know a lot of the buzzwords — I mean concepts — from most of the major research areas, there were still plenty of explanations of those same concepts that were pretty enlightening. I was even excited to understand about 80% (as opposed to 10% or 100%) of the talk on my own research area, saturation physics, which goes under the name of "pA and initial state" at this conference because it can be used to determine the initial state of the hydrodynamic evolution in a heavy ion collision.

There's your buzzword package for the day. :-)

Anyway, it's late and time to get off to sleep (ah, sweet sleep) to prepare for the start of the conference proper. As I mentioned, I'm not sure how much I'll get to update the blog this week, but I will at least mention anything interesting I hear about on Twitter under the #QM2014 hashtag. Stay tuned!


Hooray, I have a postdoc!

I figured a quick update is in order to announce that starting this fall, I'll be a postdoc at Central China Normal University!

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may remember that visited CCNU back in 2012 for a conference and a week of research collaboration. It's definitely different — you know, because China is not the US — but there's a lot to like about the place. CCNU is rapidly developing a strong international reputation for their theoretical physics research. They're well placed to take advantage of the Chinese drive to promote basic science; in particular, unlike the US and even Europe, to some extent, basic research in China still gets substantial amounts of financial support. The living costs are low, so even a small salary goes a long way, and I'll definitely be looking forward to all the delicious food of Hubei province.

There's a lot to do between now and the fall, when I move, so I'm sure I'll have more to say about this as it happens. It'll be nice to be a scientist for a little while longer.


Afterthoughts on the APS April meeting

I know, I know, it's been far too long — almost three weeks, now — since I went to the APS April meeting in Savannah, without any update on the blog. And I did say I was going to report on interesting results that I saw there. Uh... oops!

View of the Savannah convention center

The honest truth, though, is that not a whole lot of new stuff gets presented at the April meeting. So don't worry that I've been withholding all the awesome new science I learned; I just didn't think there was anything particularly urgent to post about.

Future of the April meeting

This is actually kind of a problem for the future of the April meeting itself. It's a relatively small meeting, with only a few hundred attendees, and that number isn't getting any bigger. After all, if people know not to expect groundbreaking or exciting new results to be presented at the April meeting, what's their motivation to come?

The people in charge of the meeting know this, and they're trying to determine what needs to be done to keep attendance up in the future. If it's going to continue to be useful, the meeting needs to become the "hub" for some particular topic — the canonical place to present any new results in that field, as the March APS meeting is for condensed matter.

My own personal idea, which I would explain to anyone who would listen (sorry!), is that perhaps the April meeting could focus on attracting presentations in communication and education. Most fields of physics research already have their own established conferences, but as far as I know, there's no "hub" for science communication research. The closest thing I know about is Science Online Together, but that's not really targeted at researchers. There might be a niche for something that is. (This is not really all that plausible, I think, but hey, people wanted to hear ideas.)


Of course, I did go to some events that, if not exactly groundbreaking, were pretty interesting.

One of the better events for me was the Tutorial for Authors and Referees and reception with the APS editors. It was a small discussion with some of the editors of the APS journals (Physical Review C, D, and Letters) targeted at grad students and early career researchers. The editors gave out lots of information on best practices for submitting a paper to get it to pass peer review (proofread, pay attention to the journal's requirements... standard stuff), and also good advice on how to get started as a reviewer.

Toward the end, a few people pointed out the difference between the way scientists used to get access to published research in "the old days" — eagerly waiting for each issue of a printed journal to arrive in the main — and the way up-and-coming scientists get access to it in modern times, with a web search and a preprint archive, which would appear to cut journals out of the picture entirely. So what is the role of a journal in the modern scientific model? Based on what people said, it seems to center on curation of content — that is, picking out the interesting stuff and highlighting it. The new Physical Review Letters website has Editors' Suggestions on the front page for precisely this reason: they've picked out some of the items with the broadest interest from all the papers they publish, so if you want to stay up to date on key developments in physics, those are the papers to be aware of.

The next day, I saw a rather surprising presentation about clickers in physics education. If you're not familiar with them, clickers are little wireless transmitters with buttons labeled A, B, C, D, etc. In a lecture, you can put up a slide with a multiple-choice question and have students use their clicker to pick the answer, like a very quick in-class quiz, to get a sense of how well people understand what you're teaching. They're starting to catch on because there's a lot of research showing that this sort of "interactive education" produces better results than traditional lecturing, but the conclusion of the presented research by Amy Shapiro, Grant O'Rielly, and Judith Sims-Knight is that clickers themselves (divorced from other interactive techniques) may not actually be doing that much good at all! They compared the results of introductory physics classes without clickers, and with clickers used on various types of material (factual and/or conceptual), and found that the control groups with no clickers uniformly had the best performance on exams, whereas using clickers to reinforce e.g. factual learning would decrease the exam performance on conceptual questions. If this result holds up, it seems that the benefits of interactive education come from other changes, not the use of clickers.

Of course I would be remiss (such a funny word, remiss) not to mention the "big" event of the APS meeting, a talk by Neil DeGrasse Tyson about his experiences on Twitter and how to use it to connect with nonscientists. Rather than summarize everything here I'll just refer you to a Storify session of the tweets I sent during Neil's talk. Now, if you ask me, this was kind of an oddly placed presentation. He did have a few pieces of good advice for communicating science and engaging the public — chief among them, you have to get to know what matters to your audience (nonscientists) and tailor your message to appeal to them, because they won't go through the effort to learn to understand "scientist-speak" — but most of the time in the plenary session he spent showing off sciencey memes from Twitter and elsewhere online. Not that there's anything wrong with that; in fact I kind of like the idea of having an entertaining presentation to relax your brain between high-level scientific talks. But I was kind of hoping for some more concrete advice about engaging people on Twitter than what we actually got.

Later that day, over lunch, Neil held a Q&A session for grad students, which was a bit more substantive. I've also included the tweets from that lunch discussion in the Storify. But the theme, to whatever extent there was one, was the same: when communicating science you have to make yourself understood to your audience.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks to grad students

Twitter connections

Speaking of Twitter: I met a surprising number of people I know from Twitter while in Savannah! You should follow them:

  • Rhett Allain (@rjallain), professor of physics and physics education at Southeastern Louisiana University and science blogger for Wired
  • Aatish Bhatia (@aatishb), engineering educator at Princeton University and another Wired science blogger (who I also met at Science Online 2014)
  • Robert Garisto (@RobertGaristo), editor of Physical Review Letters
  • Kevin Dusling (@KevinDusling), also editor of Physical Review Letters
  • Sean Bartz (@excitedstate), grad student in string theory
  • Christine Truong (@physicsvalkyria), aspiring nuclear physicist
  • Diandra Leslie-Pelecky (@drdiandra), science communicator and author of The Physics of NASCAR

And so on...

All in all it was a busy and exhausting trip. I've needed the last couple weeks to relax and work on some research. I'll try to squeeze in another blog post or two before my next trip, to Germany in mid-May for Quark Matter 2014.

One final note: I couldn't resist buying this corny T-shirt:

Flirt Harder. I'm a physicist.