ellipsix informatics

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.



Off to APS!

Just a quick update: I'm heading off to the APS April meeting in Savannh, GA this weekend! I'll be presenting updates on my group's latest research project on Saturday, but there will also be hundreds (or thousands?) of other research projects being promoted. I'll probably be too busy to live-tweet much, but if I find anything cool, I'll mention it either in a blog post here, or on Twitter.

When I get back from the meeting next week, hopefully I'll have more of the long-overdue blog posts on science that I've been promising.


BICEP2 and the primordial B-modes

Yesterday the BICEP2 experiment (Wikipedia page) announced a result that physicists and astronomers around the world had been positively drooling over for two days: the detection of primordial B-modes in the cosmic microwave background.

Ordinarily I would write a whole blog post going through the BICEP2 paper: what the experiment is, what they're looking for in the cosmic microwave background, what exactly they found, and why you should be excited about it too, but right now I'm super-busy with other things (including another blog post slated for later this week). So instead I leave you with this collection of links to peruse:

Background info:

Reports of the results:

Popular articles:

There are many others, of course, but that should be enough to get you started. Also follow the #BICEP2 hashtag on Twitter.

I leave you with perhaps the most immediately interesting result to keep an eye on:

BICEP2+Planck+WMAP+highL tensor-scalar ratio

This figure, taken from the official BICEP results page linked above, represents one of the key numbers in the BICEP2 result, the tensor-scalar ratio r which basically represents the strength of primordial gravitational waves from inflation. (See e.g. Sean Carroll's background post for more details) Before yesterday's result, the best measurements we had of r — from the Planck and WMAP satellites, studies of baryon acoustic oscillations, and other assorted inputs — generally suggested r \lesssim 0.1 or so, depending on which measurements you count. In particular they were all perfectly consistent with r = 0, which would have implied no primordial gravitational waves. BICEP2 is the first experiment to exclude r=0 (look back to my statistics post to know what it means to exclude a value), and at the very high significance of 7\sigma! They measured r = 0.2, which is quite large, and in fact kind of conflicts with the earlier measurements. So cosmologists will be looking very closely at future data releases from Planck and other experiments to see where this value settles down.


Ellipsix Informatics is on Facebook!

I finally broke down and made a Facebook page for this site. There probably won't be anything there other than blog posts, at least not for a while, but if that's how you want to find out when I post new things, have at it!


Science Online for the online

For an organization with "Online" in its very name, you'd think Science Online would have no trouble putting the content of their flagship conference, well, online. Well, guess what: collating and summarizing all that information is hard! So if you weren't at last week's Science Online Together conference, and even if you were, it's all too easy to go a little crazy searching through thousands of tweets, Storify sessions, and blog posts to pick out the parts you'd find useful.

With that in mind, I've spent far too much time over the past three days putting together the following non-attendee's guide to Science Online Together 2014. Each of the individual sessions is listed, in chronological order (because no other order really makes sense), along with

  • the session's facilitator: the person who moderated the session, who is a good contact point for questions
  • the session's Twitter hashtag, where you can find (almost) all tweets about the session, including those from live-tweeters as well as questions contributed by others and further discussion taking place afterwards
  • the session's Storify page(s), if there is one or more than one, which consists of a selection of relevant tweets plus commentary
  • for those sessions I attended, the blog post I wrote containing a brief recap
  • anything else I know of that constitutes a semi-canonical summary of the session

Ideally, whatever information was recorded about the content of each session, you should be able to find through the links here. Several of the sessions were videotaped, and when the recordings go up on the Science Online site in 60 days (well 53 days by now), I'll add them here. If you know of anything I've missed that should be included, such as your own blog posts or Storifies or so on summarizing any of these sessions, let me know! (@ellipsix on Twitter, or contact@ellipsix.net)

And of course, major props to Karyn Traphagen for facilitating everything!

Thursday February 27

Friday February 28

Saturday March 1


Science Online Together: day 3 recap

They say all good things must come to an end. I guess that's true, but it would be really great if there were a magic pill that would keep us from having to sleep so Science Online Together a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever could go on forever.

Okay, technically that exists. It's called speed. It's more tempting than it should be.

Seriously though. Even with the fallout from the sexual harassment incidents over the last year hanging over everyone's heads, it was truly a great experience for at least those of us who weren't strongly affected by that — which probably includes most of the 200+ people who had never been to a Science Online event before. Congratulations to Karyn Traphagen and everyone else who helped pull this off!

CONVERGE session: Creating Collaboration World Wide across the Web

As the last day began, it was pretty clear from the number of empty chairs that the previous night's sci-fi gala had taken a toll on people. Still, a sizeable fraction of the community showed up to see an inspiring and even entertaining presentation from Jon Schull and Nick Parker about the organization they work with, E-Nabling the Future, which connects people who have lost parts of their hands with others who have 3D printers they can use to inexpensively construct low-tech, functional prosthetics. Nick and Jon talked about how they adapted the specifications of full medical prosthetic hands, which can cost many thousands of dollars, to design plastic hands that cost $20 or $30. They then share the designs with people who have 3D printers, who print out and assemble the pieces, combine them with a few screws and a little string, and wind up with a functional replacement hand that can be controlled by moving your wrist or elbow joint.

The neat thing about this is that the different people carrying out different parts of the manufacturing process — the designer, the printer, the recipient — never even have to meet. It's a great case study in how the internet drastically lowers the barriers to collaboration, even for tasks you wouldn't think could be separated and distributed like that.

If you have access to a 3D printer, or you want to help contribute to refining the designs, E-Nabling the Future is always looking for more participation. Check out their website to see how you can help!

Discussion session: Comment Best Practices

Saturday morning started with Scicurious "Bethany" Brookshire leading a discussion session on handling comments on blog posts. Comments are like sex, she says: you don't have to have them at all, but if you do, use a "condom" — in other words, have a plan for preventing them from getting out of control.

Fundamentally, comments are a tradeoff. If you allow them on your blog, you get the opportunity to receive feedback on content you post. This is largely a good thing when you have a knowledgeable and civil audience: they can give you additional ideas, they can prompt you to clarify difficult concepts, and they can tell you when you're wrong. On the other hand, allowing comments opens the door to trolls and personal attacks that can make you or your commenters feel uncomfortable. Moderating comments seems to provide the best of both worlds, but it puts a lot of responsibility on you, the blog's author, not only in terms of how much time you have to spend watching your site to prevent bad comments from sticking around, but also in terms of deciding which comments are appropriate and which ones aren't. If your audience is sufficiently mature, you can offload some of this responsibility on other commenters by allowing them to upvote and downvote comments to distinguish the good content from the fluff.

Several people also pointed out that commenting has moved, in large part, from blogs to large social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and reddit. You can't expect people to post a lot of comments on a blog post itself anymore. Much of the discussion happens off-site, and as an author, if you want to participate in it and guide the response to your content, you have to follow your readers to the communities where they hold their discussions, and have an online presence on those sites. Explicitly connecting your own site into those external discussions, for example by using Facebook as your commenting platform or by embedding one of those widgets that show how many people have shared/tweeted/etc. your post, can help build interest in the post and also keep you more wired into the dialogue about it.

At the end, Scicurious suggested something I really liked: coming up with a list of comment best practices, which I tweeted (roughly) under the hashtag #commentBestPractices.

  • Have a clear written policy on comments, and enforce it, but don't expect people to read it
  • Give positive feedback to good comments (and not to frivolous ones)
  • Reserve the right to make final judgments on what comments are acceptable and to edit or delete as appropriate
  • Allow editing of comments, optionally with a publicly visible edit history
  • Limit the number of links allowed in comments to prevent spam
  • Finally, engage in the comment discussions of your own content!

I do think this was one of the most productive sessions I attended throughout the conference, and there were a lot of other interesting points which I didn't even get to mention here. For more on this session, check out the #scioComments hashtag on Twitter!

Discussion session: Online Communities

My last session of the conference, facilitated by Lou Woodley, was about online communities: how to build them, maintain them, and help them grow.

Early on, it became clear that one of the keys to an online community's success is having a core of motivated contributors who are committed to keeping the community healthy. Sometimes this happens naturally; for example, if a community is already backed by a large organization with a purpose that will attract like-minded people, it tends to attract a core of dedicated contributors through the organization's efforts to promote the community. "Organic" communities that don't have that backing have a harder time putting together that core. Successful community-building requires certain roles to be filled by those dedicated contributors, such as educating new members and starting discussions about the community's direction, so if the people suited to fill those roles aren't present or the community isn't aware of what roles need to be filled, it's probably not going to last.

Maintaining an online community's health is, in some ways, no different than for an offline community. It's important to understand the interpersonal interactions taking place within the community, because when a community is headed toward failure (or success), that's where the first signs show up. But this is not a matter of keeping alert for individual bad relationships. You can get useful information from the overall structure of the network of interactions between community members. If a group of members is splintering off to form a subgroup that starts to isolate itself from the rest of the community, for example, that can be damaging to the health of the community as a whole.

Community management is a broad topic and, unsurprisingly, there was a lot more discussed than I was able to mention here. Lou's Storify page has a lot more details, if you're interested. And the discussion will continue, on Twitter under the #scioCommunity hashtag and in a series of community manager chats that Lou is planning for the future.

Topic Tables at Lunch

Lunch on Saturday was one of the things I was really waiting for: a chance to meet most of the other physics and astronomy people at the conference. There weren't that many of us, interestingly enough; most of the people I talked to came from a background of entomology, paleontology, marine biology (probably not too surprising because the last Science Online conference was Science Online Oceans), or neuroscience. It was kind of a rushed affair because people drifted out of the last discussion sessions at different times, but I did get to stay at the table long enough to have a very interesting talk with Catherine Q. about dark matter, and I got some fun stories from Tom Swanson to take back to Penn State. (Did you know that visual awesomeness of a presentation is measured in milliGibbles?)

Wrapping up

All things considered, I had a great time. (The trip home is another story, which is why this blog post comes to you two days late... but let's not dwell on that.) In general, I really love the "unconference" format where the discussion sessions are facilitated by a moderator but most of the content comes from the attendees, the long breaks between sessions allowing for discussions to spill out into the hall, and the activities designed to bring together people who have never met and get them talking to each other. It's all very effective at breaking down the barriers between "experts" and "novices" that are apparent at other conferences (like physics conferences) I've been to. And breaking down those barriers is important for two reasons: it facilitates the best possible exchange of ideas, because people are less afraid of asking stupid questions, and it sucks new people in and makes them want to come back :-) After I graduate this summer I may be going somewhere where it's going to be difficult and expensive to get back to the US, but I fully expect Science Online Together 2015 to make it worth the trip. Let me know if I'll see you there!