ellipsix informatics

New Adventures in China

The blog has been pretty quiet the last few months, because I've been getting ready to move to Wuhan, China, where I'll be starting work as a postdoc at Central China Normal University.

It turns out that moving to another country - in fact another continent - takes a lot of preparation. Shocker, huh. Airlines put pretty restrictive limits on both the amount and type of things you can take, so I had to pack light. I'll basically be living out of a couple of suitcases for the next six weeks. But at the same time, shipping things to China is unreliable, expensive, and impossible until I find out where I'll be living, so I had to make sure to take everything I needed. It took some planning to figure out how to fit the essentials into those two suitcases. My old habit of making a checklist of what to pack really came in handy!

Then there's the whole issue of getting permission to enter the country in the first place. Officially, to work in China, I need a work visa. For that I need a work permit from the university. For them to give me the work permit, they need to see a copy of my PhD diploma. (No, that doesn't make sense to me either. Copies are not hard to fake.) To get the diploma I had to submit my dissertation and all the accompanying paperwork. One of those papers was a signature form that had to be signed by all members of my dissertation committee. To get them to sign the paper, I had to revise my dissertation according to their directions, which I only got after my defense at the beginning of August.


Wait, there's more! Since I defended my thesis in August, I don't officially get to graduate until December. But Penn State doesn't actually mail out diplomas for people who aren't there until a month later (mid-January). So, based on that schedule, once I get to send a copy to the people at CCNU, they probably wouldn't finish the paperwork until after the Chinese New Year in February, which is a pretty major holiday from what I hear. So I might not be officially employed until nearly a full year after getting the offer!

Anyway, for now I'm going as a visitor, on a temporary business visa. This plan works around the visa rules, and reportedly they can still pay me, which is the important thing.

Coincidentally, this trip comes just as National Novel Writing Month starts, or in my case, National Blog Writing Month. I'm going to try again to go for my goal of 30 non-trivial blog posts in 30 days. And I'm probably going to fall short again, but at least I do have a bunch of good science ideas saved up, and there will be a lot of updates about life in China. Maybe this will be the year, who knows?

Just to be safe, I'm counting this as one.


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