Thursday, October 21, 2004

You Need to be Shallow, Perky, and Superficial

It would be nice if we all could just work on things that we like, maybe even important, without having to justify or keep reporting on why we need to do these things. But we do not live in such an environment. Doing science is still a large, public endeavor that sometime requires huge amount of public funds. In tough times of restricted budget, scientists need to learn to sell their program, not only to funding agencies, but also to the politicians and the general public.

Unfortunately, the communicaton between scientists and the rest of the general public isn't as smooth and easy as it might appear. While scientists in general tend to emphasize on facts and details, the public on the other hand tends to be more persuaded by what I could call "fluff". It is not the substance that is important here, but rather style! Pat Dehmer, who at the time that I heard her spoke, was the US Dept. of Energy's Research Grant Manager (or something to that effect), once said that whenever she has to meet the politicians in Washington DC to talk around scientific research fundings, she has to be "shallow, perky, and superficial" to be able to get through to them and sell these research proposals. It isn't how important or what that research is about that is crucial, but rather how well one can sell it that may determine its fate.

So why is this happening?

Many recent surveys in the US of the public's opinion of science and technology reveal an interesting schizophrenia.[1] When asked about the importance and interest in science and technology, an overwhelming majority of the people surveyed indicated that they believe science and technology are important. However, this is where it gets interesting. A survey on the scientific literacy of the american public also reveals that the level of such literacy is quote low! For example, only HALF of the respondents to the survey knew that:

(i) the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs;
(ii) It takes Earth one year to go around the Sun;
(iii) Electrons are smaller than atoms;
(iv) Antibiotics do not kill viruses;
(v) Lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.

So on one hand, they show an overwhelming support for science. However, on the other, more than 25 percent believe in astrolgy, at least half of them believe in ESP, 1/4 believe in haunted houses and ghosts , and faith healing, etc. As one science reported noted:

"Without a grasp of scientific ways of thinking, the average person cannot tell the difference between science based on real data and something that resembles science—at least in their eyes—but is based on uncontrolled experiments, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions…[W]hat makes science special is that evidence has to meet certain standards"

Now, what this means is that, while the public in general supports science, and scientific endeavors, they are doing it NOT because they are aware of what science is and what it does, but rather based on the PERCEIVED importance of science and technology. This is extremely important to keep in mind, because this implies that the support for science is built on an extremely shaky foundation. Such foundation can be easily eroded either via a mishap, or simply good "Public Relations" done by people against science.

A case in point happened recently at the Brookhaven National Laboratory that was in the major news. A radioactive leak from a storage area connected to a research reactor into the monitoring well caused major public upheaveal in the surrounding communities on Long Island. One would think that a major disaster occured. However, if one were to look at it carefully, one noticed that (i) the monitoring wells were doing what they were supposed to do and (ii) the amount of radioactive material that leaked was so low, it was less than the radiation one would get from an EXIT sign at a movie theater!

Unfortunately, those two facts were buried in the massive campaign by several organizations that included a few well-known movie stars. While the scientists at Brookhaven repeatedly reported on the facts, famous celebrities went on TV and various other public media with scare tactics that were devoid of valid facts. Guess who won?

Most of the scientists made the error into thinking that if we just tell the public these facts, they'll realize that there's nothing to be worried about. This failed miserably. They over-estimated the public's ability to analyze and comprehend the facts of the matter. As a result, the Brookhaven's High Flux Beam Reactor, the site of two works that resulted in Nobel Prizes, is now decomissioned and closed for good. This shows that the apparent public support for science can turn in a blink of an eye, because it is not based on a solid understanding of what science is, but rather on something more superficial.

If you are lucky enough to be in this profession, you cannot assume that others know, understand, or even appreciate what you are doing, and why it is important. You can play a small part in erradicating this ignorance by continuously "selling" your work. Add bells and whistles to your presentation to the public. They are more effective than the content in most cases. Do not assume the facts will always win.


[1] See

Monday, October 18, 2004

Photoemission Spectroscopy

Sometime, when a phenomenon is so well-known and well-understood, we often use it to study other things. X-ray diffraction is one example. Another is photoemission/photoelectric effect.

Photoemission is the extension of our understanding of the photon picture of light. Ever since Hertz's discovery of the photoelectric effect phenomena, Einstein's theoretical photon model, and Millikan's subsequent verification of the Einstein's photon model, this effect has been so well-tested and understood that today, we use it to study other things. In particular, photoemission, in its various forms, is used to study the electronic properties of solids, such as metals, semiconductors, superconductors, etc. In fact, the clearest verification of the validity of the band structure of solids came from photoemission spectroscopy.

The progress in this experimental technique evolved rather spectacularly after the discovery of the high-Tc superconductors. Having the 2D layers of copper-oxide planes where most of the superconducting effects are thought to occur, made them a natural candidate to be studied by photoemission, especially using a technique called angle-resolved photoemission.

It is imperative to point out that ALL of the theory of photoemission, including those applied in the study of materials that we are now using in modern electronics, make use of ONLY the photon picture of light. There have been NO other alternative formulation of light to account for the experimental observations of photoemission spectroscopies. NONE.

There are two very good reviews of the usage of the photoemission technique on superconductors. The identical technique is also used on other materials.


Friday, October 15, 2004

So You Want To Be A Physicist - Part 6

We are still discussing the final year of your undergraduate program where you are in the midst of applying to graduate schools. In Part 5, I mentioned the word "assistantship" several times, and it is important you understand what this is, and why you should apply for it. So this part of the series will focus solely on the issue of assistantship. Take note that the kind of assistantship that I will be discussing applies only to US universities. However, ALL incoming graduate students, irregardless of whether they are US citizens or not, qualify for these assistantships. So a qualified student from another country can certainly apply for one of these.

There are two forms of assistantships: (i) teaching assistantships (TA) and (ii) research assistantships (RA). No matter which form of assistantships that is being offered, typically what is involved is a complete tuition/fees waver, and a stipend. What this means is that your schooling tuition and fees are being paid for by your department, and you will also receive a paycheck (stipend) for your services. The amount of your stipend depends entirely on your school. So this award is certainly significant especially since top tier schools can have outrageously high tuition and fees. So now, what are the differences between the two types of assistantships?

In practically all physics departments, and especially so at large schools, they need the manpower from the physics graduate students to either conduct tutorial/discussion sections, run physics laboratories, and/or do homework/exam grading of lower-level physics courses. Therefore, they award a number of TA each year or semester. So you become part of the department's manpower to help the various faculty members in various physics courses.

As an incoming physics students, TA'ship is the one you most likely have a chance to get. However, your chances of getting one depends on the number applying for it. Each school tends to already reserve TA'ships for they graduate students who have already earned one the previous year. So whatever is left to fulfill their needs/budget is the one being offered to the new incoming pool of applicants. So certainly, competition for this award can be intense. Take note also that in many schools, especially the ones that care about the quality of their instructions, you may need to prove your ability to communicate clearly in English, both written and verbal. Since you will be dealing, often directly, with undergraduate students taking those various physics classes, it is important that you are able to communicate with them. So if you are from a non-English speaking background, you will need a good TOEFL scores, and other supporting evidence, to bolster your chances.

The RA'ship, on the other hand, isn't usually available for new, incoming graduate students. An RA is a research position, and it is awarded by individual faculty members based on the research grant that he/she has obtained. Most faculty members do not award RA'ships to a graduate student until he/she has at least passed the department's qualifying exam (more on what this exam is in a future installment of this series). For most graduate students, the RA'ship is a way to do one's doctoral research work while being paid for it. So your RA work also becomes your doctoral dessertation, meaning that you'd better be working in the area of physics that you want to specialize in.

Depending on what field of physics you want to go into, and whether it is theoretical or experimental, you may end up receiving a TA'ship throughout your graduate career, especially if your supervisor has no research grants to hire you. Experimentalists tend to have higher chances of getting an RA'ship, simply due to the nature of the work.

The point that I'm trying to get across is that depending on your ability and your GPA, graduate school may not cost you an arm and a leg. It's true that many US universities are extremly costly. However, a physics graduate student has a lot more options in finding ways to reduce such cost. Schools such as Stanford, for instance, automatically assumes that you will require some form of assistantship when you apply to the physics graduate program. In fact, practically all of their graduate students are on some form of assistantships/scholarships. However, due to intense competition for the limited funds, you need to do all you can to make yourself stand out. Hopefully, you have done that during your undergraduate program, and have sent in your applications early.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

So You Want To Be A Physicist - Part 5

We have now reached the final year of your undergraduate program. By now, you would have gone through courses in the fundamental pillars of physics (Classical mechanics, Quantum mechanics, and E&M), and even courses in Thermodynamics/Statistical Physics. Academically, this is where you start taking more advanced courses, even some graduate level courses. There are plenty of options, depending on where you go to school, how large your physics department is, etc. The choices can range from a class in Solid State Physics, Particle Physics, advanced laboratory work, etc. If you already have a clear set of interest and know what area of physics you would like to end up in, then this is where you want to try to enroll in a class in that area. But even if you don't know for sure yet (and this tends to be the case for most students), it is still valuable to enroll in one of these "specialized" area of physics, even if you may not eventually go into that field.

The start of your senior year requires that you do some serious thought on what you wish to do upon graduation. Most physics majors will go on to graduate school with the hope of obtaining their doctorate. So in this part of the series, we will concentrate on the application process of going to graduate school. If this is the path you intend to take, then you need to prepare yourself in a number of ways:

1. Prepare to take your Graduate Record Examination (GRE). This should include both the GRE General and GRE Subject Test. While the GRE scores may not be required for admission application in my schools, they are usually required if you are seeking any form of assistantship. So it is best if you already have the test scores.

2. Apply to graduate schools EARLY! If you intend to enroll in the Fall, you should have ALL your applications in by December of the previous year, especially if you are seeking assistantship. In many highly competitive schools, your applications may need to be in even earlier. It is NEVER too early.

3. Unless you have a 4.0 GPA, have outstanding letters of recommendation, and the son of the President of the United States, you have some uncertainty if your first choice of schools will accept you. It is ALWAYS recommended that you group the schools you are applying to into 3 categories: (i) Top Tier schools that you know are very difficult to get in (ii) Middle tier schools that you may have a chance to get in and (iii) lower tier schools that you think you can definitely get in. Note that these does not have any reflection on the QUALITY of instructions/programs at each school. In may instances, it is only the "perceived" prestigue that makes one school more "desirable" than the other.

4. Do as much research on each school that you are applying. If you know of some program or research area that a school is good in that you are also interested in, then look it up and try to find the latest publications in physics journals. Your admission application usually requires that you write an essay regarding your aims, ambitions, and why you would want to study there. So it is always good to be specific, and not just give some generic description. Mention things specific to that school and that physics program and why you want to be involved in that. It is extremely important if you can also show a previous interest or work in a similar area. This will tell the admission officer that you are a candidate that can be beneficial to them.

5. This last part is a bit dicey, since the situation can either turn out very positive, or very bad. If you feel confident enough in your ability, you may want to contact directly a faculty member of school that you would like to attend. Obviously, this would be a school that is highly competitive. You want to do this in cases where you think a direct communicaton may enhance your chances - so don't do this if you think your contact may backfire. The best way to do this is to see if any of the faculty member of your undergraduate institution know of anyone there personally. It is always best to have such recommendation. If you do decide on such contact, tell the person on why, your interest, and that you would be interested in working in his/her research group, etc.

In the next installment, I will try to describe what you can expect graduate school to be BEFORE you get there.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Things you MUST do at the Walt Disney World Resort

What does a tired, overworked, and sometime stressed-out physicist do for a vacation? Why, he goes to DisneyWorld, of course!

I've been to DisneyWorld in Orlando, FL under two very different circumstances. The first time was when I went there blindly, without knowing anything, just went to the parks and randomly tried what I came across. It was an enjoyable experience, but I never had the urge to go back. The second time was with a larger group of people, and with someone who knew the entire resort like the back of his hand. I tell you, the difference was like night and day. I had SO, SO, SO much fun that second time around (Thanks, Brian!). It was an eye-opening experience that simply by knowing what to do, when is the best time to do it, what to see, where to see it, and all the amenities that came with it, most for FREE... It truly was a magical moment.

Ever since then, I have become a regular at DisneyWorld (I now have an Annual Pass) and have myself become, I think, quite an expert on what to do (I've also become quite a collector of Disney pins, but that's another story). If you are planning on visiting DisneyWorld, I would suggest going over the list of things you should do and other useful info that you should know by the time you get there. Remember, DisneyWorld may look like it is for kids, but they actively aim everything within the park to include adults (the Dumbo ride, for example, has seatings for TWO adults).

Magic Kingdom

1. Space Mountain (rollercoaster)
2. Thunder Mountain Railroad – the best place to ride this is towards the rear. You can ask to ride it on the last row or two.
3. Splash Mountain
4. Teacups
5. Haunted Mansion
6. Mickey’s Philharmagic – this has become the #1 attraction at Magic Kingdom. Do this early, or get Fast Passes. If not, try getting in while there is a show or a parade going on.
7. Jungle Cruise – A good ride when your feet are tired, as long as you don’t mind your tour guide spewing out a lot of bad puns.
8. Spectra Magic Light Parade – Check the parade route and try to move away from Main Street where it WILL be crowded. Some place in Frontier Land will be good.
9. Wishes – Even though you can see the fireworks from a large area of Magic Kingdom, the show involves more than just that. So to get the full effect, the best place to view it is still right in front of Cinderella’s castle. Unfortunately, this is also the most crowded and popular area.
10. A good quick place to eat – Columbia Harbor House. Take note that there are additional seatings upstairs with a condiment/utensils/etc. kiosk that are seldom packed. There are also additional washrooms at this level.


1. Test Track (be there when Epcot opens and head directly to Test Track – get in line immediately or take Fast Pass. Test track is extremely popular and will have long lines later in the morning/day).
2. Mission Space – same warning as in Test Track. However, if you are susceptible to motion sickness, you may not want to ride this. [Hint: if there are people not riding Mission Space, it might be a good idea for those waiting to get Fast Pass tickets for Test Track. That way, by the time the Mission Space people get off that ride, it will be close to the Fast Pass time for Test Track].
3. Maelstorm at the Norway pavilion (World Showcase pavilion around the lagoon opens at 11:00 am). Note: there is a small bakery at the front of the Norway pavilion and they have (if they haven’t sold out) this sweet almond pretzel. It is to DIE for!
4. Also at the Norway pavilion – Restaurant Akershus. This is an EXCELLENT place to eat. Unlimited food from their cold buffet bar, and all-you-care-to-eat from their entrée menu. Reservations are strongly recommended during peak season/hours.
5. Honey I Shrunk the Audience
6. Illumination at 9:00 pm around the lagoon (if it doesn’t rain, people usually start staking out the best spots around the lagoon ½ to one hour before the show). As with Wishes at Magic Kingdom, you can view the fireworks and light show from all around the lagoon, but the best place to view it in its full “symmetry” is still right at the pavilion by the entrance to the World Showcase lagoon.
7. Spaceship Earth. It’s cheesy and tame, but it’s inside that big “golf ball” and the show may not last that much longer if the rumor of it being renovated to hold a rollercoaster ends up being true. Do this ride late in the afternoon or early evening – the lines are not as long then.
8. Restaurant Marrakesh at the Morroco pavilion – If you come at the right time, you might get to see live musicians and belly dancers. The food is excellent too! Reservations are strongly recommended for dinner during peak seasons.

Disney-MGM Studios

1. Tower of Terror – ride this as many times as you can. It is different each time since they have a random program of “drops”.
2. Rock ‘N Roller Coaster
3. Muppets 3D
4. Star Tours
5. Fantasmic Light Show - 3 different restaurants offer a “Fantasmic” dinner package. They are the Brown Derby, Mama Melrose, and Hollywood and Vine (this list may be outdated). You get a separate entrance and reserved seating for Fantasmic with this package. Reservation is strongly recommended or even required (you need to mention the Fantasmic dinner package). Plan on having dinner at around 5 pm to 6 pm to have enough time to catch the show afterwards.
6. A fun place to eat – Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. You get to sit in your own car and watch old sci-fi movies on a large screen while you munch on your food.

Animal Kingdom

1. Kilimanjaro Safari – do this as early or as soon as the park opens. It is very popular.
2. Kali River Rapids – assume that you WILL get drenched (bring ziplock plastic bags for your wallet, cellphone, etc.).
3. Primeval Whirl – don’t do this immediately after you eat, it will not be pretty. Also avoid if you are susceptible to motion sickness.
4. Dinosaur – be warned that this ride can be quite intense for young children.
5. It’s Tough To Be A Bug.
6. Best places to eat: Tusker House and Flame Tree BBQ. Take note that Flame Tree BBQ has a lot more seating than it appears. Try walking down further into the greenery and you’ll find a wonderful seating area by the lake that is seldom crowded.

Other Locations

1. Breakfast with Chef Mickey at the Contemporary Resort – Plan this waaaay ahead, even weeks (or months) before you get to Orlando. It is fun, if you have kids, or just a kid at heart.
2. Downtown Disney – 4 words to describe it: shop, eat, shop, eat. However, kids may prefer the Lego store.
3. Cirque Du Soleil’s La Nuba at Downtown Disney Westside – Even if you have seen other Cirque Du Soleil shows, see this one! It will be an experience you will never forget.
4. Pleasure Island – 8-Tracks is a fun retro dance club.
5. Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge – this is the BEST buffet dinner anywhere in Disney World, in my opinion. It is African-themed, but also has the regular, familiar food for those who do not want to venture out of their comfort level. Don’t miss the crispy flatbreads with the three wonderful and exotic spreads.

Things to Keep in Mind

1. If you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can have all your purchases anywhere in Disney World sent to your hotel. This saves you from having to lug everything you bought with you.
2. If you are staying at a Disney resort, take note also that if you decide to drive to the Disney parks instead of taking their free busses/monorail, parking is FREE. Just show your room key/card as you enter the parks.
3. More shopping tip: If you end up buying a large number of items at a single store (such as at the World of Disney in Downtown Disney), you may want to consider having them ship all of them directly to your home. You pay only ONE shipping flat rate no matter how many items you want to ship, AND, the sales tax is not included. Depending on how much you are spending, the money you save on sales tax alone might pay for the shipping. Keep in mind that I think they will only ship (using that one flat rate) the items you are paying for at that moment, not the items you have already purchased, even from the same store.
4. While you are there, you can make dinner reservations, buy park tickets, etc. throughout the Walt Disney World at any Guest Services office (Guest Services can be found at all parks, resorts, Downtown Disney). If there is a special occasion for making the reservation (such as a birthday or anniversary, etc.), be sure to mention it to the Guest Services cast member – you might get some special treatment then, or later.
5. As soon as you walk through the turnstile at any of the Disney parks, look for a slip of paper (usually at a kiosk or on racks by the wall) that lists all the parades, show times, character greetings, and special events for that day. This list changes everyday, so pick one up each time you walk into a park.
6. For parents who want to get on a ride, but an accompanying child is either too scared, or too small to be on that ride, most rides at Disney World has a “parent exchange” area. This allows one parent to get on the ride while the other stays in a holding area with the child. When the riding parent is done, the next parent can go on that ride without having to go back to the end of the line. Ask a cast member if a particular ride has this.
7. When you go to Magic Kingdom via the “regular” Disney busses or by driving your own vehicle, you will arrive at the Transportation center, and then you can either board the Magic Kingdom monorail, or a boat to get to Magic Kingdom itself. There are three monorail lines here: one is the express monorail to and from Magic Kingdom, one for the Magic Kingdom resort hotels, and one going to Epcot. (So you could, if you prefer, park here and go to Epcot. This is a good idea if you intend to be jumping around between Epcot to Magic Kingdom on the same day. That way, your vehicle is always in the middle of the two parks.) Take note that BOTH the Magic Kingdom express monorail, and the Magic Kingdom resorts monorail go to and from the Magic Kingdom and the Transportation center. The only difference being that the resort monorail will make stops in between for the Magic Kingdom resort hotels. So keep this in mind if the Magic Kingdom express monorail is very busy with people. Most of them do not know that the Resort monorail also goes to the same place. This also applies when you are coming back from Magic Kingdom to go to the Transportation center.
8. Remember that Disney Theme Park tickets do not expire (except for the Ultimate Park Hopper). So if you bought a regular 5-Day Park Hopper or Park Hopper Plus, and you used only 3 days, the remaining 2 days (and any “Plusses”) do not expire! You can come back at any time to use the remaining days. The Ultimate Park Hopper, on the other hand, is only valid during the days that you are a guest at one of their resorts. So if you checked into a Disney hotel on the 8th and checked out on the 12th of the month, your Ultimate Park Hopper will only be valid for entrance to the Disney parks from the 8th up to and including the 12th.

Have a Magical time!