Thursday, May 29, 2014

2014 Summer Reading List

I have discovered a chronic problem in my life: Difficulty making time to read. During the fall and spring terms, I'm overrun with grading, advising, committee work, meetings, managing up, fits and spurts of research & writing---and oh yeah, that whole teaching thing forms the center of it all. Today I discovered that I had ~3 months worth of articles and journal TOCs piled up in my task list.

I'd like to think this problem is localized to the fall and spring terms, but the spring term ended a month ago. The problem is, if I view fall and spring as burdens and summer as reprieves, I won't make time for important things, like reading articles outside of my immediate needs.

So, I'm going to try something different: I'm going to blog about what I read this summer. Perhaps by turning my desire to read into a project, I'll actually schedule it instead of letting it fill in the gaps. Here are the 13 papers currently on my list, and a brief explanation of why I'm interested in them.


  • The Advanced Lab: Hallmark of an Outstanding Undergraduate Program (Reichert, AJP 82 3, 2014). JU Physics currently has no advanced lab, and I'm looking to better incorporate research skills into our curriculum.
  • Thermodynamics of bread baking: A two-state model (Zurcher, AJP 82 224, 2014). Mmm... whole wheat physics...
  • A model for incorporating computation without changing the course: An example from middle-division classical mechanics (Caballero & Pollock, AJP 82 231, 2014). Computational physics from the department that brought us the CLASS? #SignMeUp.
  • Advantages of using a logarithmic scale in pressure-volume diagrams for Carnot and other heat engine cycles (AJP Shieh & Kan, AJP 82 306, 2014). We don't use log scales enough in undergraduate physics & engineering education, and we don't show where the Carnot efficiency comes from clearly enough. 
  • Matrix Mechanics of the infinite square well and the equivalence proofs of Schrodinger and von Neumann (Prentis & Ty, AJP 82 6 2014). I'm hoping to better develop students' understanding of the relationship between the two formulations of quantum mechanics. If I can do so with the first problem we solve, hooray!
  • A guide to hunting periodic three-body orbits (Suvakov & Dmitrasinovi, AJP 82 609 2014). A promising computational physics application for my students to work through.
  • Writing Science Fiction Stories to Motivate Analysis of Journal Articles (Kontur, http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1403/1403.2435.pdf). Sounds promising!
  • How physics instruction impacts students' beliefs about learning physics (Madsen, McKagan, & Sayre, http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1403/1403.6522.pdf). This paper is a meta-analysis of many studies using the CLASS.
  • Teaching and physics education research: Bridging the gap (Fraser et al, Rep. Prog. Phys. 77, 2014). I'd like to learn more about encouraging faculty to adopt engaged learning practices.
  • A Guided Inquiry on Hubble Plots and the Big Bang (Forringer, TPT 52 199, 2014). I'm hoping to use this in class, and in my discussions with YECists at church.
  • The Confirmation of the Inverse Square Law Using Diffraction Gratings (Papacosta & Linscheid, TPT 52 243, 2014). I'll be teaching an intro-level optics course this fall, and currently don't do anything experimental with the inverse square law.
  • Motivating Students to Do Homework (Kontur & Terry, TPT 52 295, 2014). Who doesn't have this problem?
  • Teaching labs the Compass Way (Gandhi et al, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.6831v1.pdf). I'd like to learn how to make my labs into more authentic research experiences.

So, I have 11 weeks of summer left, so if I post my thoughts about 1-2 articles each week, I'll be through my entire list (just in time to start another...).

Monday, May 5, 2014

What does it mean to have tenure?

On May 2, 2014, I was granted tenure at Jacksonville University. This accomplishment represents five years of service to JU (at the culmination of 28 years of academic progress) and means a great deal to my future. I am very thankful to my family and friends (especially Amy Lane, who sits at the intersection of the two) for their support, encouragement, and patience. I am also thankful to my colleagues on JU's faculty and administration for their collaboration and mentorship---and, of course, for voting to grant me tenure!

As I've discussed this upcoming decision with many over the last several years, I've learned that many people don't understand what tenure is, why it exists, or how it is granted.

What is tenure?

I think a very concise description of tenure is found in JU's faculty by-laws: "The faculty member does not bear the burden to justify retention." Tenure is the relief of a faculty member having to prove the worthwhileness of her continued employment at the institution. It is the university making an indefinite commitment to retain the faculty member based on his already established worth and promise for the future; granting tenure is the university declaring that it wants the faculty member to be a staple of the community. In short, tenure is job security, of the sort not found in almost any other field or industry.

Why is tenure?

This description typically produces two types of responses: "Where can I sign up?!" or "That's not good!" Both of these responses come from the perception that tenure is security for the sake of comfort, based on the observation of what is sometimes the unfortunate result of tenure: Lackluster output.

Let me describe tenure in a way that is both more positive and more accurate to what universities intend it to be: The freedom to make mistakes.

Over the last five years, I have had to demonstrate my success in teaching, scholarship, and university service (which some, including me, would like to change to "Service and Leadership"). In doing so, I needed to stick to what I knew would work: Proven engaged teaching strategies (modified just enough to demonstrate innovation), promising research avenues (with sufficiently short turnaround time to produce publications by my tenure application date), and readily available service and leadership roles. If I ventured too far off the beaten path, I ran the risk of poor teaching evaluations, a lackluster research record, and being a faceless name on campus. That's not to say I couldn't (or didn't) take any risks at all, but in short, I had to demonstrate excellence and be able to clearly explain any failures.

I no longer have that burden. I am now free to make mistakes.

I am now free to innovatively adjust the delivery of my courses, and not have to fear the student reviews if the reforms misfire. Why? Because I have demonstrated that I can make a teaching plan based on proven learning principles.

I am now free to pursue unexplored or underdeveloped areas of research, and not have to obsess over my publication record. Why? Because I have demonstrated that I can plan, execute, and evaluate quality research.

I am now free to take on the service and leadership roles that I find to be important, and not feel guilty about saying no to other opportunities. Why? Because I have demonstrated my commitment to JU.

Tenure, in short, is a safety net; it allows the tenured faculty member to try stunts that would otherwise be potentially dangerous without it.

How is tenure granted?

I hope you see what a huge commitment tenure is on the part of the granting institution! Tenure is a decision by, quite literally, the entire university: One's closest colleagues, multiple levels of supervisors, a university-wide committee, and ultimately the President and Board of Trustees all have a say in the decision, and each looks at the tenure candidate with a critical eye toward the care of the university's students. This multi-layered criticality is why it takes so long for tenure decisions to comes through; I applied in October 2013 and just heard the final decision in May!

I hope this description has been helpful for you to be able to celebrate with recently tenured faculty members and to support pre-tenure faculty members.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why the Derek/Sandra breakup makes me sad, and why that probably means I still need to grow up

It was my junior year of college. I lived with three other Christian guys in an apartment somewhere north of where I sit right now. We spent many a late night over pancakes (during which we may or may not have felt like coffee), learning about how love is different than you'd think, and though none of us was expecting a postcard from anywhere, we were each ready to make a daring escape into the mistake of our lives.

We found significant consolation for the loneliness that we all felt in our inescapable fellowship and the brooding-yet-hopeful music that Derek Webb brought to us in our canon of Caedmon's Call albums. Derek, we felt in our hearts, understood us and reminded us of God's faithfulness. His lyrics, chords, and tempos taught us that it was okay to not feel okay, and that we can be okay with that.

Today, each of us is married (and, I suspect, would do so all over again), and I'm glad we learned in college to be okay with not being okay, because it's not okay to think that marriage makes everything okay. And when I need a reminder of that, I just turn my music player to my "Caedmon's Extended Call" playlist (including Caedmon's, Derek Webb solo, and The Normals).

Yesterday, Derek publicly announced his divorce, and I found myself feeling extremely sad. Perhaps it's the culmination of a heavy week semester pre-tenure run 27 years of academic progress, and this news finally prompted me to sit down and show some feels.

But also, perhaps this sadness is a sign that I still need to grow up a little.

I know I easily transition from finding comfort in music to living vicariously through it, and from identifying with music to letting it inform my identity. Maybe I still need to grow up and learn to make my own kind of music, and be okay with how it sounds.

Monday, April 14, 2014

One Spark Science Projects: Post-Game Analysis

Last week I had the amazing experience of serving as a science category juror at One Spark, the world's crowdfunding festival, here in Jacksonville. The competition among the science projects was intense, with the top project winning by a neuron. There were many projects deserving of funding and support, and our decision as jurors was very difficult, so (with my juror duties now concluded, and independently of One Spark and my fellow jurors whose analysis may be different than mine presented here) I thought I'd take this opportunity to describe some of these amazing projects.

Let's start with the three category finalists: How do you choose between neurologists & programmers curing Alzheimer's, exciting teachers developing an innovative learning space, and a 17-year-old building piezoelectric generators for remote sensors? It was not an easy decision, as...

  • All three projects demonstrated tremendously refined expertise and qualifications for their proposed projects.
  • All three creators have demonstrated success---including Cognitive Clubhouse's project leader being the second-grade teacher of the 17-year-old finalist! ("I told you I make science fun!" she shouted gladly during the Closing Ceremony.)
  • All three creators presented specific plans for how to use their potential winnings---including the $10,000 we were to award.
  • All three projects held promise for the two big deliverables scientists look for in any undertaking: Intellectual Merit (Will the proposed activities help advance human knowledge?) and Broader Impacts (Will the proposed activities bring practical benefits to society?). 
  • All three creator teams communicated their ideas well and flourished under scrutinizing questions from the jurors.
  • I found all three projects to be exciting ventures that I hope will succeed.
Even assembling these three finalists was a difficult decision. Although we ultimately agreed that these three projects came out on top, it was a tough competition among other well-developed and exciting projects, listed here as an unofficial Honorable Mention:
  • Dragonfly Revival. This public awareness campaign is seeking to help prevent opioid overdose deaths.
  • Sucralose Research. That artificial sweetener you're consuming may be zero calorie, but it also may be killing the good bacteria that live in your stomach.
  • TruVitalZoo. This revolutionary project will enable zoo veterinarians to remotely measure vital signs of animals. Did you know you can't just walk up to a lion with a stethoscope? With TruVitals products, you can measure heart rate, respiration, and movement without having to approach the animal.
  • The Wave Robber. This project presents a simple device that not only prevents coastal erosion but helps to rebuild shorelines in as little as a year.
Our juror results differed from the rankings by crowd vote, the top three of which included two aquariums and a community kitchen. Such a variety of awards is, I think, a reason One Spark's leadership decided to institute juror awards, and so I hope they'll continue to invite jurors to participate. These are three great projects and I hope to visit their final products some day soon!

So, what were your favorite projects?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Measuring Importance

I'm sure we're almost all familiar with the Urgent versus Important paradigm that has helped numerous professionals and students manage their time and energy. It's a very useful tool, and one that I rely on very heavily during the fall and spring terms.

However, I find it isn't as helpful when considering my summer activities, or my professional trajectory, in general. Over the summer, when there are no class or committee meetings to prepare for, everything is important and almost nothing is urgent. Similarly, when I look at the time I have each semester or each year to spend on research projects and writing, the urgent items (grading, answering e-mail) is already scheduled. The problem I run into is choosing between important things.

I ran into this same problem this week, when I took some time (during Spring Break, grumble grumble) to figure out my goals and commitments for the summer. I needed a way to distinguish between what I absolutely had to accomplish, what I wanted to make progress on, and what I wanted to dream about should I have the time. I needed to think through what my job requires me to do (preparing classes, setting up initiatives for my department) and what is good for me to do (attend conferences, stay up-to-date on journals, write). Basically, I needed to add a third dimension to the urgent-important matrix.

Here's what I came up with:

This chart makes use of two axes that separately evaluate whether a project is important for my job (i.e., conducting the business of my classes, department, university) or is important for me (i.e., promoting my own development and professional impact). So, for example, in "Essential" I have preparing my fall courses and developing my department's assessment plan. In "Need to Make Progress" I have finding a grant for my department to apply to. In "Need to Pursue," I have learning some cosmology. In "Nice to Do," I have working on the second edition of my aviation physics textbook.

Will this schema work? We'll have to see how the summer goes...

Friday, February 14, 2014

The problem with "being there"

I've been silent on this blog for a while to focus on my interim administrative appointments and on finishing  my tenure portfolio. Now seems like a good time to pick it back up, and I find myself unable to not offer a perspective on the Ham/Nye debate from last week.

Plenty of others have offered excellent commentary; I particularly recommend Biologos' responses, and the conversation that took place on their anotherchoice hashtag. I don't have much to add, except to expound on the very unsettling nature of Ham's refrain:
Were you there?
Ham used this phrase several times to question the claims of Big Bang cosmology and the evolutionary development of species. His essential idea is that, if an observer doesn't witness an event or process directly, they cannot claim that it happened. This important rule, he says, marks the difference between "historical science" and "observational science."

There are many concerns I could bring up regarding this argument. I could point out how Moses did not witness any of the events of Genesis, or how the author of Job did not witness any conversations between God and Satan. I could point out that the photons we observe in the Cosmic Microwave Background are reaching us now after journeying for 13.8 billion years, such that what we are measuring is a present event. I could point out that any observation we make is delayed by the amount of time it takes for light from the event to reach our eyes, such that we are always seeing the past, and ask the question of at what time scale observations become invalid. I could point out that Ham's organization was not there to witness the scenes from any of their paintings.

But instead, I'd like to ponder the significance of "being there" as a criterion for "real science."

I am a condensed matter physicist. I study how the behavior of materials is determined by their atomic/molecular/lattice structure. For example, lattice structure is what makes the graphite in your pencil different from a diamond, even though they're both made of carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are arranged differently in each material, so the materials behave differently (in terms of strength, transparency, density, etc.). How do we know what their structures are? We have several ways: We can bombard a sample of each material with x-rays and witness a different diffraction pattern for each; we can probe their surfaces with a tiny metal tip; we can run simulations of different lattice structures until we find one that produces the same material properties we observe experimentally.

But we never actually see these atoms' arrangements. We "aren't there," at the atomic scale; the lattice structure is so many orders of magnitude smaller than we are that we can never hope for a direct observation, just as we "weren't there" for the Big Bang or speciation.

So, if I never directly observe atomic structure, am I forbidden from publishing a lattice structure in a paper, or teaching it to my students? Does that mean that my entire field is invalid, and I should simply stick to reporting materials' properties instead of explaining them? What about chemistry, which faces a similar scale difference? What about a physician who claims that a patient is cured of a microscopic infection?

Whatever the original intention behind the "Were you there?" objection, I think it ultimately undermines all of present-day science, not just the parts that some Christians have trouble accepting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The power of a good theory

There's a new set of articles buzzing around Facebook that seem to indicate that the case is "closed" on the allegedly faster-than-light (or "superluminal;" I learned that word this past year, though it seems my computer's dictionary hasn't) neutrinos. After all the controversy, CERN's Sergio Bertolucci has made the excellent point that the story has "given people the opportunity to see the scientific method in action."


I hope, in particular, that this story shows the public the power of a good theory.


I am a theoretical physicist, working on the side of the scientific method--essentially, model development and exploration--that most of the public (most notably, students) would rather gloss over. There's a lot of math, a lot of words, no "real-world" laboratory set-up, and very few cool pictures (and the cool pictures that do exist are computer generated and therefore to be considered suspect). "Show me how it works!" the experiment-preferring public cries, followed by squeals of joy when it looks like the prevailing theory (in this case, relativity) might be overturned by new "real" evidence (in this case, faster-than-light neutrinos).


Why do so many people seem averse to theory? Why is there such a furor when a prevailing theory seems to be disproved? I can't answer those questions for sure (especially since I have loved theory since I finally cracked SOHCAHTOA at a church chalkboard late one cold October night in my junior year of high school), but I do have a few ideas.
  1. Many people don't like math: They don't like having to follow it or do it.
  2. Experiments are "cooler" than theory (until, of course, you have to mathematically analyze the data, which is why I think many students prefer demonstrations, not experiments). 
  3. Many people have been taught that the only kind of science is experimental science. (I think this statement is incomplete, as described below.)
  4. Many people simply do not understand the power of a good theory.
Theories are more than esoteric cogitations of "the way things ought to be." They're a logical exploration of the implications of our underlying assumptions--assumptions which usually come from previous experimental results. Sometimes, the explorations are short-lived: For example, we spent one day on relativistic quantum mechanics in graduate school, just long enough to find the infinity that showed its invalidity. Sometimes, the explorations take a long time: We're still figuring out how to successfully formulate string theory. But once we've formulated the principles, we apply a reasoning process (ideally in the form of mathematical proof/derivation), and arrive at applications that have some testable qualities. These three pieces (well-formulated and well-founded principles, sound reasoning process, and testable applications) are essential to any good theory.

Take, for example, electromagnetic theory (which I get to teach at the junior level again this coming fall). All of the principles of the model (stationary point charges emit electric fields radially outward, a constant straight current produces circular magnetic fields around it, and changing electric or magnetic flux induces a magnetic or electric field, respectively, and magnetic "charges" don't exist) are based on experimental observations over hundreds of years. We (theorists) take those principles to develop applications of them, most notably optics, radiation, materials properties, circuits, and relativity.

We develop those applications as a way of saying, "If the underlying principles of this theory are correct, and the reasoning we've employed is sound, then in this situation (say, a particle approaching the speed of light) we should observe this behavior (say, the particle being unable to exceed the speed of light)." If you put it the other way, we're saying, "If we observe a certain behavior (say, a particle seeming to travel faster than the speed of light), then either the underlying principles are incorrect, or the reasoning we've employed is flawed."

And therein lies the power of a good theory: When you've confirmed the underlying principles time and again, and checked and rechecked the reasoning that leads to the applications, the theory (the principles, reasoning, and application) helps us know when to doubt a scientific claim.

When these results came out last year claiming superluminal speeds, most theorists knew not to be alarmed but rather to approach them with caution. Why? Because we have a powerful theory that says otherwise. It's not a matter of blind dogma to say that neutrinos can't exceed the speed of light, it's the result of a powerful theory that will require more than one experiment to topple. To put it another way, let's trace the story backwards: These neutrinos seemed to be travelling faster than the speed of light, which is supposed to be impossible according to the theory of relativity, which is not something that Einstein simply cogitated one day. The theory of relativity is built on the nature of electromagnetic waves, which are themselves a result of Maxwell's equations, which are built upon centuries of experiments. (I refer to the timespan not to say that we should favor old over new, but to contrast the amount of experimental support.)

So will this confirmation of electromagnetic theory result in a greater appreciation of theory for the common culture? Probably not. But at least theorists have a good recent example of the power of their work.
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The views expressed on this blog are solely my own and do not reflect the views of any present or past employers, funding agencies, colleagues, organizations, family members, churches, insurance companies, or lawyers I have currently or in the past have had some affiliation with.

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