Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Notes from the Lab: Double Scoops

There were no ice-cream sundaes this week in the lab, only two scientific scoops. This happens when another research group publishes similar data/results before we are able to get ours out, and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In one case, a graduate student working with me sent around a paper that contains published data similar to the data she has collected but is still in the process of being written-up. However her experiments which were collected under slightly different conditions, have shown significantly different and in my opinion much more interesting behavior. The second scoop is a study that has been several years in the making for me—a theoretical result about deep Earth thermal behavior. Another research group has published results from a similar type of study. In some ways our end-results are similar and in other ways much different. 

            The rational response to this type of scientific deliciousness is to keep the nose to the grindstone, and to explore ways to get the papers out faster. Mostly this means a combination of working harder and smarter so that the papers can get written and submitted faster.  And this week I had to tell myself over and over what I tell my students and colleagues when they/we feel scooped: If it’s interesting science, there is room for multiple groups. Part of laying the foundation of science relies on multiple results. I can bring to the table broader context and better synthesis. 

           I have also been the scooper as well as the scoopee. In the interest of the golden rule, I occasionally call colleagues to give them a heads up that I am working on a data set that I suspect they might also have collected.  I have offered to pool data so it can be combined into one. In one case, I practically begged a colleague to take my data so they could combine it with theirs and write it up (I was bored with the project).

           I'm curious to hear about others' experiences with being scooped. Does it happen often to people? Does it bother people? Do people take action? Or carry on? Has anyone scooped another lab

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Geophysics Problem of the Week--Mineral physics and the 1-Di Harmonic Oscillator

Here are some of my class notes for graduate geophysics.

This lecture is the connection between the previous lecture's review of Earth mineralogy to the next lecture's discussion of stress & strain on the way to deriving the seismic wave equation.

Any comments/questions/additions/subtractions/corrections are welcome. The material can branch out in many different directions from this starting point.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Notes on Teaching-Research-Service from the Home Infirmary

Sickness cancels Friday Night Dinner, and I have been working the home infirmary all week so instead of the FND report I will share a brief description of how my academic skills in teaching-research-service translate to the home front. Call it “broader impacts.”

My son could be hired by NASA to detect signs of parenting on other planets. Direct lectures have been ignored for years, one-on-one tutoring shunned, and subtle life lessons are exposed and mocked, like the vegetables in the meat loaf. 

Password decryption: covert forays into the online reading/viewing habits of adolescent boys. My discoveries in this arena have led to some hilarious insights from a wide variety of family, friends, & acquaintances.

My parenting skills are especially effective in helping other parents feel better about theirs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Geophysics Problem of the Week: Moon Landing, MASCONS, and GRAIL

This Geophysics Problem of the Week is based on a true(ish) story. You know how it is when you have a crush on someone. Flirtation leads to kissing and only later do you get around to really talking and it turns out that the object of your affection believes that the moon landing was an elaborate government hoax! Oh no! Moral of the story: Don’t kiss anyone who hasn’t done their geophysics homework!

To make sure you are on neither end of this kind of occurrence, here is a homework problem about the moon, about gravity, and to show that it is possible to use a pencil and paper to make the types of calculations that are required to send a rocket to the moon. 

To really land people on the moon, there are many complicated calculations involved, but the physics of the problem—mostly using Newton’s laws—is well understood. But if you have never played around with these types of problems, perhaps you might be inclined to think that it is like magic—or succumb to ignorance-based conspiracy theories.

Q1. Calculate the gravity field of the moon, assuming it is a homogeneous uniform sphere. Calculate the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the moon. How much force would you weigh on the moon?(note strange sentence construction—this is to emphasize units.)

One of the major efforts of the Apollo program was to apply local gravity corrections to the approximation of q.1 to ensure better accuracy in the landing site. Lunar Orbiter tracking data yielded evidence of gravity anomalies due to buried mass concentrations—MASCONS—on the surface of the moon. These were described in a 1968 Science paper by PM Muller and WL Sjorgen.  Here is the abstract; the rest is behind a paywall:

“Lunar Orbiter tracking data have been processed to supply a qualitatively consistent gravimetric map of the lunar nearside. While a simplified model was employed, the results indicate that there are large mass concentrations under the lunar ringed maria. These mass concentrations may have important implications for the various theories regarding lunar history.”
Image Credit: NASA
GRAIL Gravity Map of the Moon. NASA/MIT
Quantifying the Mascons helped pave the way for the Apollo 11 landing (picture at left).
The GRAIL mission has just published its new gravity map for the surface of the Moon.

Q2. Find the sea of tranquility and the Apollo 11 landing site on the GRAIL map. This was not so easy for me.

Q3. How significant are the gravity perturbations? Compare the magnitude of GRAIL’s gravity perturbations with the total gravity on the surface of the Moon.

Q4. Imagine you are landing a spacecraft on the moon, and have not accounted for the gravity in your original calculations. How far off your target have you landed? Find a way to make this an order-of-magnitude problem to be solved with pencil-and-paper and not a problem requiring spherical harmonics out past the 100th degree. One way to do this may be to pretend your landing site is adjacent to one of the larger gravity anomalies. Calculate the force exerted by that anomaly on your passively landing spacecraft. Ignore all other anomalies. 
Bouger Gravity Map of the Moon NASA/MIT

Q5. At left is a series of images of the Moon’s Bouger Anomaly. Find a friend or family member who is not a geophysicist, and describe why the gravity image above looks different from the gravity image below. Together, try to correlate the images.
Another great GRAIL image of the Moon's gravity NASA/MIT

For more great GRAIL information and images see:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Friday Night Dinner Report: Baseball vs. Science

A low-key Friday night dinner, in which we didn’t even bother to set the table, but perched on kitchen stools and ate out of bowls and drank wine out of emptied nutella jars.  I made mushroom-barley stew, peas-warmed-in-butter (peas have just come in season here), and salad. Conversation centered around criteria for excellence, with a comparison of what it takes for baseball players and for scientists to achieve their respective high status positions: hall-of-fame/national academy.

Baseball Players
Extremely specialized: narrow and physical
People with many different combinations of skills and talents can achieve excellence
Peak young
Many possible trajectories: some peak young, some later, some consistent through long career
Highly competitive field
Competitive, but easier career entry than baseball
Strong temptation to partake in performance-enhancing drugs
Science is fueled by coffee, Adderall, Ritalin, alcohol, and a host of antidepressants
Talk about baseball puts me to sleep
Talk about science is interesting and fun!
Lots of scientists love baseball
Not sure how many baseball players love science

Then we ate the rest of the sugar cookies, finished the chocolates, and watched Volcano, the 1997 movie starring Anne Heche as a geophysicist and it was fun to watch our favorite parts of our city get covered with lava.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Notes from the Lab: Introduction to MineralPhys Research Group

Yesterday started out well, with my recent PhD student’s paper accepted. We celebrated with cookies at group meeting, though a bottle of wine is also in order. The publications are some of our most important products, and they take a lot of work, so I believe in celebrating them at all stages: first draft, submission, return of reviews, resubmission (repeat as necessary), acceptance (big celebration!) and published.

My research group consists of about five people right now. This number is a little bit fuzzy because some have other primary advisors, but also work closely with me and come to group meetings. It took my first five years to build the group to this level; and it has been relatively stable for the past five years, with the complexion of the group evolving as people rotate in and out. I try to foster an intellectually stimulating and supportive environment. We all do experimental mineral physics, but each has a different focus. I like that each group member has plenty of intellectual space, but one of the tradeoffs is that it can be intellectually lonely for people who prefer to work in collaborative mode. I like that we do not compete within the group, but we do work together especially on intensive synchrotron-based studies. There are lots of different things going on so we all learn from each other, and I can also keep close to everyone’s work. My expectation is that everyone (including me) publishes at least one first-authored paper each year on average.

This week is the start of our winter quarter, and I spent all yesterday in one-on-one meetings with everyone in the lab, assessing projects, and setting goals for the next few months. Over the next few weeks I’ll write more about the projects we’re working on and the joys and frustrations of the lab. 

If you have questions about how our lab runs, please feel free to ask in the comments section or tweet them to @mineralphys.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Friday Night Dinner Report

Friday started at 4 am, and by 3:45 pm the button was pressed to submit the proposal. Relief washed away anxiety. I think I have given everyone—both supporters and detractors—tons to work with. Most Friday evenings I haul home from the lab and fire up something: the oven, the stove, the grill. This week I fired up the ‘ol land line to call for pizza delivery. 

Friday Night Dinners became our tradition almost 10 years ago. We had just moved to LA, and D, an acquaintance of mine from grad school days, lives only few blocks away. For the first year I had the intention of having him over for FND, but we all know how life goes sometimes, so between juggling new jobs and raising a young kid, it never happened. So I changed tack. Friday night dinners became the default—a standing invitation for every Friday night. Call to cancel.

By now it has been hundreds of Friday Night Dinners. Early nights, late nights. Lots of wine. Fancy food, leftovers, big salads, kitchen experiments, birthday-steaks. Inside, outside, warmth and chill. Friends, colleagues, neighbors, kids, dogs. Discussion, arguments, laughter, games, music, getting older.

This week besides family plus D, I invited my research group to help celebrate proposal submission. We enjoyed pizza, wine, a big salad. We welcomed the new postdoc to the US, to LA, to UCLA. We talked about movies, what motivates people to do work, poster design, what to do for group meetings. A neighbor dropped by. I lit a towel on fire making tea and left it smoldering on the back patio. Neighbors sniffing smoke came by again. I started yawning before 9 and we said goodnight.

A low-key and warm start to 2013 Friday night dinners.