Friday, May 17, 2013

Notes from the Scientific Literature: Thermal Conductivity and Making Connections

When I was an undergraduate and graduate student I had plenty of time for deep scholarship: e.g. the time to go through volumes of Proc. Roy. Acad. Sciences in ~ 1922 to see what scientists were up to during those heady times in the early days of the new physics, and also read carefully through every paper on high pressure mineral physics. But then came postdoctoral positions simultaneously with new baby followed by long years of assistant professor-hood coupled with continuing mom-dom, and it was all I could do even to mess-up the references for papers and proposals.

Now that I’m finishing off the last few forkfuls off those pie-slices, I’m pulled back to the deep literature. I am working on a paper on thermal conductivity at high pressures and high temperatures, and am going back 100 years to the early thermal conductivity literature. The field of thermal conductivity of insulating materials is lucky to have had the master synthesizer P.G. Klemens, who escaped from Nazi Germany with his family, was educated at Oxford—the postwar center for thermal conductivity studies—and then came to the US to work first on proto-“Star Wars” development and then the chair of the physics department at UConn. (I have stories about that department, but those are for another time&place.)

Prof. Klemens (d. 2002) left behind a beautifully clear series of review papers, which not only summarize the science of thermal conductivity of insulating materials, but also lay out the history of discoveries while placing them in context of the concurrent big questions that were intriguing physicists—questions of kinetics, particle momentum, anharmonicity—all of these things and more. 

When I get to the review-paper stage of my career, I hope to emulate Klemens.

In those early days of scientific learning, I just attempted to soak it all in. I remember when the thermodynamics I was learning in one class showed up in a slightly different way in another class. That spark of connection was very compelling to me. Now perhaps I don’t learn new things quite as quickly, but the connections—the synthesis—comes much easier. So—back to Klemens. I am really enjoying learning from his papers—and I can see clear connections between the studies of thermal conductivity and another problem engaging me these days: which is how isotopes fractionate at a reacting interface. They both involve questions of kinetics—transport processes. They both involve the quasi-momenta of a statistical distribution of traveling particles—in a 3-di lattice for thermal conductivity, across a 1-di interface for reacting isotopes. They both involve an activated process that provides resistance to transport: the scattering of phonons due to lattice anharmonicity for thermal conductivity, and the activation energy barrier for chemical reactions. I love the connections. I love working on a new framework for chemical reactions. I love the dying art of slow science.

I leave with my connection question for discussion in the comments section (please!):
Is diamond simply a 3-di catalyst for heat transport?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mothers' Day

The last time I told a Jewish-mother joke I stopped halfway through because it was no longer funny. My son was 2, and I was now the Jewish mother. Now my son is fourteen, and he finds the Jewish-mother jokes hilarious. I am descended from a long line of them. Stella was the flapper. Lenore was the depression-era striver, Bonnie is the social worker, and I am the scientist. I know Stella’s parents spoke German—not Yiddish. I know Stella called my grandma and her two sisters “three lemons on the tree of life.” My dad called her “Stella Bronxus.” I know Lenore as a hard worker with the sharpest mind up until the very end. Her last act before dying was to make sure her checkbook was penny balanced. Two months before she died, I came right to her apartment after the 11 hour trip from LA to Poughkeepsie, and there was the same acrid, sour, smell that I remember from the week grandpa died. I girded myself and walked in. There was grandma in her kitchenette, slicing the deep purple beets, surrounded by bell jars and a box of diamond crystal salt, a bag of sugar, and the open vinegar bottle for pickling. Mom still has the last jar.

There is no person who does not melt like chocolate upon encountering the warmth of my mother. Once by accident I used my (much less effective) version of my mom’s “social-worker voice” on one of my colleagues who had temporarily aroused my sympathy. He got angry: “Why are you using that voice with me?!” During the summer of 99 adventures, my mom and I went on a rescue mission to Bayside to help my stepsib pack and move. Her ex-boyfriend was not happy about this, and asked two of his friends to come by for support—one with huge tattooed muscles who smoke and drank and hovered close while we packed, and a mean-looking woman who broke the ice with my stepsister by informing her of her expertise in messing women up by face-scratching. This plan to intimidate us worked, but only for a little bit and then totally backfired. After packing, we all escaped to the porch with soda and the newspaper to wait for the moving truck. The big guy opened the chat when he saw I was reading a Science Times article about solar weather and it turns out science is one of his interests--he is really into science. It also turned out that he had zero demarcation between science and what I know to be pseudoscience. He segued our discussion from solar plasma physics directly to the Mayan apocalypse prediction without blinking, but still we had a great conversation. I think we each learned a lot. In the meantime, mom was relaxing on the front stoop next to face-scratching woman, who was waving her hands about, telling mom her whole life story, especially about her children who were spending the weekend with their father. I remember the hugs as we said our warm goodbyes, whisking stepsib to Astoria, her boyfriend left behind, not quite comprehending.

I spent this past weekend in Fort Worth with my mother-in-law, who comes from a completely different ilk which includes five generations of Texans. Her mom was one of six (?) sisters, all extremely well educated (including one of the first female PhD at UT) and liberal and outspoken. My mom-in-law was named after her father and his best friends—two male names strung together to make a new name for a girl. Since her mom went as Granny, she goes by Grammy. She is a mathematician, a woman who couldn’t wait to get back to work after her sons went to school, and competent in every way. She is mostly self-contained but genetically programmed to speak her intelligent, liberal mind when the moment calls for it. She is mostly buttoned up now, and frail. She is only a few years older than my own mom, but a generation apart—more like my greatest generation grandparents than my proto-hippie parents.

What my mother and mother-in-law have in common is that they both believe in the holiness of cleanliness. Every time I wipe down the counter underneath the coffee, even as it is still being filtered, even as I know there will be more drips within five minutes and I willl have to wipe again, I think of my mom and my mom-in-law and how I am a mom too.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Evolving Academic Departments

I think the best academic departments of the future will be the ones that can successfully interweave the following missions:

1. Be an intellectual center. Department-level disciplines are local nodes in a worldwide network of scholarship, with faculty serving both as state-of-the-art practitioners and also as local guides to the entire network of scholarship within their field.

2. Explore and build connections among neighboring disciplines. Develop new disciplines and evolve the old disciplines. Consider adopting more flexible department/school structures that foster both within-discipline and across-discipline scholarship.

3.  Couple scholarship with community. Develop, maintain, and support formal and informal ways for departmental scholars at all levels to connect with the community, such as students in different fields, others across the university, policy makers, government, the local community, the world community.

4. Provide a rich local community for scholarship and connection for the department personnel core consisting of department undergraduates, graduate students, researchers, staff, and faculty. 

5. The department should provide a local launchpad from which undergraduates can explore the world. Departments need to recognize that some of that exploration should be guided, while some of that exploration should be truly exploratory.

6. The well-being of graduate students is a primary indicator of the intellectual health of a research department. The best departments will offer a rich, diverse, encouraging, connected environment for its graduate student researchers. Happy productive graduate students define the core of a happy productive research department. 

(Part 2 of 2)

Slow Science vs Fast Science

I started as a graduate student in the olden days of slow science. Scholarship was slow because I often ran into a friend during the walk to the library, and maybe we stopped for some coffee. The library stacks were a huge distraction—a book title would catch my eye and I stopped to flip through, or I saw a stack of journals, and wondered what was published on my birthday (for example) and had to look it up. Access to faculty experts within the university was relatively fast, but it took time to figure out who was in what department, and what they were working on. A lot of this happened through a dynamic network of grad students. But an expert across the country or across the world? These were the early days of email, so writing was the best bet. It took time for a response, and collaboration required travel.

Fast science is fun. We now have instant access to almost everyone in the world. Your favorite modeler with the most sophisticated numerical magnetohydrodynamic code that can couple perfectly with your high density plasma experiments? She no longer has to be in your same department for a good scientific interaction. The possibility of active ongoing collaboration is as simple as email, dropbox, and maybe telephone.

We can learn almost anything we want. From my computer I have access to a huge amount of the world’s scientific knowledge. Online courses are arriving in droves; many are good already, and the best of these will only get better and better.

The world is changing; the way we do science is changing; and academic departments are going to change too. How does an academic department evolve, especially one largely populated by faculty who came of age in the days of slow-science? We change together, by discussing and thinking through forward-looking ideas, and hiring people who can help push us towards our visions.

 Tell me, readers: did you come of age in the days of slow or fast scholarship?  Do you prefer one mode over the other? Have your academic departments evolved to keep up with new and different modes of scholarship?

(Part 1 of 2)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Geophysics Problem of the Day: Undergraduate Plate Tectonics Midterm

I like exams that are:
1. Not too easy
2. Not too hard
3. Interesting for students; they can learn something while doing the exam.

 Here is an adapted version of  the midterm that I gave in undergraduate plate tectonics course. The students found question 1 confusing, but enjoyed questions 2 & 3.  From my point of view it was an effective exam: a good range of scores from low to high.

Please let me know what you think of the midterm. Any suggestions for how to make the first question  less confusing for the students would be helpful. The goal is to test their understanding of the interplay of temperature, rheology, and melting to create new crust beneath a mid-ocean ridge, and to contrast that with the thermal-mechanical behavior underneath continents.

I. Below is a copy of a cartoon of the geotherm underneath the average ocean crust.

     Answer the following questions referring to the cartoon, copied from the Annual Review Earth Sci. Article by Fischer, Ford, Abt, and Rychert, (Ann Rev. Earth Sci. 2010)

a. Lithosphere vs Asthenosphere
i. Show and label the lithosphere and the asthenosphere.
ii. Show and label where heat flow is mostly by conduction and where heat flow is mostly by convection.iii. Approximate the average depth corresponding to the horizontal line on the plots. (Don’t forget units!)

b.Geotherm and Melting
i.  Draw an additional geotherm corresponding to what it might look like underneath a continent.
ii.  Draw an additional geotherm, corresponding to what it might look like directly underneath a mid-ocean ridge.
iii.  Superimpose a curve representing the melting temperature (solidus) as a function of depth.
iv. Show and label where partial melt may occur—below continents, below average ocean crust, and/or below the mid-ocean ridge.

c.Viscosity and Rock strength
i. Using the top axis, plot rock strength as a function of depth below average ocean crust.
ii. Using the top axis, plot rock strength as a function of depth below average continental crust.

--> Answer the questions about the below map from a recent paper by Ekstrom, Nettles & Dziewonski (Phys. Earth. Planet. Inter, 2010). 
-->Caption:  Centroid locations and moment tensors for the 38 largest (MW  7.5) earthquakes of 2004–2010. Plate boundaries (Bird, 2003) are shown by gray lines. The full moment tensor is shown by shading; the nodal lines of the best-double-couple focal mechanism are also shown. The dot indicates the projection of the compression (P) axis onto the focal sphere. The size of the focal mechanisms is a linear function of magnitude. (note: the numbers above the focal mechanisms is from the paper and not important for this question.)

1. Faulting.
a.  Name the three major types of faults.

b.  Find, circle, and label good examples of moment tensor solutions corresponding to each of the three major fault types listed in a. above.

2. Boundaries.
On the map, find and clearly label an example of each the following types of plate boundaries:
i.   Convergent Boundary
ii.  Divergent Boundary
iii. Transform Boundary

3. Plate names and relative velocities. 
a. On the map, choose any two plates that share a boundary and label them A and B
b. Using A as the reference frame, draw two arrows corresponding to the plate velocity of B with respect to A.

c. Extra Credit:  Give the plate names of the two plates you have chosen.

 III.  Use the map shown below to answer the following questions.
The following questions refer to the boundary between points labeled A and B on the projected map.


 1.  The boundary between A and B is a
a.      mid-ocean ridge
b.     trench (or subduction zone)
c.     transform fault
d.     fracture zone

2.  The plate velocity at point A with respect to point B is best described as:
a.     Moving towards the right compared with point B
b.     Moving towards the left compared with point B
c.     The same velocity as point B

3.  The depth of the ocean floor at point A is
a.     Deeper than at point B
b.     Shallower than at point B
c.     About the same depth as point B

4.  The age of the ocean floor at point A is
a.      Older than at point B
b.     Younger than at point B
c.     About the same age as point B

 Extra credit 3.  Describe the quantity that is mapped in this image. (i.e. what do the colors refer to?)

 Extra credit 4.  What are the units of the numbers on the legend? (e.g. meter, kilogram, second, etc.)


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Are You a Lab Gremlin?

Take the Lab Gremlin Quiz

1.  When encountering equipment for the first time, you:
a. Read all of the instructions before operating the equipment
b. Start operating the equipment, but ask for help if you are uncertain
c. Just keep pressing buttons—eventually it will start back up again

2.  When planning experiments, you
a. Use optimization software to calculate ideal design of experiments
b. Sit with your advisor and reason through the next sets of experiments
c. Just delve in. A month in the lab can save an hour in the library

3.  Your hands are:
a. Like precision surgical instruments
b. Mostly okay unless you’re had too much coffee
c. Mostly feet

4.  Your eyesight is:
a. 20/20 or better
b. Correctable with proper optics, which are always worn
c. Highly variable along a wide range of timescales

5. When you have a question about something in the lab, you
a. Ask someone else right away
b. Try to solve the problem for a day, and then ask co-researcher or advisor
c. You have never had a question while working in a lab

6. Your worst lab blunder ever:
a. You have never blundered in the lab
b. broke a diamond during alignment
c. dropped half the worlds’ supply of a rare mineral on the floor

Add Total Score:  0 points for each a, 1 point for b., 2 points for c.
0-3: You are an exemplary lab person; hope the gremlins stay away!
4-8: If you are new to the lab, you should up your game. If you were once exemplary, you might be descending into Gremlindom.
9-12: I'm sorry, Lab Gremlin. It's time to become a theorist or a modeler. Or just get back to writing proposals.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance--Collegial Version

I work at a huge and diverse university and one of the joys is meeting and getting to know my colleagues across campus. I love to hear about what other faculty and researchers across campus are doing. Our collective knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, enthusiasm, and passion is overwhelming and inspiring.

Occasionally a colleague that I am meeting for the first time does not realize right away that I am a fellow faculty member.

My goal here is to analyze this particular type of communication/interaction and outline its distinctive parts to help with pattern recognition and early intervention. While I have been on one side of this interaction more than the other side, I have definitely found myself on the other side too, so I suspect this communication pattern happens to most of us at least sometimes.

These interactions are generally characterized by three distinct stages:

Stage 1: Abnormal Interaction.  Sometimes these miscommunications are straightforward; for example I once made an appointment with a colleague to discuss what I though might be overlapping research interests. He welcomed me in his office by my first name, and when I returned the tutoyer*, he corrected me to use his Professor XY title. Sometimes the communication is just anomalous in a way that is difficult to articulate: something about the tone of voice, eye contact, body language, or language use deviates from the norms of how colleagues communicate with each other here on campus and I find myself surprised by the manner in which the person is talking with me. Sometimes I simply sense the other’s discomfort with the way that I am talking with them. Sometimes the interaction ends here, and the conversation does not advance to the other stages.

Stage 2: Realization and Window. I am learning to quickly recognize when someone does not realize I am a faculty member. If I can make it to Stage 2 before the other person passes to Stage 3, I have a clear window through which I can see how this person treats others who are not fellow colleagues and I see how I am perceived. Often I’m an undergraduate (but now becoming increasingly an “alternative-path undergraduate”), and I get to see how a colleague treats undergraduates. I’m also often an assistant to someone else (administrative assistant; I’m rarely mistaken for a research assistant), and I can see how this person treats my staff colleagues at the university. Most often, there is just confusion because the other person just does not understand who I am and why I am talking to them in the way that I am talking to them (e.g. why is this young-yet-old-looking humanities or maybe sociology major asking me about the dielectric properties of water at electrified interfaces under high hydrostatic pressures?).

Stage 3: Cognitive Dissonance. The big double-take almost always happens at some point. I wish I had a camera so I could post snapshots of the moment of my conversation partner’s realization that I am not who they think I am: transient wide eyes and slack jaw, and then a relaxation into crinkly forehead of confusion. There is discomfort and embarrassment. Often the conversation recovers, and a new collegial relationship grows. But sometimes people run away from a relationship that has a rocky start. Or worse—and for me a true show-stopper in developing collegiality—the person responds with anger and/or hostility in the wake of their cognitive dissonance.

So readers—please chime in with your stories of cognitive dissonance. Have you felt it? Have you caused others to feel it? Are there graceful ways to progress through this interaction pattern? Is there a gentle way to clear misunderstanding while allowing face-saving on both sides?

*There is no good English noun for informal/formal speech patterns so I’m nounifying the French verb. Quel triple horreur!