Sunday, March 16, 2008

Katrina's Impact on Physics in New Orleans

Through the charming haze of jazz and brass bands, beads and voodoo shops, fantastic food and a generally celebratory feeling, New Orleans is also home to all the things that make a city strong; including a number of Universities, and thousands of students and faculty. So when Katrina hit New Orleans, it not only shook the traditions that New Orleans is most known for, but every aspect of life in a city. At the same time that I was earning my bachelors degree and complaining about the cold New England winters, there were thousands of students in New Orleans trying to gain theirs in conditions I can’t imagine. A session at the APS March Meeting focused on something I’d overlooked in the all the devastation: how Katrina had impacted physics universities in New Orleans. (Pictured: University Hospital in downtown New Orleans, Tuesday after Katrina)

The session was titled “Lessons Learned from Katrina: How to Prepare a Department for Catastrophic Events,” and was represented at a press conference on Thursday, March 13. Speakers included the heads of physics departments at Tulane, Xavier, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Louisiana Lafayette. The former three universities suffered severe physical damage from the storm, and in some cases power outages and email systems loss for up to six months. Campus buildings and labs were damaged, and some scientists lost data and experiments stored on campus.

Yet what the speakers made clear was the triumphant come-back that the universities made. They were all excited to discuss how quickly so many of their faculty and students returned to campuses after the disaster: the University of New Orleans did an on-line semester in the fall of 2005, in which 7,000 students participated, and 75% of pre-Katrina students returned to Xavier University by January 2006. There was no mention of anger at the political system, or what the state or national governments could have done better to prepare the schools. While I’m certain the leaders of these schools have opinions on those topics, they were spared for the press conference. The responsibility to prepare for such a disaster in the future came down to the schools. Speakers discussed not only the fantastic recovery rate, but plans to prepare the school for another potential disaster.

One member of the press brought up the devastating lay-offs that also accompanied the post-hurricane renewal period. Despite needing money to fix damaged campuses, some of the schools saw severe budget cuts due to their now lower student populations. The speakers said that while the remaining faculty was sad about the cuts, morale seemed to be high. I believe that the speakers were genuine in their positive reports and sunny outlooks; but it was clear that conveying such an image of the schools was their predetermined goal.

University of Louisiana Lafayette was not physically impacted by the storm, but their physics department head Natalia Sidorovskaia discussed the immense effort extended by the school to support universities that were. The school opened its doors to storm refugees and volunteers, as well as offering tuition-free classes to displaced students.

University of Massachusetts Amherst polymer science professor David Hoagland spoke about his experience hosting University of New Orleans physicists evacuated by the storm. He found workspace in his own department for a research team of six people, who also brought their families to Amherst for about six months. Nearby Amherst College also assisted by giving jobs and housing to the physicists and their families, as well as a tuition-free semester to one of the evacuee’s sons. Hoagland did discuss the one disappointing side of the experience: that the state bureaucracy prevented funds from going directly to the families from the University. As a matter of fact, all funding and supplies came from Amherst College, private companies or individuals, or private donations by departments, rather than the university. Hoagland said he hated to speak poorly of the school, and that everyone who worked there was eager to help. But red tape simply prevented the university from offering any real financial assistance, a situation Hoagland hopes can be changed. With little action currently being taken to do so, he questioned what UMass Amherst would do in the event that a similar emergency affected them. How would they respond to doors being closed to their students and faculty?

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Complexity is Cool

Some of my favorite sessions at the APS March meeting are sponsored by the Group on Statistical and Nonlinear Physics (GSNP). It's an odd branch of physics that addresses things like the dynamics of the stock market, connections between the neurons in your brain, the information storage in DNA, and the motions of animals as they swim, fly and run.

I like the field so much, that a complexity paper by Albert-László Barabási on the inaccessible portions of the Internet inspired me to write a pulp science fiction book called The Dark Net.

Barabasi was here again this year to tell us some things he's discovered about the patterns that describe human activity. Several of his students were here to report on cell phone viruses and disease networks. Hmm, I think a Dark Net sequel may be called for.

Another GSNP paper that caught my attention is Dirk Brockmann's analysis of the flow of dollar bills in the US. He got his data from the Where's George web site that lets people track dollar bills by entering serial numbers in a database.

It's amazing what you can get from ten million or so bits of information about bills. For example, the Where's George data shows how closely people in different parts of the country are connected. Folks in western Pennsylvania seem to exchange lots of money with people in Ohio, but not much with people in eastern Pennsylvania. The easterners instead pass money back and forth with people living in New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland. And even though the state of New York butts right up against New England, very little cash crosses the boarder with Vermont. The money trail shows that the New England states are tight, with more cash traveling hundreds of miles within the region than leaking just a few miles into surrounding states.

Brockmann's work makes me wonder if we should redraw the state borders to take account of the way people associate. New England would be one big state, and I could vacation in the superstates of of WestVirginaPennsOhioAtucky, CaliAriZonaMexVada, or Texas (Surprise, surprise - Texans don't seem to be tight with anyone else, according to Where's George data, even though we're all welcome to stop by).
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Happy Birthday PRL!

Physical Review Letters, the world's most prestigious physics journal, turns 50 this year. So of course, we had a birthday party and cake at the March APS meeting in New Orleans. We were also supposed to have two types of green drinks at the party's bar - Green Monsters and Emerald Ladies - in honor of the journal's green cover. Unfortunately, a shortage of Creme de Menthe prevented that little bit of color. Although, how a hotel could run out of such a useful drink ingredient is beyond me.

PRL managing editor Reinhardt Schuhmann (we just call him Reiny)kept the party going as he serenaded passers by who happened to stumble on the PRL booth in the New Orleans convention center. I'm not sure what people thought of his rendition of Lyle Lovett's "She's no Lady, She's my Wife." It's a great song, and Reiny plays it well, but Lyle's a bit obscure for most folks.

In this picture, he's playing my Rainsong guitar. It's made entirely of graphite. Physicist John Decker started Rainsong after learning the ins and outs of graphite cloth construction in an industrial lab somewhere.

Reiny also chaired a session at the meeting that featured several talks about the history of the journal. He's a multitalented guy.
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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bourbon Street Physicists

Hi there, physics lovers! Physics Buzz has temporarily headed south... to gorgeous New Orleans for the APS annual March Meeting! Just a little too late for Mardi Gras, we’re being kept very busy with over 7,000 talks in 5 days, plus press conferences and workshops. We'll be posting about the interesting talks we see and all the additional excitement. I’ve already seen talks on the physics of motorcycles, new theories about the interior structure of Jupiter, the physics of snake movement (which included a video of snakes in jackets!), and many others. Keep posted for more news.

The March Meeting is primarily an opportunity for physicists to share their research with other physicists in their field. Every once in a while, it’s also a chance to reveal a major discovery that affects more fields of physics or even the world at large. One press conference focused on some of these major breakthroughs and included a talk on the creation of gold, lead and tin fullerenes. Physics Buzz recently had an article about the first team to image carbon fullerenes, better known as buckyballs, or tiny soccer-ball-like cages made of carbon atoms.

These cages don’t exist in nature, and are made up of only 60 carbon atoms each. Sculpture on that scale is very difficult; we’re talking about specifically manipulating the structure of just a few dozen atoms! Lai-Sheng Wang presented his group’s creation of cages made of lead, gold, and tin. These metals all have very different properties from carbon, and will offer new applications as the science develops. Almost before researchers found they could successfully create these cages, they were working on how to put things inside them (which the team successfully did). Putting an atom inside a cage that is made up of another type of atom can alter the cage material’s chemical properties. It also offers the possibility of using the fullerenes as atomic transports.

Some people are focused on other things when they come to the March Meeting. Here is the Editor in Chief of Physical Review, Gene Sprouse, showing off mad skills (just kidding of course. Although Gene is a very talented yo-yoer, he spends most of his time keeping the journals running strong).

Another breakthrough was the development of 3D optical lattices consisting of individual atoms, in which the atoms are far enough apart that they can be individually manipulated without disturbing their neighbors. David Weiss presented the data from Penn State. Imagine making small cubes out of toothpicks, held together at the joins by balls of clay. You could put a group of these together to then make a larger cube looking somewhat like a square jungle-gym. This is essentially a lattice, and scientists have found ways to put a single atom at each joint (where the balls of clay are). The atoms are then equally spaced apart, and take up a 3D space. Now that you’ve got those atoms where you want them, the objective is then to manipulate them. But the challenge thus far has been manipulating single atoms without disturbing their neighbors, which had to be very close by. The scientists were able to separate the atoms by 5 microns.

An additional press conference focused on the physics of climate change. There were no ground breaking discoveries to be reported in this field, but rather an underlying message from the six speakers: physicists must develop more qualitative and robust ideas about climate models if they can hope to make predictions about future climate trends. While scientists are, unquestionably, able to observe climate changes, they cannot yet create a system model that will determine why these changes occur, or give any indication of future trends. Quantitative methods are all but impossible to obtain because of the scale they need to be on (the entire frickin Earth!). Speakers noted that there are few, if any, sessions at physics meetings being focused primarily on climate change. There is only one session focused solely on climate change at the March Meeting, and they hope that number will increase at future meetings.

Shortly after the meeting, I’ll be posting an interview I did with Daniel Goldman about his research on animals that move on granular surfaces like sand and mud. He and his team built the sandbot to mimic this motion. The group thinks they’ve found some fundamental similarities between the way very different animals move on these surfaces (some of them moving at over 2 meters per second!!). It’s a wonderful example of how physics may answer some age-old questions posed by biologists, but also how physicists can learn fro nature’s living models. And of course, it raises new questions for both fields.

Stay tuned physicsbuzzers!! More to come!

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