Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to do a PhD

I've begun a get a PhD.

The PhD project is being done with the Sydney University Physics Education research Group (SUPER group, hands down the best name for a research group if you ask me!) at the University of Sydney. My project will cover different aspects of physics and science education.

This blog will be a sort of research journal, how I did it, what was I thinking, what's next, review of papers/conferences/meetings, data analysis etc. I don't know how any of this works, so I'll be figuring out as I go along. Whoever reads this...You're invited to come along with me!

As with any PhD project, what is presented is only the culmination of all the hours and years put together in a single document. When I was a fresh first year, I remember handing in my very first philosophy assignment. An epic 2500 words essay on something very important like socks with holes in them.
John Locke proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole, and if it would be the same sock, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied, and a third, etc., until all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches - from Wikipedia.
I remember handing over my masterpiece for which I toiled over, wiping the sweat from my forehead, I could barely walk due to the effor that this essay took, I was a shell of a student, I'd done it, my first university assignment! I was very proud. The lady at the admin counter handed me a receipt of submission and I held onto that thing very tightly, I wanted to say "When do I get notified that this paper will be published and in which well respected journal? I'll be in the refectory if the media need to contact me!"

Next to me, was another student handing something in, but hers was a little bit different. just after my receipt was given I saw 3 entire hardcover books get slammed onto the counter, it made a huge thwop noise!! She looked beat! She simply said, theres three years of my life!" It was her PhD thesis. My jaw dropped. It didn't get any better when all she got for it was the same receipt from the admin lady. I instantly felt, the change in perspective that it almost made me dizzy! I still have no idea how she did that.

I guess no-one can really tell me how they did it, I just have to get in and do it! I don't even know where to start, let alone how to complete and finish it! So I may as well just start! So to answer the question of how to start a PhD?...Like this!


I was told once by someone finishing up his PhD in Astrophysics a couple of years ago, "You always have to remember why your doing a PhD." You'll forget it sometimes, and it'll seem a long way away, there'll be times when you want to give up, and times where you can't sleep cos you're so excited. But no matter what, you have to have in your mind why you are doing this, and getting to call yourself Doctor is not a good enough reason!

My reason, I want to contribute to the area that I have chosen as my work. I work in science communication and Science education. I would like to say that I have made some form of technical, and academic contribution to that field. And that's basically it. I think the nitty gritty of this may change a bit over time but the basis of it will probably stay the same. This is of course a simplified justification and it goes deeper than that, but for now, it fits.

So I guess here ends my first thoughts about it. There's plenty more to go.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This post, it's about space...and its about time as well!

Part of my job is to answer questions from High School science teachers, and I love it! These last questions came from a teacher and her year 11/12 students. I thought the questions were good and showed the great depth that some students are thinking at, and also the great interest in science.

I hope I’ve given them justice. This stuff can get quite mind-warpy very quickly!

How do we know how many light-years away we are seeing - as in we have seen stars 13 million light-years away.

Redshift will tell us the velocity of galaxies away from us, then with a calculation as fundamental as c=fλ we can approximate it’s distance. BUT…It’s not a simple as that…of course! There are effects due to our atmosphere, relativity, gravitational lensing, objects in the way, expansion of space etc that get in the way of accurate measurements. 

So, we have to KNOW the distance to  a whole bunch of objects in order to compare that with others. There are a few ways to do this, either with cepheid variable stars, quasarspulsars, and parallax. There are a couple of satellites that are tackling the problem with parallax that are very interesting. 

Have a look at Hipparcos and Gaia. These two satellites are involved in Astrometry, a very interesting area in astronomy. Literally measuring the stars! The precision is amazing by the way. Gaia can detect a movement of a star of 10 microarcseconds, (or something like that) the equivalent of seeing the length that my hair grows in 10 minutes from a distance of 10 meters. The angle between the smallest division on a protractor is a degree, that’s made of 60 arc minutes, each one of those is 60 arc seconds, and then 10 1000ths of that!

With all of these methods, we can get some very accurate measurements. 

The text book states that when the universe was one second old it was at least 1 light-year across but wouldn't that mean it was expanding faster than the speed of light?

YEP! It’s called inflation, and it is not very well understood! We talk about it as if we know what happened, but we really don’t! (like when we talk about how we know what the universe is made of, when we really only know what 4% of it is made of!) The experiment BICEP2 had a pretty close shave with the answer, but there is still some discussion, and of course we need to replicate the experiment.

Due to the fact that we don't understand inflation, we need to observe it and measure it, once that has happened, we can then start to try and figure out some details. So in order to measure it, we've tried to measure the effects of what that period would've done to the gravitational environment. In short, we're searching for gravity waves

If the universe started to collapse - could you travel fast enough to escape and can you exist outside the universe?

No. The idea of existence outside of a universe is, with our current understanding, non-sensical. If the universe collapsed, so would everything in it. The physical space between galaxies, stars, planets, etc would also collapse. Think of the usual stars (dots) on a balloon. If you deflate a balloon, the balloon also shrinks, the stars don’t move independent of the balloon, and interestingly (and in line with the analogy) the dots also get smaller!

The idea of “outside" the universe is not defined in physics (like dividing by 0, you just can’t do it. The idea of putting things into 0 groups is a non-sensical idea!) Space and time break down, we have no way of describing that condition mathematically or physically.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Celebrity scientists

Earlier this year, I blogged about why scientists should not necessarily be treated like footballers. It's here. The basic argument is that scientists probably do not want to be treated like footballers.

A similar conversation came up again in my twitter feed, this time from the SMH. "Australians can aspire to finer role models." This article rose out of the recent media frenzy around a few stupid things being done by footballers. The questions raised is, Why is Todd Carney a household name and not Brian Schmidt, or Elizabeth Blackburn for example, great question!

This falls nicely into the categories (following on) of name recognition and role models, and with a special request of ticker tape parades as a celebration of both!

Our very own household name, celebrity
 role model scientist, Dr Karl. Apparently
 he gets stopped an average of 2 times
per grocery shop for a question or autograph.

Name recognition
These days, when it comes to name recognition in the media cycle, I don't think that means much. Sure I can name the guy who wee'd into his own mouth now, but gimme two weeks or so and I'll have forgotten it. This works for the scientists as well. During their brief time, scientists could probably be named in households, but only for that brief time. To claim that Todd Carney is a household name and scientists aren't is quite simply not true. That's not how the media works.

To be honest, I'm pretty sure scientists wouldn't want to be household names, if the criteria for being a household name was disgracing yourself and your family. Think of all the household names in the media cycle at the moment, Todd Carney, Rolf Harris, Andrew Coulson.

There was a fantastic documentary series from the BBC called Howard Goodall's Story of Music. In it, the presenter, Howard Goodall, made the point that we know about artists like Beethoven and Chopin, Vivaldi and Wagner for a reason, they were brilliant and did something that no one else did. I think the same can be said for sportspeople like Maradonna or Michael Jordan, and scientists like Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Granted, John O'Sullivan, Brian Schmidt and Rosalind Franklin aren't household names, but Wi-Fi, Dark energy and DNA are!

Role Models
The role of a role model I think is not understood by the role models very well. There are plenty of examples of poor role models that really should know better. The fact that people look up to you and therefore will listen to what you say and watch what you do, should inform some actions. Of course that isn't the case all the time. I think that if people can't handle that, they really shouldn't be role models anymore, and should get out of that position.

A great sporting role model for me was John "Nobody" Eales. After a game of rugby for his country he'd hit the showers, get into a suit and go and delivery a keynote address at a dinner somewhere. Imagine some of the thugs that play football these days doing that!! Being a role model is a responsibility. People like Katie Perry must know that what they do is watched (and copied) by millions around the world.

But due to the above argument about our short attention span for name recognition, even if todd Carney is a role model, how probably won't be for very long. Again, those that are, like (for me) my father, Dr Karl, ex-bosses of mine Pete Mascini and Rachel Dash to name a few, are still role models for me because they've done something different or brilliant etc.

Having been a teacher, which is effectively a role model in many ways, I can tell you that my actions were heavily modified. I was aware that many actions were being watched and acted accordingly. I think that is responsible. Todd Carney must know he is a role model of sorts. People watch what he does because of who he is. No amount of drunkenness can remove that fact that people watch, are informed by, and in some cases, imitate what he does.

As always, there are two sides to the story. We could do better at what we produce in the news and media cycle, we could choose our role models better, we could train them to be better role models. But we should also expect more of our media to provide us with news that is news, and not just shocking "entertainment." And we should certainly expect more from our role models. It is a responsibility to behave morally and correctly (whatever that is!) as a role model. Children look up to you. If you don't think children should witness you doing something...don't do it.

Ticker Tape parades
I've never been to a ticker tape parade. I would probably never go to a ticker tape parade for a sportsperson, but probably would've been there for the Mercury and Apollo astronauts in their day. And I would certainly go to a similar science based celebration like a lecture by Brian Schmidt (and I'd still get chuffed when he remembers my name!). I still really love going to the Eureka Science prize award night, The Oscars for Science! That is a wonderful and huge and shameless pat ourselves on the back event for only us! I love it!

I hope this hasn't gone into rant territory. I'm still happy to keep the conversation going, like I said in the previous post, there's more in it!