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Non-linear teaching October 9, 2017

Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Physics, Science.
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I wanted to share some ideas about a teaching method I am trying to develop and implement this semester. Please let me know if you’ve heard of someone doing something similar.

This semester I am teaching our undergraduate mechanics class. This is the first time I am teaching it, so I started looking into a possibility to shake things up and maybe apply some new method of teaching. And there are plenty offered: flipped classroom, peer instruction, Just-in-Time teaching, etc.  They all look to “move away from the inefficient old model” where there the professor is lecturing and students are taking notes. I have things to say about that, but not in this post. It suffices to say that most of those approaches are essentially trying to make students work (both with the lecturer and their peers) in class and outside of it. At the same time those methods attempt to “compartmentalize teaching” i.e. make large classes “smaller” by bringing up each individual student’s contribution to class activities (by using “clickers”, small discussion groups, etc). For several reasons those approaches did not fit my goal this semester.

Our Classical Mechanics class is a gateway class for our physics majors. It is the first class they take after they are done with general physics lectures. So the students are already familiar with the (simpler version of the) material they are going to be taught. The goal of this class is to start molding physicists out of students: they learn to simplify problems so physics methods can be properly applied (that’s how “a Ford Mustang improperly parked at the top of the icy hill slides down…” turns into “a block slides down the incline…”), learn to always derive the final formula before plugging in numbers, look at the asymptotics of their solutions as a way to see if the solution makes sense, and many other wonderful things.

So with all that I started doing something I’d like to call non-linear teaching. The gist of it is as follows. I give a lecture (and don’t get me wrong, I do make my students talk and work: I ask questions, we do “duels” (students argue different sides of a question), etc — all of that can be done efficiently in a class of 20 students). But instead of one homework with 3-4 problems per week I have two types of homework assignments for them: short homeworks and projects.

Short homework assignments are single-problem assignments given after each class that must be done by the next class. They are designed such that a student need to re-derive material that we discussed previously in class with small new twist added. For example, in the block-down-to-incline problem discussed in class I ask them to choose coordinate axes in a different way and prove that the result is independent of the choice of the coordinate system. Or ask them to find at which angle one should throw a stone to get the maximal possible range (including air resistance), etc.  This way, instead of doing an assignment in the last minute at the end of the week, students have to work out what they just learned in class every day! More importantly, I get to change how I teach. Depending on how they did on the previous short homework, I adjust the material (both speed and volume) discussed in class. I also  design examples for the future sections in such a way that I can repeat parts of the topic that was hard for the students previously. Hence, instead of a linear propagation of the course, we are moving along something akin to helical motion, returning and spending more time on topics that students find more difficult. That’t why my teaching is “non-linear”.

Project homework assignments are designed to develop understanding of how topics in a given chapter relate to each other. There are as many project assignments as there are chapters. Students get two weeks to complete them.

Overall, students solve exactly the same number of problems they would in a normal lecture class. Yet, those problems are scheduled in a different way. In my way, students are forced to learn by constantly re-working what was just discussed in a lecture. And for me, I can quickly react (by adjusting lecture material and speed) using constant feedback I get from students in the form of short homeworks. Win-win!

I will do benchmarking at the end of the class by comparing my class performance to aggregate data from previous years. I’ll report on it later. But for now I would be interested to hear your comments!



30 years of Chernobyl disaster April 26, 2016

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30 years ago, on 26 April 1986, the biggest nuclear accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.


The picture above is of my 8th grade class (I am in the front row) on a trip from Leningrad to Kiev. We wanted to make sure that we’d spend May 1st (Labor Day in the Soviet Union) in Kiev! We took that picture in Gomel, which is about 80 miles away from Chernobyl, where our train made a regular stop. We were instructed to bury some pieces of clothing and shoes after coming back to Leningrad due to excess of radioactive dust on them…


“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves.” February 11, 2016

Posted by apetrov in Uncategorized.

The title says it all. Today, The Light Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory  (or simply LIGO) collaboration announced the detection of gravitational waves coming from the merger of two black holes located somewhere in the Southern sky, in the direction of the Magellanic  Clouds.  In the presentation, organized by the National Science Foundation, David Reitze (Caltech), Gabriela Gonzales (Louisiana State), Rainer Weiss (MIT), and Kip Thorn (Caltech), announced to the room full of reporters — and thousand of scientists worldwide via the video feeds — that they have seen a gravitational wave event. Their paper, along with a nice explanation of the result, can be seen here.


The data that they have is rather remarkable. The event, which occurred on 14 September 2015, has been seen by two sites (Livingston and Hanford) of the experiment, as can be seen in the picture taken from their presentation. It likely happened over a billion years ago (1.3B light years away) and is consistent with the merger of two black holes, of 29 and 46 solar masses. The resulting larger black hole’s mass is about 62 solar masses, which means that about 3 solar masses of energy (29+36-62=3) has been radiated in the form of gravitational waves. This is a huge amount of energy! The shape of the signal is exactly what one should expect from the merging of two black holes, with 5.1 sigma significance.

It is interesting to note that the information presented today totally confirms the rumors that have been floating around for a couple of months. Physicists like to spread rumors, as it seems.

ligoSince the gravitational waves are quadrupole, the most straightforward way to see the gravitational waves is to measure the relative stretches of the its two arms (see another picture from the MIT LIGO site) that are perpendicular to each other. Gravitational wave from black holes falling onto each other and then merging. The LIGO device is a marble of engineering — one needs to detect a signal that is very small — approximately of the size of the nucleus on the length scale of the experiment. This is done with the help of interferometry, where the laser beams bounce through the arms of the experiment and then are compared to each other. The small change of phase of the beams can be related to the change of the relative distance traveled by each beam. This difference is induced by the passing gravitational wave, which contracts one of the arms and extends the other. The way noise that can mimic gravitational wave signal is eliminated should be a subject of another blog post.

This is really a remarkable result, even though it was widely expected since the (indirect) discovery of Hulse and Taylor of binary pulsar in 1974! It seems that now we have another way to study the Universe.

Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 October 6, 2015

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So, the Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 has been announced. To much surprise of many (including the author), it was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.” Well deserved Nobel Prize for a fantastic discovery.

What is this Nobel prize all about? Some years ago (circa 1997) there were a couple of “deficit” problems in physics. First, it appeared that the detected number of (electron) neutrinos coming form the Sun was measured to be less than expected. This could be explained in a number of ways. First, neutrino could oscillate — that is, neutrinos produced as electron neutrinos in nuclear reactions in the Sun could turn into muon or tau neutrinos and thus not be detected by existing experiments, which were sensitive to electron neutrinos. This was the most exciting possibility that ultimately turned out to be correct! But it was by far not the only one! For example, one could say that the Standard Solar Model (SSM) predicted the fluxes wrong — after all, the flux of solar neutrinos is proportional to core temperature to a very high power (~T25 for 8B neutrinos, for example). So it is reasonable to say that neutrino flux is not so well known because the temperature is not well measured (this might be disputed by solar physicists). Or something more exotic could happen — like the fact that neutrinos could have large magnetic moment and thus change its helicity while propagating in the Sun to turn into a right-handed neutrino that is sterile.

The solution to this is rather ingenious — measure neutrino flux in two ways — sensitive to neutrino flavor (using “charged current (CC) interactions”) and insensitive to neutrino flavor (using “neutral current (NC) interactions”)! Choosing heavy water — which contains deuterium — is then ideal for this detection. This is exactly what SNO collaboration, led by A. McDonald did

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 2.51.27 PM

As it turned out, the NC flux was exactly what SSM predicted, while the CC flux was smaller. Hence the conclusion that electron neutrinos would oscillate into other types of neutrinos!

Another “deficit problem” was associated with the ratio of “atmospheric” muon and electron neutrinos. Cosmic rays hit Earth’s atmosphere and create pions that subsequently decay into muons and muon neutrinos. Muons would also eventually decay, mainly into an electron, muon (anti)neutrino and an electron neutrino, as

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 2.57.37 PM

As can be seen from the above figure, one would expect to have 2 muon-flavored neutrinos per one electron-flavored one.

This is not what Super K experiment (T. Kajita) saw — the ratio really changed with angle — that is, the ratio of neutrino fluxes from above would differ substantially from the ratio from below (this would describe neutrinos that went through the Earth and then got into the detector). The solution was again neutrino oscillations – this time, muon neutrinos oscillated into the tau ones.

The presence of neutrino oscillations imply that they have (tiny) masses — something that is not predicted by minimal Standard Model. So one can say that this is the first indication of physics beyond the Standard Model. And this is very exciting.

I think it is interesting to note that this Nobel prize might help the situation with funding of US particle physics research (if anything can help…). It shows that physics has not ended with the discovery of the Higgs boson — and Fermilab might be on the right track to uncover other secrets of the Universe.

Nobel week 2015 October 5, 2015

Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Physics, Science.
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So, once again, the Nobel week is upon us. And one of the topics of conversations for the “water cooler chat” in physics departments around the world is speculations on who (besides the infamous Hungarian “physicist” — sorry for the insider joke, I can elaborate on that if asked) would get the Nobel Prize in physics this year. What is your prediction?

With invention of various metrics for “measuring scientific performance” one can make educated guesses — and even put predictions on the industrial footage — see Thomson Reuters predictions based on a number of citations (they did get the Englert-Higgs prize right, but are almost always off). Or even try your luck with on-line betting (sorry, no link here — I don’t encourage this). So there is a variety of ways to make you interested.

My predictions for 2015: Vera Rubin for Dark Matter or Deborah Jin for fermionic condensates. But you must remember that my record is no better than that of Thomson Reuters.

Harvard University is to change its name April 1, 2015

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A phrase from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet states: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” This cannot be any further from the truth in the corporate world. The name of a corporation is its face, so setting a brand requires a lot of work and money. But what happens when something goes wrong?  The way to deal with corporate problems often involves re-branding, changing the name and the face of the corporation.  It works as customers usually do not check the history of a company before buying its products or using its services. It simply works.

With the Universities today run according to the corporate model, it was only a matter of time until re-branding came to the academic world. And leading Universities, like Harvard, seem to be embracing the model. Since 2013 article in Harvard Crimson, big Universities became a focus of investigations of many leading newspapers and politicians. Harvard, in particular, has been a focus of a brewing controversy. The University with the largest endowment of any university in the world, has got its name associated with the person who was not, in fact, the founder of Harvard University. As reported, in the very recent internal investigation by Harvard Crimson, John Harvard cannot be the founder of the school, because the Massachusetts Colony’s vote had come two years prior to Harvard’s bequest (compare this to Ezra Cornell’s founding of Cornell University). This led several prominent Massachusetts politicians to suggest that the University will be returned to the ownership by the Commonwealth with its name changed to University of Massachusetts, Cambridge. “We have a fantastic University system here in Massachusetts, with the flagship campus in Amherst,” said one of the prominent politicians who preferred not to be named, “Any University in the World would be proud to be a part of it.”

Returning a prominent private University to the ownership by the State is highly unusual nowadays and is probably highly specific to New England. With tightening budgets many states seek to privatize the Universities to remove them from their budget. For instance, there is a talk that a large public Midwestern school, Wayne State University, will soon change its owners and its name. Two prominent figures, W. Rooney and W. Gretzky, are rumored to work on acquiring the University and re-branding it as simply Wayne’s University. And the changes are rumored go even further. An external company Haleburton has already completed an assessment of the University’s strengths. The company noted WSU’s worldwide reputation in chemistry, physics and medicine and its Carnegie I research status, and recommended that the school should concentrate its efforts on graduating hockey, football, basketball and baseball players. “We are preparing our graduates to have highly successful careers. What job in the United States brings more money than the NFL or NHL player?” a member of WSU’s Academic Senate has been quoted in saying. “We are all excited about the change and looking forward to what else future would bring us.”

So, you want to go on sabbatical… February 5, 2015

Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Near Physics, Physics, Science.
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Every seven years or so a professor in a US/Canadian University can apply for a sabbatical leave. It’s a very nice thing: your University allows you to catch up on your research, learn new techniques, write a book, etc. That is to say, you become a postdoc again. And in many cases questions arise: should I stay at my University or go somewhere else? In many cases yearlong sabbaticals are not funded by the home University, i.e. you have to find additional sources of funding to keep your salary.

I am on a year-long sabbatical this academic year. So I had to find a way to fund my sabbatical (my University only pays 60% of my salary). I spent Fall 2014 semester at Fermilab and am spending Winter 2015 semester at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Here are some helpful resources for those who are looking to fund their sabbatical next year. As you could see from the list, they are slightly tilted towards theoretical physics. Yet, there are many resources that are useful for any profession. Of course your success depends on many factors: whether or not you would like to stay in the US or go abroad, competition, etc.

  • General resources:

Guggenheim Foundation
Deadline: September

Fulbright Scholar Program
Deadline: August

  • USA/Canada:

Simons Fellowship
Deadline: September

IAS Princeton (Member/Sabbatical)
Deadline: November

Perimeter Institute:
Visiting Professors
Deadline: November

Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University
Deadline: November

URA Visiting Scholar program
Intensity Frontier Fellowships
Deadline: twice a year

  • Europe:

Alexander von Humbuldt:
Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award
Humboldt Research Award
Deadline: varies

Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowships
Deadline: varies

CERN Short Term visitors
Deadline: varies

Hans Fischer Senior Fellowship (TUM-IAS, Munchen)
Deadline: varies
Some general  info that could also be useful can be found here.

I don’t pretend to have a complete list, but those sites were useful for me. I did not apply to all of those programs — and rather unfortunately, missed a deadline for the Simons Fellowship. Many University also have separate funds for sabbatical visitors. So if there is a University one wants to visit, it’s best to ask.

On a final note, it might be useful to be prepared and figure out, if you get funded, how the money/fellowship will find a way to your University and to you. Also, in many cases “60% of the salary” paid by your University while you are on a sabbatical leave means that you would have to find not only the remaining 40% of your salary, but also fringes that your University would take from your fellowship. So the amount that you’d need to find is more than 40% of your salary. Please don’t make a mistake that I made. 🙂

Good luck!

Data recall at the LHC? April 1, 2014

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In a stunning turn of events, Large Hadron Collider (LHC) management announced a recall and review of thousands of results that came from its four main detectors, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE, in the course of the past several years when it learned that the ignition switches used to start the LHC accelerator (see the image) might have been produced by GM. Image

GM’s CEO, A. Ibarra, who is better known in the scientific world for the famous Davidson-Ibarra bound in leptogenesis, will be testifying on the Capitol Hill today. This new revelation will definitely add new questions to already long list of queries to be addressed by the embattled CEO. In particular, the infamous LHC disaster that happened on 10 September 2008, which cost taxpayers over 21Million dollars to fix, and has long suspected been caused by a magnet quench, might have been caused by too much paper accidentally placed on a switch by a graduate student, who was on duty that day.

“We want to know why it took LHC management five years to issue that recall”, an unidentified US Government official said in the interview, “We want to know what is being done to correct the problem. From our side, we do everything humanly possible to accommodate US high energy particle physics researchers and help them to avoid such problems in the future.  For example, we included a 6.6% cut in US HEP funding in the President’s 2015 budget request.” He added, “We suspected that something might be going on at the LHC after it was convincingly proven to us at our weekly seminar that the detected Higgs boson is ‘simply one Xenon atom of the 1 trillion 167 billion 20 million Xenon atoms which there are in the LHC!’

This is not the first time accelerators cause physicists to rethink their results and designs. For example, last year Japanese scientists had to overcome the problem of unintended acceleration of positrons at their flagship facility KEK.

At this point, it is not clear how GM’s ignition switches problems would affect funding of operations at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA.


And the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to… October 8, 2013

Posted by apetrov in Particle Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.
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Today the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to François Englert (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium) and Peter W. Higgs (University of Edinburgh, UK). The official citation is “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.” What did they do almost 50 years ago that warranted their Nobel Prize today? Let’s see (for the simple analogy see my previous post from yesterday).

The overriding principle of building a theory of elementary particle interactions is symmetry. A theory must be invariant under a set of space-time symmetries (such as rotations, boosts), as well as under a set of “internal” symmetries, the ones that are specified by the model builder. This set of symmetries restrict how particles interact and also puts constraints on the properties of those particles. In particular, the symmetries of the Standard Model of particle physics require that W and Z bosons (particles that mediate weak interactions) must be massless. Since we know they must be massive, a new mechanism that generates those masses (i.e. breaks the symmetry) must be put in place. Note that a theory with massive W’s and Z that are “put in theory by hand” is not consistent (renormalizable).

The appropriate mechanism was known in the beginning of the 1960’s. It goes under the name of spontaneous symmetry breaking. In one variant it involves a spin-zero field whose self-interactions are governed by a “Mexican hat”-shaped potential

MexicanHatIt is postulated that the theory ends up in vacuum state that “breaks” the original symmetries of the model (like the valley in the picture above). One problem with this idea was that a theorem by G. Goldstone required a presence of a massless spin-zero particle, which was not experimentally observed. It was Robert Brout, François Englert, Peter Higgs, and somewhat later (but independently), by Gerry Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, Tom Kibble who showed a loophole in a version of Goldstone theorem when it is applied to relativistic gauge theories. In the proposed mechanism massless spin-zero particle does not show up, but gets “eaten” by the massless vector bosons giving them a mass. Precisely as needed for the electroweak bosons W and Z to get their masses!  A massive particle, the Higgs boson, is a consequence of this (BEH or Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble) mechanism and represents excitation of the Higgs field about its new vacuum state.

It took about 50 years to experimentally confirm the idea by finding the Higgs boson! Tracking the historic timeline, the first paper by Englert and Brout, was sent to Physical Review Letter on 26 June 1964 and published in the issue dated 31 August 1964. Higgs’ paper, received by Physical Review Letters on 31 August 1964 (on the same day Englert and Brout’s paper was published)  and published in the issue dated 19 October 1964. What is interesting is that the original version of the paper by Higgs, submitted to the journal Physics Letters, was rejected (on the grounds that it did not warrant rapid publication). Higgs revised the paper and resubmitted it to Physical Review Letters, where it was published after another revision in which he actually pointed out the possibility of the spin-zero particle — the one that now carries his name. CERN’s announcement of Higgs boson discovery came 4 July 2012.

Is this the last Nobel Prize for particle physics? I think not. There are still many unanswered questions — and the answers would warrant Nobel Prizes. Theory of strong interactions (which ARE responsible for masses of all luminous matter in the Universe) is not yet solved analytically, the nature of dark matter is not known, the picture of how the Universe came to have baryon asymmetry is not cleared. Is there new physics beyond what we already know? And if yes, what is it? These are very interesting questions that need answers.

Higgs mechanism for electrical engineers October 7, 2013

Posted by apetrov in Particle Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.

Since the Higgs boson’s discovery a little over a year ago at CERN I have been getting a lot of questions from my friends to explain to them “what this Higgs thing does.” So I often tried to use the crowd analogy that is ascribed to Prof. David Miller, to describe the Higgs (or Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble) mechanism. Interestingly enough, it did not work well for most of my old school friends, majority of whom happen to pursue careers in engineering. So I thought that perhaps another analogy would be more appropriate. Here it is, please let me know what you think!

Imagine Higgs field as represented by some quantity of slightly magnetized iron filings, i.e. small pieces of iron that look like powder, spread over a table or other surface to represent Higgs field that permeates the Universe. Iron filings are common not only as dirt in metal shops, they are often used in school experiments and other science demonstrations to visualize the magnetic field.  It is important for them to be slightly magnetized, as this represents self-interaction of the Higgs field. Here they are pictured in a somewhat cartoonish way:

ImageHow can Higgs field generate mass? Moreover, how can one field generate different masses for different types of particles? Let us first make an analogue of fermion mass generation. If we take a small magnet and put it in the filings, the magnet would pick up a bunch of filings, right? How much would it pick up? It depends on the “strength” of that magnet. It could be a little:


…or it could be a lot, depending on what kind of magnet we use — or how strong it is:


If we neglect the masses of our magnets, as we assumed they are small, the mass of the picked up mess with the magnets inside is totally determined by the mass of the picked filings, which in turn is determined by the interaction strength between the magnets and the filings. This is precisely how fermion mass generation works in the Standard Model!

In the Standard Model the massless fermions are coupled to the Higgs field via so-called Yukawa interactions, whose strength is parametrized by a number, the Yukawa coupling constant. For different fermion types (or flavors) the couplings would be numerically different, ranging from one to one part in a million. As a result of interaction with the Higgs field (NOT the boson!) in the form of its vacuum expectation value, all fermions acquire masses (ok, maybe not all — neutrinos could be different). And those masses would depend on the strength of the interaction of fermions with Higgs field, just like in our example with magnets and iron filings!

Now imagine that we simply kicked the table! No magnets. The filings would clamp together to form lumps of filings. Each lump would have a mass, which would only depend on how strong the filings attract to each other (remember that they are slightly magnetized?). If we don’t know how strong they are magnetized, we cannot tell how massive each lamp will be, so we would have to measure their masses.

ImageThis gives a good analogy of the fact that Higgs boson is an excitation of the Higgs field (the fact that was pointed out by Higgs), and why we cannot predict its mass from the first principles, but need a direct observation at the LHC!

Notice that this picture (so far) does not provide direct analogy to how gauge bosons (W’s and Z bosons) receive their masses. W’s and Z are also initially massless because of the gauge (internal) symmetries required by the construction of the Standard Model. We did know their mass from earlier CERN and SLAC experiments — and even prior to those, we knew that W’s were massive from the fact that weak interactions are of the finite range.

To extend our analogy, let’s clean up the mess — literally! Let’s throw a bucket of water over the table covered with those iron filings and see what happens. Streams of water would pick up iron filings and flow from the table. Assuming that that water’s mass is negligible, the total mass of those water streams (aka dirty water) would be completely determined by the mass of picked iron filings, just like masses of W’s and Z are determined by the Higgs field.

This explanation seemed to work better for my engineering friends! What do you think?