Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Case for Creativity in Physics: Imagination. Innovation. Invention. Improvisation...

Yes, you read that right. Creativity. It's the same word people use to describe artists, musicians, poets... Physicists need to be creative too. That doesn't mean that every physicist should take up the violin, ballroom dance or start sculpting with clay (though I know many physicists who would, and do), but it does mean that we need to hone that skill to take our practice to the next level.

Creativity is the skill of generating unique ideas. It is the ability to look at a system from multiple perspectives. It is considering new possibilities and alternatives, especially ones that no one else has thought of before. Imagination. Innovation. Invention. Improvisation...

Creativity is celebrated in physics. Consider Albert Einstein (who did play the violin, by the way), a creative physicist who thought up strange yet profound ideas (Special and General Relativity, among other unprecedented fundamental discoveries) that would for decades confound people. And still, to this day, physics students all over the world utter words like, "What?! That's crazy!" when they learn the basics of the theory of relativity. Yet, without Einstein's big ideas, we would not have made some great advances in science and technology (for example, the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which requires relativistic corrections).

Are you an "idea person?" Are you a person who comes up with new ideas and unique alternatives? Great, I'm recruiting you for physics!

Physics is about solving problems. So are a lot of other things. Problem solving takes creativity. What can a chef do when they don't have all the ingredients called for in a recipe? What can a parent do when the trip to the zoo is rained out? What can an actor do when their co-star misses an important line?

On a bigger scale, what did the Apollo 13 astronauts and NASA mission team do when an exposed wire caused a spacecraft oxygen tank to explode and lose power in Odyssey?


The next generation is faced with big problems that are interdisciplinary in nature, like reigning in climate change or the energy crisis, or providing clean water to all the world's people, controlling pollution, bridging tense cultural divides, taking care of and empowering the weak, staying ahead of disease outbreaks, and many more. Generations before us have tackled many problems and I am optimistic that we are up for the next challenge too (being a physics professor has made me optimistic, because I get to see limitless potential in our bright future scientists). These problems will require experts from many disciplines to creatively work together. We need creative scientists and others to come up with solutions that are "outside the box," solutions that no one else has thought of yet. We need creative minds, able to listen intelligently to each other, stay open to new perspectives and to think up novel alternatives to the way things have been done in the past.

How is creativity important in physics? Physics is not just memorizing equations and following procedures. It is modeling complex systems, noticing patterns, breaking phenomena into fundamental pieces, applying known laws of nature to new situations and searching for new truths. When a student feels defeated by a challenging physics problem, I sometimes say to them that the first step to solving a physics problem is panic. I am mostly joking when I say this because what I really mean is that when you see a problem that you have never seen before (which happens all the time in physics, even for professors), you might feel panicked because you first have to come up with an idea. Feeling that way is totally normal. As you practice the skill of problem-solving, you begin to notice categories of similar behaviors, you learn to break complex situations into solvable simpler puzzles. You piece those solved parts together, sometimes reaching road blocks that force you to consider other alternatives. You listen, collaborate and communicate with others about the problem. You learn to keep working until you have solved the problem. That is the reputation of a physicist. And that takes creativity.

So how can physicists become more creative? There are physics education researchers who could answer this question better than I can, but I will offer a few suggestions.
Think of creativity in physics as a set of skills that you can train yourself to acquire. For example, I think that two important creative skills used in problem-solving are:
1. generating unique ideas, and
2. considering alternatives.

To work on the first skill, generating unique ideas, you could take a problem, any puzzle, it doesn't have to be a physics problem, and think up all the possible ways to proceed in solving that puzzle. You could list them out, draw a diagram or make a mind map (a series of bubbles connecting related ideas). To stretch your mind further, you could even make it a game. Given the same scenario, you and your friends could compare your lists to see who comes up with the most unique ideas. Keep practicing ways to think of things that others won't think of. Give yourself time.

To practice the second skill, considering alternatives, one indirect strategy may be to work on listening and communicating effectively. Listening to people with different perspectives and experiences outside of your own may help you to imagine possibilities that perhaps weren't obvious to you before. Practice learning new material and ideas that expand on concepts you already understand. Work in groups to solve problems and when a group member comes up with a unique idea, ask them what motivated their idea (How did they think that up?). It might inform your own problem-solving approach.

Another direct approach to develop creativity is to learn a new skill, like painting, piano, photography, dancing... Learn from experts, practice, talk to others who enjoy these creative activities. And hey, you never know, maybe you'll find a new hobby, outlet or passion! Get creative!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What is scientific peer review and how do I write one?

Scientists have to be skeptics. 

Even, and especially, when it comes to our own work. Scientific results must be robust enough to endure a gauntlet of testing, redesigns, reruns, internal and external reproduction, before it can be published. We generally don't share a result (even if it is exciting!) until it has been extensively reviewed by ourselves, our colleagues and experts, because we don't want incorrect information to get out. Our work is reviewed many times before it is published. This process can take months to years. This is "Peer Review." We are proud of it. 

I mention this significant point because this rigorous process is different from other information distribution. For example, this blog. While it is useful, it is not a scientific result. Did I have to submit an application to be published here on this blog? No. Has my writing been reviewed and edited by experts? No. Is it possible that I have no idea what I am talking about and that I may not be a professor or even a physicist? Yes. All I can give you is my word. I am Dr. Hay, Associate Professor of Physics, at Pacific Lutheran University. Peer review is more reliable. It allows other researchers to move forward confidently from the point where the published work left off. 

How to do a Peer Review

[Cited resource: In creating this template, I used information from the American Geophysical Union (July 2011) "A Quick Guide to Writing a Solid Peer Review." Eos, Vol. 92, No. 28, 12.] 

·      Peer-Reviewers do not decide whether they like the results of an article. Rather, they decide if the experimental process is robust and if the work is relevant and communicated well.
·      Be respectful and accurate. Don't get personal. 

----Example Template of Scientific Article Peer-Review----

Title of reviewed manuscript
Date of review

1. Summarize the article
About 1-2 paragraphs summarizing your understanding of the article, perhaps answering these questions:
·      What is the main question addressed by the research?
·      Is this question pertinent to the field of study?
·      Do the results of the research contribute substantively to the question?

2. Publishable, not publishable or publishable with revisions? Major or minor revisions?
State your thoughts about the article. Evaluate it for publishability, addressing these issues:
1.     Practical significance
2.     Appropriateness for this journal
3.     Adequacy of literature review (did the author consult enough other original published works on the topic?)
4.     Adequacy of background information (and is all this information cited?)
5.     Adequacy of analysis of issues
6.     Clarity of presentation
7.     Organization
8.     Does the article require copy-editing? (Reviewer should NOT have to correct typos and grammar! That is up to the author. If there are errors, simply state, “The paper contains typos/grammatical errors.”)

3. Evaluation
Briefly mention strengths of the article and provide a detailed list of shortcomings of the article, possibly answering these:
·      Does the manuscript present enough background information for the reader to understand the value and results of the work? Include your recommendations as to how the author(s) can augment this area of the manuscript.
·      List and describe any information, which appears to be missing. Provide suggestions as to what information should be added.
·      Is the main research question presented clearly?
·      Is the experimental process (or theoretical study) designed well, robust and reproducible? If not, what is missing?
·      Is the content presented accurately? Good organization?
·      Do the figures represent the data well? Are plots useful, labeled properly? Are equations correct, explained and cited when necessary?
·      Do the results and uncertainties answer the main research question?
·      Are the claims backed up with compelling evidence?
·      Does the interpretation of the results explore a range of explanations and thoroughly interpret the results of the experiment/theory presented?
·      Is the article written for the targeted audience (you)?
·      Offer your constructive assessment and list suggestions for improvement and/or enhancement. (The author may reject some of the reviewer’s suggestions if, for example, the suggestion is beyond the scope of the paper or if the requested information/experiment is not available/feasible.)

4. Additional Comments to the Author(s)
Provide any additional constructive comments to the author(s) for improving and revising the article. And remember, the author can read your entire review.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What your future self would say to you about your career choice

You are a student. You have worked hard to achieve success. You have enthusiasm and goals and you are rightfully optimistic about your future. How fortunate and thrilling to be on this path! 

If you are like me, you might imagine that if you simply become as educated as possible and follow your passions that someday an employer will knock on your door and offer you your dream job. To my dismay, this did not happen to me. I learned that I had to apply my knowledge of research to the task of job searching, considering the pros and cons and all of the constraints that I imposed on myself. Fortunately, with a little searching and mentorship from professionals (like professors!), you can set yourself on a path that is right for you. 

Through this process of searching, listen to yourself. YOU are the one who will live with the outcome. Don't live someone else's dream. Listen to advice from trusted family, teachers, career counselors and friends. What person or persons know you best and can list your best qualities? What would they say that you are good at? What would they say that you enjoy? How would you answer these questions? 

Today, I'm not offering specifics. Instead, I will guide you through a more fundamental part of the process. However, let me list a few broad categories open to physics students:

With a physics major, you could go on to…
·         ·      graduate studies in physics, mathematics or another science
·      career in industry, technology, the private sector
·      engineering
·      military
·      civilian government or at a national lab
·      teach
·      financial sector
·      medical professions
·      law
·      and many more…

Now let's go back a step to what you might consider before you get to specifics. There are many things to consider on your journey. You may have many jobs during your work life. As you ponder the following questions, consider talking with professionals who have careers that you might want. Ask them if they enjoy their jobs. Ask them what kind of training would best prepare you for their jobs. Ask them what a typical work day is like in their professions. Your future self will thank you for doing this!

Try this exercise:   
  • Think about your education and career choice from the future backwards… Imagine yourself 10 years from now. Imagine that you just came home from work. Consider the people you interact with at work and at home. What would you have accomplished that day that would make you happy? It doesn't have to be something grand, maybe it's simple, like you mentored another person or you contributed to a larger goal, or you kept the lab safe for your colleagues. 
Answers to these questions will constrain or open up possibilities for your path:
  • What kind of lifestyle do you want to live?
  • What kind of salary will satisfy this lifestyle?
  • In what kind of environment do you thrive? Outdoors? Laboratory? Academia? Doing research? Collaborating with others? 
  • What kind of hours will you work? Full-time, typical business hours, nights, weekends? Seasonal position? 
  • Do you want to run your own business? Are you good at managing other people or do you prefer to do the work yourself? 
  • In what part of the world or country do you want to live? The west, the east, small town, city, college town, on a farm? Will you walk, drive, bus, telecommute or ride your bike to work? Some fields in physics are not available in some parts of the country. 
  • You may have to work your way up to the position that you want. You may work many different positions. And you may decide that further education is what you need. 
  • What positions will fit the criteria that you have already listed? What suits your skills, your interests? One of your goals should be to feel confident, accomplished and respected in your work. Researchers who study happiness know that people who are happiest are people who are fully absorbed in the task at hand, not wondering about the future or past. 
  • What are the skills you will use most? Computational science? Communication, presentation skills? Experimental research? Machine working? Problem-solving? Financial management?
  • Do you need more classes/schooling for the job you want? Don’t know? Then ask a professional in that career what education would best train you for that job. 

In the words of Dr. Suess, "Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!"

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Advice from students who took physics to students about to take physics

At the end of the school year, I collect advice from my students who are finishing their physics classes. I ask them to write as if they are writing to my next year's incoming class of physics students. Here are some of the tips they offer:

“Find someone good to study with. Don’t try to do everything on your own. It’s inefficient, frustrating and time consuming.”

“I made good friends through this class.”

“Work on physics homework throughout the week”

“Go to every class and start your homework on time”

“Practice, practice, practice. You won’t regret it. Understanding the theory is not enough, you need to experience it.”

“Brush up on algebra, trig and calculus. Seriously!”

“Pay attention in class. What you learn in class will save a lot of time.”

“Getting to know the instructor's formula sheet and the homework really really well should get you a decent grade.”

“Don’t panic. Physics has a reputation for being intimidating, but I found that the best strategy was to do the work, and when you get stuck on a problem, keep trying. Approach it from a different angle, go to a friend, talk to the tutors, but don’t stop trying. And when you finish solving a problem, make sure you understand why!” 

“Be true to yourself, make sure that you love what you [are majoring in].”

Great advice! Have advice to add? Add it to the comments please.

Best of luck and enjoy your first physics class!

Dr. Hay

Monday, July 7, 2014

Great physics books that aren't textbooks

Just in time for your summer reading enjoyment, I offer a brief list of books for the scientist and non-scientist, alike. For folks who prefer other media, I suggest some audio podcasts, TV shows, and even a theatrical play. And please, these are only a few, so add your own favorite physics book, video or podcast suggestions in the comments below!

In my classes, I ask students what they hope to get out of their class experience. Recently, a few of them answered with desires to change they way they think. They said: "I want to think like a physicist. Think logically, independently, creatively." "I want to be able to talk with my friends and family about deeper ideas and how the universe works." "I want to see the world through the eyes of a physicist, to see the beauty that they see." If these words sound like your own, I think you will enjoy immersing yourself in these books. I'll start with the introductory-related books, in a variety of styles, classic and recent, and end with the bigger-picture type books, the ones that will leave your mind blown.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines (2009) by Richard A. Muller.
If you purchase this book, be sure to get the non-textbook version. Dr. Muller also teaches a class of the same name at the University of California at Berkley. I found this book to be fun, easy to read and interesting. He covers topics like energy, terrorism, global warming, space and nuclear weapons. He approaches them thoughtfully and calmly from the perspective of a physicist, and all the while, addresses the reader as the future president! There are also podcasts from his class lectures from Berkley. If you like this book, I suggest you check out his recent book, "Energy for Future Presidents." Here is Dr. Muller's website for the book:

The Physics of Superheroes: Spectacular Second Edition (2011) by James Kakalios. 
Here is a book, also written by a professor, that covers mostly introductory concepts and puts them into the fanciful context of super powers. This book is cleverly done. From Aquaman to Spider-man, he discusses all kinds of super powers from classic comic book superheroes. I once saw a talk by this author and have not forgotten one of the profound things that he said: "Physics should be a spectator sport." He explained that if people who are not artists or musicians can comment intelligently on art or music, then why can't the public be informed enough to intelligently understand scientific achievements as well? Then, maybe, people would take more interest in our work. This is one of the reasons he gave for his passion for teaching physics to general audiences. I think that the beauty of science shouldn't be something we keep to ourselves. We should write for not only our colleagues but also for everyone else, share discoveries, teach others how to understand our work and processes, inspire passions and encourage young minds. I want the scientific community to invite everyone into the conversation in this way. Here is the book website, where you can also find his fun videos of the science of super powers.

Thinking Physics (1995) by Lewis Carrol Epstein.
This book calls itself "practical lessons in critical thinking." The book is organized into physics categories and is a collection of application-inspired multiple choice questions. Answers and explanations are provided right after the questions. The creativity, historical applications, sophistication yet simplicity of the explanations may surprise you. One of my favorite questions has to do with the electromagnetism explanation of the "ghost ship" signals heard on the first trans-atlantic ocean cables. There is thorough coverage of many topics in physics, both introductory and advanced. Quiz yourself!

Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2005) by Brian Greene. 
Dr. Greene is one of the most famous current physicists. A scholar and an author, he has also made a movie series out of his books, including this one, which you might enjoy. And if you ever get a chance to see him speak in public, go! You won't regret it. I highly recommend this book and his book "Elegant Universe." This book covers the fascinating concept of "space-time." He discusses ideas like time travel, string theory and cosmology. It is an engaging subject!

Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan.
I know this is a fiction book and doesn't fit into the category as well as the others. However, I still think that you will love this classic! It is written by one of the greatest (late) physicists of our time and tells an exciting and imaginative story of a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist. Contact was made into a movie, which starred Jodie Foster. I wish Dr. Sagan had written more fictional books in his short life. If you prefer non-fiction, Carl Sagan was an accomplished author, writing popular books, including Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Cosmos was an original television series that aired in 1980, and even to someone born in 1980, watching the episodes for the first time in 2004, I found the content inspiring and lovely. In the tradition of this great physicist, a new series with the same name recently aired. The host is Neil Degrasse Tyson. His team offers stunning visual affects not available in the original series. He brings the study of the universe back into focus for a new generation of scientists.

In addition to the videos and podcasts embedded in the list above, here are a few more alternative media sources for you to enjoy:

(Podcast) Modern Physics: From the Atom to Big Science by Cathryn Carson. I enjoyed listening to Dr. Carson's history of physics in this podcast collection. She explains physics concepts as well as historical context. What motivated critical discoveries and what social relationships hindered physics advancement? Who are the main characters in the ongoing physics story? Dr. Carson is also an accomplished author with titles like "Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere" (2010).

(Nova documentary movie) Einstein's' Big Idea (2005). This is fine story-telling. A film about the physics ideas that contributed to the famous equation E=mc^2. The story is told along side captivating and dramatic life events of famous physicists including Michael Faraday and Lise Meisner.

(Theatrical Production/play) Copenhagan (1998) by Michael Frayn. This play, which has also been made into a movie, has only three characters and centers around a mysterious meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. The strange meeting takes place in 1941 in the midst of Nazi Germany's nuclear efforts. These figures, once friends, then separated by politics, discuss their meeting; the creation of an atomic bomb hangs in the balance. The movie is a bit slow but worth watching. It would be grand to see this production live.

There are many more. Add them to the comments!
Happy reading!
-Dr. Hay

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why choose physics?

Students are accustomed to hearing this question: "What will you major in?" Here, I describe why one might choose physics.

We have a reputation. 
I tell my students in every class that the most important thing I think you will take from physics is the ability to look at a problem you have never seen before, break it up into its fundamental parts and not give up until you have solved it. That is the proud reputation of a physicist. Employers hire us because we are problem solvers, hard workers and creative thinkers (yes, creative!). We learn to look at a situation from many angles. We can analyze systems. We think skeptically yet constructively, even about our own work.

Physics is fundemental. 
Students who pursue physics are often seeking answers to questions. Physics is an elegant fundamental science. It is the study of the observed laws of nature and consistencies in the universe. It is a mathematical description of how physical things work. Physics can be used to explain and predict. 

Our skills translate. 
Skills learned in physics can apply to many fields. A former student told me that before she took physics, she didn't know how to approach a problem that she did not immediately understand. She used to give up, but now she has learned to dig deeper. She also learned how to structure written work, think logically and communicate effectively. Our skills, such as problem solving, error analysis, critical thinking, theoretical and experimental design, are useful in many professions. Want to go into law or medicine? Choose physics. Did you know that physics majors are among the highest score achievers on the MCAT (medical school entry test) and the LSAT (law school entry test)? Fewer physics students take these tests but when they do they score higher than biology, chemistry or pre-medical major students on the MCAT and higher than pre-law major students on the LSAT (citing American Institute of Physics publication, "Focus On" December 2013). Physics is closely related to mathematics. Mathematics is the language we "speak." Our math methods can describe other systems too, such as ecosystems, financial markets, earthquakes or blood flow. We can analyze collisions between galaxies or behavior of particles so small that you can't even see them with a microscope. But let's be clear here. Like all skills (think of, for example, mastering a musical instrument), physics takes practice, perseverance and continual dedication. 

We ask questions.  
How do we get energy from the sun, a material or the ocean? Can we predict the direction that a hurricane will spin? Or a Frisbee will glide? Or a comet will orbit? What is the strange and wondrous link between electricity, magnetism and light? How can a spacecraft travel through space when there is nothing to push off of? How is it that our bodies are made of remnants of exploding stars? How do we know what the stars are made of anyway? What is a black hole? Do you want to investigate these questions and ask deep questions of your own? Do you enjoy the language of mathematics? Then physics may be the right choice for you.

Photograph by Katrina Hay and Cullen Andrews, Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory
People choose to study physics for many reasons. For me, I was seeking answers to questions. Big questions. I wanted to know more about the cosmos. Investigating my questions led me deeper into more questions. Physics tells the story of mathematical elegance, the surprising simplicity of the laws of nature and the rich beauty of the universe.