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National Society of Black Physicists/National Society of Hispanic Physicists Joint Annual Meeting 2008

Posted by Arjendu on February 23, 2008

I am at the National Society of Black Physicists/National Society of Hispanic Physicists annual meeting for the 3rd year in a row, this time in Washington, D.C. The first time I went it was because I wanted to find out what was behind the much bemoaned lack of minority Ph.Ds in physics — I was tired of arguing about numbers, and as with everything else in life, wanted to understand the human side of the issue. That visit, to San Jose, was a revelation. To sit in a ballroom-full of physicists listening to great talks is always a great experience for me — I am a physics geek, cool physics ideas turn me on, and it’s like going to a live rock concert to hear and discuss these ideas along with so many other aficionados. But to sit in a ballroom-full of minority physicists was novel, and it affected me in a deep emotional way.

I managed to connect with a member of the board for the conference program, Wendell Hill, and the next year, in Boston, Carleton, Bowdoin, and Morehouse faculty and deans put together a panel on careers at ‘elite’ liberal arts colleges. When I am feeling particularly blunt, I like to contrast places like Carleton and Bowdoin with the HBCUs (the Historically Black Colleges and Universities) by calling Carleton a Historically White College — and in physics it certainly is. So careers at such places honestly don’t appear on the radar for most of the smart young students out there — it would be like teaching in a foreign country for many. And elite colleges and the minority physicists community has so much to gain from that not being the case. Wendell suggested to me this year that it might be time to come back next year for another pitch, and even if we are not in the hiring cycle next year, I think I might give it a whirl.

This year I am here (along with a colleague, who I persuaded at the Boston conference to come to Carleton last year for a short-term gig while postponing her post-doc — we brought along three students, too) with the primary goal to recruit faculty for a visiting position for next year — and since we will be conducting a tenure-track search the year after, this is in some sense for that tenure-track position, but with less pressure on both sides. And I’ve found some great candidates. What I’ve enjoyed greatly in the process is getting to know the younger students, and to talk to them about the future, and how they might think of teaching at one of these colleges.

I know there’s little chance we’ll be hiring when these kids hit the market, so it might look a little unfocused to talk to them, but I see this as being of general benefit to the physics community, and thence of specific benefit to Carleton. It’s in keeping with a broader philosophy I have of focusing on the long term, and on statistics where possible. It takes a damn sight more effort, and is far more chancy, for me to try to attract a specific person to Carleton. But if I keep talking up liberal arts colleges — and it comes easy to me, I love my job — and if every liberal arts college faculty member keeps talking up liberal arts colleges when possible, in the long term we all benefit from the increased talent pool, whether minority or otherwise.

I’ve also heard some great talks here: For example, one from an undergrad, Cacey Stevens, who worked during an REU with Sid Nagel at Chicago studying the physics of splashing. Totally fundamental, beautiful experiments, puzzling, very cool. John Mathers (Nobel 2006) gave a plenary talk on the state of our understanding of the Universe, and the next generation of telescopes, and I got to puzzle some more about dark energy, the notion that everything we think of as matter is essentially ‘noise’ on the scale of ‘stuff’ in the Universe. I really enjoyed the atomic physics talks, including a very gracefully pedagogical one from Luiz Orozco about Francium, and a sweet description of some beautiful cold-atom Bose condensate and degenerate Fermi gas work by Marcius Extavour of Joe Thywissen’s lab in Toronto. Jun Kono’s lab from Rice University was well represented by a couple of excellent poster presentation on device physics — one student working with quantum dots and another with carbon nanotubes.

There were also intriguing talks from physics education researchers, including one from a friend of mine, Chandralekha Singh (I hadn’t met her in about 10 years, so it was great to reconnect) about the connection between cognitive science theory and teaching techniques. I sat with Chandralekha at a couple of meals and got to argue furiously with her about the benefits of teaching students quantum mechanics from the Stern-Gerlach experiments, a finite dimensional Hilbert space, and Dirac notation perspective first (I do this, and love it!) versus the traditional Schrodinger equation and partial differential equation method, which I have to say frustrates me tremendously. Given Chandralekha’s background, the conversation was appropriately meta, and hence very valuable.

I also got to make some new friends and reconnect with old friends, including the always remarkable Philip Phillips. My first memory of Philip is from when I was a young grad student at a conference in Los Alamos. I walked by him arguing with someone in a corner, and I heard him saying with what I now know is his characteristic forthrightness: ‘It’s so much better to solve the exact problem approximately than the approximate problem exactly.’ I was very struck by that and have repeated it to myself as a mantra for a guiding principle for my work (of course my math colleague told me that it exactly the opposite in math, but hey, that’s how you can tell us apart). I reminded Philip of that phrase when I saw him next, and he said: ‘Hmm, I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me.’

As always, when I travel during the teaching year, I landed up at this conference edgy from the stress of getting things organized enough to get away for a few days, and unclear about the benefits of doing this. And as always, I am going to leave happy I came.


3 Responses to “National Society of Black Physicists/National Society of Hispanic Physicists Joint Annual Meeting 2008”

  1. Thanks for that pointer to the work by Prof. Singh.

    I agree 100% with your teaching comments about QM. That is the way it was taught in my grad class, and it is one of the more dramatic ways to make it clear that QM is a probability-based algebra. If you look at the history of the field, the wave equation dominated (despite being late to the party) because everyone knew PDEs and no one knew matrix algebra (let alone infinite dimensional matrix algebra). Using it tends to hide the importance of matrix elements, and the usual development rarely makes the point that there is zero connection between actual QM and the de Broglie version of Bohr’s nonsense about “quantum jumps”. [You only get a transition if the overlap integral is not zero, so no “jumping” is needed in space … only in energy.] What that meant was that my grad class started somewhere in the middle of Schiff.

    I have seen your preferred approach used with great success in a senior class that was taken by an REU student I supervised. What worked for me, however, was a QM version of modern physics (the Berkeley 4 freshman course) taught from the “everything you know is wrong” viewpoint of some sections of Feynman 3. That started with a calculation of the classical lifetime of the H atom and a bullet fired at an armor plated pair of slits. The latter emphasized duality from the very start, at a very philosophical level. (The prof had a philosophy PhD and a physics PhD.)

    On your main topic: All of the minority students I see want to be engineers. (That might reflect the more practical orientation of first-in-family students who make up the bulk of our student body at a CC.) At times, the majority of those minority students come from overseas, reflecting the weaknesses of public schools in our state. I think the solution needs to start with pre-college math and science, but it certainly does not hurt that we have respected black faculty teaching math and science on our campus to provide some role models for the kids that do make it to college.

  2. cacey said

    Thanks for the comment about my talk at NSBP

  3. arjendu said

    My pleasure, Cacey. Good luck at Chicago.

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