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Minutes of Physics TheoryNet Meeting, January 31, 2015

Hello all -- sorry this is so late in coming. Please note that the next meeting is scheduled for May 2, 2015.

TheoryNet Meeting Minutes

January 31, 2015


Rick Dower, Roxbury Latin School

Chris Siren, Groton-Dunstable Regional HS

Scott Goelzer, Coe-Brown Northwood Academy

Elaine Picard, Concord-Carlisle HS

Matthew Headrick, Brandeis University

Mike Wadness, Medford HS

Brent Nelson, Northeastern University

Michael Hirsh, Needham HS

Ken Olum, Tufts University

John Samperisi, Monadnock HS

Adam Iaizzi, Boston University (new participant)

Not Present:

Nick Nicastro, Wachusett Regional HS

Tomasz Taylor, Northeastern U.

Jesse Thaler, MIT

Richard Levergood, Londonderry HS

Per Berglund, U. of New Hampshire

Nivedi Das, Sharon HS

Nancy Najmi, Reading Memorial HS

Noreen Scarpitto, Reading Memorial HS

Ann Kaiser, La Salle Academy

Brandon Murakami, Rhode Island College

Daniel Jefferis, Harvard (new participant)

Agenda Items:

1) Classroom visits

Ken Olum/Concord-Carlisle: Visited seven classes over two days last spring, will visit again this year

Matt Headrick/Roxbury Latin: Visited in January and spoke to three classes. Material included general relativity, black holes and time travel. Also material on what it is that theoretical physicists actually do on the job.

Brent Nelson/Groton-Dunstable: Spent full day on campus, speaking to two honors physics courses and two conceptual physics courses. Material included biography, string physics and LHC

Daniel Jefferis/Needham HS: Will visit on February 25

Jesse Thaler/Medford HS: Visited in November. Spoke to freshmen and to honors class. Material mostly question and answer, with some prepared material if no questions forthcoming.

Per Berglund/Coe-Brown Northwood: Visited in the fall

2) Purchasing new equipment

TheoryNet is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and part of the budget is allocated to equipment. This part of the budget is often left (at least partially) unspent at the end of the fiscal year. That is the case in the current grant cycle. Suggestions were sought for additional equipment purchases.

One suggestion, made by Ken Olum, was to purchase a Cavendish-type experiment. If set up in a reasonably quiet environment, and allowed to operate for a sufficient amount of time, such a machine can generate good results, even for the type of equipment we are likely to procure. 

Another suggestion was to double-up on equipment that is in high demand. The most sought-after piece of equipment is the non-dry ice cloud chamber. It is easy to set up and yields reliable results. The next best piece of equipment, from the point of view of getting reliable measurements, is the Helmholtz coil apparatus. The Milliken oil drop experiment and electron diffraction equipment are interesting, but more “touchy” to use, or more abstract in nature.

It was suggested by Scott Goelzer that if we develop a suite of equipment with duplication, one set could be housed semi-permanently within the New Hampshire contingent of TheoryNet. This would make it easier to share equipment (the only time it is easy to move equipment from NH to MA is at the TheoryNet meetings themselves!). 

This led to the suggestion that if the non-dry ice cloud chamber is relatively “cheap”, that we slowly begin buying several, with the notion that they could be kept semi-permanently in the classrooms of participating high school instructors. This would also serve to entice new instructors to participate in the program. There was broad support for this idea — budget permitting.

Other uses for unused budget money were suggested. It was mooted that while faculty cannot receive stipend money from the grant, participating research faculty/postdocs could. This might entice such people to participate — or at least come to the group meetings! It was also suggested that the group could invest in video collections that are known to be of high quality and which could be shared, such as the Physics for the 21st Century series by Annenberg Media. This costs approximately $300. Others suggested that equivalent material could be found essentially for free on line, which led to the discussion in topic (3) below.

3) Pre-visit material for students/instructors

Since many of our participating faculty are string theorists — or work in areas related to string theory — it was suggested that the faculty identify media material that would be suitable for high school students that (a) would provide context for the faculty classroom presentations, (b) would stimulate questions at the time of the visit, and (c) be more-or-less factually correct.

Over time, it would be nice if we had a library of these materials. In some cases, the faculty could identify key moments in a video or clip, or key concepts, for further elaboration. That is, it is advisable that faculty members pre-view media, particularly items found on the internet, and screen them for relevance and veracity. Talking points could be drawn up. Some would be general for use with any visit — some might be more tailored to the work of a particular faculty member in our group. 

There are a great many useful materials out there, but not all of them are free (e.g. NOVA episodes, wether on DVD or free-streaming, are generally not free). It was emphasized that finding excerpts is key — not 1.5 hours of material! If pre-visit thought questions could be attached to the video (or to the URL associated with a free clip), that could be sent to the HS instructor in advance of the visit. 

4) Advertising

It was suggested that TheoryNet attempt to attend the New England AAPT meeting at Salem State, and encourage instructors to attend the spring meeting in May.

5) Next meeting scheduled for May 2, with a later alternative date of May 16 as a contingency.

Brent Nelson
Associate Professor
Department of Physics
Northeastern University
110 Forsyth Street
111 Dana Research Center
Boston, MA 02115