APS News: Keen Minds Prep for the International Physics Olympiad

By itself, a flexible, plastic “Hot Wheels” toy car track is pretty mundane. Add a can of racket balls and a team of the top high-school physics students in the country, and you have the makings of an intriguing science experiment.

Each year, the American Association of Physics Teachers and a number of member societies of the American Institute of Physics sponsor a two-week competitive training camp held on the University of Maryland campus at the end of May. The purpose is to select five high school students, from a pool of about 20, who will represent the US in the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) annual competition. This year, the Olympiad will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan from July 13-21.

It’s essentially physics boot camp, but instead of climbing walls and jumping hurdles, the students take on obstacle courses that challenge their intellectual capacities. Each day, students attend lectures covering topics like optics and special relativity, take written exams, and conduct laboratory experiments.

Read more at APS News online.

NASA Releases Lots of Code Tomorrow

Here’s a sample of a blog post I wrote on Physics Buzz about who will be able to utilize the code NASA will be releasing on Thursday and what they might do with it:

This Thursday, NASA will unveil a catalog of different software that their employees have designed over the years. The code from a total of 1,000 software projects will become available for free and will be copy-right free, too.

Judging from some of the stories about this exciting news, one might get the impression that any person in the general public can take this newly-released material and design their very own rocket project.

This would be a fallacy. The code will likely become an invaluable resource for professional scientists and engineers. But those of us who do not speak the coding vernacular of computer-programming languages like JavaScript and Fortran will have little use for this new mountain of NASA code.

Read more on Physics Buzz.

New Study is investigating lightning formation

There’s a chance that the mystifying phenomena we call lightning would not exist without cosmic aid. The same high-energy particles that light the night sky with colorful auroras, scientists think could also explain a longstanding problem in the process of lightning production.

When you shock yourself after reaching for a metal doorknob, you’re experiencing a similar process that leads to lightning. As long as the extra charge you accumulate from, for example, rubbing your feet across a carpeted surface reaches a minimum value, called the breakdown voltage, a shock will travel from you to the doorknob.

Storm clouds can also build up extra charge, which must go somewhere. Often times it will either strike the ground or branch outward across the sky in the form of a lightning bolt. However, scientists have yet to find a way to explain how storm clouds build up enough extra charge to electrically illuminate the sky.

“The cloud has to charge to a certain amount so spontaneous discharge can happen,” said Helio Takai, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “What [scientists] measure is not enough charge for this spontaneous discharge to happen.”

The solution might lie with cosmic rays, high-energy particles that enter Earth’s atmosphere from far-off sources, most of which are outside of our solar system.

About twenty years ago, physicist Alex Gurevich at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow proposed that cosmic rays could lead to lightning. So far, finding a correlation has been easier said than done and scientists are still uncertain whether the two phenomena are linked and at what point in the process cosmic rays might be important for lightning production.

Read more on Physics Buzz.

Physics Buzz: Taking Back the Night Sky

Here’s a snippet from my latest post on the APS blog, Physics Buzz.

The next time you’re taking a nightly stroll downtown, take a minute to count how many people are looking up at the sky. Chances are the number will be small, if it’s not zero.

Light pollution drowns the brilliance of the night sky, leaving city and town dwellers little reason to look up. Meanwhile, technology is providing an incentive to look down at our screens. As a result, we are losing touch with the cosmos. Have you ever seen the star-lit band of the Milky Way Galaxy?

Click here to read more about the story behind the challenges two scientists in Quebec, Canada faced while trying to reduce light pollution and keep the levels low.

More on the physics of dinosaurs this week on Physics Buzz

Could you outrun a dinosaur? Well, it depends on the dinosaur. According to Scott Lee, a professor of physics at the University of Toledo in Ohio, herbivorous dinosaurs moved more slowly than predatory dinosaurs that often chased down their prey and could reach up to 30 miles per hour. Plant eaters, on the other hand, moseyed along at about 3 miles per hour.

This means you could easily outrun, and even out-walk, some herbivorous dinosaurs. But if you caught the attention of a ravenous raptor, chances are high that it would be the last race you ever ran.

It’s no surprise that predatory dinosaurs evolved to move faster than their prey. Otherwise, they would be hard pressed to find a decent meaty meal most days. But it would also make sense, from an evolutionary standpoint, if herbivorous dinosaurs at least gave predators a run for their money in the cat-and-mouse chase.

By studying 56 sets of distinctive fossilized footprints, or trackways, belonging to herbivorous dinosaurs that paleontologists have uncovered over the years, Lee determined that not a single set resulted from running. Lee calculated the ratio of the dinosaurs’ stride length to foot length and found that all of the footprints were likely made at a walking pace. So, how did the plant-eating dinosaurs protect themselves?

Find out more on Physics Buzz.

Latest on Physics Buzz, The Terrifying T. rex

With a gargantuan head flaunting the largest teeth of any predatory dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex embodies the ideal nightmarish horror. So, what was such a ferociously large animal doing with such tiny forelimbs that look more like a humorous afterthought than an evolutionary tool?

“Some people think T. rex forearms are just vestigial organs which evolved away, but I claim no,” said Scott Lee, a professor of physics at University of Toledo, who argues that a T. rex could move its forearms quickly enough to prevent a struggling prey’s escape. Therefore, the arms were an integral part of the predator’s hunting tactics, he said, and not useless stubs.

Read more

Is it getting harder to find a full-time job in science writing?

800px-The_Long_Road_AheadI consider myself lucky to have completed two paid internships in the last year and slightly unlucky that I was applying for internships this summer as fervently as last summer. The point being so I could gain more experience so I might qualify for a job so I wouldn’t be applying for internships for Summer 2014.

Internships are great opportunities to gain experience, but how many internships must an aspiring science writer complete before they can obtain a full-time job? The answer obviously depends, but there seems to be a growing pattern where young writers are simply hopping from one internship to the next with no permanent job in sight.

This is because many entry-level science writing positions – be it at a magazine or press information office – require at least three to five years of experience. That’s 12 internships that last for three months each. That’s an insane amount of internships. Not to mention what little pay interns receive compared to permanent jobs and relocation costs since valuable science-writing internships exist across the country, and the globe.

Not all internships are three months. Some are six months, but that’s about as long as you’re going to find.

Ten years ago, when the science writing field was less congested, many interns could procure a job after a single internship – often times at the place they interned. All of those positions are now filled, however, which means interns are left to fend for themselves after their time is up.

Many turn to freelancing – a valuable experience in itself with a very unstable paycheck. Especially for beginners who may not know how to find and pitch good stories, freelancing will be even less lucrative than an internship. So, although a good skill to have, it’s probably not the best option for beginners. But then what other options are there besides summer internships and the occasional fall and spring internship? Not much along the lines of career advancement.

So, yes, I’d say it’s getting harder to find a full-time job in science writing and it’s also getting harder to find an internship if you don’t already have a few under your belt. It’s the classic Catch-22 scenario and it’s a long road for those lucky enough to find and follow it.

Science writers: Ten tips for interview prep

RavenngoEach year the field of science writing is growing more competitive. In fact, the 2013 AAAS internship fair had a record-high of over 70 participants. That means your ability to produce an attractive resume and cover letter is crucial to your potential candidacy for an internship or job. (Not to mention the number of clips and outlets you’ve accrued and written for over the years.) However, even more important than your paper work are your interviewing skills.

As an aspiring science journalist, I am constantly interviewing sources for stories, asking questions and taking notes. Yet, when it comes time for me to give the answers, I often become stressed, which then makes me ramble. I understand and have experienced the pressure that comes with an interview, and I think solid preparation is the key to success. Therefore, I’m going to lend a helping hand to my fellow competitors and provide ten tips for how you can knock your interviewer’s socks off.

1. Be able to summarize why you’re pursuing science writing and how you entered the field in 30 seconds.

2. Know how your experience and skills fit with the needs of the media outlet for which you’re interviewing.

3. Know other media outlets that publish similar and different science content and be able to identify some authors at each outlet.

4. Be able to identify a handful of journalists whose content you enjoy reading.

5. Don’t just follow print journalists. Know your journalists in broadcast and video, too.

6. Stay current with non-science news. Often times an interviewer will ask you if there is any news that could be reported in a different way that would fit their type of publication. In other words, find the science angles to non-science news.

7. Be quick on your feet. If your interviewer asks for a story pitch, have a handful ready complete with catchy headlines and leads.

8. Be able to communicate how this position will help you in your career prospects.

9. Be able to answer why the media outlet for which you’re interviewing will meet your needs better than other media outlets.

10. Approach each question like you’re writing a story. Be as clear and concise as possible. Include only the most relevant information and if you have some interesting anecdotes include them.