What Physicists Do

Physics 123, Spring 2022

(Weeks 2-6) Fridays 3:30 pm (6a) in Olin 141

1 Credit; S/CR/NC

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is pleased to announce this year’s Physics 123 Line-up.  “What Physicists Do” is our annual series of five lectures by invited speakers, many of whom are Carleton Physics alumni.  It is intended to introduce students to a broad range of real-world physics and to give some perspective on the kinds of work done by people with a physics background.  The course is open to all interested students who have taken PHYS 151; those considering a major in physics are particularly encouraged to enroll. 

The presentations are on Fridays during 6a (3:30 pm) in Olin 141. The only requirement, beyond attending five talks, is to read an assigned article beforehand and then to submit a short (one-page) typed essay afterwards commenting on both the talk and the reading. Speakers will be available for informal discussions over refreshments afterward.  Questions: Arjendu Pattanayak, Olin 237, x7166, arjendu@carleton.edu

April 8: Louisa Eberle ‘12:  “From Physicist to Climate Advocate: Applying Physics Skills as an Environmental Lawyer”

While completing my physics degree at Carleton, I volunteered with Engineers Without Borders. That work helped me to realize that I wanted to use my physics background to bridge an important gap between technical skills and policy advocacy. After spending a gap year working on the Obama reelection campaign, doing biophysics research, and interning at The Wilderness Society, I decided to apply my problem-solving skills to fighting some of our world’s most pressing problems: environmental injustice and the climate crisis. In this talk, I will discuss my path from being a physics student to a practicing lawyer, a few examples of my current work (including close collaboration with technical economics, engineering, and environmental science experts), and how my physics degree has helped me succeed as a Staff Attorney at the Sierra Club.

April 15 — Shail Mehta ‘15: “Applying a background in Physics towards material design and characterization in the biomedical space”

The study of physics provides a strong foundation for problem-solving, which can be applied across different fields of study. In this talk, I will discuss how I translated my physics background to the study of biomechanics and the fabrication of artificial tissue for my PhD. Specifically, I will go over three core areas of research I undertook at Rice University: a) the development of artificial tissue with mechanical properties more similar to biological tissue, b) the design of a mechanical testing device small enough to fit into a microscope stage, and c) the design of 3D-printed 
constructs approximating the mechanical properties of a heart valve for use in studying how medical devices interact with tissue post-implantation. I will also cover how this research led to my current profession as an applications scientist for mechanical testing instrumentation, and provide an overview for the different types of mechanical characterization I perform for this role. Finally, I will discuss the other responsibilities of this role and the direction I anticipate my career will take over the next few years.

April 22 — Marty Schwarz ‘14: “The Physics Behind Clean Electricity Targets”

100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035”, “net zero carbon by 2070”, “500 gigawatts of new renewable energy by 2030”. Phrases like these have become ubiquitous in political speeches, environmental protests, and international treaties alike. Aggressive clean electricity targets are of utmost importance, and well established renewable energy generation technologies like wind and solar photovoltaics are already cheaper than traditional fossil fuel plants on a levelized cost of energy basis. However, the targets represent paradigm-shifting infrastructure changes that must be carefully engineered to avoid destabilizing the electrical grid. At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I help pave the way for this by modeling future electrical grids with high levels of renewable energy generation. The study of renewables “grid integration” depends on two classes of optimization models: capacity expansion and production cost modeling. The former determines the cheapest build-out of the future electric system, and the latter finds the cheapest operation of said system. In this talk I will focus on the math and physics behind production cost modeling, and how it is fundamental to both power systems research and grid operation today. Come put your linear algebra skills to the test!

April 29 — David Friedlander-Holm ‘07: “Why being a physics teacher is so much fun”

Quick: remember the difference between Rayleigh and Mie scattering. 

Now: describe how the Newton is a derived unit.

Finally: figure out why this one computer won’t run the lab software. 

Sounds like undergraduate physics, all jumbled up. The professional life of a physics teacher is all of those things. My experiences in the classroom in my 15 years post-Carleton have rarely been as hard as Arjendu’s Quantum I but they’ve lasted longer than that ten-week course & have found me teaching at all hours of the day and night. The content has rarely been harder than the work that I did as an undergraduate but the depth of the questions asked by students lead me to really learn the material in ways that I never did at Carleton. I finally felt like I understood what voltage was after teaching it for the first time. Being a physics teacher is a joy and a challenge on a daily basis. It illuminates the universe for me as well and I feel like I’m preparing the next generation of citizens and scientists. Right: “Mie is for larger particles.”

May 6th — Claire Murray ‘11 and David French ‘11: “How to put telescopes in space and make them work: supporting Hubble, JWST and beyond”

After graduating from Carleton in 2011, we both pursued PhDs in Astronomy. However, following the post-PhD path in research has led us to unique careers outside of traditional academia. In this talk, we will share how our interests and research choices led us to the Space Telescope Science Institute, a science operations center for flagship NASA space missions. David works for the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope, calibrating and enabling new modes to help extend the lifetime of the instrument into the 2030s.Claire works for the archive branch, assembling and curating repositories of space telescope data, including ongoing commissioning data for the recently-launched JWST. We’ll discuss how the skills we learned at Carleton Physics, including programming, data science, communication (and resilience), prepared us to help put telescopes into space and keep them running smoothly.