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Getting To Columbia April 23, 2012

Posted by peterxu422 in education, Science.
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I avoid talking about myself on this blog unless it pertains to a personal experience with the scientific topic of discussion. But in lieu of recent events, I wanted to make an exception. A few days ago, I heard back from Columbia University informing me that I was accepted to their 3-2 Engineering Program. It is a joint program with certain liberal arts colleges where potential students spend three years in their home institution earning a B.A. and two years at Columbia earning a B.S. in a particular field of engineering. Students have to meet the requirements for graduation, meet the engineering course requirements, complete a major, and maintain a 3.0 GPA during their time at their home institution.

I began to seriously consider a career in engineering during my final year of high school. It started with seeing the movie Iron Man in theaters. Seeing the power of the technology and the work Tony Stark put into building it captivated my imagination and piqued my curiosity. I tried to start thinking more like an engineer and put more effort into solving problems in my classes.

But when I came to Queens College, a liberal arts school, engineering was not available. I was ready to go into Computer Science instead. Not long after, a fellow classmate told me about an engineering program that was offered by the Physics Department. I rushed to find out more and learned that this was a joint 5-year program with Columbia University. After speaking to the liaison, I learned that most students who did this program were physics majors because a lot of the courses overlapped between the Physics Department and the engineering requirements. He laid out a preliminary schedule of courses that he recommended I should take within the next three years to complete the program. It was booked with a heavy set of physics and math courses.

Physics was actually one of my weaker subjects in high school. Including the regents, I mostly scored in the low 80s. I did not think I would do well in the major unless I became interested in the subject itself. So that’s what I did. I read up on many articles and watched documentaries every week on the field to learn about the history of the subject as well as recent developments. I was fascinated and I loved it. It made taking the classes a lot easier and more pleasant. Rather than seeing my science courses as something I had to drag myself through, they became the fine tuners of the details of the bigger picture in which I saw science.

Though the 3-2 program guarantees admission to whoever meets all the requirements, it does not mean it’s a shoo-in program. To give this some perspective, the program has 150 seats available. According to QC’s liaison, the number of interested applicants from our school alone would fill all of those seats. But the actual number of students who get accepted from our school each year is on average five. From my perspective, doing well in the classes is not even the biggest challenge. The most difficult part is completing all of the necessary requirements within the allotted time. By the second semester, you would start to have on average 3-4 science and math classes per semester.

That can be something to fear or to look forward to depending on your mindset. If you are really genuinely interested in the field, what’s so terrible about learning more about the things you like? What I learned most from this program, aside from the wealth of technical knowledge, is that genuine interest and curiosity are much stronger mentalities and get you much further than rigid perseverance alone. You can keep telling yourself “just 3, 5, 10, or 20 more years of this and I’ll finally get what I’ve been waiting for.” If you’re only living for a reward, you don’t get to experience the path that gets you there, which can often be rewarding itself. Or worse, you set yourself up for greater disappointment should you fail in your endeavors. But if you can live with a curiosity and eagerness to learn about a particular field, I think you’ll be blessed with joy and satisfaction at any point in your life. Be a geek about something and good things will happen.

Revisiting the Periodic Table April 8, 2012

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This week on the PBS show NOVA, David Pogue, a New York Times tech columnist, hosted a two hour program titled “Hunting The Elements”. Being the funny goofy person that he is, he made the episode very entertaining filled with fascinating science explained. It is definitely worth a watch for those who have Periodic Table phobia, a term I coined describing those who fear or dislike looking at a periodic table because they do not know how to read one. This program would be great medicine for that.

In the episode, he talks about the reactivity of elements, their origins, their uses, and their properties. In one scene, he goes to an explosion range where he and the fellow scientists test out the explosion speeds of different types of explosive materials like gunpowder, nitrate gel, and C4. He explains that how fast a substance explodes depends on how far away oxygen atoms are from each other within the molecules. Things that burn require oxygen, and so if oxygen is closer to the exploding substance, the reaction can occur more quickly and thus the explosion will be faster. Gunpowder was the slowest one because it has oxygen atoms far away. This is why it’s used to fire projectiles because it has enough force to shoot a projectile out but not enough to destroy the barrel of the gun. C4 is the fastest because the molecules that make up C4 have the oxygen atoms packed closely together.

In another sequence, he visits a bell manufacturing company and makes a whole bronze bell with them. He explains that bronze is made from a combination of copper and tin. Copper is malleable. So if a bell was made of copper and it was struck, it would not create a very good sound since the denting would absorb some of the mechanical energy that would have caused the vibrations to create the sound. Adding tin to the mixture fills up some of the gaps between the copper atoms which would restrict their movement. You get a much sturdier material which is very good for making the resonating rings of bells. Pogue then took a sample of the bell’s material to a lab to see if they had a good mixture of tin and copper. At the lab, they used an electron microscope and magnified the sample to such incredible scales that they were looking at the actual atoms themselves. It showed a very ordered layer of dots where the brighter ones were tin atoms while the darker ones were copper.


Electron microscope image of diamond and silicon

The last sequence I’d like to mention was about shark repellent material. Apparently, the lonely bottom two layers of the Periodic Table, the rare earth metals, have some purpose. These elements are supposedly able to repel sharks. The man who demonstrated this made a large powerful magnet out of one type of rare earth element and when he brought it close to a shark, it immediately turned its head away. They do a few other experiments that clearly illustrate the sharks do not like this material. They suspect the reason for this is that the sharks feel an electric shock when in the presence of this material. When they placed the magnet and a shark fin into a beaker of water, and connected two electric wires from a Voltmeter to it, they showed that a current was flowing. The atoms flowing off the magnet would lose their electrons making them positively charged. These positive ions are then attracted to the shark fin and they flow along it. This stream of moving charges creates a current thus giving a small jolt to the shark. However, the problem I see is that this explanation assumes that the magnet is inside the water. But when they brought the magnet close to the shark form the outer wall of the pool, the shark showed the same reaction. There must be more to the story than the explanation of the electric current.

Finally, to further your experience with the periodic table, I recommend downloading the free iPad app inspired by this program called The Elements. Pogue helped design it himself. It has an interactive Periodic Table, a fun molecule building game, and the whole Hunting the Elements program on it. David Pogue will be replacing Neil deGrasse Tyson as host of NOVA Science Now for the time-being. Dr. Tyson is taking time to film a reboot series of “Cosmos” formerly hosted by Carl Sagan. Pogue is an excellent choice for a host. I had the privilege of meeting him once and he is a very kind and funny person.

VIDEO: Preview for Hunting the Elements

Good News: CUNY Nobel Science Challenge Winner March 4, 2012

Posted by peterxu422 in education, Science.
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I have the great pleasure and honor of winning 2nd place in the CUNY Nobel Science Challenge in the Physics category. The goal of the challenge is to get CUNY students to contribute to science literacy in New York City and become aware of the important scientific discoveries that these Nobel Laureates are making. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Reiss for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe, a discovery that is literally of cosmic proportions.

The winning essays can be found here on this site: Winning Essays

There are categories in Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, and Economics as well. In the previous year, I submitted an entry but was not received as a winner. I was somewhat saddened, but content that I tried anyway. I got to learn a little bit about the previous year’s Nobel Winner’s exciting work which was in graphene, a 2-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms. It was a rewarding learning opportunity. This year I was hesitant about submitting an essay, but I decided to go through with it anyway. The previous year’s experience intrigued me so much about the Nobel Prize and the science behind it that I approached this more as a learning experience than as a competition. Fortunately, I came upon one of those blessed moments where fun and interest met reward.

The Award Ceremony was equally exciting. It was held at CUNY’s Central Office on the far East side of Manhattan and 1st Ave. The building was beautiful. Food was great too. They presented the award to each of the winners individually and spent some time on each one reading their bios and talking about their essays. Winners received an award encased in a beautiful frame and a very generous gift prize. I won an iPad2! Other winners received Kindles and iMac computers, and the grand prize winner received an additional $3,000. It was also a wonderful networking opportunity, as many higher order faculty of the CUNY system were there. I spoke to other fellow CUNY students and someone in charge of the Postdoc program who gave interesting advice about career paths. I was also privileged to meet Chancellor Goldstein and Tracy Day, co-founder of the World Science Festival. She was kind enough to thank me for volunteering during the summer as well as provide me her contact information so that I may be in touch with her this summer as I do an internship in China.

This essay challenge was a very wonderful idea and I am grateful to all of those who were involved in making it happen. Their efforts to raise scientific literacy and interest are evidently quite successful. I encourage everyone to participate in this challenge, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of being informed. Even though I was unsuccessful in my first attempt, winning it the second time was more special because it solidified my resolve to remain informed about the happenings within the Nobel community every year. Though it seems like the iPad is one of the most valuable things in the world today, it can never replace the rewards of enlightenment and experience.

Photos From the Ceremony

The Rise of the Rest October 2, 2011

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What does Tevatron closure mean for big US science? (BBC)

This past summer, I tuned into a live broadcast of the final launch of NASA’s shuttle program while I was at work. It was one of the few times I actually waited to watch an amazing event like a space launch. A few weeks later, I found out that the national particle physics laboratory, Fermilab, was going to be shut down. Currently, the most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is located in Switzerland. They are the ones who will be pioneering research in particle physics for the foreseeable future.

I have been noticing that the scientific establishment of the United States has slowly been declining. We are no longer the leaders of these scientific frontiers. For a while, this thought disturbed and depressed me. I was disappointed by the fact that I would not be able to associate myself with having grown up in a country that led the greatest scientific innovations of the 21st Century.

But this article gave me a new outlook, or at least a more positive one. Particularly this part

I think what people would say is that we are experiencing a lot more competition than we have in the past. A lot of countries have learned from our growth over the past decades and are implementing some of the same policies to grow their own scientific infrastructures.

Perhaps it is not a matter of the U.S. falling behind, but the rest of the world catching up, and that is a good thing. For the well-being of the scientific establishment, it is good to have more people than ourselves contributing to research and development. And perhaps this is an opportunity for establishing a more united world. For the scientists here have no bias or bipartisan views against scientists in foreign countries. They are in it for the sake of science. They are mature enough to set aside their differences in order to achieve something far greater than themselves. Maybe the global scientific community would serve as a good model for creating a more united world. Then maybe one day, we will reach the stars.

The Large Hadron Collider Particles are accelerated to velocities approaching the speed of light and are then collided together, creating fabulous amounts of energy that would simulate the initial conditions of the big bang. In these collisions, photographs are taken and data is measured. Scientists are trying to understand things like how mass is formed, in an attempt to explain why things are the way they are in the universe.


Blogging: The Cure for Writer’s Block September 23, 2011

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Seth Godin: Talker’s Block

Occasionally I may digress from talking about science and instead post/share something that I feel is very interesting or at least somewhat relevant. In this case, I would like to share with you Seth Godin’s blog post on Talkers Block and Writers Block. I found it relevant because he claims the solution to Writers block is blogging, or writing publicly. Please do take a look and consider starting your own blog.

How to Get Through Your Science & Math Classes September 5, 2011

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Lots of people always complain about science and math classes for reasons such as the difficulty or the amount of work or the type of analytical thinking involved. Here’s a good method to get through them.

Become interested in science. There is no better way to learn science than by coming to class with a natural curiosity. It also helps to understand the context and background of the topic you’re learning, such as who were the pioneers, what were their contributions, what were the issues in the field at that time. You can get a better sense of context by immersing yourself in scientific material. One of my favorite ways to do this is to watch documentaries and video explanations. They are fare more engaging than a written text and the visual images are immensely helpful. This is actually how I got myself interested in science.

Another tip is to do your homework. This is a must, unless you are a genius. There is no better way to understand the material than by doing homework problems. Write out the questions and show your work neatly. You will find that your homeworks become the only study material you need for your exams, depending on your teacher. But from my experience this is often the case.

Finally, use khanacademy.org. This is perhaps one of the best tools ever created. Bless this man who made available a quality education to every child and adult in the world with an internet connection. He is great at explaining things and succinct enough to hold your attention. There is a link to his website on my ‘links’ page. If you do not take my word for it, listen to an incredible story by this fine gentleman. Just one of the thousands of lives the KhanAcademy has touched:

VIDEO: Thank you Khan Academy!

**Updates
A friend, Todd Gaugler, who is a triple major in Pure Math, Computer Science, and Economics at Queens College, kindly contributed his perspective on handling higher-level math courses: “Half of the battle with higher-end math courses is not getting intimidated by professors that work fast and introduce you to a lot of new material/notation quickly.”

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