I finished my absolutely last undergraduate physics final on Thursday in Thermodynamics, and had just enough time to pack my closet and hop on a train to DC and start my 9.5-week adventure. So far? Awesome.

2011 SPS Interns with John C. Mather at the American Center for Physics, MD

After two days of schmoozing and resupplying ourselves, all 9 of us interns traveled to the ACP building in MD for our orientation. We finally put faces to the people we communicated with, got to learn a lot about what they do, what we’re expected to do, and what we’re expecting they’re expecting us to do. We also went home with some wonderful ‘goodies’ like diffraction glasses (which I did not take off for most of the day, and still walk around in, looking at rainbows everywhere) and the GalileoScope. We have to find time and a clear night to test it out properly now.

We had our first-day lunch with Nobel Prize laureate John C. Mather, and got to hear his stories about how his research evolved from an interesting question to building actual equipment that went out to space to a Nobel Prize. That was pretty cool.

Overall it was a great first day, and at its end we each went to our respective departments to get started. Anish, Erin and Amanda are together in the second floor (in the SPS/AIP) while I’m on the fourth (in the APS), so we get to commute together and see each other every day for lunch.

Colorful density rainbow!

APS outreach group and particularly the PhysicsQuest project is amazing. I get to design extension experiments about Thermodynamics and heat. Good thing I just finished that exam on Thursday! Heat seems to follow me around. But I am happy about that, I love the subject matter and I am very excited to turn my theoretical ideas into practical experiments that can actually work in the classroom and at home.

Of course, that turned out to be easier said than done. Reality? Not like theory at all. Forget undergrad lab where everything is laid out in steps – I need to actually design these steps now from scratch and make them middle-schooler-safe. And apparently, there are no spherical chickens walking around people’s kitchens, so experiments that totally work in theory (and calculation, and force-diagrams, and graphs and discussions) can utterly fail in reality for the silliest things sometimes. Sure, you could, in theory, compare the density of boiling water to that of ice-water by measuring the level of a floating item, but can you do it without boiling your fingers? Not as easy anymore. Also, just in case you’re wondering, some plastic cups melt with hot water. I have tested this hypothesis without even realizing I posed it. I assure you, it’s verified many times over. I was already notified that these are all expected here, and it seems they’re a sort of ‘rite of passage’ in the department, so I guess there’s a bright side to the fails.

So, yes, work is very challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun. These are exactly the things I love doing in Physics – on one hand, find the greatest and most engaging way to demonstrate a physical phenomenon, and on the other make sure it’s accurate, it works, and it’s kid-safe.

Insulators, Brrrrr..!

I already have two experiments I’ve tested and written up, so I think that’s a nice accomplishment for the first week. Becky needs to go over them both, so I can’t really be sure they’re good just yet, but I think I’m getting there. I have two more demonstrations that I’m about to test and I am pretty sure will work. Of course, I was also pretty sure the boiling water one would work, too, and that ended up failing. Also, the ice balloons? Not a good idea. Live and learn, though. Live and learn.

Until next week: Vini, Vidi, Physics.

Note: This entry is also published in the Society of Physics Students website, here.