Wednesday, December 6, 2023

My Fall Mechanics Class - thanks for the escape!

Oftentimes, as the end of year draws near, I take a moment to reflect on its high points.  For me, there were several, most notably, the publication of my first book (Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life, link on the right side of the page, makes a great Christmas gift, wink wink).  But, this year has been a rough one for me, particularly the past couple of months, for many reasons I will not elaborate on, but if I must list a theme, let's go with 'targeted attacks on minority communities'.

Of course, I am not alone.  In these difficult moments, we need to try extra hard to be in the moment, and escape the weight of this general malaise.  The classroom is a setting that can offer such an escape.  Many students feel that the classroom is a place they would like to escape from, but consider this...

Many years ago, a student of mine was in crisis.  I could see on their face that something was not right, and we had a chat.  They said something that stuck with me: "The classroom is an escape, a brief respite from my troubles."  I totally get that, particularly with physics, because physics does not care about the day we are having or whether there is peace in the Middle East.  The laws of nature exist outside and above all of our troubles.

In a recent bout with COVID, I was watching too much Netflix, as one does (mostly movies I have already seen cause that's how I roll).  I rewatched Jurassic World.  There are two brothers who enter a theme park with dinosaurs.  One's glee boils over, while the other stares at his phone.  How can one not be completely in awe?  That is how I feel when students get bored in physics class... Not that they all do, but of course, some do.  Maybe most do some of the time?  How can I know for sure?

At the front of the class, I get immersed in physics, and I get to spend time with a fun bunch of young adults.  I get to escape things that exist outside the classroom.  I want all of my students to experience the same feeling.  I have spent my whole career figuring out how to do that while also maximizing their academic growth - and I still have much to learn.

Normally, I say goodbye to my students at the end of the year and inherit new groups in the Winter semester, and try again.  But for my Mechanics class, there was a last-minute reshuffling, and no one could take this group of honours students of mine for their next course (Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics).  In the shuffle, the course fell to me.  

I now have this opportunity (has only happened twice before in my career) to teach the same body of students another course.  I hope they will be happy to hear this news.  My take on it, in general, is that it should be avoided.  Students should see a discipline from many angles.  Also, too much familiarity can be a problem.  For example, students might think it is okay to break lab equipment cause "He's a nice guy, and he knows us," etc.  Anyway, as I said, they are a fun bunch of young adults and I look forward to trying again.  A second chance to get to know the Universe and escape our Earthly troubles in the process.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

In the Light of Other Suns

The Eighth Interstellar Symposium, entitled "In the Light of Other Suns" is underway this week at my alma mater, McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.  Hosted by the Interstellar Research Group and Professor Andrew Higgins, the space conference includes studies of various challenges associated with interstellar flight... and there are many!

Last night, I was fortunate enough to be in a sold out auditorium for a panel discussion amongst experts with varying backgrounds.  The six hundred in attendance sat attentively as a wide range of questions were addressed, from "How much might the transit depicted in Avatar 2 cost?" to "Is it ethical to have a child on a planet that is not Earth, virtually guaranteeing that they will never set foot on their species' origin planet?"  The answer to the former is on the order of petadollars (billions of billions of dollars), and the answer to the second is "We don't know."

The experts have no illusions that people will be travelling to Alpha Centauri in the coming decades.  They anticipate microsatellites being propelled at relativistic speeds (>0.1c) to take pictures of exoplanets in that timeframe.  Starships with people might be a hundred years away.  So, why are distinguished professors studying them today?

The economic answer is that long term projects overcome incremental hurdles that enable spinoff technologies in the present.  But there are so many more reasons, like the plain fact that we are an aspirational species.  NASA technologist Les Johnson, irked by the question of economic returns associated with interstellar flight, posited that humans wanting to know things is reason enough (a comment that elicited enthusiastic applause).

Current engineering studies examine photonic propulsion and the highly reflective surfaces required to reach dizzying speeds.  Others look at the stability of a tiny satellite's trajectory while being bombarded with photons or collisions with space dust when moving at some fraction of c.

I was expecting to hear more about Breakthrough Starshot, the aforementioned mission to snap photos of exoplanets and send them back to Earth.  It seems that the interstellar community is becoming less focused on this one particular mission, instead looking at energy propulsion in a broader sense.  The possibility of a one month transit to Mars was discussed; the spaceship would use a 1g acceleration for the first half of the trip (lasers pushing it from Earth) followed by a 1g deceleration during the second half (lasers pushing it from Mars).  So ya, it would require laser arrays deployed on the Martian surface, but don't worry, studies have looked into the feasibility of that too.

Is it a space symposium for dreamers?  Absolutely.  But power to them (the photonic kind).  A technical engineering conference that can fill a large auditorium is doing something right.      

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

My first TV appearance!

I'm excited to announce that I will be interviewed by Mutsumi Takahashi on CTV's Montreal noon newscast this coming Tuesday, March 28.  We will discuss my book, Getting Physics, and how I use it to help make physics relatable for students.

I have done radio interviews before, but TV is a new thing for me.  Looking forward to it!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

A Thought About Teaching

If we are born a seed, then when I meet students in college, they are plants with deep roots.  On my best day, I can be a star that shines light on the garden before me, inspiring a direction in which to sprout.  If that is not a good reason to get dressed in the morning and go to work, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

My first book launch

Next Thursday, March 3, 5:00 pm, I will be having my first book launch event at Vanier College (in the STEM Centre, D-301) for Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life.  I would love to see science enthusiasts there, particularly current and former students of mine. 

I am thinking about how the event should run.  I have been to book signings before and they always include some readings from the newly published book.  My hope is that some of my current and former students could share some of the reading duties with me.  After all, this book was written with them in mind.  The schedule I envision is:

5:00 - 5:30 pm: hors d'ouevres and schmooze

5:30 - 6:00 pm: speeches and short readings from book

6:00 - 6:30 pm: book purchase and signing

My college issued a press release yesterday, so I am also hoping to make the rounds with local Montreal media.

It will be my pleasure to share this moment with readers of this blog who happen to live in my city.  There will be no book tour, so I am contemplating ways to reach a wider audience.  For now, I am starting with my stomping grounds, and seeing where it goes from there.

Friday, January 20, 2023

"Getting Physics" NOW AVAILABLE!

 After years of work, my first book, Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life, is finally available.  I will almost certainly never devote more time to any single project than I did this one.  It is a labour of love, and I am so happy to share it with readers all around the world.

The link to purchase it through Amazon is here: GETTING PHYSICS.

I am not sure what else to write in this post.  This blog is the place where I learned how to write about physics.  Some of the contents of this book include paragraphs I wrote in 2010, the year The Engineer's Pulse was launched.  I am feeling incredibly nostalgic right about now.  The only thing that makes sense to me is to simply copy/paste the acknowledgement section of Getting Physics here:


Momentum for the manuscript began when eleven Vanier College students volunteered to read through a chapter or two and provide detailed comments.  I want to thank Bastienne D.C., Peter D., Kamil C., Maria-Sara F., Quassandra D., Daniel M., Carolynn B., Will E., Alin B., Aashiha B., and Myriam L., because their feedback improved the book immensely. 

There are two more experienced authors that helped point me in the right direction early on as I navigated the journey that is ‘publishing a book’.  Thank you, Alex Rosenblatt and Brahm Canzer.

I must also thank Kristie Stuckey, whose keen eye and countless iterations led to the lovely figures contained herein.

Pearl Levine provided a round of editing that was much appreciated (she also bakes amazing brownies).  Stef Caron used a fine comb and did a final, skillful pass through.

I have more colleagues at Vanier College to thank for their feedback and moral support along the way than I can fit here.  I want to give a shout out to the Vanier College Physics Department, whose combined wisdom helped refine the lens through which I see physics.  I also wish to thank Nicholas Park, Jean-François Brière, and Sameer Bhatnagar for reviewing portions of the book.  Similarly, I have been encouraged to write about physics by many friends, like Jon, Corey, Lorne, Peter, Tom, Rob, Jer, Christian, and Jeff to name a few.

I have had the honor of teaching more than 1,500 students.  My interactions with them helped shape me as an educator.  Their curiosity and resilience through adversity inspired me to keep pushing forward in my career.

I would have little connection to academic content, nor any practical skills without the teacher interactions I had as a student.  My fundamentals in math were solidified in college thanks to Denis Sevee and Frank Lovasco. Professor Andrew Higgins served as a model for how to communicate physics with gusto.  Gerard Carrier and Alpha Ross showed me the ropes in the space industry, upping my technical engineering game.  Finally, my mentor, Professor Arun Misra, taught me most of what I know about physics and engineering.  He introduced me to orbital mechanics, space elevators, space conferences, and how to write technical papers; most importantly, he personified how to approach one’s career and human interactions with integrity.  He has been my Mr. Miyagi.

Before any of this could happen, Mom, Dad, Jamie, you gave me a foundation upon which to build a life.  I was brought up in this nurturing family, even though my mother is not exactly sure where her science author son emerged from.

Val.  We were kids and then we grew into ourselves side by side.  You are my anchor in this life.  At this point, I suppose you get physics whether you like it or not.