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Physics Slam Provides Outside Students and Staff With a Window into the Physics Department

Sophia Valva

Sports Contributor

Professors Borrero and Watkins (unseen, on right) demonstration of universal expansion. Photo taken by Sophia Valva.

On Thursday, Nov. 18, the Physics Club hosted a “Physics SLAM'' event, inviting the Physics Department Faculty to present the subjects of their research and get people excited about the inquiries of modern physics. Professors were given an opportunity to introduce both current areas of study in Physics, as well as an idea of how each Professor's lab has been addressing them. Additionally, the faculty were able to highlight the importance of undergraduates in their labs, and the work that students are currently undertaking while researching for their respective theses. As a whole, this event functioned to give outside students and staff a window into the Physics Department.

Each professor in the Physics Department leads their own research project, deciding on the subject matter and allowing undergraduate students to populate their lab and conduct their own research under their professional guidance. Incoming senior physics students are encouraged to design their own experiments in order to add to the collective research in the lab. Students will, inevitably, use these experiments to help write their undergraduate theses. Willamette Laboratories provide an excellent opportunity for students to explore topics of research, while simultaneously giving them lab experience for their resume. A simplified summary of each lab’s research is listed below:

Molecular Motors: David Altman

Energy doesn’t want to stay still—rather, it has a tendency to be disorganized and in a state of constant motion. Physicists call this phenomenon “entropy.” For cells to be organized, they need to regulate their entropy. They do this through their molecular motors. Altman’s lab focuses on a particular motor protein, “myosin,” which archives motion by wiggling its actin filament. These motors move through a three-dimensional space crowded with molecules. Altman compared it to moving through a mosh pit: “Under certain circumstances...mosh pits do move around with the characteristic motion that’s... associated with the inside of a cell,” he said. Altman’s lab explores that mosh pit-specifically exploring whether or not designated groups of motor molecules can cooperate, and further testing if myosin motors can communicate through their motions.

Model depicting myosin motor movement, as shown in Altman’s presentation. Screenshot taken by Sophia Valva.

Searching the Cosmos With Neural Networks: Jed Rembold

As telescopes improve, physicists are able to collect larger, higher-quality quantities of both data and pictures of space. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, LSST, is scheduled to launch in 2022, and is expected to collect 20 terabytes of data per night. In practice, the data collected is bloated, making it difficult to isolate pieces of data and match them with desired phenomena. To combat this, Rembold’s lab is developing a software which could help sift through this data. The program sports a set of “kernels”; a square of pixels, each with an assigned value. The program overlays these kernels over the image of space, giving the pixels of the image numerical values. The program can analyze the numbers, which helps it isolate certain features (such as galaxies, specific phenomenon, etc), and compiles them into a streamlined data set.

“Kernels” at work, as shown by Rembold’s presentation. Screenshot taken by Sophia Valva.

Chaos Theory and Hydrodynamic Turbulence: Daniel Borrero

One of the biggest discoveries in Physics within the 20th century is the idea that some systems are inherently unpredictable. Some systems, such as weather patterns, sport an undercurrent of chaos. All measurable conditions can be unchanged, and yet result in different weather conditions. Certain temperatures and humanities don’t directly correlate to a set weather pattern. This is what makes weather forecasts so unpredictable. Professor Borrero stated during his presentation: “My lab...focuses on studying systems that are sort of simple.” He continued, “[that is], they’re relatively simple systems that we, in theory, [should] understand. But, they turn out to [actually] have really complicated behaviors.”. This is known as “Chaos Theory.” The main focus of Borrero’s research is in trying to analyze these types of systems, in order to eventually be able to predict them. Additionally, Borrero tackles the concept of universal pattern formation, whereby very different systems can produce similar patterns.

Examples of different types of patterns, as provided by Borrero’s presentation. Screenshot taken by Sophia Valva.

Analyzing Galaxy Flows: Rick Watkins

Since the big bang, the universe has been steadily spreading and expanding. “In other words,” Watkins said, “space is stretching.” Hundreds of thousands of other galaxies populate our universe, some in clusters, but generally they are littered throughout space. These galaxies are in constant motion, and it is this motion which is the force behind this expansion. As more distance is put between galaxies, the general density of the universe decreases. Watkins’ lab focuses on studying the velocity of those galaxies, endeavoring to both develop better statistical analysis methods for these values, as well as test these new methods through computer simulation. Additionally, Watkin’s lab moves to improve the accuracy of distance and velocity measurements provided by these methods by using machine learning.

Professor Watkins in-person demonstration of universal expansion. Photo taken by Sophia Valva.

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