Friday, April 27, 2012


Chad links to this piece at the CHE, from which I quote:

But academe is a profession of opposites. Long periods of social isolation—research and writing—are punctuated by brief periods of intense social engagement: job interviews, teaching, conferences, and meetings. One reason that completion rates for graduate programs are so low—and unhappiness levels so high—is, I suspect, because students are not selected for the full range of aptitudes they will need to be successful in graduate school. And there are few if any supports in place for those students who struggle with the extremes of introversion and extroversion that academe demands.

I've often mentioned to students that being outgoing and social is a huge asset in academe, and I often get confusion. People don't think of physicists as social or outgoing. I've long struggled with these aspects, though not as much as some. I'm easily in the introverted category, but I don't obviously lack social skills (those who know me well often laugh at my lapses, but among physicists I can blend it rather well). In any case, I never quite thought of it as a contrast. But of course it is. Even in the comfort of one's own institution, there are encounters with colleagues, students, etc. These are generally pretty manageable...if I feel overwhelmed, I can always retreat to my office with a closed door. However, one day during a vacation, I had to run into the office to get something. While walking across an empty campus, a woman walks towards me whom I completely ignore, until, up close, she says "hi." I look up, completely baffled and mute. It must have been fifteen seconds till my mind could bring up my database and realize I knew her. But it was too late. Unsure of what to do, not wanting to insult her, I emailed her saying I was spaced out and didn't mean to ignore her. More accurately I just wasn't prepared. I imagine an extrovert simply doesn't need to mentally prepare for an encounter. They naturally make the most of such an encounter. But seconds matter and one can get better at this stuff. It takes more than reading tips in blogs. It takes practice.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Everyday physics questions

Some of these are better than others. Feel free to discuss in the comments. I doubt I'll post my answers unless some sort of argument breaks out. At best, these might be interesting, and at worst, they should give non-physicists some idea of what's going through the physicists head when the conversation turns boring:

  • when one goes to return the shampoo bottle to its place, its moment of inertia is generally much larger than when you picked it up. The moment of inertia is essentially a measure of a rigid body's resistance to rotation, and therefore one might naively think it would be more stable after use. However, that's clearly not the case. So the first question is why? The second is: is there some limit in which the increase to the moment of inertia would be the dominant effect so that one could construct a shampoo bottle that is unconditionally stable about its bottom?
  • Walking down the street, one observes someone who is otherwise well covered and obscured by clothing, but who has some cleavage apparent. As this person walks towards you, you observe the limited cleavage heaving up and down a bit. The question is: can one legitimately estimate the endowment by the time-scale of the heaving or instead does one just instinctively increase ones estimate (given there's so little else to go on) simply because there is motion at all? In other words, are the variables too many...speed, type of walking motion, type of support clothing provide any real estimate? [Sorry for the crassness...]
  • Seeing a Smart car, I am struck by the fact that it is so small but yet the fuel economy isn't particular good, compared to other micro-cars. If one considers good economy cars and then considers mopeds, the fuel economy roughly increases by a factor of two. What is the ultimate (ie physical) limit of fuel economy? Clearly certain assumptions have to go into such a limit, but how many?