The best time of the year: Adopt a Physicist!

Twice a year, the SPS (society of physics students, a branch of the American Physics Society) hosts a forum which matches physicists (like me) with high school classes with students studying physics. They ask questions and we respond.

I have done this regularly since 2009, and it is the highlight of my year. Each physicist who volunteers gets “adopted” by three high school classes, and then the discussion begins.

There are some predictable questions, like “How was it studying in college?” “What was your favorite subject” and a lot of questions about being a product manager, working in industry, and how physics helps me there.

But the real fun is the tangents that the discussions go down. In one of my classes, one of the students is planning on studying cognitive language recognition, one is planning on studying physics in a foreign country (can’t help you there), and it turns out that one of them plays guitar, so we have talked about music as well as physics.

I am glad to participate, and I hope that the students get what they expected out of it. But, guilty admission, it is a LOT of fun.

Why I didn’t pursue Computer Science in University

I entered SJSU in fall 1983, with a declared major of B.A. Physics. But I assumed that I would probably go into computer science. I had spent much of my high school time with my nose glued to either one of the Apple II+’s in the computer lab, or the Atari 800 system (that I was able to afford on my paper route money) learning programming, computer technology, and lastly 6502 machine language.

So, when I began school, I took the basic physics and physics prep (Calculus, Differential Equations, Vector Calculus) and mixed into that introductory programming classes.  I started with Basic (and it was a lot different than the Basic on my Atari), then Fortran, and then I moved to Assembly language. It should be noted that at this time, there weren’t microcomputers on the campus, and all our coursework was done on the time share mainframes in the various CSU schools.

I actually did well until I hit assembly language. We learned it on a PDP-11/70, and the language was called Macro 11. I took it at the same time as I took Ordinary Differential Equations, and the second semester of the introductory series of physics, so it was a pretty heavy load.

I thought that my experience with 6502 assembly language would pave the way, but I was mistaken. Up until this point, I truly thought that my calling to computers would guide me to change to computer science as a degree, but that started the doubt.

The other thing that caused doubt was that a pretty foundational course was learning to program in Lisp. I took it upon myself to try to learn it myself, but it was pretty intractable. I just couldn’t get a grasp of the structure, or the logic of Lisp (List Processing). That was the final nail in the coffin of my aspirations of a career in computer science, and I meekly continued down the path of Physics.

Lately, I have again picked up Lisp, and am working my way through the MIT text, “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs”, and I am finding that Lisp (as part of the Scheme environment) is not as intractable as when I first tried to self teach myself. I don’t hope to become a software engineer or a computer scientist, but it does keep me occupied.

In my career, I have done a fair amount of programming, mostly in Matlab, but some C as well, so my computer interest wasn’t entirely extinguished.

Why Physics is Awesome

One common application of the atomic force microscopes that we make is to measure properties of bio-molecules. AFM’s have long been used to image DNA strands, but the more interesting work is when you functionalize the probe, and then try to “pick up” a bio-molecule (like a protein).

I am working on definition of improvements to our analysis software, and since I know squat about biology, I found a series of lecture notes from UIUC’s Bio Physics course. I am flying through the early lectures, getting the correct mindset, and it dawns on me. Physics is everywhere, and it is always useful.

In the second lecture, the discussion goes to molecular reactions, and to define the probability of a reaction happening you need to measure the probability of finding a set of constituent molecules in the right state.

How do you do that? Oh yeah, the Partition Function from statistical mechanics. Bang, suddenly I “get it”.  Of course I took Stat Mech close to 20 years ago, so it is a bit rusty, but the application of the formula is simple enough.

One more comment. I do not know the lecturer, but from his lecture presentations/notes, I am sure I would like him.

I don’t know enough to understand the WLC model of protein unfolding, but I will soon.