Hunting Aliens in California

Greetings, Earthlings!

First off, I apologize for being so tardy on this entry. I’ll try to be more timely for the rest of the summer. Anyways…

10460212_10152259266303719_86456628812285147_nI am writing to you from sunny Mountain View, California, home of the SETI Institute! For those of you who aren’t familiar, SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, a.k.a. professional alien hunters. You may think that that sounds like science fiction, but they are a legitimate research institution doing real science, which covers topics including geology, astronomy, biology, and everything in between. And it’s the coolest place ever! Mountain View is basically paradise on Earth – sunny every day (we were told not to expect rain all summer), temperatures in the low-60s in the morning when I leave for work with daily highs in the mid-70s, and NO FLORIDA HUMIDITY.

California is a neat place, with a lot of differences that I’m still getting used to. One of the first things I learned about the Bay Area is that grocery bags cost money – you have to bring your reusable bags or specifically ask to buy paper bags. I was very confused on my first grocery run when the cashier just piled my $60 worth of groceries at the end of the counter and then asked me if I needed a bag. I certainly wasn’t going to carry them all in my arms!

Riding the CalTrain up to San Francisco!

Riding the CalTrain up to San Francisco!

The thing I like most about this area is just the environment and culture. You walk through downtown Mountain View, and it’s all family-owned restaurants (lots of different ethnic cuisines), used book shops, bike stores, and small cafes with people sitting outside on their laptops. It’s gorgeous and feels totally safe and welcoming. Plus being in Silicon Valley, I get to drive past places like Microsoft, Google, etc., which is way cool. Not only that, but there are like four or five performing arts centers in the area – hate to bash Daytona, but it is certainly lacking in that regard! Another great thing is that you can get anywhere via public transit – which is certainly comforting, considering my car is currently parked 3,000 miles away. I’d never ridden a train before, so it was a new adventure for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s also very bike friendly here; I bike to and from work every day: 2.5 miles each way. And the weather’s perfect for it – especially first thing in the morning. In California, bikes are considered cars, so I bike on the roads, stop at stop lights, and use turn signals (and here everybody thought learning those hand motions in drivers’ ed was a waste of time!) It’s kinda scary to be in the road with the cars, but it’s also really neat.

Oh, and I forgot to mention… I may not be working at NASA this year, but I do live at NASA. We are all provided housing in dorms on site at NASA Ames. So hey, that’s pretty cool. SETI and Ames work very closely, in fact most of the SETI scientists also work at NASA.

Some of the cubicles at SETI. Every wall and surface in the office has a poster about space on it.

Some of the cubicles at SETI. Every wall and surface in the office has a poster about space on it.

My first week as a SETI intern was filled with presentations and lectures on all topics of SETI science. It was very cool to hear about all the different things going on here, and to meet science celebrities like Dr. Jill Tarter and Dr. Frank Drake. If you don’t know who they are, you should. The office itself is a lot like a university, minus the classrooms and students. Lots of offices with research posters covering all the walls, scientists walking around in attire ranging from those dressed more professionally to the ones in shorts and sandals, and free coffee all day in the break room. The thing I like most about this program versus an internship at a big, corporate company is just how chill it is. We dictate our own work hours (to an extent; you still have to work them out with your research mentor), wear whatever we feel like (though I’ve been trying to be a bit above my usual t-shirt and jeans fashion), and everybody is just really cool and friendly. It’s a great environment.

This is a plot of 2D temperature distribution in a protoplanetary disk.

This is a plot of 2D temperature distribution in a protoplanetary disk.

The scientist I’m working with this summer is Dr. Uma Gorti, and my project involves modeling the dissipation of protoplanetary disks, which is the astronomical phenomenon that forms planets. Basically what we’re investigating is how fast these disks are going away, and whether or not planets will form before they do that. So not directly hunting aliens but definitely still applicable – the aliens need planets to live on, y’know. I’m very glad I was selected for this project because it’s actually really similar to my work back at ERAU. These disks act a lot like our atmosphere as far as the fluids physics is concerned, and it will be great to have had the modeling practice when I begin working on the model for my thesis in the fall!

I’m also really excited because there’s a good chance I’ll get to present my research at a conference this year, and maybe even get a paper published depending on what kind of results we get. So crossing my fingers for that…!

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

The first couple weeks here have been jam-packed with fun. In addition to the lectures and beginning our projects, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to explore the area. On our first Saturday, we all went up to San Francisco to see some of the big tourist attractions: Lombard Street, China Town, and the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is a wonderful city, and I’m sure we’ll be up there again because there’s so much to see and do. And it doesn’t feel icky or scary like some big cities do. Plus it’s just a $7 train-ride away from Mountain View!

One of the views from the Stanford Dish Trail

One of the views from the Stanford Dish Trail.

On Sunday a large group of us went to the Stanford Dish Trail for a hike. Well, sort of a hike – it was a paved road, but very hilly nonetheless. That’s another neat thing about California: there’s so much elevation, not to mention the mountains! Mountain View is very aptly named, because you literally see them in every direction. Florida is flat as a pancake. Which is good in its own way, but the scenery here just can’t be beat. But I digress. Anyways, this trail was really cool because it went past some of Stanford’s radio dishes, and from the top you get a fantastic view of the whole Valley and could even see San Francisco in the distance. It was also really cool to hike because in the biography of Sally Ride that I’m reading there’s a picture of her running that same trail. There’s just something neat about having been to the same places as such awesome, famous people.

A few of us interns outside the SF Giants stadium before the game.

A few of us interns outside the SF Giants stadium before the game.

Our second week of work was split by a company outing on Wednesday to see the San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres. For those of you who aren’t very sports savvy (like me), that’s baseball. And we totally kicked their butts – it was a no-hitter! Which means that the other team never even made it to first base. Ha. It was a lot of fun to hang out together, get the day off of work, and spend it in downtown San Francisco. The stadium was right on the bay, so we could see huge ships out in the water, which was way cool.


“Make your meanest Kahl Drogo face.”

For the second Saturday, a handful of us went up to Oakland to volunteer for the Evolution Expo: a SciFi/science convention in its first year. And boy was that cool. I spent the day working at the photo booth, where fans would pay to stand next to celebrities and have their picture taken. Well, let’s just say the expo wasn’t very well attended, so we ended up spending a lot of time just chatting with the actors and astronauts, and taking some silly photos of our own. Some of the big names I got to meet are Jason Momoa (Kahl Drogo from Game of Thrones), John Rhys-Davies (well-known for Gimli in Lord of the Rings, but I knew him as the professor from Sliders), Tim Russ and Garret Wang (both from Star Trek Voyager), and Amanda Tapping (from Stargate, which I’ve never watched, but I just want to note that she was such a cool person!) They were all really cool. It’s funny to see actors as people and not as their characters. Amidst the actors we also got to chat with astronauts Joe Edwards and Wendy Lawrence. All in all it was a really cool experience, and I’m very glad I woke up at 5 am to do it.

The Sunday after the expo we all packed up into two big vans and headed up to Hat Creek Observatory and Lassen National Park, but I’m going to save that adventure for my next entry… :)

Until next time!


The Exciting Life of a Physics Student

Hello hello!

Time is sure flying, I can’t believe it’s been another two weeks. But I suppose I’ll pick up right where I left off in writing my life’s story. So here it goes…

A plot, similar to the one in my last entry, showing altitude above sea level and the corresponding vertical wind speed. This one is for Olympus Mons on Mars! Notice that the wind speed is about 10X higher, which makes sense because the mountain is a lot bigger.

Let me start off by pointing out the terrible error in my last post – my Mars map was upside down! I noticed it while working on my model in MATLAB. Major oops on that one. But I will say that it is now fixed, and the model is working beautifully. I was able to plot the vertical wind speed across Olympus Mons (which, as you recall from my earlier entries, is the largest volcano in the solar system at a height of about 26 km), and our next step is to implement these calculations in the atmospheric dynamics model to simulate some waves! If that sentence didn’t make sense to you, go back and read some of my past entries where I explain the basics of my research.

My CORRECT Martian topographic map generated in MATLAB. This time I used the copper color bar option, because the blue was a bit misleading. Lighter is higher elevation, and darker is lower elevation.

Speaking of physics and research and all that jazz, I’m getting pretty excited for the new College of Arts and Sciences building! They’ve named our new lab – it will be called ECLAIR:  Experimental and Computational Laboratory for Atmospheric and Ionospheric Research. Which is apparently French for “flash of lightning”, in addition to being a delicious French pastry. So for atmospheric scientists who are also partial to pastries, it seemed like a good fit. I will be presenting a poster about the new lab to the board of trustees on November 1st, which means I get to be one of the first people to stand inside the new building! Plus I get to wear a suit, and I always feel snazzy in a suit.

The new building seems like a good segway to my next topic – registering for next semester classes. Ah! It seems like this semester just started, and we’re already getting ready to register. My schedule for the spring seems pretty chill time-wise (only a couple classes on MWF, and a decent break on TTh) – I should note that, once you get to upper-level EP classes you start to lose control of making your own schedule. Every class I’m taking only has one section, and I lucked out in not having to take any 8:15s! Nonetheless, I’ll be taking five 300-level EP classes (Classical Mechanics, Optics, Microcomputers, Space Systems Engineering, and Junior Design); I saw my advisor today, and I quote… Me: “I just want to make sure next semester won’t kill me.” Him: “Oh it will.” Well then. I suppose it evens out for the fact that the classes will be really cool.

I also have to start thinking about a thesis topic, and man that feels so far off. I will probably continue to pursue my Martian atmospheric research, unless something else nifty catches my attention.

You never really get too old for Pokemon.

Now for those of you readers who are geeks like me, you’re probably wondering if I’m going to mention last weekend’s big release – Pokemon X and Y! Yes, I am, because that’s all I did this weekend. I bought a shiny new (used, but it’s new to me) 3DS – which is amazing technology might I add; I was skeptical – and picked up my copy of Y. I definitely have to give this game five stars, it’s completely revolutionized the franchise. And if you’re wondering, my entire team is named after moons, constellations, and space missions (Apollo, Aries, Triton, Phobos, Deimos, and Orion) because that’s just how I roll. I also found a shiny in the wild. If you don’t know what that means, just keep scrolling.

This weekend is fall break! Which is much needed. I’m planning to sleep, play Pokemon, sleep some more, watch Breaking Bad, and maybe plan a trip down to Kennedy Space Center if the government decides to run again. I should note that, while KSC is privately owned and operated and therefore still open during the shutdown, none of its tours run since it’s a government facility that’s being toured, and what’s the fun if you can’t see the cool space buildings?

This was posted on the Embry-Riddle Memes page the day of the career fair, with 298 “likes” and 33 “shares”. It made me lol.

Speaking of the government shut down, the career fair was last Wednesday (yes, that transition was completely relevant, just wait.) NASA wasn’t there obviously, which made me very very sad. I even stood next to their empty booth for a while hoping they’d magically appear and give me a job. They didn’t. BUT I did have a really good chat with a woman from Northrop-Grumman who seemed to really want to hire me. She had the same first name, so total ice-breaker, and asked me for two copies of my resume – one for the pile and one to take with her. So I’m expecting a phone call any day now, she practically promised -fingers crossed-. I also talked to some other small space companies that seemed really cool, and they seemed promising as well. Boeing seemed unimpressed, but they can keep their airplanes, I’m not interested.

And I almost forgot to mention Gravity! The movie, not the force. Go see it. Right now. It was so awesome. We went to the very first showing at 10 pm on Thursday night and saw it in 3D. Wow. That’s all I have to say about that. Granted the physics is a bit off in some places, but the amount of things they did right and the fact that the movie is simply incredible makes breaking physics worth it – and that’s coming from a physicist. (Plus, Sandra Bullock as an astronaut? You don’t want to miss that.)

Let’s see what else is going on… I suffered through an assignment for EP 501 that I think took 20-25 hours of work. It was four problems, and it took that long. What. I decided I don’t like grad school. Also, I had to go get a shot the other day, which, if you know me, you know is a big deal. I’m planning a trip to India this summer, so it’s probably worth it, but still – wah! Also also, the Indian restaurant here in Daytona that I go to about once a week got a new chef, and he makes my usual different and I’m sad. It’s not bad, it’s just not my usual anymore, y’know? (Have you ever noticed that the last paragraph of my blog entries are just the most random things I can think to mention?)

Will Northrop-Grumman ever call? What will happen with my Martian vertical forcing model? How much will I sleep during fall break? Get these exciting answers and more next time!


The 2013 “Coupling, Energetics, and Dynamics, of Atmospheric Regions” Meeting

Greetings from Boulder, Colorado!

I’m going to be writing this entry throughout the week as events progress, but as the conference is nearly half-over (or half-started, for you optimists), I thought I should get started writing! Also for anybody interested, you can read my conference poster here. Note that it’s a hi-res PDF so it may take some time to load.


View of the mountains from outside my hotel room!

I’m blogging from my hotel room at the CEDAR conference while I take a break from sitting in talks that go way over my head. It’s been a great experience being here; I’ve met students from all over the country and world, and have really enjoyed talking to them. The weather is absolutely gorgeous, as is the view. This is my first time in Colorado, and I can definitely see myself calling it home someday, should the opportunity come along.

We arrived in Colorado late on Saturday night, after a long day of taking a final exam, catching a shuttle to Orlando, a delayed flight to Denver, and a shuttle to Boulder that forgot about us and ended up being an hour and a half late. It was quite lucky to have the time-change working in my favor, as I was up at 7 am the next morning (something I swear never to do) for breakfast and the beginning of the student workshop. Sunday was a whole day devoted to some lower-level talks aimed at students (albeit Masters and PhD students, so I was still pretty lost) and a lot of socializing. The group of us from Riddle, which consists of myself, three PhD students, and three Master’s students (all EP) have been pretty much sticking together, but in the last couple days we’ve also been hanging with a student from the Indian Institute of Technology, some students from Utah State and various other state colleges all over the country (I’ve lost track!), and a group of students doing an REU program at the MIT Haystack Observatory.  For those who haven’t heard that term, REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is similar to an internship (it’s basically what I’m doing, but you usually go to another university to do it.) They are my favorite to talk to because they don’t make me feel like the kid in the group.

Panoramic picture of the mountains over the CU Boulder football stadium. They are such a sight to see, the camera just doesn’t capture it. Click for the full picture!

Yesterday we attended a fancy schmancy banquet at CU Boulder, which was a great time. The food was delicious and it gave us an opportunity to chat about all sorts of things – time flew and we almost missed the last bus back to the hotel! We all went out for “the best frozen yogurt in Boulder” afterwards and had more chance to chat in a less-formal setting. It was a blast! I regret sitting with students at the banquet rather than doing some networking with professionals, but I’ll have a better opportunity for that later in the week anyways (My plan is to schmooze some NASA guys into hooking me up with an internship.)

A few of us Riddle students after lunch in Boulder. Mountains!

The conference itself is definitely interesting, but does get boring (just being honest here!) The sessions are generally aimed at other scientists in the field, i.e. people with PhDs, so a lot of what they are talking about goes way over my head. It’s some pretty cool stuff though, and I do enjoy bits and pieces of it. Mostly it gives an impression of what it’s like to get out into the world and actually be a physicist, because until now the only viewpoint I’ve had was The Big Bang Theory. I’ve been spending a bit of time sitting in sessions, and then taking breaks to sit in my room and let my brain recuperate. The coolest talk so far has probably been the one this morning, which was a tribute to 50 years of gravity wave research. Dr. Colin Hines, the first to publish a paper on gravity waves (in 1960!),  participated in the session via phone, which was pretty cool. After that I grabbed lunch with the group from MIT Haystack and then came back for another gravity wave session, led by ERAU’s own Dr. Snively.

Tonight will be the first of two poster sessions; it is divided into “IT” and “MLT”, which stand for “Ionosphere/Thermosphere” and “Mesosphere/Lower-Thermosphere”. Basically it depends on what part of the atmosphere your research focuses on. My poster is MLT, so I’ll be presenting tomorrow evening, but I’ll definitely be out there tonight to get a feel for the session and check out the other posters from Riddle. That’s all I’ve got for now, I’ll write some more tomorrow…


Standing with my poster at the MLT poster session.

Today was the big day! I skipped out on all the sessions this morning to sit in my room and read over every inch of my poster – had to be ready for the big, scary questions! Well, there weren’t many big, scary questions, so that was good. Overall I think my poster presentation went well; I definitely got flustered going over my spiel so many times, but people seemed genuinely interested. And they should be, as I’m the only one here doing non-Earth research. I even handed a business card to a guy from NASA. It’s always worth a shot in the dark to say, “hey, I see you work at NASA, do you have any connections to internships?” I think he admired my forward-ness, because he took my business card and said he’d email me. You never know what can come from good networking!

After the poster session we all went into downtown Boulder for dinner – wow! I wish I had taken some pictures. It’s a really cool city, lots of small brick buildings, street performers, and little shops, bars, and restaurants. We ended up eating at this bar/restaurant, and had the whole second floor balcony to ourselves (mostly because it was the only place all 8 of us could fit!) It was a great time. And they had this raspberry red velvet torte with coffee ice cream that was divine.


More mountains! I loved taking pictures of them.

Well, the conference is winding down. We were up way too early today for “breakfast with NSF”, where the directors of the National Science Foundation sat down with students over breakfast and just had an open conversation. It was cool, but I didn’t feel like I got much out of it. We ended up talking more about how the conference went and suggestions for next year than we did about getting jobs and working in the field. Also, we were just sitting in a big circle of chairs, and it’s really difficult to eat French toast from a plate on your lap. Just saying.

After that were the poster prizes. One of the students from Riddle and the guy from the Indian Institute of Technology with whom we have been hanging both won honorable mention awards! There was also a distinguished speaker lecture this morning by a woman who has been in this field of research for over fifty years. It was really interesting, because she talked more about her life and building her career than the actual science – she spoke about being denied entry into a PhD program in India and only being allowed to teach undergraduate physics to women, simply because she was a woman. It was a very thought-provoking lecture.

Ethiopian food! You take those bread rolls (we called them “food towels”) and use them to pick up the different foods. It was really good!

In the evening a few of us went out for Ethiopian food with the group from Utah State. It was a really cool experience – they bring one big plate of food to the table, and you all just kind of dig in (with your hands!). There is this like soft bread stuff you would rip off and use to grab the different foods. It was delicious, cultural, and a lot of fun!

Tomorrow we leave Boulder around noon. The trip over all has been fantastic, and an amazing experience. I can’t wait for next year!

Our whole group from ERAU!

Feel free to email me if you have questions about anything I have (or haven’t) talked about here. I’m always open to emails!


Simulating Giant Sound Waves on Mars

Hello, again!

It’s time for another installment of “a day in the life of an awesome physics student at Embry-Riddle.”

Well the summer is in full swing; I had my first exam on Thursday, which was also my first exam of grad school, as the class I’m taking is my first master’s class for the accelerated degree. I was really confident, which means I either aced the exam or bombed it – you never really know until you get your results back. I’ve never taken summer classes before, but so far I think it’s pretty awesome. The material moves at a quick yet manageable pace, and it’s nice to only have one class to worry about after the last four semesters of 16-17 credits. My only complaint about summer classes is the “summer” part – why is it so hot outside? It’s unnatural. I really wasn’t born to live in the south; I can handle a -20º wind-chill, but as soon as the thermometer climbs above 90º that’s when I give up and hide inside. Not to mention it rains so much! (I promise I won’t complain about the weather in every entry.)

I’ve had a lot of free time, which is unusual for me, so it’s been nice. Lately I’ve been learning some new acoustic guitar songs, watching old seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and leveling a blood elf warlock. And let me just take a moment to talk about how much I love living in my own apartment off campus. Everything is finally clean, unpacked, and decorated to my liking, and I can listen to loud music in any room at any time and nobody complains about my volume, musical tastes, or singing. It’s great. I live only two minutes from campus, so it’s a nice, short commute every day. Once I figure out how to reduce my electric bill everything will be perfect!

Image of Mars’ Gale Crater from Google Earth. This location was used to generate the profile used in our acoustic wave simulations. Gale Crater was the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed last year.

My days are spent sitting up in the Lehman Building’s Space Physics Research Lab (which will henceforth be referred to as “SPRL”) working on my project for the CEDAR conference in late-June. I mentioned it briefly in the last entry, but I think I should elaborate, since that’s what got me this gig as a blogger. CEDAR (which stands for “Coupling, Energetics, and Dynamics of Atmospheric regions”) is an NSF-sponsered yearly atmospheric sciences meeting that focuses on instrumentation and modeling of the middle and upper atmosphere. I am working with Dr. Snively in the Department of Physical Sciences to adapt his atmospheric wave model to Martian conditions so that we can see how atmospheric acoustic and gravity waves, which are a bit like ocean waves, but in the atmosphere, propagate on Mars in comparison to Earth (if you’re interested, my project abstract is here).

Some plots of relevant atmospheric data on Mars generated by the profile used in our simulations.

We are using MarsGRAM (Mars Global Reference Atomic Model) data provided by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to specify many different properties of the atmosphere, which has proven very interesting! This data is then used to generate a profile, which essentially shows the temperature, density, pressure, etc. as you travel up through the atmosphere (it’s really just a big table of numbers), and then the profile is loaded into the wave dynamics model. The model produces a simulation based on some inputs, such as frequency, amplitude, etc., and we watch how the wave behaves as it moves upward.

Animation of a nonlinear acoustic wave traveling up through the Martian atmosphere. The one-dimensional simulation is laid over the two-dimensional simulation in order to determine that the results of each are valid. This wave has a frequency of 0.032 Hz, which corresponds to a wavelength of about 31 km. (Click on thumbnail to watch animation.) Note that the axes correspond to the 2-D results (and are in meters – please disregard the error in the labeling.)

This past week we successfully simulated an acoustic wave in both a one-dimensional and two-dimensional model and confirmed that the results agreed. Acoustic waves are really cool – they are essentially giant sound waves that move up through the atmosphere until the air becomes too sparse and viscous, causing them to dissipate. We’ve found that this happens really quickly on Mars compared to Earth, due to the increasing viscosity at higher altitudes. The waves we have been simulating have frequencies of about 0.03 Hz. For perspective, note that the average human can hear frequencies ranging from 20-20,000 Hz, so these waves are much larger and lower-frequency than ordinary sound waves.

The next phase of the project is to simulate two-dimensional gravity waves, which I will talk about in my next entry!

Before I close out this entry, I wanted to touch back on what I said last time about going where life takes you. I came into Riddle as an Aerospace Engineering student, but was converted to Engineering Physics after my first semester due to the fact that I love physics and space and don’t really care about designing airplanes (blasphemy, I know.) Deep down I definitely feel like an EP student, and never once regret my change. In fact, the more I go through my coursework, the more I find myself leaning towards physics and research and away from actual engineering – I took the “gauntlet” (solids, dynamics, and fluids, which are engineering sciences classes you take your sophomore year), and pretty much hated them (though I did like fluids, but that was because professor Davids is awesome!) Plus I am loving what I am doing here in SPRL. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do after Riddle, and, while my plan had always been BS then MS then Work in engineering then PhD maybe later, I am thinking more about going straight onto my PhD and getting involved in space and astrophysics research.

Tune in next week, I’ll have some really cool Mars stuff to share with y’all! (Yeah, I’m becoming a southerner. I say that now.) Be sure to email me if there’s anything you’d like me to write about Riddle, otherwise I’ll just keep rambling on about my life in every entry.