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Saturday Morning Physics

Flyer of the Spring 2014 lecture series.Saturday Morning Physics is the public lecture series of the William & Mary Physics Department.  The topics of the lecture series are wide-ranging but usually maintain some connection to physics. All lectures are accessible to anyone with an interest in science.  The lectures take place in the main auditorium of the renovated Small Hall building where the Physics Department is located.  For more information and to be notified of future events, please contact [[wdeconinck]], or subscribe to our mailing list.

All lectures are held on Saturday morning, from 11am until noon.

Upcoming lectures

  • Fall 2014: "Numerical Simulations," by Prof. John Kane (William & Mary)
    Unfortunately due to an issue with the most recent version of the software, this lecture had to be moved to the fall 2014 series.

Past lectures

  • March 22, 2014: "Climbing the Cosmic Distance Ladder: How Astronomers Measure the Distances to Planets, Stars, and Galaxies," by Prof. Eugene Tracy (William & Mary).  Slides available (1.5 MB).

    Before you go on any trip it is always a good idea to get yourself a good map. When we try to understand our place in the Universe, how do we construct such a map? Even now, we have only visited a few bodies in our immediate cosmic neighborhood. How do we measure distances to objects much farther away, bodies that no human -- or human space probe -- has ever visited? We will start with a very brief historical discussion of how the Greeks measured the size of the Earth and the distance to the Moon using shadows on the ground and in the sky, some clever ideas, and an open mind. Modern astronomers also use clever methods to estimate distances, and we will see that the basic ideas that underlie these methods are very simple to understand, even if the technology used is complex and extremely sophisticated. 

    The talk is for a general audience. No prior knowledge of astronomy, physics, or mathematics is assumed. Just some curiosity, and an open mind.

  • May 25, 2013: "Gravitation Wave Detection and Quantum Measurements," by Prof. Eugeniy Mikhailov (William & Mary).
    Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves, but they have not yet been observed. Prof. Mikhailov will discuss possible ways to detect gravitational waves, in particular the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory. He will discuss the challenges and benefits in constructing a gravitational wave detector.
  • May 4, 2013: "The Power of the Abstract: A journey through the soul of theoretical physics," by Prof. Giovanni Vignale (University of Missouri).
    Just as poetry is, in the words of French poet Paul Valéry, “a language within the language”, theoretical physics is “a science within the science”. Its final goal is not the explanation of observed facts, even less the control over them, but the weaving of those facts into a convincing and memorable narrative. Thus, from our point of view, theoretical physics has all in common with mythology, except the lack of constraints.
    In this talk I expose some of the basic tools by which theoretical physics succeeds in reconstructing reality in a shape that we can grasp intellectually and emotionally. These include: going to the limit, mapping a thing into another, and developing “effective theories”. The reconstructed reality is populated with abstractions such as particles, fields, and waves – all of which disappear if you look too closely, like rainbows that can be viewed but never reached. This abstract reality, it is argued, may well be an illusion – but an illusion that has more value than the literal fact.
  • April 27, 2013: "How Butterfly Wings get their Colors: Structural Color and Metamaterials," by Prof. Ale Lukaszew (William & Mary).
    Structural color is caused by the interaction of light with nanoscale periodic structures with geometries on the order of magnitude of visible light wavelengths. Metamaterials are artificial electromagnetic media achieved by structuring materials on scales smaller than the wavelength of incident light. For example metallic metamaterials can have frequency selective surface functionality to the visible light domain thus controlling the metal’s reflection spectrum and its perceived color without any chemical modification. More recently surface plasmons have been used to control colors of materials. In this talk I will elaborate on these ideas and describe a few examples, some from nature.
  • March 23, 2013: "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin," by Prof. Larry Weinstein (Old Dominion University).  Why don't we all drive electric cars?  Does it really matter if you don't recycle that plastic water bottle?  If the Sun were made of gerbils, would the Earth be incinerated?  How can we answer these questions without relying on experts?  Understand powers of 10 and guesstimating on your feet are essential skills in today's world, whether you're trying to distinguish between a billion-dollar subsidy and a trillion-dollar stimulus, a megawatt wind turbine and a gigawatt nuclear plant, or parts-per-million and parts-per-billion contaminants. This talk will cover the principles of estimating, introduce the "Goldilocks" categories of answers, and then look at some of the big (and small) questions of our time, including: Paper or plastic? Gasoline or electric cars? Windmills, nuclear power plants, or gerbils? 
  • February 23, 2013: "Saving Infants in a Heartbeat," by Prof. John Delos (William & Mary).  Prof. Delos studies the heart rate and respiration of infants in neonatal intensive care units.  He will show how monitoring the heart rate of infants can be used to detect bacterial infections early on.
  • December 1, 2012: "Sound All Around," by Prof. Keith Griffioen. Close your eyes for a moment and listen. In the dark, the outside world comes to you in a voice, in a melody, in the rush of the wind, and in the bustle of traffic noises. What you hear you cannot see. What is this stuff we call sound? How does it travel? How do we hear it? How can you tell the voices of your friends apart? Why does a flute sound different from a violin? Come discover the nature of sound with us.
  • October 27, 2012: No Saturday Morning Physics due to PhysicsFest.
  • September 29, 2012: "Neutrinos: Here, There and Everywhere," by Prof. Tricia Vahle.  A little talk about next to nothing — Nature's little neutral one, the neutrino, is the lightest and most weakly interacting of the known zoo of particles that make up our world, but it may hold the key to understanding our Universe. In this talk we'll explore what a neutrino is, where they come from, how we study them, and what we hope they will teach us.
  • April 21, 2012: "The Higgs Boson," by Prof. Marc Sher. For decades, discovering the Higgs boson has been a major goal of particle physics. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland recently reported evidence for a Higgs boson. Prof. Sher will discuss the search for the Higgs boson and physicists' expectations for the future.
  • March 24, 2012: "Art & Science: Spot the Resemblance?" by Prof. Enrico Rossi. How do art and science relate to each other? What does it take to be a good artist or a good scientist? What is a "beautiful scientific theory"? Theoretical physicists, like Prof. Rossi himself, are constantly trying to find "beautiful" descriptions of the world around us.
  • February 25, 2012: "The Science of Chocolate," by Prof. Josh Erlich. Although Prof. Erlich studies theoretical particle physics, he will talk about his passion for chocolate. Perhaps surprisingly, physics is crucial to understanding the flavor, texture, and scent of chocolate.