Preposterous Universe

Thursday, August 12, 2004
Congratulations to Suz!

The National Science Foundation runs a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which provides funds to universities that would like to sponsor undergrads to visit for the summer and engage in some real live research. This summer I've been advising Suz Tolwinski from Brown (see a tiny picture at my group web page), who gave a presentation this morning on what she's accomplished.

Undergraduate research experience is very valuable, but it's hard to do as a theorist, since there is so much background knowledge required before you can do original work. I've advised a few undergrads, both during the school year and during the summer, and usually ask them to learn enough general relativity and cosmology that they can at least begin to answer an original question. (Actually, I usually just say "no," but occasionally the stars align correctly and I agree to advise someone.) If all goes well, at least they will learn a lot of good physics. But teaching yourself GR over a summer, with time enough left over to work on a real problem, is undertaing a tremendous task. Suz did a great job, learning both GR and some bits of classical field theory from scratch, and then investigating whether Lorentz-violating vector fields would lead to an observable anisotropy (direction-dependent stretching) in the expansion of the universe. This is an extension of work I did with Eugene, except that Eugene's vector fields were pointing in a timelike direction, and Suz's were spacelike. Which is actually harder! So I was very impressed with the final project.

Actually, I was impressed with all of the REU presentations this morning, on topics from waves traveling through sand to numerical investigations of cellular automata. It was a tremendous joy to hear about the accomplishments of these students, especially when you remember that doing physics research is not how most undergraduates spend their summer vacations. Being an academic can be a stressful occupation, as discussed recently in posts at Pharyngula and Uncertain Principles (referencing several other academic blogs, including Making Contact, Steven Krause, Playing School, Irreverently, Just Tenured, Barely Tenured, and Bitch. Ph.D.). One of the things that Suz has been wondering about is how happy one actually is as a science professor, especially after talking to current graduate students and hearing stories of, shall we say, incomplete contentment. I'm not the most representative person to comment on the pros and cons of academia, since I've been passionately in love with the idea of being a professor ever since I understood what it meant. I mean, our job is to teach and do research; what could be better than that? There are certainly less-fun parts of the job (applying for grants, grading, committee meetings, etc), and it can undoubtedly be stressful and over-competitive. But it's too easy to get run down by these aspects and forget about the exhilarating ones. Listening to a collection of talented and enthusiastic students explain the research they've been doing over the summer is an excellent way of being reminded.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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