Science with Crossbows

From today’s seminar: “Of course, you cannot do this experiment in ordinary atmospheric pressure. It will explode. We observed this. It was quite messy.”

Also, the presenter was a German scientist with a group trying to model planetary accretion. Their experiments needed to propel marble-sized samples into a 1kg dust target in vacuum. The found the best way of doing this was with a small holder mounted to an arrow which was fired from a crossbow. The crossbow was placed in the vacuum chamber and was fired remotely. The holder and arrow would be stopped as soon as they were no longer accelerated by the bowstring and the samples would then fly out of the holder to the target.

It’s worth pointing out that the title of the presentation was “What can Wilhelm Tell teach us about planetary accretion?”

I imagine the paperwork needed to approve the purchase of the crossbow for the lab went something like this:

Item: Crossbow
Quantity: 1
Reason: SCIENCE!

Been Busy, No Shooting

Hi folks,

Things here in Switzerland have been exceedingly busy.Who knew that pursuing a graduate degree in physics would require time and effort?

While my wife has been having a lovely time, meeting new people, and traveling around to nearby European countries, I’ve been madly studying, programming, and otherwise keeping busy.

Even though Switzerland is known for being a gun-friendly place, I haven’t had a chance to go shooting since I got here. It probably doesn’t help that my German is awful (I can order drinks at the bar but otherwise it’s terrible; language has never been one of my strengths). Perhaps in the new year?

When I’m focused on my work, I don’t really have much time to be homesick, but on the few occasions when I have some time off I really miss home — the locations, the people, the food, even some of the familiar brand names and businesses. Switzerland is without a doubt a wonderful country, but I spend so much time in the lab and classroom that I don’t really get a chance to meet people, practice my German, and integrate well. My wife’s having a better time at it, for sure.

We’re really looking forward to Christmas — my parents and sister are flying out here and we’re going to celebrate Christmas here. Afterwards, we’ll be traveling to Egypt and Jordan for about two weeks. Gotta get more stamps in the passport!

As the semester closes in a few weeks, I should hopefully have some more time to post. Otherwise, I’m really bogged down with work. Sorry.

School’s In Session

So, Monday was my first day at graduate school. So far, I’m a bit less worried about the whole “grad school” thing as I am with the “learning to speak advanced German necessary for doing advanced physics”.

While the program information mentioned that the classes would all be conducted in English, this is not the case: several are in English, but a few have English lectures and German-language handouts/PowerPoints, one has German lectures and English handouts/PowerPoints, while another is all-German.

Being that the local language here is German and the majority of students are Swiss, I don’t fault them for wanting to teach the majority of students in their native language. I’ve privately met with professors to discuss the issue, and they’re willing to be flexible and work with me so that I can succeed. That’s nice.

Fortunately, I am very much a learn-by-reading person, so I was pleased when one professor recommended a few textbooks that would get me the same information as the lectures.

The whole situation is mildly frustrating, to be certain, but it gives me more incentive to study harder. It also gives me an excuse to improve my German.

Note to those looking to study in a country or region that does not speak their native language: caveat emptor. Even though the courses here are listed as being conducted in English, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Some Apps Out

I’ve been submitting graduate school applications like crazy, and have submitted several.

In the past, I’ve normally waited until just before the deadline, but I’ve decided to get things out early — the application to the University of Oregon got out within a week of the opening of the application period, and the applications to schools in Sweden were out within a day of the period opening. International mail, while usually reliable, can be somewhat delayed, so my applications to schools overseas are getting sent out early to avoid any such problems.

In less then a year, I may have to change the name here to “The Swiss Rifleman”. Now there’s a thought…

Note To Self

When constructing a custom, non-sealed Geiger–Müller tube in a chamber in which you can vary the gas mix and pressure, pay attention to sharp edges of electrified parts outside of the tube itself: you ensured there was no sharp edges inside the tube, so avoid points where the electric field is stronger, thus avoiding inadvertent ionization of the gas mix.

When the same potential is applied to parts outside the tube, also in the chamber, sharp parts (e.g. a nut and the end of a piece of wire) can cause strong electric fields to be produced. This can cause a fun, purple glow1 from one’s apparatus. This is bad.

Fortunately the high-voltage power supply is current-limited, and no damage took place.

In related news, electrical tape is extremely useful at insulating (amazingly enough) electrical devices and can stop the aforementioned problem.

  1. The gas in the chamber was mostly argon. []

Watchlists

I’m sure I’m now on some sort of government watchlist.

Why? Just now, I have several windows open in Firefox, each with several tabs.

Among the various tabs open, one had the contact information for a local pizza parlor, another had the .223 page of Ammoman, a third had the Wikipedia article about plutonium, another about various radiation-emitting nuclear reactor accidents that have occurred, one showed the page for the D-Zero accelerator project from Fermilab, and another displayed the university’s physics department website.

I’m not entirely sure what terrible, nefarious plots the feds might think I’m up to, but they’re all true MUWHAHAHAHA! there is absolutely no truth involved in any of them. I just happened to be doing a bit of research (Fermilab, physics department), being distracted and reading about plutonium and reactor accidents (just for the heck of it), was looking for ammo deals, and was hungry. Really. I swear.