Lights, X-rays, Breakthroughs!

It seems only fitting that as I headed to my recent interview appointment with Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee for a story to announce a research breakthrough involving batteries that the one in my cell phone was down to 20 percent. And that midway through my third question, he had to scramble for a power adapter because the one in his laptop was dying.

The folks who constantly remind us that science is all around us aren’t exaggerating. Batteries are one of the most ubiquitous and vital examples as the fuel for our cell phones alone. All the more reason Dr. Banerjee’s news is something to write/text home about.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Banerjee and a team of collaborators that spans the better part of the North American continent have directly observed for the first time the distorted, electron-trapping structure within cathode material that causes the everyday delays we experience when charging or discharging batteries. They were able to do this with the help of powerful soft X-ray microscopes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a massive facility equipped with an equally massive light source the size of five football fields, along with a beamline that can be focused down to the nanoscale.

“People here use all kinds of different x-rays and such, spanning a big part of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Banerjee explains. “This is basically a humongous light source that gives you intense beams of light you can get at any energy. My group especially likes to work on soft X-rays, which are kind of like your biological X-rays but very intense, well-resolved beams.

“This facility is one of the few places in the world that has such a beam that you can shrink down. So you’re not only taking an X-ray of an object, you’re shrinking it down — taking an X-ray image down to about 30 nanometers pixel size. That’s really what allowed us to see what we did. It’s a very powerful microscope that’s one of its kind, and it allows us to solve these problems.”

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

So, what powers Banerjee’s lab? In a word, energy and related research of all different flavors, with Canadian oil being one of the most prominent. One Canadian company in particular funds a large part of his laboratory (the bulk of the rest being the National Science Foundation) for specifically designed surfaces research, and from the videos he showed me, boy, is it cool, in addition to patent-pending. He says it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed him and his students to explore intriguing horizons outside the bounds of normal academic science.

“We have all kinds of crazy projects that have nothing to do with basic science,” Banerjee says, the sheer joy readily apparent in his smiling face and eyes. “So, yeah, a wide variety of industrial sponsors support the rest of my lab apart from the NSF and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which funded a recent three-year research project on solar energy. I also have a Department of Defense project. But it’s a large lab, so you need all different kinds of support and projects.”

Banerjee at the bench.

Banerjee at the bench.

Speaking of all different kinds, Banerjee clued me in to two interesting tie-ins related to the battery project. For starters, the X-ray technology used is predicated on Baez mirrors — as in Albert Baez, the father of 1960s American folk singer Joan Baez.

“Her dad actually was one of the people who invented ways for handling these x-rays — trivia fact,” Banerjee says. “It’s Baez mirrors that go into it. My dad used to listen to her.”

Banerjee also noted that these big light sources his research requires are few and far between. Before his team moved to the CLS’ Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope (STXM), they ran their initial experimentation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — a facility since replaced by the NSLS II, built by Texas A&M physicist Steven Dierker, husband of Texas A&M Dean of Science Meigan Aronson, just prior to coming to Texas A&M.

Yep, it’s a small, cool world after all. Trippy!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A postscript, courtesy of one of Banerjee’s Canadian Light Source collaborators, CLS Spectromicroscopy beamline scientist Jian Wang:

“Also very interesting that Prof. Banerjee’s last Nature Communications paper using CLS STXM and other techniques and computation was published on June 28 in 2011, exactly five years ago. It has been one of the best papers for our beamline, and I believe the current one will also have great impact on the relevant field.”

My kind of date with destiny. Way to go, Dr. Banerjee, and keep on truckin’!


Creative Logic

I took a Facebook quiz last week that pseudo-scientifically confirmed my suspicions: I’m becoming more analytical and order-driven versus creative and imaginative in my older age. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of being a parent or working among scientists for the better part of the past 15 years, but clearly, it’s taking its toll. Yep, there are no two ways about it. I’m growing up.

If it's on Facebook, it has to be true, right? ;-) Here's hoping, anyway -- me and my mom!

If it’s on Facebook, it has to be true, right? 😉 Here’s hoping, anyway — me and my mom!

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean I have to abandon all hope, especially when I’m surrounded by people who cultivate curiosity for a living. People like Nick Suntzeff, who can copy me on a recent announcement about a community photography exhibition and inspire not one but two story ideas. While the rational side of my brain tells me I’m already hopelessly behind, the creative side insists. And remembers that secondary idea when I finally find the time to execute it exactly a month later on a Sunday morning while drinking coffee and chilling in the recliner and avoiding laundry. Pretty cool by any mental stretch, not to mention one of the biggest positives about smart phones.

But back to that spinoff idea. Nick and I were discussing how cool it is that there are two glass plates taken by world-renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble right here in Aggieland through May — the obvious lead and primary story. However, one of the reasons I started this blog is to have a ready outlet for those secondary stories, ideally first-person wherever possible. Considering Nick is a champ in this category, another classic on curiosity is born!

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History's "Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography," showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History’s “Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography,” showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

I’ll let Nick take it from here with his initial response to my dual pitch — a reaction that comes packed with the traditional bonus lesson or three. Enjoy!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sure, anything to help motivate people to attend. If someone said that, say, that one of the petri dishes Salk used in discovering the vaccine for polio were on exhibit, I would definitely go to the lecture and exhibition! But most scientists, curiously, have no interest in anything else except their narrow fields. This is strange because we often hear that scientists do what they do because they have not lost their child-like interest in figuring out stuff. To me that means everything, including other scientific fields, the humanities and the like.

For instance, in the lecture in ASTR 101, I ask the question, why do we have the Olympics every four years? Well, obviously because the Greeks did. But why did the Greeks adopt four years? We all just think, well, why not? Or, who cares? But I think that it is an interesting question. And it turns out to have an interesting answer. It is because the Greeks were concerned/annoyed that the Sun and the Moon don’t have similar cycles. The Sun takes 365 (plus a bit) to go around the sky once relative to the stars, but the Moon takes 29.5 days in its orbit or 354 days to complete 12 orbits. That is, the cycles are off by 11 days, and this screws up the calendar such that the full moon does not fall on the same day each month. This is not an important problem to us today, but for a society which included number worship in their pantheon, it was really annoying. So they looked into how many solar cycles and lunar cycles it would take so that the Moon would end up being full on the same day of the month. There are various ways of solving this, but one way to notice that is, if you wait eight years, the calendar repeats itself pretty accurately. So the Greeks used an 8-year cycle for their civil holidays (that is, you only have to have eight calendars because the ninth will be the same as the first. So don’t throw away your calendars!). The number eight became an important number in their calendar, and the half-cycle became the Olympic cycle.

Later, another Greek astronomer came up with a better cycle of 19 years called the Metonic cycle, and for his discovery, Meton of Athens was awarded an Olympic laurel wreath. Cool! An astronomy event in the Olympics! I certainly would qualify for a bronze medal in writing memos.

Anyway, I just love this stuff. And while I can’t get many other scientists excited about it, I will never stop trying.

cheers, nick

 Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram's Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)

Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram’s Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)

Marking Time

Ever wonder what mathematicians do on vacation? In Texas A&M professor Wolfgang Bangerth’s case, he kicked off summer 2015 by hiking through history related to another of his disciplinary specialties: geophysics.

A widely respected expert in computational mathematics and mathematical modeling, Bangerth is the author of the software program ASPECT (Advanced Solver for Problems in Earth’s Convection). His code is helping geodynamics researchers around the world visualize the Earth’s interior and related processes, thanks to funding assistance from a major facility in California at the epicenter of geodynamics research.

Earlier today, Bangerth found himself at the site of one of the worst geological disasters in U.S. history, Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Roughly one month after the 35th anniversary of the historic eruption, Bangerth toured the area, posting these incredible photographs on Facebook and agreeing to share them via the Texas A&M Science blog.

“What a treat,” Bangerth writes, “A seven-hour hike through the devastation area and then halfway up Mount St. Helens. (Additional treat: Total number of people encountered in the first six hours: 1. In fact that equals the total number of mammals encountered during this time.)”

In addition to the photos and captions, Bangerth — ever the educator — offered to expound on the science as follows:

“So here’s the story: Mount St. Helens is one of the chain of Cascade volcanos along the U.S. West Coast that exist because the Pacific (or, more exactly, the Juan De Fuca plate) subducts beneath the North American plate. They take with them millions of years of sediments, entrapped water, etc., and this leads to melting of material when they get to certain depths, and this melt then comes up a couple of 100 miles inland of the subduction zone.

“In 1980, magma rising up bulged out the side of the volcano. After an earthquake, this whole bulge collapsed in a gigantic landslide. Liberated of the pressure of the overlying rock, two enormous explosions then ripped apart most of the mountain within seconds of the landslide. There is a fantastic video of this created from a sequence of 10 or 15 pictures and also another series here.

“What you see in my pictures are the remains of the volcano (1,300 feet shorter than it was before, with its enormous gash on one side) and the valley below the landslide and miles downstream from there — in some places up to 700 feet of debris, ash and the results of several later pyroclastic flows. The deep incisions are streams that have eroded this loose material.

“The landscape is largely barren since it had, of course, not a single living organism left after the 1980 event, and is only slowly re-growing. Along the streams there are man-high trees these days, but elsewhere you only find bare gravel and sand — some covered by hardy mosses and lichens — and in many places lots of miniature bluebonnets and some Indian paintbrushes. There are ants and a few insects, but generally few vertebrates. I did see a small number of birds, including a pair of hummingbirds. By and large, it’s a huge contrast from the densely forested areas around the mountain (and how it looked before the event, as seen in older pictures).”

Time is Relative

Forrest Gump said it best: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I feel the same way about interviews. In both situations, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, it’s a mild-flavored, otherwise-forgettable center. Occasionally, it’s crunchy-nutty goodness or maybe coconut or nougat. And in other instances, it’s a mysterious, vaguely citrusy mess that you can’t spit into your napkin fast enough to save what’s left of your taste buds.

Every so often, however, it’s a total surprise — a good one, at that. A week ago, I found such a nugget in the middle of Texas A&M physics Ph.D. candidate Ting Li’s responses to my #Take5 for Texas A&M Student Research Week questions. Here’s her line that gave me pause:

“Every week during our group meeting, we each present our work from the past week and our plans for next week and get feedback from our advisors. …”

A weekly group meeting where each member in a 15-plus group presents? Uh, to borrow a popular social-media-driven phrase, ain’t nobody got time for that, and yet, clearly, a place as busy as the Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory does. I had to know more.

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source,, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I'd say I'm not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant,

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source,, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I’d say I’m not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant,

As luck would have it, Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab Director Darren DePoy happened by my office the next day. I seized my opportunity, motioning him in and expecting him to dismiss Ting’s altruistic yet surely erroneous statement. Except that he didn’t; he confirmed it. I fired back with a series of questions, the first one challenging him to explain exactly how — as in, how much time does it take each week to get through that many people’s to-do lists? (Keep in mind I do their PR, and although that means I know what amounts to probably less than the half of it, I do know that simply ticking off the names of each project/collaboration alone — with or without acronyms, partners involved and funding sources — would take a considerable time investment for one person.)

His answer? Roughly an hour. Oh, and it’s typically a set time each week — Wednesdays at 4 p.m.

His secret? Each person gets three slides and only 4-to-5 minutes to speak. (Move over, Robert; there’s a new rules of order sheriff in town, and his badge happens to be the world’s largest, whether spectrograph or digital camera.) Oh, and there’s nothing left to chance with regard to those three slides, either. Each must address a specific topic: What I did last week (Slide 1); What I think I’m going to do this week (Slide 2); and Problems/Questions I need to discuss (Slide 3). DePoy tells me they have an online archive of everyone’s slides dating back to the astronomical instrumentation group’s founding in 2008. (Muahahahahahaha!)

“It’s a good exercise for all of us, even [Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab manager] Jennifer [Marshall] and me, but it’s really good for the undergraduates in our lab,” DePoy says. “They learn how to present, how to structure their thoughts and communicate verbally, and how to defend their ideas among peers.”

On second thought, maybe there is time for that. And here, I thought their themed t-shirts for every project were impressive. …

Former Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group's many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab's close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.

Former Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group’s many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab’s close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.

To Boldly Go

I’m not usually one to encourage people to look to Hollywood for life inspiration, but every so often, it’s a shoe that fits.

As possibly the biggest sequel yet to Neil Armstrong’s one small step for mankind, the independent movie The Last Man on the Moon made its U.S. premier last Friday in Austin at SXSW. Par for my course, I found out the day after via this recap from KXAN-TV.

This exquisite documentary set for worldwide release in June tells the tale of Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 astronaut Capt. Eugene “Gene” Cernan, the 11th of 12 people in history to walk on the Moon and, as the final man to re-enter the lunar module Challenger on its last outing during what would prove to be the final Apollo lunar landing in 1972, also the last.

By all accounts out of Austin and other international cities where LMOTM has debuted, it’s a must-see production, both for its honest portrayal from Cernan’s all-too-humanly flawed perspective and for its breathtaking archival footage (apparently, even Cernan himself was impressed.) See for yourself in the official trailer below, as well as in this exclusive bonus clip released to coincide with SXSW:

Cernan is as genuine as they come and as equally unabashed in his support of future manned spaceflight as he was back in 1972. I love this related excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

As Cernan prepared to climb the ladder for the final time, he spoke these words, currently the last spoken by a human standing on the Moon’s surface: “Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

The timing is exceptional from my perspective, given that we’re less than two weeks away from Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger’s 2015 Physics and Engineering Festival-kickoff lecture on his yearlong Adrift series addressing the country’s past, present and future in space. In addition to marking the first date night for the hubs and I since our anniversary last August, this momentous occasion comes on the heels of some wonderful teachable moments during the past couple of weeks for our oldest son, whose 6th grade science class has been covering a unit on the U.S. space program. The grand finale? Watching the Ron Howard classic Apollo 13 — one of my all-time favorites — in stages. The movie features veteran actor Tom Hanks in the lead role of Captain James Lovell, one of three men along with Cernan and Jim Young to make the trek to the Moon twice, as well as Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the iconic NASA Mission Operations director whose “failure is not an option” motto guided the success of America’s flight program for more than 30 years.

(Speaking of mottos and models, watch this Cernan tribute and tell me you don’t have goose bumps afterward!)

Typical pre-teen that my son is, he’s been most impressed thus far by Kevin Bacon’s ability to play a wisecracking smart aleck in his role as astronaut Jack Swigert, he of “Houston, we’ve had a problem” fame who earned his seat on the doomed mission courtesy of Ken Mattingly’s (played by Gary Sinise) ill-timed exposure to measles. Me, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to mix business with pleasure and the ensuing discussions concerning the facts, failures, personalities and lessons surrounding the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs — history accentuated in many cases by his parents’ personal recollections. So interesting to see what resonates with our son, from the triumphs to the tragedies, and to contrast what we learned and sometimes witnessed through the comparative lens of his fresh eyes as a member of the generation I see as most ripe to fuel a Sputnik-esque resurgence.

Can’t wait to see how the movie ends for him once school resumes after spring break. As for the rest of the story, I see a family movie date in our future. Nothing like an inspirational summer learning opportunity for us all. 


Light My Fire

I’ve been to my fair share of External Advisory & Development Council meetings during the past decade, but this one took the cake. Well, make that melted dark chocolate.

Each fall meeting marks the addition of a few new members — names and faces that I try my best to mentally file along with the customary group of longtime favorites I so enjoy seeing on a biannual basis. While newcomers are always recognized at some point in the meeting, I don’t recall any of them previously being allowed to make short presentations as part of the induction process.

Based on last month’s experiences, let’s just say the bar’s been raised on what I personally hope is a new tradition.

Each meeting typically is broken into morning and afternoon sessions, separated by one break per session as well as lunch. When we returned from said lunch, I immediately spotted an array of products stacked against the base of the speaker podium — the first indication we were in for a treat on top of the delicious cheesecake we’d just been served as dessert. Beyond the fact that they looked slightly similar to the MREs (meals ready to eat) I’d seen in a previous work life in which one of my supervisors was ex-military, I quickly dismissed them as the venue possibly peddling some new coffee samples or something equally innocuous.

Mistake No. 1.

As Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci, the first of two new members in attendance, took to the podium to briefly describe his company and related work, I couldn’t help but notice as a wait-staff member methodically went seat by seat, row by row to distribute individually prepackaged toothpicks. Mildly intriguing, but then again, we’d just finished lunch, so. … Back to the presentation at hand.

Lynntech's Tony Ragucci presents his company's research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci presents his company’s research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Too late! I’d glanced to my left, toward the end of our row of tables, where I zeroed in on four small plates with sliced bananas and strawberries?!? Granted, EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76 was seated there, so perhaps he had merely requested an extra dessert or two, which wouldn’t be out of the question, right?

By this point, my spidey senses were beyond tingling. Thankfully, Dr. Ragucci was hitting a most interesting stride, so I immersed myself in learning all that I could about condensed matter physics and some pretty sophisticated materials science and engineering, along with related fabrication. Mind sated, curiosity abated. Although he couldn’t disclose the company’s clients by name nor discuss specific information about the proprietary projects and products, that merely added myth to the mystery for me. After all, exclusivity is one of the council’s biggest draws, and it comes bundled with a palpable sense of curiosity that permeates the entire room.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci's presentation, RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker's podium.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci’s presentation, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker’s podium.

After Dr. Ragucci concluded his presentation, Dr. Beckerdite introduced our second new member, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach. He began to talk about batteries, a subject I could readily identify with not as a scientist but as a parent responsible for three kids ages 11 and under and, more importantly, keeping a steady supply of AA, AAA, 9-volt, C and D batteries on hand at any given moment as well making sure that all cell phones and electronic devices are charged.

RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach explains his company's Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach explains his company’s Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

I’m pretty sure the entire room was as surprised as I was when Mr. Laubach and Dr. Beckerdite began distributing via the first person in each row a variety of rectangular-shaped items adorned with shiny, bright-orange packaging. After polling the group to see if anyone was in orthopedics, he then asked each row to peel back and remove an adhesive strip from the first item — a thin, roughly 3-inch X 12-inch board resembling the look and feel of spongy corrugated cardboard. And to wait for a couple minutes as the product heats up (wait, what?!?)

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) '74 and Albert Gallatin '61 inspect their row's allotment of RBC products.

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) ’74 and Albert Gallatin ’61 inspect their row’s allotment of RBC products.

Long story short, he then proceeded to set Dr. Beckerdite’s pretend forearm fracture, using what in the course of a couple minutes had morphed from a lifeless cardboard wafer into a warm, entirely flexible and moldable splint which hardened as it cooled before our eyes into the equivalent of a rock-solid cast! In true salesman-esque, but-wait! fashion, there was more —- smaller, bright-orange, rectangular packets containing dark chocolate (which, once warmed, we drizzled over the fruit and then used our handy-dandy toothpicks to eat), hand lotion and wet wipes. There was even one for macaroni and cheese, but given that this product still is in the final testing phases, it was empty. The intriguing takeaway there for me is that it’s named after Mr. Laubach’s daughter —- further proof of that softer side of science I’ve always loved.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite '76, getting his "injury" set by Adam Laubach.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76, getting his “injury” set by Adam Laubach.

All in all, show and tell -— much less science -— doesn’t get much better than warm comfort food and portable medical supplies. Nor does the fact that, at their core, scientists are humans. One of the best varieties, in my book: those who are highly motivated to improve the future. Sometimes, it’s a direct route. Other times, it involves detours -— years that all too quickly turn into decades of hard work that doesn’t always pan out, save for in the occasional, sobering realization that it’s time for a new direction.

In RBC’s case, they continued to dance with the one that brought them (batteries), secure enough in their extensive knowledge and experience to take two steps back before breaking into what looks to be one heck of a technological tango from here.

Ultimately, those rectangular packages harbor a lot more than some spectacular self-heating technology for a variety of commercial and societal uses. To me, they are a perfect metaphor for science and scientists who, on the surface, often appear pretty ordinary if not downright non-descript. However, given the right catalyst, the sky’s the limit as to where their innate inspirational fire, once activated, will take them and, by default, our world.

As for me, I think a field trip to Science Park at Research Valley (where both Lynntech and RBC are located) definitely is in order. Just in case, I’m bringing a fork.

Laubach serves up one of the day's most popular Safe Heat products -- melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Laubach serves up one of the day’s most popular Safe Heat products — melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Click to see additional photographs from the Fall EADC Meeting, held October 24 at Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, Texas.

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Life Forces and Legacies

Last week Texas A&M University hosted a familiar face and cherished friend in one Robert M. Gates, 22nd United States Secretary of Defense and 22nd President of Texas A&M, who was here on campus to discuss his new book, DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. As expected, Dr. Gates packed Rudder Auditorium and had his audience hanging on his every warm and oftentimes humorous word.

Two Texas A&M presidents removed and two jobs later, Dr. Gates remains a man much revered in Aggieland, if not for progressive plans like faculty reinvestment, then for more student-centric feats like first-year grade exclusion and the university studies degree. (Or, in my case, as the guy at the helm when journalism died, but that’s another subject, one for which I’ve mostly forgiven him. Mostly. And I even understand the dairy center, given that yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of Dad and Mom selling off our own herd and ending our family’s days in the milking pits. In short, it was time for both.)

His visit reminded me of another revered Aggie, George P. Mitchell ’40, who was a big fan of Dr. Gates and his energy when it came to Mr. Mitchell’s alma mater and its future. Understandably there as well, considering Mr. Mitchell invested as big as anyone in those dreams, adding his monetary muscle to fuel the dream for Texas A&M Physics.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

That admiration was mutual, as evidenced by this quote from Dr. Gates upon hearing of Mr. Mitchell’s death on July 26, 2013:

“George Mitchell was a great man and a great benefactor of Texas A&M University. Through his generosity, dramatic improvements were made possible in many areas, including science research and teaching at Texas A&M, particularly in physics. Thanks to his philanthropy, world-class facilities and significant enhancements for faculty and students alike brought international renown to the university. His gifts also extended to athletics, particularly tennis. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from him while I was president of the university. He will be greatly missed.”

These two powerful men and their visionary motivations coincided and collided in a
marvelous and near-magical way, creating the best possible hiring world and a climate of excitement and forward momentum that proved so attractive in 2006 as to actually land such an established star as Nick Suntzeff, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, to lead Texas A&M’s new astronomy program.

Thanks in large part to Dr. Gates’ and Mr. Mitchell’s dual dreams, the future is gloriously bright for Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Texas A&M University and the overall state of Texas. Despite being gone in vastly different extremes, both will be forever remembered in Aggieland, if not for enabling sweeping recruiting successes and other tangible program-wide gains, then for negotiating two beautiful buildings — architectural showpieces and the first on campus to be built through a unique university-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.

Here’s a bit of the rest of the story on that story, as told by Joe Newton, Dean of Science and inaugural holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Endowed Chair in Statistics, who reflects on a pivotal meeting involving Dr. Gates and Texas A&M’s most generous benefactor:

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

George P. Mitchell, 1940 Texas A&M University distinguished petroleum engineering graduate, the largest benefactor Texas A&M has ever had, developer of The Woodlands, and the leading figure in hydraulic fracking (among a host of other amazing accomplishments), passed away on July 26 at the age of 94.

Lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as dean of the Texas A&M College of Science, I was privileged to participate in his philanthropic efforts to build fundamental physics and astronomy at Texas A&M. In the process, he became a friend. I flew on Continental Express with him. I ate at Chick-fil-A with him. Somehow he thought I had power. He would call me to tell me to fix things. Sometimes I even could. His passing has made me very sad. I cannot believe this life force has left us.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

I also had the honor of knowing former Texas A&M President (and CIA Director and Secretary of Defense) Robert M. Gates. These two men came together in Mitchell’s Houston office on Aug. 14, 2005, in a meeting that changed the face of Texas A&M. It was my honor to be there, and I would like to pay tribute to both of them by describing the meeting.

Both men had already played a large role in the development of fundamental physics and astronomy on campus; Gates with his reinvestment program designed to bolster teaching and research efforts by hiring a large number of new faculty, and Mitchell with his philanthropy that created an institute named in his honor, that helped us build a new astronomy program and attract great faculty.

Ed Fry, the department head at the time (and a dreamer of the first order), had developed a remarkably close relationship with Mitchell. Fry thought that Mitchell would be receptive to a request to help fund two buildings on campus. The first would be a “signature building” architecturally to house the Mitchell Institute; the second would for the first time consolidate all of the department’s faculty and classes in one place.

The task of convincing the university to supply the matching funds that Mitchell always required fell largely to me. Mitchell routinely drove a hard bargain, but the driving premise behind his trademark matching requirement was to ensure the maximum benefit of every dollar contributed — his or the university’s — to the broader cause or project. A major component of this particular project was that the department would make no claim on space it would vacate, so that the university would in fact receive a net gain with its matching funds.

After a series of meetings with various university officials, especially Gates, it was agreed that Gates and a few others (including Fry, Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 and College of Science Director of Development Don Birkelbach ’70) would go to Mitchell’s office in downtown Houston to make “the big ask.”

There was a sense of history when we walked into the conference room. Mitchell, as usual, started by asking about projects in which he was interested, including the Giant Magellan Telescope. Then his attorney, Barry Levitt, suggested we talk about the buildings. The rest took perhaps five minutes. Both Gates and Mitchell had great respect for the other. There was a true sense of good will.

Gates began by saying, “I don’t want to insult Ed or Joe, but a physics building has not been one of our top priorities.” In his typical wry manner, Mitchell interrupted Gates with, “Yes, I’ve noticed.” At which point everyone laughed. “But because of all you’ve done,” Gates continued, “we will contribute $2 million toward a building to house the Mitchell Institute, and I have a suggestion for you: I have identified $20 million in cash, and if you agree to the legacy proposal we have prepared for you, we will use the first $20 million of your funds to match what we will do.”

Mitchell responded that there were problems with the proposal, but that perhaps he could do $3 million per year for five years. Gates, without batting an eyelash, countered: “The $20 million really straps me; how about you do 10 years?” Mitchell came right back at him, suggesting, “How about $2 million for 10 years?” After a pause, Gates continued to barter, “$2.5 million for 10 years would split the difference.” Then Ed Fry jumped into the fray with, “It would really help to do it in five years — how about $5 million for five years?” Mitchell said, “Same amount of money, so OK.” The deal was done!

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Later, Mitchell’s total contribution for the $82.5 million buildings actually reached just over $36 million.

The rest is history. It took many, many meetings to complete the two beautiful buildings, but I will never forget the day these two legendary men agreed to something that greatly enhanced Texas A&M. Ultimately, with the fundamental work being done in these buildings and the resulting renaissance for Texas A&M physics and astronomy, they have indeed changed the world.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell '40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell ’40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Of Forests, Trees and Maroon Roses

Ever find yourself so focused on the little things wrong that you miss the big picture of all that’s right? Easy to do when the day-to-day begins to rule not only the day, but also the week, then the month, then the next month, and so on. Sometimes it takes conscious effort to break this vicious cycle, but thankfully, there’s one routine assignment each year in the late spring/early summer that guarantees I stop and smell the maroon roses (so to speak) representative of Texas A&M Science. And boy, were they particularly fragrant in 2013. Or 2012, I should say.

Each year Texas A&M Science Communications compiles an annual report cataloguing our teaching, research and service efforts across all departments for the previous calendar year. Collectively and per individual tenured/tenure-track faculty member. It’s no small endeavor, with the end result being as weighty as the three-ring binder in which it arrives. One of the first pages within said binder is a foreword from Dean of Science Joe Newton summarizing the highest of the year’s high points — my primary contribution to the larger effort, which mostly involves pinning Dr. Newton down and making him focus on the rear-view mirror even as he’s engrossed in all levels of forward-looking responsibilities as our designated driver. Typically each department head also provides a foreword for each respective unit. All in all, it’s pretty impressive information that definitely goes against the Aggie tradition of humility (arguably the eighth core value!) but speaks volumes about what we value as a college and across the fundamental sciences and professions we represent.

Rather than relegate that summary to the binder for another year, I want to share it here so that you, too, can see it’s been a good year for the roses. Congratulations, Texas A&M Science, but your work here isn’t done. We’ll get more binders ordered…

FOREWORD FROM THE DEAN (2012 Annual Report)

As dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University, it is my obligation and privilege each fall to take stock of our progress toward our three-part university mission — teaching, research, and service — and to reevaluate our collective commitment to ongoing excellence in all respective phases.

I am pleased to report that the Texas A&M College of Science continues to deliver on its unspoken yet inherent promise to advance discovery and solve real-world problems. In the past year alone, our scientific ingenuity has resulted in hundreds of top-notch graduates and more than $56 million in sponsored research projects that create new knowledge and drive economies around the world. Each year despite all economic indicators to the contrary, those awards steadily continue to increase, both in amount and stature, as testament to the strength of our programs and overall reputation for excellence.

Beyond research funding, the past year marked another major milestone in external fundraising — a landmark $20 million legacy gift by George P. Mitchell ’40 and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation toward the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy that followed their $25 million gift (half of which was credited to Texas A&M) to the Giant Magellan Telescope in 2011.

Our individual teaching, research, and service highlights in 2012 were many and magnified, highlighted primarily by big discoveries and major research-related awards in each department. Two faculty, physicists Marlan Scully and Alexander Finkelstein, were honored for lifetime research achievement — Scully with the Optical Society’s highest award, the Ives Medal/Quinn Prize, and Finkelstein with a Humboldt Research Award. Chemist Oleg Ozerov was recognized with The Welch Foundation’s Norman Hackerman Award for Chemical Research, while fellow chemist David Russell earned the American Chemical Society’s Field/Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry. Three faculty received National Science Foundation CAREER Awards (Helmut Katzgraber, Wenshe Liu, Grigoris Paouris),

In other notable accolades, Chemistry’s Sherry Yennello was recognized as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), while Karen Wooley was named 2012-14 chair of the Nanotechnology Study Section within the National Institutes of Health Center for Scientific Review. Mathematics celebrated 11 inaugural American Mathematical Society Fellows (Harold Boas, Ronald DeVore, Ronald Douglas, Rostislav Grigorchuk, William Johnson, Peter Kuchment, Gilles Pisier, Frank Sottile, Emil Straube, Clarence Wilkerson, and Guoling Yu, who was named the inaugural holder of the Thomas W. Powell Chair in Mathematics), as well as its first Texas A&M Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence (Boas).

 In global research breakthroughs, our high-energy physicists were part of international experiments at the Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab that confirmed preliminary proof for what is believed to be the Higgs boson particle. The Dark Energy Camera, for which astronomer Darren DePoy serves as the project scientist, captured and recorded its first images high atop the Blanco Telescope in Chile. First blast occurred at nearby Las Campanas Peak, marking the beginning of site preparation for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which also celebrated successful completion of its first mirror. Chemist Joe Zhou received his second Department of Energy grant in as many years to develop more efficient natural gas storage tanks for passenger vehicles. Our faculty (Alexander Finkelstein, Christian Hilty, Oleg Ozerov, Jairo Sinova, Clifford Spiegelman, Renyi Zhang) also are involved in six of the eight joint research projects encompassed in a $1.5 million campus-wide collaboration with Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

 On a campus achievement front, Physics and Astronomy’s David Lee was selected as a university distinguished professor, Texas A&M’s highest academic honor for faculty. Biologist Michael Benedik was named Dean of Faculties, and a record-tying six faculty received university-level Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Awards — Tatiana Erukhimova and Sherry Yennello in Teaching, Kim Dunbar and Nicholas Suntzeff in Research, Marcetta Darensbourg in Graduate Mentoring, and Edward Fry in Administration. Physicists Olga Kocharovskaya and David Toback earned Sigma Xi Distinguished Scientist and Outstanding Science Communicator Awards, respectively. Toback and chemist David Bergbreiter also earned their second University Professorships for Undergraduate Teaching Excellence (UPUTE) appointments. Mathematics’ Sue Geller received the Texas A&M Honors and Undergraduate Research Director’s Award, while chemist Kim Dunbar earned the inaugural Texas A&M Women Former Students’ Network Eminent Scholar Award.

Students shared equally in the accomplishment spotlight, none brighter than Mathematics’ Tanner Wilson, who earned one of two Brown-Rudder Awards presented each year at spring commencement to the top Texas A&M seniors. Allyson Martinez (Biology) and Meng Gao (Physics and Astronomy) earned Phil Gramm Doctoral Fellowships, while Charles Zheng (Mathematics) received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Mathematics major Frances Withrow earned a Pi Mu Epsilon/Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Award at MathFest 2012, and physics major Daniel Freeman received the 2012 Outstanding Thesis Award for Undergraduate Research Scholars from Texas A&M Honors. In addition, four graduate students merited Distinguished Graduate Student Awards for their exemplary efforts in research, teaching and mentoring (Michael Grubb and Casey Wade, Chemistry, doctoral research; Wenlong Yang, Physics and Astronomy, master’s research; Scott Crawford, Statistics, doctoral teaching).

One of our most cherished former students and longtime External Advisory & Development Council champions, the late Dr. Robert V. Walker ’45, received a Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus Award, while Statistics’ Jerry Oglesby ’71 and our own chemist Daniel Romo ’86 were inducted into the college’s Academy of Distinguished Former Students.

From an educational outreach perspective, Chemistry hosted the 25th edition of its award-winning Chemistry Open House and Science Exploration Gallery, while record crowds attended both the Math MiniFair and Physics & Engineering Festival. Dozens of women participated in a three-day, national physics conference hosted by our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office, while the Mitchell Institute unveiled the Physics Enhancement Program (MIPEP) to improve high school physics teaching. The Texas A&M Math Circle also was born to engage and encourage bright middle school students, while Houston-based Halliburton put its name and grant support behind a new “Mathematics All Around Us” outreach program. The Greater Texas Foundation committed $50,000 to round out a $150,000 challenge grant started by another big name in Texas industry, Texas Instruments, to benefit aggieTEACH. Finally our Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) is helping to lead a new $10 million science and technology educational outreach program funded by NASA.

Last but certainly not least, longtime Dean’s Office staff member Carolyn Jaros retired in May, capping 30 years of service to Texas A&M and to three different deans in the College of Science. Biology also saw the retirements of three dedicated career staffers: Tonna Harris-Haller (associate director, Freshman Biology Program), Jillaine Maes (assistant head of the department), and Vickie Skrhak (business coordinator).

In 2012 as in years past, I thank each of you, not only for another year of great achievement, but also for the continued distinction you bring to both Texas A&M University and the College of Science in your efforts to deliver the highest quality of science education, scholarly research, and technical expertise and service to benefit the world.