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Research in Physics?

  1. Nov 8, 2004 #1
    I'm currently Junior in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Recently, the Siemens Westinghouse (http://www.siemens-foundation.org/) competition caught my attention. The competition provides scholarships and recognizes high school students who do research and make new discoveries in the fields of science or mathematics.

    Physics has always been my favorite science, and my high school currently offers a class called "Research in Physics", but I debating on whether or not to take the course. Of course, my ultimate goal would be to turn any work done in that class and enter it into the competition.

    What I'm worried about however, is that unlike chemistry and biology, in which discoveries are made every day, there's not much left to discover in physics without millions of dollars of equipment and a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics. Both of which, I lack. Any advice? Should I instead pursue something in biology or chemistry instead? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 8, 2004 #2
    If that were true, they wouldn't be giving out PhDs anymore! I hardly think the competition requires Nobel Prize caliber work, just an aspect or application of physics that is new and innovative. Try talking to the person who teaches that course, and see what ideas he/she can give you.
  4. Nov 8, 2004 #3
    You know, I'm currently dealing with the same exact issue... So I can sympathize, but not help. = / Let's hope someone wiser decides to offer some advice! heh

    - Alisa
  5. Nov 8, 2004 #4
    How 'bout this: Of the 12 winners from the last year or two, only one had a project involving physics. And that particular team got lucky and accidently discovered a galaxy.

  6. Nov 8, 2004 #5
    That's totally UNencouraging. But just out of curiosity, how'd they do it?
  7. Nov 9, 2004 #6
    " “ Discovery of an Active Galaxy Near 3C397”

    Andrew Foster and Ivana Vu's astrophysics project identifies the presence of a previously undiscovered active galaxy. While viewing an image of the supernova remnant 3C397, the team noticed an unexpected object just outside of the remnant. Compelled to investigate further, the team used modern X-Ray imaging, spectroscopy and astrophysics to identify the object as a Seyfert II galaxy. From their initial detection of a few stray photons, the team ultimately deduced the existence of billions of stars."

    i.e. accidently.

  8. Nov 9, 2004 #7
    The ones who discovered a new galaxy were from my school. :rofl: They were extremely lucky.

    Just over this weekend seniors from my school placed first in both individual and team categories in the Southeast Siemens regional competitions at Georgia Tech... The individual did research on zinc and the team did research in breast cancer. None of the 9 regional entries from my school were physics related, which is rather discouraging.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2004
  9. Nov 9, 2004 #8
    Actually, it's not that much different in grad school. Lots of these astronomers will find something accidentally. In fact, even more generally, many discoveries are accidents.
  10. Nov 9, 2004 #9
    But sadly, Durran and I cannot create our projects in hopes of "getting lucky". Would you guys advise choosing a different field?

    Also, the article mentioned some knowledge of stropysics that they applied in their discovery - what was it? Thanks,

    - Alisa
  11. Nov 9, 2004 #10
    Does it have to be something completely new?

    We discover new ways to look at old things all the time. If we didnt, nothing would ever be improved and expanded upon.
  12. Nov 10, 2004 #11


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    The problem with trying to do a research project within this contest scenario is several fold:

    1. If you want to do a new experimental work, it tends to be expensive and require extensive equipment and expertise

    2. You can do theoretical work, but you do need an expert guidance of a theorist is an expert in the problem area that you have chosen. Furthermore, and this isn't a knock on theoriests or theories, such things are often boring when presented at a competition such as this. Judges tend to get wow'ed by bells and whistles. So unless you're willing to really, really learn the subject and make the presentation of your life, then theoretical physics might not be a good idea.

    3. Or, as has been suggested, you could look at an old experiment, and find a more cunning and clever way of doing it. Or you could demonstant a simpler and more accurate way to measure something, etc.. This will require a lot of thinking.

    You did not mention where you are. If you happen to be close to a US National Lab, or even to a large university, maybe you can get way with doing an experimental work without having to spend a lot of money. Check with them the kinds of facilities that are available, and what possible studies you might be able to conduc. Most US Nat'l Labs have an Educational Program or Outreach divsion. In many cases, while the technique is the same, what makes it "new" is the material being studied, how it is being studied, and what is being analyzed. I would also add that having such experience, even if you do not enter any contest, is a major boost when the time comes for you to apply for college admission and scholarships.

  13. Nov 10, 2004 #12
    Thank you, ZapperZ. I am actually planning to join NASA's summer program this summer. Its branch that is in my locality is going to be held in Columbia University (I'm in New York City). I might also consider a two-year strophysics program at my local museum. Which would you advise? (It's a very well known and respected museum).


    - Alisa
  14. Nov 11, 2004 #13
    Greetings aspiring researchers!

    Since you're low on funding, and interested in physics, it seems theoretical physics is the only way to go. I think this is a perfect opportunity to explore the hot new fields, such as string theory and loop quantum gravity.

    I'm a grad student in mathematics here in california, currently researching noncommutative geometry, and I'm able to explain some of my calculations to sufficiently advanced high school students. I'll say if you have a good understanding of matrices and pre-calculus or calculus, you'll be able to learn sufficient techniques for basic research.

    Since Durran mentioned Columbia University, maybe Brian Greene has a small computation for you. If not Greene, the I'd say explore your options, and ask around for a researcher (math or physics) that would like to help. How can anyone not be flattered that ambitious high school students would like to engage in theoretical research?

    For now, I'd recommend research into Matrix theory(a proposed matrix formulation M-theory) where you're looking at NxN Hermitian matrices, where the diagonal elements are 0-brane real coordinates, and the off diagonals a_ij describe interactions from one 0-brane to another. Another keyword would be C*-algebras, which can be an algebra of matrices that satisfy some given properties--which you can look up on the net. In noncommutative geometry jargon, you need a spectral triple in order to define a noncommutative geometry. A spectral triple consists of: 1) a C*-algebra; 2) an associated Hilbert space ; 3) and an unbounded self-adjoint operator. If you need to look up what a Hilbert space is, as well as a self-adjoint operator, just get a few books on functional analysis. To learn about Noncommutative Geometry, pick up Alain Connes' book with that title.

    In Matrix theory, you build up (fuzzy) Dp-branes (where p is the dimension number) with lattices of 0-branes, with fundamental strings weaving together the 0-branes, as if they were beads. But keep in mind, the 0-branes are "fuzzy" points, because they are represented by noncommutative matrices--i.e. given matrices a,b of the C*algebra, ab not equal to ba. This should give you an intuitive picture of noncommutative geometry, from the string theory perspective. I think the coolest part of noncommutative geometry comes when you define differential forms on the space. This pretty much gives you the ability to do some calculus-like stuff (/"fuzzy" differential geometry). The differential forms come from the derivations of the C*-algebra, which in the matrix case is, sometimes means you do some kind of funny operations to the elements of the matrix.

    Some more references:
    (An Introduction to Noncommutative Spaces and their geometry)

    (Noncommutative dynamics of spinning D0 branes)

    Happy hunting!


    p.s. you can send a private message or message via email--courtesy of physicsforums--if you have any questions.
  15. Nov 11, 2004 #14


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    Not knowing much about astrophysics, I can't give you any recommendations. Since both Columbia University and the Hayden Planetarium are close to you, you may want to check if they might have something.

  16. Nov 11, 2004 #15
    Thanks for all the suggestions. I'm in Durham, NC and I'm a minute walk away from Duke university. If I do Siemens, I'd definately try to get a mentor there.
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