Archive | June, 2012

The Lighter Side of Science: My Own Research Questions

29 Jun

Flickr–Creative Commons

Research at Penn State covers just about every field imaginable.

For the university’s researchers, their intellectual pursuit starts with a question–something that stirs their curiosities.

During the past few years, I’ve talked to researchers who are exploring everything from how highway equipment can influence the spread of invasive plant species to possible treatments for deadly diseases.

This is nothing new. The rich legacy of Penn State research is almost as old as the university itself.

One of my favorite Penn State studies: in 1997, Penn State researchers revealed that people slow down when they see that someone is waiting for their parking space, even though most people think they leave faster.

It’s called territorial behavior. People guard their territory, whether it’s their home or a chunk of macadam in front of their favorite store.

But, for me, studies like this might just be the beginning. More questions — and totally new research areas — remain.

I’ve added a few suggestions for possible research questions.

Research Question Number 1:

Do people intentionally drive faster when you try to pass them?

Ever notice that when you’re driving at 60 miles per hour and you’re slowly catching up to another motorist, they suddenly hit the gas as soon as you start to pass them?

Once you enter the passing lane, you’re suddenly going 70… then 75…

Eventually, you back down and pull back behind the driver, who immediately restores his/her speed of 59.9 miles per hour.

But maybe that’s just me.

Research Question Number 2:

Are human beings incapable of merging their vehicles onto a highway?

It seems pretty straightforward to me. Drivers should let one merging motorist in front of them and one behind them. Theoretically, it’s a smooth operation.

But that’s rarely what I experience. Usually when I try to merge, the other motorists guard the lane change like they’re NASCAR points leaders. Likewise, when I slow down to allow a driver in, four cars try to jam in front of me.

Maybe this is more territorial behavior. I have other less scientific, yet more colorful, terms for this phenomenon, though.

Research Question 3

How do we know people are talking on their cell phones and not to themselves?

I am often shocked as I walk on campus by people who seem to be having conversations with disembodied entities. At least, I don’t see anyone around them.

It occurs to me that, maybe, they’re talking on a cell phone. But how do we know? Initially, I thought I could determine whether someone was using a cell phone or had mental health issues by the content of a conversation.

But, if you ever overheard a college student discuss an upcoming party, or a problem with a romantic partner, you realize that this is not an effective strategy.

Back to the drawing board.

Research Question 4

Why do people always seem to be shopping right in front of the item you want?

It doesn’t matter whether I’m looking for soft taco shells in the grocery store, or a book on the knife fighting tactics of the Celts at Barnes and Noble, someone is always standing in the exact aisle, in the exact section and, usually, near the exact shelf where the item I’m looking for is stocked.

Standing isn’t really the right word for it. Camping out is better.

Is this coincidence? Is it a matter of marketing? Is it a matter of retail design? Or, is it, as I suspect, that the world is out to get me?

What about you? Do you have any quirky questions that might serve as springboards to new research?


History: Alive and Well in Gettysburg

26 Jun

The North Carolina Memorial on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. A few feet from this memorial, park restoration experts are working to make the battlefield look like the way it was in 1863. The work is giving visitors and historians a fresh look at how the battle was fought. (Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Ron Cogswell)

One of the highlights of covering research at Penn State is meeting with some of the nation’s — and, often, the world’s — leading experts in their fields.

It’s a little intimidating, too.

OK. A lot intimidating.

Recently, I had a chance to travel to chat with noted Civil War historian Carol Reardon, Winfree Professor of American History, in Gettysburg. Reardon wrote Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory and is wrapping up her year as visiting professor at the Army War College in Carlisle. We talked about her new book, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, about the strategic challenges that the North faced during the Civil War and how those challenges may have caused the war to be longer and more deadly.

Side note: I took Professor Reardon’s History 454 class on American military history in 2004. I blame some of my problems with carpal tunnel in my right wrist on the final in that class.

Prior to our talk, I had a chance to walk along the edges of Seminary Ridge. As I looked at the four or five mile line that once served as a launching point for the Confederate attack on the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge in 1863, I thought about the tens of thousands of men who fought there and the thousands that died.

And I thought about the millions of tourists, the thousands of historians, and the hundreds of books and movies that make Gettysburg one of the most popular destinations for students, tourists and people like me–amateur historians. And I do stress the word “amateur.”

While each time I go to one of these historic sites, I learn new things, I wondered if someone with Reardon’s experience and knowledge ever really learns anything new about the battle.

It was a question I put to her. She answered succinctly, “All the time.”

Park restoration workers cleared trees at the Bushman Farm on the Gettysburg Battlefield and planted an orchard that would have been there during the battle. (National Park Service)

In fact, Reardon said that one of the reasons why historians are learning new things about Gettysburg was located a few hundred feet from me on Seminary Ridge. The National Park Service’s battlefield restoration efforts plan included planting the same varieties of trees that were there during the time of the battle.

As you can imagine, in a century and a half, a lot of landscaping and topographical features have changed.

This restoration effort — though not always popular with the townsfolk in Gettysburg — allows visitors and historians a better chance to better understand the battle. The park is cutting down trees that were not planted on the site at the time of the battle and inserting new trees. They are also planting historically correct crops and restoring lanes and roads to that moment in 1863.

The park service’s plan is robust and detailed:

“Small-scale features, such as fences, orchards, open woodlots and buildings, affected the tactical movements of small units and in many cases made the difference between life and death for individual soldiers. These missing, dilapidated or damaged features will be repaired or replaced, so that visitors can clearly understand the cover and concealment available to the soldiers and the obstacles that affected them during combat. For example, for years visitors saw the field of Pickett’s Charge as one large, unbroken field. Now that nine miles of fences have been rebuilt, showing the field of Pickett’s Charge in its historic configuration of 12 small fields, the difficulties and challenges facing those troops can be understood in more depth.”

For Reardon, the payoff was immediate.

She said that in one section of the battle near Culp’s Hill, which served as the anchor for the Union’s right flank, she and other historians were baffled as to why the Confederate troops never pressed their attack. A few hundred more feet and they could have seized a strategic roadway that would have threatened Union supply lines and a line of retreat.

Now, with the new landscaping, the answer was a little more obvious. The road was obscured and the Confederate troops — fighting on new soil — most likely had no idea the vital link was there.

Reardon said there are other examples of this new knowledge cropping up on the battlefield.

History is sometimes scoffed at as old news about dead people. But, as the fields of Gettysburg reveal, history is fertile ground that adds knowledge to our current understanding about people and cultures, conflict and cooperation, all the time.

Wonder and Lightning

19 Jun

My dad has a habit of calling to tell me about random things he sees on TV. It is (usually) endearing because I know it means he’s thinking about me. Sometimes it’s to tell me about the awesome play Jimmy Rollins made in last night’s Phillies game; when I lived in Philadelphia it was often to tell me about the latest crime that happened somewhere in the city and to make sure I was still carrying the pepper spray he bought me.

The latest thing he called about was a tidbit he heard on the news: apparently your car is not necessarily a safe place to be during a thunderstorm. Cars have steel-belted radials! he tells me. Like I have any idea what a radial is. So Dad continues to explain — some tires have steel belts in them. If you’re driving while there is lightning outside, your tires might not be grounded because of these steel belts.

We were both a bit skeptical of this. But hey, it was on the news. It must be true, right? Since Penn State has an excellent department of meteorology right here on campus, I decided to investigate further.

I contacted Nels Shirer, an associate professor of meteorology, who has done some lightning research — including mapping lightning clusters.

“The answer is not a simple one,” Shirer starts. No, of course not.

It depends on lots of things, he says, like “the make of the car, whether or not it is wet, and whether or not you are in contact with any electronic devices, such as iPods plugged into the cigarette lighter.”

It never even occurred to me that my iPod could hurt me. In fact, according to the super-helpful web site Shirer directed me to, the National Lightning Safety Institute, you’re not supposed to touch any metal objects in your car during a lightning storm, like a metal door handle or metal radio dials. This makes perfect sense . . . I just never thought about it.

Shirer said, and the web site points out, the best thing to do during a lightning storm is to pull over, turn your vehicle off, and put your hands in your lap.

So the moral of the story is that whether or not you have steel-belted radial tires, your car is probably as safe as it can be, with metal accoutrements. This reassured my father, when I reported back. And I got to hear the story (again) about the time he was working for the New York state highway department and his truck got hit by lightning. But I guess when you’re a dad you have some prerogative to tell your stories as many times as you like. And he was fine, by the way — just a scorch mark in the bed of the pick-up truck.

I wonder what he’ll call about next.

Also, a shout-out to Paul Knight, the Pennsylvania State Climatologist and a senior lecturer in the department of meteorology, for directing me to Shirer. Thank you!


14 Jun

You know that word-nerd friend of yours who relishes correcting everyone’s typos and grammatical slip-ups? Now picture dozens of that type in the same place for four days. Yes, that’s the basic scenario of the annual meeting (from which I just returned) of URMA, the University Research Magazine Association, a professional organization for those who write, edit, design, and publish magazines about academic, non-profit, or institute research. If you’re an URMAn (a member of URMA and the wider URMAnity, naturally) the chance to get together with our own kind— pencils sharpened, iPads charged and glowing, and Twitter accounts chirping—is exactly the kind of geeky career development experience we look forward to all year.

It doesn’t hurt when the annual conference (hosted at a different member institution each year; Penn State took a turn in ’08) gives you the chance to experience Chicago and Evanston as well. URMA 2012, sponsored by Fermilab and Northwestern University from June 4th through the 8th, kicked off with a Chicago Architecture Foundation river tour.

It was a great way to mingle with colleagues and take inspiration from the skyline of Chicago, birthplace of the skyscraper and home to signature buildings by virtually every major architect.

After the boat tour, we had time to walk around a bit downtown, aka The Loop. A highlight for a bunch of writers? I’ll let this photo show you.

Rachel Coker of Binghamton University, on left, and I point out the Chicago Tribune building.

On the second day, we put our foam fingers away and it was down to business. The next few days were filled with lectures on the lush Northwestern campus.

Some of the talks were given by our own members and some by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and were on such topics as audience research, social media, and publishing on mobile devices. We also took several interesting tours on campus. At the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections we learned about their digital archives, special collections, and preservation capabilities. We also experienced the new analytical facility in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Need proof? Well, here’s a bunch of URMAns in anti-static “bunny suits” inside the Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory’s state-of-the-art  cleanroom, including yours truly on the far left.

As cool as that was, my favorite campus lab tour was the look inside the Center for Advanced Molecular Imagining. This is a new facility that gives researchers the ability to access real-time data from a number of digital imaging modalities. I found their Tiled Stereoscopic Display especially exciting. Picture a tiled wall display made up of twenty-five 46-inch monitors that are capable of transforming research data into  157-square foot, three-dimensional (3D) images. Essentially, this visualization tool allows researchers to see their experiments in 3D clarity and blown up to a size that gives them the experience of walking inside their own experiment’s data and exploring it in an entirely new way.

(To glimpse the Tiled Stereoscopic Display in action, check out this wonderful short video about the URMA conference, produced by Donna Hesterman of University of Florida’s Explore Magazine.)

The next day we boarded buses for Batavia, Illinois to get up close and personal with the world of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, aka Fermilab. Much of Fermilab’s 6,800-acre preserve, surrounded by Chicago’s suburbs, has been restored (as much as possible) to high grasslands, complete with a herd of bison roaming the prairie.

The tallest building on the campus is the 16-story headquarters, Wilson Hall, with distinctive architecture that brings to mind (my mind, at least!) that ’70s sci-fi flick “Logan’s Run.”  What do you think?

The atrium of Fermilab’s architecturally distinctive main building, Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall

Fermilab is home to the Tevatron, which—at 3.9 miles (6.3 km) in circumference—was the world’s second largest energy particle accelerator (CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is 27 km in circumference), until being shut down on September 30, 2011.

A life-size mural showing one of Fermilab’s particle detectors

Did I understand every nuance they shared with us about their research at the frontiers of high-energy particle physics and related disciplines? Um…no. But did I grasp a bit—and take inspiration from—Fermilab’s efforts to improve humanity’s understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy? That would be a definite YES.

In summation, I think a really good conference resists being entirely summed up in a breezy blog post, and so it is with URMA 2012. However, I hope this post gives our blog readers some sense of what we research magazine types do when we all get together in one place. Forgive us the next time we correct your grammar or go on at length about the wonder of muons or the exciting world of bat biology and conservation. Try to remember that we simply cannot help ourselves.

My Penn State Research Communications colleague Dave Pacchioli (left) with Kurt Riesselmann of Fermilab, one of our conference hosts

Many thanks to the intrepid organizers, including Joan Naper, Kathy Mandell and Amanda Morris at Northwestern’s Centerpiece publication, and Kurt Riesselmann, Managing Editor at Fermilab’s Symmetry magazine. A note of thanks as well to Rachel Coker and Melissa Blouin for permitting me to use several of their photographs in this post.

Until next year, URMAnity!

I’ll give you a McCutcheon for a Benkovic…

13 Jun

Justin Verlander, Andrew McCutcheon, Barbara Rolls and Stephen Benkovic. All four of these people have made it to the top of one of life’s pinnacles—they’re featured on trading cards.

Verlander and McCutcheon are baseball stars. Rolls and Benkovic are stars of a different kind—they’re world renowned Penn State faculty researchers, Rolls in nutrition and Benkovic in chemistry. They are just two of 50 researchers, living and deceased, that the University has touted on a series of trading cards over the past five years. You can see—and download—all of the cards at the newly created Research Faculty Trading Cards website.

Dave Pacchioli, of the University Relations office, helped to oversee production and distribution of the cards since their inaugural year. I asked him if anyone associated with the project considered—strictly for the sake of authenticity—inserting sticks of bubble gum into the decks.

“No, but maybe we should have,” he said with a chuckle. He then added, as if discounting this thought on further reflection, “We used clear packaging and you would have seen the gum.”

Gum or no gum, the cards quickly became popular and have enjoyed a wide distribution, both within the Penn State community and externally. In fact, our Research Communications office still occasionally receives inquiries from serious collectors about the cards’ availability. We have a few surplus sets from more recent years. If you’re interested in having one, contact Cathey Chaffee in our office.

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