Kapitza pendulum

So you are in recent past a glorious leader of a mighty experimental lab, like myself. And then you find yourself without a lab, without students to boss around – because your lab is shutdown by a virus. What do you do? You are still the same person, hungry for power and new discoveries delivered to you daily on a platter. A combo platter… From that place on campus that is closed… Ah, damn!

Anyways, now my only lab is a bunch of lego’s and my only student is a five-year old. What can you do with legos? Oh, tons of things. For starters, you can cool them down in your dilution refrigerator! Except… Oh well.

Second best? You can build a Kapitza pendulum. What is it you may ask? It is the kind of pendulum that you shake and it stands up, seemingly defying gravity. According to Wikipedia, it is magic. It takes a five year old about 15 minutes to build, but they need a little help getting gears inside. And it gives about 3 minutes of uninterrupted joy. All in all, about 20 minutes passed, not bad! (You can enjoy this at any age and possibly for much longer)

All the credit goes to Matt A. Robertson, who designed the device and created these amazing lego instructions while working at Texas A&M with Artem Abanov. Making this project brought memories of the old days when you could just hop on a plane and visit awesome people at another campus, talk physics with them for a whole day… And they would show you their lego’s.

Technical notes for if you build this. 1) There is a link that you can use to purchase all blocks you need for this, but it does not include one – item 2730. 2) The part that sticks out to the side is a handle to hold the device. The assembly is designed for a left handed person but it can be mirrored.

Share your negative results!

It is a busy time. Maybe you are exhausted from zoom-partying all night. Or maybe you have kids. Maybe you are a theorist and you did not notice anything strange. Or perhaps your lab is shut down, like mine is, and you are trying to stay productive.

So try this: think if you have results in your notebooks that you would normally not publish. Not because they are low quality or incomplete – though you may want to start looking at those if the shutdown stretches for months and you get hungry.

I am talking about negative results. In physics, we are wired to only share the positive, the breakthroughs! We get a mental Pavlov dog zap when we think about results that are anything but the rosiest of achievements. In other words, we think that physics is an Instagram account.

In fact, negative results advance physics. They are very important. They save people time, they complete our understanding, they help us find the correct path forward. This is obvious, right? So it should not be scary to share them, and it should not be considered a waste of time. Do it now when your lab is closed, but also do it when it reopens.

It can be a paper where you present results opposite to another paper, like we just did or like these people did a few years ago. It can provide an alternative explanation for an interesting result. It can be a broad negative result that is aimed at opening a discussion within a field of study. And it can be in a top journal, like this Science paper from Penn State. There are many examples: a paper that shows how researchers themselves overlooked something. A paper that digs at the foundations of a topic with a long distinguished history. They all make physics better!

Share your negative results. You already put effort in doing those experiments or those calculations. You thought about it and discussed them with your colleagues. Others also deserve to know. And you will get credit for this. They do get noticed. The next generation will learn from your findings, and they will do better science than we could do.

I made a short movie

Two years ago I had a fantastic experience. It was a 4-day essay film course offered by the Derek Jarman Lab. Jarman Lab is connected to the University of Pittsburgh through its founder Professor Colin Maccabe. They came from London to teach us how to use film as means of communicating research. Everything had to be finished in just four days which also included some lecture time about the essay genre and documentary filmmaking. Through this course I learned a lot, I met amazing people and had a great time.

I chose to make a film about our research process. It is based on reality but it does not correspond to real events. One thing I learned about documentaries is that the director or producer has enormous power to steer or create narrative. This is very different from scientific papers where facts are supposed to be front and center.

I always planned to go back an re-cut my project, tune the sound levels and fix glitches. But I realized that Jarman Lab already have it on their website. So why not share it here?


As we were wrapping up, I had no time to add credits. But they are so due! Thanks to my actors Arash Mahboobin, Kelsey Cameron, Lily Ford, Bomin Zhang.

Special effects are by Bartek Dziadosz. Him and Lily were our teachers. They are terrific!

Music in the film is by Devon Tipp, who composed it while thinking about Majorana research. This music project deserves a separate blog post!

A Holiday Fairytale

‘T was the night before Christmas, and a Hannukah night. 
At the same time as Kwanzaa also happened have might… 

Gather round, children, for a tale of a little boy – not five years has he spent on this Earth in grad school. This little boy has been very good, he worked the hardest he could – and by year’s end he has submitted his very first paper to arxiv!

Feeling good, feeling proud – candles lit, blessings said 
He drank milk, brushed his teeth and was headed to bed. 

At this moment of peace and calm – an email arrived! It was from a world famous scientist. The scientist wrote that he read the boy’s paper! “With interest”! Oh! What a wonderful honor – thought the boy – for such a genius, who famously lived in a very tall tower of pure ivory – to have even glanced at my paper! 

The boy continued reading:

“I worked hundreds of years in the same field as you.
And the papers I’ve written are a million and two.
But of them, dear Sir, to my utmost dismight,
Every one, except twenty, you have failed to cite!”

The boy felt terrible. Has he been naughty? Was his h-index two sizes too small? Will he not get presents? Did they even get presents in their religion? He could not sleep. He started adding all the missing citations to his manuscript. 

“I should cite all the others who have worked very hard!”
And his small paper grew… Soon he needed a cart…

But then a magical fairy appeared. “Don’t be sad, I have a spell just for you”. And the fairy hacked into the webcam of famous scientist’s laptop. The scientist was typing and typing frantically. He was sending emails to all the people who posted their papers on arxiv that day.

“You see my dear friend” the fairy told “citations are not a form of respect, and they are not for giving credit. They are a tool to help understand the paper better. Excessive citing can make little readers confused, because they wouldn’t know which papers they should look up.”

The boy thought long and hard. He decided that the famous scientist is probably very lonely in his tall ivory tower. And the boy invited him to give a talk at their monthly graduate student seminar. The scientist agreed because there were cookies, hot chocolate and marshmallows.

University of Pittsburgh Physics ranked #1 in the world

Much has been said about the utmost vital need to be highly ranked. All sorts of important people, from prospective students to governments, take note of the one number to which your program is distilled by a prestigious, serious and rigorous ranking agency. At Pitt we did not enjoy particularly high rankings so far, which made us very-very sad.

Until today when we got a shot of awesome news – not only are we ranked high, but we are NUMBER ONE, in the WORLD (In the Universe most likely for that matter).

University of Pittsburgh Physics and Astronomy Department was ranked first in the world for the quality of coffee from a department coffee machine.

To the skeptics out there who might be wondering – how has this ranking been established? The same way as the US News report ranks graduate schools – we asked a few people. The US News survey department chairs in your discipline (let’s say physics) from US universities “name top physics/condensed matter/particle/astro graduate programs”. Some of them, maybe 30%, reply, and they do some math (likely addition and division) with those numbers, then they publish them for everyone to contemplate and make their life choices. So the ranking of graduate schools is based on the opinions of a few people who likely never been to most schools, haven’t seen their labs, haven’t read their papers, didn’t talk to their faculty and students…

Inspired by this great system, we did the same. We asked. We did not have time to ask all department chairs in the country, since we only had the idea this morning, so we just asked ourselves. But we’ve been to MANY departments. And we drank their coffee. And we are definitely number one, in physics, in this category.

(If you include other departments, e.g. chemistry, we would probably have to yield to the University of Oregon, though we are still to visit. If you include regular coffee shops, some of which are in the Physics buildings, we will probably also go down in ranking, quite far. If you ask department chairs to rank coffee machines, and then average their replies, you will get Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Caltech etc.)