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Observatory Head Goes Back to School

Observatory Head Goes Back to School

- Contributed by Fred Raab

Well, it's the fall again. Another school year is underway. And this means that once again it's time to visit our colleagues at Gladstone High School. As readers of this newsletter are well aware, the students and staff at Gladstone High School have a partnership with the LIGO Hanford Observatory to become involved in LIGO research. Since Gladstone, Oregon, is a few hundred miles from the observatory, most of our interaction is remote, using the internet and conference calls. Every few weeks, the students mount presentations of their work to the school's web site, and I place a call to Mr. Ingram's classroom so we can review how the various projects stand. This is similar to the way we work with our 400 professional colleagues around the world. But as anyone who works with groups in remote locations knows, it takes a bit of "face time" to really cement the working relationships. So, once a semester, I make the drive to Gladstone to visit our LIGO team. One of the first stops is the office of the principal, Mr. Evans, standing to the right of me in the picture below. (It's okay to visit the principal's office when you're not in trouble!) I am there to review how things are progressing and to thank Mr. Evans once again for all the support we receive in keeping the program thriving.

Fred Raab and Mr. Evans.

Another important stop is to Mr. Ingram's Integrated Science I class. This class is the first high-school science taken by a broad collection of students. Although our work with Gladstone High started by involving juniors and seniors taking Physics class in research, the LIGO-related projects have now filtered down to first-year high school students in Integrated Science. The basic plan is the same: teach the students to address real science issues using real scientific data available on the web. Our goals are matched to the sophistication of our students. Whereas we might expect a senior to solve a problem or discover some new feature relevant to our work, our freshman are trying to learn how to find valuable data and process it into useful databases for solving other problems. There are plenty of problems to solve in putting this database together that really challenge the students. Students with more experience can then use such databases in their studies.

Fred with the authors of the ocean tide study.

This year the students in Integrated Science have produced a study entitled "Ocean Tides on the Northern Pacific Coast, 1995 - 2001." It's the book I am holding in the photo above, taken with the students who produced it. Earth tides stretch the planet's crust due to gravity from the sun and moon, and LIGO could not work unless we removed the effect of these distortions. In 1999, a Caltech freshmen, Eric Morganson, analyzed the problem for us during his summer internship at the observatory. (Incidentally, that was also the first year of our partnership with Gladstone High School.) Eric wrote a program that we use today to remove the huge effects of the earth tide from our interferometers. Basically we command actuators in our end- and mid-stations to move the vibration isolation systems and mirrors according to Eric's program, so that the mirrors will stay a constant distance from the mirrors in the corner station. This procedure is good enough to remove 80 to 90 percent of the tidal effects from our interferometers--whether or not they are in lock--and we use feedback to tune out the remainder when the interferometers are in lock. Back in 1999, we made the decision not to include the well-known ocean tides in Eric's tide model as a compromise to keep things simple and just "good enough." Now we are becoming interested in including the effect of ocean tides, which cause a depression of the earth's crust and also a gravitational tug coming from the coast. The new student database, created by downloading data from tidal monitoring stations and using a program for tabulating, trending and plotting the data, will become a reference database for improving this system.

Students investigate the properties of masses and springs. Students learn the basic principles of FM radio tranmission and reception.

Physics students at work.

In Physics class, I spent time roaming between different student projects. In the photo at left above, students are investigating properties of masses and springs, and trying to capture acceleration data on a laptop computer. If successful, we will feature their work in an exhibit at the observatory that demonstrates how vibration isolation works. I also helped other students (seen at right, above) understand the basic principles of FM radio transmission and reception, so they can build a computer simulation of this process, which has similarities to LIGO fringe-detection techniques.

Chemistry students view atomic spectra.

The topic of Chemistry class was how spectroscopy--the study of how different colors of light interact with atoms and molecules--is used to understand the properties of matter. I brought along a small plastic spectroscope, developed for "Project Astro," to let students view atomic spectra from the mercury atoms in the fluorescent lamps in the classroom, as seen in the photo above. The mercury atoms make their presence known by the characteristically sharp and narrow green and violet lines that stand out from the rainbow of colors emitted by the phosphor of the lamp. We also discussed how the observation of missing colors in sunlight launched an investigation that would eventually lead to the discovery of Quantum Mechanics and the understanding of the chemical bond. Mr. Ingram showed the school's Michelson interferometer, and then we viewed a movie on the interferometer's inventor, titled "Albert Michelson: Master of Light." We also discussed how improvements in manufacturing technology have made such devices less expensive and more common-place. The Project Astro spectroscope can be purchased for less than $25 and the Michelson interferometer kit (featured in last year's December newsletter) can be built for about $125. Mr. Ingram is currently stockpiling parts (cardboard boxes, razor blades, and grating film) for one-dollar spectroscopes to be assembled by his Integrated Science class.

Fred discusses with the students.

We also held an event during "crossing time" to unveil the new poster-set on gravitational waves given to Gladstone High School by the Hanford Observatory. This is a set of two posters illustrating the science of gravitational waves, originally developed by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration for the Centennial of the American Physical Society (APS). One of the posters is visible on the rightside in the above photo, next to the posters on the Gladstone research effort on LIGO seen on the left. I am shown here talking about the centennial and describing the poster set created by the APS to commemorate the last 100 years of science, starting with the discovery of X-rays. In each of the APS posters, the focus was on not only the big science and cultural events of each decade, but also the people who made it possible. In the final poster, the APS looks toward the future--and one of the watershed events anticipated for the near future is the first detection of gravitational waves and the ushering in of a new era in astronomy. That poster also celebrates the people, now students, who will be the makers of science and culture in this new century. I told the assembled crowd that, "Those students are you. Your generation will make many of the key discoveries using these wonderful devices that the current generation of scientists around the world are building now."


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