Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Faster than Anything

The day began with measuring the speed of light. Rather, we tried to. We brought a cart with all the circuitry and sensors downstairs to the basement. Because it wasn't enough that two other groups were down there, making it cramped, there were massive puddles of water on the floor. The first hurdle was getting the thing plugged in. Outlets were few and far between, and also often separated from us by water. In the end, we plugged in to another group's cart. Then we had to shine the light so that it hit a mirror the size of my hand about 50 feet away. We then had to adjust the mirror so that it shined the laser right back at the cart. We then had to make it go through a lens to hit a tiny sensor. We had to adjust the positions of each sensor quite a bit, and every time we did so, the (wheeled) cart would move, making it harder to position the sensor. After adjusting it for what felt like an eternity, we finally got it set up. I thought that the hard part was over. As a veteran reader, I'm sure that you realize that means I had barely even scratched the surface of it being hard to do. At least with these problems, I knew what the issues were.

Channel 1 of the oscilloscope was working fine. This was the sensor right next to the laser, before it traveled down the hall and back. Channel 2 was not working. The wires looked correct. The oscilloscope had all the right settings. Nothing. We sat and played with dials for ages. It was dark and nothing worked. The extension cord started making crackling noises and the power for our cart went off. I, strangely enough, was not to happy about being in an area covered with puddles of water. We switched the extension cord without being electrocuted. Of course, this didn't make channel 2 work. We hypothesized that something in the basement was causing it. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, and it was time for a guest speaker.

Our guest speaker, Ken Lande, spoke about energy and the history of atomic physics. He was not the best speaker we had. He was not as good at speaking to capture our attention. His voice just put me to sleep. In addition, most of what he was talking was review. He skirted around interesting issues, but what he did say that was advanced had mostly been covered by other speakers. Overall, it was not too great. I then had a bit of lunch.

After lunch, we returned to working on the speed of light. Given that the basement was cramped, we decided to work on the second floor. As we were wheeling the cart down the hall, one of the instructors, Craig, told us a wire was in the wrong place. It was one slot over in the breadboard, or about a millimeter away from where it should have been. We fixed it. Getting the laser and mirror set up was much faster this time, though by no means painless. It only took us about an hour to get a reading. Depending on which way we read it, we got either 2.26 or 2.88 x 108 meters per second. We were really at the limits of our tools. The real value is about 2.99 x 108 meters per second. It is amazing that the tools we have can get us so close to such a high number.

After the speed of light was measured, I worked on various presentations with my group in Starbucks. I feel like the presentation on Benford's law is pretty well finished (we're presenting tomorrow, so it would be bad if we weren't). I think that we will have a very good presentation. I would call the Hersheypark presentation about 85% done (we're presenting it on Thursday). I feel like quite a bit of this is that the Hesheypark data is just less interesting. It's a lot harder to use boring data to make an interesting presentation.

By the way, you get bonus points if you recognize what I'm quoting in the title.

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