Physics and Astronomy Summer 2016 Newsletter

In this issue:

Sactown's Coolest Place

Ready to beat the hot summer days in Sacramento? Come visit the coldest place in town, the new Low Temperature Physics Lab in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Here Assistant Professor Michael Ray, and a team of students, are working to build a refrigerator that can attain temperatures of 1.5 K  (-272oC or -457oF) with the long term goal of expanding it to reach temperature of a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

At these temperatures everything is frozen, with one notable exception: helium. Helium, the seemingly mundane element that you use to blow up your party balloons (or make your voice sound funny) has some quite interesting properties at low temperatures. Due to its light mass, and relatively weak interaction with other helium atoms, it does not freeze at all under normal conditions. This means you can cool it down to a low enough temperature where quantum mechanics can take over. At these temperatures, the liquid becomes a superfluid and behaves in odd ways including its ability to flow without any viscosity.

Pokemon found in the Low Temperature Lab.

Although helium does not freeze under normal conditions, it is possible to create solid helium by squeezing the liquid to 25 times atmospheric pressure, basically forcing the helium to form a solid. Since quantum mechanics plays a big role in the description of helium at these low temperatures, we call solid helium a “quantum solid.” The quantum-ness of solid helium is evident by the counter-intuitive observation of a superfluid-like flow of mass through the solid. This mass flow (along with some other surprising observations of solid helium) has been related to defects that occur when the solid is formed.

The Sacramento State Low Temperature Lab is working to develop new sensor technology to measure the pressure of the solid helium in an attempt to learn more about these defects. This can give insights, not just into the strange world of solid helium, but also into the behavior of defects in solids, which are responsible for many of the everyday properties of solids. Rumor has it (we are still verifying that this is a genuine photo) that the lab is so cool, that Pokemon have decided to hang out there. 

To keep up to date on the status of the lab, visit its website (  or follow it on Twitter (@SacStateLowTemp).

You can read a recent article in Physics Today about about supersolidity that was written by Ray’s Ph.D. Advisor here:

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AAPT Returns to Sacramento

Sac State Alum and high school teacher Steve Nixon gives his invited presentation at the 2016 Summer AAPT Meeting. This summer, nearly 1200 physics educators from around the country and the world (high school teachers from Latvia and New Zealand were somewhat unexpected visitors) came to Sacramento to attend the 2016 Summer Meeting of the American Assocation of Physics Teachers. This was the second time that AAPT has come to Sacramento, having previously come in the summer of 2004. 

Workshops were held on campus on the weekend preceding the main meeting. We had several hundred workshop participants attending sessions on new pedagogies, technologies, lecture demonstrations, and novel curricula. Our own team of Profs. Margoniner, Buerki, Block, and Jensen gave a tutorial on the use of Learning Assistants in large introductory courses in a "flipped" environment. 

Three days of parallel sessions, plenary workshops, poster sessions, and award presentations followed the workshops at the Sacramento Convention Center. Our alumnus Steve Nixon gave an invited talk on the challenges in teaching at a high-risk high schools. It was a great time to see alumni and old friends at the meeting. 

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Pssst.... We're about to hire again

With an overall enrollment increase of 45% in the past five years coupled with a more than doubling of the number of our majors, we are in a serious growth phase! Fortunately, the University has recognized this and given conditional approval for us to hire another tenure-track faculty position which will start in the Fall of 2017. This search will begin this fall and we plan on bringing candidates to campus early in the spring semester for interviews. 

We are looking for a position to bolster our faculty ranks in the area of theoretical/computational physics. With over thirty students taking computational physics this fall, students are clearly motivated to learn these skills. In addition to teaching in our core physics classes, this position should also bring some cool student projects to campus.

We are hoping to post the vacancy announcement in October. You can keep an eye out for it at our employment page

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Student Summer Projects

Most summers we have students engaged in research, but this year we have perhaps a record number of students working with faculty both on and off campus on a wide range of projects.  Here are some of the highlights.

Haley and Caleb next to an model piece of the LHC line at CERN.

Haley Marez and Caleb Mosakowski are working at the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Under the supervision of Prof. Joshua Moss, Haley and Caleb are working with a couple of Moss's Geneva-based collaborators. Caleb is working on optimizing the search process for exotic particles including the postulated di-Higgs resonance. Meanwhile, Haley is testing and debugging prototype hardware for the scheduled ATLAS fast-tracker trigger upgrade. When not working on their respective projects, Haley and Caleb participate in workshops and classes with the other dozen California State University students working at ATLAS as part of CSU's NUPAC consortium

Leah Weston came to Sacramento State with a strong interest in studying astronomy. When she was selected to spend the summer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View this summer as part of the CSU COMPARE program, she was thrilled. Assigned to work on a project searching for confirmation of the Wow! signal (a candidate for extraterrestrial signal measured in 1977 at Ohio State University that has not been observed since), Leah is combing through data from the Allen Telescope Array to see if any repetition of the signal can be observed. When not pouring over a computer screen, she's apparently watching movies with Jill Tarter

Having spent time over the past couple of years as a Learning Assistant in physics and calculus classes here at Sac State, Physics and Mechanical Engineering double major Carlos Pereyra was very intrigued about the Engineering Education REU program at Utah State. Once accepted, he was assigned a project conducting case studies on self regulated learning (SRL) and conceptual change in engineering dynamics students. He's also been spending some free time visiting quite a few of the National Parks and Monuments in the Utah and Wyoming area. 

Temperature Controller Designed and Built by Mary Ann MortA trio of our students are working with Prof. Ray to set up the low temperature laboratory. Anthony Asuega, Mary Ann Mort, and Aleksandar Tadic each have projects that will become part of the system. Mary Ann is building on a temperature control unit that will allow the system to maintain stable, low temperatures. She's using a new kind of programmable chip that will condition the signal coming off of the temperature measuring system as part of her PID system. While Mary Ann is concerned about temperature, Anthony is putting together an instrument that will serve as a pressure sensor at low temperatures. By taking advantage of the piezoelectric materials, Anthony hopes to be able to make fine measurements of pressure within the cold cell that will be the workhorse of the lab. Aleks is building, from scratch, a self-balancing resistance bridge that will be used for the sensitive measurements of temperature needed in the experiments that will soon be running in the lab. In fact, Aleks's bridge is more precise than commercially available voltage controlled resistance units.

Ashley Luiz is working with Prof. Mikkel Jensen to develop a computational model of the interactions between two proteins that play an important role in the make-up and physical properties of our cells.  The model utilizes principles of physical chemistry and statistical mechanics to describe the binding and assembly of the two proteins.  The results from Ashley's model will guide future experiments in collaboration with Prof. Jeff Moore at UMass Lowell, and is part of a research project investigating how the physical process of protein self-assembly affects protein function in cells and muscle tissue.

We also had students working with Prof. Matthew Block in modelling the magnetic properties of exotic materials, with Prof. Michael VanValkenburgh in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and also with Prof. Mani Tripathi at UC Davis. 

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Alumni Once, Peers Today

Recent Grads in Academia

Peter Frinchaboy
Class of 2000
Texas Christian University

Jason Ybarra
Class of 2004
Bridgewater College, Virginia

Ben Topham
Class of 2006
Longwood University, Virginia

Mark Kerfoot
Class of 2008
Fresno City College

In last year's newsletter, we showcased some of our recent graduates that have moved into education at the high school and middle school levels. Well, this isn't the only place where our graduates are contributing the education of tomorrow's leaders. A number of our alumni over the past two decades have settled into faculty positions at college and universities around the country. 

Jason Ybarra joins the tenure-track ranks this fall at Bridgewater after a year as a Visiting Professor. At Bridgewater, he's been teaching physics and astronomy and has taken on the task of creating a Sigma Pi Sigma chapter. Teaching at a community college has been something that Mark Kerfoot has talked about since his first days at Sac State, so we're really happy he was able to take a position at Fresno City College last fall. Ben Topham is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Longwood University in Virginia. With his PhD in theoretical physical chemistry, he's sneakily teaching physics to chemistry majors in his P-Chem classes. At Texas Christian University, Peter Frinchaboy has been teaching a wide range of astronomy classes and has maintained an active research program with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. 

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