dispatches from conference-land

November 30, 2010

Greetings, internet.  I just finished up day two of the Materials Research Society (MRS) fall conference, which has the fabulous distinction of being the first major conference I’ve attended.  My feet hurt, and my brain hurts (in a figurative, non-migraine sense), so I must be having a productive time, right?

Also, what the hell is this?

The only time I will have used my umbrella since moving to Colorado will be on a trip to Boston. What? We just don't have this 90% chance of rain business. Or really, rain in general.

My poster presentation was tonight, and it went almost disappointingly smoothly.  I was expecting some challenging discussion from our collaborators (and ex-competitors, forced together by our mutual love of ridiculous amounts of funding) at another national lab, and not a one of them stopped by to chat with me.  Boo.  I think this is in part because their PI, Dr. KGB, bailed on the MRS to go to another conference today.  In Cancun!  No fair.

Dr. KGB scares the shit out of me in a science sense (he’s very personable otherwise).  Not only is he one of the guys who pioneered my field (the other one being my advisor), he has the build and the accent and the interrogative questioning style to seem like he’s ex-KGB.  I gave a teleconference talk last week that he was on, and it was mostly because of his questions that my “25-minute talk” lasted for at least 40 minutes.  Absolutely terrifying for someone like me, who’s a bit insecure (heh, a bit, right) about my research competency anyway.

As a quick example of how awesomely personable Dr. KGB can be, he came to my rescue when I was talking to someone in his group on Monday morning and started floundering when trying to explain why I was curious about some of his results in relation to my own work.  He also keeps trying to get me to spend the summer in his lab doing some time-resolved measurements, which is kind of flattering that he thinks my work is interesting enough to mention it several times now.  Too bad a) I’m leaving, and b) Dr. KGB’s lab is in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve learned a lot about my science so far.  Also, even more importantly, I’ve learned a lot about my co-workers.  I got a huge “yay, it’s okay to suck and then recover” boost at the bar yesterday, when I learned that Dr. Ultramarathon failed his quals.  Dr. Ultramarathon does really well-known work and is pretty much awesome.  His talk packed the room today.  Yay!  There’s hope for those of us who don’t do so hot at first…not that this persuades me that I should stay in grad school.  It’s just reassuring.

The education symposium at a technical conference is fun, except for the posters.  I kind of thought educators might do a better job, and, y’know, have pictures, and use bigger than 12-point font on a 3.5×5′ poster.  Wishful thinking, I suppose.

It’s nice to go to the education symposium and a) meet people who might later give me a job, b) fully understand what all the talks are about, and c) be remembered when I talk to people one-on-one a day later.  I am now a member of NISE Net (how I hadn’t heard of this before, since I have done both education and nanoscale research, I have no idea) and get a cool green ribbon to stick on my conference badge.  Hooray!

Speaking of cool things, I went to a talk last night about the National Ignition Facilty (NIF), which is the foremost fusion lab on the planet.  It’s not just cool.  It’s HOLYSHITOMGAWESOME.  There are so many things about it that are absolutely insane that it’s really almost shocking that it exists at all.  To summarize: everything has to be simultaneously huge and incredibly precise.  For instance, the sample holder is on a 5-meter boom, but the positioning of that sample has to be accurate to within 1/20 millimeter.  Yeah.   Also, they take 192 lasers — each of them the world’s most powerful — and focus them onto a spot that’s about a millimeter square.  Yeah. Also also, they have nonlinear crystals that are several feet across (these are usually fingernail-sized, and are tricky to make).  Yeah. Most yeah-inducing of all, though, is the fact that they’re surprisingly close to getting useful fusion in the lab.  Yeah. My lab-mates and I spent most of the talk making crazy astonished faces at each other.

Strange tidbit I learned from the talk, that has nothing to do with fusion or lasers or really, much of anything: Legos are size-consistent to within 10 microns (1/100 millimeter).  WHY?

Another strange tidbit from the talk: we have a megawatt laser mounted on a 747.  Apparently it’s for shooting missiles out of the air.  To give you some context, a megawatt is one million watts.  I sometimes use a ten-watt laser, which is more than enough to set things on fire almost instantly (it was an accident, I swear).  This laser is one hundred thousand times more powerful.  NIF’s systems, when all 192 are concentrated down to the fusion target (and after losses are accounted for), produce a pulse of about 500 terrawatts.  That’s five hundred trillion watts.

On a more mundane note, my new shoes that are part of the “comfort collection” (they’re flats! really innocuous, nice-but-comfy-looking flats!) of some shoe company make my feet bleed.  I would advise strongly against wearing any exciting new (well, thrift-store new) shoes to an event where you’ll be walking everywhere and later be on your feet talking about science for three hours.  It was too late for blister-prevention tape by the time I had a chance to get some.  The whole ordeal has made me want to nuke them with a 500 terrawatt laser pulse.


One comment

  1. I’m reading Joan Didion’s “After Henry” right now — she’s got an essay in there where she talks about touring some high security laboratories in California. It’s good reading for me even, but you might enjoy it more… understanding more. Beautiful descriptions of these huge and precise instruments you mention and how, for instance, they are *ALSO* designed to operate smoothly during a massive earthquake. Pretty cool!

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