Graduation Drawing Near

It’s already February. Not such a scary thought, except when you consider that in two-and-a-half months’ time I’ll know what I’ll be doing for at least the next four years, and in three months’ time I’ll have graduated. Right now, I’m just trying to make it through the semester that’s ahead of me, but with the prospect of the rest of my life looming ahead, it’s a little hard to focus. Here’s a few things that are distracting me:

Quidditch
Yep, the sport from Harry Potter. I joined one of the intramural teams this past fall, which has been great, and spent three hours in the sixteen-some inches of snow for tryouts for the travel team. The game is exceedingly fun to play, and it always garners a barrage of questions whenever it comes up that I play (wherever I may be at the time). It’s also pretty funny to look at the strange looks employees give me when I walk into, say, McDonald’s holding a broom in one hand and cleats in the other. With practices only once a week (or more, depending if my tryouts today went favorably), and games pretty infrequent, it doesn’t take up as much time as that other MSU sport I played, not like these semester grades mean that much anyway…

Here’s a State News article about the team following the World Cup (held in November in New York), and a video of the team playing Syracuse. Since I joined late, I wasn’t there, but hopefully I can go this upcoming fall, depending on what happens in my life.

Programming
I’m teaching myself C++! Why, might you ask? Well, I figured that, since I’ll eventually have to learn it anyway, I might as well. That of course was my initial reasoning, but now it’s also because I can get a job programming in C++, which will definitely help me out in the long run. Right now, I have two books on the subject, with one of them arriving earlier today (Programming Embedded Systems in C and C++ by Michael Barr). I haven’t started reading that one yet, since I’m still in the middle of my other book, but most likely I’ll flip back and forth between the two, especially since large sections of my first book were covered in one of my math courses last semester.

To go along with that, I’m still slowly working on my senior thesis. It’s just frustrating when scientific papers don’t include all of the details of their simulation runs, like what initial or final values they’re using for such uncommon variables as time or temperature, so I’ve been busy sifting through about a half-dozen articles trying to piece together some idea of how to move forward. Yes, I’m a little behind, but once I find those magic numbers, I just need to set it up and go and move on. In other words, mostly because of my newfound enjoyment of C/C++, I don’t like Fortran that much any more…

Grad School Applications
While all of my applications have been in for at least a month, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still at the back of my mind all of the time. This is half of where my life might lead me, so it’s a big deal! I did, however, breathe a sigh of relief earlier this week when I found out that I was accepted into the Notre Dame Physics PhD program, meaning that at the very least I won’t be moving back home upon graduation! It actually kind of surprised me that I got wind of it so soon, but I think that it was just part of their first-round “draft picks,” as at least one of my other friends was also accepted.

Job Opportunities
Well, the last three things all hinted at this, but I may not be going to grad school come summer/fall. Obviously, that won’t be because I didn’t get in anywhere, but more a change in who I am as a person over the past two months (yes, the change was that quick!). You see, I’m not sure if grad school is something that I want to do right away, and what could I get out of it? A lot, in fact, but I’m not sure if I will still want what I get out of it when I get out of it. To that end, I’ve applied to a job that fits with all of my likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, etc. that I may take (if accepted) over grad school. I’m not going to mention that job here, but if you’ve talked to me recently you know what it is. I just think that, right now, being a commercial programmer for a growing company involved in one of my biggest interests may be a better prospect than continuing on in school.

Don’t get me wrong, though! I’ll still go to grad school eventually, just further down the road after working, and probably in a different field. I do think that continuing my education is important (hence teaching myself an additional programming language in my spare time), and I don’t plan to ever stop learning.

I’ll just be learning in a different way.

In other news, today is now the one-year anniversary of the end of my Mars Desert Research Station mission. It’s strange to think that a year ago I was leaving the Hab with five other people who had become family for good, after spending two weeks working and laughing and enjoying Carla’s amazing cooking. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world.

Simple Semester Start

After trudging through my first week of classes, I finally feel like I’m prepped and ready to discuss what has happened to me since the new year and my thoughts on my last semester of study at Michigan State University. I knew that this time would come eventually, but it just feels harder than I had imagined, for numerous reasons that may become known through this post. First, though, let’s talk academics…

AST 410 – Astrophysics Senior Thesis
Work on my thesis went somewhat smoothly over break, with a lot of simulation runs to get a better feel for how long full net calculations would talk, adjusting initial parameters, and writing two auxiliary Python scripts for the projects (a short timing procedure and a data graph creator). I also looked up a handful of articles on the subject of computational nucleosynthesis, primarily to refine my data for densities, temperatures, and times, especially since I have started using non-constant parameters for those quantities. Of course, I still need to talk to my advisor for the first time this semester, but that will most likely come later this week or early next, once I read a few more papers and run some more simulations.

KIN 102K – Tae Kwon Do I
My fabled final credit to get two degrees, this class is my first and only fun course at MSU. Before this, I was taking 16-18 credits a semester of all academics, but as a second semester senior with not much else on my plate (and only having 149 total credits before this), I added it midway through last semester. While we’ve only had one real class (past syllabus day), and we haven’t started doing any actual Tae Kwon Do, I know that I’ll like this class and I know it will be amazing. I’m also glad that this will help kick-start my working out, since that usually falls by the wayside when classes get tough.

MTH 415 – Applied Linear Algebra
Based on what we’ve covered so far, what I remember from Linear Algebra I two years ago, and what was covered in Numerical Analysis last semester, this may be my easiest class this semester. Of course, with the schedule that I happened to wrangle up, that’s not saying much. I’m not worried at all.

MTH 442 – Partial Differential Equations
While ODEs were covered in Calc II for me, I don’t really remember it. My only exposure to PDEs has been through my two Quantum courses, but there is was basically just knowing which of two memorized solutions to use in the problem. From what we’ve done in class so far, this shouldn’t be too tough, but I’ll definitely need to keep an eye on it to make sure things don’t move forward too quickly.

PHY 451 – Advanced Laboratory
After a small mix-up that I’m rectifying in a few hours, this class will be interesting to say the least. I’ll only be doing two labs the entire semester, with the same partner, with each lab taking about six weeks (for a total of twelve lab sessions each), both culminating in a journal-like paper. So, based on that, it should just be a less monotonous and Physics-related version of my Bio II lab. Again, I haven’t started the actual lab yet since syllabus week was in full swing, so I don’t know how that will go. I do know that I will be consistently ten to fifteen minutes late every Wednesday to the recitation session, since Tae Kwon Do ends ten minutes before it out at IM West.

PHY 492 – Nuclear and Elementary Particle Physics
The other half of my senior Physics requirement, this seminar will be loads better than last semester’s, if only for the different professor. The material is insanely interesting, the book is pretty well written, plus I’m actually going to care about it this time around. A similar structure with exams and papers, this shouldn’t have too much work strapped on to my load. I mean, just look at that awesome cover! How can a class with that book not be completely epic?

I will also, once more, be leading Briggs Physics labs. With the expected shift of schedules right before classes started, I didn’t know exactly where I’d end up, but thankfully I know now. I have one lab on Tuesday at 1500, one on Thursday at 1130, and my office hours retained their same time slot (2000-2200 Wednesdays). Plus, I’ll actually be able to make it to the weekly meetings, which is good enough for me!

I’m still playing Quidditch, which I’m really excited about. If the little time I spent on the team last year was any indication, this is going to be an awesome spring season. I’m going to be trying out for the travel team, since I obviously missed those tryouts in the fall, which will be held in three weeks’ time. I’m a little nervous, but that may just be because I always get nervous before things like that. Hopefully with intramural practices starting back up this week, plus a scrimmage next Sunday, those feelings of nervousness will subside.

I’ve started learning C++, having bought a textbook geared toward giving an overview of the language specifically for computational physics purposes. It’s not that bad so far, but I did hit a rut in chapter nine with a ton of new topics (in the language) that I need to digest individually before I move on. Past that, I’m still using Fortran and Python, so I should be ready for whatever I may need to use in grad school.

Speaking of post-graduation activities, all of my applications are officially done, so now I’m just in the waiting game to see if I get in any where. If I don’t, I’m also in the middle of the application process for Teach for America, having gone through the initial steps. I also have a phone interview this Thursday, plus I need to complete an online writing assignment soon, but past that it will be interesting to see what happens with that. My final application, which right now is just talk, is sending off my information to SpaceX to see if I can get a spot on one of their programming teams. While I don’t have all of the academic credentials for the job, and I may not even know the language that they write their software in, hopefully they see past those superficial measures. Of course, at this point everything is just waiting around for things to fall into place.

I think that should be good for now. In other news, it’s almost been a year since my MDRS mission, I’m still playing guitar, I had a great time at a bar crawl on Saturday, and I did not deserve to lose in Spoons tonight.

Book Review: Packing for Mars (Roach)

I got Mary Roach’s most recent book for Christmas from my parents, alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I just started reading today). This was the first time I’ve read one of her books, although a friend of mine did read Bonk and really enjoyed it, plus I’ve only heard praise for her writing. It just came as a bonus that she released one centered on space flight, and I started reading the book midday on Christmas. Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed it!

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Like in the Void by Mary Roach (2010)
Purchase it on Amazon.com

Initial Thoughts: Like I already mentioned, this was my first time reading one of Roach’s books, but based on what I knew of her and her work, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book or that she would do a poor job covering the era of human (and monkey and dog and mice…) activity in space. I took the book up to my room, lied down on my bed, and cracked open the cover, eager to start reading.

Like most things, I avoid reviews of books or movies, favoring instead what my friends and family think about it. That’s part of the reason why I write these anyway, to give a different perspective on the work as opposed to the newspaper reviewers who almost definitely do not share my tastes. I mean, Tron: Legacy was rated pretty low, but it’s one of my favorite movies (expect a review for that at some point as well)! Anyway, back to the book…

The Premise: This book covers space flight in a way that usually isn’t encountered. Instead of focusing on launches and missions and extraordinary events, Roach instead looks at the behind-the-scenes aspects, the things that you either wouldn’t immediately think about when someone mentions “space travel,” or things that you’d never think of, like paying people to stay in bed for months to simulate the deterioration of bone mass during an extended stay aboard the ISS or a future long-duration mission to Mars or a nearby asteroid.

In saying that, there are still the aspects usually associated with more standard books on the topic: quotes from Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, visits to Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussions about Mir while in Russia, etc. There’s also a unique insight into things that we know happen, like the astronaut selection process (JAXA, the Japanese equivalent to NASA, documents the dinner containers of their astronaut hopefuls–locked within an isolation chamber–after the meal, but they don’t tell the candidates this beforehand). As someone who knows a fair bit about space, it was great seeing another side to my childhood (and present-day) heroes as well as getting the additional information that comes from her research.

Of course, like her other books, this isn’t a dry science tome meant to bore you. Mary Roach is hilarious! It first hit me on the first page of the book, in the forward/introduction section aptly titled “Countdown” when she discusses the problem with astronauts when compared to machinery:

A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander.

Even the sentence right before it is golden, juxtaposing irradiated beef tacos with fuel consumption of launching rockets. That sense of humor is present on every page, even in a subdued manner in the more serious or somber sections of the book, like when she meets the widowed husband of one of the astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The book’s short 300-some pages are packed with information, with something new on every page, and Roach’s humor causes you to blow through the pages like nothing. The first break I took was around page 80, with my stomach telling me it needed food, and loudly. I very easily could have read the book in a single sitting, and I’d enjoy it!

Final Thoughts: With the end of the book came the last solidification that Roach is a great author. While only one of her other three books really interests me (yep, the one about sex), I will probably end up reading all of them, just to learn something new and read more of her hilarious writing. Plus, I’d be learning something new, which is always high on my priority list, and truly enjoying it. Likewise, even if you don’t have an interest in space travel (and if you don’t, you’ve been following the wrong blog!), I suggest you pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed in the slightest!