Paths for Amateurs to Contribute to Science Research

Since mankind is made in the image of God and proper science is man fulfilling the creation mandate to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” I reject the notion that science is an elitist pursuit best left to people with advanced degrees working at universities and well-funded institutions.  God has given mankind all he needs for productive work in science, and the creation blessings are not impaired by institutional restrictions, expectations, and constructs.

At the same time, most professional Physicists I know (and scientists in other fields also) have had the experience of being approached by amateur scientists who think they are capable of a major breakthrough in theoretical physics such as the invention of a perpetual motion machine or alternatives to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Consequently, your greatest challenging in approaching professionals with your ideas will be not coming off as a crank.

Professional scientists are commonly approached by members of the general public with various ideas and tend to form judgments quickly that the ideas presented are not valuable or worth their time.  Colleagues (with scientific credentials) and students (especially science majors at their institutions) are usually granted a bit more time and attention as an opportunity to demonstrate that their ideas are interesting or worthy of consideration, but members of the general public are fighting an uphill battle.

The burden is squarely on the amateur to catch the attention of the pro and show that an idea is worth the professional’s time.  Most cranks do not bother with a literature search or detailed background investigation, but just write down their ideas.  Game over.

The amateur needs to write a 1-3 paragraph description of the idea with citations showing a thorough background making the case that the research idea is 1) interesting 2) relevant 3) tractable 4) novel (not already done) 5) and placing the idea in the context of similar works and similar ideas.  The citations should be to the peer-reviewed scholarly literature rather than popular books, movies, blogs, or web sites.  I recommend the Google Scholar search engine rather than Google or another general purpose search facility.  The way most amateur descriptions are written when they reach professional eyes are depending on the professional to do the background work for the amateur, which likely requires many hours of scholarly searching and carefully reading a bunch of papers which may or may not be relevant.  The amateur needs to provide the citations, and they better be understood and used properly.  Misunderstand or exaggerate findings in the references: game over.

Several of my earlier articles may be useful:

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/niches-publishable-undergraduate-research/

While this one most directly addresses undergraduate research, it also applies to amateur research.  Most topics approached by enthusiastic amateurs are not in one of the niches we have found to work very well for non-professionals.  That does not mean they are impossible, only that they are harder and that one will have a tougher time convincing anyone that an amateur is capable of real progress.

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/science-love-money/

The above article tells some of my story of cases where I have done productive science from love and general interest (as an amateur) rather than for money.  It shows what is possible.

https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1612/1612.08947.pdf

The above article describes the basic process by which we have mentored students into productive research.  The basics will be the same for amateurs as for students.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Faraday

An enthusiastic amateur should also read the above article on Michael Faraday, the most famous example of an untrained amateur who made real progress in science.  For every Michael Faraday, there are a million wannabees.  What was different about Faraday who succeeded from the million wannabees who fail?  (EXPAND ON THIS)

http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Faraday.html

I have attached a research plan written by an amateur which can serve as an exemplar for the quality of background and citations one will need to be taken seriously when approaching a professional for assistance or feedback.  If one wants to move forward, I recommend reading the attached exemplar and linked articles above very carefully, and strive to produce a research plan of similar quality for one of your ideas.  In the process an amateur may discover the idea is too hard or poorly formulated and needs to be abandoned.  The amateur may discover that it has already been done.  The amateur may decide that it is viable with a few tweaks.  By the time most amateurs produce a plan of the quality of the attached exemplar, they have abandoned several ideas they thought were promising at first.

In my successful mentoring of amateur research, I tend to spend about 25% (on average) of the time the amateur is spending doing background, checking results, reviewing the amateur’s work, etc.  If an amateur spends 1000 hours on a project, that means I’ve spent around 250 hours.  That’s more than most professionals, but even if a pro only spends 10% of the amateur’s effort (about the minimum required for useful feedback over the course of a project), the amateur is still asking for a pro to give the project a lot of their time for free.  The burden is on the amateur.  The first sentence needs to convince them to read the whole paragraph.  The citations in the first paragraph better support the claims.  The first paragraph needs to convince the pro to keep reading, and the amateur loses an opportunity for feedback as soon as the pro loses interest.

 

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Homeschool Accountability

Detractors of homeschooling often complain that homeschoolers have inadequate accountability.  There’s a difference between not being accountable and not being accountable to government.

In our home school, my wife and I are accountable to God, to each other, to other believers, and to our children.

In the longer term, our home school program is accountable to the colleges and to the employers our students apply to and work for. Through our choice (and college requirements), our students are accountable to the ACT. Through outsourced coursework, our students are accountable to a variety of providers: Derek Owens, ALEKS, Coursera, dual enrollment, etc. Our students are also accountable to a variety of coaches and youth group leaders. By all those measures of accountability, Our Family Home School has done a pretty good job: better than ANY AND ALL government run schools.

So, it’s a huge LIE that our homeschool program is not accountable. But because government is not trustworthy, we have chosen to homeschool to reduce our accountability to government.  Government accountability has failed the public schools.  Why be so foolish to think it is a good idea for homeschools?

 

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Niches for Publishable Undergraduate Research

Figure 2

Undergraduate interest in research is a good thing; it’s even better if they aspire to publish their work for review and consideration from a broader audience.  First, we should consider what it means to be publishable.

Usually, “publishable” means a paper contains a novel and interesting result in either theory or experiment that is more likely than not to be correct.

Novel” is a bit easier to understand objectively: it means the same result has not been published previously.

Interesting” is more subjective. Often in the search for “novel,” scientists (including undergrads) go off into the weeds, because accessible theory and experiments that have not been previously published are more likely in areas where no one has cared enough to work very hard. This tends to make them less “interesting.”

Undergrads struggle with research ideas, because they often tend to assume their work needs to be within the domain of new fundamental science of the sort that would be suitable for the Physical Review, when often their skills and scientific maturity have not yet really empowered them for that level of contribution.  As mentors of a lot of undergrad (and high school) research, we’ve found that there are several other niches that work well with the skill sets and scientific maturity more common among undergraduates (and high school students):

Inventing new instruments and techniques (or revisiting usefulness of existing ones with faster/cheaper technology)
Device for Underwater Laboratory Simulation of Unconfined Blast Waves

One of our students made a veritable cottage industry from inventing new, inexpensive laboratory devices for conducting blast wave research, and he’ll enter college in the fall with 6 peer-reviewed papers.  The key here is to find a field where the development of new instruments is within the capabilities of the student.  

Shock Tube Design for High Intensity Blast Waves for Laboratory Testing of Armor and Combat Materiel

Explicit numerical integration was too slow to be interesting or useful for computing Fourier transforms in the first decades after computers came into wide use, but this paper asked the question whether there was any advantage to revisiting an abandoned technique now that computers were fast enough to do it “the old fashioned way.”  There is lots of room for an experimental/computational approach investigating benefits of different computational approaches that may be simple tweaks on tried and true methods or methods that were left behind in the past as too slow for the computers of that generation.

A More Accurate Fourier Transform

I think there will always be a niche for achieving comparable measurement accuracy with instrumentation that is 1% to 10% of the cost of the state of the art equipment used by well-funded world-class operations.  This paper demonstrates an approach to measuring drag coefficients with inexpensive hobbyist equipment.

Accurate Measurements of Free Flight Drag Coefficients with Amateur Doppler Radar

A rifle is one of the simplest forms of internal combustion engine, and measuring the friction of a bullet in the barrel was one of the outstanding unsolved problems in internal ballistics for many decades.  This method was discovered in a student project by reanalyzing data acquired in a different project on bullet stability.  

Measuring Barrel Friction in the 5.56mm NATO

The problem of predicting bullet penetration and tissue damage from first principles is one of the most important unsolved problems in terminal ballistics.  Addressing those issues is beyond the skill set of most undergraduates, but development of experimental methods to collect the data for testing and refining new theoretical approaches is well within their abilities – combining first year physics and calculus in very practical ways.

Bullet Retarding Forces in Ballistic Gelatin by Analysis of High Speed Video

Novel experiments that are interesting because of environmental applications
Environmental applications make any project more interesting.  The strongest trend in ballistics in the last 20 years is getting the lead out to reduce human exposures and environmental impacts.  The industry has lots of promising new technologies and products, and results of well designed independent testing will always get their fair share of attention.

Terminal Performance of Lead-Free Pistol Bullets in Ballistic Gelatin Using Retarding Force Analysis from High Speed Video

Performance testing of lead free primers: blast waves, velocity variations, and environmental testing

High-speed measurement of firearm primer blast waves

Researchers made a big splash a few years ago demonstrating the effectiveness of magnetic hooks in reducing shark bycatch.  This result had potential applications in longline fishing, but depended on the unproven assumption that magnets would affect the catch rate of elasmobranches (sharks and rays) but not teleosts (bony fishes).  The experiment was simple: find a magnet whose field was comparable to the earth’s magnetic field at 0.5 m, attach it to some hooks, go fishing, and record the catch rates on the magnetic hooks and a non-magnetic control group.  Lots of species left to test …

Evidence for Magnetoreception in Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), Black Drum (Pogonias cromis), and Sea Catfish (Ariopsis felis)

Novel experiments that are interesting because of educational applications
The potential research projects here run the spectrum from new and interesting possible undergraduate laboratories to testing the specifications of lab research gear to just having fun.  This project was born when the student realized a transparent tube and a high speed video camera could accurately measure what happens inside of potato cannons.

Studying the Internal Ballistics of a Combustion Driven Potato Cannon using High-speed Video

This project was born when a student realized a high speed video camera was a great tool for measuring deflagration velocities.  With the wider availability and lower prices of high speed cameras, there are a lot of other fuel-air and oxy-fuel combinations that can be tested in a wide array of geometries.  In additional to the educational interest, there are important questions in chemical kinetics and deflagration to detonation transitions that can be answered with relatively simple experiments.

Measuring Deflagration Velocity in Oxy-Acetylene with High-Speed Video

High speed video is a great experimental tool, because it allows accurate determination of position vs. time of a visual signal.  But there are many cases where the kinematics can be determined with a microphone and appropriate sound signal.  Think of what Galileo could have done with a sound card.

An Acoustic Demonstration of Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies

Echo-based measurement of the speed of sound

Finding mistakes in published papers and writing comments pointing them out
Unless a student has really keen error detection skills and voluminous reading habits, they may not catch many mistakes in published papers.  But most well-read faculty members and active scientists know where the bodies are buried and can point students to the low hanging fruit.  This paper responds to a “peer-reviewed” paper with both fundamental errors in the statistics as well as exaggerated claims in the abstract.

Comments on “Analysis of permanent magnets as elasmobranch bycatch reduction devices in hook-and-line and longline trials”

My wife found the original errors when mentoring a student on a related project.  We didn’t have the time to follow up on it at the time, so we set it aside until we had students looking for a project.  They did a great job tracking down and documenting the mistakes.  High school math and common sense was all that was required.

Errors in Length-weight Parameters at FishBase.org

If you see something, say something – or find a student to track down the details and write up the paper.  I don’t know what bothers me more, the original mistake, or the fact that it still has not been fixed nearly four YEARS after we pointed it out.  We can “March for Science” until we are blue in the face, but if science cannot really demonstrate the “self-correction” that it claims, large segments of the public will remain justified in “denying” claims from parties that prove themselves less than trustworthy.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Publishes Misleading Information on Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone”

When public policy is concerned, there is often something of a shell game where the predictions get more press than a retrospective comparison between predictions and experiments.  Since the publication of this student paper, I am happy to report that the scientists making their predictions have improved their models and the resulting accuracy of their predictions.

Predictions Wrong Again on Dead Zone Area – Gulf of Mexico Gaining Resistance to Nutrient Loading

Review/hypothesis papers bringing together different fields that are related, but not well connected in the literature
The ideas for these papers require a broad knowledge of the literature in related fields, suggesting the genesis of these hypotheses more likely lies with faculty mentors than with students. But many (perhaps even most) active researchers have some hypotheses swirling around in the back of their minds that a bit of student prodding can bring forward. Many faculty have neither time nor interest to do all the literature work and writing to produce a coherent paper, but they tend to be happy enough when free labor appears and is willing to do the harder work in response to some brainstorming sessions, throwing some logical diagrams and outlines on a white board, and other legwork to get hypotheses and under appreciated connections into print for colleagues to consider.

Our paper on nutrient loading and red snapper production was born from reading about the red snapper management debate combined with closely following the literature relating to “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico purportedly resulting from nutrient loading of farm fertilizers flowing down the Mississippi River. We were perplexed, because fishing on Louisana’s Gulf coast is among the best in the United States, and we knew from first hand experience that those waters are teeming with life and anything but a “dead zone.” The light bulb went on when reading a thesis from LSU that observed fisheries biomass was highly correlated with proximity to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Nutrient Loading Increases Red Snapper Production in the Gulf of Mexico

Our magnetic shark deterrent paper is just one of several cases where biologists had stalled in progress due to insufficient ongoing mastery of freshman physics. Consequently, the literature had one basic hypothesis (sharks can detect magnets), but experimental designs to distinguish possible magnetoreception mechanisms were lacking, and papers favoring one mechanism over another were more the result of the confirmation biases of the authors that clear supporting or exclusionary experimental evidence. There was plenty of room for a good undergraduate physics student to articulate the strongest contenders: electromagnetic induction in salt water, direct magnetoreception with macroscopic magnetic materials, and direct magnetoreception with microscopic magnetic materials (biogenic magnetite). We didn’t solve the problem, but at least we articulated the choices clearly to better support improved experimental designs. (For example, dependence on conductivity or current speeds would favor electromagnetic induction.)

Review of Magnetic Shark Deterrents: Hypothetical Mechanisms and Evidence for Selectivity

Testing products to compare measured values with product specifications
There may be greater interest than we have explored in testing whether laboratory equipment meets its product specifications. Is the thermometer, balance, voltmeter, power meter, spectrum analyzer, etc. as accurate as is claimed? Every sensor in the Vernier catalog is a potential project. Most attentive instructors in freshman physics labs will have a good idea what gear is as accurate as claimed, and what gear falls short. We’ve take a bit different approach, testing products marketed to hobbyists, sportsmen, military, and law enforcement.

Testing Estes Thrust Claims for the A10-PT Rocket motor

Comparing Measured Fluorocarbon Leader Breaking Strength with Manufacturer Claims

More Inaccurate Specifications of Ballistic Coefficients

Comparing Advertised Ballistic Coefficients with Independent Measurements

Testing validity of commonly used equations with little published data supporting how they are used
Most equations in science have some area of applicability where they have been validated as accurate.  But over time, usage often expands far beyond the “fine print” relating to the assumptions and conditions where the equations are valid.  Experimental tests of these equations to explore their validity in areas of ongoing application can be of great interest. A great habit of mind for any scientist (student or not) is to ask, “Where is the data supporting that well-known equation, and does the data really support the broad usage of how that equation is commonly employed?”

Some models reach widespread use because they are easy to apply and available rather than because they are rigorous or consistently make accurate predictions. In the rush to provide some estimate, people with more engineering than scientific mindsets will use the best equation available and run with it rather than giving due consideration to the validation and expected accuracy. When we started blast research in 2007, we noticed wide use of the acoustic impedance model of blast wave transmission was in designing protective equipment and interpreting experiments. We could find no data supporting how it was being used, so we designed and executed appropriate experiments in both air blast and underwater blast.

A Test of the Acoustic Impedance Model of Blast Wave Transmission (in air)

Experimental Test of the Acoustic-Impedance Model for Underwater Blast Wave Transmission through Plate Materials

Ideas for the next two student papers came from considering experimental possibilities to make use of regular travel between Colorado (high elevation > 7000 ft) and Louisiana (sea level). Students brainstormed ways to conduct one day experiments with existing equipment so they ended up doing scholarly searches for formulas purporting to predict effects relating to air pressure, air density, or altitude. There are lots of formulas predicting these effects, the challenge was to find examples that were under supported with experimental data.

The formula suggesting the proportionality of aerodynamic drag to air density is in nearly every introductory physics textbook. But many fail to clarify that it is well known that the drag coefficient is not constant, but depends on Reynolds number, which, in turn, depends on air density. The assertion of independence of drag coefficient from air density for supersonic projectiles is more subtle – being buried in formulas published by Robert McCoy of the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Digging into the experimental support for those formulas showed that the data really supported independence of drag coefficient from Reynolds number (over the applicable range of projectile diameters, not in an absolute sense), and independence from Reynolds number was used to infer independence from air density. However, all the supporting experimental data was gathered at the sea level facilities in Maryland, so the air density range was really too limited to provide direct support for independence of the drag coefficient from air density.

The formula for the dependence of rocket motor thrust on ambient pressure was found at a NASA web site. Due diligence in literature searches suggested an absence of published experimental support for the formula. No literature search is perfect, so it was unclear if there was supporting data published in an obscure book or journal inaccessible from the available libraries and search engines, or if there was supporting data sitting unpublished but available do NASA and Department of Defense rocket scientists. In either case, the difficulty in finding supporting data motivated a nice experiment that could be conducted with relatively inexpensive hobbyist rocket motors.

Experimental Tests of the Proportionality of Aerodynamic Drag to Air Density for Supersonic Projectiles

Altitude Dependence of Rocket Motor Performance

This is probably the niche that requires the most background work and guidance from a mentor to identify, because the idea to test how the formula is being used usually originates with the recognition of an ABSENCE of supporting data.  Gaining confidence that there is really an absence of supporting data in the literature requires an extremely thorough background literature search.  But note that in 3 or 4 of the cases above, the new (and relatively simple) experimental result showed that the application of the well-known formula was inappropriate.  Formulas without supporting data are wrong a lot of the time.

Summary
Our niches are unlikely to produce significant advances in FUNDAMENTAL physics. The skills and resources for significant advances in FUNDAMENTAL physics are often outside of the scope of abilities of undergrads. But there is a lot of good and solid science to be done in the niches we find useful. Most of the discussion among my physics colleagues would not center on whether these papers are “publishable” (since they are all published), but on whether they are “physics” of the sort suitable for undergrad research. Each institution sets their own standards on that. But one can certainly have some fun and accomplish some solid research with a Myth Busters mindset.

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Preparation for Success at Military Academies

Integrity First
My wife has taught at West Point, and I served on the Air Force Academy faculty for four years.  Admissions to the military academies requires three very strong areas on the application: Academics, athletics, and leadership.

People of faith should remember that “from man comes the plans of the heart, but the reply of the tongue is from the Lord.”  Students may have their hearts set on West Point or Annapolis.  Prayer and careful preparation are highly recommended.  But “godliness with contentment is great gain.”  If after making a wholehearted effort in planning, preparation, and prayer, the answer comes back “No” students should consider that God may have a different plan for their higher education.

ACADEMICS
You are likely to need a 32-36 on the ACT, with more emphasis on science and math. Another key is that accomplishments need to be validated by as many external authorities as possible. Before high school, prep him for dual enrollment college courses, and in high school, ensure such excellence in those that profs will be eager to write recommendation letters, especially science and math profs.

ATHLETICS
The best predictor the service academies have of meeting their demanding physical fitness requirements is outstanding performance in high school athletics at the varsity level. If this is not available in your state (as a home schooler), you need to figure out how to provide opportunities for documented accomplishments in athletics that will be viewed as comparable. Marathons and 10ks. Biking. Fencing. Shooting. Martial arts.

True that shooting and martial arts may not always convey a high level of fitness, but athletics is also highly valued because it communicates a warrior mentality that is key to being a soldier or Marine.

LEADERSHIP
Volunteering and service. Serving as captain of sports teams and other competitive teams. Things that the student showed initiative on that demonstrate out of the box thinking. What others say about him will matter more than just listing things – but the status of recommenders is key. Lots of applicants come highly recommended by coaches, teachers, and pastors. Fewer are highly recommended by college professors and coaches with excellent reputations in their state and region.

Accomplishments should be documented by external authorities. “Running” on his own is not enough, he’ll need to compete in events each year of high school. He may not need to win, but he’ll need to post some times that are impressive. Both Army and Marines place a very high value on running.

Shooting on his own is not enough. He’ll need to compete in events each year of high school. The Marines value shooting highly, and they value rifle marksmanship over pistol marksmanship. I’d start him with the NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program to build skills and have him competing in NRA High Power events through high school. Starting at age 9 or 10, he should be good enough to win top junior honors at local, regional, or state events in high school. That will get noticed. (No need to participate in or be competitive in national events.)

ERC TN State Championships 2015

Lots of youths and ladies in the TN State long range championships, where my daughter took 2nd place Junior in F-Open.


In the southeast, there are a lot of gun clubs that will mentor and train young shooters far beyond the opportunities offered in 4-H. If a parent or close relative can’t do it, find a gun club that can.

If you cannot find a local gun club, find local Project Appleseed events. Take him and keep taking him until he earns a Rifleman’s Patch. Keep records of his scores on the Appleseed Qualification Test (AQT). Once he is consistently scoring above 210, he is ready to excel at NRA High Power. If NRA High Power is unavailable or if he prefers Appleseed, keep him moving toward qualifying as an Appleseed instructor (Instructor Boot Camp, etc.) They may need to waive age requirements, but if he is good, they likely will.

http://appleseedinfo.org/

But all this effort in sports won’t help much if his ACT scores are in the 20s. Get those ACT scores in the 30s! You’ll need a high level of academic rigor through middle and high school.

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How I Succeeded in College

LSU Union Pic Science Fair

The author (left) graduated first in his class at LSU in 1989, summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics.

It is normal to forget without constant use or some kind of reminder.  Our minds are fallen, and without constant use and reminding, skills and information quickly become rusty and decay.  Scripture recognizes this, and God commands kings to produce a hand-written copy of Scripture and read it every day of their lives:

Deuteronomy  18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. (NIV)

In my college days, I used layered techniques to help put things more reliably into long term memory. The curriculum and assessment methods of my professors was also structured to help that.

I took careful notes in every class. Since these notes tended to be messy and disorganized, I recopied a more organized and neat version of the notes shortly after every lecture while the lecture was fresh in my mind. Every day, every class, every year. Writing things down and then recopying them is a great memory tool.

I worked every assigned homework problem. Since my original written solution was often messy and disorganized with erasures and less than a linear progression (blind alleys and so on), I recopied my solution very neatly before turning in the problem set. Preparing a neat copy of every problem before turning them in had the effect of better cementing the solutions in my memory.

As each test neared, I re-read the material in the book, reviewed my notes, and selected a subset of the assigned homework to re-work in preparation for the test. About half my time in test preparation was dedicated to reworking homework problems (without looking at original solutions) as practice to recall how to do them.

As the final exam neared, I began my preparation about a week or two beforehand. I would re-read the most challenging chapters, re-work all the test problems I had missed, pick new problems from the test to work, and prepare for myself a “practice final exam” from which I drew about twice as many book problems as problems on most tests, put myself under time pressure and the authorized resources of the real exam, and did the best I could. After the allotted time was over, I spent as much time as needed to work each problem correctly (visiting professors during office hours as needed), and assessed how prepared I was by how I did under pressure of time and authorized resources.

On the whole, my preparation required 2-3 hours of real hard work for each hour I spent in class. Most of that time was spent with my pencil moving and my mind fully engaged. No mind wandering. No distractions. No Facebook, phone, or TV. In total, college was a 60 hour per week full time job for a 14-16 credit hour course load. The reward: I graduated first in my class, summa cum laude, with a 3.95 GPA and admission and fellowship offers to MIT, Standford, Princeton, and Stonybrook for graduate school. I was done washing dishes in seedy New Orleans restaurants and flipping burgers in fast food joints.

Subsequent courses tended to reinforce pre-requisite material from earlier courses through practice and repetition in the assigned homework. It was my Calc 1 course where I practiced enough algebra to finally have those techniques cemented into long term memory along with really understanding what a function is. Calc 3 finally cemented many ideas and techniques of Calc 1 and Calc 2. The upper level E&M sequence cemented many ideas from 2nd semester freshman Physics, and so on.

Still, when I got to MIT (graduate school) I spent most of my first year re-taking key undergraduate courses, including Mechanics, E&M, Statistical Mechanics, and Quantum Mechanics. Forgetting is normal. Mastery and longer term learning requires repetition.

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NRA Recognizes Perfect High Power Scores Fired by Homeschool Mother and Daughter in National Match

wot-ec-and-ac-2016-with-results
The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 to promote marksmanship, and it has sponsored and sanctioned many shooting competitions in its 146 year history. Review of the NRA National Records shows less than 20 perfect scores have been recorded in its history, only one ever at a National Match, and only one ever by a woman.

Until Now.

Last week, NRA officially recognized the perfect High Power Rifle scores (200-20x) fired by mother and daughter in the 2016 Women on Target National Match. This is the first perfect score tie in NRA history, the first time a parent and child have shot perfect scores in the same sanctioned event, and only the 2nd and 3rd times in NRA history perfect scores have been fired by women. Congratulations!

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What Constitutes a Publishable Scientific Paper?

Usually, it is a novel and interesting result in either theory or experiment that is more likely than not to be correct.

“Novel” is a bit easier to understand objectively: it means the same result has not been published previously.

“Interesting” is more subjective. Often in the search for “novel,” scientists (including undergrads) go off into the weeds, because accessible theory and experiments that have not been previously published are more likely in areas where no one has cared enough to work very hard. This tends to make them less “interesting.”

As mentors of a lot of undergrad (and high school) research, we’ve found that there are several niches that work well:

Inventing new instruments and techniques (or revisiting usefulness of existing ones with faster/cheaper technology)
Device for Underwater Laboratory Simulation of Unconfined Blast Waves
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1506/1506.02986.pdf

Shock Tube Design for High Intensity Blast Waves for Laboratory Testing of Armor and Combat Materiel
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1501/1501.07813.pdf

A More Accurate Fourier Transform
https://arxiv.org/pdf/1507.01832.pdf

Accurate Measurements of Free Flight Drag Coefficients with Amateur Doppler Radar
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.06500.pdf

Measuring Barrel Friction in the 5.56mm NATO
http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA555779

Bullet Retarding Forces in Ballistic Gelatin by Analysis of High Speed Video
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.5215.pdf

Novel experiments that are interesting because of environmental applications
Terminal Performance of Lead-Free Pistol Bullets in Ballistic Gelatin Using Retarding Force Analysis from High Speed Video
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1604/1604.01000.pdf

Performance testing of lead free primers: blast waves, velocity variations, and environmental testing
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1410/1410.6390.pdf

High-speed measurement of firearm primer blast waves
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1203/1203.2701.pdf

Evidence for Magnetoreception in Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), Black Drum (Pogonias cromis), and Sea Catfish (Ariopsis felis)
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1511/1511.09302.pdf

Novel experiments that are interesting because of educational applications
Studying the Internal Ballistics of a Combustion Driven Potato Cannon using High-speed Video
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.0966.pdf

Measuring Deflagration Velocity in Oxy-Acetylene with High-Speed Video
http://chemeducator.org/bibs/0016001/16110279.htm

An Acoustic Demonstration of Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1102/1102.1635.pdf

Echo-based measurement of the speed of sound
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1102/1102.2664.pdf

Finding mistakes in published papers and writing comments pointing them out
Comments on “Analysis of permanent magnets as elasmobranch bycatch reduction devices in hook-and-line and longline trials”
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1310/1310.5910.pdf

Errors in Length-weight Parameters at FishBase.org
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1104/1104.5216.pdf

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Publishes Misleading Information on Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone”
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1306/1306.5366.pdf

Predictions Wrong Again on Dead Zone Area – Gulf of Mexico Gaining Resistance to Nutrient Loading
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1307/1307.8064.pdf

Review/hypothesis papers bringing together different fields that are clearly related, but not well connected in the literature
Nutrient Loading Increases Red Snapper Production in the Gulf of Mexico
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1306/1306.5114.pdf

Review of Magnetic Shark Deterrents: Hypothetical Mechanisms and Evidence for Selectivity
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1501/1501.07158.pdf

Testing products to compare measured values with product specifications
Testing Estes Thrust Claims for the A10-PT Rocket motor
http://www.libertylaunchsystems.com/RocketsMagazine/Issue0031/sample.pdf

Comparing Measured Fluorocarbon Leader Breaking Strength with Manufacturer Claims
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1202/1202.5260.pdf

More Inaccurate Specifications of Ballistic Coefficients
http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a555975.pdf

Comparing Advertised Ballistic Coefficients with Independent Measurements
http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a554683.pdf

There is a very deep well of potential projects testing physical specifications of all manner of products.

In physics, most interest may be testing specifications of laboratory equipment. Odds are pretty good there is also considerable interest testing specifications of equipment marketed for educational labs. How accurate is that force sensor, thermometer, etc? Every sensor in the Vernier catalog is a potential project.

Testing validity of commonly used equations with little published data supporting how they are used

Most equations in science have some area of applicability where they have been validated as accurate.  But over time, usage often expands far beyond the “fine print” relating to the assumptions and conditions where the equations are valid.  Experimental tests of these equations to explore their validity in areas of ongoing application can be of great interest.

A Test of the Acoustic Impedance Model of Blast Wave Transmission (in air)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274705917_A_Test_of_the_Acoustic_Impedance_Model_of_Blast_Wave_Transmission

Experimental Test of the Acoustic-Impedance Model for Underwater Blast Wave Transmission through Plate Materials
http://ascelibrary.org/doi/abs/10.1061/(ASCE)EM.1943-7889.0001202

Experimental Tests of the Proportionality of Aerodynamic Drag to Air Density for Supersonic Projectiles
https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1510/1510.07336.pdf

Altitude Dependence of Rocket Motor Performance
http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA571357

This is probably the niche that requires the most background work and guidance from a mentor to identify, because the idea to test how the formula is being used usually originates with the recognition of an ABSENCE of supporting data.  Gaining confidence that there is really an absence of supporting data in the literature requires an extremely thorough background literature search.  But note that in 3 or 4 of the cases above, the new (and relatively simple) experimental result showed that the application of the well-known formula was inappropriate.  Formulas without supporting data are wrong a lot of the time.

Note, that our niches seldom include significant advances in FUNDAMENTAL physics. The skills and resources are often outside of the scope of abilities of undergrads. But there is a lot of good and solid science to be done in the niches we find useful. Most of the discussion among my physics colleagues would not center on whether these papers are “publishable” (since they are all published), but on whether they are “physics” of the sort suitable for undergrad research. Each institution sets their own standards on that.

3dbifmap

Experimental recurrence spectra.

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