American Physical Society March Meeting 2018

This week I am attending one of the biggest physics conferences in the world. Roughly 11,000 nerds will descend upon Los Angeles to show their latest work in 10 minute presentations. Sessions run from 8:00 am – 5:30 pm every day, with roughly 50 concurrent sessions. I will be trying to make daily updates on what I see and do, and who I talk to.


It’s travel day! Another APS in the books. I will be without internet until tomorrow but will prepare a final update on the plane and start thinking about the Highlight posts.

Thanks for following along this week, and I’ll see you back in Canada!


Wednesday, March 8, Revisited

Ok, back at it! Three research highlights, and one “featured post” teaser.

L46.00004: Simulation of the atomization of a droplet by a high-speed flow:

I couldn’t find a video of their simulation, but I am still hunting. Basically, they simulated how a water droplet breaks up when it’s being blown by a strong wind. We know that water wants to remain in a drop due to surface tension, so when wind blows it, it will deform in response. While the wind deforms the drop, the surface tension tries to restore it to a sphere, so they get a crazy fight between these two forces, resulting in a beautiful and dynamic process. As the wind speed increases, it will eventually reach a speed that forces smaller droplets to break off the big one. In lieu of their actual simulation, I present a youtube video of a droplet sitting on a vibrating surface exhibiting very similar physics.

L46.00007: Capillary Imbibition Damped by Adsorption in Wood Cell Walls

Trees suck up water through their vasculature because of surface tension (see previous post for a more thorough description). However, these researchers find the speed at which the tree “drinks up” the water when it is dry is way, way slower than expected. However, a fully hydrated tree will suck up water at the predicted speed. They found that a dry tree has a slower drinking speed because much of the water will absorb into the cell walls. After some time, the walls will saturate and the water goes back to behaving as expected.

P43.00001: Extreme Plastic Deformation of Glassy Polymer Thin Films at Ballistic Strain Rates

This guy made a tiny, micron-size pea shooter that can launch its “pea” at about 1 km/second (3600 km/hr, and I’ll draw you a picture to show you how he does it in a little while). Where does he aim it? Polymer films that are only about 100 nm thick. The goal is to understand how much energy these polymer films absorb, and apply this information to the construction of, say, bullet proof vests or other high speed shock absorbing systems. This researcher suggests the energy absorption of some of these polymers are orders of magnitude better than even Kevlar, which bullet proof vests are made of now.

Highlight: K61.00004: Faculty Support and Student Wellbeing in High-Diversity STEM Graduate Programs

This is a very important topic. Rates of anxiety and depression in graduate students, especially physicists, is extremely high. Julie Posselt discussed her research into the external causes of depression and anxiety in students, and how these student’s faculties can help them.

Wednesday, March 8

Today was a wild ride. Long story short, my talk went great, I met with great people and I just feel… happy. I wish you could all be here. But not right now, I’m way too sleepy. I’m going to take tomorrow very easy so I will report everything then. In the meantime, I leave you with this:

Tuesday, March 7

JC, John, Vincent and I finished last night off with some hotel beers. We exchanged English and French hip-hop tracks while we decompressed. Of course we all recalled moments of frustration throughout the day:

“So he finishes his talk and the first question he got was ‘so why does this matter at all?'” We all let out a sympathetic groan. “That’s the single most offensive question you can ask in one of those focus sessions… Poor guy”

But invariably our stories and complaints converged on moments of gratitude that we get these sorts of opportunities…


Another photo from the lobby window. If this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.

No alarm, but I another jet-lagged 3 am morning. Add a late night and maybe one too many beers after dinner – you don’t need a physics degree to solve that calculation.

While today wasn’t as packed with talks relevant to my research, there were two fantastic sessions on science outreach and being a professional scientist. Rather than giving quick summaries of each talk, I think it makes more sense to ruminate on what I heard and write a more complete piece. Instead, I’ll list some highlights.

  • Met Jorge Cham of PhD Comics who spoke about addressing the gap between scientists and the public. Rather than feeding science through journalists and the media, why can’t scientists engage the public directly?
  • Heard a talk by Senior Editor of Scientific American Clara Moskowitz, who encouraged scientists to pitch stories to science magazines and bypass the journalists. I see a trend here… So I asked her if there is an industry shift away from journalists to direct reporting from scientists. She said absolutely not but I’m not totally convinced… I also asked her to give me a yes or no on whether she would recommend journalism school. She said yes, and there are good one-year programs available. She also provided her email and asked for pitches for articles
  • I heard a good case for having a LinkedIn profile. It still doesn’t sound fun… But does seem like a good way to get “information interviews” from people with jobs you want.


I’m currently having trouble finding the abstract for my favorite talk of the day, so I will pick this up tomorrow when I have some down time.

I finished off the night with some more fish tacos and a couple runs of my presentation. Tomorrow is the big day. I am looking forward to talking to some smart people about science!


Monday, March 6

Wow today was packed.

I launched what will likely be the most important project of my lifetime – The Official APS Coffee Guide. Started the morning off with an overpriced and very mediocre Americano from my home hotel. Details on the project are here.


Artsy fartsy picture of the hotel cafe

I originally had the idea of summarizing every interesting talk but that is certainly not going to happen. Maybe what I can do is give a one sentence explanation of my top five, then pick one to feature per day… Maybe I’ll be able to come back to all of these one day.

  1. A54.00002: Structural Evolution and Spatial Heterogeneity in Mucin Layers There are many types of mucous in the body, many coexisting in the same area. All are complex, large “polymer” chains. The eye secretes several types on its surface to keep itself lubricated and safe from debris. These researchers grow these mucouses (mucousie?) and watch how they spread and ultimately separate into discrete layers.
  2. A54.00004: Role of Gaussian Curvature in the Budding of HIV-1 Viruses When HIV infects a cell, at some point it needs to reproduce and “bud” off of that cell in order to infect the next cell. Researchers can describe the budding and “pinching off” of the new bud by considering the curvature in the bud, and the energy cost of creating interface. However, experiments show the rate of budding does not perfectly follow this model and exhibits an unusual pause before the bud breaks off from the infected cell and is able to infect a new cell. A new model of budding is proposed.

  3. A54.00005: Force vs separation for axisymmetric nearly minimal surfaces You can perform a simple experiment at home – take two loops, dip them in soapy water, then separate the loops. You will create a “catanoid”, or, a surface of no net curvature. If you have a lot of money, you can measure the force it takes to separate the loops – this force comes from to cost of increasing the area of the soap film between the loops (surface tension). This is simple enough for a soapy fluid… but when you make a fluid that has a bending stiffness (very unusual for a liquid – however you can accomplish this by using colloidal liquids which are liquids with very small particles within it). Substituting a fluid with bending stiffness for our soapy water changes the shape that is made between the two rings in a meaningful way.

  4. B48.00005: Elastic instabilities in floating shells Take a sphere and cut it in half. Now, force the sphere into two dimensions. What do you think it looks like?

  5. C48.00001: From turbulence transition to the buckling of a soda can Ever stand on a soda can and have your friend flick it? Apparently the buckling of the can is analogous to turbulent fluid flow through a pipe. Who knew?!cans.jpg

Highlight: C48.00011: Passive Elastic Structures Interacting with Grains in Motion

Coming soon.


We found a slightly-off-the-beaten-path yet still pretty hip American restaurant (Blue Cow Kitchen). That is to say, it was not ridiculously expensive like the restaurants directly around the conference center. I ordered the quinoa burger… a style of veggie burger I actually had not experienced before. Would recommend.


On the professional front, I managed to get several practice runs of my talk throughout the day and I’m finally feeling pretty confident for Wednesday.

Sunday, March 5

“So why did you select ‘other’?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about”

“On the machine. If you don’t have a work permit and don’t intend to work, why did you select other?”

“That was never an option given to me, it just didn’t work…”

“Fine. Well, from now on, don’t use your NEXUS card to try and enter the US. It’s only for getting into Canada.”

“Really? But your country issued the card, why would it only work to get into my own country?”

“Just use your passport, ok?”

Last night I realized my passport had expired. Luckily, I still had a NEXUS card valid until 2020. This is a trusted traveler program between Canada and the US. It is issued by the US and is intended to speed up the movement between countries. Unfortunately it never seems to go that way for me.

The customs agent with the inflatable chest appeared rugged but well-groomed, his red beard and crew cut kept clean and tight… he may have looked professional and confident, but he was so wrong about the NEXUS thing.


The rest of the flight was uneventful. We landed in LA around 2 pm local time and quickly made it to our hotel. It’s unbelievable. Photos to come, but know that the lobby is on the 70th floor. Figure that one out.


View from the lobby

The conference center is a 5 minute walk from our hotel, which is great. We went over while our rooms were getting prepared and obtained our conference badges. Next order of business was to consume tacos (Rosa Mexican – very good but pricey. Come with a PI, not just grad students), find some take-away beers for the room and do a couple runs through the talk.


Friendly little guacamole boy

The conference starts in earnest tomorrow. Haven’t found a good coffee place yet. But my room does have a dope robe. DIBS!


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