Special Project Ideas

Fall term is a good time to engage in research projects, and it’s not too early to start them sophomore year. We highly recommend that you do one, as do most students who have tried them. If you take one, you will learn something about actually doing Physics and Astronomy research, which will help guide you in decisions about “life after Carleton.” To lure you, we list numerous suitable projects below. The descriptions here are very brief; talk to us to us to explore more fully those projects that interest you and to be sure that we have not already promised a particular project to someone else.

Please note that these are offered only on S/Cr/NC basis since it is very difficult to assign grades to independent and cooperative projects. Special projects are for 2 to 3 credits and you will need to complete a special project form that will get deposited with the registrar. Independent studies can be 1 to 6 credits, and again you need to complete a special form. You can pick up a copy from Trenne Fields, Olin 331 or get one online under the Physics and Astronomy Department web page >> Student Resources >>Forms.

Marty Baylor

Special Projects in Physics

My research focuses on developing holographic photopolymers for integrated optofluidic devices. I have several sub-projects occurring in parallel. Several projects involve measuring and controlling the properties of my light-sensitive polymer. Additional projects involve building miniaturized devices such as tiny refractometers and spectrometers using this special polymer. Please contact me via email (mbaylor@carleton.edu) if you are interested in this work which combines physics, chemistry, optics, and engineering! No prior coursework or research experience is required, only an eagerness to learn and delve into hands-on experimental work.

Please note that because I will be off campus during the fall term, I will not be taking any new students until the winter term.

Cindy Blaha

Special Projects in Astrophysics

I have several projects to share with students who are interested in astronomical research and observation. Please come and talk to me if you are interested in working on these projects.

Evolutionary History of Galaxies: Interested in finding out how stars and gas interact to affect the life of a galaxy? Massive stars and the gas they ionize play an integral role in shaping the evolutionary history of a galaxy. Recently we’ve been working identifying the ionized hydrogen regions in spiral galaxies M31 and M33, spiral neighbors of our own Milky Way. Optical observations were acquired for three large fields in M33 and ten fields in M31. Each field has a set of B, V and R (blue, green and red) broadband images as well as three images taken through narrow interference filters centered on specific emission lines of ionized hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen. Using all these images together, we are trying to compare the galactic “life history” of M31 and M33. Data analysis will involve use of the Image Reduction and Analysis Facility (IRAF) and other image processing software on several operating systems.

Carleton's CCD Project: I am also involved with developing educational materials for our set of eight CCD (Charge Coupled Device) cameras as well as the new spectrometer and video cameras. This equipment is used on our 8" and 16" telescopes and allows us to record digital observations of astronomical objects and analyze them with a wide variety of software packages for image processing. We will continue to experiment with our CCD cameras, spectrometer and computers to develop observational labs and independent research projects ranging from lunar imaging and compositional analysis to determining the age of stellar clusters.

Melissa Eblen-Zayas

I have several ongoing projects that involve experimental studies of materials with interesting electrical and magnetic properties, as well as a short-term project related to sustainability. Anyone, including first-year students, is welcome to talk with me about getting involved. No previous experience is needed; the only pre-requisites are curiosity and enthusiasm for doing hands-on work.

Exploring colossal magnetoresistive (CMR) materials: These correlated electron materials exhibit a huge resistance change in response to applied magnetic fields that is associated with a transition from semiconducting to metallic behavior. These materials are not naturally occurring, and we fabricate them in the ultra-high vacuum chamber in our lab. We are interested in exploring the relationship between the growth parameters used when fabricating the materials and the nature of the CMR response.

Electrode Materials for High Yield Water Electrolysis: One approach for storing energy provided by wind or solar generators is via hydrogen produced by electrolysis. I'm working with a couple of colleagues to explore the feasibility of using magnetite electrodes for hydrogen production. Magnetite is appealing because it is contained in taconite, which is mined on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. We are focused on developing magnetite electrodes and exploring how impurities in those electrodes impact the amount of hydrogen produced. 

 Systems Approaches for Sustainability: How do individuals/groups analyze, evaluate, plan, and implement projects that promote sustainability? This 2 credit special project is an opportunity to learn about systems approaches to sustainable design with Joe Gransee-Bowman (MS in architecture, sustainable design), Martha Larson (manager of campus energy and sustainability), and myself. Possible cases we may consider include feasibility studies of year-round greenhouses in Northfield as part of sustainable living system design, the development a framework for planning and integrating sustainability projects on campus, exploring the history and development of community sustainability projects, etc. This special project is aimed at students with interests in engineering, environmental studies, and sustainable design.

Students will be expected to participate in 5 meetings during the term, actively contribute to group projects between meetings, and present results in an appropriate forum. We will meet on Tuesdays (time tbd) Sept 24, Oct 15, Oct 29, and either Nov 5 or  Nov 12 as well as taking one field trip.  Please contact me as soon as possible if you are interested in participating in this project.


Kassie Martin-Wells

Special Project in Astrophysics

In my research, I use a combination of ground-based radar and satellite photography (from instruments like NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera) to study the role of impact cratering on a variety of surfaces in our Solar System.   Specifically, I use the radar transmitter at Arecibo Observatory and the receiving capability of the Green Bank Radio Telescope to create high-resolution radar images (One of my collaborators, Dr. Bruce Campbell, explains the basics of the data-taking process here).

Impact cratering is the most common geologic process in the Solar System, affecting the ongoing development of terrestrial planets, asteroids, and icy bodies.  Understanding the physics of the impact process, therefore, is essential to understanding the geology of these bodies.  Impact craters are extraordinarily high-energy events.  The impact energy of a 14-km sized crater on the Earth (with a frequency of about one occurrence every million years) is roughly equivalent to the combined energy that would be released by the simultaneous detonation of the world’s combined nuclear arsenal!1  Because of the extreme energy involved in most impact events, a variety of interesting physics is required to understand the cratering process, from shock wave propagation and fracture mechanics to high -pressure thermodynamics.    Impact craters also provide a record of billions of years of bombardment history, an important tool for judging surface age and constraining the dynamical evolution of the Solar System.

The radar remote sensing component of my work has numerous connections to electricity and magnetism.   The theory of scattering of electromagnetic waves allows us to make inferences about physical properties of the scattering surface, such as the size and distribution of radar scatterers or the relative abundance of radar absorbing materials.  In conjunction with photographic data, I use this information to propose and constrain geologic histories that could give rise to the observed surface properties.   For example, in the past I have used radar maps to identify buried, block-rich deposits produced by high-speed flows of material initiated by a specific type of impact cratering on the Earth’s moon.

I am looking for interested students to assist in projects analyzing radar and other remote sensing datasets to constrain the flux of small bodies (diameters of a few to ten meters) impacting the Earth’s moon over the last 100 million years.  The flux of these small bodies is an important variable when it comes to measuring the ages of young surfaces in the Solar System.  For example, this work could help constrain the ages of potentially active or geologically recently active gullies and streaks on Mars.  In the course of this work, students could expect to gain familiarity using the IDL software package (with some minimal coding), as well as extensive use of NASA’s Planetary Data System, an online archive of NASA mission data (e. g., optical photographs, thermal imaging, elevation models, and a variety of other datasets).

I am also looking for students interested in helping to develop and test IDL code that would automatically identify and measure impact craters in image data.  Currently, researchers count and measure these features by hand—a subjective and time-consuming process.  The development of automatic counting software would help alleviate this burden and has a wide range of applications in planetary science.  In the course of this project, students would work extensively in IDL, gaining familiarity with image processing techniques such as two-dimensional Fourier transforms and image pyramiding.  Some previous experience with IDL would be helpful, but is not essential.

All interested students should contact Kassie at kwells@carleton.edu, stop by her office in Olin 323, or, of course, both.

1 http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci102/lectures/massext.htm

Jay Tasson

Special Projects in Physics

My recent research focus has been on the theoretical aspects of testing Lorentz symmetry, which is the symmetry underlying special relativity.  Tests of such fundamental symmetries have the potential to provide experimental information to guide the merge of General Relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics into a single quantum-consistent theory.  Though the motivation sounds quite technical, there is a relatively large space of interesting projects that can be, and have been, pursued by undergraduates.  The possibilities span a variety of areas of physics and styles of investigation, from paper and pencil theory to computer-aided data analysis.  I’ve commented more specifically on two projects below, but other options could be considered as well.  If you’re interested, please talk to me. 

Gravimeter Data Analysis:  Gravimeters are devices that measure the gravitational field of the Earth. They can be used to measure a number of geophysical effects as well as deviations from Newtonian gravity. The project would consist of analyzing data from such devices to provide improved sensitivities to possible Lorentz-symmetry violations. 

Hamiltonian for Atomic Physics: The test framework used to investigate Lorentz symmetry consists of equations relevant for high-energy investigations, while many of the relevant experiments are low-energy in nature and are most easily investigated using the tools of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics and classical mechanics.  Getting the low-energy tools from the high energy ones requires some theoretical work, which would constitute one phase of the project.  A second phase could consist of applying them to a relevant experimental system.

Bill Titus

Special Projects in Physics

Visualization of Quantum Scattering in One Dimensional:  This theoretical/computational project involves exploring ways of visualizing the one-dimensional, quantum mechanical scattering of a wave packet from a potential.  A basic background in Mathematica and quantum mechanics is required.

A Simplified Cavendish Laboratory:  Our department owns a Cavendish apparatus that allows the determination of the value for G, the universal gravitational constant.  However, to obtain the best value for G, the experiment requires careful work, some extensive background reading, and lots of time.  This experimental project involves designing an experiment using our apparatus for a spring geophysics course that can be done in several hours and can also determine G, but to a lesser degree of accuracy and knowledge.  Open to all who like to tinker with experimental equipment.

Joel Weisberg

Special Project in Astrophysics

Pulsar and General Relativity Research: Pulsars are rapidly spinning (up to 700 times per second!) neutron stars that are born in supernovas. My students, colleagues, and I use data from the giant radiotelecopes in Arecibo, PR, Green Bank, WV, and Parkes, Australia for a variety of pulsar and general relativity projects.   We are studying Einstein's General Theory of Relativity by carefully observing the orbit and pulseshape of a binary pulsar, observing other pulsars to try to understand the  underlying emission mechanism; and measuring the density, turbulence, and magnetization of the interstellar medium by watching its effects on pulsar signals. The projects involve the use of unix, fortran, IDL, and C programs to plan the observations and to analyze the data we collect on these objects.   We would start by studying pulsars in general and learning the various software; then slowly ramping up through the year to more and more sophisticated analyses of pulsar data.  Astrophysics I or II is a suggested prerequisite but we can be flexible. Unfortunately, right now it looks like my roster is filled.