Which Physics topic do you know?

Over the years I have had to correct so many people who think that people who study physics are physicians or that getting a PhD in physics means that we will all become lecturers or professors. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with becoming an academic, heck I want to be an academic but there are those who go into industry and become consultants for many companies out there. The one thing that I, however, have found to be the most annoying is the assumption that when we study physics then we know everything about string theory, the big bang theory, that when you do nuclear physics then you can make a bomb (seriously, anyone can find that on Google… I think) and have all watched the movie Interstellar. Honestly, it took me a week to finish that movie and when I finally did, I regretted ever giving it a second of my life. Just because we are physics postgraduates/graduates doesn’t mean we are weird and spend all of our time studying, we have hobbies too that don’t involve physics. Anyways back to the topic at hand, there are many fields within physics and I will introduce you to some of these through people who are actually doing them and at the same time break the stereotype that we are all nerds who are constantly studying. 

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Meet Tanita Ramburuth-Hurt, currently doing her MSc in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her topic is in dark matter and diffuse radio emission in spiral galaxies. Basically, radio emission in the form of the “WMAP/Planck haze” has been detected to exist within the Milky Way. If this haze is a product of dark matter annihilations, a similar emission should be detectable in spiral galaxies that are similar to the Milky Way. Her research uses galaxy simulation software to predict the flux, morphology and spectrum of the dark matter haze of spiral galaxies with the intention of using the MeerKAT telescope to compare our simulations with observations. She chose to do a postgraduate degree in Physics because she loves maths, physics, and space. She finds it beautiful that we are able to understand the universe in the language of mathematics through physics. She plans to continue and do her PhD after she completes her MSc. She has recently achieved her black belt in Combat Tang Soo Do, and spends a lot of time training for tournaments. She is also on the Wits Sport Council and sits on the Wits SRC, advocating for the empowerment of women through sport and for the improvement of mental health through sport. Her advice to other postgraduate students or those who plan to pursue a postgraduate career in Physics is that you should take all the opportunities you can. She had the privilege of attending the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany this year all because she took the opportunity to apply.

Meet Dr Shell-may Liao, she is an experimental high energy/particle physicist. She completed her PhD in July 2019 at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) where she was part of the WITS Institute for Collider Particle Physics (ICPP). Her research focused on searching for new physics in association with missing transverse energy in the diphoton decay channel with the ATLAS detector at CERN. The search included searching for dark matter particles. Physics has been a passion of hers from a very young age. She was inspired by her father who is a theoretical physicist. He made her see the universe through his eyes by sharing his physics knowledge with her throughout most of her life. This triggered her curiosity in understanding our universe through physics concepts. Does she plan to continue with physics after her PhD? “Absolutely! I am currently working as a lecturer in the physics department at the University of eSwatini in my country of origin. I also plan to pursue a post-doc in the next years to come in my field of research.” She loves playing board games, she spends some weekends with friends enjoying game nights. She also thoroughly enjoys the outdoors, loves hiking and running. She roller blades every now and then with her siblings. She also spends some of her leisure time doing some event organizing and decorating. Her advice to other post-graduate students is to always stay positive and make sure what they are doing is what they really have a passion for. “At the end of the day, no one can ever put 100% effort in something they do not truly enjoy doing. Studying physics is not a walk in the park, so try to have an efficient routine. That is, make sure that you work hard, but also sleep enough. Do not forget to have a social life too, this really helped me to refresh when work became overwhelming. It also does not hurt to exercise every now and then in order to refresh the body and mind. Go for a run and reset!”

Meet Nokwazi Mphuthi, she is currently doing a PhD on a collaborative project between Wits University and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). The projects is looking into using structured light to improve the efficiency of a laser ranging system currently being developed by SARAO in collaboration with NASA. She did not necessarily choose physics but it chose her. Her background is in Geomatics Engineering (Land Surveying). She was fascinated by the project itself and did not want to miss out on the opportunity to be part of it. This led her to join physics under the structured light group. Does she plan to continue with physics after her PhD? “Yes, I plan to continue with structured light and the Laser ranging project to see what other interesting discovered we can derive from it.” Outside the physics world, she has a passion for cooking and trying out different recipes. “If I was not into science, I was probably going to be a chef. I love it and that is what I spend most of my weekends doing.” Unfortunately, she does not have any advice for fellow postgraduate students as everything is still a learning curve for her too but she can express what she has learned throughout her PhD Journey. “I have learned that we are all capable of more than we think. We just need to drive and push in the right direction. I have also learned to be kind to myself. I don’t have to be the best, I just need to be good at what I do. And that my only competition is myself.”

Meet Dr Siphephile Ncube, a postdoctoral fellow in Condensed Matter Physics. She worked in Nanoelectronics and Spintronics; Low-temperature electronic transport on carbon-based nanomaterials. She is currently working on the magnetic and electronic properties of Cr based bulk materials. She chose to do physics because it presented a good challenge. She fell in love with numbers at a tender age and found her way to the exciting world of physics. Does she plan on continuing with physics after her PhD? “Yes definitely. I am addicted!” I mean she already a postdoctoral fellow. When she is not busy fulfilling her addiction she enjoys reading, gardening, exploring, Game of Thrones 😉 and like any other woman, she loves shopping. What advice does she have for other postgraduate students or those who plan to pursue a postgraduate career in Physics? “Physics is related to many fields and has led to what the world calls “Civilization”. It is a fundamental entity of human life and the future of advances in technology leading to the vast development of many economies. Find your passion and reach for the stars!  Perseverance and resilience pay off in the end.”

Well, I hope that this was somewhat informative in terms of what people doing physics are up to. There is a post by Dominic Walliman that I came across that discusses the map of physics. I found this rather useful because even I myself never really knew how all of these topics connected together. This paints a beautiful picture of how physics comes together and also shows how many aspects/topics are combined to make one field. As seen in the map of physics image, lets all not get stuck in the chasm of ignorance and continue to think that physics is all about the big bang theory or nuclear bombs, there is a much more than we can imagine out there. 

I can’t speak for everyone else but yes I am weird and a nerd but I am a super cool nerd who has a life outside of the physics. A special thank you to the above-mentioned ladies for taking time off their busy schedules and answering my questions.

Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

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polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

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1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest.