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Welcoming 2010 with the 215th AAS Meeting
by Christopher Mullins, University of North Texas [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Author Ben Frandsen  
Many undergraduates displayed posters downstairs between and during lectures.
Photo courtesy Christopher Mullins
I've been told that the Washington Monument, which was until recently the tallest free-standing building in the world, reaches so far into the sky that on a clear afternoon when its shadow is projected along the grassy strip of the mall, one can notice the spin of the earth by walking alongside the tip of the shadow as its angle relative to the sun changes. This, along with the exhibits at the famous Smithsonian Institute museums, is enough to entice my intellectual sweet-tooth for anything physics or astronomy-related. The week of January 3rd, I found the equivalent of a glistening White House feast.

I am an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, currently in my second year of pursuing a double-major in physics and percussion performance. I have taken physics courses dealing with classical mechanics and electromagnetism, and I feel I have an adequate understanding of Kepler's laws and universal gravitation. Other than this, however, my knowledge of astronomy is limited, and I have made no formal declaration of specialization in the subject. Nevertheless, the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington DC was one that I did not dare miss. What better opportunity is there to brush elbows with some of the brightest minds in physics today? I arrived at the Marriot in which the meeting was held on Sunday evening with a notebook, a camera, and no idea what to expect.

Despite what I believe was a sincere attempt to avoid this, I was a bit overwhelmed as I browsed the tables set up by universities to advertise their research opportunities during the undergraduate orientation. There was little presented that I was able to understand. I recognized the names of these universities, as well as many of the programs they mentioned, but reading the content felt like trying to decipher a foreign language spoken only by seasoned astronomers.

  215th AAS Meeting


One of the posters displayed on Monday.
Photo courtesy Christopher Mullins

During an inspirational talk by several officers of the American Astronomical Society, one of them mentioned that this meeting could be “the largest collection of undergraduate physics majors in the entire country.” Now, as I clumsily navigated this sea of hundreds of prospective astronomers, my press badge the only indication that I knew where I was going, I had no doubt that this was true. As a neophyte to any sort of academic conference, my obvious unpreparedness left me with a dwelling sense of hopelessness, and contrastingly, an eager desire to see how much of this foreign astronomer-speak I could figure out. As a result, I did what any self-respecting physicist does when he feels momentarily outsmarted: I got in line for coffee. The queue seemed long enough that there was a good chance I might meet someone, since I did not know anyone in attendance. Here I was approached by the director of the Society of Physics Students, Gary White. “You must be Chris, one of the SPS student journalists!” he said enthusiastically, “Let me introduce you to a few people.” He then introduced me to several distinguished men including John Huchra of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and president of AAS, as well as John Graham, AAS secretary, and Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer of AAS. They were all very excited to meet undergraduate physics students and chat about research opportunities and programs around the country.

I saw many of the same undergraduate students throughout the conference at coffee breaks when there were no lectures in session, and we were encouraged to visit the posters in the lower half of the lobby. Here we were presented with what I considered to be the highlight of the meeting—scores of joined tables stretching far enough for me to lose my sense of direction, packed to the edge with posters outlining either the results or current findings of student research projects. A vast amount of these were accompanied by undergraduate students eager to answer questions about their work. It was encouraging to see peers my own age and older (and in a few cases, younger) standing next to these posters. Although many of these topics were far too specific for me to glean any useful insight into their findings, students were always happy to entertain questions or simply offer an explanation of their work to journalists. These posters were all saturated with information, crowding helpful illustrations next to charts, graphs, and details of procedures. They seemed to suggest, in the passive voice of course, that the undergraduate research experience is far too vast to be adequately summarized on a mounted piece of cardboard. Over the course of the conference posters were organized and presented on almost eighty different topics. My favorite sessions were those concerning computational techniques, which were unfailingly populated by fellow programming enthusiasts.

Author Ben Frandsen  
Father George Coyne of VOSS accepts the 2009 George Van Biesbroeck Prize.
Photo courtesy Joshua Fuchs

Hearing the invited sessions and special lectures were an absolute joy. I had the chance to hear active and often award-winning physicists speak about their research and findings. William Borucki gave an introduction to the Kepler Planet Detection Mission, which is a search for earth-size planets within the habitable zones of stars. He also announced the discovery of five exoplanets (Kepler 4b through 8b). Although these were not what Kepler was designed to find, it was a helpful step in making sure the system works as it should. I was also fascinated by a presentation from Maria Zuber, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on how the view of water on Mars has changed over the past century with the aid of the Viking spacecraft. What I noticed more than the content of the lectures (much of which was obviously too specific for me to grasp) was the emphasis on future research. Almost all of the presentations ended with a comment that was meant to direct the audience's attention toward what was still to be discovered about the speaker's topic, and possible alternate explanations for the phenomena they had observed. This was always followed by an invitation to ask questions, during which I often learned as much as I had listening to the lecture itself.

As most of these presentations highlighted the start of new and exciting paths to be explored, so did this conference to me. Of everything I gained from my attendance, the most valuable part, I believe, is the inspiration to attend more of these meetings—hopefully the next time with a poster to present.

Free 1-Year Membership in AAS
When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free one-year membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the American Astronomical Society (AAS).  

SPS Reporter Program
SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

SPS Travel Awards
A limited number of grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.

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