The Joy of Pulling things Apart

A clothes dryer heating element, 10 years old and broken

Before I wanted to be a physicist – I mean, really wanted to become a physicist – I learned the joy of tinkering. I am sure it started earlier than when I remember it actually happening (memory is funny that way), the first first recollection I have of fully losing my fear of pulling the universe apart, and putting it back together, was in the basement shop of my grandfather… shortly after he passed away.

Every generation of scientist makes the same observation; it’s so common, it’s trite. “Kids these days,” the observation usually starts, “they lack the courage to get their hands dirty.” I have heard this my whole life, even as I grew up in this field. The truth is, any one of us who got this far – who lost all our fear for dismantling the universe and putting it back together – probably had a mentor along the way.

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Messages from Blois (2019)

The Chateau de Blois sits atop one of hills of the city of Blois. Here it is viewed across the Loire River. Photo by Stephen Sekula.

The conference, Rencontres de Blois, takes place annually in the Chateau de Blois. This year was the 30th anniversary of the conference and the 31st such edition of the conference. The conference is a synthesis of particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology – a perfect match to the strengths of our own physics department at SMU. As is typical, I always learn something new at the conference. Here, I share a few of my personal favorite highlights.

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Failure as a Teacher’s Aid

Any person with a minimum sufficient experience in life has been rewarded with failure. A subset of those people, with sufficient practice, will come to recognize failure, not as a friend, but as a teacher. A recent useful (and ultimately harmless) failure in my class became a key teaching moment, and may serve as a template to others to how to incorporate failure into teaching without disrupting the larger arc of a class

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