Blogging Update

Hello there.

Yes, I haven’t posted here in a while. But to make it up to you, I’m going to show you a picture from my drone.

This is a canal in New Orleans. My older son had a soccer game right next to this, so during warm-ups I did a little bit of photography. Actually, these are really weird. You are on ground level and you see a big long hill (there really aren’t many hills in New Orleans). When you walk up the “hill” you see water that could be at a higher level than the ground.

Yes, it’s not a hill. It’s a levee.

It’s definitely odd.

Now for some other random updates.

  • I have been busy as usual. I picked up a couple of freelance posts for a UK magazine. In the edits, all my “meters” were changed to “metres”. I thought that was fun.
  • Blogging on WIRED went pretty well this week. I had two posts – one on a rough estimation of the amount of carbon dioxide capture from planting trees. The other was an estimation of Death Star pieces on the surface of a planet.
  • Another thing I have been working on: making better youtube videos. I have made some modest gains, but I still need more work.
  • I was thinking about doing a youtube live stream event, but I’m afraid no one would show up.
  • Finally, my oldest daughter moved to Japan. I’m glad she made it there.

All About Rhett: A Resume

Who is Rhett? Where is he from? What are his super powers? Why do you want to contact Rhett for your project? Let’s answer these questions.

Super Brief History

How about just the highlights? Yes.

  • Born in the past, not the future.
  • B.S. in physics from Benedictine University (although it was called I.B.C. back then).
  • M.S. in physics from the University of Alabama (including work at CERN).
  • Ph.D. in physics from NC State University.
  • Some other stuff here.
  • Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Stuff I Do: Blogging

Yes, I like to write. Blogging is the best (for me). It’s quick and free form. You can use a variety of tools (video, gif, graph, python). It’s just the best. THE BEST!

I should probably include some of my favorite posts—but there are just too many that I love. If you want a post on a particular topic (like video analysis)—just google “rhett allain video analysis” and that should get you what you need.

Here is my WIRED blog stuff.

Oh, I also blog here—but I guess you already know that.

Stuff I Do: MacGyver

I am currently the technical consultant for the CBS show MacGyver. It’s a super fun and awesome job. But what do I do? Essentially, I help out with the “MacHacks” in the show. I look over the hacks and see if they are at least plausibly based on some real thing. Other times, I make suggestions for hacks. Finally, I offer suggestions for some of the science-type stuff that MacGyver says.

Oh, I also make DIY home-versions of hacks. Here is an example.

As a bonus, here is an interview I did with CBS KPIX out of San Fransisco on my work with MacGyver.

Stuff I Do: MythBusters

I’ve actually been working on MythBusters much longer than I have worked for MacGyver. I worked on about the last 4 seasons of the original MythBusters and then I did the reboot with Jon Lung and Brian Louden. Finally, I worked on MythBusters Jr.

So, what do I do? Really, there are two things. First thing is to do some background check on future myths. For some myths, I do some estimations and calculations to see if there is a chance of a myth working. You don’t want something that is either too easy or too hard, it should be just right.

The second thing I do is the science explanations. When there is a short explanation about how something works, I help with that.

Stuff I Do: Books

Writing books isn’t as much fun as blogging, but there it is. Here are the books I have authored.

I could talk about books more—but I’m just going to leave it at that.

Stuff I Do: Python and Numerical Calculations

It’s not my fault. If you want to blame someone—how about Bruce Sherwood and Ruth Chabay. It is through their textbook, Matter and Interactions (Wiley), that I was introduced to python and numerical calculations. It’s awesome.

Once you start solving problems by coding, it sort of gets addictive. I’ve been creating python programs since about 2003 (just a guess). Later I started putting more and more of it in my classes—and here we are.

I’m not an expert coder, but I am an expert at implementing this stuff in introductory courses. That’s what I do. I have even held workshops for teachers and educators. It’s fun.

If you want to look at the stuff I’ve done, here are three versions (all online).

  • Physics Python for Mere Mortals. This is an online type book with embedded code. Designed for intro students with zero previous programming experience and some physics. This is what I use in my lecture and lab courses.
  • Introductory Physics with Python. This is more like a full book. It’s incomplete, but the idea is to teach physics using python. I want to work on this some more.
  • Numerical Calculations in Physics. I wrote these as tutorials for students in the calculus based physics course. It uses more vectors and stuff than the over stuff.

Again, I could list a BUNCH more stuff on python but I won’t.

Stuff I Do: Talks

I’ve done quite a few talks. Instead of listing all my talks (or my favorite talks), I’m going to list my favorite topics:

  • The physics of superheroes.
  • The physics of Star Wars and science fiction.
  • Video Analysis (real vs. fake videos).
  • The best physics models (python and stuff) and estimations.
  • Science communication (blogging, MythBusters, MacGyver).
  • The physics of video games.
  • Learning about physics learning (education stuff).
  • Physics demos.
  • Physics and python.

Other Videos

I’m not a huge video guy, but I do make videos. Here is one that turned out better than I expected. It’s a video made at WIRED.

Here is another one that I made (from my youtube channel).

Here is one more. I like to make videos that show physics solutions.

Wait. One more. This one is a more advanced video.

The End.

Contact me if you want to work on something. I’m always looking for extra jobs.

Trip Report: Texas AAPT/APS Section Meeting

Since this is just a normal plain blog, I can do silly things like this report on my recent trip.  Why not?

Where and Why?

I was invited to give the keynote address as well as a workshop on python at the AAPT/APS section meeting at the University of Houston.  Since this isn’t too far away, I decided to just drive there – it’s about a 5 hour trip.  Not bad, plus I can bring as many pairs of shoes that can fit in my car.  I brought one pair of shoes.

I drove in on Friday and arrived Friday evening – I stayed at hotel on the outskirts of Houston.

A note regarding section meetings.

I really like section meetings.  They are smaller, cheaper, and it’s easier to get around and see everyone.  Oh, national meetings are cool too – but sometimes they are just too big.  Also, who likes paying 500 dollars just for registration?  Not me.

Python Workshop

For the workshop, I used my python material.  This is essentially the same stuff I used at the Chicago Section of AAPT.  Here are some notes.

  • The material basically this stuff on
  • I also have instructor materials and other files posted on the PICUP site.
  • It seems there were about 15 participants. The room had computers for people to use – that helps out a bunch.
  • There was an issue with the projector – it wasn’t quite working.  Someone brought in a backup, but it wasn’t bright enough.  It’s funny how small problems like this can make a big difference when people are learning.
  • Another issue for python workshops – variety of people.  Some people have never used python and some have experience. This makes it slightly difficult.
  • Other than that, I think the workshop went well.  I had one person ask me afterwards how to become an expert with python.  My response was to just keep practicing.  The best way to learn is to learn python to solve particular problems.  It’s pretty tough if you try to learn stuff without a purpose.  Oh, also – sloppy code is fine.

Keynote: Science Communication with MacGyver and MythBusters

Normally, I give a talk that focuses on physics of science fiction or video analysis or something like that.  I’ve talked about science communication before – but in this case I wanted to include a bunch of examples from MacGyver and MythBusters – so I had to make a new talk.

Check out the venue (maybe it’s difficult to see from this pic though):

This is the “club level” of the University of Houston football stadium.  No, there wasn’t a game going on at the time (but that would have been funny).  It was a nice place – the screens were in a weird position, but still it was nice.  Oh, I did make one fairly big mistake.  I was having trouble with the projectors and I ended up with “mirroring” on my computer.  This means that I didn’t see the next slide and and I didn’t have a clock. I really like seeing a clock.

For the talk, I focused on 4 “rules” of science communication:

  • You can’t be 100% correct, but you can be 100% wrong
  • Build a bridge from the science to the audience (complicated, conceptual, or shiny physics).
  • Science fiction is still fiction.
  • Use mistakes as a foot in the door to talk about what you want.

Overall, I think it went well.  Oh, there was one great question at the end.  “How do we use science communication to help people understand climate change?”  My response: we need to focus on the nature of science and understanding of what exactly science is all about.

Finally, here is another picture. This is me on the football field (which was kind of cool).

Fixing Stuff Isn’t So Bad

Today it started with a lose bolt that holds down the toilet.  Actually, the bolt was gone – beyond gone.  Rusted away.  I figured the flange thing that the bolts go into was probably busted too, but you can’t tell until you lift up the whole toilet.

When starting a project like this, I always go to youtube first.  What a lucky time to live in that we have a resource like this.  Of course it wasn’t just the broken bolt.  I needed to replace the wax seal too.  As long as I’m working on the toilet, I should also replace that tank fill valve that was slightly leaking.

Oh wait! When I turn off the water to the toilet with the shutoff valve, that is leaking too!  After a trip to the hardware store and multiple rounds of turning off the water to the whole house, I finished the job.  The seat doesn’t rock, the shutoff valve doesn’t leak, and the fill valve stops when fill.  Oh, how about a quick advertisement for those quarter-turn shutoff valves?  My house has these “multi-turn” valves that are like the kind on your outdoor water hose.  I’ve already had two of these leak – so that’s not so good.  Also, when the toilet overflows (it happens), the quarter turn is faster to shut off.



Photo: Rhett Allain

I’m just going to say one other thing about toilets (this is not a toilet post).  It seems like a pretty simple job – but once you get confined in space, everything gets just a little bit more complicated.

OK, but in the end – it’s finished.  In the end, I’m pretty happy.  I feel like I accomplished something.  I fixed something and made it better.  I feel human.

I wasn’t always like this.  I remember in my early adult years I would think:

Why can’t they just make toilets that don’t break?  For that matter, why not make a lawn that doesn’t need mowing.  Oh, how about clothes that don’t need washing?  All of this cleaning an fixing stuff is just taking away time from more important stuff.

That was the old me.  The new me doesn’t mind these chose so much.  Oh, I still get bothered sometimes.  When the lawn needs mowing and it’s super hot (or won’t stop raining) or when something breaks and you JUST KEEP MESSING UP.  Yes, those times are frustrating.

But I’ve come to accept that we live in a world that increases in entropy.  If you leave stuff alone, it will just mess up and eventually break.  What makes humans so awesome is that we can fight this tide of increasing disorder.  We fix things.  We clean things.  We are humans.



Summer at CERN

I like telling old stories – so I am just going to keep doing that.

I wanted to share a particular story of an event while I was at CERN – but then I figured I should explain why I was at CERN first.  So, here it goes.

I was an undergraduate student at Benedictine University (we called it I.B.C. back then) with a major in physics.  BTW – that was a great experience, I should write about it sometime.  After graduating, really the only graduate program I was accepted into was at The University of Alabama (in 1992).

After my first year, I started working with the Experimental High Energy Research group.  I honestly have no reason to be in this field except that one of the physics faculty sort of invited me into the program – so I did.  I clearly wasn’t theoretical physics material – so, what the heck.  I figured that’s where I would go.

The group originally worked with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).  This was a giant particle accelerator being built in Texas.  SPOILER ALERT: they soon canceled the program.  Anyway, our group’s role was to build muon detectors.  These are essentially super long Geiger tubes.  In order to get precise muon track position, we needed a precise location of the wire in the middle of the tube.  Since these were long tubes – the wire had a sag.  It was that sag that we tried to determine.

But the SSC was canceled.  I think the program had some funds left over from the grant – so the faculty member in charge decided to collaborate with CERN.  He had money to send me there to work the following summer.  I think his main goal was to use up the money and have a student listed as “doing research” – that would look good for his tenure application.  Yes, faculty do silly things like this.

I didn’t really want to go to Switzerland.  I know people travel to all sorts of crazy places when they were much younger than me, but I really didn’t do stuff like that.  On top of that, I really didn’t know what my “mission” was at CERN other than to serve as a “checkbox” on a physics faculty tenure application.  Oh well – I went anyway.

Wait.  What the heck is CERN?  CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research – the acronym works in French)  is in Geneva Switzerland (mostly) and is a particle accelerator.  So, essentially it is a giant underground ring that accelerates particles and then smashes them into other particles.  There are some particle detectors spaced around the ring to – you know – detect stuff.  Our group worked on the L3 detector.

OK, so I move out to Switzerland for the summer.  Maybe now would be a good time to point out that that part of Switzerland speaks French.  I don’t speak French.  However – I am fluent in pointing at stuff.  Most people at the research facility spoke English – but food was in French.  I just pointed.  I didn’t starve to death.

While I was there, my “job” (which was poorly defined at first) was to write and modify FORTRAN code to analyze detector alignment data.  Basically, there are more than one detectors and you need to know the relative position of these things to track particles.  We had two alignment systems – a laser alignment and a capacitive sensor.  I was supposed to take data from these and then “do stuff”.

I’m a pretty sucky FORTRAN programmer.  I was then, and I still am now.  It was great to be at CERN, but I mostly just worked in the computer lab messing things up.  I really don’t know if I even accomplished one thing while I was there (research-wise).

I did get to meet lots of new people and hang around CERN and see cool stuff.  Overall, it was a great experience.

More on my CERN adventures will be posted at some point.


A Cave Diving Story

I want to write about some things that happened in the past – mostly so I don’t forget.  In this case, I’m going to describe a particular cave dive that sticks in my mind.  Now, there is a warning.  This might not be exactly what happened – but it might also be true.  It’s probably the way it happened.  Let’s begin.

In case you aren’t familiar with cave diving, the main idea is to explore a cave that is completely underwater.  You start outside the cave and you are already underwater. This is not spelunking – this is cave diving.  We mostly went into springs in the panhandle of Florida – that was our roaming territory.

Just for fun, here is a picture of me with my cave diving gear.

Please don’t complain about the setup.  This was a picture from my cave diving class.  I learned quite a bit after this and changed things up – but still you can get an idea of what it was like.  That was my friend’s van that we used to drive to different caves – it was pretty sweet.

Ok – now for this one particular dive.  I am pretty sure this was at Twin Cave.  Twin Cave is in the middle of Merritt’s Mill Pond in Marianna Florida.  The only feasible way to get here is with a boat (unlike most cave diving in which you just walk into the water). It’s called “Twin Cave” because it has two entrances right next to each other (underwater).  If you have a boat, you can use a tiny little wood platform connected to two trees to set up stuff.

My dive partner (Trey) and I hitched a ride with Pat Watson.  He had a little john-boat and ferried us to the cave.  He then went back and picked up two more divers – Pat was teaching them how to cave dive and this was one of their “check out dives”.  Oh, I should add that at one point there was so much stuff in that little boat that it was barely above water.  One tiny wave and I think the thing would sink.

Now for the dive plan.  Go into Twin Caves and get into the lower levels.  In this case, we would use diver propulsion vehicles (DPV) to get through the easy part and then proceed in the lower part by swimming.  The DPVs are awesome (also called scooters).  That’s the truth.  I always wanted a scooter – but I never got one.  Fortunately, my dive buddy had just recently upgraded his DPV for a bigger one.  That meant that he still had his old one.  BOOM – scooter time,

You’ve seen these scooters.  They are basically small torpedo looking things (not exactly) with an electric motor.  You connect a line from the scooter to you so that you can “drive” with one hand.  That’s not really important, but I just wanted to say that.

Ok, so we start off on our dive.  I seem to recall that it’s sort of tricky getting into Twin Cave.  The main entrance is a vertical shaft – but then you have to turn horizontal right when you get in.  If you don’t turn correctly, you hit the the bottom of the cave.  Most cave bottoms have this silt stuff – if you hit it you change the cave water from pristine clear water to brown soup that you can’t see through.  So – don’t hit the bottom (this will be important later.  Oh, it’s even harder to get in this cave when you are trying to do with with a scooter.  We probably had a stage bottle too.

I guess I should say something about stage bottles – for completeness.  A stage bottle is an extra scuba tank that you mount on your side.  You use this stage bottle for the first part of the dive – until it gets 2/3 full.  At that point, you take the tank off and leave it on the line (there is a line running in the cave).  You then proceed on the dive using the two tanks on your back.  Using stage bottles lets you go much farther than just with double tanks.

Now back to the dive.  The first part of the cave is pretty cool.  It’s this big cylindrical cave that we called the subway.  Ok, that might not be true.  In my mind, we called it the subway.  It was super easy to get through with a scooter – just imagine a long straight circular tunnel with a diameter of about 3 to 4 meters (let’s say 10 feet for imperials).  Like I said, this is perfect for scooters.

At some point, we moved down to some small stuff and dropped off the scooters.  There are two important points here.  First, this part was deeper (can’t remember the exact depth) such that we will have more decompression time.  Second, it was low and slow down here – longer time at depth also means more deco.  I’m not going to really talk about deco time right now – but let’s just say that you don’t want to rack up a ton of deco time – it sort of sucks.

So we did our exploration of the lower part.  Now it’s time to get the hell back to the entrance and do our deco.  No more sight seeing – just hurry up.  We pick up our stage bottles and our scooters and scoot out.  Oh, quick note.  There are two things that are awesome to see in a cave.  The first is the warm glow of the Sun when you are near the cave entrance – this tells you that you are almost out.  The second is your stage bottle.  Picking up a stage just says “hey, you just got a bunch more air and a completely independent air supply – you have less chance of dying now”.  It’s awesome.

Now for the whole point of this story.  We are there on our scooters moving out of the cave while back in the subway.  Ahead we see some lights.  It was Pat and his two students.  As we start to get near, something happens.  The inflator on Pat’s buoyancy compensator (BC) just falls off for no apparent reason.  In case you have never been diving, the BC is basically a bag of air that you can fill up or empty to adjust how you float in the water.  It’s super important in cave diving because you want to stay off the bottom of the cave where all that silt is (remember I mentioned this before).

When Pat’s BC failed, so did his ability to stay off the bottom of the cave.  It was weird – he just took a dive straight down.  He sort of looked like a B-17 bomber that had just been shot out of the sky.  I saw him try to make a correction to his buoyancy, but it wasn’t going to happen.  He ended up just putting two fingers straight down to catch his fall (this is what we were taught so as to minimize the silt disturbance).  It didn’t work. His crash produced silt.  A lot of silt.

It was really amazing.  This clear water subway tunnel suddenly turned into a tunnel with a wall.  A wall of silt.  You really can’t see much in this silt – it’s effectively zero visibility (but not as bad as clay in the water).

Since we were traveling along at a good pace with the scooters – it only made sense to slow down quite a bit.  I knew there were three divers inside that wall of silt, but I didn’t know WHERE exactly they were.  So I slowed down.  Gradually clicking the throttle trigger on the scooter to maintain a slow crawl speed.

To my surprise, my dive buddy chose a different strategy – he decided to just keep going at his current speed.  I saw him head straight into that wall of silt – waiting for some type of collision.  But no, he made it though.  It was a bold move and it paid off.

For me, I went through slowly and made it to the other side of the silt wall (which wasn’t very thick).  After that we did our deco and finished the dive.  I sort of recall not taking the boat back to the van and staging area.  Instead, we used the scooters the rest of the way.  It didn’t matter at that point – you don’t have to worry about saving scooter battery or scuba air.

The end.