Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Head Trauma and the Cosmos

Incredible as it may seem, we’re already halfway through our junior year of Experimental Physics. Today was quite busy­–two guest speakers in the morning and another afternoon spent with our interest groups. However, I was pleased to feel especially alert all throughout class today, which was probably mostly due to the interesting nature of the morning lectures.

Our first guest speaker was Dr. Doug Smith, from UPenn’s head trauma unit. He discussed the possible ways you could get head trauma, and tied it in to our class by talking about head trauma and rollercoasters. As it turns out, there is no conclusive evidence that rollercoasters induce head trauma, because they only apply forces of up to 5 or 6 Gs (gravity=9.8m/s2) and don’t create rotational acceleration on your head. However, there are plenty of other ways to damage your brain, and as you might expect, playing sports was one of the leading causes. The scariest part of the talk was when Dr. Smith told us that people who have concussions, even mild ones, sometimes show the same type of brain damage that is found in Alzheimer’s patients.

For most of the talk I was really freaked out, because I play soccer and it’s quite possible that I’ve suffered a mild concussion at some point throughout the years and never noticed. I realized, though, that I’m not going to stop doing something that I love just because there is a possibility that I could damage my axons. After all, people get into car crashes far too frequently–we passed a crash scene on the way to ice-skating last Sunday–yet I still drive myself to school every day. If I’m careful and don’t do anything stupid, I can continue to play soccer and avoid axon damage in my white matter. (Fun fact: According to Dr. Smith, doing headers does not cause any neuron loss!)

The second guest lecturer was Professor Mark Trodden, a particle cosmologist. He spoke to us about his research on the study of the universe. A lot of the things he talked to us about were related to my term paper on dark matter, so it was really cool to be reminded of concepts that I researched months ago. He also tied in his research to topics that we’ve been learning about in class, such as using the Doppler effect to examine supernovas and figure out how far away galaxies are and whether they are moving towards or away from Earth.

Today was completely jam-packed with activities, but everything was interesting and both guest presenters did an excellent job of tailoring their presentations to the audience, which I really appreciated. Later tonight I had the chance to relax a little and watch an episode of Masterchef with Clara and Christine. From talking to Christine it’s apparent that there are definitely a lot of cultural differences between the Bay Area and Taiwan, so it was nice to find something as ordinary as TV shows to bond over.

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