Friday, November 27, 2009

I go to a conference

The other day, I attended an undergraduate research conference. Fun! I made a presentation on my summer research on classification of gravitational wave candidates. I try to make at least the first few slides very easy to understand, and here's a little peek.

This is a basic picture of what my research was about. You have a bunch of events, some of which may be spiraling binary black holes or neutron stars, and some of which may be noise caused by something entirely different. Each event has multiple associated parameters (such as "x" and "y" shown in the diagram, but there could be many more). So to classify them, we need to choose some dividing line. In two dimensions, finding a dividing line is easy. In twelve dimensions, not so much.

Anyways, that's just the introduction to my presentation, and there's obviously a lot more to it than that.

Funny thing about research, often the topics can get mind-numbingly specific. When people ask me what I did research on, I tell them, "gravitational waves", but of course that couldn't really have been my research topic. There's far too broad a subject for just one research project. If I want to elaborate further on my research, I explain that I worked on data analysis for LIGO. Still too broad. I could explain that I worked on the classification of candidate gravitational wave events for inspiraling compact binary systems. Still too broad, but now also incomprehensible to a general audience.

It makes me think of how pseudosciences often try to imitate science's use of complicated technical words. In my experience, the abstruseness of science and scientific language isn't placed there to provide an air of authority, it's there out of necessity.

Ironically, the presentations at the conference that interested me the most were not in my own field, physics, but in pure math.

In a strange coincidence, I encountered a poster all about a two-player game that I had once posted on my blog, Puppies and Kittens! Apparently the game is known to mathematicians as Wythoff's Game. The poster was about a generalization of Wythoff's Game, called Linear Nimhoff. The game starts with a set of vectors, such as {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}. There are two piles, which will be henceforth referred to as puppies and kittens in a pet store. (1,0) corresponds to buying one puppy; (0,1) corresponds to buying one kitten; (1,1) corresponds to buying one puppy and one kitten. During each player's turn the player selects one of the vectors, and buys an integer multiple of that vector. Whoever buys the last pet wins the game.

If you mathematically analyze the game, you find that there are "winning" and "losing" positions. If, for example, you are able to leave one puppy and two kittens in the pet store at the end of your turn, then you have won the game (provided that everyone plays the game perfectly). If you can determine what all the winning and losing positions are, then you have solved the game!

If you start with the vector set {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}, then it is called Wythoff's Game. But in general, you can have any set of vectors. Wythoff's Game is solved, but the general game is not solved. The poster did not have some amazing new general solution, but it was able to characterize the solution. Apparently, all the winning positions lie "near" one of several lines in the plane. The slopes of these lines can be determined from the initial vector set. Sounds pretty exciting if you ask me. But don't ask me what the practical applications are. I have no clue.

Another cool coincidence was that I saw a presentation on intrinsically knotted graphs. It's a coincidence because a fellow blogger (hi Susan!) did undergraduate research on the same thing, and had named her blog Intrinsically Knotted. Click the link for an explanation of what that is. The presentation I saw was about proving graphs to be "minor minimal"--that is, removing any edge of the graph will remove the intrinsically knotted property.

In summary, research in physics and math are a lot of fun. And if you like, you can extrapolate this hypothesis to other fields represented at the conference, like chemistry, biology, or even the social sciences.