First of all, I also want to give a (belated) welcome to jmb275!
What I've been up to for Research: In one word: LASERS. This year is an exciting one for the laser. May 16th of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the first experimental demonstration of the laser. Ted Maiman's first ruby laser was only capable of brief spikes of laser light, observable, not as the bright red spot that most of us would be familiar with, but rather as a narrow spike on a spectrometer, completely washed out visually by leaked pump light. It wasn't until 2 years later that Willard Boyle was able to get semi-continuous wave light out of a ruby crystal. (It wasn't really a continuous wave laser, but rather a very rapid pulsed laser, but it worked for the time.) In the intervening 50 years, we have developed lasers that output peak powers of over 1015 watts (over 10,000 times the US peak generating power). We have included lasers in ever barcode scanner at every retail store, every CD, DVD, and Blue-Ray player ever built, and even sold them for $5.29 as a "Pet Toy" at the grocery check-out line (right below the beef jerky). We use lasers to make both some of the hottest and the coldest places on earth. My current research project revolves around designing a new type of laser using solid Hydrogen as the gain medium. (Technically, it's a Raman laser, so the gain is a little different than in traditional lasers, but still.) Suffice it to say, I love this stuff.
What I've been up to for Education: The last few weeks, I've been working with a project called EnLiST. EnLiST is a teacher-development project at the University of Illinois. We take area K-12 teachers, and give them a couple of weeks of very intense, very cool physics that they can take and use to improve the science programs at their schools. It is a combined project between the Physics department, the Chemistry department, the Business college, and the school of Education. Not only do teachers get some intensive content training, but the also get a number of networking tools, as well as options to write their own grants to the program for funding for their school's science program.
With all the things that the program does, I think perhaps the most important (and certainly the most fun) part is just re-igniting the excitement and reminding all of us why we fell in love with science in the first place. After dealing with hours of threshold calculations, scientific articles, laser alignment, trying to fix various pieces of broken equipment, etc, it can be really easy to wonder why in the world we're putting off getting a real job to do this. I think it's important to come back to basics every once in a while to realize what it all means, and why it's so cool.
It's amazing the type of physics that you can do with some simple equipment and a little imagination. In the last two weeks we, along with some Illinois high school teachers,
- measured the radius of the earth with a GPS by walking around the university quad,
- measured the speed of light 2 different ways with a $7 laser pointer, an oscilloscope, and some basic electronics that cost about $20 from Radio Shack,
- measured the speed of light again with a little 2.4 GHz transmitter (a basic wireless connection setup) and a piece of aluminum,
- built a laser radio that transmits information via the laser beam in a cheap laser pointer,
- built a working speaker with some magnet wire, a neodymium magnet, and a paper cup,
- derived the effects of special relativity using only the basic axiom that the speed of light is the same independent of reference frame,
- built the core of an atomic clock (that would have been state of the art about 30 years ago),
- demonstrated the effects of general relativity and how accounting for such is essential in a system like GPS.
Meanwhile, our elementary school teachers,
- learned about the nature of science, scientific measurement, uncertainty, and model building,
- empirically derived atomic properties by observing different states of matter,
- discussed the history of atomic theory from the plum pudding model all the way through the full QFT model including effects from polarizing the vacuum (there's nothing like a little history to keep you scientifically humble),
- experimented with heat, temperature, heat capacity and heat conduction (including why the seat belt in your car feels hot, but the seat doesn't, and why it is possible to gargle liquid nitrogen and why you shouldn't),
- cleared up some misconceptions with basic mechanics, and derived Newton's second law with a spring, a stopwatch and a skateboard (and learned why the Greeks got it wrong and why it took several thousand years until someone like Newton came along and found the mistake),
- learned about circuits, lit a fluorescent light bulb with just a balloon, made a simple motor, and learned how most textbooks get the shape of the earth's magnetic field completely wrong.
Wow! I just realized I sound like an infomercial. Anyways, it was a really great project to be involved on. I agree completely with what jmb275 said about the vital importance of creating a sense of wonder and awe about the world around us. Two of my favorite places out here are the St Louis Science Museum and the Magic House children's museum, also in St Louis. Whenever we go there, I always have at least as much fun as the kids. It's wonderful to re-ignite your sense of wonder with science.