8 September 2010

Teen scholars bring complex physics theory to life

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Old-school knowledge teamed up with new-school technology at the Magnet Lab this summer when two computer-savvy 17-year-olds collaborated with top physicists. The result is scientific eye candy.

Eric Pelz, a 17-year-old senior at Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, and Ryan-David Reyes, a 17-year-old senior at Rickards High School in Tallahassee, spent their summer designing simulations that visually depict complex theories.

"I could spend 30 minutes trying to explain this to you, or 30 seconds showing it to you," Physics Professor Vladimir Dobrosavljevic said, pointing to a computer screen where one of the teens' simulations played. "Frankly, I didn't believe that I would be sitting here watching this running on the computer. It's amazing."

The teens' interactive graphics allow students and others to see some of the poorly understood behaviors of magnetite. Magnetite (or lodestone) is one of only a few minerals attracted to a magnet.

On the right side of the screen, you'll see variables that include temperature, the amount of impurities in the magnetite and its electric-field strength. As you increase or decrease the values of the variables, the mineral's ability to carry a current changes. And so do the graphics on the screen.

"My work enabled the group to see how the particles interact as the simulation took place," Pelz said. "I coded the algorithms in Java, tweaked and optimized it for speed, and added all of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) elements that you see."

"They really helped us a lot, and I think they really learned a lot of science in the process," said Dobrosavljevic, director of the Mag Lab's Condensed Matter Science Theory program.

When he lectures about magnetite, he added, the simulations will allow his students to see what he's talking about.

The two academically gifted high-schoolers were part of the Young Scholars Program, which accepts applications from any of Florida's top-achieving juniors and seniors interested in science, engineering and health careers. If accepted, the teens live on the Florida State University campus for six weeks while they take classes and work with professors and researchers. FSU picks up the tab.

"It was unreal to work with the scientists," Pelz said. "At the start of our collaboration, I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by the huge research going on at the Mag Lab."

As he got to know graduate student Yohanes Pramudya and Professor Dobrosavljevic, however, "it surprised me how family-like the relationships between the scientists and their grad students were."

Reyes is still tweaking his computer program for the Magnet Lab, one that will display the simulations in three dimensions.

"The coolest thing I did was having the experience of being challenged in a way that I never really had before – writing the program - and then surpassing the expectations of both the scientists and grad students," Reyes said. "I'll always remember how much I enjoyed becoming part of this family."

The Young Scholars Program includes formal course work in mathematics, computer science and science ethics as well as electives in molecular biology or modern physics. The emphasis is on problem solving, integrating theory with application, and the ethical framework of science and technology.