High School Physics Talks

The Physics Talks for High School Programs aims to increase awareness of the current research being carried out in physics at the University of Alberta, and to provide a point of contact for prospective students who are interested in furthering their studies in physics.

Edmonton high school teachers are encouraged to contact the Department of Physics to arrange a talk at their school on a specified date and time. Topics may be chosen from the list below, or you may propose an alternative title.

We will try our best to accommodate your request. However, please note that teaching and research commitments may restrict the availability of some professors.

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APH01: The Deaths and Afterlives of Stars

Dr. Craig Heinke

Stars eventually run out of energy after millions or billions of years, and die. Larger stars do so violently, in supernova explosions that leave behind tiny, incredibly dense neutron stars, or black holes. Astronomers can study these stellar deaths and "dead stars" using different kinds of light, from radio waves up to X-rays and gamma-rays. Neutron stars may be hot enough to shine in X-rays, or may emit radio pulses produced by their powerful magnetic fields. A star unlucky enough to be near a neutron star or black hole may have material torn off its surface, which then produces X-rays in its death spiral down to the dead star.

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APH03: Star Stuff

Dr. Erik Rosolowsky

When Carl Sagan said, "We are star stuff," he meant that the atoms that compose our bodies were literally forged in now-dead stars. Modern astrophysics holds that all but the lightest elements in the periodic table are made through the nuclear reactions inside stars. This includes both the carbon and oxygen which are essential for life as well as the heaviest elements like gold and lead which are the produced in the last parts of stellar lives. When these stars die, some of their gas is ejected into space, enriched by the products of stellar fusion. This gas follows a largely unknown route through galaxies to be bound into new generations of stars. This talk gives an overview of stellar enrichment and the connections between the generations of stars, with an emphasis on how newly forming stars and planetary systems get their material.

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Condensed Matter Physics

CMP01: Ultrafast Lasers: Observing Nature in a Trillionth of a Second

Dr. Frank Hegmann

Understanding how light interacts with matter is a fundamental question in physics and the focus of many research labs around the world. When light is absorbed in a material, the resulting excitations tell us a lot about the nature of that material. However, the life span of many excitations is typically much shorter than a nanosecond (a billionth of a second) and can even occur over time scales faster than a picosecond (a trillionth of a second). Ultrafast lasers, which produce pulses of light less than a picosecond in duration, provide the only tool with which physicists can observe such ultrafast events in materials. This talk will discuss how ultrafast lasers (and lasers in general) work and how they are used to help us understand the nature of materials that may lead to new applications in electronics or solar cell technologies. (Demos can be included.)

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CMP02: The Greenest Tech: Atom-Scale Computers

Dr. Robert Wolkow

Our phones and laptops, and the giant computers run by Google and Amazon - all computers - use a lot more energy than necessary. About 1000x times more. More pollution is created by our computers (at coal-fired electricity generating stations) than by all the commercial jet airplanes that carry us around the world! And the problem is rapidly getting worse because we use more and more computers every year. No one has been able to figure out how to fix this run-away problem. Until now. Right here in Edmonton, we have the world-leading scheme for building next generation, ultra-low power computers and a new company has formed to start that work. In this presentation, we will see individual atoms and we will learn how to pick up and move atoms to build perfect atom defined structures and circuits that are about 1000 times smaller than today's circuits. We will talk about why today's computers are not efficient and how it is that control over atoms allows us to make highly efficient computers.

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CMP03: Exploring the Quantum World: Lasers, Atoms, and the Coldest Stuff in the Universe

Dr. Lindsay LeBlanc

Quantum mechanics, which governs matter at the atomic scale, is perhaps the most successful description of nature ever put forth - it, for example, allows us to make the most sensitive measurements of time, gravity, and the fundamental constants. In order to study matter's quantum properties, all sources of randomness have to be eliminated, and this generally means working at extremely cold temperatures. One path towards this realm is with lasers: using the momentum that light carries, lasers "push" on the atoms to oppose their motion and slow them down to speeds of just millimetres per second. In this presentation, we'll explore how labs like the Ultracold Quantum Gases lab at the University of Alberta use these tools used to make atoms cold, discuss how cold temperatures lead to quantum behaviours, and look forward to a new generation of technologies that harness these quantum effects.

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Cosmology and Gravity Physics

COS01: Gravitational Lensing and Black Holes

Dr. Sharon Morsink

Einstein's theory of gravity predicts that the gravitational field of any object causes light to travel on a curved path. In practice, this allows us to see images of stars and galaxies that lie directly behind a closer star or galaxy. This phenomena is called gravitational lensing. A very extreme type of gravitational lensing is caused by a black hole, the remnant of a dead star that has a region surrounding it where light can't escape. In this presentation, we will examine recent images of gravitational lenses, look at the latest observational evidence for black holes, and learn about how black holes bend the paths of light rays.

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GPH01: Plate Tectonics, Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Dr. Martyn Unsworth

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions show us that the Earth is a very dynamic planet. In this presentation I will describe how Earth scientists in the 1960s came to understand that the surface is made up of about 10 major plates that move across the surface at a speed of centimetres per year. The theory of plate tectonics has since answered many questions about volcanoes, earthquakes and the geological history of the earth. This talk can be adapted to many audiences and topics could include:

  • The physics of earthquakes. Why do they occur and can they be predicted? What are the different types of earthquake, and why do some cause more damage than others?
  • Plate tectonics and the Himalaya. How were the highest mountains on Earth formed by plates colliding with each other?
  • What are the different types of volcano? What do volcanic rocks tell us about the interior of the Earth?

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GPH02: Shake up! Earthquakes in Canada and Beyond

Dr. Claire Currie

Earthquakes are among the most destructive events on Earth but they also provide much information about how the Earth works. This talk will discuss the origin of earthquakes and the hazards that they pose to different parts of Canada. Significant recent earthquakes from around the world will also be presented, including the 2004 Sumatra and 2011 Japan earthquakes (two of the largest earthquakes ever recorded). Will we ever have a "big one" in Canada? The last part of the talk will look at the solar system -- can other planets have earthquakes?

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GPH03: The Days are Getting Longer! Studying Earth's Rotation with Ancient Eclipse Observations

Dr. Mathieu Dumberry

Observations of solar and lunar eclipses over the past 2,500 years reveal that the speed of rotation of Earth is gradually slowing down (an effect produced by tidal interaction with the Moon). The days are then getting longer, though only by a small amount, at a current rate of about 2 millisecond per century. Small oscillations about that trend can also be observed, and these can inform us about the dynamics taking place in the Earth's fluid core.

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GPH04: Fasten Your Seat Belt for an Atmospheric Tsunami

Dr. Bruce Sutherland

A tidal wave can devastate coastal communities where they crash inland as an unstoppable wall of water. Also potentially devastating, but invisible and unpredictable, are waves that move within the atmosphere. The breaking waves are responsible for the formation of Chinook winds that can raise temperatures by 30 degrees while blowing up to hurricane force. They have caused airplanes to fall by hundreds of meters in a matter of seconds. A space shuttle nearly didn't re-enter the Earth's atmosphere after encountering one of these waves hundreds of kilometers above the surface. In a gentler form they provide recreation for gliders to surf the sky and they make attractive rippled cloud patterns known as a "mackerel sky''. This talk will reveal the waves through table-top experiments and will explore some of their unusual properties through theoretical predictions confirmed by laboratory experiments, computer simulations and observations.

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Particle Physics

PPH01: The Big Bang Machine

Dr. Roger Moore

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland is the largest machine ever constructed. It runs at a temperature colder than outer space and its beams have as much kinetic energy as a high-speed train. When the beams collide they reproduce the condition of the Universe less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. These collisions are studied by the ATLAS detector, which is run by an international collaboration of over 2,000 physicists from 40 countries. In 2012 we discovered the Higgs boson, a particle which gives the fundamental particles mass. Future studies will hopefully reveal the nature of Dark Matter, which makes up 23% of the Universe. This talk will describe how the accelerator and detector works, why we need the Higgs boson and how it might hold the key to Dark Matter and high school physics plays a role in this research. The latest LHC status and results will also be presented.

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PPH02: Dark Matter Searches and Boiling Liquid

Dr. Carsten Krauss

Dark Matter is one of the most intriguing things that surround us yet we are completely unable to feel its impact in our everyday experience. Yet dark matter strongly shaped the process of galaxy and star formation and searching for its properties is a very promising path towards finding out more about the world of the smallest particles. This talk will introduce what we know about dark matter and what we would still like to find out. Canadian researchers are at the forefront of the worldwide hunt for the direct discovery of dark matter in experiments in a nickel mine in Ontario deep underground. The PICO bubble chamber project will be highlighted and the concept of a bubble chamber will be explained.

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PPH03: Dark Matter: The Hunt for the Unknown

Dr. Marie-Cécile Piro

Despite all of our advancements in science, physics, and astronomy, we still try to understand what approximately 80%-90% of the content of the Universe is.  However, astronomical and cosmological observations strongly suggest the presence of a new form of matter different from the ordinary matter that surrounds us and which would be five times more abundant named “Dark Matter”. This makes it one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our universe. Even if its direct detection escaped to the scientific community in our time, dark matter remains a fundamental concept that would explain how our Universe formed and would provide a unique chance to discover physics beyond the standard model. Currently many experiments around the world are searching for dark matter and we hope that in the near future we will solve this mystery and understand its properties. After reviewing why dark matter matters and the strong evidence of its existence, an overview of direct dark matter searches with emphasis in our involvement in Canada will be presented.

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Space Physics

SPH01: Space Exploration and Environment

Dr. Richard Marchand

Modern space exploration started with the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1958 and it culminated with the expedition to the Moon by the US in 1969. Many years before rockets and telescopes, however, philosophers constructed models explaining how planets and other celestial objects evolved around us. This is a review of these models, of the progress made so far in space exploration, and a prospective of where this might takes us in the future.

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For More Information

Contact Suzette Chan at (780) 492-1052.