An important prerequisite is that you enjoy doing hands-on experiments and connecting physics to the real world through measurement and data. For these projects, undergraduate students will be enrolled in either a Physics Supervised Study or Research course, an Advanced Physics Lab course, or an Engineering Science thesis. Students may have a better experience and be more productive if they are not working alone, so if you and a friend are both interested in a project, feel free to apply together.
Energy Conservation is perhaps the most fundamental law of physics. When apparently violated in experiment, it is always because energy is leaking in or out invisibly; any theoretical model that does not include energy conservation is at best a useful approximation.
Physics knowledge is, however, always qualified by experimental or observational uncertainty. For example, the Review of Particle Properties summarizes the experimental constraints on everything from extra dimensions to new Z' bosons to electric charge non-conservation. It is therefore surprising that it is not easy to find explicit constraints on energy non-conservation.
Searches for missing energy constrain theories with (almost) invisible particles, e.g. neutrinos, axions, or neutralinos, or theories with extra spatial dimensions into which the energy might leak. Searches for the appearance of expected energy constrain new physics such as dark matter (e.g. WIMPs), violations of conservation laws (e.g. electron decay), or universal scalar fields (e.g. continuous spontaneous localization).
There is even a infinitesimal chance that energy might simply not always be conserved. Many popular "theories of everything" have extra spatial dimensions, so why not extra time dimensions? It turns out that it is appears essentially impossible to construct a sensible theory with more than one normal time dimension because energy conservation and causality get tossed out the window. Something like a gauge symmetry must be imposed to eliminate these problems (e.g. Two-Time Physics), but what would happen it this symmetry were broken, even by a tiny amount?
Researching limits on energy conservation requires compiling results from a wide variety of experiments and observations, and then organizing these results in a coherent manner. There is no easy way to parameterize energy non-conservation to compare the relative strength of these different limits.
Possible undergraduate projects depend on my current interests and what equipment we have available. Many examples are listed as Advanced Physics Lab Special Projects, and other possibilities include:
All computational projects are designed to help other undergraduate students, so clarity, simplicity, and good documentation are more important than achieving maximum computational efficiency and speed.
Doing experiments and analysing data is tough, and every physics student would benefit from reading these three papers:
It would be interesting to update the results presented in the first of these papers, and look at other areas of physics.
Students and I have worked on designing an improved experiment using a water or oil absorber, basically a micro-Super-Kamiokande with only one or two phototubes. We have yet to come up with a workable low-cost design. ("Workable" is easy; "low-cost" is not.) An alternate would be to study double scattering of beta rays, but the radioactive sources normally used in such experiments are a 1000 times hotter than we typically like undergraduates using.
Last updated on 13 May 2013