Thursday, February 25, 2010


I don't want to go too far down into the realm of politics here and all,

This is bad. If it's actually true, that is, and not just an angry media touch-point blown out of proportion--which they do make it out to be by the titles, ("Utah Bill Criminalizes Miscarriage") before going on to explain that it is induced miscarriages.

Well, let's be devil's advocate. If you're not a (questioning) pro-choicer like I am, why is such a law so bad?

For one thing, how do you prove induced miscarriages? In some cases perhaps it is cut-and-dry; in most, I'm sure it's not. My cousin had one: miscarriages are utterly devastating to the people who didn't want them to happen. Getting and staying pregnant is not always that easy of a thing. If the burden of proof is on mothers to satisfy questions of intent, then that is the most draconian thing I've heard of since the days that women were considered the guilty parties for being raped while walking public streets by themselves. (There were more than one court case at the turn of the last century which ruled thusly, according to American's Women.)

Actually, that idea is so utterly draconian that I cannot seriously believe anybody (in a western liberal democracy, anyway) would interpret it that way.

But still, there are issues as is. Obviously, I'm a proponent of one's right to do what one wants with one's body, of abortion as a safe, legal option and all that, of the removal of abortion being as an unfair burden on abused and low-income women in addition to being an unrealistic lack of acknowledgement of the desperate situations our society still heaps onto its women--but even if we could come to a national consensus that abortion is wrong and should be illegal except in life-threatening situations, there is so much gray in this particular Utah law.

What if a woman fell down the stairs when she was at home by herself? How is anyone going to know whether or not that was intentional? Are you really going to waste state funds trying to work that out?

What if a woman has an abusive husband? If she stays with him because that's what so many victims do, and loses her child, is anyone really going to call that her fault? Sure, you could argue she has some responsibility in that case, but the abuser has a hell of a lot more, and is the one who chose to stray outside of the law by using violence. Do we really want to give government the power to make victim-at-fault judgments about people's lives and choices? Do we want to give the government that much power over deeply personal questions?

What does putting these women in jail do for society? The vast majority of people who attempt to end pregnancies are one or more of a) young, b) poor, c) in relationships with unfair power dynamics, if relationships at all, or d) desperate for any other of a whole host of reasons. And let's not kid ourselves, those options are distinctly related to a denial of access to birth control and information about it. Throwing such people in jail is only going to exacerbate the social problems that lead up to the demand for pregnancy termination. This does not do one damn person, especially any unborn child, one lick of good.

The articles that I found about it have very different descriptions, the Salt Lake Tribune article speaking only about illegally (as in, not through the allowed clinics) obtained abortions, while the admittedly biased (though biased toward my personal belief in the matter) blog articles state that it is a law against induced, and potentially accidental (depending on your definition of "reckless", which I agree is a disturbing word to use, because of the questions raised above) miscarriage. I suppose it depends on your definition of "illegal abortion" verses "induced miscarriage" as well, which sound like separate terminology to explain the same thing. The thing they are explaining is a hell of a gray area, in my book.

So I'm not sure who to believe about the actual details of this law, and it's not my state, and to some degree it seems within state's rights to contemplate such issues individually. My inner libertarian proclaims that reproduction is a personal, nobody-else's-business affair which no level of government has the right to stick it's nose in, but people used to say that about beating your wife, and that's no longer acceptable by the standards of anybody who deserves to be listened to. What changed was who the rights got extended to, and it doesn't seem unfeasible to me to extend rights to something that, if left to it's own devices, will become a person. Should we wait until it actually is a person? Maybe, because of all the gray areas and rough issues associated. Like the women who wrote the blog articles, I remain troubled by all of this law, but particularly object to the use of the word "reckless", and how loosely that has the potential to be applied.

In response to the event that apparently spawned the law, in which a woman paid a man $150 so that he would beat her into having a miscarriage, it seems fair and right that if the man could be charged then so should she, and certainly vice versa, though I railed on the stupidity and futility of criminalizing desperate mothers. That case gets directly into the flash-point question of abortion; regardless of whether it's legal, or of the coat-hanger variety; and the question of when you draw the line between a bunch of cells and a child. I admit that despite my strong feelings on the subject I don't have satisfactory answers to these questions, that my convictions are based on compassion and empathy and thus are quite thin and unsure.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Praise of...Parasites?

I've come across this idea several times now, first on NPR, then at this article, sent by my ceoliac friend, then in a detailed article in Mental Floss (sorry, article isn't available on-line) magazine.

All of this is in praise of parasites, specifically human intestinal worms, and there potential to dramatically reduce symptoms of many autoimmune disorders.

The idea is this: autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system, for varying reasons known and unknown, attacks a non-threatening substance or even body part, have risen in developed countries pretty much co-incident with the rise of widespread hygiene and the associated de-worming of our guts. According to Mental Floss, it took a dual-vocation gastrointologist and parasitologist and a long plane ride to notice this. As a gastrointologist, Dr. Joel Weinstock studied Chrohn's Disease, in which the immune system attacks the intestines, leading to constant surgery and a generally very painful life outlook. He and his team decided to experiment with parasitic worms, to an astounding success rate. One example: in 2005 he infected 29 Crohn's patients with Trichuris suis, a worm found in pigs and consequently, pig farmers, who tolerate them with little side effects. 23 patients showed improvements, 21 went into complete remission, according to a NY Times Article. Similar studies, by Dr. Weinstock and others who see some promise in the "hygene hypothesis" have been done with worms and type II diabetes, ceoliac disease, and asthma. All report very high success rates in terms of the reduction of symptoms. The theory is that for thousands of thousands of years, we co-evolved with the worms that lived in our guts. That co-evolution was not without it's benefits: apparently the worms kept some check on our otherwise excitable immune systems.

Now, I'm not particularly excited about the prospect of infecting myself with hookworm, even in light of my own extensive issues with allergies, and the success of an asthmatic man who walked across open toilets in the developing world. That man was also told by his doctor that he was lucky he didn't contract something deadly. Several friends have asked me, when I brought this up, and I agree that I want to know, isn't there a good reason we got rid of the worms in the first place?

According to the the Center for Disease Control's on-line archives, hookworm, the parasite most mentioned in the studies, is known to cause mild diarrhea and abdominal pain," while severe infections can cause "stunted growth and mental development." Anemia, protein deficiency, and weight loss may also result. Oh, and joy of joys, the life cycle of an adult hookworm involves attacking itself to the walls of your small intestine and sucking your blood. Perhaps we have such tough immune systems because we were living with these guys in our bodies. Now that we don't, what are a bunch of beefed up white blood cells to do?

In my case, they're gonna attack dust, mold, pollen, woodsmoke particles, with wild and willing abandon. Every single time they encounter a microscopic speck of that stuff.

So for people whose autoimmune disorders are debilitating, maybe the benefits do outweigh the costs. Aside from providing a new cause to hope for many of the worlds (unsqueamish) inhabitants of developed countries, there are several philosophical implications to this new look at parasites.

First is the notion that you can't completely overcome the forces of evolution. It could be argued that humans have already done this, in our outsmarting of the checks placed on us in Africa and subsequent colonizing of the entire world. Yet perhaps those ancestors never had asthma or diabetes. Of course, a lot of them didn't live long enough, because of other factors that may in fact include parasitic disease, to benefit from a wheeze-free, finger-prick free life.

Second is the value of the parasites themselves. We often think of parasites only as a disgusting plague on higher life forms, and to an extent that is a judgment based on our experience with the bad things they can do to us, and other species we care about. But they are actually quite interesting, even sophisticated. Certainly complex.

Take, for instance, toxoplasmosis. This is a parasite that begins in rats, is ingested by the cats who hunt the rats, and deposited with urine into litter boxes, where unsuspecting humans have the potential to contract it. This is why pregnant woman are urged not to clean litter boxes: toxoplasmosis has been linked to birth defects, and is also a suspected cause of schizophrenia. This worm ensures it's survival in a convoluted yet effective way: one of the symptoms of infected rats is their attraction to cat urine and lack of fear of their natural predator. An infected rat will present itself to a cat, in order for the parasite to be ingested.

Parasitic mind-control! (like in that hit series when I was in middle school, Animorphs). Something to be afraid of indeed, at least if you're a rat.

I learned of another one of these in sophomore ecology class. There is a species of parasite that only affects grasshoppers, yet begins its life-cycle as a larvae in the water. As an aquatic larvae, it is ingested by mosquitoes, who in turn are ingested by grasshoppers. This hapless grasshopper, normally ambivalent towards streams and the like, gets the notion in it's little brain that it wants to go swimming. This is not so good an idea for the grasshopper, because it can't swim. Yet it runs toward the water anyway, falls in and drowns, freeing the parasite to lay it's larvae and begin the process once again.

A rather specific, round-about way to do things, if you ask me, and not the kind of think they tell you about on those PBS Nature shows. Yet at the same time, pretty fascinating.

So am I going to infect myself with hookworm to save myself from this expensive and miserable hay fever I suffer?

Er...I'm probably too squeamish. But I'll keep an eye on the science.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

APS Meeting: List of Some Things I Want to Understand Better

These next juicy days/weeks are going to be full of APS meeting reporter goodness, because I took a lot of notes, and I had with me the power of a digital recorder.

Working on the "official report," that's still gonna take some time, because it's lengthy.

I jotted this down on a slip of paper, during a plenary talk about some recent work at Fermilab in relation to that Higgs Boson everyone's so excited about. It's a list of physics subjects I still don't understand, because my undergrad didn't cover it, because I was sick that day, because it's just weird stuff.

Need to Learn
  • Radio transients--apparently, these come from supernova remnants and such, and can be used to predict gamma ray bursts. There is a whole-sky instrument dedicated to finding those things, but I'm not sure I'm clear on what a "transient" is. Nor how they are related to gamma ray bursts.
  • quark stuff, in general. Did you know the top quark is much more massive than all the other ones? This fact is directly related, via in some way I cannot begin to explain, to the need for a Higgs Boson.
  • Feynman diagrams. I'm pretty sure I was sick that day.
  • Symmetry as a physical concept, and symmetry breaking. I get the analogy about standing a pencil on it's end (that's symmetry), and then letting it fall, and because it has to fall one way, the symmetry of it standing on it's end has been broken. What I fail to understand is what is so profound about that anyway? How does that relate to all this particle stuff?
  • Hadron vs lepton verses fermion vs boson. This is easy to look up, I just haven't done it yet. I already know that a fermion has half integer spin and a boson has an integer spin. Spin is not something you can understand in a real way 'til you've had quantum.
  • weak and electroweak forces--we just didn't really cover that in undergrad.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When It Rains, It Pours

cross posted on author's old blog, Close Encounters of the Awkward Kind.

So, there's this thing called the Law of Convergence. It's not a physical law, per se, rather it lies in that realm of those laws of irony that, although their mechanism is unknown, tend to prove themselves true time and time again.

Lately it has gone like this: as short as one month ago, I spent many a tear-filled morning going over all of the resumes, cover letters, and requests for informational interviews that I had sent out in vain, all of the internship applications that were getting no response, etc, and I was quite frightened. What was I going to do with myself? How would I ever find my place? What do I really have to offer, that anyone else might find valuable?

Now things happen all at once. I got my part-time job, and just as soon as I signed the paperwork, I interviewed for and received an internship I had only accidentally applied for while in the process of applying for others I did actually want. I contemplated that one but turned it down: because I wanted to stay here and do that part-time job, because I wanted to do an intensive volunteer mentor program here that can only happen once, because I just wasn't excited about Frostproof, Florida.

No sooner had I turned that down that I received two other requests for interviews, one that I also turned down for similar reasons, another that I'm still working on trying to schedule. And then I interviewed for that volunteer program and got it...and then my Dream Job responded at long last saying they, too, wanted an interview.

Well I just went to the American Physical Society meeting, (which I'll write on at length as soon as I have time to catch my breath with all of this) and found out that this totally awesome science writing internship that, three months ago I had gotten a) amazingly excited about, and b)amazingly frustrated over when they never responded to my application nor my polite and well-spaced phone calls asking for confirmation of my application over the course of the next three months, is still looking for someone, and that the person I needed to talk to was actually at the meeting. While I wanted to confront him about that in a politely frustrated way, I never managed to run into him, and because I'd let that position go and was already contemplating Dream Job Maybe verses Definite and Rewarding Volunteer Opportunity, I couldn't rummage up the ability to care that much.

Oh yeah, and today I have an interview for a very, very back-up ropes course job that I've been trying to schedule, against the onslaught of Badly Timed Snow Storms, for a month. I should call and cancel, perhaps, but Dream Job is still a maybe, and a maybe that hasn't even confirmed my interview date.

So while all this is wonderful, it's also something of a decision-making minefield. Do I turn down something less desirable for the chance of unknown odds that Opportunity Awesome will make itself into a reality? Do I accept, and then burn a bridge by jumping ship? (Too many metaphors in one sentence, I know...) Do I dare to tell Dream Job that I absolutely want this job but I need Monday afternoons off for the next month, or do I instead suddenly leave an adolescent girl without a rock climbing instructor and life mentor, not to mention screw up the grant-funded endeavor of a local non-profit whose mission I strongly believe in?

Well. At the APS meeting, one of the undergraduate programs was a presentation of job opportunities for physicists. The official definition of "physicist" is anyone with a B.S. or higher in physics, so yes, I can truthfully and proudly call myself a physicist. Physicists are employed in all fields, doing all kinds of things, and the unemployment rate, even today, for people with physics degrees is a low 5%.

So it pays off, it really does. You can use your degree to go from contemplating laws of nature, to wrestling with laws of irony like the Law of Convergence.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cheap Electronics and Emergency Preparedness

Another post today already.

Shortly after I wrote the last post, somebody called me on my modestly four month old cell phone.

I guess I should explain. I hate buying new electronics. Mostly because I'm an environmentalist, mostly because I don't like figuring out and getting used to new stuff when I already have something that works and that I understand, mostly because I don't like spending money, mostly because electronics are just getting cheaper and cheaper, and I don't mean because they cost less.

This phone is the perfect example. My previous phone I'd had for five years, and it only bit it because I staffed a week-long backpacking experience for freshmen this summer, and instructors were required to have our phones in the field. No matter that we'd get no signal the whole time. Anyway, it stormed, my backpack ended up in a puddle...and wet phones don't do so well.

So I got this new one, a Motorola EM330 if you're looking into what NOT to buy, and after four months, I drop it when trying to answer it, and in perfectly unreasonable protest the screen breaks clear off. I mean, yeah, I dropped it. but let's face it, electronics these days are also just POSs. (What's a POS?)

This, as you can imagine, added extra complications to my imminent air travel to DC. Ah, but I was, at least, prepared. I had in my possession another old phone, because I hate throwing old electronics away as much as I hate buying new ones. Especially ones that still work. This one was my mother's, which she gave up when she went the way of the world and got her iphone. Both of my sensible parents encouraged me to get rid of that old one, to not just hang on to old junk.

But I had it on my shelf, waiting for such a moment as this. Perhaps I saw it coming. So a quick pop of the old SIM card, and I went from having a total travel plan meltdown (because there were numbers I needed to call that, like a not-so-sensible person, were not written down anywhere) to being ready for action once again.

Assuming I can fly out in all this snow.

The Thing About Scientist Conferences

I'm on a kick of pointing out The Things About Various Things, apparently.

Well, I'm about to embark on a journey to our nation's capital to participate in a conference of physicists. As I say that, the snow falls steadily outside my window, but I'm not going to think about it, because I paid too much money for that plane ticket and can't afford another one...

Whether or not I manage to actually go, I'll be broke either way. Okay, not really, but that is the thing about these conferences.

Little just-barely-post-college-student (and no "real" job) me just can't come to grips with the kind of lifestyle where people would pay a few hundred for a plane ticket, a few hundred per night at a hotel that charges you for the things good ole Motel X in normal places already include in the deal, where you go to restaurants that have dress codes and charge fifteen dollars minimum for sandwiches. Not to mention taking a taxi (oh god, a taxi, how do I handle that?) not the bus/subway and all that. Yeah, the metro line that went off the rails this morning is the one I'll need to be taking tomorrow morning, assuming my flight from here isn't dealayed because it's still snowing or I can't get to the airport...not gonna think about it.

I was going to drive, but I couldn't get my head around paying $40/day for parking either, and though still cheaper than flying (and also more environmental), I already know I haven't got the (metaphorical) balls to face DC traffic even when it's not covered in snow.

I'm just a simple southern girl, apparently, used to riding my bike or driving my car and paying less than $10 for most meals except extra fancy occasions.

But anyway. That's the world of our nation's leading scientists, at least the ones who go to these kinds of things regularly. I know I'm not going to look like a seasoned veteran...but at least it'll be an adventure.

Oh, and it's right next to the National Zoo, which, in stark contrast to everything else in Expensive Capitol City High Life world, is free. And according to their on-line menu, sells boca burgers for a shockingly cheap* five dollars.

*quoth Einstein: it's all relative

Obviously, this is not my official Student Science Reporter description of the event.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Communicating Climate Change Science

Yesterday I went to a talk on communicating climate change science, put on by one of Asheville's own National Climactic Data Center personnel (and Nobel laureate!)

The talk covered much of the expected information vis a vis communicating science: keep your audience in mind, don't overuse jargon or acronyms, or at the very least, explain them, sum it up in clear points that the audience can relate to according to their concerns.

And he made the point that this is easy to say, but very hard to do.

First, people want absolutes, and the nature of many disciplines but especially climate science, is not to deal in absolutes. You have knowledge of a mechanism, and you might know the mechanism very well, and you have models, and the models most likely work well for some things, but cannot work well for all things. Put them together and you can only think, "okay, the likelihood of this is enough to concern me, not the certainty." Yet people want to know if hurricane Katrina can be attributed to climate change, they want to know what was the warmest year on record, and if you try to speak in possibilities instead of certainties, many will think that can only mean you just don't know anything.

Second, everyone is only human, and human reaction are going to cloud the debate. People will panic. People will scoff. People will jump to erroneous conclusions, will take conclusions out of context. Even the climate scientists will write nasty things in their emails,and those trying to prove them wrong will hack those emails. According to our speaker, the evolution of the blogsphere has accelerated this kind of thing, yet climategate shows that even those claiming to follow strict "scientific discipline" are just as human as anyone else, prone to bouts of emotion and opinion. That shouldn't come as a surprise.

So how is climate science generally communicated? Has it been communicated successfully?

Our speaker argued that no, it has not been communicated successfully to the public.

First, you have the scientific literature, and this is what scientists trust, what they revert to. It would be great, from a scientist's perspective, if everyone would just go to the journals for information. This, he says, is how the NCDC, a government agency, has responded to accusations of fraud. General response as to methodology, and a point to the journals.

Yet journals are not written to an audience of the whole world, no matter how scientists might like them to be, and the whole world is exactly who is involved in this instance. And so you will have a whole world of speculation, a whole world of reactions, but not too many people who have the time, knowledge, or fortitude to wade through the journals, especially not when blogs will do. So in the case of the NCDC accusations, sure, it should be up to accusers to make a compelling, researched and ethical case, and if they had read the journals, it probably would have helped. But on some level is also up to the accused to be engaged, not removed and above, and scientific journals are just not an effective way to do this.

The next level is the assessment reports, like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, like some domestic ones, where groups of scientists do the reading of the journals for you, and do their best to sum it up and distill it to it's finer points for an audience with some general science background, for an audience with no science background. These, he says, are better, more accessible, though still not mainstream, and certainly not error-free in and of themselves.

Sometimes, scientists have the opportunity to directly speak to political leaders. Congressmen and senators can have their staff write up a list of questions and send them to folks at government agencies like NCDC, and dedicated and busy government scientists will do their best to answer. This is certainly a directly useful method of communicating the issue to the people that matter, although undoubtedly is not without political land-minds that some scientists might be ill-prepared to avoid.

Though he didn't go into it, it is clear that the next step, the most engaging yet difficult step, is interviews and sound bites, popular science books and perhaps even the symbol that is Al Gore. Al Gore does not define climate science, he does not own the concept of climate change, and he is certainly not a climate scientist, though he is educated. He has done great things to get the information out to people who might not have found it accessible otherwise, and he has done great things to make sure that has critics will never believe a word anybody else says about the whole thing. The private jets, all the money he supposedly made off of the movie, and all that.

The point is that every tool we have is fraught with flaws, and to some those flaws have been basis enough to outright reject the whole thing. Yet no system is without flaws, so for the good of the discussion, forging ahead is a must. Refining and employing a combination of these communication methods is the right thing, whether or not it is the easy thing for scientists or the public. We are an enlightened society, and must be able, however imperfectly, to communicate and contend ideas of weight productively. Climate change is the issue that it is, because it is by its nature an intersection of science with philosophy, politics, economics, and morality.

Perhaps the best thing would be to have more sessions like this, in which a dedicated scientist and human being stands up in front of an audience and shares the issues is a humble yet knowledgeable, wholly human-like manner. Who disclaims the absurd notion that climate change is an international left-wing conspiracy for climatologist job security and the power one somehow gains by instilling panic by throwing in things like "you know, it would be great if this turned out not to be true, because I like driving my car as much as anybody else."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

call me old fashioned

...but I've seen a couple of websites now, go from sleek, beautiful, or at least readable and generally appealing, to weird, busy, pixelated cyber-puke that doesn't even fit inside my screen resolution.

Not saying my web design skills are particularly hot, cause they're not. I haven't had a chance to look at this yet in those weird super-wide tiny resolution screens I can't understand why people like, partially because I can't understand why people can read stuff that small without getting a headache, so I avoid them like the plague.

I do feel like at least making sure your images-as-text aren't pixelated is a certain standard of professionalism, that sadly, I thought places like Newsweek were successful enough to be able to afford.

I told them so, too. Still waiting on the response.

Now my university web page is guilty of such web design blasphemy as well, having just spent loads of time less than a year ago making and getting comments on their snazzy new site. They made it, some people hated it, some people liked it, and randomly there's another one. And it doesn't fit my screen resolution, and all the images are pixelated, and it's so busy there's no focus. What is the web coming to?


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

keeping track of that made up physics

And now some words of wisdom, from my experience these weeks as a full-time-writer-because-lacking-other-pressing-jobs-at-the-time. Don't get me wrong, it's been a glorious set of weeks, all though difficult, sometimes even in the stereotypical "oh it's so hard to be an artist" way.

Lucky for me, I'm an artists and a physicist, so I can suck it up and do the work, for the most part.

So, when you're writing a good science fiction or fantasy, you have physics to contend with, and then you have the physics that, tweaked a bit. Or in the case of magic systems, completely made up.

It still has to make sense with itself though, and it can't be too out-there, or too powerful. The limitations, and the consequences, are what makes those kind of stories interesting, at least to me.

In my current project, I'm learning a hard lesson that How To Think Sideways teaches well. Keep track of your physics. Know the consequences. Don't just gloss over the details of that part, in the push to just get the draft out, because then you'll stumble over yourself and wonder what's allowed and what isn't.

You have to have a good idea of what's going to be allowed. Sometimes story points grow from that.

Even having all day to write each day, my progress is limited, by slipping story physics, by occasionally stalling story threads. I love this story, but visualization is not quite as easy as it used to be. Maybe spending four years in physics-land took some of the ease out of it for me. Certainly being wound-up like a music box running 90 miles a minute at hundreds of different tasks is, in some respects, easier than devoting all one's time to one task.

What I really mean to say, though, is that it's one hell of an enjoyable ride, even if I still have a mental block that won't let me start till I've had my morning coffee. The more you do something, the easier it is. Soon I'll have to start doing other things. I just got a call for a job interview for a job I thought I was in no way qualified for, which would be the start of one dream, but the postponer of others.

And this is a dream I want to hold on to.

But anyway. I've been forging ahead, and hooray for that.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Thing about Hybrids

Like a good environmentalist, I should be excited about all the new hybrid models out, right?

Well, because I love the Nissan Altima so much, that being my first car and all, I'm pretty excited about that one. It's also pretty stupid to use the first-generation of some technology, like people did with the first Priuses (Prii?) and with solar photovoltaic kits bought at Lowes, see the flaws and assume it just means the technology doesn't work at all, when really it's still being developed. But really, though it's good to keep the technology possibilities going, I'm pretty much convinced that battery powered fuel-electric hybrids, at least, aren't the thing that's gonna work for us here in America.

First off, the fuel economy of hybrids isn't really all that spectacular, especially of hybrid SUVS. Like a true environmentalist, I am not a fan, and hybrid SUVS might be a genuine great thing for people who genuinely need an SUV, but are sort of a feel-good excuse to help us keep our bad habits. There's even some evidence to suggest that the feel-good aspect of these cars makes a fair number of people justify driving more, because hey, driving's not bad anymore if you have a hybrid.

Yet the main issue is that the hybrid concept isn't that applicable to the United States, because the country is for the most part, a very spread out place. People in the US do have a huge problem with driving when they shouldn't, like my friend who drives the 0.5 miles to the gym so she can walk around the track. We aren't going to get real change in our pollution environment until we fix this mentality where it is possible to fix it, and because human nature is in the way, that is no easy thing to do.

But Americans also drive many places they really should drive to, because a lot of us live so far from stores that walking would be ridiculously impracticable, because there's no space for you on our traveling surfaces if you're a tiny bike-rider or a tiny walker, and you're likely to get hit on or yelled at besides, if not killed by someone who doesn't see you cause he or she is texting. We travel between spread-out suburbs and spread-out cities regularly for work, family, friends and attractions, and if we had to walk or bike, our productivity would plummet (though so would obesity rates). We live this way because there is so much space, so it gets filled with lots of stuff, and most people can't locate themselves to live in walking or biking distance to all of it, even those who are walking or biking inclined.

Public transport and good city planning is the answer to this, but I don't think people are going to give up private vehicles all together, because the space issue is an obstacle to public transit as well. How do you design a route that takes care of all of it in a time and cost efficient manner? Hybrids don't much help the space problem, because when you're traveling between North and East side of town you go a dozen miles at highway speeds, not a few miles with lots of breaking, where hybrids do their best work. When you make your monthly trip to the next state over to visit grandma, you're electric battery is never even going to cut on.

I have some friends, who happen to be unnaturally obsessed with volts-wagon diesel vehicles, which also tend to kick your hybrid's mpg-ass with what they clock traveling between their college town and their hometown. I certainly think they have the right of it: those German cars are designed for Audubon-reminiscent, high-speed efficiency, and that is why their gas mileage in our country always ends up being comparable.

Having It All Planned Out

The last few weeks have been stressful, it's true. And when I get stressed, I wake up with this awful crick in my neck.

But from stress comes determination. Because of hard and fast job choices, I realized the things I really do want to do with my barely-post-collegiate self for the next few months, rather than the things I just thought I wanted to do.

Like the hardcore J that I am in the MBTI Meyers-Briggs Test, I am satisfied when I have a plan, a schedule, an outline of my life, and only when I have those things. Lucky for you, and this blog, a lot of those things have to do with Science, and Writing, sometimes together.

So, What's to come:
  • Some perspectives on my astronomy work at NRAO Green Bank, and on Green Bank and astronomy in general. Maybe pictures from my Tuesday amateur telescope sessions.

  • Perspectives, interviews, etc, from the 2010 April Meeting of the American Physical Society. Despite being the April meeting, it's actually next weekend. And I'm going as an official science writer, so I have to produce science writer content. If I'm allowed to, I'll cross post it here.

  • Hopefully, a little taste of biology, conservation, environmental stuff as well, when I spent my summer in pursuit of a Student Conservation Organization experience.

After that? Well, J that I am, I might have to worry about that later.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Secret to Getting Busted

So, I saw The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, sitting on the "Breakout Bestseller!" section of the bookshelves a few years ago.

I picked it up, because I was bored and waiting for a friend, and it had that kind of cover. And I was instantly both horrified and entertained, by passages quoting All Knowing Quantum Physicists (with or without their permission, I wonder?), using the admitted weirdness and un-pin-down-ability of quantum mechanics as proof that there really is a universal law that allows good thoughts to return good things to you.

Or something like that. It was a few years ago.

Now, this is one of those things that on the one hand, you just can't argue with. After all, I'm not an eminent quantum physicist, and furthermore, I don't know it's not true. I don't know it is, of course, and that's my point of infuriation--using All Powerful Science make conceptual leaps that are not at all justified. (See Logical Fallacy).

I not writing this to get into the Science Verses Religion argument (at least not now). I do get angry when people ignore science, but science is designed to be questioned, and I get even more angry when people use science in a matter that is not consistent with its rules. You can't know a particle's position and momentum at the same time. You just can't. That means positive thoughts will allow positive things to happen to you!

Yeah. So, why should I criticize a book/movie about spirituality that has, if you believe the official website, helped thousands of people find meaning in their lives? That's what spirituality is for, right? People build their own unique spirituality all the time. That's part of the fundamental narrative of this country. If somebody wants to write a book and make a movie about theirs and sell it (and call it a secret), well, it's still a free country.

It is tacky, though.

Furthermore, if James Ray, new age giant, wants to invite his followers to a spiritual experience in a sweat lodge in the desert, well, it's still a free country. And if some of those people aren't wise enough after all to realize that they're dying, well, is that his fault?

I think yes, there is some responsibility.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bus Stop Physics

So yesterday I was waiting at the bus stop, but not for the bus. Long story. (And no, it doesn't involve anything illicit.)

And a guy walked up to me. Young, sorta, for lack of a better term, "gangsta." I was rather hoping, in my apparently vulnerable position as a young female standing on a busy road by herself, that he would not try to talk to me, but of course he said hello and offered his hand.

I went through the options. Ignore him like you're supposed to if you're a young vulnerable female and a strange male talks to you in a way you don't like? Walk away? Reach for the mace? Well, he was in-so-far not being too aggressive, and damn if it I don't prefer friendliness, when friendliness is warranted.

"Hello," I responded, warily, because wary is how young females standing on a busy street are supposed to be. Maybe he was just waiting at the bus stop and wanted somebody to talk to.

He started asking me a lot of personal questions, which raised my wariness factor and which I responded only minimally to. When he got to "what high school do you go to," I saw my chance.

"I just graduated college," I told him, keeping all escape routes in mind, fingering the trigger of the LifeAct pepper spray in my pocket. Guy on the mack for a high school girl? Busted. Wait, do I really look like I'm in high school?

"Oh yeah, what's your major?" he asked.

This is when I couldn't help but grin.

"Physics," I said, knowing, from experience, that at this point people either a) politely excuse themselves or b) act amazed and surprised, and then politely excuse themselves. Hopefully even guys on the mack for a high school girl.

"Physics!" he exclaimed, the way people do when you tell them that. "That sounds really hard!"

Those of you who might have also majored in physics know he was speaking a true statement. But at this point, perhaps because my ride was approaching and I felt less vulnerable, I couldn't help but dive into it.

"It is hard," I said, "but not like people think. It's one of those things that looks hard from the outside, but is a lot more accessible when you take it step by step. You're building a mental process, which seems unattainable when you're just looking at the result. It's cool, and if you try it you'll be surprised at yourself by what you can learn."

"Yeah," the guy said, and I was able to politely excuse myself.

The point of this being, I really believe that about physics. You can take that with a grain of salt because I haven't gone grad school yet, and yes, even undergraduate physics is hard. But just like anything worthwhile, it's the kind of hard that builds, that you build yourself up to one level at a time, the journey as much as the destination. Sure, it requires a certain level of ability. But a lot of people might find they have that if they didn't let themselves think "wow, that's way too hard, I can't do that."

Also, the power of a Physics Degree as unwanted-attention-repellent should not be underrated.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This is the Beginning

So I'm trying something new with this.

I'm trying to do something better.  I have a blog, and I've loved it.  It's very personal, very emotiono-pholosophical (yes, I made that up, but the meaning is conveyed, no?).  I blogged my life and shared it hoping my honesty would appeal to my readers who might have similar personal things to relate to.  That's an aspect of writing for an audience that makes some people, myself included, feel connected when I read it.

Furthermore, I'm a socialized female, even though a physics degree, and an introvert, and have always been comfortable with myself, my feelings, etc. . I've worked as a mediator and a mentor, I've made wise decisions based on gut feelings, and I'm okay with delving into all that stuff.  Emotion, passion, intuition, is part of what makes me work, what makes me write, and even whats me appreciate and succeed in science.

In my mind, it's all about balance. That's the Liberal Arts Degree I just got talking, but I'm not ashamed of that either.

Sometimes; however, you do have to start afresh. If this goes well, maybe I'll transfer my old blog over, because some of those entries were good, and it's a shame to waste a good thing. Maybe I'll start doing what I'm doing here, there, because I don't want google totally own my life. Maybe I'll do both.

My intent is to write here about science, writing, science writing, life, philosophy, the environment, etc. I'll try to stay out of politics, but I can't make any promises there, especially now that I devote myself to nightly viewings of John Stewart. I can do some html, so I'll make this place pretty, when I've got a spare minute. It'll be fun.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.


Okay, this is something fun I want to try, that's all.