Sunday, May 30, 2010

Yard Waste

A few years ago I went to Australia.  Sister descendant of the British motherland that it is, although the eastern half (and probably the western half too) had been experiencing one of the most severe droughts in the country's history, still the Australians clung to that stately British idea of well-manicured grasses as ground covering for human-occupied spaces.

Seeing as the drought had caused the government to implement severe water restrictions (how socialist of them), that dream was clearly clung to with considerable delusion:  most everybody's short (and not because they mow it) lawn was yellow-brown.

Quite a few of my Australian friends apologized to me for all the dead grass, some even profusely. As if I, hailing from one of North America's temperate rain forests, would find it some ghastly breach of etiquette, some indication of Australian society's inferiority due to lack of ability to control nature.

On the scale of things, I find lawns a somewhat absurd idea.   They keep the wildness of Real Nature (which is considerable, in a temperate rain forest) from encroaching on your house, and they look nice--when you're living on a continent to which the species used are remotely adapted.  But with things in mind like global food and water shortages, not to mention that Climate Change thing that gets you labeled as a no-good-hippie-alarmist if you mention it, dedicating sections of land to short green grass really does seem, well, extravagant and wasteful.  Millions barely get by with subsistence farming on marginal soils, and here some folks dump nitrogen and all-valuable drinkable water into already-pretty-decent soil with no intention of using that space for food production.   We go on and on about needing to cut our carbon emissions for the sake of our future, yet we fail to see the hilarity in using gas-powered engines once a week or so just to forestall the undaunted efforts of a plant to get a little taller.

According to 2000 census projections, in 2008 there were 112 million occupied American households.   63.2% of those were detached, which for simplicity will be my only area of focus--even though apartment building, mobile homes, government areas and businesses often have lawn areas as well--so we can estimate that there were 71million American lawns of some size or other.  According to the American Housing Survey data tables, the median lot size of occupied housing in 2008 was 0.36 acres, and the median house size was 1800 square feet.  Subtract house square footage from 0.36 acres * 43,560 square feet per acre, and you get a rough estimate of 0.32 acres of yard per household.   Multiply that by 71 million occupied households, and you get 23 million acres of private lawn.

Lawn mower efficiency is a pretty difficult concept to pin down, because it varies based on size, type, and age, and isn't generally advertised or noticed.  Because they are smaller, lighter, and have a less complicated cycle than car engines, one could argue that they are much more fuel efficient than cars; however, they burn a heck of a lot dirtier, not being as as regulated as car engines.  For the sake of forging ahead, and at risk of making this whole thing even more arbitrary than it already is, I'm going to throw out a guess of one cup of gasoline per acre, based on minimal experience mowing a 1.5 acre yard with a tiny 1980s push mower.  So that's 23 million cups of gasoline, burned once a week throughout warm months, we'll say half the year.  598 million cups of gasoline.  According to the EPA, 1 gallon of gasoline yields 19.4 pounds of CO2--that varies too based on the efficiency of combustion, which for lawn mowers probably is not particularly great.  But lacking a better number, we'll take that one, so that 598 million cups of gasoline * 16 cups to a gallon * 19.4 pounds of CO2 to a gallon gives you a grand and arbitrary total of...186 billion pounds of CO2 in a year.  84 million metric tons, if you like.

All based on not-well-pinned-down numbers, but we can't deny that is is a darn lot of CO2, thrown up there in the name of neatness and conformity.   Considering the supposed scope and potential of human ingenuity, it is pretty darn silly.

Friday, May 21, 2010

To Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable

So, in leui of those great technical opportunities that I was supposed to somehow be able to secure with my B.S. in physics while still living in a tourist town, I picked up some side work continuing my high and low ropes course experience.

I don't mean to imply that it is a drugerious job:  I like hanging out it the trees, and still find belaying for people and instructing them in team challenges rewarding.  The job is also for a conference center--where money is the bottom line, staff are merely expendable timecards whose time in operation must be minimized above all, opportunity for professional training or advancement are negligible to nonexistent--welcome to the real world.   Those who can't stand middle schoolers need not apply.

One thing this job has allowed me to do is observe a heck of a lot of middle schoolers.  Middle schoolers in large groups.   Sixth graders, seventh graders, and eighth graders, male and female, (although mostly white, unfortunately) public school and private.

Working with these groups has radically changed my opinion on the merit of private school.

The private school kids, be them sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, are a pleasure to work with.  They are attentive and polite, they really by gosh do encourage each other, they make truly insightful comments while climbing or during processing, they make references to Winston Churchill and physical laws.

The public school kids, on the other hand, have to be constantly told to pay attention; are full of such witticisms as "this is gay" and "hahaha, you fell"; trying to facilitate discussion with them is like pulling teeth; and an alarming number of the evaluation we ask them to fill out fail to display an adequate grasp of the concepts of sentence, subject, and predicate--much less provide any specific or helpful comments about what could be improved.  "IDK" and "make boring fun" are my two favorite answers.  And by "favorite", I mean the ones that make me most want to hang my head in despair.

I used to have such faith in our public schools, believing the a la Degrassi hardships of popularity, fitting in, and gym class to be necessary character building experiences, thinking private schools were a waste of money for an education that was not necessarily any better, their whole existence a mark of somewhat elitist parents.

There are several factors differentiating the public and private school experience, which might explain the vast differences is emotional maturity.  Money of course leads to greater opportunities, in terms of better funded teachers, and more chances for the kids to also be able to afford developmentally beneficial extracurricular activities.  Parental involvement at all is huge, and while not always present for private school children and certainly not necessarily absent for public school children, it is probably still more likely to be present for private school children, since the parents care enough to send their child to a school they have to pay for.

In the end, though I think a lot of it is about challenge.  I was challenged in public school because I wanted to be, because I was pre-capable, for whatever reason, of challenging myself.

It is immediately obvious to me that the private school kids willingly challenge themselves, because they see the value in challenge for challenge's sake.  They also deal well with challenge.  The ones who start to climb and get afraid are capable of sorting it out, prioritizing, and either consciously pushing themselves in or having the self-knowledge to say "I have reached my limit and would like to stop now."

The public school kids do not, generally, challenge themselves.  The ones who aren't inclined to be afraid just do the activitly quickly, goof around, comment on how easy it is, and go off without processing how it could have been made into a learning experience.  The ones who are afraid cannot be convinced to try, or when they try reach a spot where they are afraid and cannot cope.  They cry, they are non-responsive to processing or encouragement, so we let them down and they go off inside of themselves, internalizing a negative experience.   The emotional maturity, the ability to accept and deal with challenge, is greatly limited, when compared to like-aged private school groups, and even in some cases with private school groups two grades lower.

I think public schools don't have the resources nor the mentality to challenge kids enough, unless, like me, they had supportive and involved parents, and had learned to seek it out.    All this standardized testing as benchmark, and lowering expectations so that passing is possible to more people.   No Child Left Behind, and all that.  Everyone's a winner.  Here's a gold star for trying.

Everyone is not the same though, and everyone is challenged by different things.  Public schools don't have the resources to tackle each student's individual need for the correct challenge; private schools undoubtedly have more of those resources.  Many privet schools also have higher standards in general, and that is really important too.  Allowing people to succeed without being challenged does them a disservice in the long run, even if the standards cannot be met by all.  Dropping a standard ensures that some who otherwise might have will never develop the tools to meet it.  An opportunity to gain emotional maturity--in my opinion equally as important as knowledge--is lost, and we all know what a pain an emotionally immature eighth grader is to be around. At least, I could tell you stories.  Exasperating stories.

No Child Left Behind does exist for a reason.  We don't want to just abandon the failing kids, goodness knows.  In the afterschool girl's program I am doing, I work with girls from the complete opposite end of the social hierarchy as the stereotypical private schooler.  Girls kicked out of public school, girls generally failing and falling behind in their classes, children of poverty-line single mothers drawing largely from the African American and Hispanic communities here.  Because we have a one to one mentor/student ratio, we can get the focus out of them.  We have the resources to find what works for them, find what pushes them.  Attacking and overcoming the challenge of rock climbing is one of the center themes of our program, and the program often dramatically improves the low self-confidence and behavior issues that get them referred to our program to begin with.  These girls are smart and capable but for various reasons aren't stimulated in public school.

Unfortunately, with state budget cuts and state budget cuts, I don't imagine this problem is going to get anything but worse.  The issue is obvious in an experiential learning/outdoor education setting, and experiential learning is both handy at addressing this sort of thing, and not the kind of thing many schools have the resources to provide.  

Sunday, May 9, 2010


This is pretty cool.

Canada ecologists found a beaver dam that is so large it is visible from space.  They think many beaver families pitched in on this one, and that it took over twenty years to build.   Must be massive inside, like the ultimate beaver McMansion.

Apparently one might use google earth to find it, just like that link did--which, if I felt like installing google earth for linux, I would do. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Girly" Isn't A Derogatory Word

After reading this blog post at xkdc, sent to me by Jeff--which talks a little bit about perceived gender behavior verses actual gender behavior, as relates to naming colors--I realized that I did a thing at work today that would, along with differentiating between regular and hot pink, be deemed "girly" by some.

That was a darn long sentence, by the way. Run-on? Possibly.  "Science writer" or no, history teachers used to blast me on those.  But I digress.

Actually, I have one more comment to make about that blog post.


Here are the color names most disproportionately popular among women:
  1. Dusty Teal
  2. Blush Pink
  3. Dusty Lavender
  4. Butter Yellow
  5. Dusky Rose
Okay, pretty flowery, certainly.  Kind of an incense-bomb-set-off-in-a-Bed-Bath-&-Beyond vibe.  Well, let’s take a look at the other list.
Here are the color names most disproportionately popular among men:
  1. Penis
  2. Gay
  3. WTF
  4. Dunno
  5. Baige

 After working with middle schoolers in several venues, I can personally attest that the difference between boys and girls in eigth grade is the tendency of girls to give things flowery names and descriptions, and the tendency of boys is to call things "gay" as if they'd said something incredibly profound.

So, without that in mind, but reminded of it when I'd finished, I made a diagram for work today. I boxed in my page title and section titles in a neat sort of way, and drew decorative borders around some concept and solid borders around others, to differentiate them, and then I went back and colored in the whole thing to make it especially...pretty.


When I do physics, I can't use lined paper.  Can't, the lines are way too restrictive.  When I do physics, I re-write things a few times as I learn to make things neater, I often diagram concepts and work problems in obsessively neat and visible steps, and I regularly label and box things.  And yeah, sometimes I use different borders, to signify varying levels of sub-relation in a completed and highly visual scheme that makes sense to me but mostly just makes me feel like the whole thing is more complete.

I wouldn't call that "girly" per say, so much as creative thought organizing. The physicists, male and female, that I know, tend to fall into two categories:  OCD with a capital O about neatness, or else a complete organizational train-wreck.  Both methods highlight equally important aspects of getting the work done:  keeping track to avoid careless mistakes and to see everything linked and caregorized, and yet also focusing simply on the thing at hand without being destracting by anything else, until you get where you need to be.  So organization is no stranger to the male physics world.

But even the OCD organized ones don't do the boxes and the colors and the sort of visual tie-together that I do.  Although, interstingly, actually putting color on the page doesn't matter that much, because my brain sees color there, certain colors associated with certain things, even when there is none.  And what I do helps me.  There was a time when I thought anything remotely girly was an anathema to rid myself of, there was a time when I associated "feminine" with "inferior."

It's great that I outgrew that.  Now I recognize my potentially "girly" methods as involving my right brain in an otherwise rather left-brained process, something that may be more easy and desirable for women who supposedly have more connections between right brain and left brain than men.  If you believe that stuff.  Gender, biology, nature, nurture, all that stuff, is really complicated, and I'm just talking about borders on a quantum mechanics diagram.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Some Science Fiction and Fact, also, What I Do at Green Bank

So, you might know by now that Science! is not about a bunch of men in white coats, hanging out in dark laboratories and shouting "Eureka!"  You know that women are involved too, after all, and even more should be than are, especially in this country.

But, female or male, unless you are extraordinarily brilliant or lucky or both, science is nothing so glamorous.  Still worth doing, in my opinion, and even better, still interesting enough to write about.  But our idea of the The Scientist, as well as how science works, is often quite off base from reality.

So over the next few days, I'm going to talk about some science myths.  If you know any, or have any insight, comment or email, and we'll talk about them.

Here's you're myths for today.

Science Myth 1:  Scientists figure monumental things out after working hard.

Science Fact:  Actually, that could be true.  But that happens maybe once or twice in your career, and rarely by yourself.  Do scientists really have an idea of how things will happen, do an experiment, and shout excitedly when what they expected happens?

Once again, maybe, but probably not.  More often, you stare and stare and run trial after trail and get results that Make No Darn Sense, and if the funding runs out before you get any further than that then you write the It Made No Darn Sense paper, because the staple of scientists is How Many Papers Can You Write?, not, unfortunately, What All Did You Figure Out?

Discoveries happen, of course, and the ease of the hypothesis->experiment->result model varies by discipline:  it might work well still for medical fields, sociology, and others, but is pretty much impossible anymore for physics.  Discoveries do happen--but it is often over years, decades even--and they happen by small steps, not great leaps.  Mostly anymore, they happen through collaboration, and not the sheer genius of one individual.

Science Myth 2: Scientists work individually.

Science Fact:  Scientists collaborate.  In the time of Einstein and thought experiments and Tesla locking himself away in his electricity lab, the kinds of things that could be discovered were sitting at the surface, where a brilliant individual might get at them through his or her own work alone.

Not anymore.  Science is highly specialized, these days, so that one person cannot possible know everything even within her sub-field of the sub-set of science that is her chosen field.   So you need your expert in, say, nuclear physics, combined with your expert in astronomy, combined with your expert in condensed matter, to go about condensed matter nuclear physics in space, because the general areas have been discovered pretty much to everyone's satisfaction.  It's the in-betweens and nuances where the new information still awaits to be found and interpreted.  And it's really, actually, more specialized than that, I just don't know much about condensed matter nor about nuclear physics, nor if they would even go together in space--perhaps in a neutron star-- to give you the real categorizations.  With the way data acquisition and analysis works, you often need your computer guy, your electronics gal, your theory head, AND your condensed matter specialist. 

Furthermore, you have people like me.  Graduate students--and in my case technicians--that do the Monotonous Stuff, to free the PI (principal investigator, certainly not a private one) to do the assimilating and thinking.  Or mostly it's that the amount of computer data sorting, manipulating, and arranging so that you can get an idea what you're looking it involves so many person-hours that one person could not both put in those hours and write his paper and teach his science classes in any sort of timely fashion.  And it is sad but true that churning out the papers is the mark of a productive, and thus tenure-grant-able and generally fund-able scientist.  Just like anybody else, scientists need income to practice science.

Science Myth 3: All science is relevant.

Science Fact:  This is my opinion, and it does not lessen my love of science--but I do not find all of it very relevant, important, or interesting.  This isn't a Physics verses Everything Else rant, I'm saying that sometimes when you are doing science, the Big Picture of all those details you are pouring over is really actually not very spectacular.

Case in point:  my research with the Green Bank telescope.  We are looking for what is called the "fine structure lines" of ionized (meaning, missing its electron) hydrogen.  If you read my article on quantum mechanics, it probably won't help you at all with "fine-structure", which is nonetheless an entirely quantum mechanical phenomenon.

In high school chemistry you learn about transition lines in atoms, whereby electrons go from having one amount, or level, of energy, that the electron just intrinsically possesses, to another intrinsically pre-determined amount, by absorbing a passing light particle of energy equal to exactly the difference between the two amounts.  That, or else an electron already in a higher energy level spontaneously falls to a level of less energy, emitting a light particle instead.  By the frequency of the light, we can tell the difference in energy levels, levels that are intrinsically characteristic of the element, ion or molecule in question, and which computers (because no human can do this math by hand) armed with Quantum Mechanics have spent a great deal of time solving for many molecules exactly.

Well, almost exactly.  It turns out that Quantum Mechanics--the math that calculates all those energy levels--is, like everything else in physics, only an approximation.   If you take into account some other Staples of Physics, such as relativity (which I'm not going to attempt to explain) it turns out you have to tweak the math slightly.  The results of that tweaked math:  instead of having, say, two energy levels, with x joules between them, you have four instead, with y joules between them, and y is much much smaller than x.  It's called "fine" structure because the additional energy levels are spaced very close together, so that you can't really see them unless you are looking for fine detail.

But Quantum Mechanics + Relativity says they are there, and they have in fact already been observed. So as cool and relevant as that would be, The Combination of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity is not what is being verified or not, in my particular astronomy project.  We know that model does in fact work, and the fine structure lines I am looking for have in fact been observed.

Y, the difference between the extra energy levels, is so small, that they are darn hard to see.  In space?  Forget it.  Space is actually pretty noisy, especially in the radio frequencies where these lines are found, and the noise from electronic instrumentation (what you need your electronics gal for, which is so not me) is a constant problem.  Yet we are trying to see them in space anyway, in part because it would be cool, because it would round out the body of knowledge on the fine-structure quite nicely.

But it gets more complicated, because the environment in which we are looking determines whether these lines can be seen or not.  If conditions are one way, we think we will see the transition in absorption, whereby, remember, the atoms go to a higher energy level because they absorb a passing photon.  If conditions are another way, we think we will see emission instead, whereby an atom in a higher level goes to a lower and emits a photon.   If conditions are a mix, then we will see a mix, and that doesn't help us because absorptions and emission will cancel our ability to see either one out.  The conditions have to do with interstellar dust, which tends to scatter passing photons randomly, among other complicated and surprisingly boring things.  So if the our regions of ionized hydrogen, having a certain Quantum Mechanics + Relativity predicted set of energy levels, also have a lot of dust, one thing will happen, and if they don't have enough dust, something else will.  Or, maybe it's something else about the environment we have yet to figure out.

So what we are really looking at, when it comes down to it, is, do the three  regions of ionized hydrogen that we chose to look at, among all the many thousands of such regions visible to us, have dust in them, or not, and can we even say for sure that dust in the thing anyway?  That's it, that's the Big Picture of my project.

Is that relevant?

It could be useful to another astronomer, who might use the dust-or-not information to make some other observation that turns out to be immensely relevant to a model of physics that in turn is relevant to building technology here on earth.  And even if not, I am still quite for the whole Science for Science Sake, because Knowing is so wondering, and all that.

It just doesn't make for the easiest conversation at parties, trying to tell people what I do.  Even among other scientists--grounded in their specialized field and not familiar with mine--the reaction, just like my reaction to a lot of their work with blah blah blah nebulae and blah blah blah crystal shape of boron-doped silicon (actually, that interests me, because it's in solar panels) is a sort of "Oh, well, that's interesting."

Some science does, of course.  Make for good party talk, I mean.  Make for good technology, and high relevance to the world's problems.  But even when I was working on a "fuel cell" project, what we did was in essence tell a computer to do that Quantum Mechanics Math on every step of a multi-step chemical reaction, catalog that data, (which was calculated at absolute zero for simplicity, thus, not particularly realistic) and report it to the Principle Investigator, who nodded and filed that information away for the paper she will eventually write.  My name will be on it, but I can't really give you a good idea of how useful that information is going to be.

I don't say this to disdain science.  I just say it to highlight how specialized and large is our knowledge, and how progress now comes from each of the thousands of scientists that there are, hacking away at really tiny chuncks.  There's a lot of Darn Hard Work involved, and not so much "Eureka!"

Monday, May 3, 2010

Offshore Wind Is Just So Darn Cool

It really breaks my heart to wake up every morning to more doom and gloom about that oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. 

I've never been big on offshore oil, but then again, like the still-have-to-drive-my-car-to-work hypocrite that I am, I've never been big on oil consumption.

Anyway, I don't think anybody could have predicted this.  The trouble is, from an NPR interview I heard this morning with a BP official, it sounds like the kind of equipment failue that happened just wasn't even figured into the cost-benefit-analysis equation, because we thought we knew the safety of the technology.  It is perplexing that super-redundant failsafe technology somehow still managed to fail, and discouraging but understandable that nobody got much practice in fixing Stuff That Really Should Not Break to Begin With.

Should we figure unprecidented, remotely-possible and bizzare failure into our collective okay-ness or not with the risks of offshore drilling?  I am fine going rock climbing with my laboratory-tested, ever-redundantly-set-up safety equipment.  Most all of us--especially those of us who think offshore drilling is at least better than buying it from terrorists--are willing to stuff ourselves in metal boxes that travel at high speeds near other metal boxes multiple times a day, even knowing the risk of death is actually quite substantial.

Although if you ask a Louisiana fisherman, and he'd probably tell you that no risk to something You Can't Fix Once You Broke It is acceptable.  In the case of large-scale, vital systems likes oceans, estuaries, wetlands and the like, I am inclined to agree.  Messing with stuff you depend on but can't fix has never been a particularly wise course of action, and I think as a society we know this.  It's just that finding the balance:  how great is the actual risk, how great is the potential gain, is where a practical and phisophical question enters the realm of politics.

So here's where I want to plug Offshore Wind.  It's just so darn neat.  The wind blows quite a bit on the ocean, so you don't have to listen to that "renewable aint reliable" guff the critics give you about land-based forms of the technology.   Large-scale offshore wind farms are already operational in other parts of the world:  Denmark has over 300 MW of wind in use, and Sweeden and the Netherlands have been running offshore wind sites since the 1990s.  That doesn't sound like un-tested technology to me.  Yet in the United States, we have a plethora of proposed projects--including the newly approved Cape Wind project--that have yet to be brought to life.  The current climate bill really could change this, so now is a great time to think about how cool it is.

Windmills may be considered ugly, but I fail to see how they are any uglier than an oil rig, or the smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant, for that matter.  I suppose the absolute ugliness of windmills will always be a matter of taste, but I don't see how the relative ugliness, when compared to the alternative, can ever be considered particularly great.

Windmills disrupt, kill wildlife.  Obviously, so does an oil spill.  But even in the more normal, spill-free reality of most oil drilling, I want to point out that climate change disrupts and kills wildlife.  Photochemical smog is neither a friend of the animals.  I've heard some, not necesarily authoritative sources, say that offshore wind is actually better about wildlife death than land-based wind.  Just miss the migratory paths of birds, you know?

It seems to me such an obvious win-win idea, such a no-brainer to produce energy with a lessened environmental impact, stimulte economic growth in a new industry, and, you know, use our brains to evaluate risk, gain, and consequence, and select from all options the most satisfying solution to the various concerns involved.

There is an obvious caveat here, which is that oil-drilling and wind-milling are feeding two separate energy streams.  Electricity powers light bulbs (and industry, and the Information Technology we depend on, and your plug-in hybrid), while petroleum powers cars, among other things.  We depend* on plastic bottles and plastic bags, manufactured from petroleum resin, propane and jet fuel and many thousands of household and industrial chemicals.  Even if our electric needs were met cleanly, do we drill those other things out of our oceans, or buy them from people who like to blow other people up?  Furthermore, should our demand fuel an oil spill on somebody else's beach, or are we man enough to take on the consequences of our material demands ourselves?  (Although accepting the consequences of one's actions, might actually be more of a woman thing).

*hardship often shows us that the definition of "depend" is quite relative.

I don't have an answer to that, not 100%.   Chemical energy and electrical energy can certainly be cross-converted (with some loss): in fact, that is what a car engine, battery, and alternator together accomplish.  I have often thought that we could make our energy quagmire simpler and more attackable if we trended our technology toward one method of energization, instead of two.  Of course a practical way to accomplish that involves some government determination of Things Market, and some would call that a slippery slope toward tyrannical socialism.  I don't agree with that classification, but I can see their point.

But why not offshore wind, too?  Why not have the wind component, together with the oil? Anyone who thinks the government is not already deeply involved in utility regulation lives in something of a dream-world.  Currently, federal approvement is required to begin an offshore operation.  If people are going to see this gulf oil slick as a reason to put a moratorium on drilling, a reason to be very careful with drilling, or whatever--can't we take this moment of pause to really consider the benefits of renewable technology?