Snatch the Pebble, Get the Shot?

I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating: Science is all around us. In the best instances, it’s accompanied by statistics.

More than a decade of working for one of my favorite statisticians, Joe Newton — who’s known as the Data Dean around here for good reason — has taught me a lot, from Einstein_Educationvaluable critical thinking skills to appreciation of the bigger picture, especially in situations where it hasn’t necessarily been disclosed. From both him and experience (sometimes painful), I’ve learned the importance of caution; of maintaining both a cooler head and the healthy dose of skepticism necessary to withhold judgment as I attempt to gather and evaluate as much information and/or evidence as possible. More often than not, this process begins and so often ends with a single piece of information: methodology. The more statistically relevant, the better.

Apparently, neither Dean Newton nor experience has taught me tact.

This past week, yet another of my friends came down with the flu. I dutifully monitored her prognosis from a non-contagious distance (i.e., Facebook) and noticed that things were looking up by week’s end. Given that ours is a relationship largely based on witty banter, I decided to celebrate her recovery by sharing a flu-related post to her page — a fictitious admission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, she’s fluent in the sarcasm I thought was apparent, given the sensationalized headline and the “news” source — which I now know is approaching a stunning 1.5 million likes on Facebook, indicative to me of a whole other type of pandemic — but several of her friends didn’t get the shot (pun intended). One went so far as to post this fact-laden retort from Respectful Insolence. (Oh, the irony, considering how often I’m the one who gets this educational honor by virtue of my day job).

Properly armed with the full CDC transcript, I’ll let you be the judge as to the accuracy of both the headline and the content of that Natural News piece. However, on the subject of jobs, I think ScienceBlogs.com author Orac really does a nice one in his blog entry of explaining the context behind the flu vaccine and what an absolute (albeit science-based) crapshoot it truly is each year for the World Health Organization. Forget the College Football Playoffs, this one is a statistical nightmare. Well, maybe more like a Bayesian’s dream, if you get my drift (again, pun intended). Paging Bani Mallick or Val Johnson?!?

I'm usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

I’m usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

Incidentally, my dad religiously got his flu shot every fall, and while I don’t recall him ever getting the flu, I can’t say that exactly inspired me to follow his example. Despite the fact that I know the science is solid, the only year I actually did get the shot was the year I happened to be pregnant in the fall (read guilted into it). Guess what? My husband and I both got the flu that year, with a bonus: H1N1. He got antibiotics; I got saline/homeopathic remedies. And the call from the elementary school once we got home, informing us that our first-grader had managed to get a piece of playground pea gravel stuck in his ear.

There is value in not judging a book by its cover, regardless how eye-catching or appealing, and prudence in looking before you leap, no matter how compelling the pitch or bandwagon. And in knowing your audience, even when among friends. Probably the capacity of your ear canal, too.

But in the final analysis where I’m concerned, all the hand-washing, ounces of prevention and apples a day won’t keep the sarcasm away. It’s hardwired. Jury’s still out regarding my own progeny, save for their mastery of dubious playground magic tricks.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

And the Beat Goes On

One of my favorite questions beyond “Why Texas A&M?” for the many faculty, researchers and students I encounter in the course of this job is, “Why science?”

Texas A&M biologist Deborah Bell-Pedersen recently scratched the surface of this topic for the latest issue of Spirit magazine. She then agreed to take it one step further and more personal for our blog, delving into the earliest motivations behind her 30-plus-year career in higher education and fundamental research in circadian and fungal biology.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus's genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus’s genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

My path to becoming a research scientist was not a straightforward one. Although science and math were always my favorite classes as a student, I wanted to work to save the animals on our planet through conservation efforts and to find ways to limit our negative impact on our environment.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that few people have ever heard of. In this small community, I could easily see how our growing population and lack of concern for building in new areas was negatively affecting local wildlife populations. So in my first two years of college, I majored in wildlife conservation.

It wasn’t long before I became concerned that I was not really learning what I thought I needed to in order to achieve my goal. I figured to really have an influence on conservation efforts, I would need a solid understanding of the biology and ecology of the organisms I so deeply wanted to protect. That’s when I began studying biology.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them  that drew her into biology as a possible career.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them that drew her into biology as a possible career.

In my junior year, a friend who was working in a research lab would tell me all about the experiments he was doing to uncover the mechanisms for how cells divide. This caught my attention because I assumed that scientists already knew nearly everything about cell division. While our textbooks made it seem like all of the problems had been solved, we really didn’t know much about what controls cell division. That’s when I decided to try my hand at research, and during my senior year I carried out a research project in cell biology. I found it incredibly exciting to be designing my own experiments to get answers to problems that no one had ever previously studied. On top of the thrill of basic discovery, the research also had important implications in animal and human health.

I was hooked and continued my journey toward a career in research and teaching. Along the way, I have found joy from continuing to make basic discoveries in biology, some of which now appear in textbooks and have potential for the development of new approaches to treat cancer.

As a career, I would say there is nothing better. The research we are doing will have a major impact on society; I learn something new every day; I interact with fascinating people from all different cultures; I travel all over the world to speak about our work at meetings; but probably the most rewarding aspect is my role in training students to be our next generation of research scientists, many of whom will make important new discoveries themselves.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen's Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen’s Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Research scientists do work long hours, but for me, doing experiments and analyzing data is fun and more like a favorite hobby than actually working. Despite these long hours, I still find time to maintain my childhood interest in animals and pretty much have my own zoo — one rescued dog, one cat, two miniature donkeys and one horse. I take riding lessons twice a week on my horse, Tea and Crumpets, to learn dressage.

In addition, I have also always enjoyed music. People are always surprised when they come to my office and hear anything from opera to hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I do play the piano a little and in recent years, I have started learning to play the violin.

In many ways, I think playing music is a lot like conducting research. Both are a lot of fun, require creativity and concentration, and have the potential for long-lasting impact on society.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Yeah, Bell-Pedersen is onto something here, and go figure that there’s actual science behind it, too. Watch it, then get to work and/or go play!

Garbage In, Creativity Out

Video

For a decade, if not longer, I’ve been a subscriber to my cousin Floyd Hoelting’s Quote of the Day email service. Each weekday, his daily dose of inspiration hits my inbox around 7:30 a.m. and typically is one of the last things I read prior to leaving for work.

Some days, I read and delete, but others, I simply stop and marvel. Today is one of the latter. And believe me, the correlation between this landfill and my overstuffed inbox isn’t lost on me, either.

Thank you, Floyd, and thank you, kids of Cateura and Landfill Harmonic! Here’s to finding the diamond in the rough within your own heaps and days.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“The beauty of music can touch the hearts and ingenuity of the mind.” ~ Suzette Lagacé

Landfill Harmonic- The world sends us garbage… We send back music. from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.

Six Degrees of Nick Suntzeff

Lest anyone think fundraising is the only obstacle to getting next-generation telescopes (such as the Giant Magellan Telescope in which Texas A&M University is a founding partner) off the ground, the New York Time’s Gerald Brown recently weighed in on another area of tough, at-times-touchy sledding — drawing the line between spirituality and science.

As Brown explains, this age-old debate most recently played out in Hawaii and on YouTube, among other venues, concerning a protest by Native Hawaiians that disrupted the October 7 groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

As with all things astronomical, I forwarded the NYT link to Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who grew up in California, studied at Stanford University and at Lick Observatory and also spent 20 years as an astronomer in Chile, where he helped co-discover dark energy in between helping to save Alan Alda’s life, among other feats. Nick offered his two cents in the usual colorful manner I’ve come to both expect and love.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I agree this is a great article. I, too, have been part of controversies about native claims to mountains as sacred sites. The mountains of Junipero Serra, Cerro Tololo, Quimal, Cerro Toco and Kitt Peak come to mind as having been claimed to be sacred. Quimal, which is perhaps the best mountain in Chile for astronomy, definitely is a sacred mountain, and we did not try to study it, except to verify that it did have burial sites on the summit. Kitt Peak is also sacred, but it is not an important site in the Tohono O’odham culture as is the Baboquivari Mountain to the south.

The article expresses the delicate point that indigenous peoples have been totally screwed by western expropriation of their lands, and fighting any fight to show their plight is totally understandable. In the case of Hawaii, the astronomers initially did not reach out to the Native Hawaiians and alienated them early on. There is not a small amount of support among the Native Hawaiians for astronomy, but we were late in including them in the discussions.

Ah, yes. I have many stories about the native beliefs versus astronomy, including meeting Ansel Adams a few times. …

I have always been uncomfortable with this issue since we are sympathetic to native beliefs, yet are often vocal against similar beliefs in mainstream religion. I am very glad George Johnson brought that up in his article. Few people have ever touched on that point of conflict.

cheers, nick

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Yep, there he goes again, creating another story within a story. Nick’s the master of a well-placed tangent, and by this point, he should know I’m an absolute sucker for those. Move over, Kevin Bacon; you’re been replaced by six degrees of Nick Suntzeff, and I’ve got to know the rest of the story on this one!

“You’ve met Ansel Adams?!?” I incredulously reply. “Of course you have! Why am I surprised by anything at this point? Tell me more.”

And, true to form, Nick does — about the legendary artist and then some. As I’ve said time and again, the man’s a walking history book and a born educator.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The quick answer: Ansel Adams lived near Santa Cruz and Monterey (I’ve forgotten where). Around 1975, Lick Observatory was involved in building a new telescope that would be even larger than the Palomar 5-meter. They (Dr. Merle Walker) studied mountains in California and Mexico and found that the best mountain was Junipero Serra Peak, the tallest mountain in the central coast range of California that is more than 5,000 feet while only about 10 miles from the coast. He did an onsite survey measuring the turbulence and found it was an outstanding peak.

As the highest mountain, it was claimed to be a sacred mountain by the local Native Americans. The problem was that there was no evidence anywhere that this mountain was sacred. The local Indians claimed an oral tradition, but again, there was no evidence for this until after the astronomers were interested in the mountain. The mountain is inside a wilderness area, so it is protected and would take a special permit to build there.

So, just like Hawaii, there was a problem between astronomers and the locals. I hiked the mountain once (it is a tough climb), and I thought it was one of the most beautiful mountains in California in the springtime. It is so high that the forest there is an isolated stand of sugar pines, which are common in the Sierras. The mountain has permanent snow in the winter, so the top of the mountain is alpine country like the Sierras. There is only one other mountain — Cone Peak — nearby that also has a few sugar pines. The pines are dying fast, and the forest will be lost in the near future.

I am not sure how, but someone knew someone who knew Ansel Adams, who was an avid amateur astronomer. He supported the building of the observatory (provided that it had minimal impact on the mountain). So I was roped into being a chauffeur for him, taking him to maybe two public meetings. His mere presence there made a big impact.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

He was a private sort of person, so I did not get to know him well. But I did find out that, along with his famous photos, he also had some sort of telescope and took astronomical photos for fun. I imagine these were all destroyed along with the original photographic plates and negatives when he died (a common thing photographers do). I would have liked to see some of his plates. Since I also took photographic plates for astronomy (yes, I am that old), we talked mostly about the techniques of astrophotography.

I have never heard of anyone talking about his astrophotography.

cheers, nick

P.S. This is really old history, and I wish I remembered more details of our conversations. His Wikipedia entry does mention his interest in astronomy, and they have the fact which I never knew that his father was the treasurer for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is the other professional astronomy group in the U.S., that unlike the American Astronomical Society, includes amateur astronomers as members. He was treasurer from 1925-50, a major position which would have put him in the Executive Council of the ASP.

See also:
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/an-ansel-adams-encore/

And here’s a fascinating primer on the artistry behind the icon, authored by a pretty good photographer in his own right, the Eagle’s Dave McDermand.

quote-adams

Light My Fire

I’ve been to my fair share of External Advisory & Development Council meetings during the past decade, but this one took the cake. Well, make that melted dark chocolate.

Each fall meeting marks the addition of a few new members — names and faces that I try my best to mentally file along with the customary group of longtime favorites I so enjoy seeing on a biannual basis. While newcomers are always recognized at some point in the meeting, I don’t recall any of them previously being allowed to make short presentations as part of the induction process.

Based on last month’s experiences, let’s just say the bar’s been raised on what I personally hope is a new tradition.

Each meeting typically is broken into morning and afternoon sessions, separated by one break per session as well as lunch. When we returned from said lunch, I immediately spotted an array of products stacked against the base of the speaker podium — the first indication we were in for a treat on top of the delicious cheesecake we’d just been served as dessert. Beyond the fact that they looked slightly similar to the MREs (meals ready to eat) I’d seen in a previous work life in which one of my supervisors was ex-military, I quickly dismissed them as the venue possibly peddling some new coffee samples or something equally innocuous.

Mistake No. 1.

As Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci, the first of two new members in attendance, took to the podium to briefly describe his company and related work, I couldn’t help but notice as a wait-staff member methodically went seat by seat, row by row to distribute individually prepackaged toothpicks. Mildly intriguing, but then again, we’d just finished lunch, so. … Back to the presentation at hand.

Lynntech's Tony Ragucci presents his company's research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci presents his company’s research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Too late! I’d glanced to my left, toward the end of our row of tables, where I zeroed in on four small plates with sliced bananas and strawberries?!? Granted, EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76 was seated there, so perhaps he had merely requested an extra dessert or two, which wouldn’t be out of the question, right?

By this point, my spidey senses were beyond tingling. Thankfully, Dr. Ragucci was hitting a most interesting stride, so I immersed myself in learning all that I could about condensed matter physics and some pretty sophisticated materials science and engineering, along with related fabrication. Mind sated, curiosity abated. Although he couldn’t disclose the company’s clients by name nor discuss specific information about the proprietary projects and products, that merely added myth to the mystery for me. After all, exclusivity is one of the council’s biggest draws, and it comes bundled with a palpable sense of curiosity that permeates the entire room.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci's presentation, RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker's podium.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci’s presentation, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker’s podium.

After Dr. Ragucci concluded his presentation, Dr. Beckerdite introduced our second new member, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach. He began to talk about batteries, a subject I could readily identify with not as a scientist but as a parent responsible for three kids ages 11 and under and, more importantly, keeping a steady supply of AA, AAA, 9-volt, C and D batteries on hand at any given moment as well making sure that all cell phones and electronic devices are charged.

RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach explains his company's Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach explains his company’s Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

I’m pretty sure the entire room was as surprised as I was when Mr. Laubach and Dr. Beckerdite began distributing via the first person in each row a variety of rectangular-shaped items adorned with shiny, bright-orange packaging. After polling the group to see if anyone was in orthopedics, he then asked each row to peel back and remove an adhesive strip from the first item — a thin, roughly 3-inch X 12-inch board resembling the look and feel of spongy corrugated cardboard. And to wait for a couple minutes as the product heats up (wait, what?!?)

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) '74 and Albert Gallatin '61 inspect their row's allotment of RBC products.

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) ’74 and Albert Gallatin ’61 inspect their row’s allotment of RBC products.

Long story short, he then proceeded to set Dr. Beckerdite’s pretend forearm fracture, using what in the course of a couple minutes had morphed from a lifeless cardboard wafer into a warm, entirely flexible and moldable splint which hardened as it cooled before our eyes into the equivalent of a rock-solid cast! In true salesman-esque, but-wait! fashion, there was more —- smaller, bright-orange, rectangular packets containing dark chocolate (which, once warmed, we drizzled over the fruit and then used our handy-dandy toothpicks to eat), hand lotion and wet wipes. There was even one for macaroni and cheese, but given that this product still is in the final testing phases, it was empty. The intriguing takeaway there for me is that it’s named after Mr. Laubach’s daughter —- further proof of that softer side of science I’ve always loved.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite '76, getting his "injury" set by Adam Laubach.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76, getting his “injury” set by Adam Laubach.

All in all, show and tell -— much less science -— doesn’t get much better than warm comfort food and portable medical supplies. Nor does the fact that, at their core, scientists are humans. One of the best varieties, in my book: those who are highly motivated to improve the future. Sometimes, it’s a direct route. Other times, it involves detours -— years that all too quickly turn into decades of hard work that doesn’t always pan out, save for in the occasional, sobering realization that it’s time for a new direction.

In RBC’s case, they continued to dance with the one that brought them (batteries), secure enough in their extensive knowledge and experience to take two steps back before breaking into what looks to be one heck of a technological tango from here.

Ultimately, those rectangular packages harbor a lot more than some spectacular self-heating technology for a variety of commercial and societal uses. To me, they are a perfect metaphor for science and scientists who, on the surface, often appear pretty ordinary if not downright non-descript. However, given the right catalyst, the sky’s the limit as to where their innate inspirational fire, once activated, will take them and, by default, our world.

As for me, I think a field trip to Science Park at Research Valley (where both Lynntech and RBC are located) definitely is in order. Just in case, I’m bringing a fork.

Laubach serves up one of the day's most popular Safe Heat products -- melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Laubach serves up one of the day’s most popular Safe Heat products — melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Click to see additional photographs from the Fall EADC Meeting, held October 24 at Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, Texas.

All Work and No Play — OK, Maybe Just a Little Play

If you have that preconceived concept, as I once did, that scientists do nothing all day but merrily toil in their labs, pour ambiguous neon liquids from one beaker to the next and jot incomprehensible equations on a blackboard, well, sorry. That’s fiction.

The truth is that being a scientist can be a downright stressful gig.

Before they can pursue the undiscovered, they have to pursue funding so that they can actually perform the research that’s expected of them. Whenever they do don the stereotypical but regulation-required white lab coat, it’s usually to do the same tedious, non-glitzy experiment multiple times with the hope of coming up with some sort of data worth publishing. Those world-changing discoveries are few and far in between, and even then, more follow-up research must be done, which of course means more grants must be secured. It’s a vicious cycle.

Most of them also teach courses each semester, which involves a fresh new realm of stress. On top of everything else, they have to somehow squeeze in the time to create and plan lectures, hold student office hours and grade assignments and exams. (By the way, scientists and lab techs are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the U.S.)

Breathing down their necks are supervisors wanting publications, students wanting help with homework and the rest of the world wanting answers to a laundry list of questions on everything from the cosmos to cures. They have obligations to fulfill and deadlines to meet. Normal work hours and weekends are never guaranteed.

To put it bluntly, being a scientist is demanding career. Thankfully, the scientists at Texas A&M, are able to find ways to smile through it all, no matter how strenuous it gets. It’s that whole ‘all work, no play’ notion, and big surprise, they excel at that, too. Here’s a lighthearted look at some of our faculty finding joy in the job(s) they do so well.

Carpe Diem

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff may have missed out on the Stanford University Class of 1974’s 40th reunion this past weekend because of meeting conflicts, but he still got the chance to revisit his undergraduate past.

Nick arrived on the last day, showing up just in time to walk over with Redwood High School and Stanford classmate Mike Kast to see the student observatory the two built together in the early 1970s. Not unlike the Texas A&M Bonfires of old, the structure was equal parts commandeered and sheer will — no doubt part of the reason Nick makes such a good Aggie nowadays!

As usual, Nick tells it best in both photographs and captions, so I’ll let him take it from here!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Mike Kast and I built this observatory at Stanford back when we were undergrads. Amazingly, it is still there and has not burned down, considering I did much of the wiring. The telescope and dome have been replaced, and it has been spiffed up a lot (like the rest of Stanford), but it is still there and still being used for a popular astronomy lab class. Sally Ride helped and was a student in the first lab class we had! The real catalyst was Dr. Walter Meyerhof, who was the Chairman of the Physics Department back then and had confidence that a bunch of green undergrads could do such a project. We took the pier from aeronautical engineering (sort of without exactly asking), the 100-year-old Leuschner Observatory dome from UC Berkeley, a B/C mount from a Southern California aerospace firm that had previously used it to track downrange missile tests, and furniture from somewhere we can’t remember now. Mike figured out how to replicate the key to the electronic lock at the gate to the road up the hill so we could get in and out without anyone at Behavioral Sciences noticing. I was told the observatory hill became a place where undergrads often go on first dates.

Epilogue

OK, if you are fortunate enough to know Nick Suntzeff or have read any of this blog’s previous entries involving him, you know that there’s more to the story and that it’s worth telling/reading. More from Nick on his and Mike’s friendship and their Stanford adventures:

It was nostalgic going back and seeing it. They actually have done some remodeling of the building, and it looks a lot better. It is weird what one remembers. Mike and I told each other stuff that we remembered, and basically, we remembered completely different events. It is not that he would remember some event, and I remembered it differently — rather that I generally had NO memory of what he remembered. So it was fun piecing together the story again.

Just a short prologue. Mike’s mother is Russian, and their family knew my family. His father was a vice president for Bechtel Corporation and, thus, a really important engineer. But his father was also really interested in astronomy. So Mike grew up around telescopes. He and I were best friends in high school, and my interest in astronomy grew, albeit slowly, because of Mike and his father.

We started Stanford together. My advisor was Dr. Meyerhof, the chairman of the physics department — a rather scary, serious German fellow, or so he at first seemed. He would come over to my dorm once a week to eat with his three advisees. Mike would come over, too, so there would be four of us with Dr. Meyerhof. The other two students sort of drifted away, and the dinners were just usually Mike, me and Dr. Meyerhof. At one dinner (and this both of us remember), Mike and I were talking about the fact that Stanford had no observational astronomy and no “real observatory.” And then, Dr. Meyerhof looked at us, and said, “Why don’t we build one?” That floored us. I was 17 and Mike 18, and this famous professor at Stanford is telling us we can build an observatory? How would we start? Where would we get funds? Geez, we were zit-faced freshmen.

But Meyerhof was serious. He had always wanted to have a traditional astronomy program (like what we are doing at Texas A&M) at Stanford, and he could not get a lot of interest with the administration and even with the physics faculty, who tended to look down on astronomy as “postage-stamp collecting” — the ultimate insult of a physicist to astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, etc. So he told us not to worry about funding, but to put together a plan. So we did. And he found money. And we started to generate interest among undergrads and graduate students in the project.

Three years later, it was done. The building was designed by an undergrad in architecture. Mike acted as the general contractor, and a SeaBee grad student in engineering did the major construction. We got volunteers to help build and outfit the building. We got companies to donate money and parts of the telescope. I was kind of the spokesperson and organizer, finding people and convincing them to help us. By the end of the 1972-73 academic year (that summer), we finished. Mike lived in the building for a year as he worked on it. In the first class taught (by me), Sally Ride was one of my students, and I had to give her a grade. (She got an A. Sally always got an A in everything she did.) The next semester, she was a teaching assistant at the observatory.

Meyerhof did not get the university to start an astronomy program, but he opened the floodgates to teaching astronomy, and new astronomy classes appeared after we left. Sally Ride’s thesis advisor, A.B.C Walker Jr., took the observatory under his wing and got significant further funding for it. There’s even a history page.

Looking back, it is amazing we got the thing done and still graduated. I graduated with the absolute minimum number of credits in four years and could not start taking grad classes as a senior like the other students in senior physics. But building the observatory was way more cool. Mike in his fourth and fifth year also built a solar observatory for Stanford, which is still working. That was a more serious professional observatory, near our student observatory, and is still used by the solar physicists at Stanford.

cheers, nick

Daydream Believer

“Daydreaming is a short-term detachment from one’s immediate surroundings, during which a person’s contact with reality is blurred and partially substituted by a visionary fantasy, especially one of happy, pleasant thoughts, hopes or ambitions, imagined as coming to pass, and experienced while awake…”

No better day than Sunday to share this visionary fantasy — an absolutely spectacular time lapse called “The Mountain,” shot in 2011 at Spain’s El Teide, the country’s highest point and home to Teide Observatory.

Happy detaching!

Words of Non-Wisdom

Some days, I don’t have the words.

Other days, appearances can be deceiving. I have the illusion of words (as in, they exist on the page/screen), but upon initial re-read, I realize they aren’t worth the paper/screen they’re not printed on. Heck, this could be one of those days!

Death and taxes aside, it’s the great equalizer that happens to everyone foolhardy enough to make a career out of writing. You know, one of those things anybody can do, particularly in this empowering age of new/social media. I mean, when it comes to content, it’s anybody’s white space to fill in a society sorely lacking in critical thinking skills where, for so many, one source is as good as any other. After all, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true, right?

Yet, even science says writing is beneficial and worthwhile. Me, I’d put it right up there with alcohol and religion as one of those “all things in moderation” cases. But that’s because I know from decades of personal experience that, for all its catharsis, it’s a struggle that’s real if not always transferable.

It’s a given that few people beyond other writers truly can appreciate what goes into good writing — a highly elusive and even more subjective term on the best of days. It’s an at-times exhausting process, having to constantly be creative-on-demand on top of inventive, resourceful, investigative, upbeat and interested/interesting, knowing that the ultimate reward is having to gear up to do it all over again the moment the effort at hand is deemed worthy and complete. A double-shot of Dorothy Parker (props to the dedicated writer who manages her public figure Facebook page, Ellen Meister) readily leaps to mind for good reason:

DorothyParker_TypewriterDorothyParker_WriterEncouragement

Science writing is a whole new world, one in which your challenge long before facing that inevitable blank page with its mockingly blinking cursor is to become an overnight expert on any number of topics your sources have devoted their entire careers to studying — a daunting, somewhat egotistical, yet professionally necessary and proper task for someone who, let’s face it, didn’t exactly excel in these subjects in college. Fortunately, the majority of sources I’ve encountered are true educators willing to overlook and compensate for my shortcomings, but still, there’s definitely a certain degree of pressure, self-induced or otherwise. Some days, I get it and it shows; other days, well, it shows then, too. But there’s one positive side effect (note to my kids): I can research with the best of them.

Oh, and did I mention that for me, perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand? Apparently, I have that in common with lots of others. That old best-quality-is-often-your-worst-quality concept. Same song, different verse, but at least that one wasn’t my assignment.

Some days, I long for a return to the times of Gutenberg. Funny thing is, it’s often words that snap me out it, from a catchy headline or teaser copy to emails from friends and faculty like Nick Suntzeff — missives that I wouldn’t be so fortunate to receive in such pre-Renaissance days. These harbingers of hope help me see I am not alone and that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously sometimes in my efforts, particularly when they involve mischaracterizing or overhyping science (Nick’s own motivation for writing that day – ha!)

Incidentally, if I can point to an example in my portfolio for each category listed — or better yet work all 14 into a single piece, and I think this one comes close — does that mean I’ve officially arrived as a science writer?

In a word, writing is a psychosis — a self-prescribed mixture of pleasure and pain. As writers, we’re constantly playing a part, investing in others’ dreams, adventures and back stories, sometimes at the expense of our own. It’s no surprise in ways that the profession (not unlike that of actors, entertainers, musicians and comedians — vocations that all tie back to writing) is littered with antisocial, depressed and/or suicidal drunks. But hey, I suppose that’s channeling Hemingway.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . . .

HemingwayQuote_Writing

Somewhere Over, er, Around the Rainbow

Rainbows — who doesn’t love them? Everyone — no matter what age, no matter how bad their day is going — will stop and admire, even if only for a second or two, those beautiful arches of color whenever they happen to appear.

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Our infatuation with them goes back thousands of years. In many religions, they are viewed as a sign or message “from above.” In many cultures, they are a symbol of peace and hope. In this day and age, however, rainbows make fantastic social media fodder, and if there’s been a good rain, it’s almost certain that you’ll find at least one picture of Mr. Roy G. Biv.

So last week after a wet several days, Shana and I took to our Facebook machines to skim the obligatory rainbow pics posted by our friends, and we noticed something rather interesting — several shots of unusually flat, double-rainbows.

Rainbow

Being the curious science enthusiasts that we are, we wanted a logical explanation for these oddities. Shana decided to consult our go-to guy for any inquiry involving the sky — Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

We learned that rainbows are naturally 360 degrees, and half of it lies below the horizon where there is no moisture. As for why our rainbows in question had less arch than normal, Dr. Suntzeff explained:

“It is flat because the photo was taken during the middle of the day. The rainbow is circular around the anti-solar point. Here, the anti-sun must be way below the horizon.”

He also passed along this link that offers a very detailed explanation:
http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fz795.htm.

There you have it — rainbows are naturally circular, thus eliminating any hope for ever finding that pot of gold at the end of one.

At least they’re still pretty to look at.

(Incidentally, for those who might want to try that water-hose experiment to see the full 360-degree effect in action, I’d recommend leaving your dog, if not your adorable toddler, inside. Curious? Click here.)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Anything look familiar, from photo to explanation, in this September 30 Astronomy Picture of the Day? Just goes to show this is phenomenal double stuff the world over!