On the Other Hand

THIS JUST IN: Scientists are normal! For starters, just like you and me, they take the occasional vacation. That being said, I don’t know many whose curiosity ever takes the occasional break.

As proof, I respectfully submit Exhibit A — a Facebook posting from Texas A&M University astronomer Nick Suntzeff, documenting a curious find from his travels in Croatia this month. I’ll let you be the judge, from the history to the actions and their motivations, but for me, there’s no debating that Nick has a wonderful way with words!

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City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

“I was intrigued with the city seal of Trogir in Croatia. What’s that comet all about? Well, there was a St. John buried in the city. When the Venetians set out in 1170 or so to fight the Byzantium enemies, the stopped in Trogir and sacked it. They stole all the relics of the saint, except they could not carry the whole damn sarcophagus of St. John — so they cut his hand off because it had the bishop’s ring. The hand was carried back to Venice. But the fleet suffered some divine intervention of a storm or plague or fleas. Anyway, Trogir recouped and demanded their stuff back, which the Venetians gave, except for the hand, which they felt they could care for better. On the eve of the feast of St. John (according to the article by A. Marinkovic), ‘the hand flew back to Trogir followed by a comet and helped by angels, and was found in the cathedral of Trogir, laid on the top of the tomb in clean linen.’

“They don’t make miracles these days like they used to. A dead hand with a ring followed by a comet and a squad of angels? Now, that I would notice as an astronomer. Even using IDL [Interactive Data Language].”

Earth to Teachers

As one of the rotating images within its website header teases, what has 72 feet, covers 3,000 miles in 16 days, can earn 3 graduate hours of credit, and is more fun than summer vacation when you were a kid?

The answer is G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. As the ultimate in immersive summer extravaganzas, the two-week camp sets off for a variety of sites across Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, teaching the principles of geology in the field by allowing participants to explore and experience first-hand the processes and environments of planet Earth from past to present.

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder serves as one of G-Camp’s instructors. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, she taught earth science in Texas public schools for 30 years, earning Texas Earth Science Teacher of the Year honors in 1986. This past year, she returned to the classroom, teaching introductory geology courses at Texas A&M in addition to her duties with CMSE, which include serving as director of the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative for Science.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto's Point, Colorado.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto’s Point, Colorado.

“Once you have taken a field trip with a geologist, you are hooked for life,” Carolyn says. “That’s what happened to me on my first one with Dr. Mel Schroeder back in 1974, and I continue to love learning about geology and sharing that love with others, both through the classes and workshops that I teach and by informal means as well.”

Consider this your two-part vicarious pictorial education, courtesy of Carolyn and G-Camp 2014! While you’re waiting for Part 2, feel free to follow the group on Facebook for bonus pictures and information, if not points.

Small Wonders

Gallery

This gallery contains 11 photos.

“The Noticers of the world are rare and beautiful gifts. … Pausing to delight in the simple joys of everyday life is the only way to truly live.” — Rachel Macy Stafford, The Hands Free Mama * ~ * ~ … Continue reading

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)


I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)


If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Reading and Writing

For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I managed to read a pleasure book cover to cover on consecutive weekends. The first was a recent gift from a dear friend, made all the more special because she wrote it. The second was one I rediscovered earlier this week in my desk at work, made doubly special not only because it was written by a longtime family friend but also because its inside front cover harbored a hidden PostIt note from my mom, hands down the best writer in the family.

Thanks in large part to Mom’s steadfast encouragement of my childhood bookworm tendencies, I’m a firm believer that being an avid reader goes hand in hand with being a good writer. Interestingly enough, the New York Times recently detailed a German study on the science of creativity using writing as the medium. Reactions to the results are mixed, with most agreeing it’s an intriguing topic if not a start.

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Me, I’m thrilled beyond words creative or otherwise that my oldest son appears to be well on his way to following in his grandmother’s dog-eared, ink-stained footsteps. Just this past week, he devoured the 487-page Divergent, plus 72 pages of bonus material.

I’m not sure if his grandmother would be proud, amused or slightly alarmed by last weekend’s topic of discussion: the comparative literary merits of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, courtesy of Epic Rap Battles of History. (Who says this Internet thing is all bad?!) Although my son is intimately familiar with the works of neither author, he is absolutely curious and eagerly anticipating the big moment when his dad and I pronounce him old enough to read such suspenseful classics without the 100 percent guarantee of nightmares.

All the talk of Poe instantly transported me back to high school and the many great short stories we read as parts of some amazing anthologies that, although assigned reading, imparted what for me were lifelong lessons in the exploration of creative voice and artistic expression. I mean, who could forget The Cask of Amontillado or The Telltale Heart?

But beyond them, there could be no better introduction to the fine art of foreshadowing than The Monkey’s Paw or Lamb to the Slaughter. I decided he was old enough for the latter, so I sent him the link.

Now, as for remembering to check his email? That jury’s still out.

This was us growing up (minus the pets), but all with our magazines! So glad Mom and Daddy allowed reading at the table during meals. Goodness knows we all got our fair share of bonding in over farm, ranch and dairy chores.

This was us growing up (minus the pets), but all with our magazines! So glad Mom and Daddy allowed reading at the table during meals. Goodness knows we all got our fair share of bonding in over farm, ranch and dairy chores.

Core Competency

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, one of the many perks of my job is having experts at my fingertips. With a simple email, phone call or Facebook message, I can get instant feedback concerning the day’s top headlines, scientific and beyond.

Take for instance last week’s reports celebrating discovery of oceans of water beneath the Earth’s surface. I happened to catch a radio snippet recapping the Huffington Post’s version of the story as I was heading solo to the grocery store on a rare Friday vacation day. (Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are as to what qualifies as vacation for this full-time working mom of three ages 10 and under. But that’s another story with neither experts nor answers!) Intrigued, I first Googled the story to find out where it originated (Northwestern University), then emailed my friend Wolfgang Bangerth, a Texas A&M mathematician and author of a modeling software program, ASPECT, that is designed to develop, among so many other things, clearer pictures of Earth’s interior.

Besides being a computational scientist and modeling genius, Wolfgang is no slouch when it comes to geophysics — or any engineering-related branch of science, in my experience. While I knew this would be right up his alley, I didn’t realize he was in South Korea at the time teaching a weeklong workshop. Distance certainly didn’t affect his ability to advise nor my efforts to produce a press release on the subject with his copious help.

(Here’s an example of Wolfgang’s ASPECT-driven work — convection in a 3D box. Reminds me of those cool optical illusion-type puzzles you got as a kid or the nifty gel-based paperweights you sometimes see in science-types offices!)

For me, curiosity is right up there with a sense of humor and vocabulary prowess in the way of appealing attributes, but I do so love it when others share my enthusiasm for a spur-of-the-moment idea, PR-related and otherwise. Wolfgang certainly went the extra mile (pun intended) to bring this one to fruition, paying me and other communicators what I consider to be the ultimate compliment during a side discussion concerning my use of the formal “Dr.” title with him out of habitual respect:

“It’s a title. I got it by doing my job, not by being particularly brilliant. As for respect, you are doing a fantastic job, too, and I do respect that just as much. At a university, we’re a team. You can’t do your job without us, and we can’t do it without people like you. I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat each other as equals.”

Well said as always, my wise friend. Let the record show (at least in this piece) that I’m recovering nicely.

Thank you, Wolfgang, for the global assist and the team affirmation. Awesome to the core!

Another bonus of being friends with such world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Another bonus of being friends with such a world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

– Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

Texas, Our Texas

“When I moved here to East Texas over three years ago, I was a little homesick. I grew up in California and also worked and lived in Chile most of my life, and I never lived far from the ocean. Last year when I was in West Texas, I met an elderly woman who had grown up on a ranch west of Eldorado. She said that whenever she leaves Texas, she too feels homesick — not for the ocean but for the sky. I asked her why. She said that growing up on a ranch, especially at night, you have the sky from one horizon to the other horizon, and anywhere she goes, she feels penned in by city lights, fences and city buildings.

“The sky is really a part of the history of Texas. It is in our flag. It is in our music. It is really in the soul of Texas. And I am proud to be here at Texas A&M, helping to bring the sky back to this part of Texas.”

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On December 4, 2009, Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff put the icing on the celebratory cake with this absolutely perfect big-picture analogy, an excerpt of his remarks presented as part of the official dedication of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nearly five years later, I think his grandiose words are just as fitting in capturing the magnificence of another stately project, Between Heaven and Texas, executed by another master of observation, Wyman Meinzer, the Official State Photographer of Texas whose life’s work involves appreciating and accentuating the Lone Star State’s beauty and sharing it with the world. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, meet Wyman and his most recent, resplendent take on Texas, our Texas.

Wyman Meinzer – Between Heaven And Texas from Wyman Meinzer on Vimeo.

Tradition in Action

I learned something new about the late George P. Mitchell ’40 last month.

Yeah, that George Mitchell, the same entrepreneurial Texas A&M University distinguished alumnus, energy pioneer, visionary philanthropist and larger-than-life Texan I’ve been covering at least once every six months or so for more than a decade, typically in relation to a new gift or result of a previous gift to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy.

Amazingly enough, I only interviewed him once during that entire time, in 2005 for the cover story for the College of Science’s first and only issue of DISCOVERY magazine, which fell victim soon afterward to budget cuts. And truth be told, that solitary occasion was more of a sitting-down-to-breakfast-at-the-same-table group scenario anyway.

The 2005 interview. Yes, that's my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

The 2005 interview. Yes, that’s my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

Bottom line: I thought I had read if not written the proverbial book on him. Go figure I was wrong and that I’d missed one of his best stories yet – one involving a 60-year Aggie tradition, at that. I think it’s one of my new favorites right up there with the Aggie Ring, Muster and Midnight Yell.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell '40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

Beyond bearing all the hallmarks of his humble, behind-the-scenes style, the news came with a twist befitting his sharp business mind and quick-witted side. In contrast to his generosity to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Mr. Mitchell was notorious for deflecting those who encouraged him to consider supporting worthwhile causes in engineering — not because he didn’t see their value, but because, as a numbers/logistics man, he saw how many prosperous Texas A&M engineers there were besides him to champion such efforts. His classic fallback response on such occasions? “Talk to Claytie” — a playful reference to Texas A&M graduate Clayton W. Williams, Jr. ’54, president and chief executive officer of Midland-based Clayton Williams Energy Inc. and former Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee.

Alas, the ultimate secret within a secret: He’d been supporting the top Aggie engineers in his home department all along. Well played, Mr. Mitchell; well played.

On that sunny summer 2005 morning in The Woodlands, I was in awe. I still am. I guess wonders the likes of George P. Mitchell ’40 never cease, even in death. Talk about breaking news that knows no embargo.

GPM

The Write Stuff

As another school year winds down for K-16 students across the country, I find myself pondering such altruistic, open-ended concepts as limitless potential and freedom of/in choice. At the same time, I’m doing my best to encourage my own children to close out these last few weeks in style by pressing through and persevering, when I know all they want to do is turn it in and get on with summer.

My oldest is a lot like me, particularly when it comes to his love of reading and writing. On a recent trip home from school, we were discussing the concept of writing books for a living, which he says he wants to do and thinks I should, too. (In his defense, we watch a lot of “Castle” — yes, for the writing/storylines more so than the eye candy for both sexes.) I love that he’s naïve enough to believe that anything you set your mind to, you can achieve. I love that he sees all the beauty where all I see are the obstacles which I like to label (perhaps too easily and conveniently) reality. Most of all, I love his boundless enthusiasm and unshakable belief in his mom. It’s in his DNA on both sides.

At one point in our conversation, he said to me, “But, Mom, think about it — you could write about what you love!” A heady thought, I suppose, particularly for a kid who’s told what to do and how to do it in the majority of his classes. Ever the practical realist, I replied, “Yes, but then there’s the ultimate question: Would it sell?” (Forgive me, Jonas Eriksson, but one of us has yet to write that bestseller, much less start that college fund. Uh, let’s not mention that to the aspiring author, please.) He agreed that was a critical point to consider, and then, just as quickly as the traffic signal turned from red to green, we shifted our focus to another, more pressing issue — the homework he had due for the next day and rest of the week.

Somewhere lost in the mental shuffle was what I should have told him and will. That I do write about what I love, because writing is what I love. That therein lies the beauty of writing and true love of words — it’s a passion so often and so fluidly fulfilled, regardless of topic, medium or deadline. Much like “Green Eggs and Ham,” I’ve found that I like words in a blog. I do, I do like them in a press release or magazine-length feature. I even like them in 140 characters or less, with or without hashtags, and as status updates. And who could resist headlines?!? For me, the variety is the challenge and appeal as much as the subject matter. Which, for the past decade or so has been science, so I’ve got my work more than cut out for me — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Words have the power to educate, encourage and inspire. Yep, it’s official: A quarter century or so removed from having to declare a major, I’m still sold on my decision. Here’s hoping he can say the same at my age — and that I’m still around, not only to see it but more so to write about it using whatever the latest technology of the moment is by then.

Credit: Hal Schade.

(Credit: Hal Schade.)