Creative Logic

I took a Facebook quiz last week that pseudo-scientifically confirmed my suspicions: I’m becoming more analytical and order-driven versus creative and imaginative in my older age. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of being a parent or working among scientists for the better part of the past 15 years, but clearly, it’s taking its toll. Yep, there are no two ways about it. I’m growing up.

If it's on Facebook, it has to be true, right? ;-) Here's hoping, anyway -- me and my mom!

If it’s on Facebook, it has to be true, right? 😉 Here’s hoping, anyway — me and my mom!

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean I have to abandon all hope, especially when I’m surrounded by people who cultivate curiosity for a living. People like Nick Suntzeff, who can copy me on a recent announcement about a community photography exhibition and inspire not one but two story ideas. While the rational side of my brain tells me I’m already hopelessly behind, the creative side insists. And remembers that secondary idea when I finally find the time to execute it exactly a month later on a Sunday morning while drinking coffee and chilling in the recliner and avoiding laundry. Pretty cool by any mental stretch, not to mention one of the biggest positives about smart phones.

But back to that spinoff idea. Nick and I were discussing how cool it is that there are two glass plates taken by world-renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble right here in Aggieland through May — the obvious lead and primary story. However, one of the reasons I started this blog is to have a ready outlet for those secondary stories, ideally first-person wherever possible. Considering Nick is a champ in this category, another classic on curiosity is born!

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History's "Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography," showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History’s “Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography,” showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

I’ll let Nick take it from here with his initial response to my dual pitch — a reaction that comes packed with the traditional bonus lesson or three. Enjoy!

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Sure, anything to help motivate people to attend. If someone said that, say, that one of the petri dishes Salk used in discovering the vaccine for polio were on exhibit, I would definitely go to the lecture and exhibition! But most scientists, curiously, have no interest in anything else except their narrow fields. This is strange because we often hear that scientists do what they do because they have not lost their child-like interest in figuring out stuff. To me that means everything, including other scientific fields, the humanities and the like.

For instance, in the lecture in ASTR 101, I ask the question, why do we have the Olympics every four years? Well, obviously because the Greeks did. But why did the Greeks adopt four years? We all just think, well, why not? Or, who cares? But I think that it is an interesting question. And it turns out to have an interesting answer. It is because the Greeks were concerned/annoyed that the Sun and the Moon don’t have similar cycles. The Sun takes 365 (plus a bit) to go around the sky once relative to the stars, but the Moon takes 29.5 days in its orbit or 354 days to complete 12 orbits. That is, the cycles are off by 11 days, and this screws up the calendar such that the full moon does not fall on the same day each month. This is not an important problem to us today, but for a society which included number worship in their pantheon, it was really annoying. So they looked into how many solar cycles and lunar cycles it would take so that the Moon would end up being full on the same day of the month. There are various ways of solving this, but one way to notice that is, if you wait eight years, the calendar repeats itself pretty accurately. So the Greeks used an 8-year cycle for their civil holidays (that is, you only have to have eight calendars because the ninth will be the same as the first. So don’t throw away your calendars!). The number eight became an important number in their calendar, and the half-cycle became the Olympic cycle.

Later, another Greek astronomer came up with a better cycle of 19 years called the Metonic cycle, and for his discovery, Meton of Athens was awarded an Olympic laurel wreath. Cool! An astronomy event in the Olympics! I certainly would qualify for a bronze medal in writing memos.

Anyway, I just love this stuff. And while I can’t get many other scientists excited about it, I will never stop trying.

cheers, nick

 Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram's Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)

Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram’s Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)

Child’s Play

Yesterday, I caught my co-worker Chris Jarvis — who also happens to be my office suitemate — playing on the job. With a magnetic alphabet set, at that.

Today, he’s at it again, only this time it’s a set of magnetic balls, complete with a magnetized wand.


Drawing on a theme yet? I am, and I can tell you firsthand that curiosity is attractive. Because I had a few minutes today, I used the first few seconds of one of them to decide that if you can’t beat ’em, then join ’em. Yep, I grabbed the wand and tried it out. So did the next co-worker who had walked in to discuss a project. (And he said these things were low power…)

Interestingly enough, both sets of common children’s toys just happen to be part of the set for Chris’ latest video project -– an in-progress Labors of Lab installment showcasing a Texas A&M Chemistry student whose research involves molecular nanomagnets. Even though I’ve always known Chris to be the type who will go to great lengths to get the job done, I’m amazed. And pleasantly amused. And not just because he’s childless, yet visiting toy stores.


When Chris initially joined Texas A&M Science in 2008, I knew he would be a solid writer, based on his background, samples and genuine love for words. During what I like to refer to as his sabbatical year at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, he got the opportunity to broaden his skill set, adding website creation/maintenance and videography, among other professional nuances. Last year, we got the opportunity to re-hire him, and I can now vouch for the fact that the second time around truly is sweeter. But why take my word for it when you can read his within our news archive and also view roughly a year’s worth of his videos on our YouTube channel?

I know full well what goes into a written story, but I have a newfound appreciation for all that Chris does as a videographer. I’ve worked with some of the best during my career, but I’ve never known one who is a one-stop shop, from storyboarding and script writing, to location scouting and actual shooting, to editing and production, to draft version(s) and ultimately finished product. However, I do know that I have the luxury of resting easy in the knowledge that any project I assign to Chris or that he takes on himself is in good hands, largely without me lifting a finger nor checking up on a single detail beyond our initial conversation.

Although most of this magic happens less than 20 yards away from me, I never fully got the picture until last month, when Chris produced what I think is his best work yet: an overview piece for this year’s National Science Foundation-funded Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Six different programs across the college; one university-wide supplement; at least one coordinator per program; countless student participants; multiple locations, shoots and interviews during the course of the 10-week program; and hundreds of clips, all funneled into a single cohesive, comprehensive, well-told story. It’s definitely an art (an undervalued one, in my opinion), and I am in awe. Feel free to appreciate with me below and also check out a few bonus clips featured with the news summary:

As his co-worker and trenchmate, I love that Chris loves what he does and that he continues to come up with new and appealing ways to tell a visual story. As his friend, I love that Chris is on my team and that he continues to find joy in his work, which is so much more than a job to him, just as it is to me.

Most of us are familiar with some version of the old adage, “Work to live, not live to work.” Based on what I’ve seen, Chris is well on his way to having this one down to a science.

By all means, play on, and always remember to share — toys and talents.

Analyze This

In this day and age when an organization’s communications efforts are considered only as good as the tracking metrics put in place to validate them, I am most decidedly old school. While I get that analytics have their place and are here to stay as a valuable strategic tool, I firmly believe even the best metric can never trump good old-fashioned gut instinct.

In essence, when it comes to quality communications, you know it when you see it. In the case of the Texas A&M Division of Research, I routinely do.

Because the Texas A&M College of Science has the largest amount of fundamental research funding on campus, our two communications offices often have quite a bit of agenda overlap and, therefore, lots of opportunities for collaboration in reaching our broader marketing and communications goals.

Director of Communications and Public Relations Susan Wolff and her entire team’s collegiality knows no bounds. Believe me, I’ve extensively tested them — team and bounds — especially during the past few belt-tightened years. Thankfully, individually and collectively, this group subscribes to a singular purpose: providing an invaluable service role for campus units in need of central resources or signal amplification, from governmental relations and federal-funding radars to general societal awareness. Texas A&M Science has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of their goodwill, punctuated in both b-roll and stand-alone pieces for feature stories and news releases from their videographers, sundry retweets and elevated online placements from their social media and web developers, and on-the-fly assistance for professors in need of video or artistic services from their graphic designers and illustrators.

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

The first scenario is how I came to meet Jeff Gustafson in spring 2013 as the videographer in charge of a memorable and most fruitful shoot in Texas A&M chemist Karen Wooley’s laboratory. Admittedly, even prior to that March 7 shoot, I was intrigued by two things: He was a graduate student in the Department of Visualization’s master’s of visualization sciences degree program, and he preferred the nickname “Goose.”

True to form, I arrived on set just as Goose was wrapping up color and lighting testing with Susan, who was serving as Dr. Wooley’s stand-in. He moved fluidly about the tight scene, pausing between equipment adjustments and final checks to introduce himself, punctuating that first impression with a warm smile and a firm handshake. For the most part, I was able to contain myself and simply observe, but in what amounted to a moment of foreshadowing, I did spontaneously extend the shoot when I blurted out an extemporaneous follow-up question after what was supposed to be the final one in the two-hour session.

That day, Goose graciously kept the cameras rolling. In the subsequent days, neither he nor any other member of the Good Ship Research Communications has stopped humoring me in a variety of ways big and small. The resulting videos — oil-absorbing nanoparticles and anti-biofouling polymer coatings, among others — speak well enough for themselves, but for me, the proof is in the many projects in between that day’s final shot/cut and the present.

Which brings me to this sweet bonus — a stylized compilation of cuts from shoots in various Texas A&M Science labs by Goose and fellow videographers Eric Burke and Bhakti Duran, complete with some editorial nudges from Susan. The timing, the touches, the colors, the precision, the overall synergy and synchronicity . . . I am absolutely blown away.

My gut says it’s a perfect mix of art and science. Susan and her crew simply call it a gift to Texas A&M Science. Fitting, considering that’s precisely the word I would use to describe them with regard to this campus and its communications.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Good communicators know it’s a delicate balance of all three. Here in Texas A&M Science, I’m privileged to lead, follow and get out of the way of some of the very best.

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

Meme Me Up, Scotty

Even before I started writing about science instead of struggling to pass it, I knew who some of the traditional big names were among its primary print media outlets: Science magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science and Discover, to name but a few.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but one of those biggies, Nature, just went down a peg in my prestige book, undone by what I consider to be a dying art: the ability to write a good headline. You know, one that’s above all else correct and then — and only then, if possible — catchy and creative without sacrificing and/or detracting from the content. Here’s a link to the story, in case it didn’t flood your news feed, along with its offending ‘I can haz genomes’: cats claw their way into genetics headline.

Forget the dog-versus-cat debate, I’ve got a bone to pick with (I can only assume) the copy editor here. To each his own as to what defines humor, but it’s a fine line in any setting, particularly that of science journalism. Regardless where you choose to draw it, there’s a time and place even for the craftiest turn of phrase. In my opinion, this story was neither.


At the risk of being perceived as catty, this one missed the mark for me. But I acknowledge potentially being in the minority there. For instance, one Twitter commenter credited them for “trying to thread the needle between catchy and accurate.” Um, #fail.

Reducing such a long-awaited milestone for human health, if not victory for cat enthusiasts, to a cheesy (or should I say cheezburger) Internet meme runs the risk of turning people off to the story (which involves a Texas A&M University geneticist — read an overview complete with a solid headline here) before they’ve even read word one of the lead. Good luck convincing them the research is solid or serious from there.

Lolcats, indeed.

Interestingly enough, another Texas A&M professor, Mays Business School’s Caleb Warren, is one of the many researchers working to define the science of humor. Toward that end, he and his University of Colorado at Boulder collaborator Peter McGraw have developed something they call the benign violation theory, the foundation of McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder and a widely published subject in a variety of sources, from a book to mainstream psychology journals. According to a broader Bloomberg article, they postulate that humor emerges “when: a) a situation violates some kind of norm; b) the violation is benign; and c) these two things occur to the observer simultaneously.”

It's a Venn diagram, so that's a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

It’s a Venn diagram, so that’s a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

So, yeah, I guess it’s possible that I just didn’t get the joke. I am blonde.

OK, off my soap, er litter box.

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I’m pleased to report the week wasn’t a total loss for science journalism. Props to Science staff writer Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for circling back on a story that made international headlines earlier this month (in some cases for all the wrong reasons) and for leaving no step un-retraced in her subsequent effort not only to set the record as straight as possible from here but also to understand where and why things went wrong. Further proof that this work is serious business — and intensely personal in addition to professional, at that — for parties well beyond the scientists involved.

A Fine Mess

Well, folks, the news is in: I’m not messy; I’m just different, er creative. And I have the science to prove it.

A recent study published in Psychological Science and promoted, among other places, in the New York Times confirms that I’m simply a product of my environment, which apparently is comprised primarily of “safely ignorable stuff.”

You can read more about the analysis here via News.Mic, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll go ahead and submit what I like to call Exhibit A below. Feel free to share yours in the comments if you’re so inclined and/or feel it would be either therapeutic or cathartic in any way. Creatives don’t judge!

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk's perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn't say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it's my husband's.

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk’s perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn’t say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it’s my husband’s.

Admittedly, my mother would understand if not be proud, especially when I confess that I’m likely the messiest (scratch that — most creative!) among my College of Science Dean’s Office brethren. But when it comes to faculty, I’m certainly in good company.

And let’s not even talk about what lies beneath. Or my electronic inbox.

For that matter, why stop at desks? I mean, science is all about extrapolation, as Elite Daily does here. I bet there’s hope for my entire house (flat surfaces being just the tip of the creative iceberg) and my kids!

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:


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 . . . .


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.

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)

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.)

Got a Little Story for Ya, Ags

As a writer, I do so love a good story and those who wield both the appropriate subject matter and the flair for its proper delivery.

One of the best absolute naturals in all above respects is Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who I describe to people as a marketer’s dream for good reason. Beyond his ease with media representatives, administrators and officials, and external visitors and general audiences, he’s also a master at breaking down the subject at hand and explaining why it matters. And in going the extra mile.

I offer a recent example — a follow-up email to Battalion reporter John Rangel, thanking him for a recent story:


I would like to congratulate you on the article in The Batt on the most distant galaxy. You nailed the science and gave a feeling for the excitement of the discovery. Great job!

By the way, there are some points to this discovery that you, as an engineering student, may enjoy. It is difficult to define what is distance in astronomy because the universe is expanding, and the grid by which we measure distances is also stretching at the same time. So for me the best way to understand distance is just what you did — give it in units of how much time it took for light to get here compared to the age of the universe. However, you will see some articles refer to the distance to this object as 30 billion light years or so. This is the way astronomers would measure it, but this distance is not intuitive. Imagine we are in our galaxy in the early universe and we are looking at this distant galaxy. It would be very close to us because the universe is so small. Imagine putting a 3-D grid on this early universe and put our galaxy at one corner and the distant galaxy at another corner. Now run the universe forward to today. The universe has stretched a lot (expanded, if you will). Our galaxy and the other one are still at those corners, but the grid has expanded by a factor of 9 now. That short distant that separated us and that galaxy has now stretched into about 30 billion light years — the co-moving distance we call it. So you will also hear astronomers quote distances that are greater than the age of the universe.

How can something be farther away than the age of the universe (in today’s time) and we can still see it? Well, the weird thing is that we will never see that galaxy when it is today age — 13.8 billion years old. We can only see it now, but as the universe evolves, the galaxy will actually disappear from our universe or perhaps more to the point — will disappear from our vision.

The other point is that although galaxies appear to be moving away from us and this appears as a Doppler shift, it is actually not a Doppler shift. It is space stretching. Nothing is actually moving. The motion looks like a velocity and a Doppler shift, but there is no kinetic energy involved. If there were, galaxies near the edge of the universe would have a ridiculous amount of energy because they are moving close to the speed of light.

Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe, was careful never to call this apparent expansion a velocity — he called it a cosmological redshift which is what astronomers should also call it, and if they don’t, well I will go kick their butts.

Anyway, sorry for the long email about your great article.

cheers, nick

I don’t know about John Rangel, but for this writer, the initial interview is typically a formative experience. I remember well my first trip to Dr. Suntzeff’s Texas A&M campus office — a veritable time capsule spanning the high points of astronomical history as well as his career, which includes 25 years at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. I was interviewing him for a piece on Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant — Einstein’s self-described “biggest blunder” which he predicted in 1917 as the proverbial glue holding together the theory of a never-changing universe that Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery of the universe’s expansion later debunked. (Incidentally, in a Kevin Bacon-esque six-degrees-of-separation constant, Hubble served as mentor to Allan Sandage, who in turn is the one who encouraged Dr. Suntzeff to focus on Type Ia supernovas — specifically their brightness — to measure precise distances, which is how Dr. Suntzeff came to help discover dark energy and roughly 75 percent of the universe. But that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

After posing a basic equation-type question to gauge my level of astrophysical knowledge (essentially negative infinity), Dr. Suntzeff took great pains to explain not only the equation and the basic physics behind it, but also each and every piece in his collection, in addition to the actual research I was there to discuss. And so began an educational relationship across subsequent visits and stories, typically supplemented with emailed anecdotes and other means of follow-up insight about astrophysics and oh, so much more that has always served to enlighten or entertain. (Ask him sometime about saving Alan Alda’s life while down in Chile or about being school mates with Robin Williams — yes, that Robin Williams — or about the time he made international headlines for discovering nothing! Yeah, I have hundreds of these, as does he.)

Bottom line, it all goes to prove my long-held theory that most professors first and foremost are born educators and — big surprise — people, too. Their areas of expertise are vitally important, but somehow lost amid all that focused excellence and relentless drive is their intrinsic motivation and passion for knowledge generation, big-picture dreams and doing what they love and want you to love, too. Or at the very least understand in some tangible way.

Trust me, it’s a great story well worth the time it takes to read. Even better if you get the chance to hear it in person.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.