Mountain Majesty

So many among our faculty are such excellent storytellers. If not for their pesky day jobs, they could make a fine living as writers. I like to think this blog helps fulfill a dual purpose, enabling them to dabble in trivial pursuits if not possible second careers while bringing what I consider to be valuable behind-the-scenes perspective on any number of interesting subjects.

When it comes to astronomy, particularly anything happening in Chile, I’ve learned from pleasant experience to go straight to Nick Suntzeff. Nine times out of 10, he was either involved and/or present and, true to 3-sigma-level result verification form, he always has a good story.

The following is one that recaps his professional and personal history with Cerro Pachón, previously seen on this blog in his photographs taken on location in Chile. He originally posted said story on his Facebook page on Monday (April 13) and has agreed to let me cross-promote it here for the benefit of a broader audience.

Such a rich culture treasure! The mountain and its backstory’s not half bad, either.

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“Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cerro Pachón was the mountain I studied for future observatories as part of my job as staff astronomer at CTIO [Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile]. We had to haul the equipment up by mule and establish a small observatory to measure the site quality — seeing, laminar layers, wind speeds, temperature measurements. It now hosts the Gemini 8-meter telescope, the SOAR 4-meter telescope, and starting tomorrow [April 14] with the inauguration ceremonies, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be a revolutionary 6-meter telescope that will digitize the sky every three nights.

Artist's rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).

Artist’s rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).


“The mountain is spectacular, as you can see in the video. We could camp on top of the mountain easily because for some reason, there is a year-round spring that runs about 100 feet below the summit.


“The spring is there, I was told by the geologists who did the boring, because of the tremendous hydrostatic pressure from the Andes and the South American trench. They were very surprised, though, that the spring was year-round. Someone was going to do a careful chemical analysis of the water to see where it was coming from, but I don’t know if they ever did this.

“John Irwin did the detailed site surveys in the 1960s and early ’70s, and he helped me understand the mountains there. You can still see the cement pad he put on Pachón between Gemini and LSST, partially buried in rock. It is just on the other side of the road from the spring. … He hated Pachón because he did the survey there during a cold part of the year, and the wind is horrendous on Pachón (which also makes the seeing better than on Tololo). He couldn’t wait to finish the work on Pachón and go someplace more hospitable.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.


“The broader site is called Cerro Peñon, which means ‘rocky peak’ in Spanish. Pachón means something like ‘skirt,’ according to an Aymará woman from the north of Chile. It also means ‘hairy’ or ‘lazy’ in Chilean slang. I was told that many peaks are called Pachón because the rockfall from the cliffs forms a base and the cliffs, made of columnar andesite, look like the pleated skirts worn by the women of the high Andes.

“Being on a mountain, alone at the telescope, is a magical experience. The sky is like nowhere else. So many stars! If you hold your hand close to the ground, you can see a shadow — the sky is so bright with stars. And maybe that night, you will find something in the sky no one has ever seen or understood before.”

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Time is Relative

Forrest Gump said it best: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I feel the same way about interviews. In both situations, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, it’s a mild-flavored, otherwise-forgettable center. Occasionally, it’s crunchy-nutty goodness or maybe coconut or nougat. And in other instances, it’s a mysterious, vaguely citrusy mess that you can’t spit into your napkin fast enough to save what’s left of your taste buds.

Every so often, however, it’s a total surprise — a good one, at that. A week ago, I found such a nugget in the middle of Texas A&M physics Ph.D. candidate Ting Li’s responses to my #Take5 for Texas A&M Student Research Week questions. Here’s her line that gave me pause:

“Every week during our group meeting, we each present our work from the past week and our plans for next week and get feedback from our advisors. …”

A weekly group meeting where each member in a 15-plus group presents? Uh, to borrow a popular social-media-driven phrase, ain’t nobody got time for that, and yet, clearly, a place as busy as the Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory does. I had to know more.

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source, buyolympia.com, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I'd say I'm not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant, buyolympia.com)

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source, buyolympia.com, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I’d say I’m not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant, buyolympia.com)

As luck would have it, Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab Director Darren DePoy happened by my office the next day. I seized my opportunity, motioning him in and expecting him to dismiss Ting’s altruistic yet surely erroneous statement. Except that he didn’t; he confirmed it. I fired back with a series of questions, the first one challenging him to explain exactly how — as in, how much time does it take each week to get through that many people’s to-do lists? (Keep in mind I do their PR, and although that means I know what amounts to probably less than the half of it, I do know that simply ticking off the names of each project/collaboration alone — with or without acronyms, partners involved and funding sources — would take a considerable time investment for one person.)

His answer? Roughly an hour. Oh, and it’s typically a set time each week — Wednesdays at 4 p.m.

His secret? Each person gets three slides and only 4-to-5 minutes to speak. (Move over, Robert; there’s a new rules of order sheriff in town, and his badge happens to be the world’s largest, whether spectrograph or digital camera.) Oh, and there’s nothing left to chance with regard to those three slides, either. Each must address a specific topic: What I did last week (Slide 1); What I think I’m going to do this week (Slide 2); and Problems/Questions I need to discuss (Slide 3). DePoy tells me they have an online archive of everyone’s slides dating back to the astronomical instrumentation group’s founding in 2008. (Muahahahahahaha!)

“It’s a good exercise for all of us, even [Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab manager] Jennifer [Marshall] and me, but it’s really good for the undergraduates in our lab,” DePoy says. “They learn how to present, how to structure their thoughts and communicate verbally, and how to defend their ideas among peers.”

On second thought, maybe there is time for that. And here, I thought their themed t-shirts for every project were impressive. …

Former Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group's many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab's close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.

Former Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group’s many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab’s close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.

To Boldly Go

I’m not usually one to encourage people to look to Hollywood for life inspiration, but every so often, it’s a shoe that fits.

As possibly the biggest sequel yet to Neil Armstrong’s one small step for mankind, the independent movie The Last Man on the Moon made its U.S. premier last Friday in Austin at SXSW. Par for my course, I found out the day after via this recap from KXAN-TV.

This exquisite documentary set for worldwide release in June tells the tale of Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 astronaut Capt. Eugene “Gene” Cernan, the 11th of 12 people in history to walk on the Moon and, as the final man to re-enter the lunar module Challenger on its last outing during what would prove to be the final Apollo lunar landing in 1972, also the last.

By all accounts out of Austin and other international cities where LMOTM has debuted, it’s a must-see production, both for its honest portrayal from Cernan’s all-too-humanly flawed perspective and for its breathtaking archival footage (apparently, even Cernan himself was impressed.) See for yourself in the official trailer below, as well as in this exclusive bonus clip released to coincide with SXSW:

Cernan is as genuine as they come and as equally unabashed in his support of future manned spaceflight as he was back in 1972. I love this related excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

As Cernan prepared to climb the ladder for the final time, he spoke these words, currently the last spoken by a human standing on the Moon’s surface: “Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

The timing is exceptional from my perspective, given that we’re less than two weeks away from Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger’s 2015 Physics and Engineering Festival-kickoff lecture on his yearlong Adrift series addressing the country’s past, present and future in space. In addition to marking the first date night for the hubs and I since our anniversary last August, this momentous occasion comes on the heels of some wonderful teachable moments during the past couple of weeks for our oldest son, whose 6th grade science class has been covering a unit on the U.S. space program. The grand finale? Watching the Ron Howard classic Apollo 13 — one of my all-time favorites — in stages. The movie features veteran actor Tom Hanks in the lead role of Captain James Lovell, one of three men along with Cernan and Jim Young to make the trek to the Moon twice, as well as Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the iconic NASA Mission Operations director whose “failure is not an option” motto guided the success of America’s flight program for more than 30 years.

(Speaking of mottos and models, watch this Cernan tribute and tell me you don’t have goose bumps afterward!)

Typical pre-teen that my son is, he’s been most impressed thus far by Kevin Bacon’s ability to play a wisecracking smart aleck in his role as astronaut Jack Swigert, he of “Houston, we’ve had a problem” fame who earned his seat on the doomed mission courtesy of Ken Mattingly’s (played by Gary Sinise) ill-timed exposure to measles. Me, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to mix business with pleasure and the ensuing discussions concerning the facts, failures, personalities and lessons surrounding the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs — history accentuated in many cases by his parents’ personal recollections. So interesting to see what resonates with our son, from the triumphs to the tragedies, and to contrast what we learned and sometimes witnessed through the comparative lens of his fresh eyes as a member of the generation I see as most ripe to fuel a Sputnik-esque resurgence.

Can’t wait to see how the movie ends for him once school resumes after spring break. As for the rest of the story, I see a family movie date in our future. Nothing like an inspirational summer learning opportunity for us all. 

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Driven by Nature

Cross-country road trips present the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander. The possibilities (much like the road) are endless, particularly if you’re a scientist.

Meet Dwight Bohlmeyer ’84, who earned both a B.S. in marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1984 and an M.S. in genetics from Texas A&M University in 1989. A former department head for the Division of Natural Science (2009-2014) and a longtime biology instructor (1997-2014) at Blinn College’s Bryan campus, he recently joined the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, where he manages the Salter Farm Educational Research Program.

Dwight and I met this past fall by way of Monarch butterflies and related marketing opportunities. He’s a glutton for all things STEM education, and in addition to having a keen eye for photography, he has the science background to make it beneficial beyond the beauty. If you follow us on Facebook, chances are you’ve probably seen some of his work.

In fact, it was via Facebook that I first learned about his latest project, a daily nature photography challenge to capture five species a day throughout 2015 for a total of 1,825 species by December 31. He dreamed it up as a rather unique New Year’s resolution while filling mental space during his return trip to College Station from Missouri, where he was visiting family for the holidays.

Even though I know these things are all about stretching one’s limits (which I like to think I accomplish by default as a full-time working mother of three), I think Dwight’s really outdone himself here and that the results will be well worth following. And we can all do just that at FIVEx365, the WordPress blog he’s set up to help document his results and keep him accountable like the disciplined scientist he is. He even has rules, which he outlines in the first entry.

And to think, all this time, I’ve been jamming out to mixed CDs and XM Radio during my extended travels. Get the picture?

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

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!

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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].”

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