Category Archives: Science

Math Is A Wonderful Thing

I don’t know whether it’s due to some paucity in my education, a natural curiosity, or a sort of intellectual masochism (or all three), but I’ve occasionally sought out books about topics that often don’t agree with my brain yet still fascinate me. Being free from the shackles of syllabus reading (however instructional and edifying it often was) has allowed me to dabble in whatever topics I want, leading me down educational pathways I rarely dared to traverse before. I’m thinking specifically about math, science, and the other non-writing disciplines I failed to grasp or hone throughout my structured education.

The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician, is my most recent addition to this “continuing education” subgenre of my reading, and a delightful one. Dubbed “a guided tour of math,” this collection of bite-sized surveys paints key mathematical domains like Numbers, Shapes, and Data in broad strokes, simplified enough for English majors like me to understand them yet dense enough to require complete attention and critical thinking. I view Jennifer Ouellette’s splendid Black Bodies and Quantum Cats in the same league: right-brained books written for left-brainers, gateway drugs to some deeper, weirder stuff that should only be handled by professionals.

And I’m happy to leave that stuff to people like Strogatz (or his counterpart in astrophysics: Neil deGrasse Tyson), who are adept at communicating the importance and often invisible influence of the heady material they study to laypeople like me. The more books like The Joy of x and Black Bodies that are out there on library shelves and bookstores and talk shows, the more likely their subject matter gets the sympathy and support it needs. Though I came from the humanities, I also want STEM to get all the love it needs.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield couldn’t just be a fighter pilot, engineer, astronaut, photographer, musician, or the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station; he just had to be a damn good writer too.

At one point in his superb memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield describes what it’s like to exit the ISS into the vacuum of space for the first time:

What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww. … It’s like being engrossed in cleaning a pane of glass, then you look over your shoulder and realize you’re hanging off the side of the Empire State Building, Manhattan sprawled vividly beneath and around you. … It’s overpowering, visually, and no other senses warn you that you’re about to be attacked by raw beauty.

There was something similarly surreal and dreamlike about the sight in front of me now, which I couldn’t reconcile with my prosaic fumbling with the tether hook a moment before. Holding onto the side of a spaceship that’s moving around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, I could truly see the astonishing beauty of our planet, the infinite textures and colors. On the other side of me, the black velvet bucket of space, brimming with stars. It’s vast and overwhelming, this visual immersion, and I could drink it in forever.

In addition to telling the story of his life’s journey to the ISS, Hadfield dispenses great life advice he’s learned over the years and dishes on the culture of NASA. Contrary to the view we have of astronauts as swashbuckling daredevils, Hadfield is humble and forthright about his failings. He’s also candid about the sacrifices he and his family has had to make for him to pursue his dream. Reading this along with Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars provides great insight into the weirdness and wonder of space travel, and the men and women who are just crazy enough to do it.

Ötzi: A Life

Radiolab has produced another winner in their “An Ice-Cold Case” episode, an illuminating portrait of Ötzi, a 5000-year-old natural mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. The details scientists have been able to ascertain about this mountain man are astounding. Radiolab, as usual, brings the story alive, telling what we know of Ötzi’s life and death, down to the meal he had before he died. I find it fascinating to imagine the life this mysterious “Iceman” lived before he died alone on a mountain and was mummified by the ebb and flow of ice and snow over millennia. That he didn’t decay like every other carcass, and instead lives among us now as an avatar for a primordial age, is a peculiar miracle that I’m glad to have heard from Radiolab — a crew that seems to delight in the many peculiar miracles around us.

Silence Is Beholden

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I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago on a beautiful northern Californian day in Shasta Trinity National Park. It was a weekday morning, so I had the place to myself. I followed the Waters Gulch trail for about a mile or two as I trekked the path toward Packers Bay. The river (pictured above) was low, exposing the golden sediment beneath the thick green trees. It wasn’t long into the trail when the bustling world outside the Park faded and the world hushed. Though I knew I was walking through a vibrant and wild ecosystem of life in many forms, I was awed by its absolute silence.

Not a car. Not a plane droning above. Just my boots on the gravel. It was divine.

I wanted to capture that moment to take with me back into civilization, but I knew that some moments are better left uncaptured, free to roam on in time for the next eager seeker in need of some bliss. But I think some ought to be documented, if only because places like that — where noise doesn’t intrude on the soothing symphony of nature — are an endangered species.

And that’s why I suspect Gordon Hempton has the best job in the world. He’s an “acoustic ecologist” who records rare nature sounds and the few places on earth where silence still rules. He’s also the founder of One Square Inch of Silence, a research and advocacy project to protect the naturally silent habitats of the Olympic National Park in Washington.

I learned about Hempton through On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett I recently started listening to. It’s a great interview series featuring makers and doers of many stripes. Some recent guests include a Zen master and poet, a mathematician, a physicist, a pastor, and an oceanographer. Each has their own area of expertise and interest, but what I like about the series so far is how each show, despite the varying subject matter, still lives within the same sphere held together by the centripetal forces of truth, discovery, beauty, and meaning.

Tippett’s conversation with Hempton was so serene and poetic and enlivening. He defines silence not as merely the absence of sound but instead as “silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” He sees the world as a “solar-powered jukebox” and links our modern world’s lack of silence to our inability to listen.

I don’t need an excuse to seek out quiet. My introversion calls for a degree of separation from the world in order to recharge, and often that separation leads me to a quiet place, where I can only hear waves overtaking shoreline rocks, or rain falling on leaves. It’s so hard in an urban setting to escape the noisiness of the world, but it’s important to do so. Quiet, as Gordon Hempton says, is a “think tank of the soul.” We don’t have natural ear-lids for a reason.

A Ship-Shape Ticker

John Harrison in a 1767 portrait.

If I could bring back Google Maps to early eighteenth-century Britain, I’d be a millionaire. See, figuring out a ship’s longitudinal coordinates was a huge problem back then. So much so that the British Parliament offered a prize of what amounts to $2.2 million in today’s dollars to anyone who could produce a practical method for pinpointing a ship’s location.

Latitude was pretty easy: All you needed was the sun and some charted data. But longitude had theretofore only been discernible by sheer instinct and guesswork, which often led to ships crashing into unforeseen hazards and hundreds of casualties. Even renowned navigators armed with a compass (which were still unreliable at the time) had to basically hope they weren’t going the opposite way or that the ship didn’t run aground.

That’s where John Harrison came in. Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time tells the story of this lovably odd son of a carpenter with no formal scientific training who created a revolutionary maritime clock. Previous ship clocks couldn’t keep time in bad weather, but Harrison’s was self-stabilizing and self-lubricating so that it wouldn’t wear down and wouldn’t be affected by the briny sea air and turbulent waters.

Harrison responded to Parliament’s challenge for a longitudinal tool, but unlike other people with crackpot submissions, he wasn’t in it for the money. He was like the Nikola Tesla of maritime horology: eccentric, hermetic, obsessive, but in it only for the joy of the scientific challenge itself. And like Tesla with Thomas Edison, Harrison had a natural antagonist in Nevil Maskelyne, a royal astronomer appointed to Parliament’s “Board of Longitude,” which controlled the terms of the prize money. Maskelyne had his heart set on the lunar distance method, which involved gauging the moon’s distance from another star to calculate the local time, and gave Harrison all kinds of politically motivated headaches along the way in order to get the lunar method some headway. Harrison’s son even had to resort to writing King George III (the King George) to get some help moving the intransigent Board along. Turns out the young monarch was a science geek himself and gladly helped the Harrisons out (just as he was levying heavy taxes on an increasingly disgruntled colonial America).

Overall, Sobel’s book, though heavily biased toward Harrison, is an accessible, breezy account of his engineering process, the radical innovations he made in every version of his “chronometer,” and the obstacles he had to surmount to achieve recognition from a skeptical scientific community. Take some time to read it.

Science Blows My Mind

Like many English majors, science and mathematics were two subjects that gave me trouble throughout my primary, secondary, and college education. I think it was geometry class sophomore year of high school where I hit a wall and everything after that was a blur. Ditto with chemistry that year (what in the name of Walter White is a mole anyway?). But that didn’t hinder me from being wholly fascinated with science and nature, and more particularly with the people who know way more about those things than I do.

I just finished reading Jennifer Ouellette’s Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, a collection of short essays on various topics within the world of physics. Ouellette, also a former English major and self-professed “physics phobe,” adapted the essays from her column in APS News, a monthly publication for members of the American Physical Society. She tackles scientific topics from the earliest and most fundamental – like DaVinci and the golden ratio, Galileo and the telescope – to more recent discoveries like X-rays, wireless radio, and thermodynamics.

True to her writing roots, Ouellette manages to take what can be very esoteric and labyrinthine scientific concepts and make them fascinating by linking them to things we regular people can understand: how Back to the Future explains Einstein’s theory of special relativity; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde representing the dual nature of light; induced nuclear fission as seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. These connections are lifesavers for right-brained humanities majors like me, who instead of seeing “SCIENCE” blaring on the cover and fleeing get to experience an “A-ha!” moment nearly every chapter.

But here’s the thing: I love science. I don’t love it like a scientist does, by learning theories and experimenting. I don’t love it because I understand it – Lord knows that’s not the case. Rather, I love it because of what it does. I am consistently flabbergasted by what have become quotidian occurrences in our 21th century lives. Telephone technology is so quaint these days, but the fact that I can pick up a small device, speak into it, and instantaneously be heard by someone thousands of miles away blows my mind. The fact that I can get inside a large container that will propel itself through the air and arrive at a destination relatively quickly blows my mind. The fact that we can send a small, man-made vehicle into outer space and have it land on another planet blows my freaking mind.

Science has improved our lives and advanced our knowledge of creation in a million ways. I’m simply grateful for the multitudes of geeks who have labored in that noble cause of discovery. Because of you, we have cell phones and airplanes and cameras and Velcro (did you know that term is a portmanteau of the French words velours [velvet] and crochet [hook]?) and Mars Curiosity and lasers (an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and automobiles and Xerox machines and countless other inventions, many of them engineered by the men and women Ouellette spotlights in her book.

And that’s just physics. Think about what we know of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and every other sub-category of science. If my mind hadn’t already been blown away earlier, it would have exploded now just thinking about what we know about our Earth and the things that it contains, and also what we have yet to discover.

Though our country is in turmoil, the Curiosity roves a distant planet. Though we often disagree about basic scientific principles, we still seek to discover. As Carl Sagan said: “For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” As a sci-curious liberal arts nerd, I can’t wait to see what else we can achieve.