Tag: science

Did you ever watch that show Connections with James Burke? I saw a lot of random episodes with my Dad when I was growing up.  I knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea I might ever want to be a scientist – or if I was smart enough. But I loved that show. You can watch a few episodes from Series 3 on youtube but I remember the first series best – those grainy pre-Instagram images, Burke in his bellbottoms, science history from alternative perspectives – well, all that’s still relevant, yeah? Anyway – I’m reading the books of Sam Kean right now. Devouring them, I should say. I got them all through my library’s ebook borrowing system, Overdrive. Easy and free – I’m sure your library has Overdrive too. I wonder if there’s anything about digital lending libraries of the future in one of those old Connections episodes? Kean’s way of coming at science from anecdotal and often erratically nonlinear angles reminds me a bit of Connections.

I just tackled The Disappearing Spoon. It’s subtitled And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the Periodic Table. Yes – the periodic table of the elements, that boring old thing. I got a C in high school Chemistry. It was the worst grade I ever received in school until the nightmare that was college PreCalculus. C!!! Devastating (Back then; now, who cares? I should have partied more.) but I know why I got a C. Because that class was excruciatingly difficult and equally as dull. The only enjoyable part of Chemistry class was mocking the way our teacher demonstrated how to pour liquids into a beaker.

The Disappearing Spoon is far from boring. Believe me when I say that the periodic table of the elements – the history of its design; the elements themselves; the humans who discovered and studied these building blocks of the universe – is thrilling, strange, and shocking! I found myself forgoing social activities in order to stay home and read this book! It’s like taking a virtual tour of reality and experiencing how freaky-weird reality is, without drugs. I appreciated Kean’s inclusion of etymology, urban myths, humorously conversational tone, and FOOTNOTES. I adore footnotes, and Kean’s do not disappoint – so frequently does he provide those extra little crunchy nuggets to chew on. (Although in the Kindle app on my iPad it’s aggravatingly difficult to tap the teensy weensy asterisk link that takes you to the footnotes page; I felt like I was playing a game every time – and losing – but I liked it!).

My favorite anecdotes range from poor dear poet Robert Lowell’s lithium “cure” to the ruthenium nibs of the world’s best pen to the Bartlett Mountain molybdenum mine in Colorado – there’s so many I need to read the book again. My brain is a sieve…a fun sieve…but still made of holes… or bubbles? Man, the section on bubble science alone in this book was worth buying it instead of borrowing – we go from Donald Glaser’s atomic beer gun to the calcium coves of the English coast to culinary meringues and a scientist who liked taste-testing his own foamy pee! Oh hell yes, bring the crazy, Sam Kean. And that doesn’t even include Ernest Rutherford, zirconium, fluid dynamics, sonar, the calculation of the age of planet Earth, and perhaps most importantly, Mentos and Diet Coke froth-geysers.

Here’s my own (not really Burke-y) connection: just as I finished reading The Disappearing Spoon, I watched Einstein and Eddington. It’s a lovely, poignant film starring two of my favorite actors, Andy Serkis and David Tennant, as the titular scientists. I didn’t realize how much I’d learned from Sam Kean’s book until I began to recognize certain individuals I’d just read about – like Fritz Haber and his deadly legacy of poison gas and explosives, all stemming from his work on nitrogen fertilizers. And of course Sir Arthur Eddington himself, the Quaker who was the first to experimentally prove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity during the solar eclipse of 1919. Never has a cinematic eclipse been so captivating to me. There’s also a most exciting dinner table demonstration of spacetime curvature! (Though I do believe the script has John Wheeler’s words coming out of Eddington’s mouth in this scene.) Anyway, I highly recommend the movie (it’s on HBOnow right…now).

You might think I’ve abandoned My Darwin Project, but in truth it’s just expanding – as I hoped it would. Sam Kean’s books were a great find for me – I am stumbling across all kinds of books and articles and films along this path. And even returning to some long ago abandoned trails – I swear I’m going to finish The Song of the Dodo before the end of the year. After I read two more Sam Kean books.


“Myspace-rück” by h.muller – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

book reviews

Oh, kids. I have been so busy balancing day-job, poem-writing, and summer-celebrating that I’ve neglected this blog for a couple weeks. In my spare moments, though, I have been doing a lot of sciencey essay and article reading, so I thought hhmmm…until I can finish some new deep, wacky, joyous blog posts for this month, I can share with you links to my favorite sites of late. They are collectively aesthetically beautiful, challenging, geeky websites with fascinating content, in my humble opinion. I recommend subscribing to all of them – most have a free weekly email of articles published.

This is dedicated to all the awesome female scientists who tweeted hilariously about being #distractinglysexy in response to Tim Hunt’s comments regarding the “trouble with girls” in science labs.


The Last Word on Nothing

Virginia Hughes



BBC future



Wired Science 

I Fucking Love Science      (because right???!!)


“NautilusCutawayLogarithmicSpiral” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

grab bag

Science documentaries are my favorites. They’re the most difficult to watch, and I usually have to digest them in small chunks, but I love ’em.

Particle Fever is a 2013 documentary that follows a handful of the many physicists and smart folk working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN from 2007 to 2012, when their work culminated in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Maybe you’re thinking a movie about physicists couldn’t get more boring, but not true! There’s a reason this film’s got “fever” in the title. It’s refreshing to see scientists as real people – excitable, fallible, harried, rumpled, laughing.

So what are these hefty brains – 10,000 of them from all over the world – doing with the biggest machine humanity’s ever built? Well they’re trying to find the answers to the megaquestions, like the origin of our universe. I say our universe, because there’s a possibility this isn’t the only one. The multiverse theory versus the supersymmetry theory. I’m not fully comprehending any of it, but it ain’t make believe. And it’s oh so fascinating; especially the sequences that delve deep into the physics. The film’s director Mark Levinson, sound editor for the film The English Patient and a Ph.D. in particle physics, doesn’t gloss over difficult concepts – the science is illustrated and explained visually and delightfully by the brilliant and personable David Kaplan, Savas Dimopoulos, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Monica Dunford.

What is a Large Hadron Collider? It’s a particle accelerator – a 27-kilometer ring of powerful magnets built deep underground in Geneva – construction began in the late 1980’s, when I was far more interested in Kiefer Sutherland than Physics. To me the LHC looks like a fancy electronic pipeline with a lot of wires and shiny bits but costs several billion dollars and has to be maintained with liquid helium at temperatures colder than space. Colder than space!! It’s designed so that two opposite beams of protons can be fired around the ring at almost the speed of light (almost the speed of light!!) – so fast that the protons collide. The goal is to convert that high energy collision into particles with really heavy mass – the kind of particles that aren’t normally detectable. Then the four detectors around the ring can record the results, and the science teams can measure and analyze the huge amounts of data and debris, because at the subatomic level this is how it’s done. It’s a way to recreate the conditions present just after the Big Bang, in order to study the laws of nature.

But mostly, when the first beam was fired in 2008, they were looking for the Higgs boson particle. “The Higgs” is named after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first theorized its existence in the 1960’s, and in the words of David Kaplan “it is weird and we do not understand it.” Ha! Maybe it’s the lynchpin of the universe.  Maybe not. But, that’s the point. I thought my favorite part of the documentary would be the moment when the LHC “works” for the first time: the scientists and technicians gathered in the control room erupting into joyous applause, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony roaring as rivers of data flood the supercomputers and images stream across the viewscreens like fireworks. But no, I was rocked by the more formal (though no less thrilling) announcement, four years later, that two of the four experiment teams – ATLAS and CMS – both measured a Higgs boson particle, and it’s mass is neither 115 GeV, like the supersymmetry theory proposed, nor is it 140 GeV, as predicted by the multiverse theory. It’s about 125. Right in the middle. Dude. Chills. Where do we go now?

Why do we need a Large Hadron Collider, especially when it costs sooooo much money? I understand the stance that this is a waste of funds that could be used for other humanitarian/environmental/insert-your-crusade-here purposes. Sometimes I agree. Mostly I don’t. For one, there are great benefits from the work that’s being done at CERN. For another – are you kidding? I want to know where I come from. I want theories and ideas and questions and then I want to test them and test them and test them until there’s no doubt about the answers. Let’s knock some atoms around and get to the heart of things, the dark matter of things. I have particle fever.


“CMS Higgs-event” by Lucas Taylor – http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

get reel

On December 15, 2013, I added Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to my “Currently Reading” list on goodreads.

It’s still on there.

I assure you, this is not an oversight, and it’s not for lack of interest or because I can’t admit defeat.  I’m completely down with Did Not Finish when it comes to any book that annoys me (The Goldfinch…I’m lookin’ at you).  Darwin decidedly does not annoy me.

In the past two years, I’ve read countless articles, scientific papers, blog posts, and Wikipedia entries about evolution.  I’ve watched six Yale Lecture Series videos on Evolution (trust me, six is a LOTTA Yale to digest when you only have an English degree), and scoured the entire University of Berkeley evolution website.  I read Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, and well…you get the point.  I don’t have that much Darwin street cred but I do have a wee bit.  It’s just not…Darwin himself.

I want to read Darwin’s seminal book – and I have, in fact, read the first three chapters.  Why am I doing this?  Because I once proclaimed to a circle of friends, rather obnoxiously and almost tearfully, that I am a Darwinist.  At the time, I had no idea what the hell that meant.  But I…thought I….meant it.  Even though I’d not read a word of Darwin and I had no solid understanding of evolution at all.  I still seem to be skimming the surface of evolutionary literature without really deepening my understanding.  Which ain’t right.

Well, now I officially start My Darwin Project.  Because those first 3 chapters of The Origin of Species are incredible.  They, and the subsequent twelve chapters, deserve more from me than a cursory reading and a move to my “Read” list on goodreads.  Darwin is the hub of this wheel for me; the driving force; my evo-co-pilot.  But I’m ready to dig in to Darwin’s predecessors as well as contemporary science writers, too.

Because hey, why do Darwin straight up, no chaser?  The Origin of Species is over 150 years old!  I need reading guides, supplementary literature, videos, poems, podcasts, Pinterest boards, a genetics primer, blogs, art, popcorn (best with olive oil, salt and nutritional yeast), photographs and diagrams, the Crosby Stills Nash & Young box set, long walks, and possibly reading glasses before this is over.  And I plan to share all of this with you (Except the popcorn.  Go pop your own.)  I may even tweet about this spectacle.  I’m not saying I will ever know what I’m talking about, but I will surely give this a go.

You can find a partial Bibliography of Evolutionary Awesome on my goodreads profile (along with my horror, pirates, and magicahhh book lists – wait come back here, don’t get distracted!)  AND also check out Darwin’s Entangled Bibliography, my supplementary resource list, or as I like to call it, Somebody Tell Me What Darwin Just Said.   To be updated regularly, and to include a bunch of other Darwinian and evolutionary treats.

How do we start this voyage?  On a ship, of course.  The HMS Beagle.  Pack your bags, we set sail soon.

“Darwin panel” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


my darwin project