Piled Higher and Deeper: Diapers and PhDs

Here are two perspectives on the subject:

a graphic essay from phdcomics.com

a written essay from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 7:50 am  Comments (8)  
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Nobel Role Models: Heroes and Heroines?

President Barack Obama wasn’t the only one to receive a Nobel Prize last week.  On Thursday, December 10, the Nobel Prizes in science and literature were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.)

I blogged last week about the value of these individuals as role models and heroes for those of us involved in science. (See “Life Lessons from Laureates “ at the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Careers” blog.)  Over my years as a science writer, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of Nobel Laureates, and I’ve found them to be both gracious and smart.

In addition to Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, whom I mentioned in the ACS Careers blog post as an interviewee and a former teacher of mine, I came across recent information online about two other Nobel Laureates–information that further confirms these two scientists as worthy role models.

First, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, says, “I live a pretty normal life.” As a single parent with two children (ages 10 and 13), she is a role model for all of us seeking to maintain the ever-elusive “work-family balance.”   In fact, she was folding laundry at 5 a.m. on October 5 when she received the telephone call from the Nobel Committee informing her of the news. An article on CNN.com provides more details about this heroine (see “A Day in the ‘Normal’ Life of a Nobel Prize Winner”.}

The second scientist who can serve as a good role model for scientists is Bill Lipscomb.   He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and he’s been a professor at Harvard University since 1959 .  Prior to moving to Harvard, he was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota.

He celebrated his 90th birthday on December 9, with a big celebration given by his “scientific family” (former students, students of students, and students of students of students–his scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren).

When I was a grad student at Harvard, Lipscomb had already received his Nobel Prize, so there was a certain mystique to his research group.  The thing that I remember most about him (in addition to the string tie that he always wore) was his sense of humor, as demonstrated by his leadership role in establishing the Ig Nobel Awards.   If you appreciate good scientific humor (no, that’s not an oxymoron), you’ll want to check out the Ig Nobel website.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Chemistry Demonstrations and Fourth-graders: A Volatile Mixture?

Last week, I attended the regional meeting of the National Science Teachers Association held here in Minneapolis. I enjoyed seeing so many enthusiastic science teachers attending the sessions and wandering around the exhibit hall.

But when did schools start hiring such young teachers? Nearly all of them were quite a bit younger than me. And I’m not that old!   I’m only … well, let’s just say that I’m a seasoned professional.

Instead of feeling old when I left the meeting, however, I felt young and inspired. I particularly enjoyed watching some of the chemistry demonstrations that presenters were teaching to the teachers. As we participated in these hands-on activities, I could sense the energy and excitement rising in the room. It was the same feeling I get when I put on chemistry shows in my children’s classrooms.

I even started thinking back to the first chemistry show I ever witnessed, when I was a fourth-grader at Meeker Elementary School in Ames, Iowa.

Several years ago I wrote up my memories of that chemistry show, and here’s a copy of that brief essay:

The magic of chemistry first reveals itself to me in 1965, during Spring Break of my fourth-grade year, when my family goes on vacation to the big city of Chicago. The highlight of the trip is the visit to the Museum of Science and Industry. As we amble through the museum, we learn about coal mines and submarines. We see a plastic human heart pumping red and blue fluid throughout a life-size model of a human body. We find out about all kinds of machines, from levers and pulleys to the internal combustion engine. And at 2:00 pm, we gather on bleachers in an open area near the lobby to watch a demonstration of “The Wonderful World of Chemistry.”

I’m seated in the front row. Facing us, on a little stage, is a long table covered with glass bottles of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Placed at one end of the table are a banana, a wooden board, and a pink rubber ball. The ball is exactly the same kind as one I use to play “bounce and catch” at home on my front porch.

The noisy crowd of parents and children quiets down as a man in a white coat steps behind the table and faces us. A red rose is pinned to his lapel. A bright blue balloon rises above him, held in his right hand. He’s wearing glasses that have little plastic shields on the side. This man sure has my attention.

He starts the show by pouring two colorless liquids together, turning them first pink and then purple as he says some magic words. As he mixes other liquids and solids, he creates smoke and fog, makes a volcano overflow, and sets off a loud explosion.

Finally, he tells us that it’s time for the grand finale. He still hasn’t touched the banana or ball. I wonder what he’s going to do with them; maybe he’ll give them out as prizes to kids in the audience. I could always use another pink bouncy ball.

He reaches below the table and pulls out a big metal container with a lid on it. He puts on heavy white gloves and uses a long set of tongs to lift the lid off the container. Fog rises from it. Using a metal scoop shaped like the ladle my Mom uses to serve punch at Christmas time, he scoops up some liquid from the container. We can all see that it’s colorless and bubbling. Suddenly he bends over and pours it on the concrete floor right in front of the audience. I can hear it splatter on the floor. I pull back away from it, just like everyone around me. We don’t want to get splashed with this mysterious bubbling liquid. But as soon as it hits the floor, it disappears. It’s gone. None of us got wet, but I did feel a puff of cool air.

The man in the white coat tells us that this liquid is called “liquid nitrogen,” and it’s colder than the coldest Chicago winter. Grabbing the blue balloon, he holds it down on the table and pours a scoop of liquid nitrogen over it. The balloon shrivels up like a huge raisin, making a crinkly sound as it shrinks. The man lets go of it, and it just lies there. But then, right in front of our eyes, it starts to grow, take shape again, and rise into the air.

Next, the man takes the banana. Holding it with his tongs, he lowers it into the liquid nitrogen container for half a minute. When he takes it out of the liquid, he grips it in his gloved hand, and he picks up the board and a nail. Using the “Banana Hammer,” he pounds the nail right into the board. We ooh and ahh and applaud. I guess he won’t be giving out that banana as a prize.

Finally, he reaches for the bouncy ball and drops it in the liquid nitrogen container. After a minute or so, he fishes it out using the metal scooper. Picking it up, he turns around and throws it at the concrete wall behind him. I get ready to grab it when it bounces back toward the audience. But it doesn’t bounce. It shatters into many small pieces. I wonder if he’ll put the ball back together as the grand finale, but it doesn’t work that way, I soon find out.

Before he leaves, however, he has one final demonstration for us. He unpins the red rose from his lab coat lapel, dips it in the liquid nitrogen, and then bangs it on the table. Tiny red pieces of frozen rose petals fly across the table. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clap or cry. As everyone around me begins to applaud, I hesitantly join in. Even if the rose incident doesn’t sit quite right with me, I decide that chemistry is indeed wonderful, and I’m going to learn more about it when I grow up.

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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Making Room for Dad

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at the “Motherlode” Parenting blog at the New York Times website.  The opening salvo in the post, “Making Room for Dad,” reads:

Men should want to be more involved fathers, yes. But women have to let them.

A number of the people commenting on the blog refer to the phenomenon of Moms complaining about Dads not doing enough parenting, but then micro-managing them (and thereby discouraging them)  if they do get involved.  Others, however, seem to feel that men are simply incompetent.

What’s my perspective?  See comment #21.


Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 3:59 pm  Comments (1)  

A Nobel Lesson: Listening to Telomerase

Earlier this month, while pundits bickered non-stop about Obama’s Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize with a profound lesson for humanity slipped by with little hullabaloo. I’m referring, of course, to the Nobel Prize for Medicine, awarded “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

Nature has much to teach us, if we’re willing to learn. When William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” he was offering solid advice.

So what can we learn from telomeres?

One of life’s basic challenges is to ensure that essential life lessons are passed effectively from generation to generation. Nature’s elegant solution, developed over several billion years, is telomeres. At the cellular level, “life lessons” are the genetic information contained in the chromosomes’ DNA. Cells that fail to pass along these lessons completely and accurately will not survive.

Telomeres are structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. During chromosomal replication, these structures safeguard the “lessons” from degradation. Cells even have a special enzyme—telomerase—that keeps the telomeres healthy and intact. Without telomeres, cells age rapidly and the organism dies.

And this is where the wisdom of the telomeres can help us. At the societal level, essential “life lessons” are passed down as values, laws and cultural wisdom. Communities, nations and civilizations that fail to pass along life lessons will not survive.

The moral of the story is that we must develop societal structures that protect the two ends of life—childhood and old age. If we fail to protect the lessons found in these two ends, we will see our society wither and die.

Although not a molecular biologist, Hubert Humphrey echoed the telomeres’ wisdom when he said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; [and] those who are in the twilight of life, the aged…”

Many of today’s most pressing policy questions deal with the beginning of life (issues such as child poverty, health insurance and pre-school education) or the ending of life (issues such as how to provide cost-effective and humane health care at the end of life). If we want to survive as a society, we must do a better job of providing structures—social telomeres—to protect these two ends.

Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 8:13 am  Comments (1)  
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A blog posting (written several months ago, before my recent writer’s block) has just been published at the Careers blog of the American Chemical Society.

It’s titled  “Self Chromatography:  Analyzing Your Interests, Skills and Personality Traits.”

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 1:36 pm  Comments (4)  

The Physics of Procrastination

If you are a loyal reader of this blog, you will have noticed that I have not posted anything for over two months. In fact, it’s been 78 days.

It’s time to start blogging again.

The past few months have been a busy time of transition, and I’ll be writing about some of those things in the days to come. However, I have to admit that procrastination has also played an important role.

Procrastination happens from time to time with most of us. Along with its close cousins, denial and self-delusion, procrastination affects us not only as individuals but also as entire nations. At the national level, for example, we are avoiding making necessary changes in areas such as health policy or climate change policy.  For writers, we use a highly technical term for procrastination–we call it “writer’s block.”

Because procrastination is such a universal phenomenon, it’s possible to find many books, articles and websites on the subject.  (Here are some good quotes on the subject.) I spent some time looking at what these books have to say about procrastination, and I will definitely study them more closely–tomorrow.

All in all, however, the psychological theories about procrastination don’t really do it for me. When I need a new perspective on a problem or perplexing situation, I often turn to metaphors from science.  And I definitely need a fresh approach, one with some rigor and precision.  Sso I’m turning to physics for an understanding of procrastination.

When I visualize the problem of writer’s block, I see it as a big, heavy block of black metal sitting in my path.  I need to figure out a way to get the block moving.  Maybe simple physics can help me.

Here are some rambling thoughts about the physics of procrastination.  Let’s see if any of these help.

Procrastination is simply a problem of energy and momentum. When I’m unable to get started on a writing project, I’m just a “body at rest.”  The task is to get the body moving–to impart some momentum to it.

Here are several key equations that might help generate some helpful approaches:

1) F=ma (“Force” equals “mass” times “acceleration.”)

2) p=mv (“Momentum” equals “mass” times “velocity.”)  (Here’s a basic physics introduction to the concept of  “momentum.”)

If I need to introduce an acceleration and change the velocity from “zero” to “something,” then I need to apply a force to the mass.

Strategy 1 – Reduce the mass. As the mass gets smaller, the amount of force needed to achieve a certain change in velocity also gets less. This is the physics explanation for why it makes sense to “break large projects into small tasks.” (OK, so maybe I can keep this blog entry short. It’s easier to write a short entry than a long entry.)

Once I get the writing started and this blog post published on my blog, I will have built up some momentum. Then it will be easier to write a second post – and then a third and a fourth….

But in the real world, it’s not really that easy to start moving an object at rest, because there is friction. A sizable force is required to overcome the friction—which is a force keeping the object at rest. In fact, there is a physics explanation (and solution) for this situation, too.

Wikipedia has an extensive article on friction, discussing such exciting topics as  “the coefficient of friction (COF)” and “Coulomb friction.”

As I look through the Wikipedia article (by the way, this is one of my favorite ways to procrastinate), I notice an interesting topic called “acoustic lubrication.”   Did you know that the squeaky bearings of German Panzer tanks in World War II actually provided “acoustic lubrication” to reduce friction?

Maybe I should try some acoustic lubrication for my writer’s block.  (Remember, writer’s block is simply a form of intellectual and rhetorical friction).

So, I turn on some music to provide “acoustic lubrication.” And it works!  For me, Baroque instrumental music seems to be the best genre of acoustic lubrication to overcome verbal friction.

If you’ve read this far in this rambling post, you’ve been an important participant in my physics experiment to achieve writerly momentum.

Thank you.

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 1:26 pm  Comments (5)  

Letters from Summer Camp

Here’s a link to my recent blog article on the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” parenting blog:  “Letters From Sleep-Away Camp”

Yesterday, my 16-year-old son departed, by bus, for four weeks at a camp in northern Minnesota.  I’ve already checked the camp’s website for photos, and I found one photo of him from the Opening Day.  I’m pleased to see that he arrived safe and sound.

As he posed for this photo, I think he chose body language that would convey as little emotion and information as possible.  Because he had read my blog article about letters from summer camp, he knew that I’d be studying the photo carefully.  Over the next four weeks, we will be engaged in a battle of wits as he tries to confuse me from afar with his micro-expressions.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 8:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Grammar on the Moon

All the media attention for the 40th anniversary of the first walk on the moon has stirred up some memories for me.  This momentous event happened the summer after I was in 8th grade, and I remember staying up late to watch it live on TV.  It was a big deal for me then, and it still is.

However, I must confess that I’ve always been bothered by those first words spoken by Neil Armstrong:  “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  I’m afraid that those words have never made sense to me. It seemed like something was missing.

Because I was so young when I first heard them, I assumed that those words made sense to adults.   Back in 1969, I assumed that my sense of proper grammar was still undeveloped.  Over the years, however, those words have continued to puzzle me.  As a result, my confidence in my “inner grammarian” has always been slightly damaged.

Now, at last, the mystery has been explained.  As discussed in this AP article and this earlier blog post, Armstrong intended to and probably actually said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.”

I feel much better now.  My inner grammarian is finally at peace.

God’s in his Heaven –
All’s right with the world!

— Robert Browning, “Pippa Passes”

Published in: on July 23, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (1)  
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Thoughts on Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”

Check out my post on today’s “ACS Careers” blog for some thoughts on Randy Pausch’s inspirational video and book, “The Last Lecture.”  The article is titled “Quadratic Graffiti Inspires Blogger.”

In his life, Pausch beautifully integrated science and parenting.  Although his “last lecture” has inspired millions of people, his motivation in giving this lecture was simply to leave a legacy of his values and wisdom for his young children.

Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 7:11 am  Comments (1)  
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