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How fast does an (unladen Blue) Angel fly? July 26, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in Fargo, math, younger son.
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This weekend, the Blue Angels were in town to perform at the Fargo AirSho.  While we were watching them today, I made some comment about how amazing it is that they can keep such perfect formation despite the high speeds.  The younger son asked how fast they fly, and I responded that they could go up to a few hundred miles per hour.  He came back with:

I bet they’re flying at a trillion nanometers per second.

I honestly had no idea since that required not only a conversion to more reasonable units for such a measurement as well as the fact that we’d have to hop between metric and English units.

I decided to check it out, and it turns out he wasn’t far off.  The Blue Angels use the F/A-18 Hornet, which wikipedia gives a top speed of Mach 1.8 or 1,190 miles per hour.  The equivalent speed in nanometers/second is 531,977,600,000.  In other words, it’s half a trillion nanometers per second, so the younger son was only off by a factor of two when they’re traveling at top speed (which they obviously weren’t).

That’s a wee bit faster than an unladen European Swallow, which has an airspeed velocity of about 11,176,000,000 nm/s (based on Wolfram Alpha’s estimate of 25 mph).  I’m sure you were just dying to know that.

Friday Fun: Things you can microwave July 17, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, homeschooling, science, younger son.
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Most people are familiar with the concept of microwaving a grape to make an arc.  If not, the procedure is very simple: cut a grape in half but leave just a small bit of skin to connect to the two halves.  Put the grape on a plate in the microwave, turn it on, and watch the sparks fly.  (As a side note, I’ve been able to replicate this on a smaller scale when microwaving green beans.)  This video explains it fairly clearly:

This week, we discovered another fun microwaving activity: soap.  I can’t be just any soap: it specifically has to be Ivory soap.  Apparently it gets hot and the gas bubbles expand causing it to create a hot foam which grows fairly quickly.  You can’t do it with other soaps, however, because they’re too hard and will explode.

We used a whole bar of soap with our experiment, but the younger son told us later that the demo he saw only used a smaller chunk.  Be careful after you pull it out of the microwave: it’s hot!  Also, once it’s cooled, you can use the soap, although it may be more useful to stick it into a soap sleeve than try to use it directly.

It looked like this when we were finished:

Ivory soap that has just been microwaved.

Ivory soap that has just been microwaved.

 

To see the whole process, the video is here.

 

Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?

 

A reason to celebrate! July 9, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, pets, research, work.
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This is a pretty special week: Teradog’s Gotcha Day was on Tuesday.  Three years ago, we welcomed him into our family, thinking it was only going to be temporary.  The truth is, we’re foster failures.  Despite Mike’s insistence that he was just staying for a couple days, we ended up staying for a month before Mike asked about whether the rescue group had found him a new home.  I said they hadn’t been looking but I could contact them, if he wanted me to.  By that point, he didn’t want me to because that giant ball of fluff and love had steadfastly attached himself to Mike’s hip.

We weren’t sure how long he would be around, which was the really scary part.  The vet couldn’t figure out how old he was (his teeth were in bad shape) and said he could be anywhere from four to ten years old, his teeth indicating the high end of that range.  We took the median, seven, which is getting old for a Newfoundland.  He was also in very bad health.  However, he’s doing very well now (except for a bit of arthritis) and is happy, healthy, and generally content.  We’re hoping he will be around for a while longer.

Happy Newfie!

Happy Newfie!

Today is another anniversary: I will have been writing at this blog for five years.  While that’s generally a happy thing, you may have noticed that things have been rather quiet the past couple months.  That’s because, after five years and not quite a month at my job, the research center I’ve been working for has turned into a support lab and all the research staff have either been terminated or will be let go as soon as funds on their respective projects are gone.  Because of this, there hasn’t been much to talk about.  I’m spending a lot of time in front of the computer, working on my thesis, hanging out with my critters.  While it lends itself to a lot of cute puppy and kitty pics (and often kitty AND puppy pics, probably snuggling), there hasn’t been a whole lot of narrative material there unless you’d like me to get into the specifics of drooling and sleeping patterns of Newfoundlands.  The only thing I am sure I could do on a fairly regular basis is complain about how certain programs are a pain to use, but I’ve already done that (probably ad nauseum).

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All of this boils down to today being a good day to celebrate changes.  Change is generally a stressful thing, but it’s all in what you make of it.  And there’s certainly worse things to do than to hang around with domesticated bears.

Wordless Wednesday: Snuggle Buddies May 6, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, photography.
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Wordless Wednesday: Pride “Rock” March 18, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, photography.
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Cat on a stereo speaker

Wordless Wednesday: Pay some attention to the dog behind the curtain March 11, 2015

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My Mom, the research advisor March 8, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in science, science fiction, younger son.
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Do you ever have conversations with your kids where you think, afterwards, something along the lines of, “I can’t believe we had this conversation?”

The younger son wants to breed dinosaurs…or at least generate dinosaurs from recovered dinosaur DNA.  He asked me if it was possible to do that, and I told him that I think, at this point, they can only generate an organism if they have a living cell.  Since he had recently made a plant cell out of perler beads for a class project, I figured he’d be able to understand a little bit about it.

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I explained how they cloned Dolly the Sheep by putting a nucleus from an adult cell into a fertilized egg which became a sheep that was genetically identical to the adult sheep.  Younger son asked if there was any way to insert dinosaur DNA into the nucleus of another cell, and I told him that while it sounds like a cool idea, I didn’t think it would work unless the DNA came from a living cell.

He seemed genuinely disappointed at that point, so I mentioned that maybe there were people doing research into that sort of thing and that he could maybe do it himself someday.

That apparently was the right thing to say because he started planning out what things he would need for a lab full of full-grown dinosaurs (including wide-open spaces with lots of trees for the brachiosaurs).  He mentioned that he’d start with plant-eaters, but maybe after a couple decades, move into meat eaters like t-rex.  I suggested he may want to read the book “Jurassic Park.”

After a bit, he said he seemed awfully young to be planning this stuff out, but that’s okay because he has time to work on it.  Then he gave me a hug and told me that he’d let me know if he managed to clone some dinosaurs.  I’m pretty sure that if he pulls that off, I would be hearing about it, one way or another.  Still, I’m glad he thinks it’s important to let his mom know…

Wordless Wednesday: There is no Macrocat, only Zuul February 25, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, photography.
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Partial perfectionism February 19, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, teaching, younger son.
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The younger son had forgotten a text book which he needed to do an assignment, so I told him that he should get done what he could and try to finish it up in the morning.

But mom…she doesn’t accept work unless it’s completely done.

She may not, I told him, but your future teachers probably will, so it’s a good habit.  At least she’ll see you made some effort on it.

There were several classes I’ve had throughout college where I didn’t complete the entire assignment.  Frankly, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or maybe I was short on time.  However, handing in 8 out of 9 problems, even if it didn’t earn me a perfect grade, certainly earned me enough to get a very high grade in almost all of my classes.

I really don’t like this policy of “it has to be completely done, and I won’t accept anything late.”  I totally get not accepting anything late, but I think the “completely done” thing is bunk.  I would rather a student put it in a thoughtful, partial attempt than not do anything at all.  The feedback I would provide as a teacher may be helpful to the student, too.

The notion of “all or nothing” feeds into perfectionism, particularly the kind that leads to paralysis and lack of motivation.  “It’s not worth it to do anything if she won’t accept incomplete work,” is the kind of mindset I grew up with.  Now that I teach, I know that every effort you make on your homework or on learning something will not be wasted effort.  Few people ever get any topic 100%, but putting in time and effort will get you closer.

I would always tell my students to put the best effort you can into your homework and then go to the teacher for help on the rest.  Teachers would rather see an effort or an attempt to solve something rather than a student who shows up empty-handed and saying, “I don’t understand.”  It’s very hard to understand how to help the student unless you can see where they’re struggling.

This is a good life skill to have, too.  Is it better to wait to clean the kitchen fully or should you at least take 10 minutes to do what you can?  Personally, I try to do what I can because I seldom have blocks of time to allow me to do things with the full depth and effort I would like.  You can make progress doing it a bit at a time.  It’ll never be as fast as you want, but it’s better to keep doing it than forget it because you can’t do it ‘right’.  Once it’s done, it doesn’t always matter how quickly you did it.

It also dissuades people from trying new things.  “Oh gee…I can’t cook crepes perfectly the first time out, so there’s really no point in trying.”  Honestly, a mangled crepe is almost always better than no crepe at all.  More importantly, you’ll learn from the experience.

I am therefore doing my best to teach my son that some effort is far better than no effort.  There are few things in life that we can do as well and fully as we like, so I want to disavow him of the notion of “all or nothing” right away.

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