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This is NOT what a scientist looks like August 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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The younger son’s school is starting a new science curriculum this year. Mike and I were very excited to learn about it as it’s supposed to emphasize hands-on learning. But this came home today, and I could only roll my eyes. Can you see what’s wrong?


Making your mom proud (if she’s a physicist) August 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, physics, science.
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One of the classes that the older boy is doing this year is physics.  Rather than give him something very math intensive, I instead chose to have him study from Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics text.  It’s a book I came across after I’d already had a couple years of physics, and I regret not having had that book first.  It does a wonderful job of explaining how physics works and what the concepts mean without drowning the reader in math.

When I picked up the older son after his study session the other day, he began talking about how imbalances in forces are what cause objects to accelerate.  For instance, a car will move forward when the force created by the engine to move the car forward exceeds the forces of friction, gravity (if it’s on a hill), etc.  After listening, I asked the question, “What happens then if the forces become balanced?”

I fully expected him to say that the object would stop moving.  I really did.  This is what the vast majority of students in my physics labs assumed when asked that question.  Their assumption is that the forces must always be out of balance if the object is moving.

His response:

It would really depend on if the object were moving or still to begin with.  If it was moving, it would continue to do so, and if it wasn’t moving, it would continue to stay still.

My response was to yell, “Yes!!!!!” at the top of my lungs and pump my fist.  I’ve been proud of my son many times over the past few years, but few things make me beam as much as displaying a clear understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

Friday Fun: Cool toys August 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science, science fiction.
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My birthday is coming up in a few days, and despite the fact that my husband already got me a present, I’m still thinking of other fun things that I want.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

I thought a new pair of running shoes might be in order, but those are no longer in the category of ‘fun’ and more into the realm of ‘must have’!  Also, I got running shoes last year for Christmas, so it would be boring to always get running shoes.

I decided to get in touch with my inner geek and see what she really, really wanted if she had an unlimited budget, space, and time:

Yes, it's a Barbie.  But it's Mars Explorer Barbie!  It's probably the only Barbie I'd ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

Yes, it’s a Barbie. But it’s Mars Explorer Barbie! It’s probably the only Barbie I’d ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

I've been eyeing this one for a long time.  I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle.  (Sadly, I'm sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)

I’ve been eyeing this one for a long time. I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle. (Sadly, I’m sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)



I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter.  ThinkGeek is out!

I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter. ThinkGeek is out!

I do realize they're coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC...but I want the full-blown version.

I do realize they’re coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC…but I want the full-blown version.

And finally, I think I’d book a trip with these guys.  At least the $250k is refundable.

So if you could have anything you wanted…what would you want?

Slime for sale August 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in science, societal commentary.
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I really hate listening to sales pitches.  Really, really hate it.  Part of it is that I’m skeptical enough to look at a lot of the claims the way a scientist does.  I can’t imagine why.

I was walking through a department store after a purchase when the clerk who’d been helping me said she’d like to show me something.  So she started in on a sales pitch for a ‘newly reformulated’ skin care product.  She started by rubbing it on the back of my left hand.  Then she sprayed water on both hands and told me to shake them.  She pointed out that the water on my bare hand had formed into balls while the water on the other hand was spread evenly over the skin.

I nodded and said, “That’s interesting.”

I was thinking: “This is bogus.  There’s some sort of surfactant in there that’s minimizing the surface tension of the water.  This has nothing to do with how well moisture can be held by the skin, and I know from experience that skin health is much more dependent on diet than anything else.”  (This last point has been a huge point of discovery since I’m no longer starving because of my celiacs.)

Okay.  So she keeps going on and I’m getting ready to leave, but she puts some of her elixir on a couple sponges.  I’m curious to see what she’s going to do next.  I should have left.  As she’s talking to me, she suddenly reaches up and starts dabbing this goop all over my face.

If she were my child, I would have shouted, “Hey!  Personal space!  Stay out!”  But she wasn’t.

She then asked me how it felt, and I wasn’t inclined to put on a show for someone who just used cosmetic sponges on me as though they were nunchucks.

If that lady had tried to put makeup on Chuck Norris, I'm sure she' would've been seeing double.

If that lady had tried to put makeup on Chuck Norris, I’m sure she’ would’ve been seeing double.

Having been assaulted with foam, I wasn’t inclined to be nice, so I just said, “Weird…and slimy.”  Then I smiled, said I’d think about it, and made a beeline for the bathroom so I could wipe that stuff off.

It’s bad enough when they’re trying to sell me on something that makes no sense, but smearing stuff on my face is definitely over the top.  I’m not sure what she thought she accomplishing, but I don’t think I’ll EVER buy any of her slime.

Rihanna has it wrong! June 27, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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I heard Rihanna’s song “Diamonds” for the first time yesterday.  (I know…I live under a rock…though, unfortunately, not that kind of rock or I’d be rich.)  I rather liked the song except for the line that keeps popping up: “Shine bright like a diamond.”  Something about the way it sounds doesn’t quite fit the rest of the song for me, or maybe it was to repetitive.  But what really bugged me is that, every time I heard it, all I could think was, “Diamonds don’t shine!  They refract!”  I suppose refraction doesn’t sell as much pop music, though.  I will suggest, however, if any of you are aces at making music remixes, that the song would benefit from more accurate physics.  (Maybe she should take some notes from Britney Spears?)

Anyway, I hate it when science gets in the way of enjoying music.  When it’s not wrong, though, it can sometimes make the music more enjoyable.

I only wear goggles when swimming May 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, physics, research, science, societal commentary, Uncategorized.
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I was recently chatting with an acquaintance when they mentioned they had seen me in the local paper a while back.

You were wearing goggles, right?


Well, you did have a lab coat…

No, I was actually wearing a sweater.

I have had articles on my work run in the paper a couple times in the past few months. However, only one had a picture, and I cringe every time I think about it. I learned the hard way that it is important to wear solid colors on such occasions.

The picture involved me standing in front of several racks of computers wearing a rather ugly ombré sweater. I find it interesting that this acquaintance knows I’m a scientist and equates that with the goggles and lab coat schtick so heavily that they remember me wearing one even when I was not.

I remember reading about a project where kids drew pictures of scientists, visited some at Fermilab, and then drew pictures after their visit. The contrast was striking.

Having talked with this person on and off during the years, never once while wearing a lab coat (probably because I haven’t worn a lab coat since freshman chem and certainly wouldn’t out in public), I’m very surprised that they still imagine me that way. I guess it goes to show how powerful those stereotypes are.

I think I need to have a “Visit Cherish At Work” day where people can watch me sit at my computer, lab coat free.

Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

Spacing out May 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, science.
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Last week, having never been to Florida, I had one day to go exploring.  While Universal Studios was awfully tempting, I chose another location: Kennedy Space Center.  Rather than bore you with explanations, I’ll give you the photo tour.  (My husband graciously consented to be the model for several of these pictures…)

The entrance (if you click on the picture, the full size one will come up and you can read the quote):


After passing through the visitor center entrance, the first thing you see is a bunch of rockets:


And a few capsules (which, of course, are fun to crawl into):


They are currently building the final home for the shuttle Atlantis, which will be on display at about the end of June.  I was disappointed it wasn’t ready yet.

Then we hopped the bus and drove past the vehicle assembly building:


And visited the Apollo/Saturn V center:


At the center, they start you by sitting through a simulated launch of one of the missions.  There are tons of things on display that relate to the Apollo missions, such as newspapers, space suits, and even the moon rover they practiced on.  There’s also a moon rock that you can touch.  (I was disappointed that it was polished.)  We unfortunately only had about 5 hours, which didn’t feel like nearly enough, but we definitely had a good time.

I almost speak Greek April 13, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, humor, science.
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I was working on my thesis, trying to do some debugging, when I discovered a discrepancy between two pieces of code.  Mike was standing nearby, and when I made that noise one makes when they discover something is afoot, he asked what was up.

“There’s a difference between kappa in these two programs.”

“What’s kappa?”

Of course, I blanked at that particular moment and couldn’t dredge up the meaning from the recesses of my memory.

“Umm….it’s that little K thingy.”

I think that’s the accurate but not precise answer…

Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before.  Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.

I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:

“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”

Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.

I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.

Look at it this way:

1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)

2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.

3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).

All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.

If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.

It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.

It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.

So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!

(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)

As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:

1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.

2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?

3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)

If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:

His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.


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