Category Archives: Sciences

Kyriarchal Worms Have Invaded My Syllabus!

Kyriarchal Worm

So I had my first ‘History and Philosophy of Science’ class yesterday. It’s an undergrad course I’m required to take for WI state licensure to teach science, but it looks like it could be interesting. I do enjoy the history of science, after all. Even if I have to put up with undergrads (eww, undergrads!).

Of course, when things move slowly in class (like, say, the professor is going through the syllabus on the first day), my mind starts to wander. And then my hands just start doodling of their own accord. In this case, I managed to resist the urge to doodle until we came to the following name on the syllabus:

E. du Chatelet

Which, it turns out, stands for Emilie du Chatelet. As in, (for those of us who don’t speak French) Emily du Chatelet. As in, A LADYPERSON.

I know, right? A ladyperson doing science? Before the 20th century? Shocking!

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THP Supplemental: Schrödinger’s Reading Glasses


Given the nature of the next few books on deck for the Hugo Project, now seemed an appropriate time to discuss Defensive Reading, otherwise known as How Myriad Manages to Finish These Things Without Throwing Them across the Room or Setting Them on Fire.


The thing about speculative fiction is that it’s…speculative. Which means, if it’s any good, that it deals with unusual ideas. What if, instead of X being true, !X were true? What if X continues to be true – wouldn’t it evolve into Y? Have you ever really looked at the implications of X? If you look at it this way, X is actually Z which could lead to Q!

Good speculative fiction stretches your brain, forcing you to question assumptions you didn’t even know you were making and look at the world through a completely different lens. This is a good thing. It can be a profoundly liberating thing. It can also be a profoundly uncomfortable thing.

Or a profoundly infuriating thing, if you disagree with 95% of what the author appears to be saying.

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Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze

Look at me being all cultural – last post was about a concert, this one is about a play! It’s like I’m some kind of opinionated artistic person or something…

Dad and I went to see Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze on campus tonight. It is, as you might guess, the story of one woman’s experience pursuing her PhD in math at MIT. It was funny and poignant, and the playwright/actress, Gioia De Cari full of exuberant energy.

Highlights include:

  • serving cookies in the seductive red dirndl
  • passing her quals in drag
  • being emasculated – in a feminine way
  • the thesis adviser who loves Gilbert & Sullivan

I enjoyed the show, though it was not what I was expecting. I think I was expecting something more aggressively feminist, with a bit more sarcasm. Not that the show wasn’t witty and dryly so, where appropriate, but overall the humor was delivered with more warmth than bite.

In the end, the show isn’t really about math, or about being a woman in math. It’s about De Cari figuring herself out. The fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated field informs her journey, but so do a number of other factors. And in the end, when she decides to leave academia, it’s not because the deep-seated sexism of the department drove her out – it’s because she doesn’t like mathematical research.

Which is, perhaps, the most wonderfully feminist part of the play. None of the sexism De Cari experiences makes her want to quit; it pisses her off, and she finds subtle and not-so-subtle ways to vent that frustration (see: red dirndl, above). When she realizes she hates math research, she doesn’t angst about ‘failing’ in a male-dominated field or letting down womankind by not finishing her PhD or proving that the boys were ‘right.’ (Because intelligent, STEM-inclined women never, ever do that. We will pointedly ignore 70% of the existential angst of my senior year of college.)

The decision isn’t an easy one, but in the end it boils down to this: Math doesn’t make me happy. I’m choosing to do something that makes me happy.

And in the end, that’s what feminism is all about. The freedom to choose what makes us happy, regardless of sex or gender or race or religion or orientation or (dis)ability or social class. De Cari chose to go into theater. I chose to teach. We’re both intelligent women who can hack it in the world of STEM academia and chose not to. It doesn’t make us any less awesome.

This concludes Myriad’s cultural and existential ramblings for the evening. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go pack for a wedding.


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5 Minutes of Sunshine, 3 Hours of Shade

This post brought to you by baseball, Mom, and apple pie*.

Ah, the glamorous life of an astronomer.

If you’ve been paying attention to science-y things of late, you know that today is the day of a rare astronomical event: the transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun. This happens in pairs separated eight years apart (there was one in 2004) about once every 120 years or so**. So, you know, this is a once-(or-twice-if-you’re-lucky)-in-a-lifetime thing.

What we wanted to see.

Naturally I was on hand at the local grab-all-the-telescopes-we-can-find-and-cobble-together-some-projectors-from-binoculars-and-whatever-else-is-lying-around event. Because, really, what else was I going to do on my last day of work/the day of the most important election of my voting career? I was going to Teach People Science, Godsdamnit!

What we saw.

Of course, the weather had other plans. The transit was due to begin a bit after 5PM CDT at our location, so naturally the sky clouded up around 4:30. Any astronomer will cheerfully tell you that this is par for the course, but we did get a lot of rather disappointed people lurking hopefully. Only the truly dedicated were rewarded for their lurking, however, as we got our first clear view of the Sun a little before 7. After a comically frantic race to get all the ‘scopes aligned (picture seven astronomers dashing through a crowd of forty trying to man ten telescopes), we had about half an hour of on-again, off-again viewing of the transit.

Then I had to race to the polling place to vote before they closed, so I have no idea how the viewing was after that. But there are times when democracy must trump even rare astronomical events.

If you live in the US and have somehow missed the political uproar in Wisconsin, congratulations: You are officially the most obtuse person on the planet. Suffice to say it’s been intense. To quote my mother, “I don’t know whether to get drunk if Barrett wins or get drunk if Barrett loses.” We are most definitely not Walker fans; he’s the subject of the most profane post I’ve allowed myself to publish on what is ostensibly a PG blog.

So, yes. Astronomy, politics, and my last day of work have combined to sap what little energy I usually have. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be curled up with my knitting, one eye on the Mauna Kea webcast, the other on election results.

*Or, more accurately, planet-wrangling (shut up, it’s a sport if I say it’s a sport), Mom, and the donuts my boss used to bribe me on my last day of work.

**I’m failing in my duty as Public Educator Whether They Like It or Not, but I was on my feet for almost twelve hours straight so you’re lucky I have the energy to post this much.


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Pumpkin-LEGO-Man Is Coming to Teach You Chemistry!

In what was, retrospectively, one of the most awesomely nonchalant Girls Kick @ss moments of my life, I found myself yesterday sitting around a table with H., H., and M. discussing entropy and equilibrium and Legos.

Quick: if carbon dioxide (CO2) decomposes into carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen (O2), has the entropy increased, decreased, or stayed the same?

If you said ‘increased,’ you’re right. If you had no idea what the hell I was saying, then you’ve probably forgotten most of your high school chemistry. For shame!*

And if you’re me, trying to explain entropy (a concept which you only kinda-sorta-maybe understand, even after a semester of 300-level thermodynamics) to a group of confused 10th-graders, you dive into the Lego bin. As in: You have a bin full of Lego men. You take the heads off of all the men, so now you have a bin full of Lego heads and decapitated Lego bodies. Has the disorder increased, decreased, or stayed the same? Laugh all you want, but I bet you can answer that question.

This is far from the silliest example I’ve come up with. This, my friends, is my schtick. I come up with really weird analogies. I’m the girl who explained Google Docs to her mother with underground caverns and scuba gear. I made my students change a story problem about docks to one about DUCKS because I thought it was more fun. And then there was the cat-up-a-tree-attached-to-a-phone-cord incident.**

But hey – it works. My mental pictures are usually silly beyond belief, but they’re just stupid enough and just clever enough that (usually) things are clearer after I dump my students into a bin of decapitated Legos. Even if I suddenly find myself in need of more Lego bits to describe more complicated reactions and suddenly we have Lego men with pumpkins and apples for heads and Lego heads stuck to cat bodies and cat bodies with apples for heads and…

And really, wouldn’t it be much simpler if we all just agreed to replace the word hypotenuse with hippopotamus? Most days I have trouble saying the word, and half of my students are so busy trying to translate their thoughts from Spanish or Hmong*** into English that it’s really just cruel to throw Greek**** at them.

In retrospect, depicting chemistry instruction as a pumpkin-headed monster was maybe not the best idea. In my defense, I drew this on day one of taking a new prescription, so I’m blaming the drugs. Although I’m pretty sure bizarre scientific metaphors wasn’t listed as a possible side effect.

*Disclaimer: I have forgotten every single aspect of high school chemistry that was not somehow reinforced by six subsequent years of studying physics.

**Not one of my better ideas.

***What’s a Hmong, you ask? You mean your school didn’t have signs posted in English, Spanish, and Hmong? Must just be southern Wisconsin…

****Yes, I’m aware that ‘hippopotamus’ is also Greek. But we learn it at an earlier age and it’s easier to say and stop poking holes in my flawless pedagogical logic already!


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An Inquiring Mind Visits the Dentist….

…and then engages in Nerdery of the Highest Degree. Because this is how my brain works. You know how in science class you’d be studying something and your teacher would off-handedly mention, “Oh, by the way, this is how the stoplight down the street works” or “that’s what makes your ears ring” or some other random everyday thing that you never would have thought about, and probably never will think about again?

Yeah, this is why.

Star Ten Thousand Proudly Presents:
Sudden Science! At the dentist!

Lead vests. You know, that heavy thing they pin you under while they stab the inside of your mouth with photographic plates? Maybe it’s just me, but those corners are sharp. Most people are probably too distracted by the stabby thing in their mouth, or else are trying to sleep through the process, but not me. Oh no. I was thinking:

My lead vest is flexible. Lead is not flexible. How does that work? I can’t even feel small plates or scales or anything. Is there even lead in this? Is it like a powder or something? It doesn’t feel like it’s full of sand or anything…

So, like the good little geek that I am, I got home and got on the Google. 20 minutes of creative searching lead me to the following understanding:

—Vests may or may not have actual lead (although most do), but regardless of what the vest is made of, its resistance to x-rays is expressed in Pb equivalence; that is, a vest with a 0.5 mm Pb equivalence absorbs as much of the x-rays as a 0.5 mm-thick sheet of lead would.
—In addition to or instead of lead, other dense elements may be used. Basically what you want to absorb x-rays is something with a highish atomic number (lead is 82) and a smallish atomic radius (so something on the right-hand side of the periodic table. If you don’t remember why, find the nearest 10th-grader and ask them; I’ve been doing this with my students all week). These two factors help the elements siphon off more of the energy from the x-rays. Specifically, the small atomic radius means you can get more atoms into a given area, which means more chances for one of them to interact with the x-ray.
—Since lead is rather brittle, making an actual apron out of it (or another heavy metal) doesn’t really work. Instead, the shielding element is mixed in with some kind of rubber, which is why the vest ends up feeling the way it does. The vests end up being a couple centimeters thick because the lower concentration of lead means you need a thicker vest to get a Pb equivalence of around 0.2 – 0.5 mm.
-for more information, including instructions for performing your own lead equivalency test, check out this surprisingly useful site.

Sickle Probes. Because apparently that’s the official name for that pointy curved wire-on-a-stick they use to scrape your teeth and stab your gums. I suspect most people, like me, really hate the feel of that thing scraping along your tooth. Probably fewer people began to wonder, like me:

This really doesn’t feel good…I hope she’s not hurting my teeth! Which is harder, tooth enamel or the metal picks they use to clean your teeth? Do they have rankings on Moh’s scale? I would think they would want to use something of the same hardness as tooth enamel, so as not to damage anything, but maybe it’s something really hard! Ahhhh! Okay, don’t think about it, go back to inventing characters for that NaNo novel you still need to finish…

This one took considerably more effort to find out; it is nigh-on impossible to find out what most dental tools are made of. You would think, looking at a medical supply store online, that they would list the material of the tool you’re going to buy. After all, there’s going to be a big difference between one made of titanium and one made of bamboo. But noooo. After much searching, I finally found:

-most dental tools are made of stainless steel or titanium.
-Stainless steel is not one substance; there are lots of different kinds, which makes finding the Moh’s hardness even more of a pain.
-Moh’s hardness scale is really a pretty crap measurement system

But it’s also the only one I have any familiarity with, so I went with those numbers. And they are:

Tooth enamel: 5 (Wikipedia)
Stainless steel: 5.5 – 6.5 (general interweb consensus)
Titanium: 6 (Wikipedia)

So, basically, the tools the dental hygienist uses to clean your teeth are in fact harder than your teeth, so if s/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing, s/he could do a fair bit of damage. Let’s hope I can forget that before my next cleaning in September…

And if you’re wondering how I finally figured out they were made of stainless steel…this is where I got the info, after much searching. For shame, interwebs, for shame.


So, hooray for sudden science. Or maybe not so much hooray, as my first though upon my mother mentioning she had veal for lunch was, “How would you breed for good veal? Is that even possible? Is it a thing? There are some logistical issues.” Mom did not find this to be terribly appropriate dinner conversation. But I’m curious

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Posted by on 21.3.2012 in Education and Teaching, Sciences


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Try This at Home: Fun with Sticky Tape

I’ve been working at a long science-y post, but it’s taking longer than I thought, so instead I have a teaser to whet your appetite.



You Will Need:
2 pieces of clear adhesive tape (such as scotch tape) ~ 2 to 3 inches in length
Scissors (if tape does not come with means of cutting)
Plastic or other surface from which tape can be removed without causing damage (I used a library book covered in clear adhesive film)

–Assemble materials.
–Cut two pieces of tape.
–Fold over one end of each piece about a quarter of an inch or so so you have a “tab” to hold onto without getting sticky.

Experiment #1:
–Stick the two pieces of tape together, with the sticky side of one pressed to the non-adhesive side of the other. (You can do this by sticking one piece to your surface and sticking the other one on top of it, or you can stick the two together without an aid).
–Place your hand over the tapes (if on a surface) or blow gently along their length (if not) to ground them.
–Quickly separate the two pieces of tape.
–Bring the two pieces near each other again. What do you observe? What do you think is causing this phenomenon?
BONUS: Try this both ways (with or without the surface as an aid). Is the phenomenon stronger using one method or the other? Which? Why?

Experiment #2 (This one generally only works in fairly dry weather, which does not describe August in WI, so I couldn’t get it to work today. If you don’t notice much when you try this, don’t worry–move on to #3)
–Stick the two pieces of tape to the surface (make sure they are not touching or overlapping).
–Press your hand to both pieces to ground them.
–Quickly pull both pieces of tape off of the surface.
–Bring the two pieces near each other. What do you notice? What do you think is causing this phenomenon?
–If nothing happens, make a prediction about what might happen in drier conditions and why you think that would be the case. Then move on to #3.

Experiment #3
–Stick one of the pieces of tape to the surface, holding the other in one hand.
–Press your free hand to the tape on the surface and gently blow on the tape in your hand to ground them.
–Quickly pull the tape off of the surface.
PREDICT: What do you think will happen when you bring the two pieces together?
–Bring the two pieces near each other. What happens? Are you surprised at this result? Why do you think the observed behavior occurs?


Oh dear Gods I am such a teaching nerd.

This is a modified version of an activity my high school physics teacher had us do to preface a new unit, and I just thought it was the COOLEST THING EVER. Plus, as a science educator, I like demos which are quick and easy and make people say, “Whoa, that was cool!”

Remember–science is everywhere, and science is cool. Whoever thought scotch tape could be so interesting?


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Sunny Side Up, Part 3

“This Is How the Sun Works, I Think” continues. Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2.

Last time we talked about sunspots–what makes a sunspot, what they look like, etc., and I kept going on about things happening every 11 years. What was all that about? I’ll tell you:

On a not-entirely-related note, I hope you all are having fun playing “guess the science-y book” in the Stay Tuned pictures at the end of each of these posts. The first two were relatively well-known books, but this one is much more obscure…digital brownies for anyone who can tell me the author without Googling it.


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Fair Times

Today your intrepid reporter ventured to the Wisconsin State Fair as a volunteer astronomy educator (VAE). Headlines of the day include:

CASUALTY OF SCIENCE VAE scratches arm while wrestling with banners; receives band-aid from physically appealing police officer.

THAT’S NOT US Public fails to understand difference between giant neutrino detector in Antarctica and modest astronomy booth.

IT’S ALMOST LIKE WE HAD A PLAN VAE creates last-minute signs, drawings, and displays in last-minute effort to make booth more appealing.

BUGS FROM MARS! Volunteer astronomy educators discuss possibility of bug-napping part of adjacent entomology display, presenting insects as extraterrestrial life in desperate bid to regain lost audience.

DON’T GRAB THAT Young members of crowd fail to comprehend which end of telescope to peer through.

ACK, LET ME FIX IT Young members of crowd fail to comprehend that sun will no longer appear in telescope if telescope is pointed in different direction.

COULD YOU MOVE PLEASE? Majority of crowd fails to comprehend that standing directly behind telescope completely obscures field of view.

CAN I PLAY WITH YOUR BUGS? VAE gives in to urge to consort with enemy and plays with strangely beautiful tobacco hornworm.

NO, REALLY, THAT’S THE SUN Observers reluctant to believe image formed by telescope is in fact the Sun.

I DIDN’T GET LOST! Food stall requires thirty minutes to find hot dog for hungry VAE.

WE’VE GOT A GREAT LOCATION VAEs find selves next to polka pavilion; watch polka-ers with fascination.

HONEY, IT’S NOT STUMP THE STUDENT DAY Wife attempts to remove aging husband from stilted discussion of homogeneity of universe with VAE.

I KNOW YOUR BREED VAE silently empathizes with father attempting to indulge passion for astronomy while maintaining control of offspring.

I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE Children proudly present “Honorary Stem Cell Researcher” certificates to parents; University of Wisconsin succeeds in subtle-as-ton-of-bricks attempt to deter public opposition to controversial research.

OOH, PRETTY VAE strokes skein of handspun yarn in fair’s sole textile booth, resists urge to purchase.

I’LL LET YOU KNOW IF I FIND ANYTHING Fair map, pamphlet utterly lacking in useful information.

WHY WOULD I WANT THAT? IT’S NOT DEEP-FRIED VAEs astounded by variety of foods available for purchase in deep-fried form.

WAIT, REALLY? Deep-fried beer, cheese, veggies, crab cakes, macaroni, oreos, Snickers, s’mores, and butter. Yes, butter.


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Sunny Side Up, Part 2

Click here for Part 1 of “Myriad Teaches Magnetohydrodynamics by Taking Pictures of Her Notebook Doodles.”

As promised, the pen-and-paper pretense of proselytism continues now that my brain is back to its usual state. The GHMC is home from the hospital and seems to be doing well (aside from sleeping all the time, but that’s to be expected). And he hasn’t yet had the joy of having his healing abdomen used as a landing pad for leaping felines, which I can assure you is just ever so much fun (yes, Rosie, I’m looking at you.) Of course he also hasn’t been allowed to shower…

Okay. When we last left off, the Sun’s magnetic field was all twisted into a tangled mess due to differential rotation, and I know you’ve all been on the edge of your seats waiting to learn just what this tangled mess ends up doing to our friendly neighborhood star (Sarcasm. Har.). So without further ado…

To be continued, again, because this stuff is complicated and I can only get so far before my brain protests. It’s also after midnight and I’m getting a bit punchy–if you mouse over each photo, you’ll find the alt-text gets progressively stranger as the post goes on…


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