Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Words of the Week

Thing 1 is getting quite tall. She is, in fact, only about 5 inches shorter than me, if that. She's been agitating to sit in the front seat of the car since this summer, when I let her sit in front just one time because we had three of her friends with us and she was the tallest and heaviest one of the bunch.*

Today, we picked up some supplies I needed to put up some shelves in my kitchen in my never ending battle against the household clutter and disorganization that will one day be the death of me. Our car has one of those nifty backseats that are designed so that part will fold down so that you can put larger things in the trunk. We were indeed transporting large items, so I folded down the part not taken up by Thing 2's car seat, and let Thing 1 sit in front for the very short ride home. She was very excited that she could put a CD in the player herself, and so she did. Then, she looked around the cockpit a bit. Which led to our words of the week:

  • odometer: an instrument that indicates the distance traveled by a vehicle; from the Greek hodometron, from hodos, road + metron, measure
    "That little button is to reset the trip odometer, which is the top number here. The bottom one can't be reset. It tells how far the car has been driven since it was made." (Response: "Wow! That's how far we've driven?!?")

  • tachometer: an instrument that indicates the speed of rotation of the engine shaft; from the Greek takhos, speed + metron, measure
    "The tachometer is more useful if you are driving a manual transmission where you have to shift gears yourself - it can help you figure out when to shift." (This was followed by some discussion of how to use a tachometer to gauge when to shift on a manual, and what use it might be as a diagnostic for an automatic.)

This whole discussion caused me to feel a bit queasy as I imagined my 10 year old driving a car someday.

*It is not illegal for me to do so in the state in which we live. But the backseat is still the safest place for all children!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Life, My Feminism

I just read that Dr. Isis is wrestling with her "feminist identity". Seems that the writings of a certain radical feminist have rubbed her the wrong way. Or maybe it's that she feels she is rubbing someone else the wrong way. Oh, hell, does it really matter? Because haven't we all felt like that - just a little out of sync with some sort of ideal that we think we are a part of?

Life is complicated. Nothing is ever only black or only white. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong. But many of us throw our ideas out into the world, and hope that they may land in some fertile place and create new ideas, which will go out into the world to continue the cycle ad infinitum.

I've written before about the idea that true reproductive choice is the choice to NOT have children. I didn't come up with that idea all on my own. Nor did I come up with the idea that it is not exactly productive to be tarring women who have children with the "anti-feminist" brush.

What is strange to me, and which was the inspiration for that post, is the idea that those two ideas cannot peacefully coexist. That somehow advocating for reproductive choice directly leads to advocating AGAINST motherhood and children in general. To me this is a case of taking a mostly good idea a bit too far. If women could truly choose not to have children, then ALL women would choose to remain childless, because kids are a pain in the ass. And therefore, all women who do have children are fools, or "tools of the patriarchy", and deserve to be banish-ed. Right?

Wrong. It is wrong because it is not completely right. There are some women who do not exercise the choice to not have children because they are being bent over by "the patriarchy". Actually, the Third World is full of women in this situation. There are plenty in America, too. But those of us who are trying to figure out how make a career in science (or any other deeply engrossing field) while having meaningful relationships with spouses we love and raising children that are the products of those unions are not victims that need to be saved from our reproductive follies. We are women who are trying to figure out how to have the life we want. There is no perfect recipe for a happy life. The key, though, is figuring out the right ingredients for YOUR happy life. And in what amounts they should be combined.

Of course, I can speak this way because of my extremely privileged position - what with living in America, and not having to be on welfare and all. It's most likely not going to kill me to have a child, even if I have complications, because I have access to the best health care imaginable. I have a husband who believes that it is my choice at the end of the day whether I want to have any more babies, whether he wants them or not. I also happen to not be in a family that does the whole pressuring for grandkids thing. Oh, yes. And I have access to birth control, and am not afraid, ashamed, or convinced that it is morally wrong to use it.

It is quite an effective technique to speak in absolutes if you want to force people to think about the things they take for granted. Like that women naturally just want to settle down and make babies with some guy, and any other endeavor they get involved in is just a way to kill the time until such time as that happy ending is achieved. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to get rid of that notion. I see no need to replace it with this, or any other extreme alternative. But, hey, it sure does get people talking and thinking, doesn't it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Words of the Week

I am trying to add a weekly feature to this blog. I expected that it would be easy to make happen every Tuesday, since we usually talk about the words over the weekend, when the concentration of family time is highest. But, surprise, surprise, it takes a fair amount of effort to make sure it happens each week. And with all the other stuff that has been going on behind the scenes, I have fallen behind. So, I have decided to permit myself a one-week lapse. Also, I am now going to avail myself of the post scheduling feature to get (and keep) myself on track. In addition, I am choosing Wednesday as my "Words of the Week" day. It has better alliteration than Tuesday, and will probably work out better in the long run.

So, without further ado, here are the Words of the Week:

  • Chip Butty: Fried slices of potatoes sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread. This is a compound word composed of the UK equivalent for the American term 'french fries', and 'butty' the British colloquialism for a slice of buttered bread. (See the Wikipedia entry if you don't believe me!)
    "There's nothing like finishing off dinner with a chip butty!"

  • Cavalier: A gentleman who is serving as an escort to a woman of high social status
    "Isn't the Sugar Plum Fairy lovely? And just look at her Cavalier!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

January Scientiae is coming up...

Don't close out this year without submitting something for the Scientiae Carnival! I'm so excited that I will be hosting this carnival for January, and I'd love to give you all something wonderful to read as you ring in the New Year (or recover from your wild night of revelry, whichever the case may be).

So be sure to send your posts in by midnight on December 28. The theme is:

As one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes.
Email the permalink to your submission to scientiaecarnival [a] gmail [dt] com. Complete instructions can be found here.

Thanks to those of you who have already sent in your submissions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Manuscript Progress

I built up a bit of writing momentum by (semi) participating in InaDWriMo, and I'm pleased to say that I've managed to put it to good use! I have finished the draft of my first first-author manuscript. Since the Thanksgiving holiday, I have:

  • Finished the "Discussion" section of the paper. Including the oh-so-hard-to-write "speculation on the significance of these findings"
  • Written an introduction
  • Added more references
  • Created a new figure that shows the design of the experiment
  • Written a caption for that figure

That just leaves another round of revisions and getting feedback from a few people who are not directly involved. Hopefully we can get this submitted before the end of the year!

I have also continued to try to figure out how to get the nearly impossible experiment that would really improve the paper to work. I made some significant progress today. I'm now convinced that, although this experiment will be pushing the limits of our technique, it might be doable. Yay! Too bad I'm the one who must actually do it.

The new figure was also a challenge, but of a different sort. When I started writing this paper, I decided that I didn't want to have any color figures unless they were absolutely necessary. That's right I decided that. The journal we are submitting to does charge a fee for color, and I have heard of PIs insisting that there be no color to save the money, or at least making a point about the need to be judicious. But that is not the case for me. I just think that useless color figures are annoying and wasteful. When I first started reading primary literature, I liked for papers to have splashy, full-color figures. I thought it looked more "polished". But now, I think color is often used for no good reason, and does not enhance the "readability" of the figure at all. If anything, it makes things harder to understand when the colors are not easily distinguished. I once read a paper for a class and was so confused by one figure that during the discussion section I had to ask which feature was supposed to be the color "wheat" and which one was "mustard". They both just looked yellow in the printout from the crappy inkjet printer I had at home. Whatever happened to primary and secondary colors? And what a waste of ink!

For my poster, I had a version of this figure that was in color. It looked nice, but I wanted to change it around a bit for the paper. The poster version had started out as a diagram of a totally different experiment, and I had just relabeled things, added things, and moved things around so that it more or less accurately represented my experiments. In some parts there was too much detail, and in others not quite enough, and the color did not really add much information to the figure. It just made it look more colorful. So I decided to remove the color while I was fixing the other issues. I think it looks pretty good. I showed it around the lab, and everyone was surprised, but had to admit that it works really well without the color. Hooray for grey!

Words of the Week

Thing 1 brough home this week's words of the week from school. Therefore, I cannot provide an actual sentence in which they were used. But I can give you the definitions in her own words:


  • transparent: allowing light to pass through through undisturbed
    "Transparent is when all of the light goes through an object."

  • translucent: allowing light to pass through, but scattering it along the way
    "Translucent is when only some of the light get through."

  • opaque: permitting very little light to pass through
    "Opaque is when NO light gets through."

Her class has apparently begun the unit on optics. I asked Thing 1 the other night what she had learned in physics class that day. She asked me what was I talking about. I said, "Well, I had an email from your teacher, and he mentioned that you were going to start talking about reflection, soon..." To which she replied, "Mom, that's OPTICS!" And gave me a look as if to say, "How could you not know that, Mom. I thought you were a scientist!"

So I explained to her that optics is a branch of physics. She insisted that I should only ever call it optics, anyway. What the heck are they teaching these kids?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

January Scientiae - Call for Posts

December is the time that we prepare to close out one calendar year (or semester) and begin another. We stand on the threshold between the new and the old. As a way of honoring the transitional nature of this time of year, I’d like to challenge you to think about all the doors that you have opened and closed this year.

As one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes.

Sometimes you close a door by choice, knowing that the path it leads to is not the one you want to take. Some doors were closed before you got to them. What open doors did you find while searching for a new path to take? Perhaps you closed a door without intending to. Were you able to re-open that door? Or did you decide to leave what was done as done? Have you had to close one door in order to allow another one to open?

Feel free to write about a specific episode, or use this as an opportunity to look back on the entire year. Or write about something else entirely. Just send in your submissions for the Scientiae Carnival by midnight on December 28. Complete instructions can be found here. I'll be hosting right here on New Year's Day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Words of the Week

Well, I was planning on putting these up by Tuesday, but some unexpected exhaustion has kept me from posting this week.

Most evenings, I make dinner, and we eat together as a family. I try to spend time with the Things from dinner time until bedtime - sometimes we watch a little television, but I also get to enjoy listening to Thing 1 practice her cello while helping Thing 2 do a puzzle, having a laugh with the girls while they take a bath, reading a story and then snuggling with Thing 2 while she goes to sleep. I love our evening time together. Sometimes I feel as though I'd like to rush it when I have some work I want to get to after they are asleep, but they usually keep me focused on what's important. Occasionally, as I cuddle the warm fragrant body of my freshly bathed toddler, I find myself dozing off. But when I'm relatively well rested, I can usually manage to stay awake until Thing 1 has fallen asleep. Then I get up and go about my business for a couple hours before going to my own bed. This is prime time for blogging if I haven't brought home any work. But lately, I have found it really hard to resist the soporific snugglefest. I've just been too tired.

But it's Friday night, already. It's time to get on with it. And so, here are the words of the week for the week of December 1:

  • proboscis: an elongated appendage from the head of an animal
    "Watch the butterfly suck juice from the fruit through its proboscis."

  • segment: a separate piece of something
    "Look! I can break the orange into segments. Would you like one?

  • quagmire: a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position
    "You can call me 'trouble' if I can call you 'quagmire'."

Monday, December 1, 2008

White Hot Science

For this month's Scientiae Carnival, Isis the Scientist has asked us all to tell what makes our science "hotter than Dr. Isis's Naughty Monkeys". Well, here goes...

I'd like to start by discussing the meaning of the term 'hot'. Because we don't all mean the same thing when we say something is 'hot'. Sometimes we mean trendy - the 'hot' areas of science are the ones that are rapidly growing - it seems like 'everyone' is talking about and trying to get into this field. We could also say that a particular field is 'hot' because it is producing a lot of interesting or even unexpected results.

I've got both of these covered by my white hot science. I'm not going to come right out and tell you what that field is - it's so hot, that if I told you, the shock and awe might kill you. And if it didn't, I'd have to hunt you down and kill you myself.

I study things that people have been studying for a long time, but I look at these things in a fundamentally different way. Not a lot of labs are really set up to do the kind of work that is the bread and butter of the lab in which I am doing my thesis research. We have no shortage of potential collaborators - labs that have been studying a system for a long time who want to add a new approach, but aren't in a position to do what we do for themselves. Our approach is 'hot'. I hope it persists in its hotness (though perhaps mellowing a bit as the field ages) because I kind of like the fact that I am sometimes considered 'hot' by association.

I also think my science is 'hot' because I have gotten to see phenomena that were predicted and described in theoretical work in the 1970's and early 1980's, but were not observable until recently. In fact, I have not been able to find ten papers that report observing, in any system, the phenomena I characterize in the paper I am just now writing. I hadn't really thought about it, until someone mentioned how 'cool' they thought it was that I cited all these 'ancient' papers in my recent talk. I had thought of them as these wonderful old chestnuts, that everyone simply must read to understand the field. But then I realized that the authors of those papers have been waiting for decades for someone to figure out how to directly observe what they predicted - so they could find out if they were right! If that isn't 'hot', I don't know what is.