The Book – an update

Lots of things are happening behind the scenes in my writing world, which is why I’ve been scarce lately and haven’t been chattering on about all the exciting things happening in the world of physics, such as the solar flare that may/may not be cause for concern, or the fact that in just TWO MONTHS you can start submitting your application to be one of the original Mars colonists, or the fact that Google just BOUGHT A QUANTUM COMPUTER and forgive me for shouting but I think my head just exploded.

Anyway, here’s what’s been keeping me busy.

As you may know, since January of 2012 I’ve been working on a book manuscript of my Grandma’s story. It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve had to squeeze book work into the few hours a week my littlest is at preschool, plus evenings and weekends at the library (plus one trip to my favorite monastery.) Since I’m writing about events that happened a century ago and I’m bullish about factual accuracy, the project requires a ton of research. Continue reading

Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

********

Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

********

Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

********

I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.

My Year in Books – 2012

Following are the titles of the books I finished reading in 2012. In addition to these, I am still in the middle of so many books, I’m too embarrassed to give you the number (27.)

As I no longer finish books that aren’t at least very good, I can recommend all of the titles on this list. The ones in blue were the best of the best.

I sincerely love book lists, so if you’ve compiled one for your 2012 books, please direct me there!

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

I am in the middle of reading every book you see here. I can't talk about it right now.

Currently reading. I can’t even talk about it right now.

MEMOIRS

No Regrets, by Apolo Ohno
Decision Points, by George W. Bush
Open, by Andre Agassi
My Life, by Earvin “Magic” Johnson
True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy
Coop, by Michael Perry
Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff
Forever Liesl, by Charmian Carr
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business, by Dick van Dyke
Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch
Sharing Good Times, by Jimmy Carter
Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell
A Natural Woman, by Carole King
Total Recall, by Arnold Schwarzenegger

FICTION

Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard
The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Ape House, by Sara Gruen
Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley
The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
The Stand, by Stephen King
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

NONFICTION

Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku
Quiet, by Susan Cain
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Appetite for Life, The Biography of Julia Child, by Noel Riley Fitch
A Silence of Mockingbirds, by Karen Spears Zacharias
The Big Miss, by Hank Haney
Furious Love, by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis
The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

Year in Cool – 2012

I’ve been MIA here, lately. Turns out, writing a research-heavy historical memoir is massively time-consuming. Who’d have thought?

However, there’s no way I’d miss our annual Year in Cool post, because writing this post is more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with the entire cast of The Avengers. Below are my ten favorite news stories of 2012 involving physics celebrities gone wild.

I’m totally kidding. They’re totally about physics. But I promise – this stuff is way cooler than celebrities gone wild. (Although to be honest, maybe not quite as cool as spending the day at Disneyland with Downey, Jr. and Hemsworth and Hiddleston. But they’ve all stopped returning my calls.)

Ladies and Gents…presenting.

1. SCIENCE FICTION, MINUS THE FICTION

Set your phasers to stunned – it’s about to get freaky in here.

Remember in Apollo 13, when the astronauts got stuck in space and had to jerry-rig things out of stuff they had on board, like duct tape and toilet paper rolls? Remember how it would have been really helpful if someone on Earth could’ve punched something into a computer and then a Star-Trekky “replicator” in space could’ve produced the items? Like a printer, only for three-dimensional objects?

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have such things.

This video shows a 3-D printer scanning a crescent wrench, then “printing” an actual, working crescent wrench with moving parts, out of a powder solidified with a binding material and resin.

I love it when the guy says that this company is “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printers.” As if the world is casually overflowing with companies that make 3D printers…a sci-fi technology that I heretofore didn’t even know existed.

Seriously – watch the video. It’s fan-freaking-tastic.


2. APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER

Way back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, two small spacecraft originally designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Once they checked that off their lists, they kept going – and any time now, 35 years after we sent it into space (carrying a gold-plated audio/visual disc inscribed with voice greetings and music by Mozart and Chuck Berry), Voyager I is preparing to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

https://i0.wp.com/voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/images/interstellar_1.gifThe spacecraft is currently some 11 billion miles from the Sun, inside the Heliosheath, an outer section of our solar system where winds from our Sun interact with outer space, creating 100 million-mile-wide bubbles in the “air.” Astonishingly, it still sends data back to Earth via radio waves. And sometime within the next year or so, Voyager I is expected to cross the Heliopause, the theoretical edge of our solar system, to take its place among the stars.

Voyager I is traveling at a speed of around 37,000 mph, and has enough nuclear power to propel itself until at least 2020. After that, it will drift forever, trillions of miles away, accompanied by its own perfect Motown soundtrack.

Go, Johnny, go.

3. HOW MUCH IS THAT SPACE-TIME ALL AKIMBO

But when will humans travel to the stars? Even at Voyager’s fast clip, it would take an exasperating 76,000 years to arrive at Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Clearly, we’re gonna need a faster ship. Fortunately, we have some ideas.

https://i2.wp.com/img.gawkerassets.com/img/186idp39rpm13jpg/original.jpgIn 1994, a physicist named Alcubierre came up with a theory for moving a starship through space by putting it inside a chunk of space-time (created via a giant ring) and then moving the chunk of space-time faster than the speed of light. The starship itself would not be moving faster than the speed of light within the bubble, so it would not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The only fly in the theoretical ointment has been the amount of energy needed to power the ring containing the space-time bubble – it would take a ball of antimatter that’s 317 times the size of Earth. And as of now, antiparticles are rarely even found in the observable universe, only in radioactivity and cosmic rays.

But this September, at the annual 100-Year Starship Symposium (and how much do you love that we have such a thing?), researchers announced that by changing the shape of the ring, they’ve worked out a design that could be powered by only 500 kilograms of antimatter!

Never mind that 500 kilos of antimatter would be dangerous enough to destroy all life on Earth. Never mind that we don’t even technically know if the whole ring concept would actually work.

We’re inching ever closer, peeps.

4. HOLE-Y MOLEY

Since the 1980’s, astronomers have maintained that every large galaxy has a black hole at its center – an extremely dense chunk of space-time that allows nothing to escape, not even light.

In October, scientists announced they’d found not just one, but two black holes at the center of the Milky Way, each about 10-20 times larger than our Sun (and please remember: our Sun is the size of a million Earths.)

But hold on to your britches, because just last week, astronomers announced that within the smallish NGC 1277 galaxy, they’ve discovered a black hole that has a mass equal to 17 billion Suns.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/.a/6a00d8341bf7f753ef015433ac9868970c-800wiThe bad news about these bad boys? They gobble up surrounding space matter like candy, and if you were to fall into one, your body would compress to a single point of infinite density. (Sounds kind of cool, except for the part where you wouldn’t survive.) The good news? Black holes are formed when stars explode from compression of their own gravity, and our Sun’s relatively weak gravity ensures that that’ll never happen to it. So yay! We’re far, far away from any black hole danger.

Well, unless we get that starship working.

5. YES, VIRGINIA, (WE’RE 5.9-SIGMA LEVEL SURE) THERE IS A HIGGS BOSON

In the last half of the 20th century, physicists created the “Standard Model,” a theory that explains the most basic building blocks of the universe. As far as I can tell, the theory includes 12 matter particles, 12 antiparticles, and 5 elementary bosons (force particles). For a long time, the elusive “Higgs” boson (or as I like to call it, the Scarlet Pimpernel boson) was the only one of the bunch that had never actually been seen.

Basically, so the theory goes, all other particles have to interact with an unobservable “Higgs” energy field in order to obtain mass (unless they’re photons, in which case they don’t care to have any mass whatsoever, much like Victoria Beckham, but I digress.)

The Higgs particle is interesting. It has no spin. It is its own antiparticle. It has no electric charge or color. And, oh yes, it decays almost instantly upon creation, which is why it’s almost impossible to detect.

Enter the Large Hadron Collider (about which I’ve already written.) This July, two groups of scientists, working independently, analyzed 800 trillion proton collisions within the LHC and found, bingo, a never-before-seen particle that is “consistent with a Higgs boson.”

In other words, they’re pretty pretty pretty sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.

6. CALL ME DATA

So, you know how computers store data in something called “bytes,” which consist of 8 “bits” (binary digits) of 1’s or 0’s, which is absolutely as far as my understanding of such things goes, so don’t ask me to explain any further, because it makes no sense to me how a computer can turn numbers into…other things.

Anyway, scientists have figured out how to store data (the 1’s and 0’s about which I’m unclear) in human DNA. To the tune of 700 terabytes (one trillion bytes, and please stop talking) per one gram of DNA.

https://cathylagrow.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/700terabytedna.jpg?w=300Conceivably, you could store text, pictures, and Javascript in your strands of DNA. So, 10,000 years from now, someone could dig up my bones and find out just what books Cathy was reading, which videos she was watching…heck, they could read this blog post. On (okay, in) my bones.

Of courses, we are decades away from practical applications for such technology. Still – human DNA as data storage space? I love that there are people smart enough to figure out how to do these things that I am not even smart enough to explain.

Speaking of not being smart enough…

7. DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

Never before in history have I tried so hard to understand a technology. Never before have I so utterly failed.

In July, scientist announced that they had discovered a way to take pictures through opaque objects, using natural light instead of lasers (X-rays.) Meaning they can now take pictures from around corners.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/seeing-around-corners-diagram.jpgIn short, when you’re trying to look at an object but there is a barrier in the way (a piece of paper, skin, a wall), the barrier is interfering with the photon beams – changing their directions (in the case of something opaque), or changing their wavelengths (in the case of something semi-transparent.) The barrier is said to be “scattering” the beams.

Spatial Light Modulators correct the scattering, allowing you to see the image as it really is (for a jolly good tumble down the rabbit hole, google phases and sine waves and ha ha, have fun with that) by turning the barrier into a mirror. Or something.

I asked three of my smartest friends to help me decipher this technology. They each wrote back a beautiful essay on the subject. One of the explanations was so sweeping and elegant, I nearly wept with joy.

And it all still makes zero sense to me. But anyway: we’ve developed a camera that can see around corners. Super cool, yes?

8. DIAMONDS, DIAMONDS EVERYWHERE…

The largest diamond ever found on Earth was discovered in 1905 – the Cullinan Diamond, a whopping 3,106.75 carats. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan, at 530.4 carats, is part of the Crown Jewels in London and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars.

Sounds impressive – but should we ever manage to get our grubby little hands on a certain Super Earth zooming around a star named 55 Cancri, even the Cullinan would be rendered worthless.

https://i2.wp.com/i.space.com/images/i/22659/iFF/55-cancri-e-diamond-planet.jpg55 Cancri e (yes, that’s the planet’s completely boring official name) is twice as big as Earth, but it’s a fast-moving behemoth – it orbits its Sun, a journey that takes us a full year, once every 18 hours! Two months ago, astronomers announced that this planet is likely a “carbon planet.” Meaning a third of it could be pure diamond.

Sadly, this impressive piece of bling is 40 light years away from us. (NOW do you see why we need that starship?)

A bone to pick. Could we please find a more interesting name for this beauty? I vote for Latin – Puellae Optimus Amicus. Rough translation: Girl’s Best Friend.

9. MARS DREAMING

On August 6, with millions of people (including me) watching live, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after completing an astonishing sequence of events that all had to occur automatically and perfectly within a seven minute timeframe in order to not have the $2.5 billion project, well, literally crash and burn.

Since then, Curiosity has been making geeks happy by driving around the surface of Mars taking photographs, conducting experiments, and generally being adorable. (It beamed a song – “Reach for the Stars” by will.i.am – back to Earth, and used the Foursquare mobile app to generate the first “check-in” from another planet! C’mon…does it get any cuter?)

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7d/Mars_atmosphere.jpg/220px-Mars_atmosphere.jpgHowever, Curiosity may soon be made obsolete by the appearance of – well, people on Mars. In 2010, the U.S. scrapped plans for another moon mission and instead authorized a 2030(ish) manned Mars mission. Not to be outdone, those renowned space experts the Dutch have spearheaded Mars One – a planned actual human colony on Mars which has a (wildly) optimistic target date of 2023.

Well, you can imagine how much all of this excites me. Although there is 0.00% chance of me going to Mars, myself…

10. SO YOU WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT

I’ve already written about how no-way no-how could I ever go into space. (I’m a big fat scaredy-cat, etc.) The video below, complete with audio remastered by the folks who brought you Star Wars, lets you (sort-of) experience traveling out of our atmosphere on the Space Shuttle. Pay attention to the numbers on the upper right – that’s the shuttle’s speed in mph.

Note the heart-pounding force that pushes the shuttle off the launch pad. Note the amazing sounds of the rockets and the pierced-through atmosphere. Note how fast the shuttle is accelerating.

Note me soiling my pants like a little baby.

 

Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net