they were flying for us

The good folks over at EarthSky reminded me that last Tuesday, 28 January was the anniversary of the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was in my office at the San Jose Metro newspaper when the publisher’s wife, who worked at the paper a day or two a week, said, “The shuttle exploded.” I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle exploded?”

I turned on KCBS news radio and learned exactly what that meant. I listened to the coverage on NPR on the way home to Redwood City on the train. It was only after I got home that I saw the frightening video.

Saturday 1 February was the anniversary of the day in 2003 that the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry. Interestingly, that day in 2003 was a Saturday as well. Terry and I slept late as we normally do on Saturday and had a leisurely breakfast. Chances are that we listened to West Coast Live via the Web. After breakfast Terry got on the computer and while surfing the Web said to me “The shuttle broke apart.”

I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle broke apart?”

We remember, respect, and appreciate those brave souls who died fulfilling their passion. They were truly flying for us.

Einstein and the Quantum

EinsteinEinstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian
A. Douglas Stone
339 pages
Princeton University Press (October 6, 2013)
Kindle Edition  $16.17, Amazon Hardcover  $22.41

This book got great reviews when it first was published, and Ira Flatow of Science Friday (formerly produced by  National Public Radio, now distributed by Public Radio International) made a point of calling it out as one of the best science books of 2013. I was somewhat disappointed.

There is a lot of history in this book. There is the story of Einstein’s early career, and his interactions with the likes of Max Planck, on whose work he built. Stone describes Einstein’s contentious relationship with his professors, and how that hindered his academic career. There’s an account of how Einstein made it through the First World War, and his having to deal with anti-Semitism in Germany during the years after.

There is also a lot of physics here: formulas and theories. That is something I don’t follow well, and while Stone tries to make these concepts clear for the general reader, they were not as clear as they might be. I’ve read books by other popularizers of physics who did a better job of making such concepts clear.

Einstein contributed much to the foundation of quantum theory before his famous statement that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  What left me unsatisfied at the end of the book was that I did not have a clear picture where Einstein last contributed to quantum theory and where he abandoned it. But then, maybe there is no such clear division. The book suggests that he simply moved on to other topics that grabbed his interest. As the “new quantum theory” was developed, its emphasis on the random and uncertain, did not, I surmise, sit well with Einstein.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in Einstein’s early and, to a lesser extent, middle years, there’s plenty here to keep your attention.

stardust, the milky way, and dung beetles

Most of us are aware that the atoms that compose human beings are the same as the ones found in stars, and that in fact most of those atoms were created in stars. And you may have seen a science news note earlier this year describing how dung beetles can navigate using the Milky Way. It’s an amazing universe.

This New York Times article published last August reflects on that idea:
Stars, Gold, Dung Beetles and Us


Telling Our Way to the Sea

TellingOurWayTelling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez
Aaron Hirsh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 2013,  416 pages
Amazon Hardcover $19.35
Amazon Kindle $14.99

Aaron Hirsch and his wife Veronica are both scientists and college professors in the field of the natural sciences. They take a group of students to the Sea of Cortez each summer for teaching and scientific observation. This book narrates one summer’s expedition.

Hirsh paints the picture of a motley crew. He talks about a blind fellow, who gets about nimbly and effortlessly. An Australian guy learns quickly that brash behavior is not safe in this environment. The obligatory prima donna has to keep proving that what anyone has done she has done one better. Some of the best parts of the book describe the interactions and dynamic among Aaron, Veronica, the students, and Graham, the other professor on the trip.

Hirsh frequently veers off into digressions on a variety of themes. He describes the invasion of Baja California by Cortez and his letters back to Spain, which seem to reflect more of what Cortez thought the king wanted to see than the actual reality. He makes forays into biological taxonomy, sea turtles, the migration of whales, and efforts to develop the coastline for tourism.

Hirsh does pay passing tribute to John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. His story is not Steinbeck’s, so passing tribute is all I would want or expect, but I was happy to see him acknowledge that classic, which is also a lot of fun to read.

If you enjoy popular natural science, travelogues, or the nature of human interaction, I think you’ll like Telling Our Way to the Sea.

cooking with…

The solemnity of Holy Week seemed to me a good time to think about our relationship to our environment. Add to the that the fact that Pope Francis has already reminded us several times about how badly we have handled that relationship.

I love our kitchen, and I love our stove. When we did the remodel we very consciously bought a gas stove and oven. I enjoy using my stove top, seeing the blue gas flame, and having that precise control. And the nice thing is that supplies of natural gas are abundant and it is inexpensive.


Except that the reason that natural gas is abundant and it is inexpensive is because much of it is being obtained through the process of hydraulic fracturing, often called fracking. It is a process about which there are many questions and which uses large amounts of water. There are also questions about how destabilizing it is to the surrounding land. Perhaps there are safe ways to do hydraulic fracturing, but there’s no guarantee that drillers will follow those procedures without proper government regulation.

A much more energy-efficient way to cook is induction cooking, which is electric. And since we have solar panels cooking that way would greatly minimize the impact on the environment and the use of fossil fuel. The catch is that your cookware needs to be sensitive to magnets. That is, if you can get a magnet to stick to the bottom of your pan you can use it with an induction cooker. Of our stainless steel Calphalon pans that I sampled, only one qualified.

These things are never simple.

the Presiding Bishop on science and religion

Really good stuff! Thanks to Ann Fontaine.

The video is here.

the middle-aged brain

I had a birthday yesterday, and I really can't believe that I turned mfnty-pgfzt. I have to say, though, that I feel that I am doing well. I am exercising regularly and we are doing a good job with respect to what we eat.

Like most people my age, however, I do have those brain lapses. I'll confidently walk into a room to get something and then totally forget what it was I walked into the room to get.

So it is with interest that I am reading The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind by Barbara Strauch. It turns out that as we get older, our brains can still do great things.

First Strauch tells a story on herself and a friend.

  My own most recent worst case was when I tried—really tried—to get a book for a book club I’m in. I
went online and carefully ordered The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Then, a week later, I had a free
moment at work and I thought, Oh, I should order that book club book. I went online and carefully typed
in an order for The Alchemist—again. Then a few days later, jogging in the park, a faint bell went off
in my head and I thought, I think I ordered the wrong book. At home, I checked my e-mail and, sure
enough, we were supposed to read The Archivist by Martha Cooley. I’d ordered the wrong book—twice.
And that wasn’t the end of it. Later that week, I was talking with a fellow book club member,
a neurologist, who, after hearing my embarrassing story, started to laugh. It turned out that she’d gone
to the library to get the book club book and had just as carefully come home with a copy of The Alienist,
by Caleb Carr. So there you go. Two middle-aged brains, three wrong books.

But then she goes on to say:

  For the first time, researchers are pulling apart such qualities as judgment and wisdom and finding out
how and why they develop. Neuroscientists are pinpointing how our neurons—and even the genes that
govern them—adapt and even improve with age. “I’d have to say from what we know now,” says Laura
Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University and a leader of the
new research, “that the middle-aged brain is downright formidable.” A friend who is a poet told me
recently that she does not think that she could have written the poetry she does until she had
reached her mid-fifties—until her brain had reached its formidable age. “It feels like all the
pieces needed to come together,” she said. “It’s only now that my brain feels ready. It can see
how the world fits together—and make poetry out of it.”

I'm really enjoying the book. If you're in roughly the same age demographic as I am, you might find it engaging as well.