Sunday, August 30, 2009

Science and Nature à la Fermilab

Last Sunday was among the top few gorgeous days of the summer, with cool breezes, ultra-blue skies punctuated by fluffywhites (you know what I mean), and very low humidity. KLK and I leapt enthusiastically (well, I was enthusiastic, KLK had to be tortured a bit) out of bed, rushed to get organized, hopped into the car, veered off course only to pick up sandwiches from the sultry, mumbling indentured servant behind the counter at our local Subway, and then headed straight past such suburban temptations as Oakbrook Mall, the Morton Arboretum, Cantigny without a sidewards glance, to Enrico Femi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Fermilab to its friends, as we are. Please explore Fermi’s rich Web site. It’s high on my list of correctly-done Web sites and is full of information not only about what a high energy particle accelerator is and does, but also great detail about all of the goodies described below.

I had been there on a whatever-the-weather-opposite is, behind-the-scenes tour last fall. Because we had so much to keep us fascinated indoors, and because the weather was appalling, I never got farther outside of the main attraction than my parked car. But I was well aware that beyond the fog and pouring rain were:

A stunning water feature reflecting the Robert Rathbun Wilson building,
named for Fermilab’s founding director, and Hyperbolic Obelisk, a sculpture he designed

A main portal with a suitable space-time effect. Are that pool and sky ahead or behind?

It also has restored tall grass prairie and historically accurate fauna to eat it
(My dear Yellowstone readers are especially strongly encouraged to follow the link)

Alas, the megafauna have to be behind bars, but look happy anyway, don’t you think?


And flowers, some in lush, tended gardens around rather pleasant looking on-site housing.

And bugs, lots of nice bugs. See the little red dot, lower right?

And cultivated acres. Boy, there’s not much as beautiful as mid-west farmland at the peak of summer!

And, at the end of a nicely graded gravel road, a glimpse into what it takes to keep the accelerator humming
That turns out to be sculpture in its own right:

Inspiration for Atomic-age ray-guns?

Power, function, and form

And water features. This one serves to help keep the Tevatron accelerator in the huge circular tunnel beneath cool, and to attract birds like herons, and amphibians for them to eat.
Note the wooded areas around the prairies, too.

Some guts of the Tevatron on view in the main lobby

More sculpture (Tractricious, Robert Wilson)

And yet more (Mobius Strip, Robert Wilson)

And there’s so very much more, impossible to fit in one blog. Maybe I’ll return to the subject, and the place, someday soon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I had an itsy-bitsy spider

Last night, by the light on my desk and glow of my computer screen, I watched a really, really tinyno, a micro, a nanospider work her web around the bottom of the lampshade. She could easily fit on the head of a pin, with room to spare. I'd had my eye on her for a couple of days. Under this spotlight in the otherwise dark room, I could just make out her web. I knew anyway that she was making silk because she zipped up-down, up-down, on her self-made, well-controlled, invisible bungee cord.
It might be the inclination of some, if not most, to squash such a tiny spider, seen as an alien invader sure to make trouble, or just because that's what we do. But I had no such thought. She was harmless, industrious, and apparently able to find something even smaller than herself to eat. Heretofore unaware of the presence of even smaller fauna in my home, I though her presence might have
even been benefiting me.
I grabbed my macro lens, which can pick amazing details out of very small objects, but it was exceedingly hard to get the light right and to get close enough. Nonetheless I managed a couple of shots. Here she is, folks, business-end pointed at you, a nearly microscopic wonder of life.

This morning, every trace was gone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

For all those whose cares have been our concern,
the work goes on, the cause endures,
the hope still lives,
and the dream shall never die.

Thank you, Senator.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Synesthesia and déjà vu, or a nose full of incense

The year I turned 13 I was summarily informed, as my first junior high school year came to a close, that I was to spend the summer at a language camp in Ambach am Starnberger See, a very small town near Munich, “to learn German.” (Why my father thought this was necessary is another story that I will share here some time.) Mother stayed home, and my father, who was traveling around Europe on academic business, planted me at the camp. I’ve long forgotten what it was called, but it was owned by Herr and Frau von Specht. Herr was bedridden, kind, elderly and very smelly; Frau was also elderly, but vibrant, and she let me play with their family of Afghan hounds, all, unaccountably, named Rahu. The other children at the camp were truly international—German, Austrian, English, African, Greek, and me. We had individual tutoring, classroom instruction, and plenty of field trips to places like the puppet opera theater of Munich, were I saw my first, if watered down, Magic Flute, the mines in Salzburg, Neuchatel,and all the other great landmarks, including Bavaria's myriad notable Kirchen and Kapellen (churches and chapels, mostly in magnificent castles). I learned enough German to take my mother shopping in Munich when she arrived to bail me out at the end of the summer, but camp was otherwise a mixed experience, one that on balance I have always felt was not a happy one.

I have not been back to Germany, except for a single night-time rail transit on the way from Rome to Amsterdam. But now, 46 years after I said good-bye to the von Spechts, a friend has posted a most luscious series of photos from his recent venture in Bavaria (leading me to think a reprise visit might be a good thing after all). When I first saw this photograph (of the Asamkirche in Munich) I was instantly overwhelmed by the pleasurable olfactory sensation of what I call "Catholic" incense. Even though I've not returned to Bavaria, I have visited my share of very old Continental and Caribbean churches through the years, and although I have always liked the distinct scent of incense permeating a two, three, or four-hundred year old sanctuary, until now I knew not how powerfully a visual experience could trigger a corporal experience. It was synesthesia, the uncommon phenomenon of two different but simultaneous sensory responses to one stimulus. Each time I look at the photo the visual and physical memories return, and intensely positively. Who knew that there was this deeply buried memory of that otherwise uncomfortable, awkward summer nearly half a century ago that could so unexpectedly and wonderfully make itself known?

Photo courtesy of David Sawyers, thanks Dave!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Do you hike in bear-infested places? Better watch this!

The advice is actually pretty sound!

Separated at birth? (You have to watch the video first...)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So you thought nobody reads your blog?

Click on the image to enlarge (or, in the exquisite parlance of Flickr, embiggen) it enough to read clearly.
From Science 7 August 2009 325: 659.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

And speaking of Meryl Streep

Don't miss Doubt.
I won't spoil it by even trying to review it. Suffice it to say, she's at the top of her game after all.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I would love it even if it were worthless

I like it when my taste is validated. A few years ago I bought this quite special, uniquely decorated plate for $15 at a silent auction fund raiser for Lyric Opera of Chicago. I was the only bidder.

It was donated by one of my good friends, a Jewish immigrant from World War II Germany. She said, “Oh, it was J’s, something from his family we’ve had around for years. I don’t know anything about it.” And apparently she didn't like it enough to want to keep it, either. J, her husband and also an immigrant, was a physician and researcher who had, a few years before, died of the very disease he spent his long, august career studying.

I’m pretty good at using the internet to answer the unknowns in my life, and with a little work, and because the marks on the back of the plate are decipherable, I discovered that the stork with the fish in its beak and crown overhead is the mark of Rozenbug, den Haag.* From that information, I soon landed at the site of the major Rozenburg dealer, Proportio Divina. Proportio Divina's response to my query and photos, from the knowledgeable Marc Knook, identified my object as follows:

"It was manufactured in 1907 by Rozenburg, Den Haag, a Dutch manufacturer of earthenware and porcelain. This plate is porcelain and my guess is that the bird is indeed a young crow. The decoration was done by Samuel Schellink."

In the end, under my assurances that it is in as perfect condition as it looks in the photos, he offered me $800 (plus shipping to The Netherlands).

I've become quite attached to it, and so regardless of price, or value, I declined his offer. But I do wonder what Proportio Divina would have asked for it on their luscious web site...

Someone is now listing a similar plate on eBay (the listing won’t stay up forever, and Rozenburg plates show up on eBay very rarely, so look quick!) The starting bid is $1,450. The subject is also a crow, though the artist appears not to be Samuel Schellink, either by style or monogram on the back. The eBay plate is 9 inches across and is earthenware, mine is exactly 6.5 inches in diameter and is certainly porcelain, as Mr. Knook notes. Heavenly joy, mine is mint. The eBay item has a good-sized, glaring in fact, nick on the rim.

I am very interested to see whether the eBay plate sells. I suspect not, not so much because of its tidy price, but because of its unfortunate ding.

(I might add that both plates are round and both look oval due to the angle at which the photos were taken, and what seems to be a flaw on the back of mine is a firing crack under glaze, not damage.)

*Thanks to the Chicago Craftsman blog for a succinct history of the Rozenburg, den Haag factory.

ADDENDUM, Sunday 08/09/09
Courtesy of Jerry Franks, Brooklyn New York, image of his earthenware Rozenburg plate listed on eBay

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dark material: critiquing the critiques

Though I can’t say I’m addicted to movie-watching (mostly I’d rather play on the internet), since we joined Netflix I’ve occasionally seen something really sticks and inspires a little deeper thinking beyond “oh, that was entertaining” or “sheesh, that stunk.”

This weekend we saw the movie Dark Matter, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, an Americanized Changsha (PRC) ex-pat.

Several reviewers conclude the movie is about miscommunication. I think it is in fact a round condemnation of the Confucian tradition underpinning self-censored communication, and more importantly, paralysis of recourse, in the master-student relationship. Another of its large themes is American academe’s constitutional lack of support for trainees whose paths go wrong. While this is a tremendously timely issue (release of Dark Matter was in fact delayed until events at Virginia Tech slowly worked their way off the front pages) I don’t believe it was sufficiently unfolded in the movie to garner the attention of viewers not steeped in the culture of the American academy (as I have been all my life). Both themes are of towering importance as flaws in the Chinese system and the American system both bear responsibility for slowing the pace of scientific progress and disappointing, if not ruining, lives that otherwise are full of potential.

The story is set in a generic American physics department where the charming, eager mainland Chinese student, Liu Xing (performed by Liu Ye), excitedly enters graduate school. He attracts the attention of a senior professor of cosmology, Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) who quickly welcomes Liu to his stable of research assistants whose sole purpose, unbeknownst to Liu, is to produce dissertations supporting Reiser’s theories of the universe. While this kind of thing can happen in American graduate programs, most students recognize a hopeless mentor and find another within their chosen institution, or elsewhere. For reasons that some reviewers have interpreted as obsession, Liu fails to do that and continues, as the years go by, to bang his head against the wall of Reiser’s mentorship. My reading of this is not as an early symptom of Liu’s eventual breakdown, but as his adherence to the Confucian culture (that did not just survive Communism, but fostered its dispersion and persistence).

Student Liu is indeed quite brilliant and pieces together clues along one of modern physics’ most intriguing frontiers, the eponymous dark matter, that seem to have substantial explanatory potential. The professor will have none of it, and is both intellectually and personally threatened by the possibility that his ideas could be dethroned. Reiser’s arrogance is further portrayed in a brief aside about his split with his own dissertation chair. Liu garners enough positive feedback from others that I, at least, am convinced he’s on to something of scientific importance and that his persistence is not self-aggrandizement but intellectual confidence. Liu’s choices are to change dissertation topic, change mentor, change institution, or go home. He takes none of these paths, I believe because of his unending hope of convincing Reiser of the value of his ideas and of earning Reiser’s praise.

In his letters to his parents in China, Liu repeatedly assures them of his successes, even stating that he will certainly win a Nobel prize. This has been interpreted by some reviewers as evidence of his growing delusions. I interpreted it as the normal behavior of a prodigal son “saving face” before his clueless, beloved, blue-collar parents thousands of miles away.

As his troubles persist, Liu does not reach out to his parents, his Chinese roommates, or to the sinophiliac Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a self-appointed, maternalistic liaison for the Chinese students. Again, classic face-saving.

There is at last an overdue scene revealing Joanna’s dawning realization that Liu is in deep trouble (though it reads to me more like a verging sexual moment diverted in the nick of time). Streep’s character is otherwise nearly superfluous except that her air-headed efforts at bridging the culture gap for the foreigners serve to limn, for me, the absence of an effective support structure at the nameless university. In loco parentis? Not conventionally, for graduate students, anyway.

After years (signaled by the fact that all Liu’s roommates have finished their degrees and left the by now dropout alone in their beat-up student rental), Liu’s hopelessness finally pushes him over the edge. He explodes in a shooting spree, killing Reiser and the colleagues who collude in the suppression of Liu’s results before doing away with himself. In the end, Joanna Silver’s voluntary substitution for what the (cold, heartless) academic institution should have provided is redeemed. It is she who telephones Liu’s mother to inform her of her son’s devastating finale.

There is a lot more to this complex movie, including its occasional touches on the serious matter of public ignorance of science. Production-wise, it’s got lots of snippets of sensationally selected music. The character of Liu Xing is extremely well played and well directed. His accent and phraseology, mannerisms, even postures, are bang-on. His Chinese room-mates are also perfectly cast and realized. The Jacob Reiser character, annoyingly, is too stereotyped; in my view that is a major directorial blunder because academia is already on defensive with the American public. And the unnuanced Joanna Silver role certainly did not need Meryl Streep behind it. Though Streep is the queen of awkward-woman roles, and can accurately reproduce any accent in the universe including that of an American trying hard to master Chinese, the part might have been better played by an unknown so as not to distract those of us who admire Streep with thoughts about how haggard and skinny she has become.

I might add that the story is in part based on a similar 1991 incident at the University of Iowa in which a Chinese graduate student killed five people. It does happen.

The photograph is of physics students at Huazhong Teachers College, Wuhan, People's Republic of China, trying to hear a lecture by my former husband on, what else, cosmology (of black holes). There was not enough space for all the students who wished to attend;the seats at the table were for more senior attendees. September, 1980.