Sara Does Science

Sporatically posting thoughts and amusements from a pretty rad (if I don't say so myself) lady physicist.
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I got married this weekend! It wasn’t a big affair but because my now-husband is a musician and of course got music he liked during the ceremony, it was only fair that we had a little science thrown in there, too!

We didn’t do anything too adventurous like have a chemistry unity ceremony, mainly because I don’t trust myself to do anything involving colorful liquids around and expensive, white dress, but I did get to have two nerdy readings.

We wanted to make sure that we had a bit of light-heartedness in our ceremony so we started out with a reading I constructed from one of my favorite shows ever The Adventures of Pete and Pete. And not only did it involve science but my husband and I both recognize the reading as coming from a scene with a marching band and french horn, which takes him way back.image

(Image from the awesome tumbler Flip Yeah! Adventures of Pete and Pete)

Here’s the reading:

Reader 1: Somehow I had to show Ellen how I felt. It was the riskiest move of my life.

Reader 2: It looks like the sun! I believe they’re going to attempt a thermonuclear fusion…There appears to be two heavy hydrogen atoms moving closer together. They’re reaching a state of hot plasma, ladies and gentlemen! We have fusion!

Reader 1: As for Ellen and me? We were finally joined into a new element that was much, much bigger than anything we had ever known. We didn’t know what the future had in store for us, but what did it matter? We fulfilled our destiny.

It totally wants to make me get a “We fulfilled our destiny” tattoo. Which then also makes me want to get an “I am your density” tattoo.

For our second reading (we wanted to pad our ceremony to last longer than like 5 minutes) we chose something a bit deeper. I was lucky enough to find this great, adapted reading by Carl Sagan on a reddit thread:

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond what our minds can easily comprehend. Lost somewhere between its immensity and eternity lies our tiny planetary home. Our planet is so astonishing, packed full of mountains, deserts, seas, all the plants and animals, glorious wonders we can share. On the Earth walks mankind with all its faults to bear, yet ever so exquisite with so much love and moral depth. May we remain grateful every day on Earth we live for the brief but wonderous opportunity that all of life is. Although mankind is faulty, we continue to strive. The sum of all thinking, all our accomplishments is love. From within one of the billions of species to walk upon this tiny speck in the universe we find two imperfect people who want to share their short lives, living it as one. May this marriage take two fractional lives and make those fractional lives a whole. May these partners build a better world for the next generation to come. May this union bring a new light to the sunshine, a new fragrance to the flowers, a new beauty to the earth, and a new mystery to life.

I also tried to convince my husband to let us add this super duper physics-y speech from Numb3rs at the last minute. But apparently this was taking things one step too far.

I have done a very bad job of writing on this blog lately. I think it’s because now that I’m a post-doc and getting paid quite well (thanks inflated Australian wages!) I don’t procrastinate as much as when I was thesis-writing. 

But this is amazing and needs to be shared. Someone made a remix of X Files agent Dana Scully quotes about science. This needs to be my new personal theme song. Seriously, I’m considering changing the song I’m walking in to at my wedding to this.

So maybe you think cross stitching is something only grandmas or great aunts so. If so, you’re totally wrong! Cross stitching has taken a turn for the awesome thanks to the creativity (and snakiness) of us young-uns and sites like Etsy, where we can share all our funny, weird, or dirty craft ideas. However, this is a science blog, not a “Sara gets all mushy about crafts” blog (although I do a bit of cross stitching myself it tends to be on the adult side), and I’ve been collecting some kick-ass works of science-inspired cross stitchery on my romps through the internet. I encountered a really amazing one this morning and was thusly inspired to curate them into a post.

To begin, here’s the one that started it all:

How gorgeous is that?! It doesn’t even look like a cross stitch. Inspired by Carl Sagan, this design features a nebula, the birth place of stars. You can see more details over at its creator’s (nuclearArt) Etsy shop.

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A few months ago, I had a conversation with a twitter friend about how a lot of the stunts on Jackass would make great examples to show in a basic physics class. Every time those fools collide shopping carts or propel themselves off ramps on various conveyances my brain starts to buzz with physics concepts like momentum transfer and energy conservation. After thinking back to some of the episodes I’ve seen (and the one movie) I realized you can teach almost all the concepts in a basic physics class just with using examples from Jackass, which would be way more entertaining than the usual examples I’ve encountered.

I’ve had some other pop-culture related ideas as well so I thought I would put together some of my brain storms into a small list of what I’m calling Low Culture Science courses. They may not be classy, but they’ll most likely be quite engaging!  

Class: ICP – Insane Clown Physics

Course Summary: This survey course tackles a wide breadth of scientific topics using the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” as the outline for the syllabus. This course will touch on subjects from both the hard and life sciences as we aim to answer the big questions asked in “Miracles” and correct some of the ICP’s scientific misconceptions.  We will deconstruct hands-on and multimedia examples in order to describe the science we encounter in the world around us. And we will also study contemporary scientific publications in order to demonstrate that scientists are not, in fact, lying mother fuckers.

 Homework Question: Go on YouTube and find a video demonstrating a phenomenon involving magnetism. Briefly describe the video and, within the context of your chosen video, explain what “fucking magnets” are and how they work.

 Final Project: Working in pairs, you will each pick either one topic or several, related topics mentioned in “Miracles”.  You will then write an original rap explaining the science behind your topic(s). Each pair will film a music video for their rap, which must include visual elements that relate your topic and instruct the audience on the science you are presenting. Extra credit for creative face painting.

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I’m a big fan of science education, especially because I place a lot of the blame for why I’m a physicist on people who made science engaging during my younger days. So in addition to dedicating my thesis to my bad ass junior and senior year physics teacher, Mr. Galitskiy, I also mentioned those who got me on my scientific way early in life:

Of course, my mother goes and sends copies of this to the my uncle and my one of the teachers she still keeps in touch with: Ms. Gibbons, my sixth grade science teacher. She was pretty awesome. She ran the Young Astronauts Club, of which I was a member (the only girl member, which is not super surprising). We made model rockets and even built an inflatable planetarium. It was rad.

My mom got a nice note back from Ms. Gibbons and scanned it for me:(I’ve translated it from cursive below, because I know most of us are a bit out of practice.)

"Hi Sue! [note: that’s my mom]

Thank you for sending the information on Sara. How proud you must be!

Personally I was overwhelmed by her mention of me in her dissertation. That she even remembered me is nice. To be considered influential is worth more than you can imagine. To me teaching wasn’t a monetary making job. Just wanted to make the students realize - Science is all around us - We are made up of biology, chemistry and physics - So I am happy that a student heard what I tried to teach.

Clint Eastwood would say “Sara made his day”. I saw - Sara made my whole teaching career!”

Reading that definitely made me tear up. I’m glad she got to see the dissertation acknowledgements. I think educators deserve to know the impact they make on people’s lives. But it makes me wonder how little appreciation they get if just one acknowledgement gets this big of a reaction. How many people just don’t bother to think of all the ways that teachers played a part in getting to where they are? And out of that population, how many bother to say thank you? So thank you favorite teacher, if you can find a way, because they probably deserve it.

I know it’s been way, way too long since I’ve posted here, but being a post-doc has actually been a lot more time consuming than I expected. Truthfully I don’t know what I didn’t see this coming, but now that I have what’s almost a real “grown-up job” I don’t find myself doing things like spending time at work badly photoshopping pictures for my blog as much.

Anyway, so most science-minded folks on the web are familiar with "I Fucking Love Science". Founded by Elise Andrews (who got her “Holy Shit! He’s a girl!” moment, which was both frustrating and entertaining.), This is a collection of cool factoids and science images and is very highly visible, especially among young people.

Here’s a great example (also, sharks are awesome.)

If you browse I Fucking Love Science you might learn something new or just get a kind of “Woah…” moment at things that exist within the universe or at the universe itself. I think it’s pretty rad.

However, over at his blog, The Anachronist, scientist John Skylar has recently claimed that No, you don’t fucking love science. 

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There are a few subjects I’ve been thinking of a lot since I started this blog: women in science and the connections I’ve been making between science and music. Both of these have large personal connections to me. The first is pretty obvious. The second is that my boyfriend is a composer. So to learn what he does (and because learning new stuff is awesome!) I started a self-study about classical music, including my slightly stalled out efforts to teach myself music theory (I reached the point where I needed both a piano and the ability to play one). When I embarked down this trail I started off thinking a lot about the physics and mechanics of sound and music, but as I met more people involved in the field and began to see how the popular and academic cultures of both music and science, especially physics, were a lot alike for women.

 Both are fields where stereotypes pretty much loom over the popular imagination of who is a physicist and who is a composer. Honestly, two and a half years ago the first mental image when I though “composer” would either be Mozart from “Amadeus” or Beeth-oven from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. It’s the old, white man stereotype agin, except this time with more dead people!

 So it’s not surprising that recently on the internet, I’ve seen many great blog posts from women composers that echo many of my thoughts and feelings on being a lady physicist (“woman physicist” makes me feel kind of old and “lady physicist” seems cooler and like it could be a title in some sort of scientific nobility).  I could probably write way too much them, so here are a few that have been making the rounds. While reading them, one of the most striking things to me was that you could pretty much replace “composer/musician” with “physicist” and each article would be virtually unchanged.

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Pick a science topic. Then go online and grad a bunch of papers about that topic. Read the opening paragraphs. Get a sense of variations on a theme?

I’ve just started writing the second paper to come out of my main dissertation project. And since I tend to think from beginning to end of the paper, I’m starting with the part that’s the biggest pain in the butt: the introduction. My Ph.D. work was on perovskite oxide superlattices. Pretty much ever paper on this topic starts out the same way:

"Perovskite oxides are useful because there are many materials with similar structures but a wide variety of behaviors (e.g. metallic, superconducting, ferroelectric, magnetic, insulating, and on and on). Because of this, you can put two different materials together to make a superlattice with novel properties." 

Ok…maybe the language gets a bit more formal and sciencey than that, but you get the point. Basically to write and introduction, that that paragraph and make it sound slightly different than the introductory paragraph of all the papers you are citing.

I wrote something to this effect on twitter, and @rejectedbanana happily chimed in with a better idea on how to open a paper. This lead to some back-and-forth on both our parts where we came up with opening lines to spice up any Physical Review Letter.

  • Once upon a time there were a bunch of perovskites and they made a lattice… (@rejectedbanana)

  • When two types of perovskites love each other very much, a superlattice is born
  • It was the best of perovskites, it was the worst of perovskites. It was the age of superlattices. (@rejectedbanana)

  • In a fair vacuum chamber where we lay our scene. Two perovskites both alike in crystallinity…
  • Four score and seven years ago, our physicists brought forth lattices on these perovskites (@rejectedbanana)

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that a superlattice in possession of a good interface much be in want of novel properties.
  • Alright stop, make a sample, and measure. Perovskites are back in a brand new structure. One layers grabs the other one tightly. At the interface new business is likely.

And what about going beyond the introduction? Opening lines like these have lead me to believe that my next paper should either be written in iambic pentameter (although it’s been done before), early 90’s rap, or perhaps as a romance novel.

I’ve been a bit distracted by my big move to Australia and starting my post-doc that I forgot to put this up. My friend Candace made a short documentary featuring two local (to Long Island) lady scientists: one is myself and the other is our friend Rocio, who studies genetics. I really like how it came out, even if I am really squeaky and did give a bit of a faulty definition of what a ferroelectric is (hint: I am very wrong when I say it has an internal magnetic field. I didn’t catch myself and we didn’t do any retakes.)

Since starting my post-doc, I’ve noticed that my new department has a lot of more women around than my old one. This is what I now deal with on a daily basis.