Posts Tagged ‘science’

Tropical Caramel

January 30, 2012 - 12:54 am 1 Comment

Or as I like to call it, the mouthgasm.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged anything sweet even though my friends would insist I’m a much better dessert chef than a savory chef, which is especially weird because I only very rarely enjoy sweets.

Tonight was one of those nights when I wanted something sweet.

I hope you do too.

What It Is:

Tropical Caramel, an amazing topping for… Fuck, I don’t know, everything ever? I used mine to top some right-out-of-the-box just-add-hot-milk banana oatmeal.

What You’ll Need:

1/2 banana, sliced into coins
3 tablespoons canned pineapple chunks(reserve some juice)
1/4 cup sugar (I used white)
1 tablespoon butter
1 dash cayenne pepper, powdered
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
A small non-stick frying pan

How to Do It (No Not Like That):

Heat yo’ pan, yo’. Put your frying pan over medium low heat, until it’s hot enough that when you drop your butter in it, the butter immediately sizzles but does not burn. If it doesn’t sizzle, turn up the heat.

Add the sugar into the melted butter and add just enough of the pineapple juice so that the sugar is damp. You won’t need very much at all. Let that ooey-gooey mixture bubble a bit. The moment it starts to take on any color, any at all, add the banana coins and the pineapple chunks.

Now wait. Okay, don’t just stand there. If you’ve got teh skillz, you can saute the fruit – and I do mean saute; make sure all of the pineapple bits and banana slices get flipped over at least once. If you ain’t got the skills, you can use a spoon or a fork or something I guess.

Once the fruits have taken on some nice, brown color, add the cayenne and the vanilla.

But wait! It’s time for science!

Why are we adding the vanilla now? Why don’t we just add it at the beginning when the sugar needs more moisture anyway?

Vanilla extract, as you probably know, is like 99% alcohol (okay, it’s actually a minimum of 35% and unless you’ve got the extra-strength stuff, it’s probably not much more than that) and if you paid attention in science class or have ever had a bonfire, you know that alcohol is pretty darn flammable. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean your caramel will catch fire (well, not if you’re careful) (I mean, unless that’s what you’re going for, but I wouldn’t attempt a flambe in my non-stick cookware), but it does mean that if you add the vanilla too soon, not only will all of the alcohol cook out, the flavor will as well and you just wasted, what, a buck fifty’s worth of vanilla.

That was science!

After you’ve added the pepper and the vanilla, another 30 seconds at a slightly-higher medium heat should give your fruits a nice color and a little bit of a singe.

It should look a bit like this:
Tropical Caramel
…but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit darker.

That’s it. Seriously, that’s it. Use it like I did to top some really boring oatmeal, pour it over ice cream, or, fuck, eat it with a spoon.

Oh, and for the record? You’re welcome.

And I’m Damned if I Do and I’m Damned if I Don’t

December 29, 2011 - 10:30 pm 2 Comments

I got on the Florence + The Machine boat a little late; in fact, I only listened to Lungs in anything more than passing this year.

In something like two weeks, last.fm informed me I’d racked up over 200 plays.

It would be an understatement to say I liked it. In fact, I love Lungs. I can put that album on and just listen over and over again, singing into a hair brush. But what’s more than that, I can listen over and over again quietly, appreciating every little nuance. There are only two songs I ever skip past, and if you must know which, they’re I’m Not Calling You a Liar, simply because I hear it every time I beat Dragon Age II (it’s a lot of times, just trust me on this one), and You’ve Got the Love, because I think it was a horrible choice to end the album on (strictly speaking, I don’t skip this one, I just stop the album at the end of Blinding because the end of Blinding would have been a perfect freaking ending, okay?).

I’m not feeling the same way about Ceremonials.

Let me, at first, dissect this album from a vocalist’s point of view, since there are two things I went to school for: one of them was writing, and one of them was singing. Bear with me here.

There are more than a few places in Ceremonials where Flo sounds utterly flat. Don’t get me wrong: it happens, especially with such an ambitious style of music. But I can’t ignore it. There’s a point in Hurricane on Lungs, toward the very end, where the note she’s holding goes totally sour and I cringe every time but the song is so good I just go along with it. Like I said. It happens. But it happens a lot in Ceremonials. There’s an off note or two in Shake it Out. There’s one in Breaking Down. There are a few in Only if for a Night. Cringe cringe cringe cringe cringe. I’m not criticizing Flo’s vocal abilities; I have no place to do that. What I’m saying is that the production of the album feels rushed, or sloppy somehow. It feels a lot less careful than Lungs felt.

Perhaps I shouldn’t compare the two albums, strictly, but I’m going to again when I say that Ceremonials doesn’t feel as clever as Lungs. Ceremonials has some great moments, some great lyrics, some great melodies, and there are plenty of hooks and choruses that have gotten lodged firmly in my head since I first heard the album. But over-all, that’s all it seems to be composed of: moments. Lungs was a piece. Ceremonials is a series of moments. It’s missing some of the power Lungs had. Which brings me to my next point.

I have the deluxe edition of Ceremonials (I know, I’m so fancy). At the end of the album, or I suppose, making up the majority of the deluxe content, are acoustic versions of Heartline, Shake it Out, and Breaking Down. And they kick the shit out of the original versions. The first time I heard Shake it Out, I liked it. I liked it a lot. But I wouldn’t say I was moved. The first time I heard the acoustic version, I cried. I shed tears. On the bus. On the way to work. Same song. Same Flo. Entirely different reaction. Maybe I’m biased; I do love me some acoustic guitar. But I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that on Ceremonials, some of the power of Flo’s brilliance is dulled by all of the processing, the electronics. As far as Lungs went, I don’t think there was another way to do it, especially with the jazz/electro blends, a perfect example of which was Girl with One Eye. That sounds made Lungs. On Ceremonials, it feels forced.

I’ve also noticed that Ceremonials feels less like Florence. I know she’s only got the two albums, but on my first listen of the album, I went through and basically said to every song, “Oh this sounds like such and such band, and this one sounds like this!” Most notably, Breaking Down sounds like it should be on a Beach House album. It’s not a bad thing – I love Beach House. But I didn’t buy a Beach House album. I’m aware artists borrow and evolve. I’m not naive. But Lungs was unmistakable. Unmistakably F+TM.

My final gripe is one song: Landscape. If you don’t have the deluxe version, you’ll never have heard this song.

Which is a fucking shame.

Landscape is listed as a demo. It’s not actually a part of Ceremonials. It is, in my humble opinion, the best song on the album. And it is unmistakably Flo.

Strangeness and Charm is another deluxe edition-only release, and I have to say, I was taken by it from the time I read the title. Strangeness and Charm are properties of sub-atomic particles known as quarks. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’re familiar with quarks. Yes, Flo. Please sing more science to me.

Reading this review, you must think I hate Ceremonials. You would be wrong. I only just got it and I’ve listened to it probably about twenty times so far and I’ll probably listen to it once a day for the next couple of months. I love it. I really do. It’s a great album. But there are so many small, small things that could have made a great album a masterpiece.

A brief review:

Paperclippe’s Favorite Songs from Ceremonials (Deluxe): Only if for a Night, Heartlines (Acoustic), Breaking Down (Acoustic), Shake it Out (Acoustic), Landscape (Demo), Strangeness and Charm (Deluxe Only).

Least Favorites: What the Water Gave Me (Demo), Remain Nameless (Deluxe Only), Heartlines.

Fucking Higgs Field, How Does It Work?

October 24, 2011 - 8:16 pm No Comments

Lots of questions must be answered. What are the properties of the Higgs particles and, most important, what is their mass? How will we recognize one if we meet it in a collision? How many types are there? Does Higgs generate all masses or only some increment to masses? And how do we learn more about it? Since it is Her particle, we can wait, and if we lead an exemplary life, we’ll find out when we ascend to Her kingdom. Or we can spend $8 billion and build us a Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas, which was been designed to produce the Higgs particle.

The above excerpt comes from a little book called The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by one Leon Lederman. In an older blog post, I mentioned a book called The Universe on a T-Shirt. The God Particle is the book you wanted to read instead. Or, at least, it’s the book I wanted you to read instead.

The God Particle is an incredibly clear and witty overview of particle physics from an experimenter’s point of view. Where as most of the books I’ve mentioned before have touched on the modern physics field (ha, it’s a pun) as a whole, this book sticks to the small stuff, and due to its directed nature, paints a really clear picture of quantum physics. You will learn things if you read this book, I promise. You might even understand quantum electrodynamics by the time you’re done (that’s a lie, no one understands quantum electrodynamics). The God Particle also eventually gets to the point: talking about the Higgs boson and its field, the search for it, why it’s so hard to find, and what it does, all of which was briefly and humorously touched on in the quote above.

Unfortunately, what was also touched on in the quote above was the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator which was meant to be the United State’s 2000s-era foray into the very small. It was to be finished around the year 2000 and was pretty much for two things: to replace the Tevatron at Fermilab and to find the Higgs boson. This book was written in 1993, just before the SSC was scrapped (due to, you guessed it, budgetary concerns) with just about 20% complete (as I understand it, there’s still a giant hole in the ground in Texas where it was meant to go). However, the intro to the book, added in 2006, acknowledges this foible and introduces the reader to the Large Hadron Collider which, yes, is looking for the Higgs boson and, yes, as of this writing, no one has found it. So every time the SSC is mentioned in Lederman’s The God Particle, just replace it in your mind with “LHC” and you’re on the right track.

If you want to know more about the Large Hadron Collider and what it’s doing to find this mysterious God Particle, you can refer to a book I mentioned in my post You Can Read These Books with Strings, a Death Cab for Cutie joke none of you were cool enough to get. (I’m a hipster physicist: I want to know about the universe before it was cool.) (Alright, I’ll stop.) The title of that book was A Zeptospace Odyssey, a book I still consider to be the best layman’s physics text ever written for reasons I already mentioned.

If you want to know more about the characters involved in the great story of physics, I recommend The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book does go into some great detail about the search for dark matter, dark energy, and other things no one really understands, but the best part about it is how deeply it looks at all the people who have devoted their lives to finding out all the things that allow me to write these ridiculous blog posts. And believe me, there are some great personalities in there. As an added bonus for you math-averse readers, there’s nothing in The 4% Universe you won’t understand. It is quite actually a book everyone can read, and it contains a good base of scientific knowledge as well. That said, it’s definitely told in such a way as that it kind of expects you to know what’s coming, glossing over major events in an effort to get into the dark matter/dark energy situation. You won’t be missing anything, but unless you know a little bit of physics history, you might start to wonder what the point of it all is.

So there you have it. Two more books which attempt to explain literally everything and which come pretty close, at least for the average Joe.

One last thing: I’ve added a new category to the blog! It is, simply, “Science,” since I realise my last few posts have been pretty much… well, yeah. I may make an attempt to move out of my comfort zone and actually explain some science here! On this blog! Or I may just continue to read things that other people would never consider making a joke about and then make some jokes about them.

[A note on the title: I was originally going to call this post, "Fucking Quantum Electrodynamics, How Does It Work?," but then I realised I had already made that joke on Twitter.]

It’s Enough to Give a Girl a Headache

September 22, 2011 - 1:20 pm 5 Comments

This is a more personal post than I normally put on this site, so I hope you’ll bear with me.  It’s about something that’s had a huge impact on my life, and it’s because of that that I’m making this an actual post instead of a multi-tweet rant; it’s something I’d like to be able to point people to when they have questions without repeating myself or getting frustrated, which is something I’m entirely guilty of, especially when in my current state.  It’s a bit long, and a bit wordy, and I hope you’ll understand.

I get migraines.

In fact, I have one right now.  Which is why it took me ten minutes to write a three-sentence long paragraph.

I think people in this day and age, generally, are aware of the pain migraines cause.  It wasn’t very long ago, however, that even the medical community thought migraines were a disorder exclusive to women brought on by hormones or hysteria or worse still, were nothing more than pleas for attention from lonely young mothers with children.  And the pain?  Either they were greatly exaggerating or making it up all together.  While it is true that women are more prone to migraines and hormones do indeed play a major role in migraines for some people, they are definitely a real condition which causes real, and sometimes boarder-line unbearable, pain.  And they certainly have nothing to do with attention.  In fact, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that if you try to give attention to a person suffering a migraine, they with either a) cry b) politely ask you to leave and lock the door behind you or c) shoot you.  That last one might seem a little extreme, sure, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.  And you also have to have a sense of humor about these things or you might just end up pointing the gun in the other direction.

If you’ve never encountered pain that could be considered almost unbearable, let me ask you a question: do you know the definition of the word ‘writhe’?  Dictionary.com has this to say on the subject:

1. to twist the body about, or squirm, as in pain, violent effort, etc.
2. to shrink mentally, as in acute discomfort.

Both of those are pretty applicable to the activities you’ll be performing when you have a migraine.  You’ll also become very religious, whatever your former spiritual persuasion.

In fact, I’ve got a pretty strong theory that most exorcisms are actually archaic migraine treatments.  And about as likely to work as just about anything else, really.

You’ll put a frozen steak on your head even if you’re a vegetarian, you’ll drink more water than a marathon runner, and if you’re very very lucky and lie very very still, you won’t vomit it all up again.

You’ll also probably swallow a lot of pills.

Like many (probably most) Americans, I don’t have health insurance, and I don’t have the kind of money to be seen for what’s 99% certain to be a lifelong condition and then chuck out more cash for non-painkiller migraine pills that rarely work or painkiller migraine pills that will just make me stoned all the time (or worse, migraine pills that take away my migraine pain but cause a completely new kind of pain in the back of my neck so horrific I’m paralyzed for 24 hours thanks Imitrex!).  So I take Excedrin Migraine.  And that shit works.  Boy howdy does it work.  But unfortunately it’s chock full of caffeine and aspirin and acetaminophen in extremely high doses, all things which on their own can upset even the most steely of stomachs.

And guess what else upsets your stomach.

And if you have a persistent migraine, you have to take upkeep doses, so even if you’re pain-free, you’re jittery and more hyperactive than a twelve-year-old boy who’s just been given a bag of cocaine-laced confectioner’s sugar, and the threshold on your temper, on a scale of one to ten, is set to about negative six.

And if you want to sleep the pain away, and believe me, you will, you, non-insurance-having American, will take melatonin. Melatonin, according the Great and Powerful Wiki, is

a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants and microbes.[2][3] In animals, circulating levels of the hormone melatonin vary in a daily cycle, thereby allowing the entrainment of the circadian rhythms of several biological functions.[4]Many biological effects of melatonin are produced through activation of melatonin receptors,[5] while others are due to its role as a pervasive and powerful antioxidant,[6] with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.[7]

In mammals, melatonin is secreted into the blood by the pineal gland in the brain. Known as the “hormone of darkness” it is secreted in darkness in both day-active (diurnal) and night-active (nocturnal) animals.

Melatonin will put you in a goddamned coma.  That is an exaggeration.  What is not an exaggeration is that if you had any plans that day and you do end up taking melatonin, you can forget about your plans.  In fact, you can forget about your day, because you’re going to sleep through it, and if you have to take an upkeep dose, you’re going to sleep through the night and maybe the following day as well, because

[o]ral caffeine may significantly increase the bioavailability of melatonin. The proposed mechanism is inhibition of CYP450 1A2 first-pass metabolism. After administration of melatonin 6 mg and caffeine 200 mg orally to 12 healthy subjects, the mean peak plasma concentration (Cmax) of melatonin increased by 137% and the area under the concentration-time curve (AUC) increased by 120%. The metabolic inhibition was greater in nonsmokers (n=6) than in smokers (n=6). The greatest effect was seen in subjects with the *1F/*1F genotype (n=7), whose melatonin Cmax increased by 202%. The half-life did not change significantly. The clinical significance of this interaction is unknown

according to drugs.com.

That’s right.  If you take this sleep-inducing hormone with a thing that would normally keep you awake, it will make you sleep up to twice as much.

And I won’t even get into the vivid dreams.

So by now, you’re in unspeakable pain, you’re bloated, nauseated, full of medication, and halfway in a coma.  So you should really probably eat something.  But you won’t want to.  I don’t care how much you love food, or what kind of cravings you have on a daily basis.  You will look in your fridge and find every item contained within a device for some sort of torture.  To say you won’t be hungry is a bit of an understatement.

Today I have had 750mg of acetaminophen, 750mg of aspirin, 195mg of caffeine (which, incidentally, is enough to be considered legally intoxicated on the stuff depending on your height and weight and oh did I mention I am five feet tall), and 3mg of melatonin.  I have have a spontaneous two hour nap and 40 ounces of water.

And I choked down half a slice of white bread.  And it was an end-piece.  And it was awful.

But honestly?  I think most people get that.  I really do.  Migraines, and the pain and discomfort associated with them as well as the drastic measures most people will go through to get rid of them, are a part of the culture at the point.

Here’s the part I don’t think a lot of people understand.  Right now, thanks to my Excedrin regimen, I am almost completely pain-free.  And I have a migraine.

Before I get into that, let me just clarify: there are tons of different types of migraines, over ten and sometimes up to twenty depending on your classification.  They all have a few basic, common symptoms: headache of a throbbing nature, persisting for four to 72 hours (yes, that’s three fucking days), nausea, and photophobia, all of which are generally exacerbated by routine activity (yes, migraines are made worse by the fact that you exist), but there are tons of different variant symptoms.  Everyone is probably aware of the ‘aura’ symptoms: seeing lights or spots, blurred vision, or ‘rings’ (hence, auras) around objects, especially those with vivid colors.  That has never once happened to me.  In fact, less than 30% of people with migraines experience auras (numbers thanks again to Wiki).  What I do get are prodrome symptoms, which are

altered mood, irritability, depression or euphoria, fatigue, yawning, excessive sleepiness, craving for certain food (e.g. chocolate), stiff muscles (especially in the neck), dizziness, hot ears, constipation or diarrhea, increased or decreased urination, and other visceral symptoms.[14] These symptoms usually precede the headache phase of the migraine attack by several hours or days.

And you know what the worst part is?  Believe me when I say it’s the euphoria.  Because you go from being amazing and talkative and happy and hungry and active and a great person to be around to absolute fucking despair.

And migraines are generally not considered a mood disorder.

Oh, and did I mention the sleeping?

Oh, and did you catch the part where these symptoms come on several days before hand?  Days.

And then there is postdrome, which, is, you guessed it:

effects of migraine … persist[ing] for some days after the main headache has ended. Many sufferers report a sore feeling in the area where the migraine was, and some report impaired thinking for a few days after the headache has passed. The patient may feel tired or “hungover” and have head pain, cognitive difficulties, gastrointestinal symptoms, mood changes, and weakness.[19] According to one summary, “Some people feel unusually refreshed or euphoric after an attack, whereas others note depression and malaise.”  (From Wiki.)

That actually makes it sound a lot better than it is.  Between pro and postdrome, I personally have experienced both binge eating and self-imposed starvation, delirium, hyperactivity, insomnia on a scale of days, flu-like symptoms, loss of hearing, loss of vision, loss of feeling in the left side of my face, and things as weird as an inability to use the same vocabulary that I would use if I had no migraine symptoms.  But I do also experience the euphoria, the restlessness that compels me to be productive, the change in my thought process that allows me to experience things differently.  In fact, during migraines where I am pain-free and not wasting your time with interminable blog posts, I make a point to read or write because I both understand and explain things differently than I do without a migraine because I’m forced by lack of blood flow to use a different part of my brain.

My dad thinks this is really cool.  And you know what, it would be a lie to say it’s not.  The pain, of course, is stupefying.  But if nothing else, it can be pretty damned interesting.

And it’s completely fair to say that migraines, and/or their symptoms, can make you a completely different person.

Now, let me make myself really really fucking clear:

I am not writing this post because I want pity.  In fact, the last thing I want is pity.

What I do want is a better understanding of something that affects the lives of millions of people, including myself and a pretty good percentage of the people I know.  Migraines are not just headaches.  Migraines are a lot more than that, and they can be tough to deal with.  But just like the migraine sufferer who wants to be left alone in a dark room, I’m not doing this for attention, except the attention that comes with understanding.  Migraines are strange beasts, and though they’ve come to the forefront of the social consciousness, at least in western culture, there’s still a lot about them that people don’t understand.  For those of us who put up with the less-common, or perhaps just less-discussed, symptoms, it can be frustrating.

This post, to be sure, is a culmination of that frustration, but it’s also born out of the questions that people have asked me.  People want to know more, and sometimes a personal experience detailing both the good and bad of a condition, even when the condition is, yes, I’ll admit, mostly very bad, can bring a little light to where once there was shadow or doubt or disbelief.

So don’t comment with sympathy (though empathy from fellow sufferers will not be turned away, because I’ve had a good long bitch, and if you want to put your personal experience in the comments to share, I welcome any additional details or information you find relevant to this post).  What I want is the most normal life I can possibly have with such a truly weird condition, and that’s not really that hard to do, most days.  What I want is for someone to read this post and have more knowledge of a common but yet poorly understood condition, for them to be brave enough to ask questions, and to seek help, if they themselves share this condition.  Having migraines is not something to be ashamed of.  It’s something to take care of, and to take care of yourself because of.  It took me a long time, and a lot of forced decisions – I dropped out of college because my migraines were so bad in my junior year that I couldn’t leave my apartment in the morning – to grasp that.  If this post does that for even one person, then writing this, as personal and potentially pity-party inducing as it is, was worth it.

You Can Read These Books with Strings

August 3, 2011 - 11:08 pm No Comments

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of physics, and for some reason that intimidates people.  I have a new nickname at work, which has been used in jest, in earnest, and in mockery all: Lil Miss Science, usually followed by “over there”.

But here’s the real secret:

You can be too.

If you’ve ever logged on to my Goodreads account, you’ll see a slew of books on the subject, especially regarding physics of a quantum nature (though recently I’ve been branching out into pure mathematics and even geometry, Euclidian and non- both, but that’s a blog for another time).  Most of them have five stars, few of them have three or less.  And I am about to tell you which ones you can read off the bat, knowing only the maths you learned in high school.  Don’t scoff.  I failed algebra.  Twice.

In the Beginning:

If you really want broad, sweeping strokes, only touching on hard physics to get you prepared, start with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Ah, I can see you being intimidated again, stop that.  I read this one over the course of a week while on vacation in North Carolina (because that’s what you do on vacation).  Not only will this book brush you up on your physics, the title is not really a lie – it’s got a little bit of everything in there, though it’s steered mostly toward the natural sciences.  And it’s clever.  And you’ll enjoy it.

For a more focused but still broad overview, try Simon Singh’s The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  This was something I read in college while sitting alone in the cafeteria, busily not making friends.  Everything is explained clearly, and while it does get into a few technicalities, there are helpful pictures and charts, and if you don’t follow the math exactly (fuck, no one does) that’s perfectly okay, you’ll get more than the gist of it.

I Have the Science Channel and I Have Seen The Universe:

So you actually know what I’m going on about when I say quantum entanglement and dark matter.  Then you should read A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice.  Do not take it lightly when I say I have not been this impressed with a book – nonwithstanding a technical book – since I read House of Leaves.  And Maker above this is about nine trillion times easier to understand.  Giudice ties everything to easy-to-understand concepts and even popular culture, from Sherlock Holmes to the power output of the engine in a Ferrari Scuderia (he uses that last one for the mass to energy ratio, you’ll like it).  And you’ll get to learn fun facts like, if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was constructed entirely out of Swiss chocolate, it would have cost the same to build. This is what would happen if I was actually a physicist, binged on Top Gear, and then wrote a book.  Except you can actually understand A Zeptospace Odyssey. I laughed.  Out loud.  While reading this book.  To make it all the more impressive, this book was written by a native speaker of Italian.  In English.  You may commence feeling like a failure… now.

And if you haven’t already, read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  There are not difficult books.  I promise.  And if you get the fancy version, they have really nice pictures.  And Star Trek references!

I Have Made a Schrodinger’s Equation Cake:

No, really.  I have.

And if you’re like me, you’ll want to read Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.  You may begin to feel a little intimidated, and this time it’s justified.  I’ll admit, there were parts of this book that I skimmed, but it’s not hard to get what the author, Peter Woit, is saying at all.  Though the math is a bit weeooweeoo scary, the points are clearly and concisely covered, and with a tinge of dark humor as well.  It’s always good to understand the alternate theories in physics today, if you’re interested in any of them, and string theory, despite its myriad Nova Science Now specials, honestly does come up a bit short.  Should we entirely discount it?  I don’t know, read the book and decide for yourself.

I Breathe Math:

I don’t.  This one was beyond me but there was so much good stuff in it I plowed through until I simply felt like taking a bath with a hair dryer: Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space by Henning Genz starts off easy-peasy, but about halfway through I knew I’d gotten everything out of this book I possibly could.  It starts pretty much where all the others leave off: the details.  I believe particle spin is introduced in chapter 2 or 3 and while I have a (tentative) grasp on that, there’s a point where even I shake my head, sigh, and make a special, defeatist library trip.  That all said, what I did understand was definitely worth the trouble.  It’s fascinating to learn about all the weird things that happen in what we considered to be The Vacuum of Spaaaaaace.  If you’re into that, give it an honest effort.  I did.

So there you go.  Physics is phun.  I swear.  And hell, you might even learn something.

The Universe on a T-Shirt

July 17, 2011 - 7:20 pm No Comments

The Universe on a T-Shirt by Dan Falk is a book which starts at the beginning and ends at the present, telling the story of the famed Theory of Everything, a theory – first in religion and now in quantum physics – which should be able to explain everything ever, quite literally, with an equation short enough to fit on a t-shirt.  However, in its quest for simplicity, the theory so far has failed.

And so has this book.

There’s a fine balance between simplicity and too little information.  Parallel with today’s Theories of Everything, this book just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.  There are places where Falk seems to go on for days about things we learned in middle school – possibly because they’re simple to understand.  And then there are places where the sheer simplicity of the book in its efforts to mirror the ever-elusive ToE is simply too simple.

Now, I’m not so hot at math, but in layman’s terms, I’ve wrapped my head around a good deal of physics, from spin to quark flavors to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  I would go so far as to say that on a basic level, I understand quantum theory, from physics to electrodynamics to entanglement.  In fact, I think anyone could if they just sat down and watched as much of the Science Channel as I have found possible to do.  However, while reading Universe on a T-Shirt, I was confused – honestly confused – by Einstein’s relativity.  Now, these days, this is high school stuff.  And the problem wasn’t me, trust me.  It was the absolute dumbing-down of the content.  In his attempts to cut out the mathematical fat, a thing which, trust me, I very much appreciate, Falk has cut out the core of the theory.  I read the same three pages over and over, saying to myself, “No, but wait, I know this already…” but in the first-grade manner in which it was presented, I really couldn’t understand it.  Too much was left out, too much was simplified, and too much was just told wrong.  That there is the best example I can give of the overall presentation of the information in Universe on a T-Shirt.

Perhaps it’s ironic (or perhaps it isn’t) that it was Einstein himself who said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  This book is courageous, I’ll give it that.  But it’s sure not genius.

It’s time for SCIENCE!

December 2, 2010 - 5:08 pm No Comments

Well, almost.

First I’m going to share with you a delightful but simple wintertime treat (for those of you north of the equator) that you should enjoy while reading this blog.  I hope you like coffee.  And joy.  It doesn’t have to be covered in bees.

FIRST!  Set a cup of coffee to brew or press it or use your espresso maker or however ya fix your caffeine fix.

Get a cup, a teaspoon of sugar, and a packet of cocoa.  Preferably with marshmallows.  Dump cocoa and sugar in cup.  Pour coffee on top.

Scrape marshmallows off of top, eat, mix thoroughly, be happy.  Oh, yeah, then read the rest of this blog.  Which starts now.

I. Love. Science.  I was an English major with a creative writing concentration, I only took my mandatory amounts of science in high school I belonged to the English, drama, and jazz clubs, and I. Love. Science.  You will never not find me watching The Universe or crushing on Michio Kaku or wearing my Periodic Table of the Elements shirt or reading about Einstein.

Which brings me to installment’s book: The Quotable Einstein collected and edited by Alice Calaprice.

This is a quick read.  Yes, yes, it’s several hundred pages long, but it’s exactly what it purports to be: a collection of quotes by the man himself, Albert Einstein, who was generally a great guy except he was really bitter about women so don’t take anything he says about us at face value.  He was also a friend of Sigmund Freud so let’s blame his mom and move on (I’M KIDDING).

This collection paints a deeper picture of Einstein as a man who realised he was just a man and did his best to quell any sort of belief that he was anything more than human.  It also portrays how firmly Einstein stuck to his beliefs, many of which were unpopular at the time.  He believed women should be allowed to have abortions up to a certain point, much as we do now.  He believed homosexuality should not be punished, he loved America but saw how it suppressed it’s minorities and spoke out against it, and he was an avid pacifist, believing only in violence when it was to protect oneself.  This isn’t surprising giving the atmosphere he grew up in: pre-WWI Germany was already a hotbed of conflict, more so than many of us realise, and for Einstein, himself a Jew, it was imperative he leave that behind.  Indeed, he rescinded his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen very early in life, before he was naturalised in US many years later.  For many of these beliefs, though weak and obvious they may seem now, he was suspected of Communism and questioned in the McCarthy hearings, to be subsequently dubbed by Mr. McCarthy as an “enemy of America.”  Incidentally, that was about the time that America decided they weren’t buying that shit anymore.  Einstein had already said previously in a letter, “I have never been a Communist.  But if I were, I would not be ashamed of it.”

The book also delves into more personal subjects: Einstein had an amazing sense of humor, loved music, played the violin, and enjoyed the company of his family pets very much.  Once, during a particularly bad rainstorm, his tabby “Tiger” was upset that he could not go outside.  Einstein commiserated with the creature, saying, “I know what’s wrong, dear fellow, but I don’t know how to turn it off.”  (That’s right, Doctor.  Everyone talks to cats.)  The volume also includes snippets of his letters to his first and second wife, including the period in between where his first marriage was falling apart and he sought comfort in an affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Elsa.  Clearly he was not a perfect man, but if he was, I doubt half of us would be able to relate to him at all, for as hard as that can be already.

My only complaint with the collection is that, in an effort to be thorough, Ms. Calaprice has included several iterations Einstein made of the same quote.  While it’s good to see an attempt to be sure that the most important quotations were included, there are several occasions where this gets distracting.  This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the “God does not place dice” quote.  While it is true that this is something Einstein believed firmly and repeated so often that Niels Borh was prompted to respond, “Stop telling God what to do!”, it is not necessary that the reader see every single instance wherein Einstein restated his belief.  The most eloquent or succinct iteration would have been just fine, and this is a problem which occurs with several other quotes in the book.  It is a problem which becomes very distracting very quickly, causing the reader to pause and say, “Wait, I caught that and the editor let it slide?” which is never something you want to hear said about a book.

Beyond that, though, the book is a good, clear insight into the mind of Einstein through the man’s own words, and I recommend it to anyone interested in his science, life, or personality.

With that, I leave you with these choice Einstein-ian quotes (and hopefully some of that cocoa left over):

  • “With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.”
  • “Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art.  They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity such as I cannot derive from other realms.”
  • “I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.”
  • “That worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor…  this plague-spot of civilisation ought to be abolished with all possible speed.  Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!  How vile and despicable seems war to me!  I would rather be hacked into pieces than take park in such an abominable business.”
  • “I do not believe that civilisation will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb.  Perhaps two-thirds of the people on earth would be killed, but enough men  capable of thinking, and enough books, would be left to start out again, and civilisation could be restored.
  • When asked why people could discover atoms by not the means to control them: “That is simple, my friend: because politics is more difficult than physics.”

The Accidental Time Machine

July 30, 2010 - 1:48 pm No Comments

Having mentioned this book in my last post, I thought it might be a good idea to actually, you know, talk about it a little more.  What a wild thought.


Image credit to http://elentari.vox.com/

Joe Haldeman’s observantly funny style, as I mentioned in the previous post, remains true in The Accidental Time Machine, despite having been written in 2007, nearly 40 years after The Forever War.  It’s the tale of a graduate student at MIT whose calibration machine, meant only to release a proton at particular intervals, seems to be able to travel through time.  First, it disappears for less than a second, then a slightly longer flash, then a few minutes, a few days, and then, he decides to go with it.  Hijinks ensue.

My favorite parts of the novel were not, however, the hijinks, at least, not on the whole.  It was the views at so many different distopian futures.  In one, our hero Matt Fuller travels to MIT nearly a thousand years in the future, and finds it having reverted to a beat-down, wild-westian religions waste land where MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, and technology on the whole is considered evil, except when considered in context of God and his greater plan.  Here Matt meets a young woman, a nun of sorts who is herself a graduate assistant (which now means something more akin to servant and is a position that only women are lowly enough to hold).  He takes her farther into the future to escape the religious hell and eventually winds up in New Mexico with a woman called La, a sort of projection who is the spirit, or more, the collective consciousness and sometimes god, of  Los Angeles: LA.  But La’s intentions are not pure (are they ever?) and Matt soon discovers through a series of questionably Christian visions of Jesus (despite that Matt is a non-practicing Jew) that La wants the time machine for herself.

Don’t worry.  It all makes sense.

This is much more a quick read than The Forever War; its simplicity, however, is not in the details but in the viewpoint.  The novel starts (pretty much) in the here and now, so Matt’s thoughts are all very understood by someone else coming from the same mindset: you and I.  There’s very much less back-story and more descriptions.  It’s a lighter read in that the story is shockingly linear and for most of the tale there is one character.  There are no losses stylistically, though: given the less-involved plot, Joe Haldeman uses the space to add little tie-ins to everything.  Off-the-cuff comments and characters come full circle and sometimes even become the point of the thing.  The last few pages are a karmic reprieve like no other, a glorious bow on top of the package you wouldn’t even known was missing if it wasn’t there because the stuff inside the box was so good anyway.

Image credit to http://www.nassaulibrary.org/

I’ve also just finished My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr which I first discovered on The Book Project.  I won’t go into it
too much since the book itself is so short, but its the story of a young girl, Ellen, trying to understand the relationship between her brother, Link, and his best friend, James.  Are they gay?  Does it matter?  And what is gay, anyway?  It’s a very sweet, understanding story about family, friends, and the relationships we share with them.  It’s also a pretty accurate, unbiased view of the teenage mind.  Give it a read if you like young adult lit or LGBT literature at all.  It’s short and sweet.

As you may also have noticed, I’ve change the theme.  The skinny column was getting on my nerves.

So? Have you read any good books yet this summer?  Let me know about it in the comments!