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Science, humanities, and education

24 Nov

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.

Wondering like an Egyptian

2 Nov

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.

Piled higher and deeper

2 May

Webb of Science has been on the road this weekend, celebrating a Ph.D. commencement in the family. Congratulations to my sister, the most recent Dr. Webb.

To get to the commencement ceremony, we’re having to dodge the marathon (scheduled for the same day?). But outside of the inconvenience, it’s actually pretty symbolic. I often characterize the process as an “academic marathon.”

I’m awed by actual marathoners, though I’m not sure I actually have one in me. But I understand that need to take on a big project, a project that involves risk, that you worry that you might not complete. Maybe you even despise it in the darkest moments, but when it’s done, no one can take away the accomplishment.

I like commencement ceremonies for that reason. Even if the speeches don’t inspire, stories lurk behind each graduate. At the end of today’s ceremony, confetti (officially sanctioned) exploded into the arena to mark the end of the ceremony. People carrying knowledge and walking out into the world.

Traveling the (AMNH’s) Silk Road

17 Nov

Pick up a passport, and travel along an ancient road  with silk, haunting melodies and the simmering whiff of oils and spices.

At its best, the American Museum of Natural History’s  Traveling the Silk Road exhibition evokes as many senses as possible, particularly smell and sound. There’s a wonderful market where you can test your abilities to match smells, and, as a bonus, we also heard music by musicians involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (performing on Sundays at the museum).

I just found myself wishing that there were a few more things that I was allowed to touch, particularly with beautiful silks, looms and a video demonstrating how weavers transform worm cocoons into stunning garments.  I heard of at least a couple ancient trading posts that I’d never read about, hubs where ancient roads met for the exchange of all kinds of goods and information.

This trading network was the information superhighway of its time– 600 to 800 AD– exchanging science, culture, design patterns. I was enthralled with the water clock and fiddled for a while with the astrolabe, attempting to tell time from the night sky. I gained a whole new respect for ancient sailors– the number of steps it took just to find out where and “when” they were.

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in ceramics, so I spent a lot of time contemplating classic curves and forms of the various pots and vessels– beautiful, functional, ancient and, yet, somehow modern, too. The exhibit was a wonderful experience in seeing connections between past cultures and my daily connections to a distant past.

The business of creative endeavors (including science)

23 Jul

When I was reporting my most recent article for Science Careers– about the financial end of setting up a new academic laboratory— I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to the day-to-day nuts and bolts of my own work. Though I never set up an independent laboratory, it’s clear to me that both freelance writing and scientific research are “businesses” and that cash flow (and the management of it) is key to creativity, productivity, and progress.

Traditionally academic scientists are reluctant to talk about the management of their labs as “business” and starving artists are beyond cliche. But both groups face the challenge of finding a niche where you can find assignments, gigs, or grant support that achieve a delicate balance between paying bills and pursuing passions, teetering somewhere between the practical and the high-risk– and the adrenaline rush that comes with living in that space. Money clearly isn’t the only part of a creative endeavor, but if you have a creative career, it has to be part of the puzzle.

What comes back to me from my conversations with scientists about setting up their laboratories was this question: “What do I need to be successful?” And sometimes they have to be creative when negotiating that answer with the institutions around them. But as an independent writer, I need that question on my front-burner, too. No, I don’t need five- or six-figure equipment to do my job. But I do need a careful plan– and balance, of collaborative-time vs alone-time, project types and more. I have to remain in-tune and honest with myself about what’s working,  in terms of my personal goals, my clients’ needs, and an ever-changing media landscape.

Daily blogging like daily exercise

31 May

So, it’s day 31, and I made it! I’ve decided that daily blogging is  like daily exercise– it’s much easier to keep going when you’re supported by a group of other people with the same goals and mission. So, I’m grateful for the support of my fellow bloggers and the new friends I’ve made along the way.

It took me a long time to start blogging, in part because I thought I needed a plan mapped out before I started. I was also worried about time– keeping up with my other work while I also maintained my blog. But I underestimated myself.

  1. Blogging has kept me focused. Having that daily deadline along with my other assignments was stressful, but it also forced me to be as productive as possible.
  2. I’m playing more with language. Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on a blog post that I wrote in the middle of the month about creativity, science and blogging. This structured sense of play, on a schedule, has forced me to put words on a page. Some of my favorite posts have come out of not having a plan, out of taking a topic and letting myself run with it. It’s a good reminder that I have to throw words around first before I’ll know where they fit and what they mean.
  3. Blogging has improved my other writing. That’s the corollary to having a creative outlet. I’m finding ways to infuse the ideas and creative flow that has been moving here into the words that I write in other places. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that synergy.

I still have a lot to learn about the interactive piece of blogging. I want to spend more time reading and commenting on other blogs and trading ideas. That process will take more time.

I still feel conflicted about trying to blog about scientific topics because it’s so easy to unintentionally smudge factual accuracy. I do my best to present careful, correct information, but it’s a huge challenge to be literate, accurate and engaging in a short time and space.

Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading me this month! I’d love to hear your feedback about the May experiment. Do you like the Molecule of the Week? Any favorite posts?

I’ve had fun, but I’m also glad to be able to step off the treadmill of daily posting. It’s been a fantastic jumpstart, and I’ll be figuring out a regular (though not daily) posting schedule. Like finding time for a walk, a jog or a yoga class, blogging provides a healthy writing workout.

Morsels from the blogathon buffet

19 May

I’m taking a topical detour today to highlight some of the fun blogging (including some science) happening around the May blogathon.

It’s hard to believe that we’re nearly two thirds of the way through the May blogging challenge. I’m having a lot more fun with the project than I imagined that I could, both as a writer and as a reader.

Havidol and creative interaction

14 May

It’s Havidol— the cure for all that ails modern society! Though it looks like a real ad, it’s actually Justine Coopers art, a whole campaign that’s a fascinating commentary on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Yes, we all want to feel our best, and we’d love it if a pill could do that for us.

Justine spoke on Monday afternoon at a regional event in NYC, co-sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers and CUNY Science & the Arts. Her Havidol project (and her current project about medical simulations) have these wonderful layers. The design itself is slick, the irony is uncanny, and there’s even an interactive component. Yes, people have emailed to ask her how to both get this drug and publications have asked her about whether she’d like to buy advertising pages.

Her presentation left me with a lot to chew on about my own work, particularly this interactive piece. I love the level of depth and irony that she’s able to achieve, and her drive to involve her audience in what she’s doing. The internet is a wonderful tool for making art participatory, and that probably is an overarching goal of blogging for almost anyone. But part of finding that interactive piece is finding where you want to meet people. What nerves do you want to hit? What messages do you want them to think about?

It’s now day 14 of the May blog-a-thon, and I’m slowly getting glimmers of answers to those questions for myself. The more I post, the more I learn about what I want to say. The more feedback I get, the more I learn about that interactive piece. But, until this week, I hadn’t really wrapped my mind about the internet as a new artistic medium– like paints or clay or paper. Coming to writing from science, I’m still learning how to do preliminary “play”– throwing around words and seeing what happens (we should be very happy that chemists carefully plan safe experiments). This blog is a canvas, a hunk of clay, a theatre piece that I’m workshopping.

I don’t believe in the art and science divide: they’re both highly creative endeavors. It’s the approaches that are truly different, at least in my world. And I’m having fun getting in touch with my inner artist.

The Art and Math of the Fold

12 May

Last night I realized how long it’s been since I last folded a paper crane. The  documentary, Between the Folds, allows origami to explode into this beautiful world of artistic creations and amazing patterns and complexity driven by algorithms– sequences of mathematical instructions– ranging from simple to astronomically complex.

The funny thing is that on its surface, origami is simple– folding a piece of paper, no cutting and no glue. But there’s a beautiful tension throughout the nearly hour-long film between complexity– making a piece of paper as realistic and as complicated as possible– and simplicity, refining the art to be simple, cleaner and also more abstract.

In the trailer, one artist talks about the art of the origami process, the ballet of creating. The film shows him in a pas de deux with paper, with the beautiful score of Gil Talmi in the background. Vanessa Gould has created a beautiful, stunning film.

Beyond the beauty of the art itself, the scientific connections are wonderful. Teachers in Israel are using origami to inspire kids to learn math. In the film, mathematician Tom Hull shows how origami describes advanced mathematical concepts. MIT professor Erik Demaine and his sculptor father Marty (who collaborate), are perhaps the ultimate symbol of this blending of the artistic with the scientific (Erik also talked after the screening at CUNY Science & the Arts in Manhattan). In the Demaine family it appears that art and science are simply a matter of viewing the same coin from the opposite side. They create origami that then lets them test unusual math. It sounds like a wonderful symbiotic relationship.

The beauty of origami also has a practical package. Car airbags rely on the algorithms to fold efficiently into flat spaces. And origami has all sorts of biological implications. Proteins– the workhorses of living cells– are long strings that fold in specific shapes in order to work properly. Genetic material folds into complex shapes to fit inside the nucleus– the command center– of a cell. (I interviewed Paul Rothemund who designs DNA origami a few years ago. The magazine killed the story, but I still find the work fascinating).

And just for fun– Jeannine Mosely gave a lesson in origami: folding 6 cards into a cube (and even learning how to lock cubes with our neighbors). Here’s one I just put together at home with my outdated business cards.

cube made from my old business cards

cube made from my old business cards

Lots of fun. My sister bought me an origami set for Christmas last year. I think it’s time to break it out.

A rackett– low sound packed small

7 May

Like other double reeds, the rackett produced by this instrument probably decreases as the player’s skill increases.

When I was working on my article about carbon fiber instruments, I traded emails with a researcher  in musical acoustics in Australia. He saw my blog post about Papalini’s bass clarinet and said: If you’re interested in low instruments in a small package, you should take a look at the rackett.

Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)

Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)

So, here it is. It’s a Renaissance bassoon-ish instrument, and there are 9 parallel bores packed into that instrument to create the length for a low pitch. However, it looks like the fingering is pretty strange, even for a bassoon. (My band director in middle school tried to convince me to switch from the flute to the modern bassoon. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea- more opportunities for bassoon players. But two days of playing an instrument that sounded like a dying cow in my hands was probably all my family could take. Double reeds and a dizzying array of thumb keys– 8 for the left and 4 for the right, were more than I had patience for. My sister had more patience than I did in that respect, but played the oboe). But I do love the low sound of a bassoon played well, and this one could fit in your pocket.

The rackett apparently fell out of favor, possibly for practical and rather disgusting reasons. If this description from Diabolus in Musica is accurate, I can completely see why.

If you’re currently eating your lunch, stop reading now. The rackett survived as a useful pocket bass instrument until the eighteenth century. Heaven forbid that any musical instrument should retain any semblance of guts, so when the great and glorious shawm and curtal were “refined” into the emasculated oboe and bassoon, they tried it with the rackett as well, but came unstuck. To get a “polite” tone, they had to narrow the bore, which was already narrow. That would be fine, except that they tended to play the things after dinner, and bits of semi-chewed food would find their way down the reed and into the narrow bits, eventually clogging the instrument solid. Now, unclogging a rackett is a technician’s job, so the beast would be put on a shelf until the local instrument maker could look at it. If that shelf happened to be in the sun, or above a fireplace, ideal breeding conditions for bacteria would ensue, and pressure would build up in the clogged tubes. There are a supposedly a number of attested cases of shelved racketts exploding without warning, emitting splinters and noxious odours in equal quantity.

Blech!! I’d like to hear one, but only before dinner.