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Merry Christmas from Webb of Science

24 Dec
Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

seasonal glow

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Exploding Color

4 Jul
NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

Yesterday, we plotted how best to see the NYC fireworks display tonight with the least amount of inconvenience. In other years, we’ve had friends with roof access and good proximity. And a few years ago, we lived in an apartment in New Jersey that sat on a hill facing Manhattan with a bay window vantage point of much of New York Harbor.

That view was my favorite feature of that apartment, which we paid for in sweat equity– a climb up narrow stairs to the third floor. Any time of the year, but particularly on summer evenings, we might hear pops and crackles and head to the window to see where the colored bursts might appear next. Though we usually had no idea of the reason, the sky exploded in color just for us.

As a chemist I know that the palette of those bursts is all about burning different metal ions to produce fountains of shimmering color. And there’s a downside: some of the chemicals– such as perchlorates– in traditional fireworks can cause health and environmental problems. While researchers are working on greener solutions, conventional pyrotechnics are still cheaper.

Even if it means fewer displays, I hope more fireworks shows will “go green”– and red and blue and purple. Even if fireworks occur less often, the “added color value” would be worth it.

When Manhattan streets and the sun align

26 May
Manhattanhenge from Queens, Photo by David Reeves via flickr

Manhattanhenge from Queens, Photo by David Reeves via flickr

It’s just about time for Manhattanhenge– that moment where the sun aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. The magic times this year are Saturday and Sunday– May 30 & 31 and again on July 11 & 12.

On a day with a clear sunset, the experience is breathtaking. In 2005, when I still lived at the NE corner of Central Park, I happened to be riding a bus to City College for a soccer game on a clear Manhattanhenge evening. I highly recommend the bus viewing method– though it’s not good for photographs– the memory of that pink orb hovering over the horizon between city structures as I rode uptown still gives me chills.

Stonehenge at the solstice sunrise by tarotastic via flickr

Stonehenge at the solstice sunrise by tarotastic via flickr

I’ve been to Stonehenge, but I’ve never seen the Solstice sunrise. But that transient mixture of the cosmic with a human-produced structure, particularly when you transfer that experience to such a densely-packed urban location provides a collective opportunity to reflect on our individual place in relationship to the rest of the cosmos. Who are we and where do we fit? In our personal lives, our work, society, the cosmos? Twice a year, the streets we travel realign.

This year, now that Mayor Bloomberg has closed parts of Broadway near Times Square and Herald Square, I wonder if Midtown might not be the spot to view it. That is, if the hustle and bustle of tourists and synthetic light shows can pause long enough for a quiet, natural spectacle.

Summer is (almost) here

25 May
Memorial Day weekend in NY Harbor

Memorial Day weekend in NY Harbor

Fleeting moments between spring and summer are magic in my little corner of NY harbor. Bikes and rollerblades speed by– walkers, joggers, and marathoners-in-training drink in the cool breeze laced with sweetness (honeysuckle?). And the hardy fishermen (with an occasional woman) cluster in cultural pockets, speaking Chinese, Spanish, or Brooklyn-drenched English.

big fish

big fish

At another fisherman’s pocket, we found this catch-of-the-day, still gasping for breath. The anglers didn’t understand enough English to identify it to another passerby (probably 3 feet long– a striped bass– one of those fish that you actually can eat from NY harbor, my husband noted.).

By dusk we’d moved back inland stopping for dinner in our local diner, barely making a dent in the mounds of pot roast and the Greek combo.

Long walk + leftovers = holiday weekend

New York State of Mind

20 May
Summer afternoon in 2004-- view from the Staten Island Ferry, the harbor tour on an intern's budget

Summer afternoon in 2004-- view from the Staten Island Ferry, the harbor tour on an intern's budget

Five years ago today, I arrived in Manhattan with two cats, dreams of a new career, and a little overwhelmed by my move from the college-town Midwest. At that point, that Sarah could have told you generally what she wanted her career to look like in 5 years. But the woman who miraculously found a parking space on her block to unload the Toyota, waiting for her new roommate to bring her apartment keys, couldn’t have imagined what my life would look like today.

My NYC move was far from unusual– I came for 6 months of internships. I’d spent little time in NYC before I uprooted my life to come here– one day as a tourist when I was in high school. But NYC somehow hit the balance that I’d never found in my bounces between college towns and mid-size cities in the United States and Europe. Urban exhaustion initially hit me much like language exhaustion did when I lived in Germany, but I was somehow “home”– finally living in a space that combined the best of the eclectic United States and the history and culture of Europe. Earlier I’d always felt that my personality was somehow divided into geographic– or even continental– zones.

So, first I fell in love with New York, and chose to stay on and cobble together freelance work “temporarily” until I found “a real job.” Soon after the decision to stay, I fell in love a second time, with the man I later married. And as my career evolved, I realized that freelancing was, in fact, my real job after all.

Moving to NYC was a risk well worth taking, and what I didn’t realize at the time was how well my graduate school years, though tough and tubulent, prepared me for what has become my freelance science writing career. So, though I don’t know if Sarah from 5 years ago would recognize me, I definitely didn’t jettison everything she learned in the laboratory–  more about life than chemistry.

  1. Self-motivation— I learned how to independently manage a research project, plan experiments and budget my time. My current work is different, but the principles behind it are the same.
  2. Research— I spent a lot of time looking for written information and finding people who could help me with my research problems– not all that different from finding, talking to, and evaluating sources.
  3. Turning failure into a learning experience— Most scientific experiments fail on some level, but the learning comes from figuring out what went wrong. So near misses breed success. Failure also served as a catalyst for my writing career. The first time I applied for a writing internship in 2003, I was turned down– and completely devastated. If I hadn’t been sure that I wanted to do this, I might have given up then. I stiffened my resolve, got more clips, and moved on (and applied the next year). Resistance, failure, whatever you want to call it, serves as a gut-check. Does it mean that you need to make a turn and head in another direction? Or does it mean that you need to climb over or through the obstacle in your path?
Wandering through The Gates in Central Park in early 2005

Wandering through The Gates in Central Park in early 2005

So, here’s to five years– as a science writer and in NYC.  I’m excited to see what the next five bring.

Mammals to an extreme

13 May

I’ve been making the rounds of interesting New York City science events this week. Yesterday morning– along with a bunch of other journalists– I got a preview of the American Museum of Natural History‘s Extreme Mammals exhibition, which opens on Saturday, May 16.

Indricotherium © AMNH/D. Finnin

Indricotherium © AMNH/D. Finnin

Walking through the exhibit, it’s interesting to think about what we consider “normal” about mammals and how some of these examples, mostly fossils and model reconstructions, challenge that notion. The exhibit entrance is striking, a model of an ancient rhinoceros relative (Indricotherium), the largest-ever land mammal– so big that he’s the entry gate to the exhibit.

Batodonoides © AMNH/D. Finnin

Batodonoides © AMNH/D. Finnin

Next, of course, is the smallest– a model of a bumblebee bat– a little thumb size creature about the size of those little plastic animals that you sometimes see decorating the end of kids’ pencils or pens. Evolution may be random, but here it almost seems whimsical, like nature created a beautiful toy.

Sugar glider © AMNH/ R. Mickens

Sugar glider © AMNH/ R. Mickens

However, the cute centerpiece of the exhibits are live sugar gliders– little Australian marsupials that look a little like a cross between a squirrel and a bat– flaps of skin between their front and back legs serve as parachutes that allow them to glide.

It’s a fun exhibit with lots of interesting factoids about brain size, trunks, horns, and even scales– unexpected features on some unusual creatures. So, it’s worth a stop, and save time to watch the sugar gliders.

Isotopes and esters (that “maple syrup” smell)

5 Feb

Two waves of chemistry news hit my ears in the last 24 hours. As I was getting getting ready to herd the cats to the back of the apartment and cover up the parrot, I saw this clip on WNBC’s sports desk.

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Yes, indeed, Tommy Lasorda just asked, “what does isotope stand for?” in reference to the triple-A minor league team, the Albuquerque Isotopes. Unfortunately, his informant, the new manager of the team, knew almost as little as he did. For the record, guys, isotopes are elements with different masses because they have different numbers of neutrons. If the number of protons change, you get a different element. But, I’m guessing that Lasorda could probably teach this football fan a few things about baseball. For chemistry fans, perhaps any publicity is good publicity, if they could just get the explanation right.

Esters (not “esthers”)– one of my favorite organic chemistry functional groups: this press-deprived chemistry term got major coverage today. Mayor Bloomberg formally announced that New York City’s “maple syrup smell mystery” had been solved. Since 2005, the smell occasionally has occasionally permeated Manhattan, even making 30 Rock fame. The culprit? New Jersey! Not the whole state apparently, but the most recent incident on January 29th came from Frutarom in North Bergen, which processes fenugreek seeds for flavorings and fragrances. Scientific American notes that fenugreek and maple syrup both contain the compound sotolone, a cyclic ester.

So, despite what many New Yorkers think, there are sweet smells that waft over from “that side” of the Hudson River. Married to a proud Jerseyite, I already knew that was true.