Tag Archives: Science

Two families face housing crisis and changing worlds in Kingsolver novel

When I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver sitting on the “New” display at Barnes & Noble before Christmas, I snatched it up conspiratorially. I bought it and hid it because I thought for sure someone would be giving it to me for Christmas, I’m such a fan of Kingsolver fiction.

unshelteredBut I was safe. No one gave it to me for Christmas, so Unsheltered was the first book I cracked open when I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books this year.

As much as I anticipated it, it was a weird one starting out. Another reviewer described the beginning as a lecture in world economics, finance and domestic politics. Kingsolver also introduces 10 characters in two families living in two centuries in the first two chapters. It wasn’t easy to keep everything straight but I persevered, and I was rewarded.

It’s a thinker, tackling difficult subjects like parenting, unemployment and entomology. If you’re looking for an escape from your unending bills or your insufferable in-laws or your know-it-all 20something kid or the ants in your yard, you won’t find a respite here—they all play a role in Unsheltered.

As usual in Kingsolver novels, she throws in some history, some real people, some food, and some memorable characters. She mixes all the prickly parts together and gets a pretty good story, heavy on metaphor, I think. If you’ve read Kingsolver’s Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible, you know what you’re in for.

As for the real people, one of the historical figures in this story is Mary Treat, a lady scientist who lived in Vineland, New Jersey, during the second half of the 19th century, when the historical part of this novel is set. Kingsolver’s noteworthy research brings Treat to life on these pages. Another real person is the Bullhorn, clearly a description of Donald Trump, who was running away with the Republican primaries during the course of the modern part of the book. Just a warning: If you’re a Trump fan, you might not like Unsheltered; Kingsolver is clearly not a fan, and Trump is a two-dimensional villain here.

The novel’s title comes from another character in the book: A house in Vineland where both families live. It’s falling down in both centuries, a crumbling, leaking, poorly built structure that barely keeps it together through the story. The title also addresses how the world looks when it becomes apparent the emperor has no clothes. In the late 19th century, the world is faced with scientific discoveries that turn religious belief, especially the belief that God created man from his own image and woman from one of man’s ribs, on its head (Charles Darwin plays a big role in Unsheltered). In the 21st century, the main character Willa, who believes people who work hard deserve a nice house and their children deserve more than their parents, is confronted with evidence to the contrary.

As mentioned, Unsheltered makes one think. About economic growth. About what babies and aging women deserve. About recycling. Even about press freedom. And if a fictional novel can do all that, it’s saying something. That’s a story worth reading.

Examining the shine of the sun

There’s nothing like a little astronomy for making a person feel small and her problems seem insignificant.

I had the opportunity the other day to participate in a solar viewing. Conveniently, solar viewings occur during the day so I didn’t even have to contend with contagious yawning.

In this particular solar viewing, the telescope was set up with a hydrogen alpha filter. Such filters permit only red-orange light and prevent our puny human eyes from going blind, which is what happens when you look directly into the unfiltered sun. (Remember those fifth-grade homemade pinhole boxes that allowed you see a solar eclipse back when you were a kid? The ones your teacher warned you to use instead of looking directly into the sun because you could go blind? Those weren’t empty threats, nosiree, the sun is actually that powerful.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The majesty of the size of the earth began as we drove up a mountain to get to the telescope. Because telescopes on mountains have less atmosphere with which to contend, the celestial spectacle is all the better. At the top of that mountain with a view of 50 miles or more, I could literally see the curvature of the earth.

But just barely.

This enormous round orb on which we live is so large, one can barely get high enough on its craggy surface to see its roundness.

Then, before I got my turn looking at the sun through this hydrogen alpha-filtered telescope, the telescope technician (making up his title here, but you get the gist — regular people can’t operate hydrogen alpha-filtered telescopes) pointed to an illustration that showed the size of the Earth in comparison to the sun. The sun was two feet across, and the earth was barely more than a dab I could make with end of a wet Q-tip.

So this earth that just minutes before had awed me with its size barely registers in comparison to the sun.

Which pretty much makes me an ant in the industrial-sized employee kitchen of an Amazon distribution facility.

Or something like that.

Enough with Q-tips and Amazon.

I get my turn to look through the telescope directly at the sun and I see this small reddish-orange circle against a dark reddish background.

“Can you see any prominences?” the technician asks.

A prominence, for those of you who have forgotten your college astronomy lessons because they required too much math, is a brilliant eruption of super hot plasma from the sun’s edge that can extend sometimes thousands of miles into space.

In other words, prominences are the little lines you drew around the circle in the sky you made with the yellow-orange Crayon when you drew a picture of your house in kindergarten. A prominence is the visible phenomena we imagine when we think of the sun’s rays.

“Hmm, it looks smooth to me,” I said, pulling my face away from the telescope.

The technician who expected great oohs and aahs gave me a puzzled look. Then he realized he was looking at woman who might possibly be old enough to have (slightly) failing eyesight.

“Oh! You can adjust the focus right here,” pointing to a dial that looks exactly what you might use on a pair of binoculars to sharpen the view. Even though I’m not a hydrogen alpha-filtered telescope technician, I was allowed to adjust this dial.

“Oh my God,” I said.

I think using the Lord’s name was appropriate in this setting.

I could see prominences now, eight minutes and 20 seconds after they appeared (that’s how long it takes the sun’s light to reach earth). Magnificent slow-motion flame-shaped features circled the sun. Just one of them dwarfed that little dab that represented the size of the earth in comparison to the sun.

It was awesome. In the traditional definition of that word, not the cool kids’ use of it.

Suddenly, my little life, occurring in the blink of an eye of the life of the sun, seemed, well, less than little. I’m just a bug crawling on the face of the earth. And whatever I think is so important right now really isn’t relevant. At all.

Knowing my speckitude (not a word, but I’m making it one now) was actually quite comforting. Like, I can quit worrying about wasting my time or ruining anything. I’m not not that big or powerful.

In the end, the sun still shines.

New chemical elements are tough to swallow

The Periodic Table.

A crucial organizational and predictive key for chemists. And the bane of a communications major’s existence.

When the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced recently that four newly discovered elements have been added to the periodic table, I swallowed hard. Yikes, I thought, chemistry. The only class that ever earned me a C. And just barely.

(Some people are quite happy with Cs, and good for them. But I was one of those nerdy straight-A types who moped around for days after getting 88 on an exam.)

I remember an enormous Periodic Table decorating the wall of Mr. Klawitter’s eighth-grade chemistry class at Wadena Junior High School (both the school and Mr. Klawitter are gone now, but I bet that Periodic Table lives on somewhere). Memorizing the relative positions of the elements was fairly easy for me (who cares about learning anything and we can just memorize it!) so the Periodic Table was my friend back then.

But understanding the finer points of chemistry, particularly the mathematical ones, was clearly beyond me. When I took Chemistry 101 my freshman year in college to fulfill some gen-ed requirement, I had no idea what would be required of me. Particularly when I was much more interested in chemistry of another sort — sexual chemistry. The time I spent studying the opposite sex would have been put to better use cozying up to a chemistry major of either gender.

After miserably failing my 101 chemistry final and earning a generous C in the course, I now believe chemistry majors to be brilliant.

Chemists understand the importance of how the recently discovered superheavy elements fill up the table’s seventh row (because they understand the meaning  of “superheavy” and the table’s organization of the “seventh row”).

But here’s where a communication major’s expertise comes in — creative naming. The international chemistry organisation that announced the new elements offered temporary names of ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium. Bor-ing. The final monickers of the new elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property, or a scientist (all to be circulated, pondered and approved of course).

I’m a fan of elemental names like iron, zinc and gold. Short, to the point and easy to memorize. So how about words that play on the new elements’ “superheavy” size in a way that every eighth grader can remember:

Gulp, Big Gulp, Double Gulp and Super Double Gulp aka Gp, Bgp, Dg and Sdg.

Chemists everywhere are swallowing hard, I know.

Happiness: A moving target

Where are you most happy?

Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot to experience happiness, according to researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The study, conducted last year, compiled data from people who used the Mappiness smart phone app. The app beeps users daily to record their levels of happiness and uses global positioning system software to determine their locations.

Even if users weren’t by the sea, those who were in natural environments anywhere reported being happier than those in urban settings. The study also found women and older people appreciated being outside at even higher levels.

No wonder we’ve all been so grumpy this winter. We’ve been cooped up way too long.

Not today though. The skies were clear and the temperatures in the 60s here in northern Illinois. While I would consider myself generally to be an indoors girl, I appreciate nature more as I age. I so enjoy being able to run outside or to take my dog for a walk, and I am so happy to see the grass in my yard turning green.

Today, we hired some energetic boys to apply mulch in strategic places in the yard. I, meanwhile, started a new furniture makeover project in the garage (with the door open). I think I’ve found a new hobby! The process of applying paint to beat-up furnishings is oddly satisfying (I’ll share the results of my work next week).

Wherever you are, here’s wishing you happiness.

My own personal Higgs boson particles

“We are the sum of all people we have ever met; you change the tribe and the tribe changes you.”

~ Dirk Wittenborn in “Fierce People”

My Beloved enjoyed the 2005 film adaptation of Dirk Wittenborn’s “Fierce People” over the weekend. It’s the story of a boy, son of massage therapist and an absent anthropologist, who finds a home with a wealthy man and discovers wealthy people can be as strange — and as dangerous — as primitive tribes.

This quote near the end of the movie got me thinking about some of the people I’ve met over the years who have changed me.

  • My high school drama coach, Miss Sharp, was one of those teachers whose belief in you makes you believe in yourself. She assigned me to be assistant director for one play — probably because there were not suitable stage parts for me — and helped me learn to block scenes and run the show.
  • A colorful, outspoken old lady scared and amazed me when I was a newspaper reporter. She was a hoarder fighting the city to maintain her property, which her neighbors viewed as an overgrown junkyard. While I found her lifestyle disgusting, I admired how she defended her approach to yard work, home maintenance and collecting.
  • While I should have admired the editor in chief for whom I once worked as a copy editor, I vowed never to manage like her. She liked to micromanage my page designs and headlines without being willing to figure out how to use the software necessary to design those pages and write those headlines.
  • I once worked with a woman named Diane who facilitated focus groups. I remember sitting behind the one-way glass mesmerized by how she deftly wrangled a group of people with disparate opinions and then wrote insightful reports on what she learned.
  • My stepchildren rank high on the list of tribe members who’ve changed me. I went into stepparenting thinking I would be the influencer (and hopefully, I have), but I didn’t realize how much my stepchildren would influence me.

These people are sort of like Higgs boson particles, tiny bits of matter responsible for all mass in the universe, only these tribe members are tiny bits of influence in my personal structure. Of course, as Wittenborn observed, I am the sum of all these people and many more, some of whom I’m like and some of whom I’ve vowed to never be like.

Who are some of the change catalysts or Higgs boson particles in your tribe?

Planetary proximity

Venus and Jupiter look like they’re cozying up together in the Western sky tonight and tomorrow night.

The are within three degrees of each other — the width of your thumb at arm’s length (try it — stick your thumb out there). With the relative lack of light pollution in the little burg of Hampshire, I observed them through the leafless trees in my back yard tonight. Venus is brighter (of course she is) because she is relatively closer to Earth than Jupiter.

In third grade, my teacher created one of those famed bulletin board displays that burns into one’s brain like witnessing a fellow third grader puke green beans all over his melmac tray at lunch. You just can’t erase the memory.

Because of her (the teacher, not the source of green vomit), I understand the order of the planets and what makes them unique — tiny Mercury, cloudy Venus,  life-giving Earth, red Mars, Jupiter with its weird eye, ringed Saturn, unremarkable Uranus and Neptune and, at the time, far-flung Pluto. Since the ’70s, Pluto lost its standing as a planet and is now considered just a big hunk of space rock but the nostalgic armchair astronomists assign her past title like a head of state. Once President Bush, always President Bush. Once Planet Pluto, always Planet Pluto.

And yes, I did that on purpose. Astronomist = astronomer + astrologist. While I can guess what happens with Venus, the planet of love and beauty, dances near to Jupiter, the symbol of growth, expansion and prosperity, I’m not astrologist. You’re on your own.

Getting nostalgic for third grade and thinking of dancing planets has me musing philosophical about another bit of random pop culture.

Goddess on the mountain top,
Burning like a silver flame,
The summit of beauty and love,
And Venus was her name.

~ “Venus” performed by Bananarama

Sparks fly in the bedroom

If you’re looking for more electricity in the bedroom, invest in a heated mattress pad.

My parents gave my Beloved and me a heated mattress pad for Christmas. My parents are great like that, thinking of our comfort during a long, cold winter.

Well, in December it looked like it could be a long, cold winter.

I put the mattress pad on the bed and plugged it in. The heat on each side can be controlled independently which is important since my Beloved is always hot and I’m always cold.

One night we’re lying in bed (c’mon, people! you have to get horizontal to fall to sleep!), and I lightly touched Tyler’s arm.

My finger vibrated (c’mon people! not vibrator, vibrated!).

It was not a shock exactly but definitely an electric current.

OK, my Beloved is an exciting guy, but that was weird.

“Honey, touch me,” I said. (Seriously, people! Get your mind out of the gutter!)

So my Beloved touched my arm with his fingertips.

And his finger vibrated, too.

I’m telling you, this was not exciting. This was scary. Electric current was passing through our bodies. I felt like a steak on a George Foreman Grill.

I freaked out and unplugged the mattress pad.

My Beloved surmised that perhaps our bed was electric (!) because each side of the mattress pad was plugged into different electrical outlets. This somehow was causing a difference in current or volts or something because the electricity had to travel some distance from the electrical box (I’m a blogger, not an electrician — just trust me on this).

So I dug up an extension cord and plugged both sides of the mattress pad into a single outlet.

We tested it out.

Ah, no electrical charge.

From the mattress pad anyway.