All posts by Stephen

About Stephen

The LOLTrek guy. Science lecturer, robotics researcher, award-winning interactive fiction author, Disasterpiece Theatre and WhatTheCast podcaster, and occasional programmer. My Google Profile+

Help Us Present Science at GeekGirlCon 2014

The DIY Science Zone is back at GeekGirlCon this year! We’ll be extracting DNA, making slime and light, creating tiny hovercrafts, demonstrating dice roll science, and constructing to-scale solar systems that you can carry in your pocket. It’s a chance to have people try out science with a team of scientists and science communicators who are in love with science and eager to share that joy with others. Last year we had 350 people come through the DIY Science Zone. This year we’re hoping for even more!

We’ve been fundraising this year, and as part of that, we’ve been performing Acts of Whimsy as a reward for those donations. Because I am a crazy person and like doing videos, I volunteered to create a YouTube science video, only instead of explaining or demonstrating real science, I’d explain an outmoded scientific theory. That’s how I ended up making a very earnest video about phlogiston.

While we’ve reached our fundraising goal of $6,000 (!), anything we raise above that will be used for next year’s hands-on science zone. So if you’d like to help see the DIY Science Zone happen next year, please pitch in. And if you’re in Seattle on October 11th and 12th, stop by and do some science with us.

We Did Mad Lib Abstracts for Science

As part of our fundraising to hold a DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon, we promised to perform acts of whimsy as we hit funding milestones. We’ve passed $3,000, which is amazing and means we’re halfway to our goal. (Feel free to donate money at this link to help us reach it, by the way!)

It also means that we’re starting to perform our Acts of Whimsy. We’d passed $2,000 by Friday, so as promised, we played Mad Libs for science. Twice! We chose to mutilate one of my old abstracts and Torrey Stenmark’s thesis. Nicole “Noisy Astronomer” Gugliucci gathered us all into a Google+ hangout last Friday and we were off to the races.

The event veered quickly in a non-work-safe direction, as you can tell from what happened to my abstract.

We report on the observation of a highly degenerate, strongly smarmy Fermi gas of chairs. Fermionic lithium-6 atoms in a kind trap are evaporatively escaped to degeneracy using a taxidermy to induce strong, resonant pony. Upon lovingly releasing the hair from the trap, the gas is observed to run rapidly in the blue direction while remaining nearly big-assed in the axial direction. We interpret the expansion bronies in terms of tart superfluid and collisional tarts. For the data taken at the longest evaporation penises, we find that wooly hydrodynamics does not provide a smelly explanation, whereas vagina is plausible.

Vagina is plausible indeed. What about Torrey’s? It involved dudebros, palladium-catalyzed douche balloon reactions, and oxygen-containing Corgi. Watch the video for more, or grab the PDF of the results.

Since we’ve broken $3,000 since Friday, we’ll do another Mad Lib abstract. If you want to join in the fun later this week follow @NoisyAstronomer for the details. It also means that I have to re-write Prometheus for sock puppets. On the plus side, Dr. Rubidium has to listen to Nickelback, so there’s a silver lining to the socks.

To sum up: Sockmetheus! Dr. Rubidium suffers through Nickelback! Another chance for someone’s abstract to remain big-assed in the axial direction! Best of all, we’re going to get to spread the joy of science to GeekGirlCon attendees. We’re halfway to our fundraising goal. Care to help us reach it?

Help Us Hold a DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon and Make Me Fix Prometheus

DIY Science ZoneOne of the things I love to do is to help people discover how awesome science is. One of the best ways, hands down, is hands on: give people the opportunity to commit science themselves. GeekGirlCon agrees, because they’re letting a team of us hold an all-day-long DIY science zone!

Why am I excited about this? Let me count the ways.

We’re offering a range of science activities. We’re extracting DNA and building neurons. We’re offering genetic taste tests and showing you how to find latent fingerprints. The experiments are for a range of ages and cover a bunch of different areas of science. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to make fossils out of coffee grounds, especially in the heart of Starbucks country?

We’re offering them to an under-served group. Despite the great strides made in the last decades, too many people still view science as being for males. GeekGirlCon celebrates women in geek culture, and that includes the sciences. Here’s our chance to help bust the stereotype of science as being a “guy thing”. Any time I can kick against that stereotype, I will.

The attendees will get to see real-live scientists who aren’t lab-coated stereotypes. I tend to forget that most people don’t know scientists personally or ever meet them. Is it any wonder that, when asked to draw a scientist, many kids draw an older white dude with Doc Brown hair? It’s pervasive enough that characters on The Big Bang Theory were going to be in lab coats before the showrunners met actual science graduate students and realized that t-shirts and jeans were more common. One way to combat that stereotype is to let people meet actual scientists.

Our team is diverse. We’ve got younger and older scientists. Most of our team is female; many are not Caucasian. I want people to realize that science is open to anyone. If we had a team that was all older white guys, then the subtext is, “Science really is just for white dudes with Doc Brown hair.”

We can make Dr. Rubidium suffer by making her listen to Nickelback.

See, to make the DIY Science Zone happen, we’re raising $5,000 to $6,000 for supplies, banners, lodging, and airfare. We’ve all signed up to perform different Acts of Whimsy as we raise more money. Our fearless leader has agreed that, for every $500 we raise, she’ll listen to a different Nickelback album live on a G+ Hangout. And she haaaaaaaates Nickelback. She’s even got a “No Nickelback” sign posted on her lab door.

Dr. Rubidium hates NickelbackBut! She’s trying to weasel out of it! People are now marking their donations as being either pro-Nickelback or anti-Nickelback! Because so many people have marked their donations as anti-Nickelback, she’s not going to have to listen to “Curb”!

This cannot stand. Help the pro-Nickelback forces by donating to our cause. Plus there are a lot of other Acts of Whimsey that’ll happen. Live G+ Hangouts where we take our paper abstracts and make Mad Libs out of them. Seelix’s cat dressed up as Avengers! Heaven help me, I promised that, at $3,000, I’d fix the science and logic errors in Prometheus and re-enact the movie.

With sock puppets.

But if Dr. Rubidium has to listen to multiple Nickelback albums, it’ll all be worth it.

Please. Donate money to make the DIY Science Zone happen. For science. For education.

For Nickelback.

My Dragon Con 2013 Schedule

It’s that time of year again, when I go to Dragon Con and talk science and space and so on and so forth. Do you dare to stalk the wily Granade?

The Dragon Con Late Show. Every morning at 9:00 AM, Hyatt Centennial I-III.
Every morning at 9 I and my co-hosts Brian and Ally will go through the latest news, schedule changes, and what’s hot for the day. And this year: guests! We’re growing up into a real morning chat show.

Your Lying Eyes. Friday, 7:00 PM, Hilton 202.
You think in high resolution, but you don’t see in it. Discover how optical illusions show how much of your sight is really in your mind.

This is a fun one. I show a lot of nifty visual illusions and you get to learn how much your brain lies to you about what you’re really seeing.

DOOM! Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow. Saturday, 2:30 PM, Hilton Crystal Ballroom.
Homebrew nuclear reactors! Liquid nitrogen kitchen recipes! Plus a new Evil Plan will be revealed!

This year we’re taking evil plans from the audience, auditioning for new minions (since the old ones have a bad habit of catching fire), and in general having some fun with science.

What The Cast – Live! Sunday, 10:00 AM, Hilton 203.
We’re doing a live taping of our long-running WhatTheCast podcast. Bring your finest convention stories to amaze and amuse us.

Disasterpiece Theatre Sunday, 11:30 AM, Hilton 203.
Sometimes you gotta kick around ideas to formulate Hollywood movie pitches.

Alex, Brooke, Matt and I will propose the finest movie pitches ever, for certain values of “finest” meaning “most horribly terriblest”, and yes “terriblest” is so a word shut up. We’re planning on a secret guest, and rumor has it we may be pitching a movie based on Welcome to Night Vale.

You Can’t Get There From Here. Sunday, 2:30 PM, Hilton 309-310.
Jump in that rocketship and fly directly wherever you want… never mind about orbital trajectories, velocities, and gravity wells.

I managed to schedule myself for three nearly back-to-back events on Sunday, so it should be fun seeing just how fried I am by this panel. But it’s going to be fun — I’m going to turn everyone into rocket scientists in 55 minutes with only three equations and one graph.

Phew, that seems like enough for one convention.

To Liza on Her Sixth Birthday

Liza contemplates a butterfly

Since you still are obsessed with animals, we celebrated your birthday at the Tennessee Aquarium. You got to look at all of the aquatic animals and pet stingrays and vibrate excitedly. Before you were born, I never thought that we’d be the kind of family with a season pass to an aquarium. Now we’ve been there enough that you know some of the animals by name and are disappointed if you don’t get to see Stewie the sea turtle.

Liza with a grasshopper on her shoulder

You love more than just the aquarium animals, which is good since otherwise you’d spend most of your time being sad that macaroni penguins don’t feature much in our day-to-day life. Bugs still hold a special place in your heart. You’ve kept a dead cicada in your car seat’s cupholder for more than a year. Last summer a grasshopper jumped onto your leg and you carefully helped it climb up you until it reached your shoulder so it could become your animal familiar. We have endless pictures of you with beetles and butterflies on your finger. You’re also fond of mammals. You asked to dress up as a cat for Halloween, and at Christmas when you got to visit a horse, your glee was strong enough to melt the snow all around you.

Liza stacks stuff on Anwyn the corgidor

You adore Anwyn, our rescued corgi-lab mix. You call her “puppy” even though she’s an adult dog, though we don’t actually know how old Anwyn is. Vets tell a dog’s age by looking at their teeth, evaluating the amount of tooth wear, and then making a wild-ass guess. One vet who saw Anwyn said that she was three years old, and then the next said that she was maybe a year old. If I tolerated error bars like that with you, this would be my letter to you on your second or maybe seventh birthday. Anyway, you like to hug Anwyn randomly, which she tolerates with the well-nigh infinite patience of a Labrador. She also shares your love of bugs. Some nights you two race as Anwyn tries to eat a beetle that’s skittering across the floor while you’re trying to save it.

Ballerina Liza brandishes a Nerf gun

Stuffed animals also count. You sleep with as many of them as you can pile on the bed. The stuffed animals build up like barnacles or YouTube comments, and like those two things, they have to be scraped off from time to time. We bring in a shovel and clear off your bed so that there’s room for you, but each night you choose a new animal to sleep with until your bed is once again covered. Your mom and I have wondered if they secretly compete to be nearest the bed and thus the most visible, increasing the chance that you’ll choose them to sleep with. We’ve had to limit the number of new stuffed animals you’ve been getting. “I just want this one,” you’ll lie convincingly, but we’re on to you. For you, getting just one stuffed animal is like eating just one potato chip.

Liza hangs upside-down in her rain boots

You continue to be way more athletic than anyone else in the family. When you went rollerskating for the first time since you were very young, you skated like a fiend. You’re still a big fan of swimming. If there’s a ball around, you’ll kick it up and down an imaginary field. At some point your mom and I should stop being lazy and sign you up for an organized sport, or even a disorganized one like kids’ soccer. It may be tied to how you love going very fast. When we went to a local amusement park, you skipped all the slower kid rides and made a beeline for the rollercoasters. It’s a good thing I still enjoy going on them!

Liza's drawing of some kind of weird cryptid

When you’re not running around, you’re often crafting. If I haven’t seen you in a half-hour and can’t hear you arguing with Eli, I know you’re in the office and the floor is covered with paper, crayons, pens, and glue. When I come home from work, I’ll often find a little drawing that you’ve made on a scrap of paper and left lying on a table or sofa or Anwyn. These creations often come with stories. “This is my angel dog cat butterfly,” you’ll say, proudly presenting the new cryptid that you’ve created.

Liza in her Daisy Girl Scouts uniform

All of this comes together in Girl Scouts, which combines crafting and nature in a way that is tailor-made for you. You joined this year and became a Daisy, though not a literal daisy, just a figurative one who earned petals by doing cool activities and also selling cookies. You sold lots of cookies, a number of them to us. I never thought I could be tired of Thin Mints, and yet here I am, completely uninterested in the sleeve of them that’s currently in our freezer and has been for weeks. It used to be that Thin Mints evaporated around me, and now they hang around longer than broccoli hangs around your brother. You didn’t just sell cookies to us, though. We had you do the selling. I didn’t bring the sign-up sheet in to work. Instead, you came yourself to take orders. You were dressed in your Daisy uniform and looked like a stereotypical cute and quiet and slightly shy Girl Scout and so you sold so many cookies.

Liza at preschool graduation

The best part was when you got to go to Girl Scout camp for one day. You communed with nature and told a counselor that compasses work because of the Earth’s magnetic field. Best of all, you got to paint your own t-shirt. You covered it with giant slabs of paint. The other girls in your troop painted dots or swirly lines. You? You got all Helen Frankenthayler on that t-shirt.

This year you started kindergarten, which also involved a lot of crafting. The first time I visited you at school I got to watch you paint in art class, your tongue stuck out as you concentrated. You were nervous before you started, worried that you’d fail kindergarten because you weren’t yet reading well. I was sympathetic. When I was in kindergarten I worried that I was going to fail kindergarten because I had to skip but I couldn’t do it. I practiced and practiced so I could graduate from kindergarten and not spiral down into a life of drunken homelessness. But the year went swimmingly. You made friends like Trinity and quickly mastered reading.

Liza concentrates on painting a wooden block

While school’s been good, it’s brought with it a host of social pressures that you’re all too aware of. One day you told me, “I don’t want to wear anything Star Wars to school. I don’t want the other girls to know I like Star Wars.” As we talked about it, you kept saying, “Star Wars is for boys,” despite how much you’ve enjoyed the movie and the Lego versions of it. “I don’t know any girls who like Star Wars.” I hate that we have to combat these kinds of stereotypes so early. I don’t want what you enjoy bound up in artificial ideas of what’s for girls and what’s for boys.

Liza in her Captain America sleep shirt

It helps that you’ve got an older brother. You and he watch everything from Star Wars to My Little Pony together, and he ignores most gender distinctions about entertainment. You two play together well, barring the inevitable fighting about whose Lego robot is stronger and nuh uh there’s no way that robot’s shield will stop your laser gun. You’ve got my temper, which means I can tell when you and Eli aren’t getting along because you start shrieking loudly and angrily, making chunks of sheetrock fall from the walls.

Liza has a serious "I just blew bubbles" face

Right now you alternate between being fearless and cautious, between running full-tilt ahead and lagging behind. It takes you a while to warm up to new things. We went to a My Little Pony event at the library, where there were people in giant Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle costumes. You didn’t want to approach them at first, but when we were getting ready to leave you wanted to have your picture taken with them.

Closeup of Liza with paint on her nose

I love watching how you react to things. I can tell when something’s funny because you say “heh” in a low-pitched voice. If it’s really funny you giggle. You absorb every song you hear and sing along with it. There’s nothing like hearing your piping voice singing along to Helena Beat one octave up. Like Eli did before you, you’ve learned the rhythm of jokes but don’t yet fully understand their content, leading to you making up jokes like this one:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Applebee’s.”

“Applebee’s who?”

“Applebee’s got bees in it!”

Liza and friend peer over a pew, laughing

This letter’s a month late because life’s been so hectic lately, but I knew I was going to finish this letter. I’m writing it to future you and future me, so that we can both remember what you turning six was like. We’ll be different people then, the distant descendants of who we are now. My hope is that these letters will tie us to the past and let us re-experience what it was like when you were young.

Liza and dad and a pogo stick

I’m Forcing Science and Podcasting on Baltimore for Balticon 2013

I’m headed up to Balticon 47 this weekend to talk about science and podcasting and more science and more podcasting. How can you resist?

You cannot, that’s how. Or not how. Or — look, just come see me make a fool of myself at any of these fine panels:

Your Lying Eyes. Saturday, 5:00 PM, Salon A.
You think you see in high resolution, but you don’t: your eyes & brain fill in a lot of gaps. Find out how visual illusions teach us how we see. A talk on how our visual system really works and how visual illusions let researchers learn more about how we see what we see.

I love this talk, as it’s an excuse for me to wave my hands furiously about the brain and show cool visual illusions.

Disasterpiece After Dark. Saturday, 9:00 PM, Derby

Normally we keep our live podcast shows at about a PG or PG-13. This is where we indulge in pitching terrible movies that are for the over-18 set.

Disasterpiece Theatre. Sunday, 12:00 noon, Derby
Disasterpiece Theatre is an exercise in true Hollywood movie magic. Each week, we take a theme and try to come up with the movies the industry would be most likely to make. The magic happens when we create something dark and terrible; a hideous and inexorable vision of the cinematic future, and you know true despair.

The live version of our movie podcast is always fun. Come tell us what terrible movies you’d like to see us suggest, and then see what we come up with!

Talk To Me: How To Conduct Podcast Interviews. Sunday, 1:00 PM, Chesapeake.
The do’s, don’t’s, and how-to’s of conducting a podcast interview. What technologies are available to let you interview people from across the globe?

I have strong opinions about how to do interviews. Will my other panelists agree? Do I care if they do or don’t? Who knows!

Live Interview with James Gates Jr. Sunday, 3:00 PM, Salon A.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen Dr. Gates talking on NOVA about string theory, supersymmetry, and unification theories. As a former experimentalist, I’m way out of my depth on this one, so there’s no telling what I’ll ask.

Dramatic Voice Acting. Sunday, 6:00 PM, Derby.
The popular Dynamic Voice Acting panel returns to talk about how to best show off your vocal talents.

My first podcast voice acting credit was this year, so clearly I’m an expert. Also this is my fourth panel in six hours. What was I thinking?

Multi-Creatives. Monday, 12:00 PM, Chesapeake.
The demands of multiple artistic pursuits. Learning to do it all without losing your mind.

I was on this last year, and my advice this year is the same: you will lose your mind. Embrace it. Recognize that you can’t do everything, but then ignore that realization and try to do it all anyway.

Be Careful What You Measure

Johns Hopkins has an excellent graduate program in science writing. For thirty years it’s taught people how to write about science, covering both researching interesting science and turning it into prose that sings. Now Johns Hopkins is closing the program.

Writing for a living, especially about science, has never been easy. It’s become harder over the last decade as newspapers have withered, magazines have closed, and the ranks of people interested in being science writers has swelled. Columbia University’s program in environmental journalism closed to new applicants in 2009 precisely because of the weak job market. But that’s not why Johns Hopkins is ending its MA in science writing. It’s closing the program because it has too few applicants. Not too few to make a good class, mind you. It’s that fewer applicants means a higher percentage of acceptance into the program. That makes Johns Hopkins appear less selective. And that can hurt their rankings among colleges and decrease their prestige.

They’re closing the program because of an arbitrary number.

College selectivity, the ratio of accepted students to applicants, is a status symbol. US News and World Reports factors it into their college rankings. Colleges tout their selectivity to attract top professors and help extract money from alumni.

As selectivity has become a more prevalent measure of a school, colleges have done what you’d expect and worked to become more selective. They’ve mainly attacked the problem in the most direct fashion: raise the number of applicants. They’ve marketed aggressively to prospective students to increase applications. They’ve also been aided by the rise of the common application, a single college application that’s now accepted by nearly 500 schools, making it far easier to apply to more schools at once. And it’s worked. College selectivity is on the rise, buoyed by increased applications, and colleges are happily touting how each year’s new crop of freshmen is better than the last. It’s like the Flynn effect and Lake Wobegon combined, where this year’s new students are more above average than last year’s.

Increasing applicants increases the selectivity ratio’s denominator. The numerator is roughly fixed, since colleges depend on a certain student body size to keep tuition income steady and classes filled. So the only other thing you can do to improve your selectivity is to drop programs that detract from that selectivity. That’s what Johns Hopkins did, as Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, told Science Careers.

When you measure something, the act of measurement changes what you’re measuring. It’s true in physics, where the observer effect means, at the quantum level, that we can’t observe a physical process without changing it. It’s just as true in the social world. When you start measuring something, people will change what they’re doing to maximize the value of what you’re measuring. We’ve seen it on Wall Street, where status is measured in dollars and traders maximized their returns at the expense of the entire economic system. It’s human nature to game systems. That makes it vital to be careful when you choose to measure and report something. Choose the right measurement and you improve the system.

Pick the wrong thing and you might kill off an excellent science writing program.

Even If You Don’t Blink, The Weeping Angels Will Still Get You

The Doctor warns Sally about the Weeping Angels“Listen,” the man on the TV says, “your life could depend on this: don’t blink. Don’t even blink!” He gestures, thumb and middle finger in a circle. “Blink and you’re dead. They’re fast — faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and don’t blink.”

Weeping Angel from the Doctor Who episode BlinkThe Doctor is warning Sally Sparrow about the Weeping Angels, aliens on the TV show Doctor Who. The Angels have become one of the series’ most popular monsters because of how scary they are. When you’re staring at them, they’re “quantum locked” and are frozen in stone. They look like any other statue. But when you’re not observing them they move quickly, so quickly that they can rush toward you when you blink. And if they touch you, they’ll send you back decades in time.

It’s a simple but effective concept. The Weeping Angels take advantage of something we do every few seconds without realizing it. You can stop yourself from blinking…for a while. It’s like holding your breath. The longer you go without blinking, the stronger the urge to do so becomes, and all the while a deadly creature is right in front of you, waiting for your moment of weakness.

As you’d imagine, this has led to a lot of online theorizing of how to deal with the Angels, in much the same way that people like imagining what they’ll do when the zombies rise. Most schemes involve blinking first one eye and then the other so that you never stop observing an Angel. As long as you’re watching and Angel, you’re safe.

That won’t work, though, because you’re often blind even though your eyes are open.

Saccades

Go stand in front of a mirror with your nose a few inches from its surface. Look at your reflection’s left eye, then switch to looking at the right eye as quickly as you can. Then look at the left eye again. Then the right. And then ask yourself this: why don’t you see your eyes moving?

Congratulations. You’ve just experienced saccadic masking.

You may think of your eyes like cameras, taking high-definition pictures of everything around you, but they’re not. Your eyes only see in high resolution across a small part of your vision, one that’s roughly the size of your thumbnail when you hold your thumb out at arm’s length in front of you. Away from that central part, your vision gets fuzzier and fuzzier and becomes black-and-white. To compensate, you move your eyes to sweep the narrow spotlight of your high-res vision all around. When you meet someone, your eyes dart to their eyes, their nose, their mouth, their hair. Your brain builds up a composite image of what the person looks like from these snapshots.

How saccades have us look at a faceThese rapid eye jerks, called saccades, aren’t fully under your conscious control. Once one starts you can’t change its direction or how fast your eyes move, and your eyes move fast. Saccades are the fastest movements your body is capable of. They’re so fast that your vision blurs during the movement. To get rid of that blur, your brain performs saccadic masking. Nearly a tenth of a second before your eyes move, your brain shuts down a lot of visual processing so that you’re not aware of your eyes moving and don’t consciously see any blurred images. As soon as the image on your eye is stable, your brain goes back to processing all of the visual data coming from your eyes. Your also lies to you, hiding saccades from you by fiddling with your perception of time during saccadic masking so that it feels like it takes less time than it does. The end result is that you’re effectively blind during a saccade.

It gets worse! If something moves during a saccade, you generally don’t see the motion. If an Angel crept up on you during a saccade, you might not see moving it at all until it was too late.

Microsaccades

Fine, you say, I won’t move my eyes around. I’ll stare fixedly at that Angel. Unfortunately, not even that may save you, thanks to microsaccades. Even when you think your eyes are staying still, they’re not. In part it’s to keep you from going temporarily blind.

As you’re reading this, are you sitting down? Can you feel the texture of your skirt or pants? Chances are, before I asked that question, you couldn’t. The sensory neurons in your legs adapt to the constant stimulus of cloth against them and stop sending signals. The same thing happens to the neurons in your eyes. If you were able to stare at something so that its image was perfectly still on your eye’s retina, then after a while the image would fade away due to neural adaptation. To keep this from happening, your eyes jiggle around, performing a smaller version of a regular saccade. It’s as if the world is filled with ghostly objects that fade if they’re perfectly still, so your eyes jitter to make the objects look like they’re moving. Microsaccades refresh the image on your eye.

Rotating Snakes illusion by Akiyoshi KitaokaYou can’t see microsaccades directly. Your brain acts like the image stabilizer in a video camera, smoothing out the shaky image from your darting eyes. But you can see their indirect effect by staring at Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s “Rotating Snakes” illusion. Our brain normally can tell the difference between apparent motion caused by our eyes’ microsaccades and actual motion caused by the thing we’re looking at moving. But with the circular snakes, our brain gets mixed up and mistakes apparent motion for real motion.

It’s Not as Bad as I’m Making It Sound

It’s possible you’ll still be safe from the Angels, because saccades don’t fully blind you. Saccadic masking doesn’t stop your brain from processing all visual information. When you look at something, the visual data moves through successive portions of your brain’s visual cortex. The different parts of the visual cortex look for things like differences in brightness or straight lines. During a saccade, smoother parts of an image are thrown away early in the visual cortex, while parts with a more complex pattern, like text on a page, are still partially processed. And saccadic masking is stronger when your eyes move a lot, but weaker during small motions and microsaccades.

It all gets back to what it means to observe something. Does it count if your brain receives visual information about an Angel and processes it? Or do you have to consciously be aware of what you’re seeing for an Angel to be quantum locked? If it’s the former, then saccades effectively blinding you doesn’t matter. If it’s the latter, though, send me a postcard from the past and let me know.

A Weeping Angel in Blink

Even More Information

One Time Science Tried to Kill Me

When I looked down and saw that I was on fire, I finally admitted to myself that Science was trying to kill me.

Science’s always been a bit dangerous for me. When I was a kid I decided to apply the scientific method to the chemicals in our bathroom closet and see what burned the best. This involved mixing random stuff together in a can and lighting it on fire. After a while that got old, plus my can melted a bit, so I started pouring the chemicals in the open-ended pipe that ran along the top of our backyard swing set and setting that on fire to see if I could make a flamethrower.

I kept this fascination with fire and science for a good long time. In my senior physics class in high school, when we got to the end of the year and there wasn’t anything left that the teacher wanted to try to drum into our heads, he let us play around with the lab equipment. Some of my friends and I decided to explore the scientific question, “What happens if you hold coins over the Bunsen burner for a really long time?” Mostly the coins glowed a bit and then smoked when we dropped them in water. Then my friend Kevin pulled out a penny. We didn’t know pennies weren’t copper through and through, so we held it over the flame. Suddenly the penny turned into a tiny numismatic Terminator, all liquid metal dripping all over the Bunsen burner.

Mr. Smith didn’t let us play with the lab equipment after that.

In undergrad I was a chemistry major until I realized that I hated glassware and titration and that physics involved a lot less of either of those. I still got the chemistry degree, though. I’m no quitter, except for the part where I quit chemistry after being an undergrad. I got chemistry, physics, math, and theatre arts degrees. My major chemistry professor told me one time, “It’s okay that you’re in the major-of-the-month club, but you’re supposed to drop the old ones.”

Anyway, my chemistry classes taught me that Science was dangerous. On the first day of organic chemistry lab, our professor told us we couldn’t wear contacts because it would be very bad if some of those organic compounds bonded to the water in out contacts and made us blind. I dutifully wore my glasses, which was a big deal because I’ve got nearly -10 diopters of nearsightedness. If you’re not versed in optics speak, that means that I run into doors and slow-moving children when I’m not wearing contacts, and I occasionally accidentally set fire to things with my glasses. That organic chem lab was where we distilled the caffeine from a pound of coffee beans. As soon as we finished the professor scooped up the caffeine because we’d made somewhere in the neighborhood of the LD50 amount of caffeine, and also it was cut with toxic organic compounds. The most impressive, though, was when Billy and I let some chemicals we were working on bubble out of our Erlenmeyer flask and onto the Bunsen burner beneath it. Suddenly we were blackening the ceiling tiles above us.

When I went to physics graduate school, my chances to injure myself doing Science increased a thousandfold. Looking at a good physics lab is like staring at an explosion seconds before it happens. I did quantum optics, specifically laser cooling and trapping, so we had optics tables and lasers and power supplies. We had a dye laser, which used an organic dye that we shot with another laser to get the precise wavelength of light that we needed to trap our atoms. The dye in dye lasers is mixed in a solvent and then pumped through a jet nozzle. It goes whizzing through the air to be shot with that other laser. These lasers are maintained by grad students, so they’re always breaking down and spewing dye and solvent everywhere. I was helping our senior grad student Tom clean up one of those spills when he turned to me and said, “You know, the dye container says that the carcinogenic and teratogenic properties of this dye have yet to be determined.”

Then there was the time I was rummaging around our racks of equipment over the optics table when something shocked the shit out of me. I jerked back, carefully climbed up onto the frame above the optics table, and looked at the equipment. There, on the back of one of the power supplies, was a tiny sign that read: CAREFUL. THIS MOFO WILL SHOCK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. There’s nothing like a warning sign you can’t read. Though I didn’t move the sign to the front. I’d learned the hard way, so everyone else could, too.

But nothing beat the homemade laser we built to trap atoms. I mentioned that we used a dye laser to trap atoms by using a precise wavelength of light. It turns out that if you change that wavelength by a lot, you can cool the atoms even more. But when you’re using a wavelength that’s far away from an atom’s natural frequency, you have to have a lot of light. So we built an incredibly powerful CO2 laser. This thing was like a mad scientist’s dream. Gas lasers like CO2 lasers are essentially one continuous lightning strike in a bottle. We had a big hand-blown glass tube that we put 12,000 volts across at a current that’s high enough to kill you dead. It was fed by gas in giant gas bottles that we bolted to the wall. The two power supplies had been built in the 1960s and leaked PCBs. To start the laser, we shocked it with a Tesla coil to get the lightning strike going. It was a 50 watt laser, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that manufacturers use 50 W CO2 lasers to weld metal. Best of all, a CO2 laser beam is invisible. So you’ve got highly charged electrodes stuck in a glass tube and fed from carcinogenic power supplies, putting out an invisible beam that can cut metal. Oh, and this was a one-of-a-kind bespoke laser, so we had to be very gentle with the laser.

To make the whole thing safe — sorry, to make it kind of safe — we always had a graduate student holding a kill switch. If anything went wrong, he could flip a switch and turn off the laser. So our typical day started off with three of us graduate students working on the death laser. One graduate student would adjust the mirrors that directed the beam, one graduate student would find the laser beam using a special metal card that turned dark when the invisible CO2 laser beam hit it, and one graduate student manned the kill switch.

I was the guy holding the card one day to help align the beam. I told my friend and co-worker, “Mike, the beam’s not centered in the beam stop. It needs to go right.”

So, yeah, giving directions relative to yourself isn’t a great idea in these circumstances. Mike turned the mirror knob and the beam vanished. That’s when I looked down and saw that I was on fire.

I did what any normal person would do: I thought, huh, that’s weird. The beam’s creating circular wavefronts of fire across my shirt. That’s an interesting pattern. Then I yelled. Ming-Shien, my colleage on the kill switch, froze. I had to dodge around him and turn off the laser myself.

Thankfully this was the 1990s, so I was wearing a flannel shirt over another shirt and I wasn’t burnt. But I’d dropped the metal card in my panic. My adviser in the next room heard it and rushed in. “My God!” he said, taking in the scene. “Is the laser okay?”

These days I don’t do a lot of dangerous science. I write proposals and suggest cool ideas that other people get to implement and the most powerful laser I have these days is a wimpy red laser pointer. But occasionally, as part of our robotic helicopter work, I get to go under the whirring blades to check our equipment and I think, ah, yes, this is science, and I feel much better.

To Eli on His Ninth Birthday

This year you requested one final birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese before the video game token embedded in your hand begins to flash and signal that you’re too old for the Pizza Rat. How could we say no to something so overstimulating? For adults, Chuck E. Cheese is actually a wight, draining life out of us by his very presence. He gathered you and your friends to him as if he was the pied piper and led you to the front stage, where he made all of you dance. As a reward, his assistants made it rain tickets on you, which you enjoyed but all of the adults found unsettlingly weird.

Eli is excited about SkylandersYou had another awesome Renèe cake, this one Portal themed. Last year’s cake theme was World of Goo, so you’re continuing your trend of wanting video games everywhere in your life. One day I’ll look at you and see ghostly life and mana bars floating over your right shoulder. Your current video game obsession is Skylanders, which combines addictive platform adventuring with collectible figurines. One night I said, “go brush your teeth,” to which you replied, “Did you say, ‘go play Skylanders’?”

“No,” I answered, “I said, ‘go brush your teeth’, which doesn’t really sound a lot like ‘go play Skylanders’.”

“Well, that’s what I heard.”

I don’t know how much longer you’ll be addicted to Skylanders, though. At lunch on Sunday you announced that you were planning on getting into Pokémon soon. That sounds remarkably like “I think I’ll develop a crippling meth addiction next month” to me, but we’ll see how it goes.

Eli reads on his KindleYour big gift from all of your grandparents was a Kindle, because, hey, we might as well get you addicted to electronics early. It’s been great because you love reading and you really love gadgets. If the Kindle also mass-produced Legos out of a 3D printer on its side then it would be the most wonderful invention ever. You’re as in love with reading as I was at your age, and just like me, you get so lost in what you’re reading that you don’t hear other people talking to you. You discovered Roald Dahl’s books and have been tearing through them. I’ve also been reading The Hobbit to you at night. I’ve discovered that I can’t keep the voices I’m using for all of the dwarves straight. I’m not Peter Jackson, so I can’t use funny beards to help you keep track of who’s who in the book.

Eli and his Nerf gunWhen you’re reading, you’re still and quiet. The other 120% of your life is spent talking. You’re incredibly social, wanting to talk to anyone and everyone about your day, their day, what’s been going on, and what Skylander character you’re most in love with right now. Most every thought that comes into your head pops out of your mouth, as if your brain is on speakerphone. When I get home from work you start telling me stories about your day and what random junk you found at school and the Lego figure you just built and also what are we going to do tomorrow, no, not school, after school. Even when you don’t want to talk you can’t help yourself, the words piling up in your brain and threatening to squeeze out of your nose and ears if you don’t open your mouth and let them escape. “Dad,” you’ve said on more than one occasion, “I thought of something but I don’t want to tell you about it.” “Okay, then don’t,” I’ll reply. “Okay.” (beat) “So what I was thinking was…”

Eli inna boxNot only are you an extremely social person, you’ve got a flair for the dramatic. When you want to express puzzlement, you cock one eyebrow and purse your lips. If you’re unsure about what we’ve told you but you’re willing to accept it anyway, you say, “Oooooooooooooookay,” threatening to use all of our city’s allotment of the letter O. You don’t walk into a room, you make an entrance.

Eli mugs in his knitted capThis year we decided to tackle your all-carb diet and try to make you appreciate other foods. Every day you have to take one bite of food you normally wouldn’t eat. This is tricky: if you really don’t want to eat something, you fret so much about it that you make yourself ill. It’s not helped by how you want to take that bite. Instead of eating, say, one green bean and being done with it, you eat half of a green bean. Then you eat half of the remainder. Then you eat half of that remainder, until the ghost of Zeno rises up and threatens to slap you if you don’t just eat the damn thing. But you’ve gotten better at trying out new foods. You try something and give us a thumbs-up that turns to a thumbs-down and rotates between the two options before settling on a final value that is usually mostly thumbs-down. We got a 45-degree thumbs-up from you one time, which was a miracle. It’s also improved your negotiation skills. “Can I eat hummus for my one food today?” you ask innocently, hoping we’ll forget that you’ve been eating hummus since you were two.

In fact, you want to negotiate everything. You’re nine, which means you want to argue a lot, but since you’re Eli those arguments are more akin to hostage negotiations. “I know you said I couldn’t bring a toy in the car, but I really want to take my Nintendo DS. I can’t? Then maybe I should take a small Lego figure, but since they’re so small, I’ll take two. How about just one? Maybe a single Lego brick?” You’re also a planner. Your mom and I will often hear you playing with your sister Liza and saying, “So first we’ll build up a Lego fortress and then your My Little Ponies can attack.”

Eli and his eye handI’m always amazed at your creativity and how your thoughts dash from topic to topic. You’re constantly dreaming up new things. You went bowling as a school field trip, because this is Alabama and when it comes to educational field trips it was either bowling or a trip to a deer taxidermist. That evening you excitedly told me, “Dad! I invented three new ways to bowl!”

“Do any of them involve rolling a ball down the lane towards the pins?”

“I invented four new ways to bowl!”

Eli and his crazy maskSpeaking of school, the pace of learning has dramatically increased. This year you’ve added an accelerated learning section every Monday. When your mom and I first were told about it we thought it was called AGS, which we could only logically assume stood for “Alabama’s Got Smarts!” We imagined it as a reality show where you have to answer trivia questions or Ken Jennings shoots you in the head. Anyway, you’re enjoying the accelerated learning class, but it’s one more thing to deal with every week. Third grade is when they really start bearing down on you to learn what you need for the standardized tests that will pave the metaphorical highway of your grade-school education. Overall you’ve taken it in stride, with the exception of spelling. You learned to read very quickly and have a gestalt approach to reading, so you’re not absorbing spelling words from what you’re reading. Even worse, you’ve got my dislike of memorizing stuff just to memorize it, and that makes your weekly spelling tests a chore.

Along with being super social, you love people. You have a deep reservoir of empathy that you draw on every day. Last December your mom went to Nepal as part of a group of women to help Nepalese women. That left you, me and Liza on our own for two weeks. Early on I was having a hard time, pulled between your needs and work and missing your mom something terrible. I was frazzled and unfairly taking it out on you and Liza, a time-honored parental pastime of directing frustration at our kids. You came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, dad. What can I do to help?”

Eli and Liza togetherYour one empathetic weak spot, the wood to your Golden-age Alan Scott, is Liza. You love her and you want to be with her, but you can’t help doing things to get a rise out of her. When the two of you are playing, you alternate between including her in what you’re doing and ignoring her completely. You want her witnessing every thing you do, and yet you don’t want her having her own opinions. Welcome to life as an older brother! Think of it as training for middle management, the kind of job kids dream of having.

Eli shows Legos to GeofYour birthday celebrations lasted longer this year than they did last year, and yet the entire year has flown past faster than ever before. You’re a living refutation of the Theory of Relativity: even though you’re now moving faster than before, you appears to be aging more quickly than ever. You’ve lived with us for nine years. Chances are, we’ve been through half of your time with us. I try to pay attention to every moment, treasure them so that I’ll always remember, but they’re soap bubbles, popping even as my hand closes around them. That doesn’t matter, though. I have to remind myself that what you need is for me to live with you in the moment. After I was grown, when I talked to your grandparents about what I had learned from them and what I remembered, I was surprised to find that I mostly remembered things that had vanished from mom and dad’s memory. I have no idea what will become part of the mental tapestry you’re weaving out of your childhood. That’s scary and liberating, a reminder that now is what we have, and I am grateful beyond expression for that gift.

Eli and me and his Lego Egyptian pyramid