Friday, December 09, 2011

noel, noel

So I'm now in my fourth year of releasing a holiday music mix. (For your listening pleasure, please to check out the 2010, 2009, and 2007 playlists, plus a nice little GeekDad review dating back to last winter.) As in years past, I've included something for everyone... folk, alternative, indie pop, electronic, a cappella, soul, classic rock, and whatever you wanna call Beck's 7-minute spoken-word foray into the Jewish traditions ("spin around and around like a dreidel; kind of science that puts you back in the cradle"). For good measure, I even threw in a poignant protest song from the talented Brett Dennen, who I'm sure would encourage us to #OccupyChristmas. Oh, and please note that the last song is very much NSFW... Happy holidays, everyone! &infin

Cambridge Xmas mix | Listen on Spotify | YouTube Playlist
Merry Christmas, Baby (Please Don't Die) - Crocodiles & Dum Dum Girls
Joy To the World - Future of Forestry
Hazy Shade of Winter - The Bangles
Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto - James Brown
Valley Winter Song - Fountains of Wayne
The Little Drum Machine Boy - Beck
Coventry Carol - Sonos
Silent Night - Boys II Men
Lux Aurumque - Eric Whitacre
The Atheist Christmas Carol - Vienna Teng
Christmas in Prison - John Prine
Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing) - Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler
The Holidays Are Here (And We're Still At War) - Brett Dennen
Little Drummer Boy / Silent Night / Auld Lang Syne - Jimi Hendrix
Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!) - Sufjan Stevens
Have Yourself a Bitter Little Christmas - David Ford
A Christmas Duel - The Hives & Cyndi Lauper

Saturday, December 03, 2011

ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space

Love all things cosmic? Love exploring the musical universe? Behold my newest project: Astrotunes. A different spacey song every day or two, from artists distinguished and obscure.

Image: DJ cat by buckeye

Friday, October 21, 2011

interweb shoutout: take back halloween!

Welcome to late October, the time of year when folks begin to seriously consider their Halloween duds. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but as I've noted previously here on Annals of Spacetime, there's one thing about it that irks me to no end: the part where women and girls often have a hard time finding non-slutty, non-sexist costumes.

Enter my new favorite project, Take Back Halloween! Launched in 2010, the site offers concrete ideas and instructions for making costumes of notable historical and mythological women.

"This is not your typical Halloween costume thing,” says Suzanne Scoggins of the Real History Project, which sponsors the site. “We’re pushing back against the rule that women have to dress up as sex kittens. That shouldn’t be the only option for Halloween, much less a requirement. We’re trying to reclaim some space for a different vision of the holiday, where women can use Halloween to explore history and celebrate their heritage."

So, want to go as a notable scientist this year? Try dressing as physicist Lise Meitner (above, left) or computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace (above, center). If ruling nations is more your thing, you can be Jezebel, former queen of Israel; Hatshepsut (above, right), the Egyptian pharaoh; or Himiko, the first recorded ruler of Japan. Prefer to be a glamorous star of song or stage? Turn yourself into Diana Ross, Audrey Hepburn, or Josephine Baker! There are also designs for women's suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony; artist Frida Kahlo; Greek goddess Demeter; and lots more. One thing I really love about the offerings—and there are about 60 costume ideas currently available—is that they include impressive female figures from all over the world. Case in point: Ix Chel (below), a Mayan goddess of the moon, medicine, water and weaving. Nicknamed the "Lady of the Rainbow," she was apparently known for wearing bold, bright colors, jaguar pelts, and a coiled snake on her head. Sign me up!

If there's one down side to the site it's that it currently only offers instructions rather than an opportunity to purchase actual costumes. It would of course be wonderful if someone took this idea and ran with it as a business venture... In the meantime, if you don't have the sewing gene but would like to have one of the Take Back Halloween costumes made for you, I suggest joining Etsy and posting a request for the costume through Etsy's custom order team. How it works: Buyers post requests for custom-made items, and sellers contact buyers with proposals for making those requests come to life. You have to jump through a few hoops to be able to leave a request comment, but I tried it recently and it does work quite well.

Anyway, a ginormous thank you to the folks at Take Back Halloween for getting this idea out've just made Halloween a whole lot cooler!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

lady laureates, revisited

Curt Rice, Vice President for R&D at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has a smart post on his blog today regarding the Nobel Peace Prize committee's embarrassing track record for recognizing women. As I noted recently, the number of all-time female Peace Prize laureates jumped up from 12 to 15 this year—that's an increase of 25 percent with just one award! Unfortunately it still means that 85 percent of Peace Prize recipients have been male. As Rice rightly asks, does this mean that only 85 percent of men have done valuable work for peace?

In one sense, it's laudable that the Nobel Peace Prize committee appears to be trying to make up for past omissions by giving three women the prize in one year. At the same time, it's hard to disagree with Rice's assertion that in so doing, the committee devalues the impact of the award, not only because it forces three people to share the prize money but because this award seems to throw together three women working in three different arenas just for the sake of numbers. Peace Prizes have been split before, but that's only happened when awardees were co-recipients with organizations or when they were working together toward the same specific goal. One might counter the notion that this year's three-way-split is unfair by arguing that giving the prize to three unrelated people—regardless of gender—spreads the wealth, if not literally then figuratively, by drawing attention to three causes rather than just one. And I have no doubt that if you ask any of this year's recipients they'd say they're thrilled simply to be awarded, jointly or no. But Rice's point here is a valid and important one: The vast majority of the time, individual men have taken home the gold and the glory, so lumping three women together under the banner of advancing women's struggle for peace makes it seem like the work of each individual recipient isn't worthy of the award on its own.

Rice further suggests that to improve the situation, the Nobel Peace Prize committee might consider adding a quota system by which they force themselves to award women a certain percentage of prizes from year to year. The idea of gender quotas may be controversial, but it's one I've come to favor in recent years, not necessarily in the realm of international awards but in response to the deplorable percentage of women we see in government, particularly here in the United States. To wit, according to the fascinating quotaProject, a database of quotas for women in government around the world, countries as diverse as Albania, Honduras, Rwanda, and Sweden have achieved success in implementing gender quotas in some part of their election structure. And as Rice points out, "Research shows that gender balance enhances quality. Quotas have not reduced the quality of corporate Boards, and there is no reason to expect they will reduce the quality of Peace Prize recipients, either."

Of course, for me this discussion only begs the question, Why stop at the Peace Prize? As I've written previously, the total number of Nobel Prizes awarded to women has been nothing short of pitiful. At the top of this post you'll see the latest version of the chart I created showing all female Nobel Laureates. To date, women have still only received 8 percent of all Nobels given to individuals. You think 15 percent of Peace Prizes going to women is bad? Try 11 percent for literature; 5 percent for physiology or medicine; 2 percent for chemistry; 1 percent for physics; and 1 percent for the Prize for Economic Sciences.

Admittedly, the candidate pool of women for some of the science prizes is, at least for now, smaller than for the peace prize; in the areas of physics and chemistry in particular, there have simply been significantly fewer women than men producing paradigm-shifting research. But that doesn't mean they don't exist and couldn't be expressly sought out for recognition now and again. Furthermore, the numbers argument doesn't really fly for an area like literature; there are plenty of deserving female authors out there. So the question is: If the Nobel organizers begin to consider whether to actively consider gender in rewarding seminal work in the field of peace then shouldn't they do the same for the other awards? To be sure, each Nobel and the Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by a different committee, using different rules, but for the sake of argument I'll suggest this rule change should be considered wholesale.

My vote would be to give the various committees a probationary period of 10 years or so to self-correct, but then after that, if no significant improvement in female representation is seen, then yes, some sort of weighted quota system should be implemented. Of course, it's certainly possible that this issue will someday be moot—one look at the winners of this year's Google Science Fair has to bring hope for that. But the Nobels are in many ways an important tool for promoting continued excellence in science and the humanities, and there's no reason the world shouldn't hear the message now that women are just as capable and valued as are men in the Nobel disciplines.

Friday, October 07, 2011

channeling ada: maria klawe, computer science cheerleader, champion, and sage

It is Ada Lovelace Day once again, the day on which bloggers around the world write about inspiring women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. Ada Lovelace Day has become a wonderful tradition, and I’ve been proud to participate for all three years of its existence. (If you care to step into my DeLorean, you’ll find my ALD posts from 2009 and 2010.) This year, I will begin with a little drama...

This past April at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan, I attended the reading of a most impressive opera titled, simply, ADA. Written by Kim Sherman and Margaret Vandenburg, it depicts the brief, wondrous, but also tortured life of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Ada Lovelace is considered by many to have been the first computer programmer for her ideas concerning early calculating machines. She was born in 1815 to parents whose tumultuous marriage was fractured by irreconcilably disparate worldviews: her father, the poet Lord Byron, was a free-spirited dreamer whose livelihood involved dancing with words, while her mother, Anna Milbanke, was stoic, rational, and much more interested in practical pursuits like science and mathematics. Based in large part on historical events, the opera follows young Ada as she struggles with the clash between her mother’s insistence on strict dedication to academic studies and the flights of fancy she’s clearly inherited from the father she would never meet.

As much as I appreciated the opera's focus on Ada's internal conflicts, I thought the work shed fascinating light on Ada’s mother, who in real life was both remarkably talented and burdened in her own right. Unlike most girls in 18th-century England, Anna Milbanke was introduced to academics at a young age. She was raised as a boy of privilege would have been, with private tutors who immersed the young Anna in lessons of philosophy, science, literature, and—her favorite—mathematics. These lessons helped her blossom into an intelligent young woman and would color her personality for the rest of her days; even her future husband would one day come to call her “Princess of Parallelograms.”

Years later, though, when the Don Juan author began acting out and Lady Byron ultimately asked for divorce, things began to take a turn for the worse. In raising the couple’s daughter alone, Lady Byron feared her former husband’s wild influence so much that she became unwavering in—one might say obsessed with—her goal of steering Ada into scholarly work. In the dramatized version of events, although Ada displayed immense scholastic aptitude and an innate curiosity about a great many things—most notably, in the ability of machines to one day perform unimaginably complex algorithms—she suffered irrevocably from the stifling condemnation of her true passions by her mother and by society at large. In the end, we’re led to conclude that if her mother had been different, had not only wanted for her daughter to appreciate the magic of math and science but also the creativity and whimsy that shows up in everyday life, then Lovelace may not have died, broken, at the age of 36.

Whether this version of events bears any resemblance to the actual reasons for Lovelace’s fall from grace and ultimate premature demise is anyone’s guess. (For the record, her proximate causes of death were uterine cancer and bloodletting, though by the end of her life she clearly suffered mentally as well, as she had become addicted to painkillers and gambling.) Yet in pondering how things might have turned out differently, one can't help but wonder whether being nurtured by someone else, the Enchantress of Numbers might have been saved . . .

* * *

Most people outside the computing world have probably never heard of Maria Klawe. To briefly summarize, Klawe (pronounced CLAW-vey) is the current president of Harvey Mudd College, an accomplished computer scientist, and an overall inspiring human being. I decided to profile her this year for her enormous contributions to technology, not only in her own research, but in her steadfast dedication to the cultivation of aspiring computer scientists—especially those who are women.

Klawe’s biography reads like a laundry list of gold star achievements. A native of Canada, she received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta before launching a career that has spanned both industry and academia. During eight years at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, Klawe rose to the rank of department chair before moving on to the University of British Columbia, where she spent 15 years building up the computer science department and serving as its head. She was eventually wooed by Princeton, and in 2003 she relocated to New Jersey to become a rock star dean of the university's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Three years later, Klawe accepted an offer from Harvey Mudd, a small university in Claremont, CA that specializes in the STEM areas, to become its first female president. In 2009, she was invited to serve on the board of directors at Microsoft, becoming only the second woman to do so. Not too shabby a CV, eh?

Truth is, though, it’s the little things about Klawe’s studies, passions, and overall attitude that have really impressed the dickens out of me. Her research has focused on some interesting problems in computational geometry, like the so-called art gallery problem, which aims to determine the minimum number of guards needed to observe an entire gallery with a set architecture. She’s also spent a lot of time studying how gender plays a role in video game performance and development. In a paper from 1995, for instance, she concluded that when girls play a video game together, they do significantly better than if they play apart.

That idea mirrors one that’s gotten a heavy share of attention in the blogosphere recently; namely, that one of the reasons women shy away from computer science is its reputation for being über competitive. I was surprised to learn that back in the 1960s and 70s, the percentage of CS majors in the U.S. who were women was much higher than it is now—it peaked at about 30 percent. But the following decades brought a shift in attitude toward computing as a career, and today only about 15 percent of all CS majors in the U.S. are female. To challenge this paradigm, Klawe and her colleagues have attempted to morph the prevailing computer science culture into one that fosters support and inclusion, especially for women who may simply need a little nudge to help their talent shine through. “The imposter syndrome is something that many people suffer from, [but] it’s persistence and hard work that will make the difference,” she said in a recent interview. “If you just keep pushing on it and get encouragement and help from others, you’re going to do just fine.” Their efforts seem to be paying off in spades: Since Klawe’s tenure at Harvey Mudd began, the percentage of female computer science majors there has more than tripled, to 42 percent.

So how does she do it? By all accounts Klawe is warm, energetic, and enthusiastic about just about everything and everyone she encounters, and she strives to bring harmony and creativity into each endeavor she undertakes. Case in point: she loves to paint watercolors, and she’s been known to whip out her brushes during meetings to help her focus on the discussion at hand. She’s also encouraged young children to explore mathematics with hands-on activities that demonstrate the wonders of math in ways not often taught in schools. "The thing that scares me the most is that we would think it was amazingly bad for an educated person to not be able to read, but for some reason we think it's okay for an educated person to say, 'I'm not good at math,'" Klawe has said. "I really want our culture to value having our students learning math and science in high school and continuing [the subjects] in college."

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Klawe’s penchant for skateboarding around campus, which is totally awesome! When I first saw the photo of her goofy-footing it with black helmet, fuscia jacket, and multicolored kicks, I knew I had to find out about this woman. Turns out, it’s not just a hobby; Klawe’s boarding doubles as a way to get students to feel comfortable approaching her and opening up about their lives and their passions. How rad is that?!

Indeed, throughout her life, Klawe has—not unlike the mother of a certain historical computing visionary—encouraged youngsters, and women in particular, to be independent thinkers; to seek out solutions to problems that don’t have easy answers. But she also espouses something that Lady Byron apparently did not: an attitude that attending to the whole person is a huge part of education, and that young learners shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves, to embrace their passions, be they in the classroom, the art room, a ballfield or stage. I’m eternally grateful for Maria Klawe’s spirit and efforts to make science and math more appealing to students of all backgrounds. In that, she truly epitomizes the many heroines of Ada Lovelace Day.

women for peace

It's been an exciting week for Nobel Prizes, but I have to say I was getting a little disappointed to think we might go another year without any ladies being recognized for their contributions to society. Women had a record haul in 2009—five Nobel Prizes in four different categories—but 2010 was the 77th year in which all men and no women were awarded Nobels. What a pleasure, then, to wake up to the news that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gwobee, and Tawakul Karman had been awarded the Peace Prize for their work on the "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."

Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, is the first and, currently, only female head of state in Africa. A former banker, she left the corporate world to participate in government in the mid-80s and has been fighting for peace ever since. Gbowee may be best known in the Western world as the woman who organized a sex strike against the men of Liberia during that country's brutal civil war, but she's also been a longtime leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action For Peace, which aims to unite females from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in the common cause of ending violence and promoting women's participation in government. Karman is a human rights activist, member of Al-Islah (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform), and head of the group Women Journalists Without Chains. Among other accomplishments, Karman has played a significant role in organizing rallies and protests during this year's uprising in her native Yemen.

In case you were keeping score, Karman, Gbowee and Johnshon Sirleaf are the 99th, 100th, and 101st individuals to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—though only the 13th, 14th, and 15th women to be so honored. (I've just added them to my chart of all women who have ever received Nobels.) With today's announcement, I am hopeful that we'll continue to see more women—AND men—recognized for their efforts to promote the equal treatment of females around the world. Congrats to these remarkable ladies, and to all of this year's Nobel recipients!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

i can haz nobel pryz?

It's Nobel Prize time once again, and I couldn't be happier to see everyone getting a little giddy over science. It shouldn't go unmentioned, however, that with Nobel season comes a little silliness, too. Last week, the 21st First Annual igNobel Prizes were awarded in grand fashion here in Cambridge, and there were some truly juicy papers among the winners. I had the pleasure of seeing the prize lectures in person a couple of days later, and let me just say that I haven't laughed that hard in quite some time. Kudos to Marc Abrahams and the rest of the igNobel crew for making us laugh, think...and giggle uncontrollably about the numbers 1 and 2.

Also on the topic of science silliness this week, I was highly amused to stumble upon a brand new blog . . . the kind of blog that makes you go: Why hasn't this been around for ages? Epochs? Eons, even?! It is GeoKittehs, a joint venture from geologists Evelyn Mervine and Dana Hunter that aims to vault earth-science-lovin' kitties onto a national stage. Looking to find some crust-cat-al accretion? Why yes, they've got that. Need an example of normal cat faulting? Look no further. Of course, my own feline had to join the party with a powerful demonstration of catslides. Needless to say, I have high hopes for the GeoKittehs, and I implore those of you with geology-minded fuzzballs to participate.

Continuing with the silly, in the spirit of this week's Nobels, and with GeoKittehs and the fantastic Particle Zoo Physics LOLcats in mind, I hereby announce the winners of the LOLcat Nobel Pryzes, 2011:

•In Physiology or Medicine, for revealing fundamental truths about the nature of biomedical research:

•In Chemistry, for discovering heretofore unknown properties of inert gases:

•In Physics, for demonstrating that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was right all along:

•In Literature, for lifetime contributions to cat prose and feline linguistics, including the development of a promising alternative to lolspeak:

•In Economic Sciences, for significant advances in decision theory:

•And in Peace, for proving once and for all that inner strength and a pink nose can conquer all:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

where i was

I wasn’t going to write anything for this because frankly, I don’t consider my experience particularly remarkable. I wasn't close with anyone whose life was completely altered that day. I have no tale to tell of meeting someone who decided to wait in line for a 400-calorie bowtie from the coffee cart that morning instead of getting to work on time on the 97th floor. At the same time, I was there, on that same little island, and it was scary, and it was weird. It was an event that precipitated a drastic change in attitude in our country, and I was old enough to be cognizant of what that change really meant. My grandfather lived through the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and I’ve always been thankful for having heard the telling of his experience. These days, we live in a world where everything is documented, sometimes ad nauseum. But at the end of the day, everyone does have a story to tell. I wasn’t there when JFK died. I missed the first men on the moon. But here’s my 9/11 tale, for what it’s worth.

First, a word about September 10th. On the morning of September 10th I ran into a friend from college on the way to work. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me too often; in 12 years of living in New York City I think I randomly bumped into friends and acquaintances maybe once a year⎯if that. I was never close with this guy, but he also happened to be the very first person I’d ever met from my college. We exchanged hellos the summer before I matriculated, when I was on vacation and we were at the same hotel, some 3,000 miles away from our school. I noticed he was holding something that had our university seal on it, so I asked, and sure enough, he was one year ahead of me. When coincidence brought us together once again, 24 hours before the most historic day I’ve lived through thus far, we were both going off in new and exciting directions in our lives. Josh, if you’re reading this, I’ll never forget chatting with you that day...

Also on September 10th: pandas. Yup, the night before the new world order began, I went to see a press screening of an IMAX film featuring pandas in China. It was on the Upper West Side, and it was a pretty lame flick. “Didn’t like it very much,” my 24-year-old self wrote. “But the pandas were ridiculously adorable and the scenery was breathtaking.” Not a bad way to spend a rainy Monday night in the middle of September, I suppose.

The next thing I remember was waking up to the sound of the phone. It was a bright, sunny morning and, being on the 30th floor of a midtown high rise, I had a clear view of the Hudson River and New Jersey just beyond. As was my custom in those days, I’d stay up ‘til all hours and sleep as late as possible before heading to work. The phone call, it turned out, was from my mom. I had no business being that far downtown, and she knew I was on a late schedule, but she had wanted to hear my voice and, in the event that I was still asleep (ahem), to tell me the news. I promptly ran into the living room and turned on the television. Without knowing anything else, with just the visual of fire, smoke and the understanding that this devastating thing had happened to innocent people in my city (and on the planes), I started to tear up. For a moment or so, it was unreal. Not just “unreal, man.” Actually not believably real. I ran up to the roof, six floors above me, to see if I could see anything. My apartment was just north of Times Square, so there were a lot of tall buildings in the way. But unmistakably, it was there: heavy black smoke, way downtown, rising in a ghastly plume. Holy shit. This was happening. It was then that I noticed the sirens: Firemen from local stations were headed downtown in droves to help out. Little did I know that many of them wouldn’t be coming back . . .

I returned to the television, my only connection to what was going on. I started to internalize the situation and cried some more. Mind you, I’m not someone who tends to get emotional on a dime, so the fact that this overwhelmed me so quickly is a testament to how powerful the moment was. It was noteworthy that even the local newscasters, who were trying to be “professional,” were also struggling to hide their shock and dismay. Finally, the unimaginable: “This is crazy. The whole fucking left tower just collapsed,” I wrote. “It was like one of those huge pyroclastic flows. I have this terrible feeling we’re about to go to war . . .”

Not long thereafter, I was on the roof again, looking south, when the second tower fell. All of a sudden the smoke just disappeared from view. In that moment, I started to worry for my own safety. It was obvious at that point that this was coordinated event, but no one knew if there was more to come. I lived relatively close to some pretty iconic buildings, and it seemed entirely plausible that I could be in some danger. I packed up a bag of stuff, put on some running shoes, and left the building. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was headed, but my thought was to walk north off of the island, where I could somehow get to my parents’ house in the suburbs. (At this time, there were no subways or trains, and bridges were being used primarily by fleeing pedestrians.)

When I got to the street, it was busy, but a calm busy⎯not like gridlock with people honking and frantic to get out of there. It was already a good hour or so after all of this began, and scores of people were headed north. As I looked down Broadway, toward Times Square, it seemed eerily quiet, at least as far as vehicular traffic. No one was going south. Every few blocks I’d find a car parked next to the sidewalk with its doors open, the radio cranked up, and people huddled around to hear the latest. I entered Central Park. Businessmen and women in suits, ties, and heels were walking quietly, briefcases and jackets in hand. Everyone on the main park road appeared cool and composed, and it was turning into a gorgeous day⎯not a cloud in the sky. In fact, aside from the parade of overdressed walkers, it would have been difficult to guess, if you weren’t already aware, that anything was terribly wrong on the lower tip of Manhattan. The only other clue was an unusual silence punctuated by the occasional deafening roar of F15s, which by then were zooming over the city at regular intervals.

I walked for a good hour or so through the park with only my thoughts, and then ventured back onto the streets, where it sounded from various reports as though officials believed the attacks to be over. Eventually I reached the campus of Columbia University. It was there that I decided I wasn’t going to walk off the island. It was also at Columbia that I saw the first signs of organization to rally around the victims. At the medical center, passers-by in threes and fours came and glanced at a piece of paper that had been taped to a door announcing in magic marker that no further blood donations were needed. I also witnessed a peaceful ceremony of students sitting in a circle, praying, and singing softly. I sat and reflected for a while on the campus green. I was unsure of how to proceed at that point. Should I walk home again? Sit tight and just wait to see if anything else unfolded? Either way, my feet needed some tending: In my haste to leave the apartment, I had neglected to put on socks, and I was developing blisters. I went into the student bookstore and purchased some socks with the school’s logo on them. I still have those socks, and will always remember buying them that fateful day.

I did indeed walk back home to midtown. I had a cell phone with me, but the lines were completely jammed, and folks were being asked to stay off of them unless it was truly necessary. The feeling on the street was one of somber camaraderie. When you looked into the eye of the people you passed, it was as though you were already acquainted. . . a knowing glance, and then you moved on. In the hours that I walked, I learned more of the details surrounding the situation downtown, and heard rumors as to the number of fatalities. When I finally got home, my roommate was there with a friend of hers who had been across the street from the World Trade Center when everything began. We sat and listened to his story before he left to meet up with his family outside of the city.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur, but that evening, I recall being glued to the television and wondering what this was going to mean for our city and for our country. I wasn’t a Giuliani fan, but I will give him credit: At least for a few days, he calmed a lot of nerves, and he handled the situation as best as anyone could under the circumstances. Later that night I returned to the roof to take in the city below me, and it was eerily empty and silent. Times Square, which of course is bustling at most hours⎯especially on a warm night in mid-September⎯should have been packed with people and cars. There was nothing. The traffic lights turned from green to yellow to red and back to green, directing no one. I think I counted two or three people and maybe one taxicab from 56th Street all the way down to 42nd. It was spooky.

The next day, I went down to 14th Street, the farthest south you could go without proof of residency or some other good reason for being down there. Looking downtown from there and not seeing the towers was absolutely surreal⎯and it’s something I didn’t get used to for at least a year. There was some military presence, but the overall feeling was that the city had come out to mourn together and search for victims. American flags and “missing” signs were everywhere—street posts, statue pedestals, makeshift message boards. In Union Square a huge shrine with candles, flowers, handwritten notes, and drawings from children had been erected and was getting larger. Media cameramen were present at every corner. Brown dust from the towers was visible as a thin layer on the few cars parked in the area. And you could definitely smell that musty odor from the destruction. I shuddered every time I thought of what I was actually smelling . . . No one really knew what to say, but we all wanted to be there, to quietly take in what was happening. I picked up a copy of The New York Times and read it cover to cover, wondering again how the country was going to respond.

Slowly, the city carried on. I was certainly one of the fortunate ones, not to have been affected directly by the loss of a loved one. My feelings about the events of that day, though, have been complicated by the anger toward our country’s actions following the attacks. It seems clear to me that one kind of evil beget another kind of evil, the kind that deftly manipulated public sentiment for those we lost and turned the country’s outrage into a justification to start a costly and unfounded war against a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11—all in the name of money and power. To be honest, it makes me sick.

Four years after the attacks, I moved to Brooklyn, close to the harbor and the Promenade, which boasts one of the best views of the city, especially of downtown. I never had a chance to experience the view from there with the towers still standing, but every year on this date I would witness from my window or from the Promenade the huge twin beams lighting up the sky from where the towers once stood.

In all this time there were daily reminders, too. The one that touched me most was the Cortlandt Street subway station, which sustained major damage but whose main supports were deemed safe enough for trains to pass through. For years, the Cortlandt R stop remained shaded out on subway maps, like a ghost station that existed only in memory. But reconstruction did take place, if at a snail’s pace, and a year and a half ago the northbound station quietly reopened for business. I’ll never forget the day my train stopped there for the first time after so many years… I had gotten used to the conductors giving their spiel every time we were about to bypass the station. But on that day, it was “Next stop: Cortlandt Street.” No one said a word, but as I looked at the women and men around me, I felt that everyone on that train knew what a significant moment it was. As for the southbound platform, it remained in shambles until very recently. Even just a few months ago you could still see daylight through the perforated wall that opened up into Ground Zero. It was clear that work had picked up in preparation for today, though, and I’m happy to report that earlier this week, the southbound Cortlandt Street station received its final shiny white tiles, restored original artwork, and commemorative plaques before opening to traffic. It was a little bittersweet to know that I couldn’t be there to experience the train slowing and the doors opening for the first time that day, but I’ll certainly make a visit the next time I’m in town.

Today, I’m in a new city, in a different state altogether. It feels strange not being in New York on this morning, my first 9/11 away since that day in ‘01. I do think it’s time for the city and the country to move on, though, and I welcome the thought that this 10th anniversary might serve as a mark of closure for all of us. In any case, thanks for listening.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

winning isn't everything

Life got you down? Just remember it can always be worse. Case in point: You could be these lovable losers from Vilanova i al GeltrĂș, Spain, a suburb of Barcelona. The members of this co-ed soccer team haven't just lost every game they've played . . . they haven't even mustered one measly goal all season! Future stars of FC Barcelona these little Catalans ain't. I looked up the team's website after coming across this video and found amusing the organizers' confession to all who may consider joining that "the goal of [the team] isn't results." At least they're honest! And boy, are the kids adorable. So check out the 9-minute documentary, in Catalan and Spanish with English subtitles, on the team's trials and tribulations. It'll put a smile on your face, guaranteed.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

where no toy has gone before

The folks at NASA threw a cute little curveball at the pre-launch briefing for the Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft today: They announced that three specially made LEGO minifigures would be flying to the outer solar system along with the spacecraft, which is scheduled to lift off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center. The three figures represent Galileo Galilei, who used his early telescopes to study Jupiter and its moons some four centuries ago; the Roman goddess Juno, namesake of the Juno craft; and the Roman god Jupiter. (In case you've forgotten your ancient mythology, Juno is the equivalent of the Greek Hera, and Jupiter is the same as Zeus.) Unlike normal plastic LEGOs, these figs were molded out of a special aluminum blend that should withstand the harsh launch and interplanetary environments the figs will experience in the upcoming days and years on their journey to the Jovian system.

If you follow along with my blog or Twitter feed, you know that I'm a big LEGO fan, especially when brick creations help folks get excited about science and technology. It's heartening to know that LEGO and NASA have made a strong commitment to one another within the past year, since our nation's future rests on our inspiring today's children to become tomorrow's mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. Can't wait to see what's next!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

home is where the nerdy art is

One of the nicer aspects of moving is getting to make your mark on a new space. Now that I've finally started thinking seriously about in-home design for my new pad, I'm realizing how tough my decor decision-making is going to be. I've got a ways to go yet, but I thought I'd share some fun sciencey/geeky stuff I've come across recently:

Endless Forms Most Strange
Alexander Ross is one of my favorite contemporary artists. His works recall fantastically detailed biological films and cellular structures at once beautiful and weird. I adore the glossy, green Play-Doh-like appearance of his paintings and can only hope that someday I'll be able to place one of his unique pieces in my home. For now I'm happy to know that he's just published a new collection via the David Nolan Gallery in New York.

On the Origin of Species... Down to the Letter
Whether you choose the single finch or the evolving primate set, nothing says "I love science" quite like Darwin's entire manifesto printed out line for line on your living room wall. Posters by Spineless Classics.

See the Solar System
Physics professor and graphic designer Tyler Nordgren created a lovely poster series for the National Parks Service stressing clear skies perfect for stargazing. Last year he also drummed up some fantastic prints depicting travel scenes from around the solar system, including these two gems from Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Io.

Stop and Feed the Robotic Lions
What can I say? This Voltron print by Scott C., titled "Super Hungry," is super cute.

Cheat Sheet
Last, but certainly not least, is this clever Mac shortcuts print by birdAve on Etsy. Who says wall art can't also be useful?

Monday, July 25, 2011

those were the days

This is the very first email I ever received, exactly 17 years ago today [high res]. It was the summer of '94 and I had been interested in finding out about Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which was smacking quite visibly into Jupiter at the time. [See how easy that was? This was before links to Wikipedia, kids.]

I was still a high school student, attending classes at Brown for the summer, when I sent the initial email from what was then an awe-inspiring computer lab. Ah, to secure a spot in the sea of black-and-green monitors at the CIT... Anyway, Peter Ford over at MIT kindly sent me some websites to check out (I hardly had any idea what a website even was back then) and pointed me in the direction of Brown's stellar planetary geosciences department. As fate would have it, I ended up taking a super planetary geo course with Pete Schultz, who's mentioned in the email, as an undergrad several years later.

Things to point out in the actual message: It took two pages to print! And gosh the headers were intense back then. This was before we were introduced to Eudora, which Brown used for I don't know how long...through the end of '99 at least. Anyway, I happen to have printed this puppy out and was surprised to find it this week in a stack of stuff I thought I'd long tossed away. Makes me wanna start yammering about trudging five miles to class in the snow, etc. etc.

Friday, July 22, 2011

saying goodbye, times two

“The end of an era.” It's a phrase that's been uttered countless times these past two weeks, as the country and the world waited with anticipation for the last chapter of NASA’s storied space shuttle program to come to a close. Having trekked to Cape Canaveral to witness Atlantis’s final two launches in person—and having known only one American spaceflight program in my lifetime—I certainly joined in the fanfare. Yet those five little words had not one but two melancholy meanings for me this week in particular, as I counted down to an ending of my own: I officially left New York City after a dozen remarkable years and headed off into a whole new cosmos. In many ways, I’m incredibly hopeful for both the future of human spaceflight and for my days ahead in a new city. But I find myself this week stuck in the gloaming, that transition time between day and night, with bittersweet emotions all over, often in places where I'd least expected them. So, here’s where I raise a glass—let's make that two. To the space shuttle, and to Gotham: You will both always be in my heart. &infin

Photo credits: Top - NASA; Bottom - pixbymaia

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

up up and away

last one by shlomi yoav (shlomi_y) on
last one by shlomi yoav

And so it is time for me to bid adieu to the space shuttle. The very last mission is set to begin this week with the launch of the Atlantis orbiter from the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast. This particular launch is a gift from the American people, whose representatives voted last year to tack on one last go before the entire shuttle fleet is permanently grounded and the orbiters put on their pedestals for future generations to ooh and ahh at. Yet those same politicians are also now looking to drastically defund NASA in what amounts to a serious rethinking of whether or not America has a real future in space. Will the U.S. forever take a back seat to the Russians or Chinese or anyone else in our quest to land humans on Mars? It could very well happen. In the U.S. we certainly like to talk the talk when it comes to being innovators, in space development and otherwise, but so often in the past decades, walking the walk has proven to be another story altogether.

Millions of words will be spoken, penned, blogged, and microblogged about this final countdown, so I won't clog the fiber optic cables with too many thoughts on this bittersweet occasion. But I will say that in the end I choose to believe that the American people will keep outer space in mind when they fill out their ballots of the future. And how, you ask, will we do this in the face of economic uncertainty, declining political will and an ever-straining space budget? By reaching out to each other. In the past couple of years I've met, virtually and in real life, more folks than I'd ever known existed who consider space exploration—both robotic and human-based—one of the most important endeavors humanity can undertake. And these folks have passion. If we can group together, to share our excitement with those unaware of what our space program actually does, to get our representatives to think beyond the next election and out toward the stars, to teach our little ones about what they might one day discover beyond our blue planet, we'll have a force to be reckoned with when it comes to our future in the cosmos.

A friend of mine is still hoping to be an astronaut someday. Despite NASA's uncertain future, he and others like him are keeping the dream alive by continuing to do what astronauts and all scientists do: constantly asking questions. What a stupendous waste it will be if we let this collective bundle of energy and human spirit go for naught.

And with that, I'll leave you with this brilliant 45-minute visual feast of the space shuttle on its way off the pad. I dare you not to marvel as you sit and watch, agog and wide-eyed, at the ingenuity it took to make this peculiar bird fly up, up, and away. &infin

Thursday, June 09, 2011

for the love of the game

We live in a post-Title IX age, but it's an unfortunate reality that girls and women in the sporting world still face plenty of uphill battles. You may have heard me grumble about certain inequities that continue to exist for women and girls who attempt to play with the boys...or who want to manage or officiate their games. And I'd be happy to talk your ear off about the paucity of insightful, fair, and unsexist coverage of women's collegiate and professional sports in the media these days.

But these gripes aside, I'm reminded from time to time of how far we've come in the last few decades, and how much we athletes of the modern West take for granted. Today, it was a young woman named Khalida Popal who really drove the point home. Popal is the captain of an all-women's soccer team, which might not sound all that special until you realize that her team is based in Afghanistan, a war-torn nation where females are regularly treated not just as second-class citizens but as subhuman beings.

While the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, playing sports was strictly forbidden for any female, young or old. More recently, though, officials have allowed limited playing opportunities for Afghan women. For a time, Popal and her teammates had actually procured practice space in the same Kabul stadium in which public executions were once held. And in December, officials allowed a team of Afghan women to play an international game for the first time. Unfortunately, though, the players received numerous threats for following their passion for the game of soccer, and they soon lost their practice space.

Now, NATO has stepped in and offered the athletes a patch of grass near its headquarters, where they can work out and play friendlies against female NATO officers. But playing soccer is still seen by many in Afghanistan as offensive behavior for women and girls, and the athletes continue to be ostracized.

This isn't the first I've heard of females in strict traditional societies butting heads with the law of the land in the name of the sport they love . . . I'm reminded of the the Iranian woman who had to get special permission from a local ayatollah to race Formula-One-style cars; the Palestinian girls who defy their culture to surf along the Gaza Strip; and the Pakistani women who've faced death threats for trying to play cricket. I'm also all too aware that sports are just the tip of the human rights iceberg when it comes to women and girls suffering from all manner of physical and psychological violations each and every day.

But hearing Khalida Popal tell her story truly made me appreciate for a moment the freedoms we have here in America—and not just the freedom to play sports, but the freedom to act when we feel our rights are being infringed upon. I can only hope that Popal and others like her continue to defy the odds and fight for their rights—and that more of the men in traditional societies recognize that female athletes are not a threat, and speak out in favor of letting the games go on. I also encourage you to learn about organizations such as Goals For Girls, cosponsored by UNICEF and FIFA, to find out how you can contribute to the empowerment of girls and women through sport.

Monday, April 18, 2011

the day the earth shook

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, earthquakes with a magnitude of 7 or greater take place about 15 times a year. Often these quakes have little effect on human life, but every now and then, as we've seen so recently in Japan, the world experiences a shake-down for the ages. On a cosmic scale, these events are nothing special; it's all part and parcel of a geologically active planet doing its subducting and fault displacement thing. But when they happen where humans have set up shop, "nothing special" has a tendency to turn into all-out "calamity."

105 years ago today, the world experienced one of those calamitous shakers in the great city of San Francisco, California. My grandfather, age 6 at the time, was right in the middle of it. He was one of the lucky ones.

Every April 18th I get a little nostalgic for what it must have been like in the City by the Bay, back when horse-drawn dreighs were a common mode of transportation and a porterhouse steak would set you back about 75 cents. This morning I watched reels of footage on YouTube from that time. The most compelling was a comparison between a film shot from a trolley making its way down Market Street just four days before the quake with a similar film shot in the dizzying aftermath of the devastation. I was also heartened to discover the reproduction of a magnificent article, first published in 1933, memorializing the city that had fallen: "Shaken to shards in the dawn, gulped in part by a mad sea, swept by flame. Ruin covering agony, crowned by hunger, thirst, fever, pest. Death over all."

After reading that, I decided that I wanted to add to that picture with thoughts from one who was there, in the fire and fury.

My grandfather, Louis Weinstock, Sr., was born in Winnipeg, Canada, to a family of immigrants from what is now Kiev, Ukraine. After the sudden death of his mother from complications of childbirth (as well as of his newborn sister, who only lived about a month), his father—my great grandfather—packed the family up and moved to what was then the 9th most populous city in the union. On the day of the Great Earthquake, my grandfather was just a little kid. Here's what he saw, as recounted some three-quarters of a century later:
It happened on April 18, 1906. I was in bed, and because of the earthquake my bed became jammed against the door. I called for help in moving the bed. My father, [step]mother, and sister came to my rescue. My father moved our beds to the shop, where we all slept cross-wise. We lived very near the Golden Gate Park. The Army set up tents at the park.

I was chosen to go to the Park to fetch food, which was being distributed there. Going to get the food was a big adventure for me. People sat at the curbs and would ask, “Where’s the fire now, how far’s the fire?” The government had requisitioned all the food. The markets were all closed, except the bakeries, which kept working. The papers—Examiner, Tribune—kept publishing, although with reduced editions.

All the trains in the country gave preference to relief effort. There was a lot of destruction, but the worst destruction came with the fires. The water mains broke and the fires could not be put out. They reached all the way to Van Ness Avenue, which became a fire breaker.

Because of the earthquake, we became refugees. One of my uncles got a dreigh, a wagon with big wheels. He then made reservations for the ferry to Oakland/Alameda/Berkeley. We put the whole family’s belongings and took off. As we went by a burning building we whipped the horses to go fast. Right after we went past this building I looked back and the building collapsed.

Why did we go to Alameda? I don’t know. We just got out as soon as possible.
It's astonishing to me to think that a boy of six lived through this catastrophe, which claimed the lives of several thousand and left homeless more than half the population of 400,000; moved across the country to New York; and grew up to have a full, adventurous life, three children of his own, and five grandkids, including little old me. Last fall I returned to San Francisco and thought a lot of my grandpop, who passed away when I was a little girl. I explored the areas and streets he'd talked about from that time, and I even took a ferry over to Oakland/Alameda the same way he did more than a century earlier to flee a burning city. Amazing what time can do, isn't it?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

supermoon tunes

For your amusement, I've put a little mix together in honor of the supermoon, which is super spectacular in New York tonight! Enjoy.

Walking on the Moon - The Police
Many Moons - Janelle Monae
Tears From The Moon - Conjure One feat. Sinead O'Connor
I Was on the Moon - Apollo Sunshine
Man On The Moon - R.E.M.
Moonlight - Digitalism
Must Be The Moon (Hot Chip Remix) - Chk Chk Chk
Moonlight Dancing - Bette Midler
Sister Moon - Sting
Moonchild - M83
Blue Moon - Elvis Presley
Full Moon In My Soul - Robyn Hitchcock
Goodnight Moon - Will Kimbrough

Sunday, February 27, 2011

oscar doc predictions

It's been three or four years since I started getting obsessive about seeing Oscar-nominated documentaries prior to the big red carpet event. But let's face it: Most Americans don't do docs. It's a damn shame, if you ask me. Documentaries are like college classes, without the tuition and without the prerequisites. True, you have to be prepared to get angry or upset, but docs teach you what the world is really like, without the sugarcoating of shows you might see on cable networks, even the ones that purport to offer "in depth" coverage of real-world events. And before you complain that documentaries do nothing but make people feel helpless, I'd counter that the best docs often reveal how one person, or a small group, can make a big difference, even in the face of powerful, monstrous forces.

Fortunately, it's been getting easier to find the Oscar docs in theaters here in New York over the past few years. The Paley Center in midtown Manhattan now shows all nominated docs, both feature-length and short, every year on the weekend of the Academy Award ceremony, and at least this year, the IFC Center screened all short subject nominees each day for more than a week. But you'd expect docs to show in New York and LA; it's time to get more of them out to places like Wichita and Montgomery and Albuquerque so everyone can watch and learn!

This year's crop of Oscar-nominated docs features a few recurring themes: big business's devastating impact on the environment; the plight of American soldiers during and after war combat; and funky-ass art. But there are some powerful and moving wild card topics, too. So on the eve of the Oscars, here are my picks for who should win and who will win in both of the documentary categories! You can find synopses and trailers for all 10 nominated docs on this page; some are also available for purchase from iTunes.

Documentary Short Subject

Will Win: Strangers No More The most upbeat and heartwarming of the five nominees in this category, Strangers No More tells the story of a unique school in Tel Aviv, Israel in which refugee children from around the world come together to form the ultimate melting pot. There are really no losers in this year's batch of doc shorts, but considering the Academy's choice in the past two years of the similarly hopeful Smile Pinki and Music By Prudence, this seems like a pretty good bet to take home the statuette.

Should Win: The Warriors of Quigang Whether we like it or not, China is going to have to lead the environmental movement of tomorrow. This doc gracefully captures how one small city in Anhui Province is attempting to battle both an unruly local polluter an unrepresentative and unresponsive government. Here's one great example of a film that not only explains where the big problems lie but also makes heroes out of ordinary citizens trying to better the ugly hands they've been dealt.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: Gasland I had never heard of hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," before I saw this film, and what I learned scared the bejesus out of me. There's been quite a bit of press coverage about this doc since the nominees were announced, mostly due to the unsurprising loud reaction from the natural gas lobby over the film's depiction of their use of what can only be described as a poorly regulated and highly toxic method of extracting gas from the ground. While some have criticized certain methods of director Josh Fox, I think that in seeing this film, Academy voters will have come away with a pretty powerful overall message. What's more, the time seems ripe for a major environmental movie to take home the big doc prize.

Should Win: Inside Job Okay, boys and girls, here's the one movie that everyone in the country needs to see, and pronto. Director Charles Ferguson does an epic job of weaving one-on-one interviews together with easy-to-follow narration and infographics to explain how the recent financial crisis of the late '00s came about. At the end of the day, the lesson is obvious: Our economic policies have been set by the very cronies who masterminded what one interviewee describes as the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. What's more, the film makes it crystal clear that our government is deeply embedded in the pockets of a few powerful corporations, who literally gamble away our security in order to make billions for themselves—with no reprecussions whatsoever when everything collapses. I happened to catch this film in a theater, and the rage of the audience was palpable; people shaking their heads over and over, guffawing and sighing out of frustration at just how blatant the deception was and continues to be. Aside from the surprising production value, which I thought was super considering how dry a subject finance might seem to the average American, this doc needs to win for the sheer power it has in making people see why increased financial regulations—not to mention campaign finance reform—are absolutely essential to the future of our country, and indeed the entire global economy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

making her pitch

<a href="" target="_new" title="Ladies first">Video: Ladies first</a>

The last throes of February are upon us, which can only mean one thing: Major League Baseball's spring training is officially in full swing. It's a time when fans of our national pastime can get up close and personal with the sport's biggest stars, hottest prospects, and the support staff who whip them into shape. It's a time when anything is possible; there are no winners or losers, only players and coaches with an eye toward Opening Day. But yesterday, at a training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, one individual shone above all the rest when she became the first woman to throw batting practice to an MLB team.

For most of her adult life, Justine Siegal has been an outspoken supporter of girls and women who want to be involved in the world of baseball. She is the founder of Baseball For All, which seeks to empower girls to play hardball. In case you're unaware, some of the earliest baseball players were women, but by the middle of the 20th century, the sport was mostly considered off-limits for girls. In 1973, a judge opened the way for girls to play Little League ball, but Little League organizers decided that while it could no longer deny them from participating, it would encourage them to play softball, a very different sport. Today, relatively few girls get into baseball, primarily because they think they can't. Justine Siegal is trying to change that.

Siegal grew up playing baseball in Cleveland, Ohio, and dreaming of one day donning the uniform of her hometown Indians. At 13, her coach told her he didn't think girls should play baseball and suggested she quit. He clearly didn't know who he was dealing with! Siegal ignored him and continued playing for another two decades. In the late 1990s, she started Baseball For All as a way to encourage others like her who wanted to enjoy the experience of participating in our national pastime. She eventually became a coach for the men's team at Springfield College in Massachusetts. And in 2008, filmmaker Max Tash released a documentary film about her attempts to bring an all-girls' team to the Cooperstown Dreams Park Tournament, a prestigious tournament for youngsters near the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A year later, Siegal became the first woman to coach in the pros when she spent part of her summer with the Brockton Rox (pictured) of the Can-Am League. Since then, she's been seeking out and gaining an increasing amount of national support for her girls-in-baseball projects.

A few weeks ago, I found out that Siegal had been invited to throw batting practice for both the Oakland A's and her hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, at their spring training facilities in Arizona. Justine has been a great inspiration to me, a former ballplayer who's long been frustrated with the marginalization of girls and women in the baseball world, from the majors all the way down to tee ball. When I attempted to start up a girls' baseball program in New York City last year, Justine served as a valuable mentor, and she even came down to host a clinic for a number of young girls who were eager for more than they were getting with their local teams. (My project eventually stalled, but I'm hopeful that girls in the NY area will soon have a new baseball outlet thanks to a new initiative, led by Justine, that partners players with various RBI Baseball teams in cities around the country.) So I was thrilled to hear the news about her Major League assignment, and I enjoyed reading about her preparation for the big event. I was also not surprised to learn that Justine would be dedicating her outing to the late Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in last month's tragic Tucson shooting spree. Green had been a second-baseman on her Little League team, and, like Justine before her, had hoped to break the so-called "grass ceiling" by becoming the first woman to play in the majors.

If you'd like to know how it went, Glenn Swain in The New York Times and Tim Brown at Yahoo! Sports have good recaps of yesterday's historic session. And I highly recommend Justine's own stirring posts relating to the event on her new blog, Justine's Baseball Journey. Her writings are the kind of thing I wish I'd had available to me growing up, when coaches, players, and parents were telling me in ways both subtle and explicit that baseball is for boys. So if you know of a girl or woman who could use some baseball inspiration, please pass it on! You can also follow Justine on Twitter.

Anyway, congrats on your awesome accomplishment, Justine! Can't wait to see what's next.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

the art of science

One of my favorite things in the whole wide universe is when art and science get a little wild and make some sweet music together. With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it was inevitable that I'd spy some new pairings that clearly just need to get a room. To wit, first there were the cute scientist valentines, featuring the likes of Ada Lovelace, Nikola Tesla, and Carl Sagan. But my heart truly went aflutter for the Periodic Table Printmaking Project, an outstanding work by 97 graphic artists from around the globe who obviously adore science as much as I do. As you can see from the samples above, the idea was to identify each element in a way that's some combination of historical, whimsical, and (of course) scientific. What can I say? I'm in love. The full complement of 118 elements can be seen as a group in periodic table form or individually on the project's Flickr set.

Friday, January 28, 2011

remembering challenger

I was only eight when the Challenger disaster occurred on that icy January morning in 1986. I distinctly remember perching on my chair in Mrs. M's third grade class, eager to watch the launch on the bulky brown television that had been wheeled in so that my fellow classmates and I could feel like we were a part of the action. At the time, it seemed a matter of course—at least to us kids—that people could routinely travel to space and to the moon. Even girls could be shuttle explorers after Sally Ride had flown on the Challenger three years earlier! We were encouraged to include 'astronaut' among our future career choices anytime a grown-up asked. And we did.

Third grade happened to coincide with my first real exposure to astronomy, too. It was the first time, for instance, that I learned about my very eager mother . . . not to mention the pizzas she'd just served us—though there are plenty of folks today who'd urge us to skip the pizza. As a child of the 80s, imagining that someday I, too, might fly through the asteroid belt or make a quick trip to the canyons of Mars seemed a perfectly reasonable ambition. I was ready to sign up.

To add to the excitement of the day, we'd been told that Christa McAuliffe was going to become the first schoolteacher ever, in the history of the world, to travel into space. We knew about this not just because it was all over the news, but because our school's phys ed teacher had also applied for the Teacher in Space program. And boy, did he get us excited about it! I don't recall whether Mr. W ever disclosed how far along in the process he'd reached before being cut, but he'd clearly felt that doing experiments to gauge how microgravity affected physical fitness would have been one of the greatest gifts he could give to students at our elementary school and around the country.

And then . . . the forked puffy cloud. The confusion. The silence.

It's clear to me now that I was too young to truly understand death. I had actually lost a grandmother just a month before, but my still-developing brain prevented me from grasping the enormity of her passing until much later. Obviously it was the same for these seven people I'd never even met. Yet my classmates and I knew right away that something terrible had just happened. And we were all a little scared.

The Challenger incident has stayed with me over the past quarter-century, well into my adult life. My love of all things space grew as time marched on, and when the shuttle program resumed, I once again looked forward to watching launches on the news, and later, on NASA TV. But to this day, there's a palpable anxiousness in the last hour or so before liftoff. And until I hear the "main engine cutoff" call from mission control, my heart remains firmly embedded in my throat. Sadly, ever since the Columbia breakup in 2003, shuttle landings have become equally nerve-wracking for the same grim reasons.

To be sure, I recognize that many of us put our lives on the line every single day. I think of miners and factory workers who endure precarious and downright dangerous conditions on a daily basis. And there are the firefighters, police officers, and other civil servants who purposely risk bodily harm for the sake of the common good. Heck, every time we get behind the wheel we put ourselves at the mercy of road conditions and other drivers. And yet I can't help but get verklempt when I think of the men and women who voluntarily strap themselves to the back of a rocket and hope that a million things go right on their way out to the stars and back. One of my longtime dreams of attending a shuttle launch finally came true last May, and I can assure you that there were tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched that plume reach deep into the brilliant Florida sky. As with every mission since STS-51-L, I was thinking of Challenger that afternoon—and yes, Columbia, too.

So today marks 25 years since that fateful morning back in 1986. I'm now 33, and sad to say I haven't yet booked my flight to the asteroid belt. In 2007, though, Christa McAuliffe's alternate, fellow teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, did eventually carry the torch for educators when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor and visited the International Space Station.

The legacies of those lost with the Challenger—Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith, and Scobee—live on in all of us who were watching that day. I, for one, will never forget.

Lego photo courtesy of BriXwerX on Flickr