Thursday, July 24, 2008

Escaping the routine

Leaving for 4 days of Backpacking this morning.  I've been looking forward to this mini-break from my routine for weeks.  The simplicity of your day when you are on the trail is delightful.  Eating, walking, reading, sleeping.  These are the events of your day and the only decision is how to order the activities.  

You know that you are ready for a break when the monotony of normal life leaks in to your subconscious.  I have lately been unable to create the little mental stories that serve to distract when faced with the most boring of tasks.  My dreams are also victims of the routine.  They have become diluted versions of their former selves.  

My last dream this morning (that dream you remember and take with you, the dream that sets the tone for your day) was about visiting the doctor.  Well, I should say visiting the waiting room because in the dream I never saw the doctor.  I checked in with reception, sat in the waiting room and then watched as all the other patients were called, and then I woke up.  I'm really glad I know nothing of dream interpretation because I'm sure that this dream would say nothing interesting about me.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Escape the waste?

When shopping I try to consider the packaging waste from the products I buy.  For the things I purchase regularly I tend to buy in bulk and reuse my own bags and containers.  The last few day's I've been biking around town picking up stuff we need for our annual backpacking trip.  Nothing big, mostly food and replacement items for the first aid kit.  We packed our bags up last night and I was shocked by the amount of waste we had produced from such a small number of things.  I had always thought of backpacking as a "green" vacation.  Spending a week fueling ourselves instead of our cars, living simply finding joy in the quite.  Not necessarily a zero impact vacation, but much better that spending it running an ATV around the dunes or camping in an luxury RV complete with air-conditioning and satellite television.  But this waste concerns me, I'm going to have to think through what products we choose before the next trip.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Religion and more thoughts from childhood

I was reading through some posts at Panthera studentessa and I was intrigued by this post about her childhood experiences with a Pentacostal step family.  The rules of the religion clearly made no sense to her and I was reminded of a girl from the neighborhood I knew when I was young.  

We were riding home together on the bus and I invited her to my birthday party.  She told me that she didn't go to parties.  When I asked why she said that she was a Jehovah's witness and then she told me a story about a man having his head served up at on a platter at the request of some crazy woman.  I can't remember if the dead guy was attending a party or if the crazy lady with the decapitation fetish was hosting a party, or exactly how the details came together.  But I do remember her conclusion: so we don't go to parties because our heads will end up on a platter.  

Having attended many birthday parties myself and never having been decapitated or otherwise disfigured I really thought this girl was crazy.  We were kids and birthday parties were awesome.  I'm sure the belief system that forces the Jehovah's witnesses to stay home when everyone else is out having a good time is more complex than she had made it out to be, but in her young mind it was quite straight forward: attending party+having good time=head on platter.  Now that was the finest bit of brain washing I'd ever heard.

God stole my car keys

Yesterday, in a ridiculous moment of fuzzy-headedness brought on by to much heat and exertion and not enough food and water I "miss-placed" my car keys (they were never really lost, grrrrrr.)  I naturally began to panic when all my searching could not locate them, it did not help that I was at my field research site with no cell phone reception, and a 3.5 hour drive (plus a long embarrassing explanation to my colleagues) away from another set of keys.  

In a fit of near-tears-panic I found myself saying a little prayer in my head to locate the keys.  Even in my fuzzy headed state I thought what an odd thing to do.  Who exactly was I asking for help?  Did I think the Flying Spaghetti Monster had reached down from the sky and plucked the keys from my pocket?  Holding them hostage until I showed his meatballs the appropriate reverence? Of course not, but in the absence of any corporeal help it was, apparently, my first instinct to ask for assistance from some non-corporeal being.  

The logical part of my brain finally screamed at me loud enough to be heard over all the static, “retrace your steps, go through everything, they must be here! start with the most likely places…..” and quite quickly I literally ran right in to them (the keys having been laying right out in the open for nearly a hour while I frantically search all around them.)  And after I located the not-really-lost keys what was my immediate instinct?  To once again thank some non-corporal being.  

What did the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Shiva the destroyer, or Ra the sun god have to do with my not-really-lost keys?  Diddley.  But in my fuzzy headed state the need to rely on someone or something else was so strong I couldn’t contain it.  The impulse has to be more than simply the effect of our culture, for culture only names the non-corporeal being.  The impulse to give up control, to put a situation in someone else’s hands when feeling helpless, must be much deeper than that.  

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dr. Horrible: not just for crazy Joss Whedon Fans

A musical comedy created by Joss Whedon and staring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and some readheaded chick.  Awesome, right?  Still not convinced?  Remember this under appreciated piece of awesomeness:

or this delightful musical:

Both of Josses creation.

The third act isn't up yet, but better not wait to long to start watching because according to the master plan after Sunday (the 20th) you'll have to pay to watch.

And NO, I'm not even remotely a crazy Whedon fan, I just have good taste.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scientists, Atheists, and thoughts from childhood

After returning to school last fall I started reading a lot of science blogs.  The first, and probably still my all around favorite, was Living the Scientific Life.  I was drawn to a lot of other blogs about life as a scientist (especially blogs by women scientists), as well as blogs that discussed life science and evolution (which I tend think of as one and the same).  Without really intending to I also ended up reading many post about atheism (it sounds weird to call it an "ism" for some reason) and posts on the many problems with religion.  After reading so many of these posts, you can't help but wonder about what you "believe".  So this curiosity lead me listen to some old Dawkins lectures on the topics of religion and science, and watch some fantastic interview clips with David Attenborough discussing evolution and belief in the existence of god.  Their ideas are always so eloquent, insightful, and logical but I can never completely reconcile them with my own way of seeing the world. 

Today I read an intriguing post by GrrlScientist at the aforementioned Living the Scientific Life blog.  She discusses being raised to be a religious person , how this conflicted with her inquisitive nature and how this conflict lead her to become an atheist.  So that got me thinking about my childhood, and I wouldn't say everything clicked in to place but it has certainly helped me to make a little more sense of how I interpret the world and why.  

If my parents had a particular belief system in mind when they raised me I'm still not aware of it.  In fact if they raised me to be anything I would say it was to become a scientist.  Most people would say that's not surprising considering I was raised by an anthropologist and a biologist, but there was more to it than their own knowledge and interest in the natural world.  I think I was allowed to experience nature differently that many children are.  If I was curious I was encouraged, if I had questions they were answered and no answer was ever dumbed down (even if this meant teaching a very young child the details of how animals reproduce).  

One might expect such an upbringing to take away the mystery of life, but it did just the opposite.  For some inexplicable reason all these answers just made the world seem more mysterious and amazing, I was sure I would find something unexplainable if I just looked long and hard enough.  I never did, but I also never stopped looking.  Now I no longer seek the unexplainable with a belief it will remain unexplained, but instead seek the answers to the yet to be explained questions.

What more is a scientist than a child who was never taught not to ask questions? or at least never stopped questioning, even when told to.  And as a result of this childhood I am what exactly? certainly not religious, but not an atheist either.  I have a feeling that Professor Dawkins would tell me that to understand evolution, biology, and the origins of life on this planet and not proclaim oneself to be an atheist means that I am not following the scientific reasoning to it's logical conclusion.  Maybe that's true, perhaps there is a flaw in my primate brain that makes me perceive the natural world with too much awe causing me to believe there may be something beyond what I can see and know with the tools I have.  Perhaps it is a side effect of always being encouraged to question what I see and experience.  Maybe it's just the revolting nature of all the labels people assign themselves causing me to resist assimilation in to any belief or non-belief system.

It's strange to have enough scientific knowledge to explain most of the world I encounter, and yet be so incapable of explaining myself.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thou shalt not forget thy ipod!

During the summer we graduate students help with projects out at the research farm as often as possible.  Our lab group has many research trials that are ready for harvesting and data recording, it's usually fun and gets us out of the office (which isn't air-conditioned anyway so why bother....)  

One of the most tedious tasks is cleaning grass seed.  After grass seed has been cut, laid in the field for a while, and the seed harvested with the combine it needs to be sent through the seed cleaner.  This chest-freezer-sized machine separates the live seed from the stalks, hulls, and chaff that the combine also collects.  Each experimental plot is individually bagged during combining and must be cleaned and weighed individually.  This is a long, noisy, and tedious process that is made worse by the heat and dust particles released during cleaning.  

Listening to music, podcasts, our audiobooks is one of the few things that make this task more bearable.  I forgot my ipod today, and oh how I suffered.  I thought I might be able to call upon my creative storytelling brain function to entertain me with fictional stories and random characters, but I completely failed.  Apparently my "magical thinking" does not work upon request, or by force of will.  Must, must, must remember ipod!

Making Green Easy

Each day my husband and I work at changing our behavior to make our lives more "green."  The biggest change for us has been riding our bikes everywhere.  I've also taken the community link buses when I have to visit neighboring towns.  The inconvenience of long waits is almost enough to make me want to drive, but lately I've found driving to be very unpleasant (perhaps it's the lack of airconditioning.)  But when I do have to drive my car the destination is typically either my research site (275 mile round trip) or to visit the parents (200 mile round trip).  For those trips I've had ideas on how to be a more green driver:
  • Keep it at or under 55 mph (much easier on the windy coast road to my research site than when I take I-5 to visit the parents) but driving 55 mph or slower saves gas, and using less gas to go the same distance is a basic green concept.
  • Drive with high tire pressure in the summer.  We have icy and wet winters so if you visit the tire centers during the winter months chances are you're driving away with lowish tire pressure to aid in traction.  But greater traction also means greater friction and less efficiency.  Once the weather has improved get them pumped up an your gas mileage with improve.
  • Just say no to drive-thrus.  Yes, it's un-american but we have completely given them up.  It's easily the simplest green choice we've made, just park the car and walk into get our greasy fast food or mocha frappuccino.  I have no idea just how much gas is typically wasted in drive-thrus, but it just makes sense to give them up.
  • Get a tune up!  (I emphasize this because I have yet to check it off my "to-do" list).  A well tuned car is a clean running more efficient car.
You can make being green as simple or complex as you wish.  The green culture is growing and I've found that we don't need to commit to extreme changes that complicate our lifestyles or don't fit with our economic level in order to feel like we're making an impact.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Is it wrong to have a .69 cent pot pie as an afternoon snack?  And just what is "MECHANICALLY SEPARATED TURKEY"

I was eating so healthy too, I've gone a whole week with out eating any top ramen.  I guess I was deficient in sodium tripolyphosphate.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Pharyngula - undeniably addictive

I began reading Pharyngula many moons ago, and lets say it wasn't love at first read.  I found many of his statements and opinions to be a bit extreme for my taste, but as time went on I found myself reading it more and more, not just for the shock of what he might say next, but for the scientific content.  I guess I was also sold on the unwavering support given to keeping evolution in education and creationism out, an issue that I like so many other scientists take very personally.  It's a strangely addictive blog, that you just can't stop reading once you've started.  Even if you don't agree with everything PZ writes (which believe me I don't) you can't help but admire the guy for being consistent and keeping all arguments rooted in science.  And of course there is always the friday cephalopod to look forward to.

Compassionate professor

When I feel like I have failed somehow in my research, or haven't lived up to my own expectations of my work, I always expect to see disappointment equal to my own in my professors face.  Time and again this isn't the case.  Instead I'm given support and encouragement to try again, even empathy for the difficulty I'm having with my research.  It's astounding that I've been fortunate enough to find myself in such a supportive environment.  I read so many other blogs written by young women in science who are not only lacking an encouraging advisor, but who are in some cases being systematically browbeaten by senior faculty.  It's an important lesson for all of us that have the potential to continue in academia: Remember our own tribulations, disappointments, and failures in order to treat others with compassion.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Disappointment and self doubt

Having failed to collect the data I was seeking during the recent trip to my field site, my mind has been dwelling of thoughts of failure.  Doubting wether I have the skill to complete the research, fear of the disappointment I will see in my professors face tomorrow.  The idea of managing a field site and collecting data on the plant species seems simple when planned from the safety of my desk, but the ideas once applied to the real situation never come to fruition.  It's incredibly frustrating to have so little control over the experimental variables at this field site.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tales of a misspent youth

What is it about the fourth of July that brings out the juvenile delinquent in everyone.  Normally sensible adults suddenly have the desire to make homemade fireballs, convert super-soakers to flame throwers, play chicken with roman candles and shoot bottle rockets at each other.  The scent of sulfur and burnt hair has filled the air of our quaint little town for the last few days.  Not sure if that makes us patriotic or idiotic......

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Into the great wide open

I'm off to the woods for a few days, to collect data at my research plots.  Fingers crossed for enough plant growth to make grass ID easy.  The forecast is a mix of clouds and sun and temps in the upper 60's (F).  Should be just lovely, wish I could spend the whole summer.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

One more anniversary link

GrrlScientist just put a new post up on Natural Selection Turning 150.

Yeah for science!

Favorite Darwin Quote

On this auspicious day I thought I would share what has always been my favorite Darwin Quote:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
—Charles Darwin 
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859

It's difficult to choose a favorite, but something about this one has always spoke to me.  Perhaps it's that you can hear the clear admiration and amazement at the incredible diversity of life he had observed during his explorations.  Perhaps it's his attempt at aligning religious and scientific views.  More likely, it's the memories of Stephen Jay Gould that this quote conjures for me.  

Though Stephen Jay Gould passed away just as I was blossoming as a young scientist I've always felt some unexplainable connection to his writing.  I remember the presence of his books in our house growing up, but never read them until entering college.  When I was immersed into the world of Darwin I also began reading Gould.  With Voyage of the Beagle in one hand and the Flamingo's Smile in the other my view of the world was forever altered.  

I think Darwin perfectly describes this alteration of the perceived world we experience through gaining understanding of natural selection; "-from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."  It's really a grand view.

150 Years of Natural Selection

150 Year ago today the scientific world was introduced to a great new scientific concept, and in that time few realms of science have been so hotly debated or passionately disputed by the ignorant, closed-minded, and stupid.  The anniversary is chronicled by the beagle project and many other well known blogs...

It was the meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st, 1858.  One month before the publication of both Darwin and Wallace's papers, and these lucky scientists got a preview.  Can you imagine being there, hearing these ideas for the first time.  How thrilling, I wonder how many of them knew just how important these papers would be.  I wish I could know what questions they asked, what the feeling of the audience had been.  Did some of them truly think nothing of importance had happened that day?  Or did some of them have that burning feeling of witnessing history being made.  I hope it was the latter, I like to imagine the feeling of scientific revolution.

My favorite picture of Darwin