Monday, March 27, 2006

How Our Family Started

It was brought to my attention on "Blog About You Cat Day" that while I had written complete posts about Allison and Wrigley, I had not yet introduced you all to the one that got the ball rolling. Here is Nellie:

Nellie's story isn't as bizarre as Wrigley's or as humorous as Allison's but her story means the most the me.

Just before we moved to Florida, Dean and I contacted a feline rescue organization in the Tampa Bay area about adopting an adult cat. We knew we weren't up for a kitten right away since I had no idea what grad school was going to be like. I saw Nellie's huge saucer eyes in a picture on the internet and fell in love.

Dean and I got down here, settled in for a few days and told the feline rescue organization (which turned out to just be a married couple) to bring Nellie over any time. Both the husband and wife came over to our new apartment with Nellie, who at the time was only six pounds. They let her out of the carrier and she trotted around the apartment with her tail up, checking everything out. She was obviously comfortable already. The woman, Carla, marveled at Nellie's behavior and said she had never seen a cat act so at home so quickly. It was meant to be. It was my first time adopting a cat from a feline rescue organization. Carla made sure we knew that we could change Nellie's name to whatever we wanted. As with Allison, I felt that she came to us with her own name and thus identity. I sort of felt like I should respect that even though it is still undecided whether or not cats actually know their names. Plus, she looks like a Nellie.

It was not lost on me that the day they brought Nellie over was the two-year anniversary of the death of my beloved childhood cat, Chelsea. It was bittersweet. I asked Carla roughly how old Nellie was. She said, "Since she was picked up as a stray, I don't know for sure, but if I had to guess I'd say two years."

Carla's husband picked Nellie up, crying a little and said goodbye. I felt terrible taking Nellie away from this man who obviously cared for her, but he assured me he was confident we'd give Nellie a good home. And we have.

Getting Nellie also meant a lot to Dean and I as a couple. Though we didn't make a big deal of it, this was a big commitment. I had no idea how Dean was going to behave with a cat since he had only had one cat years ago and no other pets since. Dean knew I had an intense love for animals, especially cats. Moments after the couple left, Dean turned to me and meaningfully said, "now I get it." Since then he has loved cats just as much as me. And I love him even more for that.

That first day Nellie showed her loyalty for us by hunting. She grabbed a stuffed bear I had on a bookshelf that was wearing a Chicago White Sox jersey. A memento from Komisky park that my grandma had gotten me years ago. Dean despises the White Sox. When Nellie came up to him, carrying that poor bear by the neck and dropping it at his feet, Dean beamed with a fatherly pride. "That's my girl!"

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Moral Dilemma

Today's post is going to get a little heavy. Basically, I value your opinion and since all of you come from different backgrounds with different political views, I want to get your take on this issue.

I'll start with something neat though. I went to the departmental seminar Friday. The guy speaking was a big deal neurobiologist doing some work on neural dynamics. He takes brain cells from mice and grows them in a culture. He places several electrodes in the culture and gives the cells electrical stimulation and records the electrical response to the stimulation. The next step in his research was to turn the response from the cells into something "meaningful" like movement of a picture of a mouse on a computer screen. He uses the movement of the mouse on the screen to determine the electrical stimulation that the cells receive next. He essentially sees if the cells can learn and interact with the mouse on the screen by using a closed feedback loop on the cells. If that isn't entirely creepy enough, he next replaced the computer mouse with a robot mouse. The robot mouse received input based on the location of a second robot mouse whose movements were random. The closed loop became: random mouse movement-->signal to cells-->signal to robot mouse-->random mouse movement
What ended up happening in his lab was the robot mouse sort of chased the random mouse around for awhile. Keep in mind, the robot mouse was being steered by a Petri dish full of brain cells. It totally blew my mind. The next step, the speaker said, was a plan funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse where he incorporates dopamine into the closed loop. Then there will be crack-addicted brain cells driving robots. All hell's gonna break loose.

Where am I going with all this? Well, on the speaker's very last slide were his ackowledgements to all the agencies that fund his work. Under the list was a big peace sign with the phrase "No Military Funding." This brings up a sticky area for us scientists. I am not trying to make a blanket statement, but many scientists tend to be liberal and against our current war. Some of the most influential scientists are even pacifist. Should those of us who aren't thrilled with our current military predicament accept funding from military agencies?

I personally don't know the answer to this question. It isn't as easy as it appears to be on the surface. Let's immediately toss out the most obvious objections to military funding, i.e. developing technology that goes directly into weapons used soley to kill people. I don't know a lot of scientists that would be able to do that though they must exist. To me, that's a no brainer. But consider this. People in my line of work develop devices that are at the forefront of technology for things like wireless communication, magnetic memory storage, and portable refrigeration. All this is technology that the military is willing to throw money at you to develop because they want the top of the line for soldiers. I want our soldiers to be safe, it's not their fault they're fighting this horrific war but how do I know they are using my wireless technology to defend themselves and not to wreak havoc? And whether or not I accept the money that is thrown at me doesn't change the fact that in most cases the technology civilians use is handed down from the military anyway. This is our defense-oriented society; the big bucks go to military funding and Joe Schmoe has to be patient until the army is willing to pass it along. This mentality doesn't leave a lot of options for us applied physicists. These days funding is tighter than it's ever been and my advisor cannot afford to pick and choose whose money to accept. We're lucky to have anything (for the record, I am currently funded by the National Science Foundation, though I used to be funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencies until that ran out).

Overall, I guess I think it depends on an individual's situation. I don't meant to criticize this scientist that spoke Friday, but being a big name studying such fascination science I'm sure he can afford to pick and choose his funding. And it's a lot more obvious to me how the military can use crack-addicted mouse-brain robots to harm others. But what about us more mundane, gray-area physicists? Am I justifying accepting money from "the man"? Am I compromising my beliefs and being a hypocrite? Or am I just going through a typical crisis of conscience, one every scientist must face?

If I haven't bored you to tears yet, check out this article from the Village Voice I found about the speaker I referred to earlier.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Dear Brainhell,

Well, I have given your comment a lot of thought. And you are absolutely right. Physics in its present form is corrupting the minds of the young. I am purpetuating this corruption by supporting the "accepted" notion of gravity first set forth by Newton and modified by Einstein. Both were horrible people, by the way. There is a reason why the government does not support so-called "fundamental physics" anymore. It is morally wrong. If I continue to spread the words of Newton and Einstein, I will be on the fast track to hell. That is why I have accepted the notion of "intelligent falling" as described below, courtesy of The Onion*.

Thank you for making me see the error of my ways.


Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory

August 17, 2005

KANSAS CITY, KS—As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held "theory of gravity" is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

Burdett added: "Gravity—which is taught to our children as a law—is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force. Isaac Newton himself said, 'I suspect that my theories may all depend upon a force for which philosophers have searched all of nature in vain.' Of course, he is alluding to a higher power."

Founded in 1987, the ECFR is the world's leading institution of evangelical physics, a branch of physics based on literal interpretation of the Bible.

According to the ECFR paper published simultaneously this week in the International Journal Of Science and the adolescent magazine God's Word For Teens!, there are many phenomena that cannot be explained by secular gravity alone, including such mysteries as how angels fly, how Jesus ascended into Heaven, and how Satan fell when cast out of Paradise.

The ECFR, in conjunction with the Christian Coalition and other Christian conservative action groups, is calling for public-school curriculums to give equal time to the Intelligent Falling theory. They insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue "so they can make an informed decision."

"We just want the best possible education for Kansas' kids," Burdett said.

Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis.

"Let's take a look at the evidence," said ECFR senior fellow Gregory Lunsden."In Matthew 15:14, Jesus says, 'And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.' He says nothing about some gravity making them fall—just that they will fall. Then, in Job 5:7, we read, 'But mankind is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upwards.' If gravity is pulling everything down, why do the sparks fly upwards with great surety? This clearly indicates that a conscious intelligence governs all falling."

Critics of Intelligent Falling point out that gravity is a provable law based on empirical observations of natural phenomena. Evangelical physicists, however, insist that there is no conflict between Newton's mathematics and Holy Scripture.

"Closed-minded gravitists cannot find a way to make Einstein's general relativity match up with the subatomic quantum world," said Dr. Ellen Carson, a leading Intelligent Falling expert known for her work with the Kansan Youth Ministry. "They've been trying to do it for the better part of a century now, and despite all their empirical observation and carefully compiled data, they still don't know how."

"Traditional scientists admit that they cannot explain how gravitation is supposed to work," Carson said. "What the gravity-agenda scientists need to realize is that 'gravity waves' and 'gravitons' are just secular words for 'God can do whatever He wants.'"

Some evangelical physicists propose that Intelligent Falling provides an elegant solution to the central problem of modern physics.

"Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the 'electromagnetic force,' the 'weak nuclear force,' the 'strong nuclear force,' and so-called 'force of gravity,'" Burdett said. "And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus."

*This article was first brought to my attention months ago by my dad. I could not in good conscience write a response to Brainhell's comment without including it.

Blogger's Block

I have blogger's block.

Readers, inspire me!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Overheard in Baltimore

Cheesehead to a guy in the bar from last post who was wearing a Packers hat: Are you from Wisconsin?

Guy in bar: Yup.

Cheesehead: Me too.

Guy in bar: Fuckin'-A.

Cheesehead: Fuckin'-A.


Professor Hottie: I remember meeting you when I visited your University.

Me: Yes, and I meant to tell you how much I enjoyed the seminar you gave about metamagnetic states in Cobaltites.

Dr. Hari: Yeah! She couldn't stop talking about you!


Me (during my presentation): At low temperatures, the sample showed anonymous behavior. [Horrified, I realized that I said "anonymous" instead of "anomalous".] I'm sorry, I meant to say... anonymous.


Random person in the audience during Undergrad's (from my lab) presentation: If your nanoparticles are 4 to 6 nanometers in diameter, why does your x-ray diffraction show sharp intense peaks when the particles are smaller than the wavelength of light?

Undergrad: Are you saying my particles aren't as small as I say they are? 'Cuz they are!


Cheesehead, rerecording his outgoing messgae on his cellphone: Hi, this is Cheesehead. If you are that girl I gave my number to the other night, PLEASE LEAVE YOUR PHONE NUMBER AS I DON'T ALREADY HAVE IT!


J: Do you want to go to a cold fusion talk?

Me: Sort of..... Do you?

J: Totally. I want to hear two things- "Einstein was wrong" and "The man's keeping me down".

Speaker (minutes later at a cold fusion talk: If you want to know why none of this work is funded, read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

J: Yesssss!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

March Meeting

I am currently in Baltimore for the March meeting of the American Physical Society. The APS meetings are a blast. It is my third year going to them and every year I get a little more confident and, sadly, fit in a little more. It used to be that I could barely contain myself from laughing at the geeks here, but now that I am one (more so than before) I just smile at the over-the-top geekiness. The APS meetings are where you can hear the worst jokes, see the worst dressers, the most socially awkward. You can walk down the hall and literally see people perform back-of-the-envelope calculations.

One thing I love about going to the meetings with the boys in my lab is that they really like to explore the city where the meetings are held. We see it as a free vacation where we have to put in 40 hours of work and the rest of the time is ours to get into trouble. We like to check out the local bars, eat the requisite foods, see the local sports teams. Unfortunately the Orioles are still in spring training. From what I’ve seen of Camden yards, it’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. We have, however, had our required Maryland crab cakes and had some drinks at the Harbor Way Inn, where the signature liquor was their own. A lethal combination of vodka and Lithuanian cough medicine. I tossed it back like a trooper.

One of my favorite things about these meetings is catching up with people you only see at these meetings. For instance, at my first meeting (in Montreal) I literally ran into my Physics I lab teacher from the University of Minnesota. His name is Andy. He was so proud to see someone he had once taught at an APS meeting, presenting her own work. We caught up over lunch and since then have made it a point to see each other at the March meetings and see each other’s presentations. Coincidently, our research area is remarkably similar. I found out yesterday we even share a collaborator (Yep, this guy. I’m meeting with him tomorrow. I’m nervous already.).

Unfortunately, these meetings also contain a lot of ass-kissing. Something I’m not terribly fond of but something Dr. Hari can’t seem to stress enough. I know, I know. Everybody has to do it. But it just doesn’t seem like something you sign on for as a physicist.

For example, I was listening to a talk when Dr. Hari came in the room, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “C’mon! C’mon! We’ve gotta go! Get J!” I snagged J and we ran out of the room. Dr. Hari was walking at a fast clip. “Dr. So-and-so and his grad student from MIT want to go to lunch with us!” I had no idea who these people were. And Andy’s talk was in an hour. I was worried about missing it, but I guess if a collaboration from MIT came out of it, Andy would understand. As it turns out, Dr. So-and-so was an acquaintance of Dr. Hari’s and he just wanted someone to eat with. His grad student, fearing boredom, requested Dr. Hari to ask a couple of his grad students with to keep her company. I was irate of the politics running rampant at the situation. Fortunately there was a talk she wanted to see as well so I made it back to see Andy. I am in store for more politicking tonight though when we meet for the Florida University dinner where we are the little guys compared to UF and FSU. At least we can brag about being the ones on the beach.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My Own Personal Reality has been Upended

The semester I was writing my masters thesis, J joined my lab. He already had his masters degree and had been personally invited to join by Dr. Hari. The whole time J has been in our lab he has never had to be a teaching assistant. I have twice and I would have had to be this semester if it weren't for my new fellowship. He eats, sleeps and breathes physics. Any physics question you have he can answer. He immediately showed interest in everyone's projects and spends most of his waking hours there putzing with side projects. He has more publications in the 2 1/2 years he's been here than I have in the 3 1/2 years I've been in the group. And he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Which is why I can't dislike him. But I can resent him a little. I'd get frustrated that he was Dr. Hari's "golden child", he couldn't do anything wrong and I felt that we were all secretly being held to the standards that J provided. At the same time, I felt comfortable resenting him. I was happy with my place in the hierarchy and would relish the year or so following J's graduation where I would be the senior member. But until then, it's fine for Dr. Hari to call on J for every little thing he needs. I could just kind of chill in the shadows doing my thing until I had gradually accumulated papers, a resume and eventually a Ph.D.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a distinct change in the lab dynamic. It started when I made a comment to Dr. Hari about wanting to get my stuff and graduate so I wouldn't "clog up the pipeline", something Dr. Hari is vehemently opposed to. He chuckled and left. Five minutes later I was called up to the office. I felt like I could have been in grade school again. His lecture to me went something like this,

"Natalie, the last thing I want to do is get you out of my lab. I want to keep you here as long as possible to give you the skills and the resume to get a very good job. I think you have the potential to be a great researcher. You have exceptional analytical and writing skills, things that will enable you to get far in life especially if you take advantages of the resources provided for you."

It made my day.

Then later in the week I sent Dr. Hari a rough draft of my presentation for the conference I am going to next week. He emailed me back saying,

"I have reviewed your APS presentation and it looks excellent. I am glad to see to that you are becoming an expert in this. Good job!"

Again, pleasantly surprised.

Then things started going south. J came to me the other day saying that Dr. Hari told him that his writing skills were weak (which he already knew) and to come see me for help on his presentation. He also said Dr. Hari was talking about what a great researcher I am again. Cheesehead confirmed and said Dr. Hari had told him how awesome I am too. The tides have turned and I am sensing some resentment. The boys jokingly called me "golden girl" today, and "pet". I would hate me too if I were my labmate!

I have also been asked to have dinner with Dr. Hari and one of our collaborators while in Baltimore and prepare a presentation to show him (BTW- this is the same collaborator I describe here. Yikes!).

Things reached a head when we went through our practice talks as a group today. Dr. Hari had plenty of critiques for my lab mates. When it was my turn at the end to go, he said, "Pay attention, guys. This is how it's supposed to be done." That made me a wreck.

Faithful readers, I blame you. When J asked me with a twinge of jealousy in his voice how I became such a good writer, all I could think of to say was, "Well, I blog."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


My cats don't drink from a water dish. They drink from a stadium cup on the coffee table because whenever Dean and I have a glass of water, the cats will try to drink from it. We discovered that if our glass of water is always only 3/4 full and the "cat cup" is always full, they will only drink from the cat cup.

For the first time in 3 years I accidently drank from the cat cup.

I feel so disgusting.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"And we'll see ya...tomorrow night"

Whenever any Twins fan hears those words, they get chills. They immediately think of Kirby Puckett's game-winning homerun against the Braves forcing game 7 of the 1991 World Series*.

Baseball lost a hero yesterday when Kirby died. People of my generation associate Twins baseball with Kirby and his too short career. They think of his dedication to the team, the fans, the state. They think of him before that fateful game 6 when he told his team, "get on my back cuz I'm gonna carry you." That he did.

We all ackowledge we wasn't the perfect man, but he was a damned near perfect baseball player. He was one of the last of the great "small-ball" players, advancing runners with bunts, sac flies, taking walks when needed. Not always swinging for the fences though when he did it was impressive. He was one of the last players to spend a prolific career in one place wearing no jersey other than a Twins jersey, number 34. People like to speculate on what kind of player Kirby would have been if his career hadn't ended when he got Glaucoma, sending the Twins into "the dark ages" of the mid- and late-90s.

The Twins of today are heavily influenced by Kirby in their strong defensive playing and their team mentality, still playing small-ball when they can. Torii Hunter patrols the outfield and robs homeruns citing Kirby as his inspiration.

Twins fans, Minnesotans, baseball fans and players alike- we'll all miss you, Kirby.

*Dean was at that game and I have always been immensely jealous. Also, game 7 of the 1991 World Series is known as arguably the best World Series game ever played. Kirby had little to do with that, but it was because of him the Twins made it to game 7. Jack Morris pitched 10 shutout innings. The Twins won by stringing together singles (small ball) in the bottom of the tenth, winning 1-0 and the title of World Champions for the second time in four years. Those were the days.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Playing Catch-Up

So I'm back at work today after taking the whole week off work last week. As I described in my last post, I spent the first couple of days in Ft. Myers with Dean. Wednesday my mom and stepdad came to Tampa for their annual spring training trip. It was a lot of fun. I always relish their astonishment at the beautiful weather here this time of year, their joy at seeing and playing with their "grand kitties" and being spoiled rotten with free food and pampering. We saw four games at four different parks. I didn't bring my camera because they brought their big fancy camera with the huge lenses and fast shutter speed. I'm excited to see some of the action shots. Many of the bigger stars that we would have liked pictures with were not there because of the World Baseball Classic. Don't get me started on THAT. As always I was extremely sad to see them go.

Since I don't have much new in my life besides watching baseball and drinking beer, I thought I'd catch you all up on what I've been reading and watching.


Capote- I went and saw it with my dad while he was in town. I was so happy to see that Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor. He was amazing, as was the whole movie. I knew very little about the whole story behind In Cold Blood, and we are reading it this month for my book club. I'm actually very glad that I saw the movie before I started reading the book because it brings a whole new dimension to the book.

Brokeback Mountain- Finally saw that the week before last. Very disappointed it didn't win best picture last night, but I haven't seen "Crash" so I can't say much about it. I thought it was a beautiful story that completely lived up to the hype surrounding it. I was worried I would be let down after hearing such good things about it, but if anything I liked it more than I thought I would. My mom warned me that I'd cry. I scoffed and reminded her that I'm not a big movie crier. She was right.

40 Year Old Virgin- Dean and I rented it last weekend. It was pretty funny, but it dragged on a little too long. I liked the supporting cast and was pleasantly surprised to see Catherine Keener after just seeing her in "Capote".


Since finishing Vanishing Acts for last months book club (and making my opinion known about Jodi Picoult), I've only finished one book and started another. Pretty disappointing for me, an avid reader. But I have been pretty busy. Per Lefty Grrrl's recommendation I read The Memory of Running. It was quite good. A Forrest Gump-esque guy rides a bike from Rhode Island to California to deal with the remains of his estranged sister. It alternated between him telling of his adventures and of the people he meets along the way to describing life growing up with a mentally ill sibling. Both story lines were equally compelling and I found myself fascinated by the sister's character, espeically as seen through the eyes of her simple brother. Good pick, Lefty!

After The Memory of Running I started reading In Cold Blood. As I mentioned before it is March's book club selection. Unfortunately I will be in Baltimore for a conference when book club meets, but after seeing "Capote" I couldn't not read In Cold Blood and I'm so happy I saw the movie first. It is really intense reading this true crime book and remembering parts of the movie when Capote was inspired by these events. I highly recommend both the movie "Capote" and the book In Cold Blood in that order. I'm only about 100 pages into the book, but I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Time to get to work and I'll make the rounds with all my blog friends tonight.