Friday, December 30, 2016

Making Something Out of Nothing

On my first day as an engineer's assistant at Ohio State University's Van de Graaff accelerator lab the chief engineer had nothing for me to do. She took me to the electrical engineer who also had nothing for me to do. The only other possibility was the machinist who, not surprisingly, had nothing for me to do. However, the grime and metal remains of the machine shop caught his eye so he said I could clean the machines. I brushed the curlicued metal from the surface of a lathe, and flossed its crevices for stubborn shavings that had not seen light for years. After multiple towel wipe downs even the dull gray paint seemed to sparkle. A quick sweep of the shop floor ended that shift.

The next day replayed the same story: nothing from the chief engineer or electrical engineer or machinist, but other machines were dirty. So I repeated the hygiene on another hunk of hardware, swept, and left. Day three played much the same way, but all the machines had been cleaned by day's end. Since it was likely that neither the engineers nor machinist had time to give, I went straight to the shop on the following day. I told the machinist that I would start cleaning and organizing the rest of the shop. Scrap and supplies from decades of creation by the machinist and graduate students were at best loosely grouped and at worst tangled in heaps or strewn about the shelves.

For days I reduced the entropy of that room, bringing order from disorder. I separated metal from wood. I discarded bottles both empty and old. I partitioned metal by types: aluminum, copper, brass, steel of many sorts. I arranged chemicals together as appropriate, and sometimes apart as appropriate. Tools and fasteners and forms and protectants were all objects of my organizational whirlwind. And each day, I swept.

At the end of two weeks the machinist asked why I, an undergraduate physicist in training and engineer's assistant by title, cleaned without complaint. I answered, "Soon there won't be anything left and you'll have to teach me something." He may or may not have smiled, but I do know that he said something to the effect, "Starting next week, I'm going to show you how to use the machines." I am sure I smiled. He taught me how to do precision work on the machines. He showed me how to read drawings and understand design principles. He had me make parts for experiments. He instructed me about the strengths and weaknesses of different materials, and their suitability in different situations.

In time I did get to work with the chief engineer on several interesting projects. I learned about medium energy physics from the graduate students. I saw the magic of electronics from the electrical engineer and his crew. I successfully designed, built, and installed a vacuum bypass system from scratch, thanks to the tutelage and kindness of the machinist. I saw and experienced the joy of creation and learning.

And each day, I swept.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Astronauts in a Camper and the Blizzard of 78

Moon germs were the reason astronauts stayed in a camper for weeks. My father explained that
quarantine was a way to keep the germs from spreading, if there were any.  All tests from other
lunar missions were negative for life of any kind so we probably did not have to worry about the
astronauts or us getting a disease. Still, NASA took precautions.

One part of me felt sorry for the space crew because they would be away from their families and
friends for three weeks.  The sadness only deepened when my father told me that one of the times before they had missed Thanksgiving. The larger part of me was excited for them because they had ventured where so few had gone, even at the risk of an unknown contagion.

A few years later I heard about something called the Venus disease and was both frightened and intrigued.  Sickness was never desirable, but if travel to another planet was required then only astronauts could get it which was just one more way they were special. Of course, the quarantine camper would be used when they returned from such a new place. All lunar astronauts had emerged from quarantine back to their world, however with a disease already named I worried that travelers to Venus might not get the same happy ending. If they were sick, would we leave them in quarantine forever?  Could we find a cure for something so rare? What kind of a life would they have trapped in such small space?  Might the sickness be mild rather than severe? Would it be better to let them leave but take the risk that non-astronauts contracted the disease? My young mind was a tumult of concern and confusion.

To begin sorting it out I asked my father what the Venus disease was. He did not know. I described what little I knew and how I had heard of it, but he was still in the dark.  I resolved to show him the source of information, so the next time he was near and it appeared on the television I called him over.  At the end he knew what I was talking about, and even understood more because he said something to the effect that I did not want that sickness. It was a destructive disease that did indeed spread, but was not unique to astronauts.  And, it was called venereal disease or VD.

To this day I do not know if the commercial actually said "Venus" or if I simply twisted venereal into a word I knew.  They might have said Venus, as in the goddess of love, which makes sense of his answer to my next question, but only in retrospect.  I asked how would I get venereal disease and his reply was simple --- by sleeping with a girl. Grateful to my dad for helping me learn, but a little uneasy, we finished the conversation and went our ways.

Even though my brother Jon has passed away I must apologize to him. My ignorance borne of innocence, combined with a certain dread, led me to put him in harm's way. In 1978 a blizzard hit western Ohio. My parents planned for the possibility that we would be without power, so they closed off the living room so that heat from the wood-burning fireplace would be contained and keep us warm.  The problem came that first night.  All six of us were to sleep in a row in front of the fireplace.  I seem to recall that my father would be at one end with my mother and my younger brother between.  This left me, my sister Betsy, and my middle brother Jon. I was not proud of what I did next then, but I laugh at myself today.  I made Jon take the spot next to Betsy because I did not want to get VD by sleeping with a girl.  I figured that one person between while we slumbered would be enough to ward off the Venus germs.  Sure it meant that Jon might get sick, but he always got away with stuff so maybe he was safe.  The next morning no one was sick and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I have never gotten venereal disease, but I still hope that we explore space in a way that something like my original, innocent conception of the Venus disease is a real consideration.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bird Navigation Systems

That bird behind us would fly no more, but I would spend years trying to help future birds not end in a heap on the road.

Around the age of ten I was riding with my father through the countryside of western Ohio, gently rolling crop land on each side.  In this great volume of free space a single bird thumped our windshield.  Through the rear window I watched its final flight powered by inertia from the collision and guided by gravity to the ground.  The wind made its wing flutter farewell.

In dismay I turned to my father.  I probably asked why he had hit it, because questioning the motives of a bird would not even cross my mind.  He understood the spirit of my inquiry, placing the blame on neither him nor the departed creature, and said simply that the bird had lost its bearings.

I was confused by this answer but it had a certain ring of truth that my young mind began to process. While it seemed clear that animals would not choose such an end, if their mechanism for navigation were broken then accidents like this would happen often.  Maybe there was some way to fix this failing.

First, I had to find the bearings.  More specifically, I had to find the balls that must have escaped from the mechanical bearing rings behind the bird's eyes. Through my father or uncle or neighbor I knew that bearings often failed due to damage or loss of these little spheres. When my father said the bird had lost its bearings, it seemed obvious that he meant the balls had fallen out of the bird's head.  I wondered if they would be shiny like metal, but there was no question that they would be tiny.  I figured there would be two rings, one for each eye, and several spheres within each.  Given the size of a bird's head this meant that the ball bearings would be very small and hard to find.

I searched the ground for bird bearings and considered how to use them to reorient the birds.  I never came up with a solution short of surgery, because pushing the tiny balls back in past their eyes would probably not re-seat them properly in the rings for navigation. Of course, other problems loomed even earlier such as how to identify a bird that needed new bearings. And there was the fact that I did not find a single bearing in the woods or anywhere outside.  Seeing flocks over fields gave me the sense that such concentrations might mean a greater chance that bird bearings might be found there. Even more might be in these fields, having accumulated from years of migration over grain-rich land. Waiting for spring I walked on neighboring farms after the plows had brought aged soil to the surface.

Pride in my hypothesis turned to disappointment, for never did the glint of a bird bearing against a dark loam background catch my eye.  Almost too many years later to admit I discovered the much simpler hypothesis that birds do not have physical bearings that fall from their head causing them to slam into moving silica.  The longer lesson was that my understanding of the world and words could be wrong but correctable.  And the best lesson was that thinking about nature while walking in fields and woods is a good way to spend part of life, even if I do not find what I am looking for.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building My Vocabulary One Mishap at a Time

I recall an elementary school teacher who set aside some time at the end of
each week to highlight one student in the class.  The main activity had the
student perched in front while each of their classmates gave a short,
usually one word, description of the person.  I wish I'd have known about
statistics because experiments would have revealed certain trends that my
memory reproduces only in part. The main feature was that every week the
same words were applied --- nice, funny, cute, friendly, kind, happy, cool
--- along with  simple synonyms for the same sentiment.  Early on some wag
added supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and it stuck around for a few cycles
until the teacher recommended against it.

I cannot recall who made the observation regarding the limited word choice
or who made the suggestion to build our vocabulary, but when I tell this
story I credit Curt M.  Poring over the dictionary to find great
words for the weekly encouragement ritual was actually fun, but not as
fruitful as I expected. Certainly there was never a shortage of words that
were unfamiliar or used unexpected letter combinations or were just plain
long.  The problem was that they were from fields of study that just did
not apply; calling someone zygomorphic or a crossopterygian may sound neat
but is meaningless.

Curt and I shared our discoveries, until one day I found a word that
met most of my criteria; it was descriptive and reasonably short, had an
interesting sound and unexpected letter combination, and best of all was
obscure.  Its main drawback was its slightly unkind meaning.  I was not
wont to cruelty in any measure, but I desperately wanted to use this
new-found word and I thought that Curt would appreciate the back story if I
used it on his day, and especially how it avoided censorship --- security
through obscurity.

When he sat in front of the class the normal adjectives sprang from the
minds and mouths of my classmates while I sat with bated breath to release
this rare bird of a word into the room and onto the blackboard.  Apologetic
for the minor slight I was about to pronounce on my friend, but bolstered
by enthusiasm for the word itself, I enunciated and emphasized each
syllable slowly:
Curt is ... me-di-O-cre.
Filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment I sat with a smirk, for
less than half a second before the teacher said to use a different
adjective.  Apparently that word was not off in the corners, and this
teacher knew that I had just described Curt having only moderate ability.
Now I was doubly-mortified, because the teacher understood that I had just
put someone down and he had understood the word that I had thought was
nearly impenetrable by the censor.

To that day I attribute two lessons and several resolutions.  While I do
not recall holding the teacher in low regard for his intellect I certainly
learned that it is easy to underestimate others.  Almost as a corollary, I
learned that without context and a base of understanding it is easy to
overestimate one's own knowledge and ability.  I look back on that event as
one of my earliest memories for a desire to deeply learn and appreciate the
English language.  I also recognize it as a starting point to be more
objective about the abilities of others, and especially to expect that
others will often know more than me and that if I am open I might learn
from them.  In general, I also attach this incident to others like it that
make clear that kindness is better than cruelty.  In particular, I wish
that I had found and used a better word for Curt like affable or

Years of continued learning in language and science and life make clear
that in the end, it is high praise to be described as kind, friendly, and
wise. They may be simple words, but they tell a deep story of a person's
positive impact on the world.