A Piece of My Mind

10790569794_4680a4b7d0_zI didn’t know how much I cared about pie until I realized I wouldn’t be having one this week. We’re going snow camping and although I know that it’s possible to make a pumpkin pie with a campfire, a little creativity and the right ingredients, at this point I just want to focus on making sure we have enough warm layers and hot chocolate to get us through the nights.

But I’ve found myself reading recipes for pie, looking at pictures of pie, dreaming about pie. Pumpkin, pecan, apple, key lime—it all sounds good to me. I’m going to try to squeeze in a viewing of one of my favorite pie-related movies, Waitress, while I’m packing. And, of course, I’ve searched around to find the science and lore behind the finest Thanksgiving pies. Continue reading

Turning Left on 39th

6256697722_191ca92014_bI grew up in rural and small-town midwest.  Some people were richer than we were, some poorer.  And being normal, hierarchizing humans, we always knew who was rich and who was poor.  But regardless everybody went to the same grocery stores,  schools, churches, dime stores, movie theaters, summer concerts.  In other words, nobody was so poor or so rich that they didn’t belong to the same community.  We didn’t have equal amounts of money but nobody’s nose was rubbed in it.

I was about 25 when I first went to Washington, DC, a big city divided into neighborhoods with their own stores, churches, schools, etc.  I wanted to see the seat of our government, the shining white Capitol building and all the marble government buildings.  To get there, I drove through the city’s blocks of boarded-up houses and scary-looking neighborhoods, and then abruptly, a few streets along, there was the grand federal shininess.  I hadn’t seen such poorness so close to such richness before.  I hadn’t seen neighborhood changes that were so sudden before, so extreme.  No way those neighborhoods had anything in common.  It felt deeply troublesome.  I didn’t like it one bit.

And in my own Baltimore, now:  the other day, I drove from the enormous and impressive Johns Hopkins Hospital up Greenmount Avenue, through the boarded-up, corner-liquor-store neighborhoods you see on the television riot news and the cable movies about Baltimore; I locked the car doors.  Somewhere around 34th Street, the neighborhood started looking like working-people, rowhouse Baltimore — a change but gradual.  Then turn left on 39th Street, in the space of maybe two blocks, I was suddenly amongst the plutocrats: the lawns were suddenly bigger and greener and the houses turned to five-bedroom brick Georgians.  This still feels deeply troublesome and I still don’t like it one bit.   Continue reading

The Last Word

shutterstock_287767313November 16-20, 2015

Guest Ramin Skibba predicts a rise of Persian science that will parallel sanctions relief.

Helen takes a tour of a DC wastewater plant that has a new biosolids processing system.

Craig sees “The Martian” and traces its story through a continuum of intellectual striving that was alive in the Paleolithic development of the Clovis point.

Jane Hu rocks our cozy little assumption that we’re safe from earthquakes if we don’t live in California. Do not be lulled by infrequency.

I stumble across psychological first aid, a crucial addition to our current crisis management plans.


Image: Shutterstock

In extremis

red crossIn April 2001, my cousin and I hitchhiked to Quebec City to register our dissent. Tens of thousands were gathered to protest the Free Trade Areas of the Americas Summit and we wanted to play our part for global social justice. Like many politically active young people before and since, I experienced what can happen when police are given the anonymity of a riot control uniform. I returned home reeking of tear gas and traumatized. It was exam time, but I was a wreck, jumpy and disillusioned. The world was suddenly a very, very scary place — and my experience was just a microcosm of those in the wake of atrocities and natural disasters.

“In the hours after a disaster, at least 25% of the population may be stunned and dazed, apathetic and wandering…especially if the impact has been sudden and totally devastating.” – Beverley Raphael, from When Disaster Strikes

Despite the best efforts of peacemakers everywhere, violent conflict is in no hurry to leave us. Battles and attacks last mere hours – sometimes minutes – but their effects can stay with us for a lifetime. Ranked close behind in trauma are natural disasters that, thanks to climate change, are almost certain to continue their rise in frequency.

Doctors Without Borders can be on hand to provide medical assistance to refugees, and the Red Cross can handle the logistics of food aid, but the essence of horror is the person overwhelmed by forces far larger than their ability to cope. The broken mind must be tended to – not just later in years of counseling, but right then and there, using psychological first aid. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why humans suck at earthquake preparedness

Driving through my hometown in Kentucky, I admire the old-growth oaks, the spires and stained glass of Victorian era homes, and the tall brick chimneys. Then I think about how they would crumble in an earthquake. Ever since moving to the west coast, I size up the earthquake safety of every place I go: I note every building’s exits; I avoid waiting on or under overpasses; I plan which way I’d run if a big tree falls. But growing up in the Ohio Valley, I never, ever thought about earthquakes.

I probably should have, though. Kentucky falls within both the New Madrid seismic zone (NMSZ) and the Wabash Valley seismic zone (WVSZ), fault systems that have a history of producing catastrophic earthquakes. The NMSZ, for instance, was responsible for a series of earthquakes in 1811-1812 so large that it disrupted the flow of the Mississippi river, creating a meander that cut off the southwestern edge of Kentucky from the rest of the state. Yet the region remains blissfully unaware of and unprepared for the next “big one,” which the USGS says has a 7-10% chance of happening in the next 50 years. A 2009 report funded by FEMA estimated that a quake that size could result in 86,000 casualties and over $300 billion in damage. The chances of a smaller but still-significant quake (a 6.0) are even higher – USGS says there’s a 25-40% chance of that in the next 50 years.

Given this risk, it seems mindboggling to me that my hometown is not more prepared. But it seems like this is a very human problem: we have a hard time responding to slow-moving threats. Despite the years-long drought, rich Californians still have water coming out of their pipes, so why not water the polo fields? And who cares about climate change when you’ll be dead by the time the last glacier melts? The tale many evolutionary psychologists tell is that we are made for immediate gratification. Planning for an earthquake – something that may or may not happen, and that may or may not be deadly – gets deprioritized in favor of more pressing issues, like deadlines and dinner. Continue reading

“The Martian” and Ice Age Astronauts

The MartianTwo nights ago I sat in a theater watching the film “The Martian.” I loved seeing a viable spacecraft making gravitational slingshots around planets while a stranded, potato-growing astronaut claimed himself the first colonist on Mars.

What’s there not to love?

Meanwhile, in my coat pocket I carried an object from an entirely different age of colonization.

I had just spent three days with flint knapper Greg Nunn in Utah. I had commissioned Nunn to make a replica of a Clovis-era spear point, a megafauna hunting tool from the American Paleolithic. I had put the rocket-shaped artifact — the length of my hand from wrist to fingertip — in my pocket and forgot it was there until I walked out of the theater. Reaching in, I found the sharp-edged stone and pulled it out.

Like everything I had just watched, the Clovis point was the height of technology for its time. It was a tool being carried into an unknown land 13,000 years ago. As thin as a letter envelope and long enough to glide into the heart or lungs of a mammoth or Pleistocene bison, the Clovis point was a tool of colonization. It was a landing module on Mars. Continue reading

Taking the Waste out of Wastewater

gulls on a wastewater treatment pondIn a fenced-off corner of Washington, D.C, down at the very tip, where the city’s diamond shape meets the Potomac river, is a giant feeding station for gulls.

Ok, that’s not its main function. If you have ever pooped in DC, or in parts of four surrounding counties, including Dulles International Airport, you have helped support the birds at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s run by DC Water, an agency whose tour van says “DRINK TAP” on the side. For historic reasons, D.C.’s drinking water is actually treated by the Army Corps of Engineers, not DC Water. But DC Water handles pretty much everything else about it, including what happens to it after it’s been used.

“Used water” is the term preferred by engineer Bill Brower, the program manager for DC Water’s Biosolids Program and the leader of a tour of Blue Plains arranged on Sunday for a local science writing  organization. “Enriched water” is another amusing euphemism. You see, “waste water” makes it sound like trash, Brower says, when actually they can get a lot out of the stuff from our toilets. (And, the system being how it is, from our sinks, dishwashers, washing machines, and, in the old parts of town, even the water that runs off the streets.) Continue reading

Guest Post: The Return of Persian Science

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbod.)

Like many multiethnic and multicultural people, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with my multifaceted yet fragmented identity. As a half-Iranian in the midst of Americans, I’ve lacked key cultural influences and a US-centric worldview, while in Iran I feel like an outsider at times.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit twice so far—once as a teenager and once more recently as a physicist. Each time, I’ve been very observant in the hopes of better understanding an important side of myself. I’ve explored its fascinatingly unique cities, including the massive capital, Tehran, and its huge bazaars; Esfahan, with its spectacular architecture and Jahan Square, a national landmark; and Shiraz, with its tombs of poet giants, Hafez and Saadi. I’ve also looked for signs of how the country appears to be changing as it becomes more open to the international community.

At the invitation of Sohrab Rahvar, physics professor at the University of Sharif, I gave two seminars, one there and another at the University of Tehran. I presented postdoctoral research I was doing at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, investigating connections between observations of galaxies and theories of dark matter.

Continue reading