The Charm of Physicists Can Be Delightfully Funny



Physicists seem to me always in pursuit of new postulated particles. They whimsically label properties of the subatomic particles called quarks as up, down,  bottom, top, charm and strange.

As a mathematician, I find it delightful that new particles have been predicted because their existence would mean the mathematics (Group Theory)  behind their behavior more symmetric and beautiful. It is that inherent belief in the beauty of nature that led them to their hypotheses, which included the properties of the postulated particles. It’s as if biologists predicted a new animal, which was raccoon-sized and loved strawberries. One need only take a raccoon trap and bait with strawberries. The physicists were able to build their trap and discover new particles.

Recently a single new high-energy neutrino called a ghost neutrino crashed into an atom in the Antarctica. It was detected by a cosmic team of 1,000 researchers. It is deemed to have originated from a black hole in a galaxy billions of light years away and thereby is a messenger from outer space. Heidi Schellman, a particle physicist at Oregon State University said “Scientists will be able to use these messengers to answer questions about distant cataclysms, test theories about the composition of the universe, and refine their understanding of the fundamental rules of physics.”

I am reminded of a memo from the Physics Department on a new element called administratium. Here’s its puckish description. I don’t know whom to credit for the original. I found it again on Google, but I can’t tell who deserves credit for delighting me.



Investigators at a major research institution have discovered the heaviest element known to science. This startling new discovery has been tentatively named Administratium (Ad). This new element has no protons or electrons, thus having an atomic number of 0.

It does, however, have 1 neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons, and 111 assistant vice neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by a force called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since it has no electrons, Administratium is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact.

According to the discoverers, a minute amount of Administratium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete when it would normally take less than a second. Administratium has a normal half-life of approximately three years; it does not decay but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons, vice neutrons, and assistant vice neutrons exchange places.

In fact an Administratium sample’s mass will actually increase over time, since with each reorganization some of the morons inevitably become neutrons, forming new isotopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to speculate that Administratium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as the “critical morass.”

This is a better representatiion of the minds of physicists than those on the Big Bang Theory.


A Tribute to Koko and Animal Intelligence

I wonder how well she plays.

I had the privilege of hearing Koko’s surrogate mother speak at San Jose State University at an Expanding Your Horizons day for girls to learn about women in science. I’ll never forget the fact that once when Koko was upset with her trainer, Koko constructed a two-word sentence consisting of the sign for Penny and the sign for excrement.

Koko knew abstract words like bad and sad as well as signs for concrete objects. She asked for a kitten for her birthday, showing disappointment at a stuffed animal. She understands gifts are wrapped in colorful paper. When she received a real kitten, she named it Ball when it curled up in her lap. There is a video of Koko interestingly tucking a baby bottle under her armpit, making me wonder if the bottle was to feed Ball’s kittens. When Ball passed away, Koko signed the words: bad and sad.

Unfortunately, Penny’s claims about Koko were disputed as exaggerated and that Koko was merely mimicking her researcher. I infer that part of the disbelief is the refusal to recognize the high level of animal intelligence. We humans see ourselves as  unique in the world of the living. Indeed we are, but while we may be at the top of the intelligence spectrum, it is just that, namely a spectrum. I find it preposterous that we don’t recognize the uncanny ability of animals to avoid traps, to solve puzzles to get at food, to express shame at the words “bad dog,” to hide after doing something destructive, to mourn loss, and the list goes on. Every animal is unique, including we humans.

With Koko’s recent passing I plan to dig up the August 3rd, 2016 special on Koko on PBS as soon as we get the last clever raccoon out of our attic.I am NOT joking.

The sources to learn more about Koko are many. Here are just a few.

The kitten loving gorilla passes away.
Koko’s legacy
Inside Koko’s World





A Flag Day Story (No Science)

US flag

My favorite story about Flag Day is by Garrison Keillor. While fictional, it has a ring of truth about Midwesterners. I’m telling it as I remember. Some salesperson sold the townsfolk of Lake Woebegone on buying red, white, and blue hats in order to form a a flag on Main Street. The town council mapped out the plan, but once everyone was in place all the people in town were in the flag. Further, it could only be seen from above. It was decided they would take turns going to the second floor of the local grocery store and peer out the window. So one by one they went, taking hours until only one woman was left. Say, Mrs. Tollefson, who said in a voice Keillor does so well, “Oh no, I don’t need to see it. Everyone wants to go home . . .,” and on and on she protested until six of the strongest men in town picked her up and carried her to the upstairs window.

This morning’s NY Times had an article about the history and proper etiquette for the flagProbably all of us have been in violation of the code for our flag with good intentions. Those flag paper napkins are no-nos. Think about it. On the 4th we wipe barbecue sauced fingers on them. We’ve left our flag out overnight and not necessarily lighted. Tattered small flags fly on pickup trucks. The VFW argue about whether clothing with a flag motif is disrespectful or not. Much of this is a lost cause as most of us see this as civic pride. I guess it won’t be lit on the moon after Buzz et al leave. I wonder what Betsy Ross would think.
Buzz_salutes_the_U.S._FlagIt was celebrated for decades before being formalized under the Truman administration according to the Times article, but another place I found it was under Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps different levels of recognition. It is not a national holiday. It evidently is in recognition that on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress replaced the British Grand Union flag with our first flag with 13 stars.

Why is there so much life, even in extreme conditions?


I was going through my blogs, and realized I never published this one. I’m putting them together in an ebook someday.

Scientists are highly creative, but in one regard I believe they’ve failed in the past. There had been an underlying assumption that for a planet to support life, it must have the qualities that we humans cannot live without. The typical high school student who asks why can’t they breathe something other than oxygen is dismissed as naïve. Yet, life has been found in the most extreme conditions including steaming hot pools of sulfur, where thermophiles thrive but humans would last only seconds.

It was also assumed that life in the ocean could not exist below the level at which sunlight penetrates. Life needs photosynthesis so scientists thought there could be no life in the deep ocean. In  the early 1970s, however,  life near warm vents was discovered in abundance. There the bottom-of-the- food- chain microbes and all life above it owe their existence to chemical reactions labeled chemosynthesis. One fun thing about life in the dark sea is that much of it has the ability to bio luminesce so they provide their own light when necessary.

At that time and even today we know more about conditions for life on planets in outer space than in the depths of our oceans. Because of the pressure difference, sea life brought to the surface does not survive and we know little how they thrive.

Speaking of the 70s, I’m fascinated by the book, The Selfish Gene, which I wrote about in my last blog. It is the most fascinating discussion of how life works. The author describes life as survival machines for genes and makes a good case.

In fact, today is launch day of my new book, Lower World, and I’ve imagined a sophisticated society of human-like begins live under the ocean floor. I’m not telling which ocean. I’ve snuck in part of my preface in today’s blog. I like to write speculative, character-driven fiction and invite you to check out the reviews of my first book Inhabited. This may be the last day to get the reduced price on the e-book of $2.99 and the paperback at $10,99. Tomorrow, I will be raising the prices to $7.99 and $13.99 respectively. I don’t know how fast Amazon takes to make changes.

Beware the hitchhikers! (Not the two-legged kind but the ones who hop into your suitcase)


We spent a couple nights in our favorite national park. I thought a couple of mosquitoes had taken advantage of my tasty blood from our hikes. The waterfalls were gushing and we tiptoed through the wet Tuolumne Meadows.

When we arrived home and I was getting a bite a night, I remembered reading about the increase in the bed bug population due to travel. Uh Oh. Off to research on Google. Iindeed  I found warnings about those folding devices  on which I parked my suitcase as a hiding place for these little critters. They are visible, but hide in the tiniest cracks and crevices.

More research provided a surprising solution I liked. Thank you Huff Post! It’s too soon to be certain it’s working, but I’ve sprayed with a solution of 15 drops of pure peppermint oil to a cup of water. There are other oils that lay claim not only to repel the beasties, but kill them: lavender, eucalyptus, lemongrass, clove, thyme, and tea tree. I chose peppermint because it claimed to repel spiders as well, even mice. I couldn’t be certain who had feasted on me. The article advises to spray all around your sleeping area. I’ve taken off mattress covers, pillow covers and laundered them, then sprayed both sides of all of them along with crevices due to baseboards, door trim, etc. Nearly everything except my husband.

I even poked and scraped a Doctors plastic toothpick in crevices near the bed, whispering “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” and “Olly-olly-oxen free.”

Now here’s the biggie. The article advises you to spray the inside of your suitcase before you leave on vacation. I suggest the night before you pack so your clothes don’t make you smell like a peppermint stick. (You could entice kids to try to lick you.) It’s amazing how fragrant the bedroom is. BTW, I’m not sleeping in there for two weeks. The eggs only take 2 to 6 days to hatch, and then they need a meal. The eggs and beasts are said to be visible. I found a few suspicious looking dead guys but no eggs To be safe I won’t move back in until any eggs hatch and either they starve or one  more round of spraying sends them to the nether world.


Our inter-connected world from sea monkeys to human health

Cute little sea monkeys

A bonus to writing novels in ocean floor settings is the interesting research. I’m sad to report our oceans are in trouble. Since they  produce nearly 70% of the world’s oxygen that means we are in trouble.  The Amazon produces most of the rest, but the Amazon consumes the oxygen it produces so if you live elsewhere your oxygen comes from the ocean. In particular oxygen is generated by the ocean’s plankton as I’ve said before. Plankton as mini-animals, of course, need to eat.

A major source of the ocean’s food is recycled, that is dead bodies provide food for the living. Since non-living bodies sink, if the ocean waters never mixed, all sea life would be confined to the bottom, and oceans would not teem with life as they currently do. There are natural upwellings in parts of the ocean related to temperature differences of different layers, something I mentioned in another blog.

Now I’ve learned that tiny sea creatures  may well be responsible for helping keep our oceans mixed. Scientists found it hard to believe that these teeny tiny itsy bitsy little things could stir the ocean, but recent research indicates that in huge numbers they can do just that. (Hmm, methinks there’s a political message in there somewhere.)

Dr. Dabiri, an engineering professor at Stanford University simulated the stirring in the lab using sea monkeys and columns of layers of salt water aware that
Every night, trillions of sea creatures — whales, jellyfish, swarms of shrimp and plankton — take part in what some call the largest mass migration on the planet. From depths of at least 2,000 feet, they swim to the ocean’s surface, in a wave of animals that propagates as the sun sets around the planet. By daylight, they return below. 1

As a result he believes they play a role in maintaining a healthy plankton population which in turn produces the oxygen we depend on. When he first began his research, a member of Congress singled out support of his research as waste, .referring to it as a study of the ‘synchronized swimming of sea monkeys.’ Time and time again basic science research not only enriches our understanding of this strange rock we live on (plagiarizing National Geo graphic’s title of an interesting show about our planet, Earth.) but that understanding has led to useful means of improving human life.

  1. Check out the videos in this article of swarming sea monkeys.




Is Death like Climate Change? Some of us think it’s not happening.

We all know we’re going to die someday, right? I’m not so sure. For many of us, the emphasis is on “someday” with the belief that day will never come. Christian and atheist alike, few are ever ready. Ministers say of the deceased they’ve  gone to a better place, a place that even ministers avoid like lutefisk.

Is it our advanced medical knowledge? We think there is a cure for everything, and if one doctor doesn’t have it some other one will or if someone similar to a witch doctor offers a way to escape the inevitable we don’t think twice . If there’s a 1% chance of some new chemo giving us more life, hang the suffering, hang the cost especially if Medicare is paying. Let’s go for it.

Am I the only one who disagrees with Dylan Thomas that we should not go gentle into the good night? Gentle is exactly the way I want to go, after a big party if I know I’m going. Indigenous people in Patagonia and I imagine elsewhere eschew hospitals for illness preferring to let nature take its course. I admire that attitude, but I feel alone. When part of the Affordable Care Act proposed paying for consultations for the dying and their family members, it was treated like the grim reaper swinging his scythe had proposed it himself. We can talk about sex, intimate details about gross medical conditions,  but death is taboo.

Perhaps, beyond despising pain and suffering, it’s my sense of self and how I want to be remembered by my friends and family that forms my attitude. I fear the indignity that can precede death after a long battle with something like cancer. There’s a phrase for one side affect, namely chemo brain.

But this is  mere prelude-prattle to what I think is particularly puzzling. As a society, our outlook on death, particularly of strangers, often depends on the means of death. Skim the stats below for the US.

* 36,000 people on average die each year from the flu
* Over 30,000 people die each year from car accidents (down from over 40,000 a decade ago)
* Approximately 1.4 million people have been killed using firearms  between 1968 and 2011. This number includes all deaths resulting from a firearm, including suicides, homicides, and accidents.
* About 13,000 people are killed by guns annually. More die one at a time than in mass murders.
* Once a week on average a toddler kills someone with a gun. In 2015, the only year I could find statistics for, that number exceeds the number  killed by terrorists.
3,000 people were killed on 9/11. In the process of  retaliation 2,345 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, and 4,486  died in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and over 66.000 Iraqi civilians were also killed in the process since 9/11.  One Osama Bin Laden was killed.
* I could not tease out the number of deaths due to mass killings, which is defined as more than four people in the same incident. There were, however, 345 mass shootings in 2017 so multiplying by four at least 1,380.
* Over 100,000 deaths are due to accidents.
* Over 1,000 deaths were due to natural disasters in 2017
* Over 2,000.000 die annually in the US of heart disease, the leading cause of death. Cancer is a close second. Respiratory diseases third, accidents fourth, Strokes fifth, Alzheimer’s, sixth. Diabetes, seventh, flu and pneumonia, eighth, kidney disease ninth, and suicides tenth.

I wish to emphasize I have no intention of making any political statement here. What I’d like you to do is to review the list of deaths and decide which types you believe are senseless and which tragedies before reading further. If you’re ambitious rank them by most tragic and most senseless

Now, some questions.

* Do you believe families and loved ones grieve more if they view the death as a tragedy?
*Do you believe families and loved ones grieve more if they view the death as senseless?

I believe our culture and our media treat deaths that are often both senseless and tragedies differently. Indeed, when deaths are due to other people’s actions I am angry, but anger is one of the stages of grief related to any death. I imagine, it is the injustice that makes us angry. Justice is probably one of my strongest values. But here are more questions.

* Should we react more strongly to the victims of injustice than we do to the sheer numbers of deaths due to a single cause?
*Did you rate deaths by terrorists more tragic than deaths by toddlers?
* Are ten murders at once in a post office by one person worse than ten invidividual murders?

These questions plague me because I think people do think differently about different means of death and I want to know why.

And a non-related question about climate change. When people heard about the hole in the ozone, which could have grown to threaten life on Earth, people rallied. Dangerous products were banned and now the hole is healing. Why aren’t we reacting in a similar manner to the Climate Change threat?







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