Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Top Five Things You Never Knew About Waves!

1. Waves don't actually move water. 


I know, right?? You see waves crashing into the beach and hear something vague about ocean currents. But guess what? They're not actually the same thing. The waves you see from shore only move the surface of the water, and most of that motion is up and down (if you follow a bit of water on the surface, it actually travels in a circle).

2. Water waves follow the same laws of physics as all other waves- like light and sound. 


All waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which excites particles (or sub-particles, or mega-particles, from electrons up to large chunks of the earth's crust and beyond). At each point in time, an infinite number of waves are interacting with each piece of matter on earth, including your body. The key is frequency: the frequency at which atoms are excited and emit light is much higher than the frequency at which a tsunami wave travels through the ocean or an earthquake travels through the ground.

3. Surface water waves can cross over each other without crashing.


The physical laws governing wave behavior support addition of waves (superposition)- meaning that when one wave travels toward another, their overall effect can essentially add up to one huge wave for just a moment. This is sometimes difficult to find, because waves have to be traveling from two sources facing each other. But if you've ever watched a wave crash on a beach, retreat back to the ocean, and somehow out of nowhere the next wave in line is larger than it was before, this phenomenon may be contributing. You may also see a wave traveling away from the beach- this is the effect where they pass through each other. If they are from opposing directions, often some energy is lost as they pass through each other, but often it's not enough to dissipate them completely.

4. Waves can travel on top of (surface) or within (internal) the water.


Internal waves are nearly impossible to see from above the water (or below the water for that matter). By definition, water waves travel at interface of two different fluids. The most common we see are surface waves. But eventually some scientists realized that since air is also a fluid, this principle could be extended to include interfaces within the water. For example, the water at the surface is heated by the sun during the summer. At some point, the sunlight can't penetrate (hence those silly fish with flashlights hanging off their heads to attract prey), which means the water there is much colder. There is a transition point (depth) where this occurs. As it turns out, a lot of energy travels through the ocean along this transition- so much that we can't really approximate it yet!

5. Internal waves cause a lot of mixing, which is really important for the ocean food chain.


As waves travel, they lost energy. Internal waves are particularly good at losing energy in the form of turbulence, which mixes up the water. Because they often occur along the transition between warm, sunny water and cold, dark water (which tends to have more nutrients), internal waves bring a lot of nutrients up to the plankton living nearer the surface. These plankton grow and grow because they get these nutrients, forming the base of the ocean food chain (plankton get eaten by little fish, which get eaten by bigger fish, which get eaten by bigger fish and/or marine mammals, etc).

As it turns out, the ocean is incredibly important for our food supply as humans- around the world, people consume a whole lot of fish- but the coastal ocean in general is actually one of the most biologically productive regions on the planet. That's good for plants and animals living in the ocean, and is also good for us.

So thank your lucky stars for waves!


If you have an idea for a science best-of, please email or leave a comment! We are open to any science, math, engineering, or technology- let us know the coolest things about your field, and we'll share them here!

X things you never knew about Y

Recently I've seen just an overwhelming number of these "7 Things You Should Know About Wearing Clothes" and some such. I wonder whether the majority of the US even communicates using cohesive thoughts anymore, or if everything is just a list that people share with each other on facebook/twitter/instagram/vine using #hashtags. It would be really interesting to look at the prevalence of each of these behaviors... I guess the best way to do that would be working with one of those companies' datasets. But that's beside the point (I'm a data scientist, forgive me).

There's nothing wrong with this form of communication, don't get me wrong. It's just different from what I'm used to, what generations before me were used to. But then, when email became a thing, everyone bemoaned the end of paper correspondence. Is that the end of paper correspondence? No. And I would guess the vast majority of people would agree that email allows people to reach loved ones they otherwise wouldn't, facilitates quicker and more efficient business worldwide, and makes planning things easier than catching someone on the phone (and mobile phones are a big part of that too).

So I wondered. Along with the silly "I didn't believe X until I saw it with my own eyes", there have recently been some interesting pieces talking about real issues- from abortion law to living with depression. If this is how people are most connecting with news and general facts, would it be possible to use this to spread real truths and important scientific knowledge as well? As my good friend Steve said, "Don't hate the medium -- you've gotta reach people where they're at or you won't reach them at all!". 

To this end, I'm going to try to post a few lists of interesting, true science facts on this blog over the next few days and see if anyone reads them. Consider it a study of sorts. It will be difficult to gauge, of course- currently there are a sum total of zero daily visitors- and if I post a link to my facebook page there's a good chance that at least 700 people might see it (again, curses, facebook algorithms! If only I could decipher you). 

But we will have to see. Also going to look into whether the NSF has tried this yet or not. I can imagine all kinds of applications... maybe I'm just behind the curve. But I know some awesome scientists doing really interesting and important things. Wouldn't it be cool if we could get a cell biologist, an epidemiologist, a research chemist or two, some physicists, and a mathematician to tell us their "best of" about their field or research area? And if they could make it interesting? I know there are a lot who would love to share, and can't find an easy way to do so.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


So, a bit of a random post, but I just had to write something because research is actually blowing my mind right now (as per usual for grad students, I go through ups and downs with research motivation/insight).

Have you ever wondered what cool thing created the background on this blog? It seems like something a rainbow-obsessed 12-year-old would come up with, right? Well, actually, it's a MATLAB pcolor plot of the turbulent dissipation rate from a series of SCAMP profiles I took as part of the Monterey Bay LatMix field campaign in July of 2010. [If the last sentence meant nothing to you, don't worry, you're not expected to know what the ridiculous alphabet soup of physical oceanography is, you're not missing anything]. Effectively, this is my thesis data. It's showing how much energy is being injected into the water by the waves passing through it.

What's exciting me ridiculously right now is the plot below. I've been working on trying to show that a simple scaling factor derived from moored temperature data can be used to determine when mixing in the water column is likely due to the passage of internal waves. Usually we'd have to use a SCAMP-like instrument. This could be a really useful tool. What this plot shows is the temperature data (top) and the scaling factor (bottom). You can see the potentially unstable region in the bottom plot, which happens to match really well with the theoretical shear instability profile for IWs. YAY IT WORKS!!!!!!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Overripe Bananas, Punctured Tires

It's been quite the past... while for me recently. This week, in particular, has decided to slap me across the face and leave me for a better, younger, more beautiful mistress.

The one day Berkeley decided to actually get cold, the tiny trickle of water I usually bike across on my way down the 1000-ft near vertical drop that lies between my apartment and campus turned into a several-foot-wide patch of black ice. Going down the hill at 20mph on an unfamiliar bike (mine was in the shop), of course, did not help the problem... I went flying, losing half the skin on my chin and acquiring lovely purple accents across various body parts. This, of course, was the first day of the semester.

It was also my first week of teaching, and all that is required to go along with it- planning the first week of class, teaching three discussion sections, holding office hours, answering an unending chain of emails and organizing lab groups et cetera et cetera et cetera... on the bright side, I remembered how much I love to teach.

And then Sunday happened, and among all of my various tasks of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I gave two mini-speeches in both services at my church, trying to drum up more volunteers for the cafe I started with Aimee to provide a community space between services in the morning. It has become a "critical ministry" according to the church staff, and yet, we cannot get anyone to help out. The irony, of course, is that I myself "officially" resigned my position as director at nearly the exact same same time. Maybe they'll actually pay someone to do this now. I also realized the guy I've been dating for a year has never known me without the cafe- and getting up at 7,6, or sometimes far before to cook every Sunday morning.

But in the afternoon, I had a chance to see Rio, who happened to be nearby picking up something off Craigslist. We met in downtown Oakland at a rather sketchy by nonetheless lovely cafe, and had the opportunity to catch up a bit (how fortunate I am to have such wonderful people in my life!). On the way home, however, it was pouring, and I didn't have the chance to swerve to avoid a chunk-o-something in the road. Driving slowly through the streets of downtown, I kept praying my tire wouldn't go completely flat before I reached my mother's in Rockridge. It didn't (I have no idea how), and the neighbors helped me put the donut on and limp over to the nearby gas station to fill it up beyond the 15psi it had sat with since 2003. Hallelujah!

So that was great, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to get it fixed any time in the near future, and there remained something sketchy about the look of my donut. But lo and behold, what did it do on Monday, but rain? And what does that mean? My awesome and amazing brother (who works outside and thus couldn't go to work) arrived gallantly at my house, took the tire to four different tire guys trying to find someone to fix it (being a low-profile tire, and with a puncture on the outer edge, it needed a special type of goo or something).

So it's been quite the week. And on top of it, I've been a little cranky since D's off at a conference in Boulder and has been away since Sunday. But oh wells. My sections went pretty well, by the way. Even though I've recently become disillusioned with academia, I love teaching, so I guess I'd better stick with it.

And now that brings me to bananas. Tonight my ridiculous mother offered to give me a ride home and feed me dinner (!perks of having parents nearby!?!). After section ended at 6 (only six actually showed up), I headed over, only to find a half-baked Zachary's Chicago pizza waiting for me, and a glass of red to go along. How grateful I was, I cannot tell you. Note to self: do this for someone else sometime. As I was heading out the door, I pointed out that she needed to do something about the browning bananas in her fruit basket, to which she suggested composting. Obviously she's caught on to the recycling culture of the East Bay, but apparently not the stinginess of being a grad student (THROW OUT FOOD?!? NEVER!!!!). Of course, those little brown lumps of amazingness came home with me, and I'm currently smelling up the house with noms, which I will in turn feed to my brother, who made my life so much better this week.

Thought I'd throw down the recipe here, because someone asked for it a few weeks ago, and sometimes you just need some unhealthy, delicious banana muffins.

Here's to life relaxing a little, and maybe having time to do this that isn't midnight...

Banana-Walnut Delicious Muffins
Oven 350. Line 12 muffin cups with paper.

2-3 ripe bananers, mashed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1tsp vanilla
1cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup all purpose flour
1-2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, pinch clove, pinch allspice, other tasty spices as desired
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp powder
1/2tsp salt
1 cup walnut halves and pieces

mix bananas, oil, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla well, so eggs are distributed throughout. in another bowl, mix all other dry ingredients to distribute soda and powder well. dump it in to the wet, mix just to moisten (lumps good), then fold in walnut pieces just til distributed. Pour into muffin cups, cook ~30min on convection, remove from oven and cool on rack. nosh.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Moldy Cheese

There are so many wonderful kinds of cheese in the world. Throughout the past several thousand years (since before recorded history), humans have concentrated and preserved milk. Nobody really knows how the first "cheese" was made, though some argue that Bedouins carrying milk in moldy goat-skin bags found their cargo clumped (and delicious!), while others say it was travelers who happened to use calf stomachs for transport. Either way, they started a delicious trend, and I am forever grateful!

The importance of cheese in American society is brought home by the sheer number of websites, blogs, advertisements, classes, tastings, artisanal producers, importers, and events dedicated to the love of our milky friend. According NPR's recent article (via the USDA's recent calculations), the average American ate 31 pounds of cheese in 2011 (along with other scary numbers).

Today while cleaning out my freezer (I figured I've lived here a year, I may as well dig and see what I need to get rid of), I happened upon a not-too-old loaf of sourdough rye bread. The next ten minutes were spent fantasizing about what to do with it, as I pulled out four (four!?!) sleeves of tortillas, a few jars of old pasta sauce, some dehydrated green beans, three tart shells, and a bag of spinach, which ripped and exploded bits of green ice everywhere. Of course, I would make a grilled cheese with tomato, and have plenty of bread left for future endeavors. And yet, when I reached for my cheddar...

Though I consider myself a cheese aficionado, I am often surprised to find several bits of moldy goodness in the place where I thought I had stored my hard-won and hunted-down New Zealand raw milk cheddar and chevre-turned-brie (otherwise referred to as Boucheron). That might be more of a statement about my life (it couldn't have been four weeks since I went to the Cheeseboard!?), but it always pains me to think that most people believe those white fuzzy hunks of amazingness have to be thrown away. Or even worse, that aged gouda 'must be bad' after a few weeks- the stuff has been around for years! It's fine, especially as it doesn't even grow mold... the worst that will happen is the fat will start pearling up on the outside if it's not properly stored.

So let's talk about this mold thing, because I am dying to talk about it, and you might want to know a little more. First off, many cheeses require mold in order to come to their full flavor (think Maytag blue, Camembert, Roquefort, Chevre-Boite, etc). So sorry to break it to you, mold is alive and well (pun intended!) on the blue-cheese-walnut-dried-cranberry salad you ordered for supper down the pub.

At the same time, though, other strains of mold will grow on any food, given correct conditions and enough time. Some of these can produce toxins that you might not want to consume vast quantities of (especially if you have a compromised immune system), but you're not likely to get sick, unless there has been contamination by other nasties (eg salmonella or staph, if it has a high pH). Food molds are fungi, so they spread by latching on to a surface and spreading in a tendril-like manner (imagine a tree setting down roots). The harder it is to break through the 'soil', the more slowly the 'tree' will grow and the more shallow the 'root' system.

Likewise with cheese- goudas, aged cheddars, parmesans, and the like will mold slowly- scraping the mold off these cheeses and taking a bit out below will leave you with a perfectly satisfactory hunk, probably 90% of its original size. But soft cheeses- cottage cheeses, ricottas, up to mild cheddars and Camemberts (besides the fact that Camemberts will become overripe and the flavor will diminish) will provide an easy breeding ground for mold spores (particularly the uber-nasty pink mold). If it's questionable with these ones, you'll want to send them out back to be composted (generally, over a week after they've been opened and you'll see mold).
So ignore the 'best by' dates (they're always so conservative, and lead to so much waste!) and when it comes to moldy cheese, consider the type of mold and the type of cheese before you tuck in... or throw away.

By the way, my grilled moldy cheddar and tomato on rye with Jewish deli mustard was, of course, delicious.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where are my directions?

Sometimes being a graduate student is hard.
Actually, lots of the time being a graduate student is hard.
There is no instruction manual.
There is no task list.
There is no known protocol, no timesheets.
There are no known answers.
Someone hasn't already solved the problem, you can't check the solution sheet.
Heck, sometimes there aren't even questions.

For probably the first time in your life, you are left nearly completely without direction, with only a vague research question to answer... and most of the time, you also have to develop that on your own.

So what do you do?

It is, unfortunately, a question without a good answer. If I could sit here and tell you how to succeed in grad school, I would. If I could even give you a hint as to how approach one day, I would gladly pass that on. But, my friend, I am as clueless as you.

There are a few things I've learned so far, and I'm sure I'll learn more. But for you, dear friend, who are just starting out... I want to hint at what you will learn, will have to learn on your own. So maybe this isn't going to be helpful at all. But if I can give you fair warning, maybe hearing it here one of the seven times you need to hear it before learning it... will help.

Grad school is hard. Even though from the outside it looks easy, it is hard. We are entering academia. There is a ridiculous amount of work involved in that. Do not disregard the importance and value of your work.

You will run into a lot of dead ends. You will come up with a lot of ideas you aren't proud of. You will look idiotic in front of your adviser at least once a week. You will seriously, seriously doubt if you are qualified to do the work you're doing. You will stand speechless in front of the leader of your field, trying to remember your name for an introduction.

You will spend entire days writing code, testing hypotheses, running experiments and simulations, that will end up being useless. There will be days when you actually just can't do anything.

There will be lots of time you feel like an idiot, or that your project is horrible or useless. But you are not an idiot, and there will be some good that comes out of it.

I know, this sounds really depressing. And sometimes it is! But take heart in the fact that one day, you will make a difference through your work. In the meantime, think about this: what else would you be doing? They say that those in a PhD program not only belong in a PhD program, but that we have no other choice: we learn and continue to learn because we must. As Ranier Maria Rilke describes for writers in his Letters to a Young Poet,

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

And remember that you are not alone. There are lots of people in your situation, and a lot of Nobel Laureates were just as confused as you feel right now, in the same place as you.

Try not to get frustrated. Keep the big picture in your mind. Wear sunscreen.

The best thing is to know when you've reached a limit. When you're at capacity, and being in the lab will do no more good... don't stare at your computer screen any longer. Go outside, breathe some air. Do something that is fulfilling to you- read a book, play the guitar, call a family member. Learn to recognize when you are not being useful... and use that time to relax a little, and enjoy yourself. You will be far more energized to get back to work and make up that time (no one cares which days of the week you work!).

And remember, the most important scientific discoveries have come about by mistake. And stupidity is important.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everyday Hope

A few days ago, I wrote about the importance of hope, for a country, for a group of people.
Since that time I've had a chance to discuss this with several people, and I have realized my emphasis was all wrong.

What I meant to display is the importance of hope in the lives of every one of us. There are many kinds of hope- and one way to think about it is through three important groups, great, middling, and everyday hopes.

Many people have what we might call a "great hope". Often this is a hope for their life, the overall impact they will have on the world, or for the world in general. Some of these hopes are selfish, some are incredibly selfless, and some are nonsensical. These great hopes tend to give their hope-ers a sense of purpose in their lives. They tend to pop up in every huge decision, every relationship, every career choice that their hope-er makes in their life.

For some, this is a religious principle; a deeply held belief about their purpose; a recognition of their talent and place in the world; an insatiable need to be in the public eye, or make lots of money, or find the gold at the end of the rainbow of life. One might also call these "life-hopes". These tend to last a lifetime, but are found at any point within that- some not until a hope-er is on his or her deathbed does the meaning of their life and the choices they made become clear.

Then there are "middling hopes". These tend to influence a hope-er's behaviour for a long time, and are often big goals for careers, lifestyle, home life, relationships, et cetera. They seem to affect most decisions in a certain area of life- how one acts in the workplace, how one pursues love, how one raises children, how one spends free time for some period. These are the "directors" of life. Nearly every person has these hopes and dreams and goals, whether they last a career or just help get you through university.

 These are incredibly important in a person's life, and yet many of these hopes are formed around fleeting passions that occur due to one experience, one influence, or one fear. They are often not divinely or conscientiously inspired, they do not reflect the basic human needs of the hope-er or others around them, and yet they are very powerful. Inflexibility turns these hopes into goals, tangible aspirations, and can lead a person down an ill-advised path.

And finally, we have everyday hopes. Everyday hopes get us from point A to point B. They can be a hope that at the end of the day you'll get to see your lover. That it will stop raining by sundown so you can get to the baseball game, or the market will have those fresh figs you want for dessert. That you'll make it through the next two weeks of work until you have a vacation. That you'll be able to get up in the morning and start another day, the world will not have crumbled to dust as you sleep, and your mistakes will not follow you from day to day.

At some point, we all get stuck in everyday hopes; they are the only thing that keep us alive- the hope that one foot will end up in front of the other, that tomorrow might be better than today was.

Some people live entirely on everyday hope. There is much debate on whether it is a shame that everyone doesn't have a "great hope", and the responsibility of those who do have a great hope to help others find their own meaning of life. Some argue that the world needs the "accountants and secretaries" (a-la HHGTTG) to make it run smoothly, so that those who will have an impact will be able to do so, and the everybody doesn't end up trying to out-do each other in pursuing their great hopes to make the planet a better place. But then the question is, who should get to have a great hope, and who should not? Is there some kind of meritocracy of hope?

Somehow the world seems to figure this out for us. Some people do choose to live on everyday hope. But it is incredibly difficult to watch those you know well, who have great potential to have a wonderful impact on the entire planet through success in a field of science or public speaking or planning or resources management or psychology or faith, give in to the easy choice of living on everyday hope.

Perhaps the only thing that is worse... is to see them not live at all.

We all need all kinds of hope, in different dosages, to get through our lives. The more hope, the better; the happier humankind, the more success and the more we are able to work together; the more potential is realized, and the more impact we have on each other. Humans are social animals. We need societal hope, as well. I wish only to bemoan the loss of societal hope, and seemingly along with it the loss of deeply personal hopes that form each life.

It would be grand if we could all realize our potential to do good things for this world, for those we love, and for those we don't even know. But sometimes we have to live with everyday hopes. In a bastardized form of ee cummings' poem, let us continue to hope, and if you pray:

i thank you, God, for most this amazing day...
and the possibility that tomorrow might be an even better one.