April 30, 2005

The results are in.

I have just completed a thorough analysis of Long Burn and come to the conclusion that what this blog suffers from is too much analysis and not enough nuttiness. So watch out, here come some nuts (Thanks to my old student Michael Larsen):

1. At lunch time, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars. See if they slow down.

2. Page yourself over the intercom. Don't disguise your voice.

3. Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.

4. Put your garbage can on your desk and label it, "In."

5. Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks. Once everyone has gotten over their caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.

6. In the memo field of all your checks, write "Bribe".

7. Finish all your sentences, with "In accordance with the prophecy".

8. Don't use punctuation

9. As often as possible, skip rather than walk.

10. Ask people what sex they are. Laugh hysterically after they answer.

11. Specify that your drive-through order is "To go."

12. Sing along at the opera.

13. Go to a poetry reading and ask why the poems don't rhyme

14. Put mosquito netting around your work area and play tropical sounds all day.

15. Five days in advance, tell your friends you can't attend their party because you're not in the mood.

16. Have your co-workers address you by your wrestling name, "Rock Hard".

17. When the money comes out of the ATM, scream “I won! I won!”

18. When leaving the zoo, start running towards the parking lot yelling, "Run for your lives, they're loose!!"

19. Tell your children over dinner. "Due to the economy, we are going to have to let one of you go."

April 29, 2005

Hiding out

I am working at Maxlab this week and next, it is an electron storage ring that provides different energies of light (from far infrared to x-ray) for experiments. We are studying how different atmospheric molecules absorb light. There are two students who are helping me with the work, one from Copenhagen and one from Vilnius Lithuania. As it happens, we are all the youngest siblings in our families. We were talking about it at lunch yesterday. 'Jesper' from Copenhagen said that his brother and sister are 12 and 13 years older than he is, and that they were always fighting. His sister used to try out her makeup on him. 'Anna' (from Lithuania) is 14 and 10 years younger than her siblings and says that her older sister used to call spirits into the bedroom using a piece of paper and a needle and that it scared the wits out of her. The spirits never lied. She would hide under the bed. 'Jesper' asked me what my hiding place was. I told him I had two. One was under the pool table in the basement, but the best one was in the cabinet over the staircase. That's where my family stored suitcases and sleeping bags and I used to climb up in there with a flashlight and a comic book, close the doors from the inside and hide out. It smelled cozy and was far away from the teenage chaos.

April 28, 2005


Remember those scary stories about fairies that lure the innocent deeper and deeper into the woods at sundown? Somehow this blog is like that, it teases from the edge of my mind, inviting me to expose my self, my problems, my fears. And, why are the fears there if we're not meant to challenge them?

So, I am a youngest child, the youngest of five. The older four were born within a span of about six years and then there was a seven year pause, and then I happened along, as fate would have it.

You have heard the stereotypes of the youngest kid-- here's from the Dr. Spock website: 'fussed over and pampered..sensitive, people-oriented, indulged, dependent, relaxed, fun, flaky.' That description missed the nail and hit my thumb. From the same source, these words are a little better: 'tenacious..never quite measure up to their more experienced and accomplished siblings..they get no respect.'

I also agree with the evaluation of Dr. Gayle (also of cyberspace): 'Perhaps the truest and most consistent finding is that last born children tend to be slower at accepting responsible roles, since they have not experienced being older and more capable than someone else in the family. It is easy as a youngest to question your judgment and abilities, unless of course there are other mitigating factors that help you to gain confidence in your ability to handle responsibility and making decisions. '

It comes naturally to me to assume that other people are more capable than I am. The good part is that it has given me an open democratic leadership style, but I see also that it creates problems. Again and again I treat students as equals, letting them decide (with my advice) their own course of study, or how to proceed in research. The good part is that then they gain experience themselves and they learn to take responsibility for their own success and failure, but the downside is that they can get mad at me when things don't turn out well and they feel I should have guided them (goose marched them?) past the problem. I am not good at being a traditional authoritarian leader who tells the students that now they are going to do this, and then this and then this. It doesn't work for me.

My situation was extreme in that the older four function as a unit-- they have their roles all worked out, and they worked out my role for me when I was busy carrying around my favorite blanket. The seven to thirteen years between us presented a challenge. How to describe it? I tried in vain to be one of them. Learned all the family stories and could almost make myself believe I had been there too even though the events in question had often occurred before I was born. As teenagers my siblings were no different from most in terms of rebelling and giving our parents grey hair, and this was pretty scary to watch as a preschooler. There was one study of college-age kids that reported that 25 % of firstborns had nightmares while 85 % of last borns had them. The experience left me with no illusions about reality-- I knew there were hard knocks out there a waitin'. The good part is that I've always thought that watching 'them' gave me some insight and saved me from having to try out some things myself.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression and my sister-in-law told an interesting story of her first impression of me. (I don't remember this). Apparently the family drove up to The Cities for Christmas shopping and at a mall (Southdale? Rosedale? Brookdale?) we split into groups and were to meet at a certain fountain at the predetermined time. I was assigned to her and my oldest brother, and I apparently had a cold and just followed them around sniffling the whole time. I was and in some way of seeing it still am a snot nosed brat. I could never compete on equal terms with any of them-- the problem is that no matter what you do when you are 7 it just isn't interesting to someone who is 20, and no matter what you do when you're 20 it is small potatoes to someone who is in their early 30s and working on a career and family. Its a moving target. I'm sure everyone has had their share of less than graceful moments when they were kids. My older siblings and sometimes their spouses were there to see mine and they don't mind reminding me about it. That's fate.

I'm just getting warmed up. One of my sisters once told me her theory that I had 'grown up with six parents.' The problem with this model is that sure, I looked up to these four older siblings a lot and they could function sometimes as surrogate parents for me. But unlike true parents these four had their own lives, and one by one they moved away, piff, paff, poff and puff, leaving an empty house. Most parents want what's best for their kids but with these four sibling rivalries get in the way, rivalries in which the playing field is not level. I remember being a little little brother of 5 or so and socking my oldest brother at roughly my own eye level. He fixed me with a stern look and said, 'Don't do that' and so I stopped. You see these cute nature films of bear cubs playfully chewing each others ears and some of that kind of scuffling around would have been a good thing but wasn't possible. My parents were dividing their time between five kids and doing a great job of it and yet my siblings resent me somehow for having gotten more attention from my parents than they did. When was that supposed to have taken place?

I have been notably unsuccessful at telling any of them any of this-- they won't believe it, know it didn't happen and they know that no matter what may have happened to me, they had it much worse.

Conclusion from Dr. Gayle: Some of my clients describe their experience as the youngest to be difficult because "everyone has an opinion about what they should do". These clients often struggle with identifying their own beliefs and identity. They find that they sometimes need to exert greater effort towards the realization that their opinion about something "counts". Other youngest borns feel left out of the family, (.....or particularly smothered by the attention and concern about their welfare by every other person in the family.)

April 24, 2005

Quips and Quotes

Back when we were living in Pasadena we drove out to the four corners area for a vacation. Met up with my parents who drove down from Minnesota. On the way back to LA we stopped at a little restaurant in a little town in Arizona to eat. They were selling a little booklet called 'Quips and quotes and good clean jokes' and I couldn't resist buying this collection of homespun advice. (Hand-typed including notes and figures by Dorothy Gaylean.) Here is a sampling:

Another thing we can be thankful for is we don't get as much government as we pay for.

I left my second husband because I got tired of all his four lettered words. Cook. Iron. Dust. Wash.

If your problems are all behind you you have to be a school bus driver.

Home wasn't built in a day.

To love the world is no big chore. Its that miserable man next door who is the problem!


Not far from Lund is a city called Trelleborg, on the east coast of Sweden. That's where you go to take a ferry to Poland. They say you can save a lot of money on just about anything if you buy it in Poland. For example, you could go to Ikea in Malmö and pick out a new kitchen for your house and then buy it from Ikea in Poland, saving about 40 % for an identical Swedish Ikea kitchen.

The author of the blog flightless parrots (see link in column to right) asked me about Poland, and its relations to Sweden and to the world. Its likely there are some Poles in my family tree-- some years back on my mother's side are the Trochinskys, Catholic Germans from the Baltic coast, a region of shifting borders.

Here's a quick history from a Swedish classic, the Compact Lexicon. The history of feudal Europe is so convoluted and can seem pointless, but it can help explain the current state of affairs. Poland was a grand empire from ca. 1300 to 1500 and at its peak reached from the Baltic to the Black sea. Then came a period of decline, including wars with Russia and Sweden, like the 30-year war (1618 - 48), which mainly involved Catholic Germany verses Northern Protestants. At the end of this war many German towns are in ruins and Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are world powers-- and Sweden reached its apex geographically. The north German/Polish coast was Swedish for a few generations. At the end of the 1700s Poland was divided between Russia, Preussia and Austria (in 1772, 1793 and 1795) and ceased to exist as a free state. After the first world war Poland is reconstituted as a free state. Pifsudski becomes dictator in 1926. German attack in 1939 starts the second world war. Soviet occupation of eastern Poland. German terror, persecution of the Jews, riot in Warsaw's ghetto in 1943. After the war the borders of Poland are moved a little to the west and it becomes a communist state. Revolts in Poznan in 1956 and Gdansk 1970. The Catholic church supports strikes and the reform movement. The free union Solidarity is formed in Gdansk in 1980 by Lech Walesa and the union is banned from 1981 to 1989. Military law declared by Jarezewski 1981 to 1983. An economic crisis forces political reform and Solidarity forms a government in 1989.

Last week the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter (The Day's News) had a series of articles on Poland. They said that in the 1990s there was a common goal: membership in NATO and the european union and the development of a 'Western' economic system including the legal system. The DN analyst wrote that after succeeding at both of these goals the country is adrift, unsure of what to do next. I know that Poland was disappointed that they stuck their necks out (going against the wishes of France, Germany, Russia) in sending troops to Iraq, and then felt that they were not given any special treatment by the Bush administration, for example in getting contracts or travel visas.

As to F'resca's question as to the current state of relations between Poland and Sweden-- I posted a translation of a newspaper column a few weeks ago about a Swedish guy who went to Poland for heart surgery. (My auto mechanic, the guy who installed the new clutch, emigrated from Poland 20 years ago, via Australia.) Part of the relationship has to do with the price of labor-- Swedish unions are afraid of Polish workers who are now free to move within the EU. This has been the case for about a year, but so far there have not been any catastrophes.

April 23, 2005

Use your PC as a synthesizer

For a long time I've thought it would be really cool to sit on the train with my laptop, plug in earphones and 'type' music on the keyboard. Here's a program that turns this dream into reality-- Piano FX Studio 4.0. You can download a trial version for free (15 uses) from the site:
The program lets you record what you play into a sound file. Lots of different synthesizer variables-- bagpipe, glockenspiel, concert grand, rhythms, etc. etc.

Spring views

On a Sunday morning in Helsinki the streets are empty. The sun shines, fighting a cold breeze. A woman sits on a wooden chair in the middle of the street playing the cello. Such wonderful music! Don't her fingers get cold?

We are doing experiments at the electron storage ring in Lund for the next two weeks. I rented a small truck to move the equipment over from Copenhagen. I'm glad I'm not a professional driver. Driving the moving van went just fine, even through holiday traffic in the center of Copenhagen. No, the problem is that I find driving either boring or stressful. It didn't help that I couldn't relate to the music on the radio. Does this mean I'm getting old? It was either monotonous angry hip hop or teen pop, the best being Kylie Minogue. In the end I listened to a service from a Danish Lutheran church.

It was a holiday in Denmark on Friday. They used to have a lot of prayer days, public holidays, dedicated to Saint this or Saint that. They decided that people needed to work more and so they gathered all the prayer days into a single day known as 'The Big Prayer Day' (Store Bededag). The Swedes don't observe the Big Prayer Day, at least not publicly. Since I was free, my wife and I drove the car to Ikea and bought part of her birthday present, some patio furniture. We had the store to ourselves since the Swedes were at work. Anders had fun looking at everything and then he fell asleep. (Today he seems to be sick, just wants to sleep...)

It is wonderful that spring is here. The cherry trees along our street are getting ready to blossom. Tulips are blossoming plus a lot of small blue flowers, all over the lawn. Daffodils too, and some bushes.

April 20, 2005

Blue car gives car blues

I am feeling blue after picking up the car from the mechanic this afternoon. The picking up the car part went just fine, the car works really well. The mechanic replaced the master and slave cylinders, a bearing and the clutch. No, the part that got me down was the bill. Am I doing the right thing? The concept was to save money for more important things like the kids by driving a low cost, older but dependable automobile. What I need is an actuarial table to tell me how much you should be willing to pay to fix your car, and when the best plan is to cut your losses and buy a new one. Anyway, the cost of the repairs on our 1990 Saab 900S with turbo (low mileage, driven by a retiree, true story) was a little over a third of what we paid for it.

I have never owned a car less than 10 years old-- the newest car I've had was a 1976 Nova I bought from my brother in 1987. That car also had clutch problems. It had a 'three on the tree' manual transmission but the linkages didn't work so well, so every once in a while you'd be under the false impression that you'd just changed the gear from reverse to first.

I read in the newspaper that men between the ages of 32 and 45 are the most likely to think that their auto mechanic is cheating them.

April 15, 2005

Finland Finland as far as the eye can see

My first impression from Finland is that it is indeed a hybrid of Scandinavian and Russian culture. The roadsigns are in Finnish and Swedish, out of respect for the Swedish minority in the country. You always hear about this group (in Sweden anyway), the Swedish minority living in Finland, and I had assumed that they make up roughly 1/3 of the country. Finland has a Swedish language university, most Finns learn Swedish in school, and government business is bilingual. It turns out that the Swede-Finns are only 6 % of the population. (In comparison, 11 % of the people living in Sweden are Finnish, yet their language is not given any special treatment.) At dinner I joked that they should have the roadsigns in Russian too, since there must be more Russians than Swedes and this made the Swedes laugh and the Russians brood. Or maybe they were already brooding, it was hard to tell.

Dinner was perch, really good.

There is a frozen lake outside the window of my room, which has free internet access, yahoo!

At the university I gave a talk and toured some labs. There was a theorist in the audience for my talk, I have read his papers for a few years and was looking forward to meeting him. He fell asleep during my talk and then when it was over he asked me a really good question that I wasn't sure how to answer. I saw the lab of a Finnish guy I met in Pasadena a while back. He was very proud to have an excimer laser that came from the USSR in 'the good old days', and said that it should be put in a museum someday. At another lab they have succeeded in synthesizing compounds that involve noble gas atoms, which you learn in high school chemistry don't form chemical bonds. Well, they do, and this group has made compounds involving xenon, krypton and argon. They have made a chain molecule of alternating xenon and carbon atoms that would make a great polymer rocket fuel.

I ate lunch with Leonid who moved to Finland with his wife and 3 year old daughter 15 years ago when things were going downhill fast in Russia. I've known him since I first moved to Sweden because we worked on the same EU project. I asked him about the 'Winter War' between Russia and Finland. He said that it was rather complicated and gave me a quick summary. Stalin, even though he had a pact with Germany, was worried about Finnish collaboration with Germany, and so he told Finland that the Finnish-Russian border around St. Petersberg would be moved 100 km to the north. The Finns did not agree. The Finns had a good army at the border. Russia on the other had did not, especially after Stalin's purges of the officer corps. The head of the Russian Navy in the Baltic apparently told Stalin that he could immobilize Finland from the sea in three days, no problem. But Stalin thought that a ground war would be better training for his troops. So, Finland did quite well in the beginning until Russia moved in more and more troops. Many of the Russian troops were killed, but the rest got valuable training in how to fight an entrenched enemy. That's what Leonid told me anyway.

April 14, 2005


If you're ever driving around northern Minnesota in the summer you are likely to see posters for dance bands written in English and Finnish. Like all Finns, the Finns up on the range love to dance. Finland is the second country in the world in terms of Tango dancing, per capita. At per capita coffee drinking they are number one.

I'm going to go to a meeting in Helsinki tomorrow, a place I've never been. Finland in general just seems very interesting. We had a speaker here earlier this week by the name of Markku Kulmala, who referred to his country as 'Western Siberia.' Cool I thought, a mixture of Scandinavian and Russian culture. There is of course a sizeable Swedish minority in Finland with their own version of the Swedish language. We have a Finnish postdoc in the lab and we were talking at lunch about the influence of the Russian bear on Finnish politics and I learned something very interesting: Finland has been paying reparations to Russia since the end of WWII! I never knew that. I had a romantic image of Russia making a land grab and brave Finns in white camoflage suits and wearing skiis fighting them off during the famous winter war. It turns out that Finland attacked Russia. First they went after Karolia that they had lost during WWI, and then they kept going farther and farther into Russia, and eventually they got chased back to the Baltic, lost the war, and were forced to pay reparations.

I will write again next week with news from Finland.

April 13, 2005

To post or not to post

(I have always had a knack for saying the obvious)
Men and women are different.
Why should that have been so hard for me to say? But I have been turning it around in my mind for months now, usually deciding it was best to steer clear of the whole ball of wax. But as they say, the truth shall make you free. Why should we labor under false pretenses? Life is hard enough as it is.
On average, women are superior to men in many areas including 'emotional intelligence', multitasking and language. They have better senses of smell and color vision, and upon entering school are about a year ahead of the boys with regards to language. On average, men are better at spatial reasoning and logic, are typically bigger and stronger, and are better at judging speeds and distances. And we are all created with equal dignity, and deserve equal respect, and everyone should have the chance to follow their dreams.
The Swedes will tell you that this country is the most advanced in the world with regards to the equality of the sexes. And they do a pretty good job according to many measures. But there are a few nuts that are hard to crack, for example, there are almost no female firefighters in Sweden and the day cares and grade schools are 95 % female and the airline pilots are 99 % male and there are more women faculty members in languages at the Universities whereas the science faculties are more male. Why should these things bother us? Yes, of course, equal pay for equal work, but, does the cause of liberation demand that 50 % of firefighters be female and 50 % of kindergarden teachers male? What if more women are drawn to teaching young kids because they happen to be good at it and if more men are drawn to firefighting and truck driving? To me that's what the goal should be-- equality, the equal right of anyone, male or female, to decide what they want.
The men need the women and the women need the men and don't let anybody tell you anything different.
The biologists and sociologists and so on have been hard at work documenting fundamental hardwired differences between men and women, as if we need any more evidence that we're not the same. Not hard to name examples-- women can talk and listen at the same time and carry on multiple conversations, and men for the most part can only do one thing at once-- for example it does not come easily to me to talk and watch TV at the same time, and my wife is much better at picking up on the emotional undercurrents in plots. Being honest, the reason I do most of the maintenance on the house and car and so on is because I find it kind of interesting and I'm not half bad at it, but I don't think my wife finds it so interesting or is so very good at laying floors or installing windows or putting on winter tires. I've heard the theory that men are men and women are women because of socialization, that we are taught our roles. But I don't buy it, not more than 15 % at least. I can't tell you the number of times I have told both my sons to stop hitting things with sticks. It comes to them naturally. If we live with the idea that we are meant to be the same in everything we'll always be fighting millions of years of evolution, whereas if we see our differences as an advantage, I think everyone would be happier.

April 12, 2005

What ever became of Bobby Fischer?

Please, go to the world's greatest resource of knowledge and read about the chess champion Bobby Fischer:
You may know the highlights of his life-- Chess grand master at the age of 15, beat the Russian world champion Boris Spassky in Rejkyavik Iceland in 1972, and then he has mostly been a hermit, emerging from myth every once in a while to rant about Jews and whatnot (he himself is of Jewish descent).

There were rumors at Caltech that he could be seen sometimes roaming the streets of Pasadena mumbling to himself. I never saw him there though. I do know that he had his things in a storage locker in Pasadena, and his landlord had them sold after he didn't pay his rent.

Fischer played a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992, breaking a US/UN embargo and earning a US arrest warrant in the process. He has been an expatriate since then. Recently Japan was going to turn him over to the US but Fischer wrote to Iceland for help. On March 21 2005 the Icelandic parliament, without debate, decided unanimously to grant Fischer citizenship, and on March 24 of this year he moved to Iceland. Apparently Iceland has an extradition treaty with the US, but according to Icelandic law, Icelandic citizens may not be extradited from Iceland. What are they thinking!? Any thoughts, Ragnar?

April 11, 2005

Casey Jones you better watch your speed-- train tips

What to avoid:
Strong smells
Infectious diseases
Businessmen who think the whole armrest and part of your seat are theirs
People speaking English-- breaks my concentration.
Anyone loud in any language

What to look for:
Try to sit on the shady side of the train.
One of a group of four seats facing a table-- more leg room and a place to work.
On a Friday afternoon after a long work week it can sometimes be a good thing to sit with a group of people who are drinking. Etiquette will not allow them to drink without offering and almost insisting that you join. I have had several nice beers and apertifs through the years, not to mention meeting some interesting characters. It is customary to refuse the first offer, and keep in mind the addage drink the first, sip the second and skip the third. One time I met the guy who writes the maritime column in the Sunday paper. Each week he tells the story of a different boat-- an old schooner, a Swedish ferry in the Indian ocean, a merchant ship dodging German subs in WWII. Another guy was obsessed with how great Volvos are, especially the model 240. He claimed they are impossible to kill and to prove his point he once drained the oil out of his parents' 240 and drove it that way for a month. No damage! He knew a guy at a junkyard who had stacked 5 240s on top of each other-- the roll cage is so strong that the car on the bottom could hold them up without buckling. It almost made we want to drive one too if they weren't so square, such a cliché for the average Sweede who goes by the name 'Sven Svensson' and if I hadn't married into a Saab family.
Links to the 240:

The Thirteenth Root

I read about a guy who holds the world's record in mental calculation. He was able to take the 13th root of a 200 digit number in just 48 minutes. A mathematician made sure he didn't cheat and a guard made sure he didn't write anything down. So, if you ever need the 13th root of a 200-digit number just call this guy, he lives in France.

April 10, 2005

Weekend update

Drove to the beach this morning and filled two bricklayer's buckets with sand, and brought them home to refill the sandbox. It was great to be at the beach, completely deserted and scrubbed clean by the winter storms. The beach sand has little white shells and small bits of dry seaweed in it.

Our car is sick-- clutch pedal has two positions-- on and off. Impossible to make a smooth start. My book says it could be the master/slave cylinder system. Will have to take it to the garage next week.

More swedish proverbs

Everyone is the smith of their own happiness.
You can't have more fun than you make yourself.
You can't be a prophet in your hometown.

April 08, 2005

Friday at last!

Man I'm glad this week is over.
Corrected piles of papers.
Wrote two exams.
Chased down errors in formulas in books.
Got home early for a change and got to help Anders dig in the sandbox. My main goal was to remove roots from the cherry trees that are trying to move in-- his was to fill the back of his dumptruck with sand.

April 06, 2005

Week 14, 2005.

Its definitely spring. Tulips are 4" in places, the rhubarb is flexing its buds and some optimistic bushes have sent out small light green leaves.

The trains were really messed up in Copenhagen on Tuesday. I was at a meeting where a well groomed consultant was encouraging us to send applications to the EU for new graduate programs. Like I have time to jump through the EU's administrative hoops in order to get a few peanuts-- you end up doing a lot of work to write the application (with no funding for the time and travel involved), and then less than 10 % of the applications are successful. Programs like this make the EU look good because they can say they are building the future using international educational initiatives, but they are a huge waste of time for the foot soldiers at the Universities. So anyway, at least they had good coffee at this meeting. I left early and found a library where I could correct papers, and then went to the subway station with the idea of getting home a little early for once. The street above the station was blocked by a police line and covered by fire trucks, ambulances and lots of police. My first thought was that it was some kind of terror attack-- Denmark is part of the coalition of the willing and has received many threats. There were a bunch of TV cameras focused on the subway entrance. Turned out that a diesel locomotive had caught on fire. But my problem was how to get home? My bike was behind the police line. I could walk to the main station (ca. 25 minutes), but instead stood around for awhile in the sun studying the crowd. After about a half hour they opened up part of the station and I could take the subway to the central station. Things there were worse, if possible. Crowds and bad information, no trains had been running for about three hours. In addition to the fire, someone had jumped in front of a train and that tragedy had also stopped traffic through one of the other stations. Also adding to the chaos was a strike in the new automated train system. These trains have no drivers, spooky and modern, and go through oval tunnels in the cool earth below Copenhagen-- like the intro to Dr. Who. But apparently the computer operators had a beef with the city and they were the ones who went on strike. I was part of the mob for a time, got pressed into a train that went to the airport, stood around there, and then finally a train came through bound for Sweden. I got home, hungry and tired, in time to get the kids ready for bed.

Fredrik is in the first grade and brought two of his workbooks home to show us. There were pages where he had practiced writing each of the letters, and then drawn a picture with a short description. For example for 'E' he had a squirrel on a branch eating an acorn (squirrel and acorn both begin with 'e' in Swedish). For the letter W he had drawn a large stripey W and a smaller stripey W, and there was a book by the big letter, and the description said that pappa W was reading a story for his son.

April 03, 2005

Genetic engineering: Planning ahead

Back in the early days of Long Burn I asked the blogees, if you were to invent a new knob or button, what would it do? And the answers mostly had something to do with punishing other car drivers for their criminal behavior.

Today's question is: If you could invent a new sense for human beings, what would it be?

I'll go first: I would invent a new kind of taste bud, so that in addition to salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umani, we could taste the glycemic index of food. Wouldn't that be something? You'd automatically know which foods lead to obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease. You'd taste something and think, eww, white flour or yech sugar or yum, protein, fiber and vegetable oils.

The senses, part two

Yesterday's couldn't comprise descriptions of all the senses, and some fun information got left out, which I will write about here.

(Reminds me of a period when I subscribed to one of the Copenhagen newspapers, Berlingske Tidende. They had a standing feature known as The Backside where they printed fictive news and children's puzzles. At the top of the feature they wrote something like this: Have you ever wondered why exactly enough things happen each day to fill up the newspaper? Some of our brighter readers may have realized that this is because we are forced to leave some things out. We have created The Backside to give some of these stories a chance, too. Subscribing to this paper allowed us to compare the quality of the weather forecasting done by the Swedish and Danish meteorological services, since we also were getting Sydsvenska Dagbladet, the south-Sweden daily paper. The Swedish forecasts were almost always wrong and the Danish almost always right. My theory was, why should a state-run agency care what the weather is like in the southernmost province where we live? As long as they get it right for Stockholm, where the politicians live, everything is fine. But Copenhagen is right across the sound, so of course the Danish forecast is better. (Not better weather, but more accurate.) And, since Denmark consists of a long thin peninsula and a lot of islands, I think the Danes are better at forecasts that involve the effects of the ocean.)

OK, back to business. Some animals have senses that humans don't have. First off are the animals that can sense electrical fields: sharks, rays, some fish, and unlikely as it may seem, the platypus. Some of these animals can generate their own electrical fields of hundreds of volts (like the electric eel), which they use for communication and to stun their prey. I was told a story once about a guy who stored his credit cards in an eel-skin wallet, and the magnetic strips all got erased. Urban legend?? I was impressed that one of my students could translate 'platypus' into Danish for me: 'naebdyr', which means 'beak animal'.

Just recently a guy at Caltech discovered that some animals and bacteria can sense magnetic fields. These beneficiaries of millions of years of evolution have a special cell that deposits a crystal of haematite and acts as a tiny compass. Bees and some birds apparently have this sense-- the bees use it to find their way between flowers and hive, and it helps the birds migrate. Nobody has asked the bacteria what they use the sense for.

April 02, 2005

Last Lecture

Yesterday I gave the last lecture in my course on the physics of molecules. I got this nutty idea that a really fun device would be to explain all of our senses from a chemical/physical point of view and at the same time review the main ideas of the course. And the lecture turned out really well, probably one of my best, although you'd have to ask the students if it really went over the way I thought it did. (It seems to me when I look out during a lecture that they all look stunned and I'm not sure what that means. At least they are not sleeping.)

Aristotle wrote that we have five senses, hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell. But today we know that there are many more. Depending on how exactly you define them: Color, brightness, sound, taste, smell, touch, temperature, pain, balance, body location, hunger and thirst. And some people are even rumored to have common sense. There are animals that have senses that we don't have-- the ability to sense electric and magnetic fields.

Sight is a truly amazing sense, and describing how it works allowed me to review the nature of light (Einstein's photoelectron effect) and a little bit of photochemistry. Just three pigments are involved in color vision. Each one has a different response curve. These curves overlap-- and the amazing thing is that we can sense a wide variety of colors using only these three types of sensors. For example a yellow daffodil may excite pigment one a lot, pigment two some and pigment three just a little, while a red tulip would have a different pattern of excitations. The eye generates the signals and the brain does the rest. There is a fourth receptor involved with sensing the intensity of light, especially low light levels. Some animals have pigments that we don't have. There are insects and birds that have a pigment that senses ultraviolet light, and many flowers have special markings that only insects and birds can see. And, there are snakes (pit vipers and boas) that can see infrared light. They use this ability to sense the body heat of their prey, even in the dark. (The wise among you will guess that this is the part in the lecture when I was able to review blackbody radiation.)

The senses of smell and taste are the most 'chemical' in nature. You know they went to all that work to map the human genome, and what did they find? Well, one thing they found is that there are no less than 347 different kinds of scent receptors coded in human DNA. But, we are able to sense thousands of different smells, so something similar to color vision must be occurring: different receptors have different affinities for different scent molecules, and your brain interprets this pattern of signals as a certain smell. Some people are missing one or more of these 347 receptors-- for example to me, roses smell waxy (likely isoprene), and some people cannot smell 'banana ester.

Taste is similar to smell. You may have heard that there are four tastes, but there are really five (in addition to smelling your food): salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. The senses of salt and sour are similar-- ion channels in the cell membrane admit sodium or solvated protons (acidity) into the cell in the taste bud, resulting eventually in the sensation in the brain (allowing me to review diffusion/random walk/the Einstein-Smoluchowski equation). The senses of sweet and bitter are similar to the smell. There is a receptor on the outside of cells on your tongue that has arms like an octopus that wrap themselves around the molecule being sensed. If the molecule fits, you have the sensation of sweet, or for a different receptor, bitter. DIfferent molecules have varying affinities for this receptor, and there are some molecules that are quite a bit better at being sweet than sugar. For example, saccharine is about 300 times sweeter than sucrose-- it fits the receptor better (and allowed me to review hydrogen bonds and ionic interactions). There is one class of molecule, derivatives of guanidine, that can be over a million times sweeter than sugar. Just a spoonfull of lugdanum in a typical water tower would make a whole town's water taste sweet.

Umami is a really interesting taste and if you want to know more, please go look it up at one of the world's truly wonderful resources, www.wikipedia.org.

April 01, 2005

Scrape your sole

I have two bikes, one to get to the train station in Lund, and the other to get to work from the station in Copenhagen. Nothing fancy-- for me a bike should be reliable, and you have to go into the deal realizing that every once in a while you're going to have your bike stolen. One is a 3-speed sealed hub and the other a 4-speed sealed hub, coaster + hand break, fenders, package holder over the back wheel. I read a cycling tip that has helped me a lot. I always want more power when I bike-- to go against the wind, or catch my train, or make it to the next intersection before the light goes red. Usually you think stand up and push with all your weight, but the problem is that you can't keep that up for very long. I've found that a much better way is to use the full circle of the pedal. When the crank is at the top, press forward with your foot. When the crank is at the bottom, pull backward with your foot. Don't bother thinking about pushing down, you'll do that automatically. Just think forward back, forward back, like there was something stuck on the sole of your shoe that you are scraping off. It is tremendously effective and doesn't tire you out. Both legs are contributing at the same time since when one is pushing forward the other is pushing back, and vice versa.

My pet peeve in Sweden is that even though Lund is a university town and they have good bike paths that lots of people use, NOBODY SIGNALS! Drives me barking mad. My pet peeve in Denmark is people who bike slowly in the passing lane. Not so different from commuting by car I guess.

Web Counter
Web Site Counter

Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]