Friday, September 18, 2015

Big tips and the balance of justice

Over 20 years ago I was a graduate student in a high-pressure (both meanings) research group. I had a mediocre-quality data set and my advisor was demanding that I produce the paper. The work was a collaborative effort with a colleague whose student was to measure one property, I was to measure another, and we would combine the measurements and analysis in a single paper. I made my measurements, obtained their measurements (but only after I completed my analysis—I remember the collaborator PI being very strict about this), combined them, and wrote a draft, exchanging drafts and comments multiple times with the collaborator PI and his student. I was under continual harassment from my advisor “submit the paper! submit the paper!” So I did, to a top-flight journal. Nothing for months. Then, about 2 months later, I got reviews back—pretty good reviews. Reviews that suggested it might be published in top-flight journal. My advisor was happy. I circulated the reviews to our collaborators and set to work on a revision.

Two days later I get an email (or was it a call? Or a letter? I don’t remember how we used to communicate…) from the editor of the journal saying that the manuscript was withdrawn by one of the co-authors. It was bad. The collaborator PI had told the editor that the manuscript was submitted without his being notified and pulled it. It is true I had submitted the paper without his explicit “OK to submit”. I had a long talk with the collaborator PI and I listened to his reasons for withdrawing the manuscript. There were more and I remember them. Bottom line--when he decided that his student’s part was more interesting than ours (perhaps justified, see citation details below) then it ceased to be a collaboration. In his head.

Here was the fallout:
Plenty of short-term anger to go around, and some long-term hard feelings as well.
There were two papers in the end in society journals—one w/collaborator’s grad student as 1st author (cited 29 times since then) and the other with me as first author (cited 12 times).

Careers are long, so over the past several years I find myself working with the collaborator PI. He’s the president of an NSF-sponsored research consortium and I have participated, sat on committees, chaired committees, and now I’m chair of the executive committee. So now we spend a lot of time working closely together. Another reminder to myself to never burn bridges and perhaps instead perform occasional structural maintenance on some of the more decrepit ones.

But there was a part of me that was always sore about our history, and maybe it got a little bit in the way of the service-related work we had to do together.

Recently I was out for dinner and cocktails with collaborator PI (and another colleague), and we had a good talk about our service work and ideas, and we even laughed together, and then the time came to split the check down the middle (other colleague gave us cash.). We tossed in our credit cards, and then the tabs came back, and collaborator PI passes mine to sign. I peeked at his totals--he is a really meager tipper. So I compensated by doubling the tip on my tab.

Later, as I was sorting through receipts, I realized that he had mixed up the tabs, and so I left the big tip on his credit card, not mine.

The amount of joy this event has given me is perhaps a little bit out of proportion with the actual event. I was laughing so hard when I told my son that he asked if I was high. But to me it feels like the scales of justice have been ever so slightly restored to proper balance. And no-one suffered.

It’s the little things that make me happy.

Here's a summary of the "teaching moments"
1.     Maintain your bridges. You might like to have them in the future.
2.     Do what you know is right, even under great external pressure to do otherwise.
3.     Get your co-authors' explicit “ok to submit” before submitting manuscripts.
4.     Leave big tips.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fourteen Years Ago

On really clear days, we could look outside our upstairs window and see the top half of the twin towers many miles to the east, between our New Jersey ridge and New York City. The morning before the towers came down, it was like that. I was getting our 2-1/2 yr old son ready for daycare—potty, snuggles, breakfast, tv—before heading to Newark airport. It was hard for me leaving my baby behind to run experiments at the synchrotron—but my brain knew that doing the science was a long term investment in my career, and that my son seemed to thrive just fine when I was gone, though extra clingy for a day or so when I returned.

There was less airport security in those days, so I definitely noticed that my driver's license was checked twice—once when entering the terminal (which was normal, though not always a given), and again right before boarding the airplane (which was unusual). I even said to the flight attendant "You guys are being extra careful today." She paused and looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. Aren’t you glad that we’re doing this for your safety?” I had my scientist-self on, and lectured her: “Actually, no. I think that flying is mostly safe, but there are finite risks. I don’t think that checking IDs at the door truly address that risk, but it does make people feel better.” She looked at me (probably thinking: “what a jerk. A girl jerk.”) and I looked at her (probably thinking: “Oops. Messed up that interaction. Maybe I just should have said ‘thank you.’) and we went our ways.

It’s one of those conversations burned in my mind, and I’m sure for the flight attendant also.

 What a day for flying!! I spent the flight with my nose pressed to the window—so crystal clear—and my brain thinking about all of the calibrations that my colleague Wendy and I will get to do for the next two days before our experiments start.

My memory rejoins when we got in early to the beamline office space the next morning. There were TV monitors, and someone said—turn them on. So I saw the footage of the 2nd plane going into the towers. Time slowed, so I remember my brain working through the unlikelihood of two accidents in which planes hit the towers. My first hypothesis was domestic attack (still in  the wake of the Oklahoma city bombings). And I screamed. I think. I don’t remember. But I remember people trying to calm me down. I remember the janitor with her arms around my shoulders. (Years afterwards we would see each other during my synchrotron visits.)

As we discovered who carried out the attacks, I saw deep into a horrible future—in which we live in fear, in which we trade our privacy for a false sense of security, in which the world is engulfed by hatred.

I called my family—husband, mom, dad. All safe. My sister was watching shocked downtown workers swarm away from the city across the Brooklyn Bridge. I wondered about my cousin, who lives right there. (She was in her living room—with its panoramic windows looking out on the towers. She had turned her toddlers around so their backs were at the window. She sat opposite, distracting them with play, and saw all.) I remember thinking: where is our president? Shouldn’t he be addressing the nation?

We’re scientists, so we attempted business-as-usual, following the lead of the beamline science manager. There was new safety training to do. There were attempts at calibrations. There were attempts at concentration, but we gave up soon after and Wendy and I took the car and drove to see some colleagues at the University of Chicago. Four of us sat outside on the grass, and talked. Of science, of the world. There was nothing. Nothing in the sky. Everything felt different.

Nothing flew for a day or two. We had a rental car, and our plan was to drive east, and I would drop Wendy off in Ohio on the way home. But planes flew again, and I was on one of the first planes out of O’Hare.  It was silent boarding. The flight was silent. Landing was silent. The people who had cellphones called as soon as the plane was down, and you could hear people whispering to their loved ones “We’ve landed. I’m back. All seems ok”.

I came home to a new upstairs view—a plume of smoke where the towers used to be.

Then no more specific memories, only my retrospective on the aftermath.

My husband was the only parent who stayed at work that day so our son had the corporate daycare center (and its great staff) to himself.

My mom is a mental health professional in Dutchess County, NY, which lost several workers in the towers. She directed the crisis intervention  and family support services for the county’s FEMA Project Liberty grant allocation. I still have a notepad from the time, which I kept for its motto: “Feel Free to Feel Better”. My mom’s personal response is complicated and interesting and worthy of another essay. Short summary: re-emergence of bacon cheeseburgers in her life.

For years and years, when I leave my family (almost always to do science), my heart feels like it will explode. Less so with time.

For a short but significant time, the part of my brain that knows that life-goes-on allowed the part of my brain who knew that the-world-is-coming-to-an-end make some decisions. Less so with time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Before there was the first, there was the second

Note: this post is not [directly] about science, but about the family I grew up in. Sister and I are thinking of writing out some of our family stories. It might make a good children's book.


Many years ago, while we were a little bit younger, but already scattered to our adult lives, I got the call. “Sister—The second-worse fate that could befall Father has now come to pass.” I was flooded with visions of amputated limbs, or fathers at the bottom of the well, or the lake—but surely these are examples of the first-worse-fate, right? And if so… what could be the second?  “”Wha…wha… happened?” I think I might have said. “Mushrooms,” said Sister. “Bad mushrooms.”

This I understood immediately. During our childhood, Father led mushrooming trips any chance he could get with Sister and me dutifully tromping behind in the woods. Father would hunch down next to a specimen, the glossy, heavy-paged Audubon Society identification book in hand, muttering: “‘choice, edible?’ Or ‘toxic, poisonous’?” Then Sister and I would cringe together as Father took a small test nibble.

Mushrooms also appeared later*, after they had taken on additional meanings. During these post-college days, one or the other of us would get a chance to visit Father, and share the north country adventures over the phone with the other sister, stuck back in her normal life. Once, in the midst of an intense series of synchrotron experiments, I got a call from the ADKs, and there was no small talk:  “Burr [childhood nickname]--We have just eaten a pile of mushrooms we collected earlier. We are over 90% sure they are ‘choice, edible’ but there is a small chance they are ‘dangerous, hallucinogenic’. We sautéed them in butter, garlic and ‘herbs’ and they are delicious. If we don’t call you back in 30 minutes, then call Nick and Tammy up the hill. Bye.” Click. Yikes.

Sister and Father called after 30 minutes to report no physical or perceptional incident. And Father also survived the second-worse-fate-to-come-to-pass, which probably happened when a bad lookalike was collected along with the shaggy manes. It only caused about two days spent more dependent on indoor plumbing than Father is accustomed to. 

And the first-worse-fate? Well, I don’t yet know how it ends, and I might not be the one to best recount it. And in the end, the scenario ordering is subject to re-arrangement. Only Father can say which was actually the worst, during the living of it.

* Am I allowed to write: “Mushrooms appeared sporadically.”?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Almost Binary

I’m working on a research problem dealing with numbers that are either close to unity or close to zero. So much so, that the mathematical training and practice that I’ve had up until now would not allow me to do this problem. Indeed, in several iterations, I have done pages of derivations that end with a trivial result 1=1 or 0=0. (1=0 means that I have made a very different type of mistake).

So much my time recently has been spent trying to avoid triviality.

As I’ve been working on this problem, I’ve been inventing math, and it blows my mind with a sense of discovery. Then I look it up, and it turns out that it has been discovered in 1760. A shout-out to all of you mathematicians on Wikipedia: Thank you so much!

Notes to self:
2. Make friends with a mathematician

This week it’s averages.
How do you take the average of two numbers, A and B?

1/2(A+B) or (AB)^1/2
Arithmetic mean or geometric mean?

These numbers will be different: am1 and gm1.

But then you can take the arithmetic and geometric mean of am1 and gm1.

½(am1 + gm1) = am2
(am1 x gm1)^1/2 = gm2

and keep on going and going and eventually the answer will converge. That's the arithmetic-geometric mean.

I’ve been playing with this for a while, but I just discovered that Gauss had already been playing with these probably close to 200 years ago.

For me, doing math is meditative, lovely.  I am fully concentrated on the abstract, far from the world of people & feelings & things I have to do.

Here is a partial recording of the part of my brain that is not re-doing 200-yr-old math.

1.     Um. Is this a good use of my time?
2.     How could it be bad for me if it’s so much fun?
3.     Now I understand how to derive things
4.      Omigod I’m sooooo sloooow
5.     I suppose it’s a better use of my time than other things I can be doing
6.     But perhaps not a better use of my time than other-other things I can be doing
7.     In the end I really really want an elegant solution to this problem and I know I’m almost there.
8.     Keep on plugging.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Please Ask Permission

Back when my child was still at the age where he had a great deal of access to my body, when he felt like it he would simply reach out and touch and/or hold my breasts. For a time this was obvious, natural, and welcome. Then for a time it was just fine. Finally came a time when it was not fine anymore, especially in public.

I called a meeting of my motherhood-cabinet—my wise friend Alisa. We discussed the issue: it’s time for me to teach him that he cannot grab my breasts at will. But I don’t want to tell him “he’s not allowed.” Because he is still allowed to touch me, and I want him to feel allowed in the future. Allowed, but not entitled. We laughed a lot, especially while imagining his future relationships which felt impossibly far away, talked about it, and she helped me hatched a plan.

The next time my son grabbed my breast, I took his hand, gently moved it away from me, and told him: “You may touch my breast, but only if it’s ok with me. You need to ask for my permission first.” My son looked at me, and reached again to touch my breast. Again, I took has hand, moved it away, and said “My breasts are private. You may touch them, but only if it’s also ok with me. You need to ask people first before you touch their bodies.” My son went back to play, life moved forward, and I forgot.

A few weeks later, we were waiting in the crowded Saturday morning Wegman’s checkout line. From his seat in the grocery cart, my son asked me in his clear voice that seemed to cut through the entire busy grocery store: “Mommy! May I please touch your breasts!?”

Moral of the story: Think through your entire plan, not just the first part.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On Derivations

How to derive things:
1.     Start with a good cartoon
2.     Consider the simplest approach to the physics
3.     Be clever in choosing your reference frame
4.     Add numbers to your cartoon
5.     Do the math and/or arithmetic
6.     Iterate as necessary until doable and obvious after-the-fact

At some point in my academic career (college? grad school?) I decided to get serious with my studies, and build a habit of going through derivations, step by step, with pencil and paper, in order to understand.

It is an only an occasional habit, part because of laziness, but also because if I spent my time walking in detail through every derivation, I didn’t feel as if I would have enough time left for my other activities.

One learns a lot of researcher shenanigans going through derivations. Be wary of the line that says something like: “We can obtain equation 3-9 from equations 3-5 through 3-18 and application of algebra.  If you want to do the algebra, budget yourself many hours-days-possibly even weeks.

And then there are the assumptions. What if one of them is wrong? How does that change the derivation? You can almost guarantee that the assumptions were required to make the problem doable for the scientist.

The first thing anyone should know about derivations is that they often seem obvious in retrospect, obscuring the combination of inspiration and perspiration (and frustration) that was invested into the derivation.  While a nice derivation is neat and tidy and perhaps a little bit exciting, the process the scientist (more likely: scientists) took to do the derivation was most likely totally messy, filled with wrong turns, and dead ends, and endless frustrations.  The derivations are the stories that are told after the real life has been lived.

In my scientific life, I have derived one new equation (Kavner et al., 2005, eqn. 12). It definitely ranks up there as one of my top life experiences.  It took about six weeks of work (most days, from 8 in the morning until lunchtime—at my desk with pencils and a stack of paper) to cover enough wrong paths and make enough simplifying assumptions so that I could complete the derivation in one sitting.

It was so much fun that I’m working on another, more complicated one that generalizes the first one and fixes some of its problems.  This one I’ve been working on for far longer—on and off for a few years. I promise I’ll share it when I’m able to.

In the meantime, here is an annotated derivation of the Hugoniot-Rankine shock wave equations. The derivation is from a combination of Poirier’s textbook: Introduction to the Physics of the Earth’s Interior and my notes from my PhD advisor, R. Jeanloz. Annotations are mine.