On Einstein, Racism, and Physics

We all know him: the wild hair, the mustache, the gentle smile. Einstein the quirky physicist has become a bit of a legend. He’s perhaps best known for penning his theories of relativity, which describe gravity and the movement of the cosmos at the grandest scales. But Einstein was more than just the funny image we see on t-shirts, or the genius we read about in textbooks. He was an eccentric, sometimes shunned, who sometimes took surprising stances (for his day) on social issues.

Unbeknownst to many, Einstein was an outspoken proponent of civil rights and an advocate against segregation. He lectured at a historically black college, co-chaired the co-chair the American Crusade to End Lynching, and used his fame to help out African Americans who were in trouble, once giving his hotel away to a singer who was denied a room.

Of course, it’s not always so simple, and he was called a hypocrite and an “enemy of America” by right-wing senator Joseph McCarthy, and recent stories have tried to paint him as racist because of comments in his travel diaries. Some of the comments he made were definitely troubling, especially from his visits to China, but I hope — and believe — that his overall legacy was positive. Certainly, for the time, his advocacy was radical, and probably dismissed as “idosyncratic” or part of his general weirdness.

Physics is still a field that’s low in diversity, where there aren’t nearly as many African Americans, women, or other groups (like Native Hawaiians in Hawaii) as you’d expect. It always makes me sad how this causes stress to colleagues who aren’t part of the ‘majority’ (white dudes) and sometimes I’ve been part of the problem. For example, friends and I teased female classmates in undergrad and I’m sure it was frustrating and discouraging. I’m sure I said shitty things at other times, too. I’m sorry!

I’ve also noticed that we’re hard on ourselves and each other, and people are quick to say ‘They did __ but they weren’t a very good scientist/physicist.’ The good teachers and science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson are somewhat looked down up, too, even though they make such a huge difference in inspiring people and reaching out to the public. I know I would never have gotten into physics without a great high school teacher (an incredible priviledge on my part!) or the popular science books and shows I enjoyed along the way.

Here’s hoping we can embrace the good weirdness and diversity and positive efforts from people like Einstein as an important part of the scientific culture! As in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, when scientists from across the world came to the US, we only learn more by sharing our field with new and incredible people. It’s been a pleasure meeting colleagues from different backgrounds, lifestyles, cities, and countries, and they’re part of what makes our field of physics such an exciting place to be.

Check out my new short story in “Nope” from TL;DR Press!

I did a thing! It’s called “Conspiracy Theory Weekly Issue #289” and it’s out in eBook and print on amazon. This story is about an investigator tasked with convicting the publisher or a conspiracy magazine. At first, it seems like an open and shut case, but something about it doesn’t quite add up, and he takes to the streets to find out more. Grab some coffee, smoke a spliff, and read along!

‘Spacesuits Won’t Help You Here’ has been published in the Reddit Writers Anthology!

Reddit is usually where I go when I want to kill time and brain cells. Usually. Back in the Summer, a group of writers came together from their /r/writing forum to join our powers together and help promote each other on twitter. There are virtual meetups, writeins, novel reading groups, kittens photos, and other shenanigans going on.

We also decided to put our skills to good use for Doctors Without Borders and gather stories for the first anthology of writing from redditors! You might guess it’s all stories about cats, weed, computers, and video games, but we also have sci-fi, fantasy, crime, and, more weirdly – a psychedelic adventure story about Burning Man written by me!

I love the way it turned out and I’m especially grateful to the editors and organizers, including Joe Butler (@writelikeashark) who put the whole thing together, @AlexHareland, and my editor @AizelleRaine. Hopefully they’ll be another anthology down the road!

Check out our group on Twitter – #redditwriters – we’re always welcoming new people!

Silent City, my novel, is now live on Amazon!

After year of writing, editing, cover changes, submissions, suggestions from friends, interruptions due to grad school, and other obstacles, it finally exists!

I started writing this novel years ago for NaNoWriMo. It wasn’t my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, but it was the first one that I thought might turn into something readable. The basic idea was to create a ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ set in Baltimore, but with a more realistic feel and autumn vibe. Initially, a young girl named Anne got lost in the city and her imagination transformed the fast food restaurants and dirty panhandlers into an fantasy adventure as she searched for her mom. This concept ended up being pretty hard, basically because it’s a crazy challenge to actually describe things from a 5 year-old’s perspective. Like, can they reach the door knob, or read, or handle locks or money or other concepts? Do they know how street signs work or how the city is laid out? Probably not.

So it evolved into a story about an 11 or 12 year old girl who wakes to find the city completely abandoned. She meets her neighbor’s cat (who seems to be able to talk, now) and leaves Mt. Vernon to explore and figure out what happened. They encounter ghosts and monsters and other creatures along the way, and end up getting lost among some of Baltimore’s more well known monuments and locations as well as meeting a few of its ignoble celebrities.

Today it’s available on Amazon for free and later it will be $2.99. Soon it will be in print as well. I’m super excited and can’t wait to finally hold a copy in my hand, which will be a super surreal feeling after all these years.

Book Review: “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins

I picked up my copy of this book from the ‘free table’ in Kalalau Valley, Kauai, and I can think of no place it more belongs. My copy was old, perhaps one of the original printings, bound together with black duck tape, moldy, and scented with lavender. It felt as much a part of the valley as anything else in that awesome place, and it’s quite a place:

Having spent four spring breaks there, I’ve met quite a few of the bohemians who live in the valley, sometimes partied with them, and partaken of their local *ahem* cuisine, beverages, and entertainments. It’s a fun place, sometimes controversial with the locals in Kauai, but also rugged and challenging. So it makes sense that the people there would like this book (though not that they gave it away). Another Roadside Attraction is basically Kalalau incarnate… er, Kalalau inlibris?

The story is a sort of hippie bible. The main characters are part of a band of American gypsies, or beatniks, or some other disparaging term from the 50’s. Amanda, the protagonist, is a young mom, cook, and animal lover who marries John Paul, the son of missionaries from The Congo. Together, they decide to set up a roadside attraction and, of all things, settle on a museum / hotdog stand, even though Amanda is a vegetarian. They complete the place with a flea circus and some other kitschy odds and ends, and end up attracting some other friends and cohorts from across the country. The story sees them tangled up in a conspiracy with the Catholic Church, haunted by government agents, and on the verge of bringing about the apocalypse. Pretty much normal drama for the hippies in Kalalau.

As with some of his other books, Tom Robbins writing here is dense and incredibly vibrant, full of colorful metaphors and similes but a bit of a mystic swamp to slog through. I was slow to get through it, but it picked up and had an awesome ending. If someone was newly moving to the states, I would recommend this to them the same way I would recommend ‘Kafka on the Shore’ to someone moving to Japan.

Difficulty: 7/10

Weirdness Level: 10/10.

Did I like it? It’s definitely a book for a particular time and place – and that place is somewhere in California in the 70’s, but Hawaii is still catching up so it sorta works.

What now? I hold onto the book until I can return it to the valley where it belongs.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore was the first book I read after moving to Japan. Since then, my memories have blended with images of shrines hidden in dense cities, truck drivers at lonely coffee shops, and talking cats roaming the weeds. Then again, who’s to say I never actually experienced those things? Living in Japan was a surreal, dreamlike experience with lots of drinking – kind of like this book.

After a rereading, the thing I really liked about the Kafka was how much it felt like Japan. If you haven’t been there but want to know what it’s like, it’s perfect. It’s also just a really cool story, and the author does a great job blending in boring details of every day life with bizarre happenings, while still having things make sense. Even so, I’m not sure if I completely figured out the whole story, but I think that’s OK.

Here are some other random ratings in no particular order:

Difficulty: Medium. It’s a bit long and there are some references that might not make sense to casual readers, but I enjoyed it all the way through so no complaints.

Weirdness Level: 9/10. It has UFOs, Colonel Sanders, and some Oedipus stuff, let’s put it that way.

Was it fun? There’s definitely some gloomy stuff going on (anyone who has taught Japanese teenagers will understand that this is unavoidable. Well, maybe that’s true of all teenagers).

Reread? The next time I feel like I need to escape from our American reality.

Stretched thin and Stressed!

Fasting, meditation, and yoga have helped me with the stress of the Physics lifestyle over the years (and especially the past few months), but things are starting to get frenzied again. Our boss John is pushing us to hit some landmarks in our thesis and to aim for graduation next year. In a way, this is good. Getting start early is key when you’re working on a 200 page monster. The next deadline is next week and I probably need about 10-20 new pages written between now and then.

On the other hand, I’m heading to Virginia Tech early next month and I need to prepare a suite of readout electronics for our demonstrator detector. My colleague Kurtis is in town and he’s the perfect guy to approach for help on this – but I’ve only got a week. Yikes! Two deadlines at the end of one week. O_O

Fasting sounds crazy, but it’s not

Have you ever been hungry for an entire day? Or missed eating entirely for over 24 hours? I thought about this question while reading “Ender’s Shadow,” one of the sequels to Ender’s game. The main character is a scrawny orphan kid who struggles to survive on the streets but eventually gets recruited to help fight off an alien invasion. You know, pretty much every orphan’s story. The book was good, but for 23 year-old me it was also an insight into the lives of homeless.

Of course, I know I’ll never experience what it’s like to be a hungry kid in the Favelas (where Orson Scott Card was a missionary and likely got his inspiration), but I decided to try fasting to see what it was like. A high school teacher of mine, said he would fast on Fridays in solidarity with the poor. If he could do it once a week every week, surely I could try it at least once or twice.

Well, it turned out to be pretty hard! Shocking, right? Still, I managed to succeed that  first time, but didn’t end up doing it much over the intervening years. Occasionally I would do a day of fasting in Japan, but there were new challenges there: being tired and hungry in a classroom of sneezing 8 year-olds is a guaranteed way to get sick. So it’s been on the back-burner until relatively recently. Catnip treats are just too good

Over the holidays Amanda and I went home to Baltimore to visit friends and family. I wasn’t biking to school anymore, hiking, hitting the gym, or doing much of anything beyond drinking beer, reading books, playing games, and eating. It was relaxing, but my belly got way bigger (so did Beaker’s). Back in Hawaii, I already have an exercise routine down, but I wondered what I could do to help me shed some fat a little faster. Fasting? Why not.

So, how is it? So far, I’ve tried it every other Wednesday and it’s generally gone OK. My rules: no food, no calories outside of vitamins in the morning, and no fluids other than water, green tea, or black coffee (a recent addition). Here’s a breakdown of how it’s felt the past couple of times:

  • ‘Man, I miss my morning coffee. But that’s OK, I’m not so hungry yet.’
  • ‘Those vitamin’s kinda made me less hungry.’
  • ‘OK, biking up this hill to school seems more tiring than usual.’
  • ‘Man, I could go for a latte. I should go to Starbucks. Oh…”
  • ‘OK, it’s lunchtime and everyone is eating. What do I do now?’
  • ‘2 o’clock. That’s half a day. Not bad, right? I could eat when I get home and call it an ‘intermittent fast.’
  • ‘3:30. I’m gonna make it the whole day for sure!’
  • ‘4:30. My stomach is rumbling and my head is starting to hurt.’
  • ‘Wow, biking home was even harder than usual.’
  • ‘OK, I’m home and Elan and Amanda’s food smells amazing. Like, way more amazing than usual. Must… resist…’
  • ‘My head still kinda hurts.’
  • ‘Why does this book keep talking about food? Damn you novelists!!!’
  • ‘Zzzzz…. I’m too sleepy and tired to get out of bed and eat.’

Then the next day:

  • ‘Wow, I’m extra tired this morning, but my head feels really clear.’
  • ‘Hmmm, I feel pretty good!’
  • ‘Wow, everything smells amazing today.’
  • ‘Biking is a little tiring, but otherwise I feel better than yesterday.’
  • ‘Mmmm, delicious salad. These raw cucumbers are the most delicious thing ever.’

Is it worth it? So far I’ve experienced four major benefits:

  1. Losing a little weight / fat
  2. Feeling absolutely amazing the day after (even if I haven’t eaten yet)
  3. Less headaches, even after crazy yoga poses
  4. Shoulder injury feels way better

Overall, I’d say it’s been really beneficial. So far, I’ve succeeded in doing two 36 hour fasts  since January and a couple of half-day fasts. My go-to day is Wednesday and I’m aiming for twice a month. Even though it tough at the beginning, I know I will feel awesome afterward, so I’m planning to try again next week and see how it goes.

More Regular Updates on the Way

I’ve made a few resolutions for the new year, including working on my physical and mental health, focusing more on my work in physics, and spending more time on writing. Last year, I decided to attempt to write a short story per month. I didn’t reach my goal, but I did manage to write six or seven stories, so not bad.

I know I’ll be busy this year, especially with my dissertation, but I think writing one page per day is absolutely doable, whether it’s creative writing, journaling, or scientific work. The lack of a digital journal has also been bothering me. For many, many years – an embarrassing number, really – I kept a journal on opendiary.com. I started when I was 16 and kept it up to date into grad school. It had stories from my time in drama club in high school, my journey out west and hiking in Montana, my blundering through early relationships and dating, my successes and failures at UMBC, and the drunken shenanigans I encountered while teaching in Japan.

Opendiary closed several years ago. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping paper journals. These are a lot of fun, and in some ways better – If I’m ever old and have kids or grandkids, I can pass them on. They’re also generally more *ahem* private.

That said, I think it’s good, and more practical, to keep an online writing practice going. So I’m going to get back at, right here, on this blog I set up here on my website. Why not? At least the robots that visit will be happy. Hello, fellow robots! Err, uh. I swear I’m not a robot. Just a scientist.