Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Plan for 2010

I looked at my intentions for 2009 to see how faithful I was.  I know most people make resolutions and don't keep them.  Amazingly, I adhered to most of my pledges.

I meditate almost every day for twenty to thirty minutes.  I use a couple of methods for my meditation.  I pop in Yoga Zone--Meditation and follow Alan Finger's instructions.  He has two foci to help facilitate meditation; alternative nostril breathing and chakra guided imagery.  I always feel refreshed and centered after completing my session with Finger.

Another meditation aid that I found was by Max Highstein.  He has a guided imagery selection for meditation and I downloaded Healing Waterfall.  It has a soothing female voice that leads the listener through a series of natural settings.  I highly recommend it if you need rejuvenation or are battling an illness.

As for my resolution to relax,  I have been entertaining myself more now that I have time off from school.  I wasn't always as faithful in taking breaks from homework.  My physics class took up a lot of my personal timeI did read a lot of books this fall.  My favorites were:  Sag Harbor:  A Novel,  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  Zeitoun, and  Juliet, Naked.

I was successful at reducing my portion sizes for meals.  By Michael purchasing luncheon plates and small bowls,  I did reach my goal weight.  It was tough learning not to snack between meals and cut out second helpings.  My typical meal consists of half a plate of vegetables with one quarter protein and one quarter starch.  If I am exceptionally hungry, I will take seconds on vegetables only.

I pledge to change the following behaviors for 2010:  continue the new behaviors I acquired in 2009,  read more to my children, and increase my volunteering at school or church.  I will let you know how those resolutions stick at the end of 2010.

I hope that your year has been fruitful and enjoyable.  I wish you peace, health and happiness for the new year.  May you aspire for change and be successful in 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Got a Second Life?

As the year 2009 draws to a close, I have a few passing thoughts for the International Year of Astronomy.  I am an astronomy devotee.  This year I found some really sophisticated toys to enhance the viewing of stars.

For iPod touch or iPhone users, I ardently encourage you to purchase the Star Walk application.  Vito Technology has done a wonderful job with the star viewer.  The App has a night viewing function (the screen turns black and red), time machine function, and a Digital Compass for the 3Gs phones.  I used this App continuously while taking Astronomy this past Spring.  Star Walk even sends photos of the day to your device, which are spectacular.

The next gadget I got this year was a Galileoscope.  Volunteers for the International Year of Astronomy have been packaging and sending these replica telescopes to stargazers around the world.  It is a $20 kit that has 20X to 50X refractor lenses similar to what Galileo used to view the surface of the moon.  After using this telescope one frigid night with Michael, the experience made me appreciate Galileo's feat.  We were unable to view Jupiter clearly but Galileo saw four of Jupiter's moons with this type of device.  If you are just the least bit curious, order one of these telescopes.

The last plaything that I found this year was actually an avatar (a digital alter ego).  I listen to Astronomy Cast on my way to and from school.   In of the podcasts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay mentioned Second Life.   They were talking about how to enhance knowledge of astronomy with the internet.  Second Life is a virtual world started in 2003 by Linden Lab.  Each user over 18 gets to create an avatar which represents a vision of him or herself.  I'll tell you, it is a time waster.  You can spend many hours perfecting everything from your physical features to your clothing.  However, if you like simulation games, you'll love Second Life.

How does this tie into astronomy?  Once a user designs his or her digital body, he or she can teleport.  There are slurl's (Second Life links) that aid in travel to locations within Second Life.  The International Year of Astronomy has locations on Explorer Island that share astronomy facts with the public.  It is a futuristic looking world (see photo at the top).

The well designed part of Explorer Island has avatars participating in real world launches and presentation at places like NASA or the Adler Planetarium.  This is way cool.  I hope to have more time to experience these events.

Well, I hope I opened your eyes and minds toward the final days of the International Year of Astronomy.    Now that the nights are clearer and full of stars, think about looking to the heavens.  If your night is not so clear, consider checking in with Explorer Island.  It might be time to get a Second Life.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Let the Games Begin

Winter brings the gamer out in me.  I can't help it.  I love puzzles, strategy and competition.  I wanted to find new amusements to keep Michael and I busy these cold and winter nights.  A person can only watch so much television or read a certain number of books.  The mind needs a different type of stimulation every once in a while.  However, most of the games I have played in the past are old standbys like Scrabble, Monopoly and Uno.  It was time for an different diversion.

I currently have a subscription to Games magazine.  It's my favorite magazine because it includes crosswords, logic puzzles and most of all, game reviews.   Games has a year end evaluation of card, board and video entertainment.  Their reviews are a great source for finding new products from single player to party games.  I wanted to find a card game that I could play with Mike.

After browsing through the lists of card games, I found one that intrigued me.  It's a two-player game called Lost Cities.  The adventure game requires the players to start of expeditions through the rain forest, desert and mountains while looking for abandoned cities.  The challenge is that each player has a limited number of movements to make.  Each expedition must be made sequentially and any uncompleted explorations are penalized.  The player with the most points wins.  The game's strategy involves a balance between aggressive exploration and conservative expansion.  I admit, I haven't won against Michael yet.  He is a very good strategist.

Michael requested the game, Carcassonne, which I thought was because he is a Francophile.  I found out that the tile-laying, two-player game is engaging and I can win against him.  Carcassonne is based on the medieval city in France.  Players get the chance to build cities, roads, cloisters and farms.  The key to the game is that each person has a limited number of pawns to deploy.  The pawns represent thieves, monks, knights and farmers.  Each playing piece when positioned properly adds points to the developer.  Once all the tiles have been played,  each player's score it tallied.  The winner has the most points.  Winning the game does demand some luck but also requires foresight in how the land  can be developed.

The last card game I discovered was a fluke.  I was on the website ordering Lost Cities and Carcassonne.  I found a inexpensive card game, Solo for one dollar.  What a deal!  The only catch was that the cards were written in Scandinavian (hunh?).  They included instructions in English so I thought, 'what the hey!'  It was a fun, diverting card game.  Way better than the American pasttime, Uno.  Solo is based on the Crazy Eights format but has special action cards.  Along with the change direction and color cards is a swap hands or change all hands action card.  Plus, it's fun to remember what the cards mean since they are in Scandinavian.  Ben had the best time playing Solo with Michael and I.  I highly recommend it for your next family gathering.

I hope I have motivated you to consider playing with your loved ones tonight while it's cold and dark outside.  If you don't own a favorite card or board game, it might be time to look for one of the games I have listed.   Turn the TV off, close that book and let the games begin!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Smaller Plate to Smaller Weight

I just lost ten pounds in four weeks.  Guess what?  I didn't do any extra exercise to lose it.  I am recovering from minor surgery and can't perform my normal activites.  It was strange for me not to walk or do strength training since I am used to exercising almost every day.

I had to figure out a way to keep my weight down while I was convalescing. I decided to read another weight control book after finishing "The End to Overeating" by David Kessler.  "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" by Brian Wansink was a slight departure from Kessler's book but not by much.  Wansink has a knack for describing our eating behaviors.  In his research he found eaters have a hard time judging food portions because of oversized containers.  Wansink also determined that Americans overeat because of easy access and overabundance of choices with food.

I believe the food industry needs shoulder some of the blame, yet we have to be accountable for our own wayward habits.  As I mentioned before, I was an active member of the "Clean Your Plate" club.  I would finish eating whatever was on my plate.  I would tune out my taste buds and just ladle in the food.  Unfortunately, this meant I would eat foods that I didn't really enjoy.

I decided to do something about this.  Michael was willing to purchase smaller plates and bowls.  The kids at first were scratching their heads over this.  They asked, 'why do we have to eat on baby plates?' or 'weren't the old plates still good to use?'  I knew this confused our kids but I hoped they would get accustomed to it.  Wansink's research showed that test subjects ate 28% more food when their plates were bigger.  For some reason, using scaled down plates helps us feel full with less food.

Wansink also found that larger groups at the table cause people to eat faster.  This is the food scarcity syndrome.  Large families only have so much food to go around so each family member needs to consume their meal quickly before all the food disappears.  This conflicts with sensing satiety.  It takes about twenty minutes for our brain to sense that our stomach is full, so it is important to eat slowly.  Wansink recommends being the last person at the table to start eating.  He also suggests to pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table.  Natalie is a poky eater so I try to eat as slow as she does.

He also recommends leaving food on your plate.  Making small changes, by eating less food can add up to large weight loss.  I have to admit, I eat less protein now.  I do consume more vegetables (at least half my plate) and less starches.  I do like feeling pleasantly satisfied without feeling stuffed.

My next challenge is to be consciously aware while eating.  I think I tend to focus on filling my stomach rather than tasting my food.  I found another book that centers on mindful eating.  I'll let you know how that helps me.  Till then, I will keep an eye on my share of food.

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Girls Do Math!

The Schrodinger Equation

I wasn't a fan of math through most of elementary and high school.  I had mediocre math teachers during my early years.  I'm sure it was a product of my female generation.  More attention was given to the boys rather than the girls by female math teachers.  What's up with that?  It's sounds counterintuitive.  I would have thought that a female teacher would spend more time helping girls do better in math.  However, teachers in the past reinforced gender stereotypes by expecting boys to excel.

I remember in seventh grade having the worst time with fractions and percentages.  My teacher, Miss S. (I'm protecting the guilty person) was not very helpful to me.  I kept praying our class would move on to an easier subject.  In hindsight, why didn't Ms. S. spend more time with me after school?  I think she expected me not to succeed.  Today I wouldn't think of using that approach with my daughter.

In high school, I enjoyed algebra but disliked geometry.  I think my geometry teacher was more worried about retirement than educating us.  Mr. G. would mumble a lot and keep his back to us while teaching.  Thankfully, Mr. P made trigonometry and analytical geometry more fun.   Mr. P. had a sense of humor and tried to keep us engaged during his instruction.

After spending nine years in parochial schools, I missed out on the advanced math track.  Catholic schools didn't start algebra until ninth grade.  That meant I missed taking calculus my senior year.   I tried to take it over the summer at the local community college before my senior year.  Unfortunately, I didn't score high enough in the college's math assessment test.

It was frustrating not being able to take calculus like my other senior classmates.  This was a portent to  my experience with math during college.  I believe, if I had taken calculus in high school, I would have had more confidence in learning it in college.

Well, the math department at my college was interesting!  Most professors were foreign and they had very thick accents.  I tested below algebra so I was required to take Math Concepts for two quarters.  Then I had to enroll in a trigonometry course before I could register for calculus.  I'll be honest, I felt like I was on another planet with these math instructors.  My grades were mostly Bs and Cs.

Why was it such a struggle for me?  I believe I lacked confidence in my mathematical abilities.  I also think most of my math professors were poor instructors.  I didn't feel self-assured in math until my last calculus class.  Do you want to know why?  I had an excellent math instructor and he was a  high school math teacher.  Talk about being paradoxical.  Why couldn't my math professors be as good as this man was?  He was passionate about his subject matter and treated his students as individuals.  I got an "A" in that course.  I knew I wasn't a failure anymore in math.

Do I have confidence today in my mathematical abilities?  Yes.  I know now that I can solve any equation with the right tools and patience.  I've come a long way with my abilities.

Currently, after a seventeen year hiatus, I am using calculus and linear algebra to solve quantum physics equations.  It took me a little while to regain my footing in mathematical language but I am doing it.  I am not a numerical ne-er-do-well.  Ha, ha.  Take that all you unhelpful math lecturers!

Fortunately, my situation is not the norm for present day female math students.  There no longer exists a gender gap in math thanks to the encouragement teachers give young women.  I am hopeful for my daughter.  I believe she won't have deal with the gender stereotypes in math.

The Myth of the Math Gender Gap

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Servitude With Food

I just finished David Kessler's book, "The End of Overeating."  His name might sound familiar since he was the FDA Commissioner during the Bush and Clinton administrations.  He also is a pediatrician and lawyer who has tried to regulate cigarettes, another American vice.

Kessler's book is thought provoking except for the first half of the book.  I already know how the food industry manipulates consumers to buy over processed, high calorie food.  I wanted to learn something new and he delivered towards the end of the book.  Kessler writes about the psychological and physiological effects with eating.  He talks about how we are cued with a food memory just by going to the location where we ate a certain food.  The anticipation of eating a ice cream cone or hamburger happens just by driving that restaurant.  We are constantly bombarded with cravings because of our food memories.

Kessler seems to think we are doomed for a lifetime of obesity.  In a way he's right.  American culture is heavily weighted towards food.  We don't have to go far to find a fast food restaurant or convenience store full of high calorie, salty and sweet sustenance.  Kessler contrasts this with eating in Europe.  The French and the Spanish don't think to eat between meals because snacking is not an European habit.  It's very American and we don't like going hungry for very long.

The types of food we eat have changed with industrialization.  White rice, potatoes and white bread are easy to digest and offer little nourishment to our bodies.  We should instead be eating vegetables that don't occupy a major portion of our dinner plate.  Why don't we eat what's good for us?

"Overeating" describes the problem.  Our brains are wired for high calorie, easily processed edibles.  Likewise, we use food as a reward rather than support for our body.  It also takes about twenty minutes to feel full so quick consumption can make us miss that message.   This explains why American's have such a difficult time staying thin.  We look for convenience foods because we are always in a rush to go somewhere.  We especially don't take the time to enjoy our dinner hour.

I tried using this knowledge for eating this week.  I decided to consciously pay attention to my responses while consuming sweet, salty or fatty foods.  I tried to stop zoning out while eating this type of food.  It's hard to do when you are ravenous.  I also leave food on my plate now.  I try to eat the minimum portion to feel slightly full.

I try not to snack anymore.  I am starving for lunch and dinner.  It was challenging at first because I sometimes get a headache if I don't eat dinner right away.  However, I now like being hungry for my main meals.  I also like feeling not stuffed after eating.

I put a picture on my refrigerator of the new jeans I want to purchase after I lose ten pounds.  I want to give myself non-food rewards when I reach my goals.  Its unfamiliar territory but I want to prevent food from having power over me.

After a week of these new habits, I have lost four pounds.  That's a good thing since I am still recovering from minor surgery and can't exercise.  Do I think this habit will stay?  I hope so.  Kessler seems to indicate that our drive for rich foods doesn't stop.  At least I understand why it's so difficult to interrupt the cravings.

David Kessler's  The End of Overeating

The Cleveland Clinic: Psychology of Eating

Controlling Food Urges by Dr. David Kessler

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Quantum Mechanical Way of Thinking

Atanasoff-Berry Computer
(Wikipedia, 2009)

I’m asking you to read this whole blog without skipping any details. I know that is a lot to ask of my readers but this is a topic that few people understand. I will try to make it clear as possible.
Why should you read it? Do you own a cellphone? Do you have a computer at home? Do you use a DVD player? All these devices need quantum mechanics in order to operate. We are indebted to the brilliant people that discovered quantum mechanics.
What is quantum mechanics? It is the study of matter at the molecular, atomic, or microscopic level which doesn’t follow Classical or Newtonian Physics. Scientists found during the early 20th century that they couldn’t use Newton’s laws to describe electromagnetic radiation or light emitted from a black body. A blackbody is a perfect vessel that absorbs but doesn’t reflect light. It will emit radiation like infrared, visible or ultraviolet light according to its increasing temperature.

Scientists had to come up with a different way of thinking to solve the problem with electromagnetic radiation. They realized that light didn’t contain an infinite amount of energy. Max Planck was the first person to suggest that photons (or particles of light) were quantized. This means that each photon of ultraviolet or infrared light contains a specific amount of energy.
Planck suggested using a constant, h (which is a specific number) to figure out how much energy was contained in that photon of light. Albert Einstein came up with an explanation for the photoelectric effect. If ultraviolet light is absorbed by a metal plate, electrons are ejected from the plate. He used Planck’s idea the blackbody behavior to describe the photoelectric phenomenon. Einstein suggested that each photon or particle of light contained a specific energy which was proportional to the light’s wavelength multiplied by Planck’s constant (E = h x v). Einstein later won the Nobel Prize for this in 1921.
This opened the door to quantum mechanics. Scientists began asking themselves if electrons could be particles or waves. Niels Bohr postulated that electrons were quantized into different energy levels. He tried to explain the wavelengths of light that were emitted from excited hydrogen gas (see picture below). Bohr incorrectly described the electrons as orbiting particles around a nucleus.
Louis de Broglie suggested that electrons and other matter under certain conditions would behave as a particle or wave. When light is passed through two narrow slits, an interference pattern. This is evidence of wave properties. Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer demonstrated an interference pattern with an electron beam and a crystal of nickel. The wave properties of electrons were then described mathematically by Erwin Schrodinger. His wave equation helped predict the probability of locating an electron in a certain position. Schrodinger later won the Nobel Prize for his work with electron wave equations in 1933.
With Schrodinger’s equation (which is considered quantum mechanics) the electron configurations were described for hydrogen. Heisenberg, Dirac, and Pauli added more mathematical descriptors that helped identify the shape of atoms larger than hydrogen. Scientists learned how to predict the behavior of atoms once they understood their structure.
With the advent of atomic structure, the information age had begun. The first computer was made in 1939 by Dr. John Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry. The Atansoff-Berry Computer (ABC) was a simple machine that used the binary system and electricity. It used Boolean algebra which is the basis for “on” or “off” (also known as 0 or 1). The second and more well known computer was Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer ENIAC in 1945. It was the size of a suburban house and was originally designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the Army. Since it was completed after the war, the military used ENIAC for its nascent nuclear weapons program.
In 1947 at Bell laboratories, the first transistor was made of gold contacts and germanium. This early semiconductor couldn’t have been created without quantum mechanics and the understanding of how atoms behave. Present day microprocessors are multicore silicon chips with halfnium-infused circuitry. These microprocessors run at 3.2 GHz (gigaHertz) speed.

Lasers wouldn't have been created without Einstein's theory about photons. Electrons can absorb and emit photons so a laser is a light emitter at a specific frequency like infrared. Lasers are used for CD-ROMs and DVD players. We wouldn't be in this information age without quantum mechanics.

I hope this essay has helped you understand quantum mechanics a little better. It's a fascinating topic that has many applications. Who knew that Planck, Einstein and Schrodinger (to name a few would) leave behind a useful legacy. Here's to quantum mechanics and the information age.

Astronomy Podcast (Quantum Mechanics)