MTH 141: Week Three

This week we started the section on two-part inequalities, got a little more into story problems for the aforementioned, then backtracked to review all the other material for this morning’s exam, the first one of the semester. Some of the kids flew out of there after just five or ten minutes — whether it was because they knew everything or knew nothing, ’twas impossible to tell. For my part, I took deep breaths, forgot and remembered (or partially remembered) the key formulas, checked and rechecked my work, erased dumb mistakes, and pressed on to answer everything that I could. I know it wasn’t perfect (because I logjammed myself and didn’t finish one of the problems), but I put everything out there that I had. And now I know a little bit more about how to prepare for the next exam.

It’s not worth worrying about because I have so much more math to take. Yesterday I sat down with Friendly Professor Rybski and we worked out as much of my future schedule as we could. After a few years’ worth of courses, the glass grew hazy, and we stopped; some of the classes are going to move around or be renamed or be renumbered, and there was no need to throw bad speculation after good. We got most of the way through the time tunnel, anyway.

Anyway, it appears that this year is the ‘warm-up’ year, and next fall I’ll be able to take the math and physics courses that a regular, just-starting-out freshman physics major would take. If I can keep up that pace, I could get the B.S. in 2016.

I did the same thing when I enrolled at Miami in the fall of 1985: made a schedule for all eight semesters, and tweaked it when each course schedule came out. It was, well, efficient: I was able to graduate with honors with two different English majors (creative writing and English literature) and even include an abortive attempt at a minor in Systems Analysis, all with the minimum required 128 hours of coursework. (Ironically, at some point for the physics degree I may have to take a class in Advanced Composition.)

Next semester I’ll be enrolling in Elementary Functions as my math course, and Astronomy 112 as my “physics” course.

I was looking forward to attending tomorrow’s lecture for the Physics 190 class I’ve been given permission to sneak into, but then I realized that my kids have no school tomorrow, so I’ll have to pull Mom duty instead of future-physicist duty.


MTH 141: Week Two

This week I really felt like I got my feet back under me as far as the math was concerned. I also got more into my routine for getting up early, exercising, and getting to campus early enough to get a commuter parking space rather than a ticket. I switched from buying a $4 chai tea at the student union every morning to making my own coffee at home and drinking it on the drive. (If you’re twice as old, you should also be twice as smart, no?)

I don’t know that there’s that much to say about the actual math. A few days ago I was sitting with my seventh-grader as he did his math homework, and I noticed he was working on Order of Operations and on different properties (associative, commutative, distributive, and identity). Out of curiosity I flipped to the back of his textbook to see what he might be working on at the end of the year. Guess what: simple linear equations and inequalities. So at the moment, I’m doing the math they’re teaching eighth graders. (And here I thought I was doing ninth grade math.)

As Steven Covey advises, though, Begin with the end in mind. The end of this path might have me in a subterranean research lab, or behind an editor’s desk at a physics journal, or somewhere else that I can’t imagine today. For any of those purposes, I will need my math to be absolutely solid as well as considerably more advanced. So every step is important, even though the goal seems very far away. (In fact, with my goal at a seemingly infinite distance away from my present location, each step becomes even more critical, since any misstep gives me a greater chance of getting off-path.)

In my extra-curricular reading, I had previously started reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach in the summer. I was reading slowly and carefully trying to get a good understanding of the concepts he was presenting. This week I was stalled on trying to figure out his figure/ground sequence of numbers, but after about three nights of looking at the series, the solution came to me and I got a massive endorphin rush. Hooray for Math Brain!

Here is the sequence; can you determine what numbers are left out and why?

1, 3, 7, 12, 18, 26, 35, 45, 56, 69, …

Breaking news in the Milky Way

Today’s physics colloquium talk (and in all the fuss about last week’s classes, I utterly forgot that last Friday was the first colloquium talk!) was on “Frontiers of Astrophysics,” given by Dr. Robert Benjamin, who also happens to be my program advisor. I had e-mailed him this summer even though he was terribly busy, so I stepped up after class to introduce myself. He did let me know that the colloquium series was intended for Physics 180 series students, and while I was not enrolled, I was certainly welcome to attend and do whatever work I wanted to. There is an online component to the class, involving reviewing the lecture and occasionally taking a quiz on the content, and I’m not sure if I have access to that part as a walk-on.

Dr. Benjamin’s work entails an infrared mapping of a sliver of the Milky Way, and identifying gaseous “bubbles” that mark the birthplaces of new stars.

He also had some breaking news for us: yesterday NASA announced the discovery of a planet, quickly nicknamed “Tatooine,” that orbited two stars which also orbited each other. A female colleague of his, whose job it is to construct computer models of hypothetical planetary systems, pronounced that it “maintained an impossible orbit.” This isn’t what the situation was in the Doctor Who episode “The Impossible Planet”; that planet rested beside a supermassive black hole.

Two and a half weeks ago, scientists announced the discovery of the coolest star on record, which glows at room temperature.

And he left us (or at least left me) with a couple of tantalizing statements. The first was that our picture of the Milky Way as a twin-armed spiral galaxy was due for some major revisions next year. Hundreds of millions of new stars have been catalogued as scientists work to determine the distribution of stars across the galaxy.

His second statement was that the dimensions of the Milky Way were nearly identical to those of a compact disc — the proportion of the thickness to the diameter.

But why? Is it as simple as that the galaxy’s spinning motion aligns the matter into a plane? He was talking about stars dying in explosions that heat the surrounding interstellar gases. Surely explosions in zero gravity would be radial. Is the local gravity of the Milky Way so strong that matter is compressed in a plane rather than adding depth to the universe? And if that were the case, wouldn’t the magnetism of each planetary body be aligned radially from a common center? We know that’s not the case even within our solar system. So what keeps things lined up the way they are? Can stars die in only one direction, “outward”?

These are probably a child’s questions. But that’s how I stand before the universe, finding more and more to look at and wonder about.

MTH 141: Week One

I have started my journey towards a physics degree by taking Intermediate Algebra.

On what would have been my first day of class, however, I was actually in Cincinnati, Ohio, sorting through the personal belongings of my third husband, who died suddenly and unexpectedly the previous week. (At this writing I still don’t know exactly when or why.) Peter was thrilled for me that I had finally garnered the courage to go back to school for a science degree, and was unflaggingly supportive. Interestingly enough, while I was going through file cabinet after file cabinet to search for key records, I found his undergraduate transcript from the University of Cincinnati and discovered that he had taken some physics courses. He had never told me about that — it was not his style to make the footsteps first, then force someone else into them. He was always an intuitive and attentive listener, and his own university office hours were filled with conversations with unsure undergrads who needed nudging along their own paths.

Peter was also the one (mentioned in my blog introduction) who had owned The Boy Mechanic, a companion volume to The Boy Scientist and the subject of this blog as I work through its experiments. I have at least three Boy-Mechanic style books for our son James to dip into as he wishes.

On what would have been the second day of classes, James and I were sorting through the house together, meeting his aunt for lunch, and carrying out computer components, a refurbished bicycle, books, academic research, and baseball gloves.

On what would have been the third day of classes, we attended the funeral, met with a lawyer, and had a partially restorative lunch with our now tiny family circle.

So this week’s classes were the first week for me, but the second week for everyone else in the course. I tried to work on the first couple of homework assignments while I was in Ohio, but my body was fatigued and my mind wasn’t in the right place. But after I got back to Wisconsin it all started clicking. I made good comments in class, figured out how to distribute fractions through a term, and generally got my algebra on. By the end of the third class I was able to plot my parking-penalty costs as a function of the number of days I’d been on campus (and determined I was NOT smarter than the resulting linear function, even though I parked without incident on Wednesday). I truly felt that I was doing the right thing, in the right place at the right time.

My process is to get to campus as early as I can to secure appropriate parking, then relax near the Physics department until it’s time to head to class. After class, it’s back to the same spot to have some peanuts and tea (I will have to bring my own cans of Coke, as it’s a Pepsi-only campus) while I do my algebra homework. After that, I usually read a bit further in the Jagdish Mehra biography of Richard Feynman (The Beat of a Different Drum, 1994), and/or knit a square for a long-term geeky project I’ve been knitting on for more than a year now. (As of today, I have knitted exactly 60 percent of the necessary squares.) The knitting calms my mind if it’s agitated, and frees it to think. I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about knitting, but there turns out to be math in knitting and in crochet, as well as great overlaps in the Venn Circles of Girl Geekiness, so there.

I also have a little notebook that I’ve started, for recording questions I have about the universe, and brainstorming for possible hypotheses. It’s a long journey, and each step will be important. I want to remember all the things I thought, and guessed at, and wondered about. In my notebooks will eventually lie the points that form the line that shows me the way to my goal — but only if I write in them. I want to know how many times I wondered about gravity, or cosmology, or water flowing around a rock, or time travel.

Tomorrow I don’t have an algebra class but will attend the first weekly physics colloquium of the year. I think the topic will be astrophysics, and the plan is to listen carefully, take copious notes, and immerse myself in each subject until it starts to make sense. I can’t wait!

Flashback: My science toys, part two

In the summer of 1977 my family moved from the West side of Columbus, Ohio to rural Pickaway County. I definitely had to adjust — to crickets outside my window at night instead of car headlights that swooped around my room from north to south as cars passed our house, and to a school system where I was the new kid and almost everyone else had known each other since they were born — but on the whole it was a great adventure for me. We were way back off the county road, too far to see from the road in fact, and the previous owners had kept chickens, goats, and a cow and calf. The “back yard” was an overgrown goat pasture bordered by one strand of electrified fence, and we soon learned exotic words like bush-hog and roto-tiller.

In January 1978 I awoke from my top bunk (I was sharing a bedroom with my brother for the first time) to the Blizzard of 1978 howling overhead, and we soon learned how to thaw out a storm door and how to pole through a yard of snow for our undelivered newspapers with a broom handle; in spring we learned not to hang the sheets on the line on the same day the cattle-raising neighbor ran his manure spreader; by fall we had learned about zucchini. Lots of learning took place in this time.

I started acquiring “scientific” equipment around this time. I remember my grandmother as the provider of a table-mounted telescope and a microscope set, both from the Sears catalog; I built a balance scale from a kit that I bought from the toy department of J.C. Penney (back when they also used to have a candy counter at the bottom of the escalator); one memorable Christmas I got a deluxe chemistry set when my brother received only a basic one, about which he bitterly complained. I happily performed the experiments in the little booklet that came with the set, substituting instant iced tea powder for tannic acid and receiving lackluster results. (My brother performed only one experiment — the one which made rubber cement — and never cleaned out his test tube, but his loudly proclaimed dream was to mix all the chemicals together and see what happened. He always did think outside of the box; ask him how milkweed tastes, or how his homebrew mouthwash recipe worked out.)

I also added birds to my life list and checked them off in my Roger Tory Peterson field guide. Now I could add Turkey Vulture, Scarlet Tanager, American Goldfinch, Red-Winged Blackbird, and dozens of others, spending whole days wandering in the nearby wooded areas and listening to bird calls. I had a little collection of 99-cent Golden Field Guides I must have started accumulating while in Columbus, and kept them on a bookcase just outside my bedroom door.

Living in the country brought a long-wished-for dog (Toby came with the house), and over the years in the 4-H program (no Camp Fire Girls here, just 4-H and Girl Scouts) I entered projects on dogs, cats, birds, photography, and creative writing. In the yard I found and rescued voles stunned by the lawn mower, an Eastern box turtle, and a snapping turtle. I also had a cigar box filled with pinned butterflies and moths, and a row of former sweet-pickle jars containing creek water, carefully labeled with the date the sample had been taken. (What I was meant or had intended to analyze, I had no idea.) By age 12 I knew I wanted to be a research scientist in a lab somewhere, doing basic science. For what purpose I was not sure, but I saw myself in a lab, repeating experiments and recording data.

I started getting experience with recording data in early adolescence, when I encountered insomnia. I treated it with endless quiet rounds of Solitaire, patiently laid out on the wooden floor. I developed my own point system for the unplayed cards, and kept a running total in a small spiral notebook. I played mostly Klondike, but after consulting an aged copy of Hoyle I added Clock Solitaire and Golf variations to my repertoire. When I did get tired enough to try to sleep, my brain kept running film of endless Klondike sessions, or of red and black checkers being dropped by turns into a Connect Four frame.

In my spare time I started riding my father’s 1970 Concorde 10-speed into the ground. I taught myself to add and switch out components and how to change tires and tubes. Before I entered college I had ridden more than a thousand miles of the local county roads. (I was also taught how to use a manual transmission on the small tractor we owned, but the lessons didn’t really sink in for the long term.)