I was having a lovely time writing out “flash cards” for Astronomy class this weekend. They’re not really flash cards in the traditional sense, like the math-fact cards you can buy at the store. I have a pack of 5×8 index cards and I’m setting up one card for each notable person I run across. The earliest name is that of Thales of Miletus (640-546 BC), and the most recent is Milutin Milankovitch, the Yugoslavian meteorologist who proposed in the 1920s that the Earth’s precession was partially responsible for large-scale changes in Earth’s climate, including the Ice Ages. I’m ordering them chronologically so I can sort of trace the evolution and development of knowledge as each philosopher, astronomer, or mathematician comes into being.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Anyway, I was cruising right along until I got to Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). And suddenly there was so much to know that I had to put down my ball-point pen and read that section of my textbook. And pull out Cosmos and read that section. And log on to and one-click order De Revolutionibus for my Kindle.

Then I was brought to tears reading about the end of his life. For all of Copernicus’s life he was associated with powerful religious figures within the Catholic Church, including his uncle (a Bishop), who raised him after his father died when he was 12 years old. Although he was trained as a cleric, he never took religious vows, and served as personal physician to his uncle for many years. Nevertheless, he studied astronomy in addition to his primary work, and developed a celestial plan that put the Sun in the center of the solar system and attributed motion to the Earth. It solved a lot of problems that were plaguing the current Aristotelian view, but it also presented a viewpoint that ran counter to Church teachings and made it possible that he would be charged with heresy.

So he did not publish what he had discovered. But his friends read his manuscript and quoted him, and circulated copies, and talked him up, and urged him to publish what he had. Finally he compiled his manuscript and sent it to be printed — in the fall of 1542. Soon afterwards, he developed an infection in one leg, and then suffered a series of strokes that left him bedridden. He lay dying at home in the spring of 1543, and his great work was on the verge of publication without his having a chance to see it. And at the last second, the publisher sent out an advance copy of his manuscript for him to view. After which, he died.

(For anyone to make this much of an effort on a dying author’s behalf shows that everyone knew the enormous value of this work. And for less than $10, it’s now on my Kindle in the same folder as a $4 electronic edition of Principia Mathematica. I also ordered Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler.)

Copernicus is a lively author and I’m enjoying his work. It’s wonderful to be able to access the core works of knowledge of our planet on a thin tablet that looks just like a prop from “Star Trek: Voyager.” And it’s good to read firsthand (well, secondhand, actually, as I’m not reading the work in Latin) that important writing is not necessarily dry.

difference quotient

This week in my academic and scientific life I started feeling my feet under me again. We finished the linear algebra review chapter for precalculus and started working on different kinds of functions, and the book changes its tone from “brusque review” to “leisured explanation.” With a couple of the kids sick with a quick-and-nasty stomach virus, and myself a bit under the weather on Friday night and Saturday morning, I was able to sit in bed and just read several sections in the math textbook and start understanding where we were going to go this week. What I’ve been doing — all last semester and this semester up until now — was just listening and taking notes in class, then diving into the homework and looking back in the text whenever I couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem. Now I’m trying to read ahead and actually study the text before the professor gets there so it will be more familiar and I can get my insights sooner. I’m also going to try to solve more of the textbook’s problems than only what I’ve been assigned. More practice is better. So even though i finished my Monday homework on Friday afternoon right after class, I’m hoping to set aside some time this evening to work through every book-problem that I can.

In Astronomy I had my first lab session on Thursday, and we worked in teams with a star chart and a celestial sphere. It was fun and although I really preferred to read my data from the printed star chart, I eventually got the hang of working with the celestial sphere. I still need to color-code my star chart as directed to be ready for the next lab session — twist my arm to have to color-code something. We had a short quiz on Thursday during the class session, and I think I answered almost everything correctly.

I worked myself into a new campus job on Tuesday morning, and started work there on Wednesday. Instead of photocopying syllabi for the professors in Languages and Literatures, I’m working in the office of the Assistant Dean of Letters and Science to process adds and drops, and to help ensure that graduating students have in fact completed all their necessary requirements. I’m working with spreadsheets (hello again, Excel), trotting Campus Mail back and forth across campus, and hanging out with a very sophisticated and friendly group of people. I’m also making more money by the hour and getting all the hours I need to be able to pay for this semester’s 10 hours of coursework. I also put my name forth at the Math Department to be considered for a little extra work such as exam proctoring and tutoring, just in case.

It’s work — but it’s wonderful. I feel as if I’m back home again.


Just like starting over

It’s the end of the first week of my second semester back to school, and it’s been rugged. I woke up on my first day of school with my head completely congested. Welcome back, my nemesis, acute rhinusitis. I spent the first three days of school and work in a chemical fog of DayQuil and leftover NyQuil, then went drug-free on Friday and was in a fog anyway.

Tuesday (the first day) and Friday brought snowstorms, and with them came memories of the car accident Peter and I were in 15 years ago, in which we were hit by a skidding pickup truck, and also in which he broke both his legs. This time I was doing the sliding (and in his father’s car no less), and despite the fact that I didn’t hit anything or anybody or even leave the road, that made for some high-anxiety driving I couldn’t avoid.

So. Precalculus is still in review mode and shall be until about the end of next week, and there should be an exam after we’re done with the first two chapters. My study partner Michelle from last semester is the only person in class I already know, but there’s at least one other returning adult we haven’t introduced ourselves to yet. He was complaining about not remembering certain formulas after only 18 years out of high school. (Kids these days. Sheesh.) This textbook does contain some review material that’s new to me, so I’m already having to concentrate. We’ll get our first homework assignments back on Monday, and that’s when I’ll start having feedback. So far Melissa and I are catching each other’s silly mistakes and it seems to be okay. We’re getting more practice at solving quadratic equations by completing the square.

Astronomy is starting off gently, but I got behind schedule on installing some software that I’ll need… apparently there’s a Word file somewhere to download too, which contains homework assignments. I thought it was on the site where the software was, but perhaps it’s actually on the computers at the campus lab. Thursday we got a handout to complete; it is elementary but I still couldn’t wrap my head around things to finish it in class, so I brought it home. Next week will be the first week we go to our lab time, on Thursday morning for me.

And work was…work. I feel like a student worker again just as I was in Bachelor Hall at Miami in the summer of 1988, and I forget that I don’t look like a student worker any more. I introduced myself to the faculty members and they asked, “And what do you teach?” It was an awkward reminder that if I had finished graduate school I could be, and probably should be, teaching something somewhere right now. It was also an awkward reminder that at one point I was a professor’s wife, and ready and willing to chitchat with these kinds of people. But now I’m just a really odd physics student, who’s oddly comfortable with scurrying into the Department Chair’s office to see if she can figure out how to add a sig file to an email in Microsoft Outlook.

This week’s curveball was the revelation that I probably wouldn’t get anywhere near the number of work hours I was counting on to get. I was figuring that 15-20 hours a week would be almost enough to pay for this semester’s courses — only to find my supervisor was thinking of something more along the lines of, say 6 hours per week. Which, if you’re a panicking type, would send you into an I-can’t-afford-this, I-have-to-drop-out-immediately, why-did-you-bother-hiring-me-in-the-first-place tailspin. Being a procrastinator who hopes for the best despite all evidence to the contrary, I took about 24 hours to process it and decided to just do my schoolwork and ask around for other campus jobs in hopes that my karma points have gotten high enough to redeem for some awesome prizes. I should also start hanging out at the Financial Aid office and clarify what I am and am not eligible for as a Special Snowflake Student, and make sure I didn’t miss any deadlines for filing any whatevers.

Other people have it harder in terms of health and work. I’m just taking an odd path. I’ll figure something out.