Welcome to The Mom Scientist. Here are some things you might have missed since my last post.

In the last almost-a-year, I left school, got completely divorced, and got a part-time job at…school. The classification of my particular job requires that I NOT take classes while I work, so while I was looking for work, starting work, and doing work, the “I for Incomplete” on my transcript converted itself into an F for Calculus I.

I’m okay with that. When I have time, if I have time, and when I’m working a different job classification at some point in the future, I can take calculus again and let the new grade overwrite the old grade. Or, I could…not. It is just not the biggest concern in my life right now. At any rate, actually learning calculus would be more valuable to me than any grade I would earn in a class.


I have put off writing this post because I was really hoping that things would have turned out differently, and I could happily and triumphantly report that not only had I passed calculus, I had aced the final, gotten the best grade in the class, and received extra credit for pointing out some glaring flaws in the Principia Mathematica. Alas, that was not the way things went.

But the way things went tonight was pretty cool. My youngest boy had his first sleepover tonight, but I had all the rest of the kids at home. And I was in a good place to tackle the cleaning, reorganization, and redecorating of the kitchen. So I was moving furniture around, throwing out stale snacks, and looking up microwave carts online when I noticed that the background noise had become almost conspiratorial.

“Do you know where the vinegar is?”
“Yeah, there’s a whole GALLON of it here!”
“I’ll get the boxes of baking soda.”
“MOM! Do we have any food coloring?”

I had stockpiled the household chemicals for a big foamy blowout over the summer, and we’d not gotten around to it. Until tonight, apparently.

First, they dragged the recycling bin into the driveway, poured in six packs of Mentos, and shook up a 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke and added that, too. The resulting mix didn’t do much except run through the bin’s drainage holes and start flowing toward the foot of the driveway, but they were excited about it and followed it for a while.


Next they got a large plate and apparently covered it with baking soda. I think they moved their venue to the bathtub before pouring vinegar on the plate. (They never did find the food coloring, thank goodness.) They also combined vinegar and baking soda in the bathroom sink, which may have loosened up the crusted-on toothpaste. They used the whole gallon of vinegar and all four boxes of baking soda; I could HEAR the reaction two rooms away.

They also did something with cornstarch that used all my cornstarch. After that, I offered up my container of stale instant tapioca. That’s probably what clogged the tub drain.

I’m not upset about the tub drain at all (even though the trap is probably filled with pudding). They had a blast, nothing was truly harmed, and we’ll probably learn something about chemistry while we think of ways to get the drain unclogged.


I kept thinking about an anecdote I had read in at least one book about the scientists who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. They used to say that there were two types of scientists — those who got chemistry sets as kids, and those who took apart radios. And I remembered a story about one young scientist whose mother calmly took the flaming trash can outside and set it in the snow. Science was important then, and having a scientific kid meant that the next generation’s lot would probably be better. You gain nothing by saying No, Stop that, and What did I tell you? except the deaths of curiosity and imagination.


Most of the time, my kids want to watch videos and play video games. When they’re feeling creative, they design video games, write stories, and draw comic books. But on those special nights when the stars line up just right, they want to make stuff explode, and I’m going to be the one who lets them.


I just went on a little spending spree on Amazon.com, mostly for the math and physics shelves of my personal library. It’s a library that needs more shelves; yet, my ten-year-old daughter has already volunteered to catalog it. I am not quite sure she understands what this will mean, but I’m all for it. It’s a big project that will require steady and thoughtful work over a sustained period of time, and it will be good for both of us.

A Quilted. Card. Catalog. I’m not worthy!

My late former husband left behind a computer that will make a perfect “card catalog” — it’s a 2006-era iMac with a hemispheric base. I didn’t even know he had owned one until I was helping to pack up his house after he died. I saw it and was instantly charmed. I have it in storage in another state, so I won’t even be able to pick it up, plug it in, and install any software until the summer. By then, there will probably be several more books to catalog.

It just looks like a kiosk, doesn't it?

It just looks like a kiosk, doesn’t it?

I just ordered five geeky books from Amazon, after I made the remarkable discovery that some people are willing to sell a used copy for one penny that goes for more than $100 new. Try it — search Amazon for textbook, and sort from low to high. Check it out. Amazing, isn’t it? How bankrupt could you be if you didn’t know how to filter?

So I bought…..
• Volume 2 of the study guide for Physics for Scientists and Engineers (Serway et al., 2000) for $0.01 used [as much as $97.60 new]
• Vector Calculus (Marsden, 1976) for $0.01 used [could have paid as much as $106, and the study guide is even more expensive!]
• Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments (Martin Gardner, 1986) for $0.80 used [could have paid, but didn’t, $87]
• and I purchased my personal Holy Grail, Volume 2 of a mid-60s edition of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, for just $16.96 including shipping. Considering I bought Volume 1 for 50 cents from the local thrift store (I am CONVINCED someone is stacking that particular deck) and Volume 3 for a song from Half Price Books Online, I firmly believe I have finally gotten the deal of the century on a matching-enough-for-me three-volume set. [Don’t even guess how much this would go for if “new”.]

I said I bought five items. I did.
On the recommendation of a friend, I also purchased “Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer” for less than $10 including shipping. I trust him, so I’ll check it out.

All items are arriving at random before January 23.

As I think I’ve previously stated, I will need more shelving. And soon.

Trouble with the curve

Sometimes, when a curveball comes at you hard enough, all you can do is duck, dust yourself off, and try again the best you can.

Due to pressing circumstances in the non-scientific and mathematical portion of my life, I have altered my course once again. I have been away from school for three weeks taking care of other business, and my new course entails finding a full-time job, developing extraordinary gifts at managing a household budget, and taking an incomplete in Calculus I until I am able to finish it over the course of next semester. Physics 190 I think I can finish.

It’s all good now… and if it doesn’t look good yet, just give it (and me) a little time. It’s going to be all right. And even if I never get back to school to finish the degree I started, I may possibly have enough math and physics texts to last me the rest of my life (even if I live as long as I want to, which will take a while). I also have enough supportive friends to see me through to the end of my days. (And enough knitting projects, but I said at the inception of this blog that I wasn’t going to talk about knitting here.)

I’m still resolved to go forward. Maybe I’ll have time for those Boy-Scientist experiments now. My kids all demonstrate scientific curiosity, and they need mentoring. (There’s an honest to goodness SCIENCE FAIR coming up in two months and it’s time for Jack to pick a project.) There is still plenty to do.

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

The oddest thing happened in calculus class yesterday… we started covering some territory that was actually familiar from my first time in calculus class, Lo Those Many Years Ago [fall of 1985]. Summations.

Summation notation (one stop down from Conjunction Junction).

It’s like a combination of shorthand and a secret code. You get the initial number, the final number, and the function you perform on each number in the series. Then you add them up. You can look at the notes I took in class and see right when I perked up. Two pages of notes on L’Hôpital’s Rule? I did more erasing and rewriting than writing because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. (It starts to remind me of the joke that Lawrence Block told about the writer who took a bunch of LSD and was inspired to write a brilliant novel; when he woke the next morning he found that he’d written it all on the same line on the piece of paper.) Then, Section 5.1: Integrals, and bam! Clear notes, precise diagrams, lucid commentary. You can tell by my writing that I was getting what was going on.

The class feels split into two camps; the first, the high school super-geniuses who already know all this material and show up whenever they feel like it. A couple of days ago one student spent the whole lecture with her laptop open and playing Bubble Blast. AND she had the correct response every time the professor asked for feedback. (Today she used her laptop to do her online homework in class.) But to their credit, most of the HSSGes are friendly and willing to explain concepts and share their notes with the second camp — the strugglers. We’re trying, we’re showing up every day, we’re going to study sessions, we’re calling each other for help. Some of us get sick a lot. One of us (not I!) is dropping out of college altogether. Some of us will make it and some of us won’t. Our motto is, “I’ll try to do better on the next section.”

Anyway, summations were something I did before. Yesterday I was walking with my professor after class and told her, “I remember doing trig, exponential growth, summations, and integrals. But I don’t think I ever saw a derivative back then.”

“That’s weird,” she said.

On the other hand, since I sold back that textbook and my notebooks from Math 151 seem lost to time, it could also be a faulty memory. I don’t know why I wouldn’t remember doing derivatives, but it’s highly probably that was what I was supposed to be learning while I was personally going backwards in the book trying to understand the concepts of e and i.

Anyway, I have a bunch of homework to start on tonight, and a quiz tomorrow on antiderivatives. I have to be careful on the homework; on Sunday night I spent about 20 minutes on a single problem in the homework set, only to discover too late that I had written down “3 + x” as the denominator instead of “2 + x”. For what it’s worth, I suspect the answer to my own problem was correct, but the online grader is unforgiving.

I am not alone!

I need to get good…. the next exam is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and I need to do very well. It’s time to register for next semester, and all I’m planning to take is Calculus II.

Slow and steady

Just keep crawling.

…wins the race. Or keeps a woman sane. (Or tries to help in that process. Goodness knows there are other factors involved.)

My course has altered. After I finish this post I will go over to the Physics Department and drop off a Late Drop form for the department chairman to sign so that I can officially drop Physics 180. The workload of learning physics and calculus simultaneously is just too much right now, and attempting it has taught me a lot about how far I can safely stretch myself before hearing the first signs of incipient materials failure. I will now have several more hours a week in which I can focus on doing much better at calculus. While that might be too late for yesterday’s calculus exam, it should pay off in the long run.

My goal, however, is the same — to get a degree in physics. I have changed the pace so that the goal (while still difficult) is more manageable. I’m no longer running headlong; I’m walking. But I’m still beating everyone who’s sitting on the couch.

I might also now have time to do the things that settle, calm, restore, and inspire me. Such as reading, knitting, talking to people, or spending time with my family.

In the middle

Right now I’m in the middle of things in almost every sense of the word. (Well, probably every sense of the word, but I didn’t want to limit myself. Let’s leave room over there for future expansion.)

I should really walk to the stairwell and take my own pictures.

At work we’re in the middle of a move to our new building, Laurentide Hall. Departments are moving in a floor at a time, so as we’re putting the more-final touches on our space in the College of Letters and Sciences Dean’s Suite, Languages & Literatures will be moving in to the floor below us. And as they move, Mathematics & Computer Sciences is packing to be ready to move in two weeks’ time. People are griping, worrying, giving away books (!), looking forward, and leaving old things behind. There is much psychic disturbance in the air, and I’m sensitive to it to a fairly high degree.

I sense tension, Captain.

In calculus we’re in the middle of the course….the second exam will be on Monday covering the rest of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4. I seem to be keeping up with the pack, so although I do need to do some studying, I don’t feel I need to panic at the thought of a test.

In physics we got the results back from our first exam… and my score was the median (I got 60 percent; low was 20 percent and the high was 88 percent). That’s not bad for my first physics exam in my first physics class! I am weak in some areas but doing my best and getting help. Anyway — right in the middle again. If I work hard and stay strong and shore up my vector-component calculation skills I can still finish with a strong B, which is my target.

It feels like the middle of fall. The rainy season has started, the leaves have turned, and the rain is pushing them from the trees. We haven’t had “Indian Summer” yet or the Cold Snap of Doom….all that has yet to come.

Not my barn, but close enough.

I’m feeling more enmeshed at school, too. I’m not sure if that’s due to the student job putting me in the middle of the action, or my classes finally putting me in with other physics majors and math aficionados, but I feel more involved and connected to things.

Ironically, it’s right now that I’m realizing that unless I suddenly receive a winning lottery ticket in the mail, I will most likely have to take a “study break” and make some money for a while and come back to school later. I just won’t be able to pay off this semester in time to register for the next one. I might be able to swing a late add of Calc II in the spring so that I stay enrolled and could keep my student job, with more hours. Or I might have to get a regular job and see how that goes. I’m not sure. I’m kind of in the middle of mulling it over. I want to maintain my sanity and my grades as well as my forward progress.

Aaron’s honest question

Today, in a little time-gap between a three-hour physics lab and the one-hour physics lecture, I was sitting with my lab partner, Aaron, and we were fussing over our calculations for kinetic energy for our lab report.

Well, I thought I was merely fussing. But then Aaron looked me in the eye and asked, “Why do you do physics? You don’t seem to like it very much.”

I was startled. Well, of course I like physics! I thought. (But do I? After all, we only met last month. How well do I really know physics?)

My first answer was that, well, I was having a hard time with it. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I was racing to keep up, this was new to me. But then I realized I was covering for physics. I didn’t want to blame physics.

Yes, this is all new to me. I didn’t take physics in high school, so the last time I had a physical science course (besides a high school chemistry class that reflected the eternal teachings of Rutherford rather than anything learned since 1920, but I digress) was in 8th grade, in 1980 or thereabouts. And a couple of geology classes at Miami in the later 80s. I’m a fan and all, but as far as Actual Education™ goes, this is the first step onto a long path.

Yes, I’m tired. I am old and my brain is fuzzy and I have four kids and a lot of other crap to do besides be in school.

But…that isn’t an answer to an honest question. Once I had time to think about it, my better answer is, or should be, “I do like physics. What I don’t like is feeling confused, feeling left behind when others understand. I don’t like NOT being smart at something. Right now I don’t feel very smart, and it makes me uncomfortable.”

It’s mostly math and chemistry in her world, but yes, it’s confusing!

I’m looking forward to the breakthrough moment when I finally feel able to take on these problems without having my hand held. I sincerely hope that moment comes soon. I have four online homework sets, six written problems, and a lab report due before the first physics exam on Monday afternoon. (That’s just physics; I have a calculus quiz tomorrow and two homework sets for that due over the weekend. But that’s not important right now.) The ground has been broken for the construction of the Horribly Difficult First Physics Exam since, literally, the first day of class. We all understand that the class average will likely be 60 percent. We know it will be challenging, and we may have to make a hard decision about whether to swing away and hope to jack one out of the park, to trade points for hints, or just try to grind out a high-enough pile of partial credit to make it worth our while.

We know, we know, we know. We can’t wait for it to be over, yet we need another couple of months to get ourselves ready. We’re just dreading the Sorting.

When I was little (as in single-digits little), I dreaded meeting new adults because they would always want to know what I wanted to be when I grew up. (I didn’t know yet that they didn’t know anything else to ask a child.) I soon found out that my honest answers (a professional baseball player!) were unacceptable, and from then on all I wanted to have was a safe answer, something I could say to make them smile and move along. A teacher. A vet. Whatever, please leave me alone.

Fast-forward to college, when I was a Creative Writing major. I already knew I didn’t want to teach or work for a newspaper. That’s why I wasn’t in Education or Journalism. So, what are you going to do with that degree? I didn’t have a good answer until I got engaged. What are you doing to do with that degree? Well, my boyfriend is a Decision Sciences major. Oh, well, that’s OK then.

WRONG lesson learned. That was when I should have made a plan of action, learned to rely on myself and figure out my plan for supporting myself with my word skills. I didn’t need to get engaged in order to duck the question of what I wanted to do with my life. I needed to answer the question.

I’m planning to be a technical editor who understands the subject matter, the unusual woman who is an obvious choice to edit Physics Journal or Materials Evaluation or Quality or Scientific American. I can already edit blind; I want to learn to edit with my eyes open and my brain fully engaged, to be able to help chart the editorial course of a journal because I know what’s going on.

That’s why I’m taking physics and calculus, and that’s why I’m going to succeed. And I’ll start by giving Aaron an honest answer.