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.


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.

More results are in

The results of my Office Support Exam just arrived, and I managed to score above 90 percent in the Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced levels. This means I can be considered eligible to apply for the job I’m already planning to apply for. But since the job opening hasn’t been posted yet, I continue to wait and work and study. Thank you for your support.

Summer vacation, part 2 of 5

Part of my waiting is now over, and it was definitely not the hardest part of this semester. Grades were posted late last week, and I received an A in Astronomy and an A in Precalculus. A year ago I hadn’t even thought of returning to school, and now here I sit after 14 credit hours, maintaining a 4.0 grade point average in a physics program. Even better, the kids are still alive and well and the house hasn’t burned down since I started working on my new educational and career goals. Hooray!

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been holed up in the math building doing my self-paced study of calculus. As of this morning I’ve gotten to the Laws of Limits and the theorems about continuous functions.

I may need to start plugging away a bit harder, though, because my student job is morphing into a couple of different assignments that should keep me a lot busier as the summer passes. Also, in about two weeks the kidlets will be out of school and it won’t be practical for me to be away all day long as I have been. I’ll be working on campus in the mornings, being the mom/nanny in the afternoons, and possibly working from home in the evenings. And what a pleasure I’ll surely be to be around.

I’ve been making steady progress through No Ordinary Genius and loving every word of it. I might finish it just in time for that Green Lion Press edition of Euclid’s Elements to arrive (scheduled for tomorrow). Amazon describes it as a 576-page hardcover edition; when it does arrive I should put it on the scale.

Summer vacation, part 1 of 5

Last Saturday (i.e. two mornings ago) I took the Office Support exam proctored by the State of Wisconsin. As it might be 2-3 weeks before I find out my score on that exam, and I’m still waiting for the Registrar to post my final grades for the spring semester, I’m in an intellectual and career-path limbo for a while.

Thank goodness I have devised some geeky ways to fill my copious spare time.

First of all, I’m going to campus every day to start studying for the calculus class I plan/hope to be taking this fall. Whether or not I have a brand new job, I will be working quite a lot of hours in order to continue as a student, so any means of softening the target is a Good Thing. Tilting at this windmill daily instead of whenever I happen to feel like it might actually make some progress. (I can’t evaluate this properly today. My advocate/cheerleader/former math professor is nudging me to jump ahead in the calculus book, even while I’m scratching my head over the review problems that I know are supposed to be fat, easy pitches I ought to be able to smack out of the park. Unfortunately I left the bat at home and have only the Math Hammer with which I can reduce each problem to unsolvable fragments. I shall persist.)

Being on campus every day also makes for a Regular Schedule. Call it OCD, call it a drop of Asperger’s, whatever you like, but I function best in a regular environment. It calms me like a security blanket and reduces my blood pressure. If the “outside” is plain and dependable, I am somehow freed to develop wildly creative ideas on the inside. They may not always be right, but they are wildly creative.

Being on campus every day also allows for the possibility of getting in some extra hours at the student job. I dropped the ball on claiming work-days, partly because I didn’t understand how the scheduling would work and partly because I didn’t want to take hours away from anyone who really needed them, but I can now be an on-call substitute. Which is happening tomorrow, as a matter of fact, so Plan C (am I on Plan C?) is already working.

And being on campus every day is being on campus every day. I’m comfortable here and feel that I belong here. I can wander about from happy place to happy place when I’m in between sessions of beating my head against the Algebra Wall. I look like a grownup and I function as a student and it’s all good. There are computers free for the using, couches to sit and knit on, and all kinds of neat places to explore while the campus is nearly deserted.

Another way I’m hoping to fill my spare time is by reading some books I picked up after taking the Office Support exam. I got done so quickly that I had time to swing by Half Price Books and raid the math and physics section. I snagged four little gems for myself:

1. The Bones: A Handy, Where-to-find-it Pocket Reference Companion to Euclid’s Elements (Green Lion Press, 2002). It’s kind of like an index-with-illustration to the main text (which I just ordered from Amazon.com). For studying whenever I feel like doing some geometry.

2. Learn From the Masters (Mathematical Association of America, 1995). This book is a series of more scholarly papers arguing that the history of mathematics should play more of a role in the teaching of mathematics, a proposition with which I agree. I’ll probably expound more upon this book later.

3. No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman by Christopher Sykes (Norton, 1994). This was the real gem here…. it’s like a PBS Special companion volume, distilling interviews with Feynman, his colleagues, and his family members, and combining scrapbook type elements of photographs, notebook pages, and what-have-you. Every time I read anything about or by his sister Joan, I like her even more. It’s just lovely.

4. Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen. In a startling development, there were actually Doctor Who series paperbacks for sale! At most Half Price locations there are one or two employees who snap these up as soon as they come in, but there were about a dozen of these for actual sale to mere mortals at the undisclosed location. (The cashier confirmed that this circumstance was odd beyond belief.) Because I recognized so many titles, I couldn’t remember which ones I already had. So I purchased only #1.

[link error…. I guess I’ll have to scan the cover image in myself. Sorry.]

That’s most of my leisure reading; who knows what else I might pass before my eyes this summer. I did start to put together a spreadsheet for my various books related to time travel, and might solicit additional titles and authors to add to it. I don’t want to ask for donations because I really don’t have a place to put the books, but maybe someday I will.

As the votes are being tallied….

I’ve done everything I can for this semester, and it’s almost complete.

I earned a 96% in my Astronomy course, which allowed me to skip the final exam. (Thank goodness, because it was a comprehensive test that would have taken place just before my trigonometry final.)

I took my trig final yesterday afternoon and was as well prepared as I could be, and calm and confident. My test is still being graded, but the results for the exam and the semester should be up tomorrow.

Now it’s time to turn my attention to work. I have my student job to continue through the summer, and I’m hoping to land a regular-person campus job as well. To that end, this week I’m studying Office 2007 in preparation for the state-administered Office Support Professional exam that I’m taking this Saturday morning. If you score high enough, appropriate jobs that become open are pushed to you and you are automatically eligible and encouraged to apply. I took this exam last October, but only scored above 90 percent on the Basic section — and 88 percent on Intermediate and 85 percent on Advanced, if I recall correctly. The goal this time is to get over 90 percent on each section so I can be considered for the higher paying jobs. I’ve spent a lot of time using Excel, Word, and Outlook this semester, so I’m much more familiar with the current editions of the software. Today I dedicated the morning to studying 200 pages’ worth on functions in Word. Tomorrow: Excel.

Dancing with the stars

It’s been a good week for astronomy here in Lake Wobegon, my hometown….

First of all, I got a 96 on the first astronomy exam. Our professor was LIVID with the results from the first set of papers she graded: “One A, one B, one C, the rest F” out of 21 papers. Then she came over and told me under her breath, “You are not one of the ones I am worried about.” The next day we got our results, and some of us could finally breathe. Another student did get a 100, so it was possible. Goals, it’s good to have goals.

Second of all, we’re studying the electromagnetic spectrum now. On the one hand, I kind of feel sorry for the “student” who tried to explain (in an extra credit essay, no less!) how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of Earth using the angle to the Moon and the speed of light, and wonder how he’s (or “she’s,” don’t want to be sexist here) going to comprehend this new material. On the other hand, not my problem, and personally I find this stuff fascinating.

emission spectrum for silicon

It’s super extra fascinating for me because I have actually knitted a representation of an emission spectrum, in the form of a scarf I made for a friend last year. So as she’s explaining Balmer series of hydrogen, and how light of certain wavelengths is given off when electrons jump between energy levels around the nucleus, I’m having flashbulbs and fireworks going off in my head as I think, “I GET IT NOW!” I knitted an emission spectrum for carbon. In my head I could see the inverse, an absorption spectrum for carbon. Instead of being mostly black with the occasional thin stripe of color put in, it would be a long, long rainbow with the occasional thin stripe of black representing the wavelength at which the energy is absorbed. (Then I visualized a double-knitted version with an emission spectrum on one side and an absorption spectrum on the other. But let’s not go too crazy here.) So. I knitted it before I could understand what it meant, and now I really get it. Sometimes I wish I could knit as fast as my mind can think. Then I remember that sometimes my mind goes off in the wrong direction. That would be a lot of ripping out of stitches, and a lot of psychic pain. Not the best plan.

Thirdly, I corrected Copernicus. Let me explain. Last semester I found that I could put Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica on my Kindle. It was free, or 99 cents, or something ridiculous like that for a core text in the history of science and math, so I clicked and Made It So. This semester I’ve been accumulating other core scientific texts that are free or cheap, and I have a folder on my Kindle for them. This includes Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, or On the Motions of the Heavenly Bodies (since I’m reading a translation in English. I always thought I would take Latin in college, but I never did). It opens with a prose overview of the orbital motions, then launches into some geometric proofs about the various equivalencies to be found in the angles and chords of spherical triangles. Now, I haven’t done a geometric proof of anything since about 1982, and I KNOW we never dealt with volumetric solids or spheres, so I was pretty happy when Copernicus got done with that part and turned his attention to star coordinates, the ecliptic, and stuff like that which we’ve already covered in astronomy lab.

He was talking about being in a region where the stars never rose or set, but just circled in the sky. All right, fair enough, imagine standing at the North Pole and looking up. There you go, the stars rotate around the North Star but never rise or set. Done. Understood. Then he went on to state that, in this location, day would last for six months and night would last for six months.

Now, if you’ve been to Alaska, or watched a TV special about Alaska, or even watched Northern Exposure, you know that there are a couple of days in their year when the sun never really goes below the horizon enough to say that it “set.” It’s the “midnight sun.” Now, maybe people play baseball when this happens and maybe they don’t. I don’t have first-hand evidence for it. But that’s certainly a big difference from having day for SIX MONTHS and night for SIX MONTHS.

So I wondered, maybe the tilt of the earth’s axis makes a difference here. The earth isn’t straight up and down in space; its axis is tilted 23.5 degrees and wobbles as it rotates. I highlighted the text electronically, then showed it to my astronomy professor. And she said I was right!