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.

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.

Trials and error

I’m not really sure what week it is any more. The schedule has been rearranged so many times that it doesn’t matter. I keep revising my deadline dates in my planner, I tilt at the Windmill of the Evening until further effort is useless or needless, then I crawl off to sleep and take up a different lance the next day.

The pace of each course is fast, and I knew that going in. And each week, each professor reminds us as a class, “The pace of this course is fast, and there’s basically nothing we can do about it.” In physics, for example, the goal is to cover all of physics in one year. Then, as Professor Benjamin says, “You spend the next three years covering it all over again.” Keeping pace with it is similar to filing paperwork in a wind tunnel.

Kind of makes you wonder why that cat keeps jumping back on the treadmill, doesn’t it? Motivation towards a goal is often mysterious. It’s quite possible that even the cat doesn’t know for sure. (And if he does know, he’s certainly not going to tell us.)

I haven’t had much time for recreational reading (or recreational much-of-anything; sorry, knitting group!) lately, and to tell the truth I really should be reading physics or studying derivatives right now, but a few weeks ago I found a lovely little volume at Half Price Books called “Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings” (ed. by Thomas McFarlane, 2002) and I pick it up and read a couple of pages every once in a while. Today I read a pair of quotes that really resonated with me, perhaps because we’ve been discussing the concept of Error in physics lab.

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we make progress.
—Richard P. Feynman

In our world error is continually the handmaid and pathfinder of Truth; for error is really a half-truth that stumbles because of its limitations; often it is Truth that wears a disguise in order to arrive unobserved near to its goal.
—Sri Aurobindo

I have spent a lot of my life being afraid of Error, and trying not to bump into him in the hallway. I was afraid of what people would say if they saw us hanging out together; I had a reputation to think of! Conversely, I have made a living by finding Error where no one else could. Without him, I had no other marketable skills. Perhaps it is time for Error and I to rethink our relationship to be, shall we say, less confrontational. Maybe we can find a way to work together.

“Umm… Houston…..”


Week 2ish

A wave of lecture-crushing illness brings me this unexpected block of time in which to write about the second week of classes. (Translation: My physics professor is sick and so far this week has had to cancel two lectures and this morning’s lab, so I don’t have much “third week” stuff about which to write.)

I’m running with the pack on calculus, and got an 18 of 18 on the first quiz. The second quiz is tomorrow afternoon, and since today’s class will pretty much be a review session for the quiz, I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m also current on the online homework, and since you get several chances (in many cases) to work each problem, I still have 100 percent on the homework assignments despite a couple of “how the BLANK do you DO this?” moments. I’m getting solid help from online and In-Real-Life friends who want me to do well.

Physics-wise I’m keeping up, but I really need to push myself to keep working on sample problems every day. I can’t trust my memory to remember anything for me — I have to KNOW it, and deeply, before I can access the information. That makes it tricky to acquire new information that’s difficult to understand…. but the “story problems” themselves help make the text something you can apply to real life. Remember how we all hated the story problems in the math book in junior high school? How upset we were when math stopped being a set of written problems and tried to come out into the world and be relevant and useful? Maybe my particular class missed that because of our particular teacher. He wasn’t exactly a cheerleader for applied math…. mostly I remember he was allergic to chalk.

Mr. Miller’s nightmare. Imagine if he could have used a whiteboard!

Astronomy update: my “free times” didn’t work out with the student who needed a tutor, so he’s been hooked up with someone else. But really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

In other news, the temperature wavered a bit, then finally dropped into the 30s at night. Wisconsin has crossed over into “WINTER IS COMING” even though it’s technically still summer. Tonight will be the night we all change back to the flannel sheets. I’ll probably warm them up in the dryer before I put them on the beds (I cannot tell you how much the kids are looking forward to this). And as soon as I’m done with this post, I will be knitting myself a pair of purple mittens.

That was the week that was

Wow, I packed a lot into one week. In that time I have done four online calculus assignments and one written assignment, and will have a short quiz this afternoon; learned how to compose (and break down, or “de-compose,” I suppose) vectors on paper and with Actual Lab Equipment; and finished the Uncertainty book.

It’s not rocket science. Yet.

In the student job I’ve learned some new procedures for handling the paperwork that we do every day. And at some point in the future, those procedures will change again; and at another point in the future we’ll be moving everything to our new location and hoping everything gets set up properly so we can keep those papers moving.

I was also asked by last semester’s Astronomy professor to be a tutor to one of her students this semester. I think I may have a couple of free hours per week here or there (the current hour being one of them), but I’ll have to see if that aligns with the hours the student is available.

The schedule this semester is definitely heavier, and the content is definitely more challenging, but I do keep telling people, “It’s Week Two and I still want to be a physics major.” Yes, it is challenging material, but it’s very interesting and it inspires me to work hard.

I met the other second-degree Physics major (hi, Nate!)… turns out I’ve been sitting next to him in Introductory Physics. We are two of a kind on the university printout of demographics by degree. We both have the feeling that we have one shot at this and we just need to do our best.

And one funny thing….yesterday I got a call from the Beloit Department of Corrections regarding an open position as a Parole and Probation Officer. It took me half a minute to realize this call came as a result of my scores on the Office Support Test I took in late spring. (I called them back and declined as politely as I could.)

It’s time to do some homework and study up for that calculus quiz. Onward and upward!