This is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s beautiful book, Lab Girl, on the joy of discovery, its mysterious and magical wonder of both the smallness and the magnitude of a single scientific finding. Any PhD student, current or otherwise, can appreciate this experience.
When a lab experiment just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work–and, similarly there are some experiments that you just can’t screw up even if you try. The readout from the x-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction each time I replicated the measurement.
The long, low, broad swoop of ink was totally unlike the stiff, jerky spikes that my advisor and I thought we might see, and it clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. I stood and stared at the readout, knowing that there was no way I had–or anybody could have–possibly misinterpreted the result. It was opal and this was something I knew, something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was–in addition to being small and insufficient–special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.
…I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother–or because I felt like nobody’s daughter–or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.
I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.
…I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn.
…Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me.
Giza. Chichen Itza. Magelang. Three locations where ancient structures stand for thousands of years. The pyramids of Giza have existed for over 4000 years, built out of quarried stones, stacked and shaped into place. El Castillo, the largest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex in the Yucatan state of Mexico, is made out of rocks forming a 4-sided structure with stairs on each side. There are sculptures of serpents on the sides of the stairs on the northern side. Candi Borobudur, or the Borobudur Temple, in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, is an impressive structure of stone carvings of Buddha facing all corners of the earth. The walls are relief panels with carvings that narrate Buddhist cosmology as well as daily living in 9th century Javanese society.
Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, in Central Java, Indonesia
Each of these structures reflects the worldviews of the civilizations that created them. Both their function and aesthetics are filled with meaning, and somehow this deep meaning is communicated to anyone visiting its perimeters. When you come close to these structures, they generate a reaction in the soul.
Pyramid and sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Credit: Freeimages
In Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, reportedly one of the influential books that Elon Musk read when he first thought about building SpaceX, structural engineer J. E. Gordon reflects on structures and aesthetics in his first chapter:
“…although most artefacts are not primarily concerned with making an emotional or aesthetic effect, it is highly important to realize that there can be no such thing as an emotionally neutral statement. This is true whether the medium be speech or writing or painting or technological design. Whether we mean it or not, every single thing we design and make will have some kind of subjective impact, for good or bad, over and above its overtly rational purpose.”
Gordon contrasts the artefacts of the eighteenth century, which “seem to many of us to be at least pleasing and sometimes incomparably beautiful,” to the works of modern man—modern is a relative term–which is not so much filled with “active ugliness” as the “prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.”
“…man does not live by safety and efficiency alone, and we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place… Far too seldom is the heart rejoiced or does one feel any better or happier for looking at the works of modern man.”
On why these ancient structures last, I am toying with conjectures here. I’d defer to the civil engineers and architects to supply the scientific explanation.
Pyramids and temples were built by their creators to last. Whether it was a tribute to kings, ancestors, or gods, these structures reflected their beliefs about life and the afterlife. This to them was a perpetual reality that would never change. Why would it, if this was how the world worked? The bodies of past Pharaohs were not placed there temporarily, nor Buddhas arbitrarily placed in random directions. They were designed with intention of permanence.
If these structures were meant to last, they needed to be built in a certain way, much like the difference in attitude and approach when I know I’m making something for temporary use or for ever. Intent drives content, which in turn informs method.
The pyramid-like shape of these 3 structures to me seems very stable, although I would here open myself to counter examples that show other equally stable shapes. Admittedly, these 3 examples are simply based on my personal exposures, a lecture I heard recently on Egyptology, my recent visit to Chichen Itza, and my visit and pride in a notable accomplishment of my home country’s past civilizations.
Gordon also writes that pre-metallic structures of the past probably ‘force’ their engineers to think deeply about loads and stresses on the materials at their disposal:
“To make structures without the benefit of metals requires an instinct for the distribution and direction of stresses which is by no means always possessed by modern engineers; for the use of metals, which are so conveniently tough and uniform, has taken some of the intuition and also some of the thinking out of engineering.”
Certainly there were numerous ancient structures that didn’t last, whether to due structural or environmental causes. Earthquakes, floods, and everything that could happen over the span of 4000 years might destroy even the most superior knowledge of stress distribution on solids. This, though, only makes our respect and admiration grow for the few structures that have survived history and the “primitive technologies” that created them.
Of Matter and Structure
There is also, however, something to be said about the materials used in these trans-millennial structures. They were made out of stones, probably because stones were the most readily available materials with load-bearing strength before the discovery, manipulation, and production of metals. Is it also possible that this choice material contributes to their survival?
Since metallic structures are relatively younger, it is quite unfair to compare stony and metallic structures on equal grounds. We don’t know (or, rather, I don’t know) whether metals will outlast stones, as in, if two pyramids were built, one with stone and one with metals in the same location, which one would last longer? We only have one version of history, so all we can do is credit the ancient glories to the stone structures.
As building materials, stones have notable advantages. They are by nature durable, fireproof, and nonreactive. They are not the easiest to work with due to their weight and non-uniformity, and they don’t provide good insulation (not good for places with extremely hot or cold weather). But their resistance to fire and moisture is a clear strength, unlike wood that is in fact fuel for fire and prone to decay, or metals that bend and melt due to heat. Stones will not rust, since the molecules are mostly oxidized and thus will not react with air or water. Further, it can be restored. Many of the ancient stone structures were once lost and re-discovered after many years of abandonment. But careful restoration could bring their old glories back, provided that enterprising people didn’t chip them away, and moss could be removed from stones. Compare this with common houses in North America, which, HGTV tells me, can undergo so much decay and destruction from being abandoned for a few years.
The Character of Stones
In the Biblical account, there is a section that flies over human history by giving each era a certain character through material symbols. In the book of Daniel chapter 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he forgot, and decreed his counselors to reproduce the dream and interpretation. Failure to do so would result in death. Daniel, a Hebrew prophet in the king’s court prayed to God and was granted the vision and its explanation.
At the end of the vision was a part that was a bit strange and discontinuous. A stone “cut out without hands” appeared, stroke the feet of the statue, and crumbled the whole structure down. This stone represented the kingdom of God, hence the discontinuity from the materials in the statue–metals refined by human civilizations–was fitting here.
Yet the choice of a stone to represent the kingdom of God was rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? I would probably choose something majestic, like a big giant diamond to crush the entire human civilization. A plain old stone is neither flashy nor valuable.
Interestingly, however, the commentary continues to highlight that this last kingdom’s distinct characteristic was that it would last forever. Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The other kingdoms pass away, but this one stays.
Perhaps there is something here, given what we know about the material characteristics of rocks and stones. In other places, Biblical references to rocks mean stability, strength and assurance (e.g., building on the rock, rock of salvation, etc). God Himself is referred to as the Rock of Israel.
It is not uncommon for the Bible to illustrate the kingdom of God with unusual symbols; a seed, leaven, a net cast into the sea, and numerous other unexpected metaphors. They are often humble, simple, and commonplace. Yet each time, they reveal a secret strength that is not always intuitive to human thinking, like the seed that grows into a tree, where birds can lodge in its branches. The baffling-ness calls its audience to think of reality as God sees it, that not everything is valued according to the marketplace and human commerce.
In the choice of a stone in Daniel 2, its durability, strength, and stability certainly reflects a characteristic of God’s kingdom. That sameness yesterday, today, and tomorrow is a key aspect of the Biblical God. I don’t know whether the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” was thinking along this line, but that phrase is awfully and appropriately fitting.
Two new books are released today that celebrate women and science, two subjects that are great on their own, but super fascinating when combined. I’ve been really looking forward to these books! They follow in line with a rapid surge of science writings that have been adding to my library. See if you could share my excitement below.
Lab Girl intrigues me from the get-go. I always love stories of people in academia, those pursuing their passion and interests at full throttle, especially in the sciences. Women in academia is another fascinating layer. From my time in graduate school, I’ve come to see that the relationship between an academic and her subject of study is like a love story–a deep one. Jahren is a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii who studies the world of plants and, it seems, is completely in love with it. Sounds like a very promising read.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
Rise of the Rocket Girls strikes me, given my recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center and all nerdy things I’ve been consuming. Space travel alone–what humans achieve through ingenuity, science, engineering, and perseverance–is impressive enough. But few of these stories are told in the female perspective, hence the thrill of seeing this book. It’s so refreshing to learn about these women who were just as geeked about going out to space as the men, who were brilliant, and just as dedicated to the ones on the spotlight. History lovers would enjoy this book too.
The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space.
In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women–known as “human computers”–who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading.
In After Learning, I shared what I wish I had done as a student to grasp the subject of my courses better. Here, I’m sharing tips specifically on how to be an excellent student who is not just smarter, but wiser, knowing how to contextualize and apply the knowledge to real life situations.
These are not meant to replace the usual taking notes, completing assignments, and regular studying that are given activities of a student’s life. They are, instead, ways to get the most out of those other activities, be it lectures, assignments, office hours, etc. The goal is primarily to increase and deepen understanding of the subject, which secondarily, I would think, would reflect in the grades. These are also written in the context of a high school, college, or graduate course, but the principles are applicable to other learning contexts.
Before the Course
Study the syllabus. Your instructor has put together a plan on how she would guide you through a particular subject for the whole semester. This is done with no small effort. The syllabus is the highest level of perspective on everything you will learn. It tells you a lot about how the instructor thinks and what she deems as important. I used to not pay attention to this, to my own detriment, like the table of contents of a book. But in fact, this is a roadmap that, if followed, will guide your way throughout the semester. Study it; pose questions on why it is arranged this way. You can even ask the instructor the why and how she arranges her course during office hours. Let me tell you a secret: most instructors would be thrilled to be asked these questions by a genuine and true inquirer.
Studying the syllabus also helps you to know, before coming to lectures, what will be covered on a given day. This way, you won’t be a passive recipient of information, but an engaged, active listener. And an active listener will always absorb and retain more information.
Skim the textbook/reading materials. Spend a few minutes to an hour to skim the textbook and reading materials. The purpose of this is to get an initial impression on what you will learn. Read the first and last few paragraphs of each chapter to get a sense of its key ideas, flow, and arrangement of thoughts. When the course eventually gets to each section, your brain will have some memory and familiarity to the subject, and will absorb information better. Psychologically, you’ll be more at ease in facing a more familiar topic than a completely foreign one. If you’re majoring in something that requires loads of reading, skimming will help you retain more insights on the reading materials.
During the Course
Reflect each day. Ask yourself, what did I learn today? What happened in class? Sometimes we get too busy taking notes, running from one class to another, that we don’t get to absorb what is being taught. Take a few minutes to review the day. Remember, repetition deepens impression.
Each week, ask yourself, how does this week’s lessons connect with last week’s? Where are we now in the roadmap? How does it differ or enhance the previous topics? Refer back to the syllabus to see where you are in the context of the whole semester.
Converse with classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors about the subject. Ask questions that come up during your personal reflection time, listen to what they think, and synthesize your own conclusions. I may not remember what a lecture covers, but I can usually remember good conversations.
Go to office hours. Most instructors and TAs are just waiting for you to come and talk to them. They usually don’t see many students until an assignment is due or before exams. The truth is, they would love to have conversations with students from the beginning of the class. These are people who dedicate their lives to academia. Nothing gives them more joy and fulfillment than seeing students who love to learn. So talk to them. They’re humans, trust me. Ask them about their career, why they chose to be in academia. You may be in for surprises.
If you want to take it to the next level, create your own thought process map or chart in organizing the course materials. If you were to teach the course, how would you do it?
After the Course
Once the semester ends and final exams are over, don’t just discard the materials you’ve learned and dump all memory to oblivion. Spend some time contextualizing the course in the bigger framework of your life education.
What are the key principles you learned from the course?
Connect the subject with other courses or fields of study. How do they relate to each other? How do they make you a better doctor/engineer/social worker or whatever career you are pursuing? This exercise helps you understand what relevance does this subject have in the world. Write down your thoughts to summarize the course and the whole semester.
These things don’t have to take a lot of your time; a few minutes here and there will do. And you don’t even have to do all of them. You can start implementing one thing into your daily habits, and add on later. In fact, I would argue any one item would naturally lead to the others, since this is about approaching school as a wisdom seeker. When this self-evaluation becomes a habit, it will change the way you live and learn hereafter.
If you want to learn more on how to be an efficient learner, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It has a brilliant section on how to skim a book!
March 14 is a glorious convergence of nerdiness. It was the birth date of Albert Einstein—the greatest mind ever graced the Earth—and the date that resembles the mathematical constant pi, hence Pi Day. With the recent detection of gravitational waves, astronaut Scott Kelly’s safe return to earth after a year (or to be precise, 340 days) in space, and our recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, our household has been especially, giddily geeked out this year.
This is an 8-episode series of about 15 min each documenting the preparation, launch, and duration of Kelly’s mission at the International Space Station (ISS). It’s such a bold and difficult, understatedly, mission that humans undertake in the name of science. Incredible.
We spent 2 hours on Saturday night browsing the aisles of our local site of Half Price Books. If you haven’t been to one, check if one exists in your area. Some stores are better stocked than others, but the one near us is awesome. Since I’ve been wanting to study Physics again, this is a great place to find used books at low prices. The clearance section is also super; I got these books for $2 a piece.