Spock Made Me a Scientist: Rest in Space

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It is a weird aspect of our society that we often feel more grief over the death of a public figure than someone close to us –  a distant uncle or a colleague at work may not invoke the same sadness as the loss of someone we only know from television, like Mork or a President.

Don’t feel bad.

We humans are able to idealize those public figures, without seeing the bumps and blemishes. We develop a bond, learn from them, and became attached, without the risks of a real-life relationship, where the hurt comes with the love. Life is complex and often makes no sense. The people that come to us over the radio waves, the internets, books and magazines, and the omnipresent media are only one facet of a complex gem. They have a script and a vision, which are comforting. We don’t.

Spock died.

And with him a piece of my childhood died. I am mourning the death of Leonard Nimoy, of course.  But more realistically, I am grasping the realization that the character he portrayed and the ideals it represented will never confront me again. And that’s devastating.

I saw my first Star Trek episode long after it had gone off the air – and I am old to many. I was at my cousin’s house watching television back when there were four channels, and this strange show with characters with funny outfits were on the flickering screen.  I asked my cousin what it was – he said, ‘Watch it.  I bet you’ll like it.”

And I did. Especially the dude with the blue shirt, pointy ears, and crazy eyebrows. He was able to communicate with a silicon-based life form that could melt rock in its subterranean tunnels, just trying to be understood.

Epiphany.

One alien was talking to another alien to tell us humans that they were just misunderstood. This was at a time where I felt like an alien in my own skin, and it occurred to me at that moment that everyone was traveling through space, trying to discover new worlds, and that it wasn’t frightening or horrible, it was exciting and challenging.

I learned about science. The final frontier. We are lost and looking.  All of us.  Earthlings or otherwise.

And for that, I hope that you Rest in Space, Mr. Spock.

Loving on My Space Pen

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I was in my office the other day chatting with my bearded, analytical chemist friend.

I told him that I had found the BEST THING EVER.

My space pen.

I remember seeing these things advertised in comic books when I was a wee nerd.  And now that I am a grown nerd, I bought one.

Space pen, where were you my whole life? Your ink is so rich, and you write so well. Even when I am upside down, hanging from my inversion table. I may never make it to space, but you make me feel like an astronaut.

My friend smiled and showed me what was in his hand.

His space pen!

Nerds unite.

Tell congress to fund innovation like this.  It is what makes American nerds the best.

Don’t Panic Science People

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Research makes the world go around, just like the wheels on the bus.

Without investment in research, then innovation screeches to a halt.

Yes, research and development are going on in the private sector, but it is the will of society, via their governments, where the big biceps and heavy lifting occurs. Open research, dialog, and ultimately the discoveries that move us forward typically derive from the public and private universities and government research agencies.

Think the benefits of sending a man to the moon. I love my space pen.  Enough said.

Here’s a disturbing trend.

US federal investment in research has flattened since the great recession. Other countries are investing like crazy in research. What will this mean for the US in the future?

Blech.

Why should we not panic? Because the US is still a democracy and we have the power to convince our lawmakers to reverse the trend.

Write letters to your representatives.  Vote. And make sure to let your kids know that the future relies on our collective investment in science and technology.

Get them to a SCIENCE FAIR.  Stat.

Depression on Campus – A Matter of Life or Death

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I like to keep things light, but that’s hard to do during these dreary, light-deprived days of January. Thoughts of this lead me to a serious topic facing many of our students at universities.

Depression.

I read a recent article about a college student with a loving family and friends, a bright future, and no apparent reason to be sad.

She jumped off the roof of a parking garage with no warning and died instantly.

Why would someone do this, you might ask? Depression is a sinister, dark, and difficult disease. And it does not need to have a reason to manifest. It is not the victim’s fault, even though most of the afflicted would tell you that they feel like they are to blame. Some of the worst sufferers do a great job of masking the symptoms, seeming okay to those around them. Many times, their loved ones respond in astonishment when they learn of the ailment, hopefully before it is too late. Even when the dark beast is discovered, it is difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to pull it out of their child, sibling, or friend, no matter what they do. Luckily, treatment options are increasing, and that is a very hopeful thing.

The specter of depression is particularly problematic in a college setting. At home, students are around people that know them well and who may recognize changes in behavior or at least be open to the warning signs. In college, students find themselves surrounded by strangers, in a new environment, often away from home for the first time. You may feel dead inside, but who’s going to notice? And honestly, when you can’t muster enough energy to care about yourself, it is nearly impossible to believe that any of those new people care about you.

I can assure the students and their parents that colleges do care; we are vigilent but have so much more to do.

Back to this difficult topic.

For many new students, it is nearly impossible to tease apart clinical depression and the lost familiarity of home, the stress of a new environment, and the homesickness that so many experience.

I know because I experienced this when I was a new college student so very long ago. And this was before most universities had support networks, clinical psychologists, trained residents, and effective anti-depressants. While everyone around me seemed to be having a blast drinking beer, staying up all night, listening to new wave, and cramming for tests, all I wanted to do was shrink away and hide in my bed at home, which was over two hours away. Calls to my parents resulted in some sympathy, but mostly I was told to stick it out and things would get better.

Dropping out or transferring was not an option.

Lucky for me, things did get better, although I recall my college years as being less than happy. I struggled constantly with the deadness inside, while I felt compelled to shine externally. For all purposes, I think I was liked and appreciated. But, in the end, I feel more sadness and regret than fondness and appreciation for those four years.

I was a mess.

My advice to those who suffered my plight?  Get help, even if that empty thing that is eating your soul tells you that there is no point. Talking to a professional, your family, and trusted friends will not make you a pariah. Society has moved forward and understands. If your new surroundings and the stress of college are making you feel worse, then, by all means, get out, take some time off, and find something that renews your soul. I know this is not easy, particularly because that transitional age from adolescence to adulthood is confusing, scary, and often very lonely. It is a time of loss for most everyone and requires time to heal.

My suggestion to parents sending their kids to college is to pay attention and listen. Giving advice to your kids is great, but you just might not be able to get in through all the black cotton and emptiness lurking in them. If you sense anything wrong, then trust your gut. Call the college. Have the school pay attention. And make sure that the bedroom is always ready for a homecoming. If your kids aren’t ready for school, then don’t push them.

Bring them home, find them help immediately, try to understand (or at least respect) the impenetrable blackness, and eventually the sun will shine again. Hope and open communication are the best medicines, next to a good prescription from a qualified doctor.

In College, Beer Is A Hard Subject

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Those of us who cook know that it requires teaching, experience, and intuition. A good meal does not simply appear out of nowhere. Two people with the same recipe may produce very different outcomes.

Those of us who love beer take for granted the stuff that comes out of the can, bottle, or tap. To my knowledge, there is not a single brewery out there making synthetic beer.  What I mean is that beer cannot be made from a strict set of chemical reactions driven by computers and machines.

Beer is cooking.  And cooking is human. Ask any home brewer who has tried to make the perfect beer – they have more failures than successes.

Crafting beer is hard.

I had the great fortune of visiting a couple of very different breweries last week to begin a conversation, which will hopefully culminate in a thriving Fermentation Science program at SIU, my home.

One brewery (Schlafly) started out as a small batch operation before brew pubs were mainstream.  The other (Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis) has been around before Prohibition killed craft beer in the US. Both places differ in scale from thousands of gallons to millions. But they strive to accomplish the same thing. A recognizable brew that is worthy of their name.

And that is easier said than done.

I don’t know why this was such an epiphany for me. I have dabbled in home brewing for nearly 25 years and still suck at it. Part of it is laziness. Part of it is just … well just that I don’t do it enough. Making beer is all about experience. After each batch, you begin to “feel” the process and that leads to excellence.  I just don’t have enough time to make all the beer I need to be successful at it. And my liver thanks me.

When I pop open a bottle of any beer with a recognizable name, I expect it to taste the same as it did last time. I could home brew ten batches of brown ale in a row and guarantee that each one will taste differently, no matter how consistent I try to be. So, how do the professional breweries do it?

Crazy skill, science, discipline, and resources.

Beer is deceptively simple stuff.  Some malted grains, water, yeast, hops and perhaps some other goodies. That’s it. Then why are there about 10,000 different bottles available at your local grocery? Climate, chemistry, genetics, more chemistry, equipment, good agriculture, even more chemistry, and cleanliness are all involved.

Did I mention that the breweries don’t add a million of artificial chemicals like you see in a can of soup?  They are making magic from very simple ingredients with little margin for error.

Discerning choice of ingredients, including the water is certainly the most important part. But chemistry and the sensory abilities of the brewery staff are the most important asset to the brewery, regardless of the scale. The brewers are the secret. They understand the chemistry, the taste, the mouth feel, the ingredients, the engineering, and all of the other aspects of the brewing process.

Brewers are like a fine grain or yeast. They have all the right characteristics to make a fine ale, lager, or lambic. But they need to be cultivated to reach their finest potential.

And that’s where I get very excited. SIU is developing a program where we recognize the students with potential and begin to cultivate that greatness inside. A strong grasp of chemistry, agriculture, taste, and, yes, marketing is needed.  Mix that with the ability to meet the high expectations of the brewing industry, and our student brewers will be unstoppable.

Watch out world, Saluki Beer is on its way.

Happy Fishy New Year

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I am by no means an optimist or an expert on the future.  But given that the world continues to spin, and some Roman Emperor and a few monks told us that tomorrow will be the new year, I thought I’d resolve some things, as I see them at this point along my time line.

1. Stop. You might not realize it, but this might be the happiest time of your life. The problem is, you won’t know this for sure until you have the worst time of your life.

2. The world will probably not end anytime soon. However, it will still be a mess when you wake up on Day 1 of 2015. Do your part to make it a better place, instead of blaming someone else.

3. Your body may not cooperate with you. Your mind always can change. It’s up to you how to change it.

4. We evolved from fish. If that bothers you, get over it. I won’t tell you where you can stick your fin.

Have a happy one. Recycle. Use a little less gas. And forget about eating organic. No one knows what that means.