Sunday, August 29, 2010

Born in the USA, part 5

One of the greatest classical music concert series of modern times is the BBC Proms. A showcase for excellent music, both new and old, and a venue meant to give access to the "common man" - the promenaders - through cheap, standing-room-only tickets, it is commendable. In the US, I had held the BBC in the utmost regard; it seemed the pinnacle of what a news and entertainment broadcasting corporation could be, like NPR but state-sponsored and immense.
Today, on a TV show from the BBC aimed at small children, I heard a character say "a whole nother."
Now, to hear distinctly British idioms would not surprise me in the least (though it would irritate me). But for a show geared toward children who are still learning the language to blatantly use something incorrect - this angered me no end. I clenched my fists. How could the organization responsible for the Proms - for a two-month-long classical concert of world renown - also be responsible for this, a travesty of the English language? I was hurt.
And then, on my walk home, a girl walking past while on her phone: "asshume." If there is one thing I hate more than all others here, it is the way a preponderance of English people mispronounce assume. My better-educated UK friends assure me that this is not common. But this doesn't explain the number of people I hear say it.
Even now, as I listen to the BBC communicate in a flawless and ethereal violin dialect, I wonder if they were forced to give up one language - English - for the musical other.

Friday, August 27, 2010

From Trinity to Tsar Bomba

Below is a video demonstrating all of the nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1998 (a moratorium on testing was signed by most nuclear nations in 1996; however, India and Pakistan continued testing until 1998, and there are reports that North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons as late as 2009). The link is here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Born in the USA, part 4

I have one particularly pedantic British friend. We jokingly joust over the nuances of the British English vs American English usage of the language; whether license should instead have two c's, if "vitamins" is pronounced like "vitriol" or "vitality," or what the correct plural of "octopus" is (it's octopodes).
But on the train, headed north toward Berwick-upon-Tweed, I overhear more of the very British butcherings of the English language.
"Nah, it's much more better than the other time..." a girl says.
A male voice: "...daunt do pez," which I learn - upon discovering he is playing a card game with his acquaintance - was meant to be "don't do pairs."
The kindly bus driver who tried to direct me to the rail station shortly after I moved to the UK, whose reference to some kind of "hatchwye" turned out to be a directive to walk under the "archway."
Americans are rightly to be blamed for "y'all," but the British are hardly innocent.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Born in the USA, part 3

A few of us linger after lunch, digesting, talking. Usually nothing of importance. This particular afternoon, it's higher education.
"I like the British system better."
"You only know the British system." But, then again, I only know the American system. Mainly. I have learned some.
"Well, I'd hate to graduate with so much debt. The average debt for graduates in the US is something like two hundred thousand dollars."
Cue the sigh. "Only medical students would come out of college with debt like that. That can't be more than 5% of the student population. The majority of grads would have maybe a few thousand dollar debt."
"Oh, well, I was under the impression that everyone had lots of debt because your education isn't paid for like it is here."
One of the professors nearby decides to join in at this point. "Actually, it's true that the average debt for US students isn't that high. In fact, I just recently read an article that said nowadays the amount of debt a graduating student has from the US or the UK is pretty equivalent." He turns to me. "Does that agree with what your perception is?"
I simply nod.

Born in the USA, part 2

Again in the breakroom. The weather outside hovers around that warm/cool boundary, the type of weather that prevents you from knowing whether or not you need a coat. The sun is not visible for the low clouds, but there is no rain - for the moment.
"I don't even know how to do that," the student is saying. "I don't think I've ever touched a capacitor in my life. Guess I'll have to make a friend in the engineering department."
Cue the long sigh. "How I pine for my undergrad."
"You mean you wish you had an undergrad?"
"No, I mean I wish you all had to do my undergrad. We had to take things like circuits and machine shop and C++."
"I'd have liked to take machine shop... that would be cool. But we had to take physics courses."
"We had to take physics courses and machine shop."
"Oh." There's a pause. Finally, a friend breaks in: "I went to sixth form with a guy who didn't even know what a lathe was."
"What's a lathe?" Oh, good lord. Sigh.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Born in the USA, part 1

We are sitting around the break room, having tea (at least, everyone else is having tea). Somehow the conversation makes its way to Mexican food. Someone says, "so what's the difference between a fajita and a burrito?"
"It's just the way it's rolled up at the ends or something, right?"
I sigh - heavily. "A fajita is more a way of cooking, not just something that's rolled slightly differently to a burrito."
"But on the box of fajitas you buy at the store, the instructions say to wrap the tortilla around the meat..."
"You shouldn't even be able to buy a 'box of fajitas.'"
"Yes you can."
"It makes no sense."
"So what is a fajita, then?"
"Like I said, fajitas are a way of cooking something - you take scraps of meat and maybe some vegetables and cook them in a skillet..."
"Or a frying pan?"
"Yes, fine, or a frying pan. Or a wok, if it's all you have."
"A skillet has the wavy bottom part."
Sigh again. "And you then serve the cooked meat and vegetables with tortillas, but you can simply use the tortillas to pick up the food...." Here I make a pinching-scooping motion with my hand, the way one does with naan bread at an Indian restaurant. There's a pause.
"So then, what is a burrito?"
"That's when you wrap a bunch of fillings in a large tortilla, coat it with something, and bake it."
"But then what's the difference between a burrito and an enchilada?"
I can see I'm getting in too deep - do not cast your pearls before swine, or, translated, do not try to teach British people about Mexican food. "Enchiladas have a very specific sauce." I remember bringing my one can of Stokes Green Chile to a bar-b-que, sharing it rather than hoarding it for myself, trying to show my friends from the UK the glory that is Tex-Mex. The response was less than ideal. It looks like vomit, one of them had said flatly. Yes, well, I can think of a few unappetizing things that vindaloo looks like, but that doesn't mean it isn't delicious.
I would later discover that "fajita" is a Mexican term meaning "little belt," and that as such, fajita was not just a way of cooking but specifically a way of cooking skirt steak. Skirt steak, or more specifically, flank steak, is tough and is normally marinated, but this also allows it to last longer than a normal cut of beef - ideal in the hot climates of northern Mexico. Fajitas, like fondue or curry, were a way of making what little food there was keep, and last, as long as possible. A long cry from the nonsense you can buy in Britain now.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

York after Rain

In a change of pace from the workday science, I wanted to elaborate upon an experience I have been fortunate enough to have while living here in York. This city is home to Europe's second largest Gothic cathedral, but it is also home to a great, slow-moving river, the Ouse (aptly named, as it oozes so slowly it is difficult to tell which way it flows), medieval walls, Roman columns, Victorian townhomes, giant horse chestnut trees and, least of all, me. I have been to services in the Minster, and I have walked along the river at night, and there is no way to express the feeling which I get from both - but I have tried. So I submit for your critique or enjoyment the following, entitled, as you may have guessed, "York after Rain."

the curtain of rain has parted, the door is opened on a cavernous,
purple darkness

I step lightly over the threshold as streetlights flicker on,
one by one,
like candles in the Minster – birds as acolytes
and trees as deacons, clothed
in shimmery green vestments

before me, the silvered path
and the hushed breath of the river, like the silence between the “hallowed be Thy name”
and the “Thy kingdom come”

the Ouse in inky, velvet blackness, the cloth that covers the altar
before we break the bread

the softest buzz of insects intones the Prayers of the People
in dewed, fluttery wings

and there, at the front, a great chestnut tree:
wide as the Quire Aisle, the Evensong, the whole night itself,
golden branches extended in blessing,
I bow as to the High Altar as I approach

verdant, holy leaves just above me release one single
of baptismal water onto my upturned face

and with a new song in my heart, I go in peace

to love and serve the world.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Today's APOD is pretty fascinating... it turns out that one of Saturn's copious count of moons, Prometheus, is essentially creating gravitational "ripples" in Saturn's thin F ring once every 15 hours. Go check it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chernobyl, 24 years on

An article on the BBC this morning discusses (in the usual BBC "style") the recent findings of a study by researchers conducting a wildlife census in the Chernobyl "exclusion zone," published in Ecological Indicators. The researchers concluded that the radiation contamination had a "significant impact" on the local ecology.
The actual article (available for a fee from Elsevier here... don't get me started on Elsevier, those murderers of the spirit of science) concludes that, within statistically significant correlation, mammals and birds in the exclusion zone had increased instances of "effects," and that "standard breeding bird censuses can be used as an informative bio-indicator for the effects of radiation on abundance of animals."

First things first - before we go all vigilante and decide that nuclear power is too dangerous, let's put things in perspective. The Chernobyl disaster (which cannot be duplicated in the US, France, UK or elsewhere because the fundamental reactor design in Russia at the time was flawed) released somewhere around 10^19 becquerels (nearly 300 MegaCuries) of radiation into the environment - that's the equivalent of the radiation dose you'd get from naturally occurring radioactive potassium by eating about one hundred thousand million million pounds of bananas. We're talking big doses here. Big, unreproducible doses.

Second, we need to be certain we know what, precisely, "effects" are. Here, they simply mean variations in abundance. They went out and physically counted the number of spiderwebs, the number of starlings, the number of foxes, and so on, for nine different "taxa" (ie, biologically similar groups, like "birds" or "mammals"). We're not talking about increased instances of cancer, or birth defects, or anything like that. Purely the number of creatures counted.

Now, for the results - there was a correlation between background radiation (from the disaster) and taxa abundance. This correlation remained when possible confounding effects were taken into account; things like time of day, cloud cover, temperature, or presence of water sources. The correlation was strongest, by a significant fraction, in birds. And, as one might expect, the effect (variation in abundance) was greater in taxa of higher population densities, and was also higher for taxa with higher "natal dispersal ability" (ie, the ability to travel, which comes at a significant biological cost: "dispersal is costly in terms of production of free radicals from physical activity due to actual dispersal and/or from immune response to novel antigens encountered in the new environments during dispersal"). And so we find that birds are the most susceptible to the undesired radiation in the environment.

But this is nothing new. Scientists have long known that birds are good indicators of ill effects in the environment - in fact, even before science began looking for indicators, miners were taking canaries with them into the mines as warnings against deadly carbon monoxide gas. That bird populations are affected by a sudden, increased level of radiation in the environment shouldn't surprise us. But what we don't know - and what the study doesn't tell us - is why those bird populations are dwindling, what the mechanisms are, whether or not the radiation is killing them slowly or is affecting their ability to produce offspring.

This, I suppose, remains to be seen.

Møller, A., & Mousseau, T. (2010). Efficiency of bio-indicators for low-level radiation under field conditions Ecological Indicators DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2010.06.013