Category Archives: Education

A Different Kind of Eclipse

eclipse-poster-imageMy daughter’s future alma mater, Willamette University in Salem OR, is indirectly responsible for my being here in the path of totality for the total solar eclipse on August 21st. I dropped her off yesterday morning for an introductory hiking trip out in the Oregon wilderness. The University is supplying her and her fellow pre-frosh with official ISO 12312-2:2015 standard glasses for watching the event. This camping trip lasts for several days before the official “opening days” when the students really move in and start classes. So I decided to stay up here in OR and watch the event myself. I have seen a partial eclipse before myself, but I’ve never seen a total one. The Willamette dorms aren’t accepting guests, however, so I’m here at another festival program about an hour south, but still right in the path of totality, at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

I have taught Celestial Mechanics to middle schoolers a number of times now and while the science of eclipses still fascinates, I am finding that these days I am drawn to depictions of eclipses in the arts and literature over time. The arc of history shows eclipses as omens of religious portent, as metaphors of despair and dread, and more recently, as symbols of poetic imagination.

Oregon State University Summer Choir and Orchestra
Oregon State University Summer Choir and Orchestra

Last night I attended an eclipse concert with full orchestra and chorus. They started with Haydn’s The Creation and then performed a number of selections from G.F. Handel, intertwined with some J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn. Much of the Handel was familiar to me, but not the aptly programmed tenor aria from the oratorio Samson: “Total Eclipse.”

Handel composed Samson in 1741, and is possible that he witnessed a total eclipse himself years earlier. In 1715, London was in the path of a solar eclipse totality for more than 3 minutes.  The London eclipse of 1715 was the first one to be accurately predicted by Edmund Halley, and it helped to make Halley’s reputation as the greatest astronomer of his age.

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Edmund Halley’s 1715 eclipse map, from http://www.greatamericaneclipse.com. Original map can be found in Harvard’s Houghton Library

Halley’s 1715 eclipse map was the first of several, and he enlisted input from observers across England to help him refine its accuracy and make better maps in the future. Indeed, the 18th century was a rich time for eclipses. During this time there were two annular and five total solar eclipses in the British Isles alone, a greater frequency than normal, and Halley was there as the Astronomer Royal in Greenwich, making maps of them, and of his famous comet. He hoped that with these publicly available maps, “the suddaine darkness wherein the Starrs will be visible about the Sun, may give no surprize to the people.”

G.F. Handel settled in London in 1712. Many of his operas were staged while Halley was Astronomer Royal. And according to Alan Cook, a biographer of Halley, Handel and Halley had friends in common and may have known each other. (see Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas, by Alan H Cook). But Handel didn’t begin the composition of Samson until 1741, right after completing the Messiah and long after the eclipse of 1715. Its libretto is based on John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a tragic poem that employs the Biblical figure of Samson to dramatize human wrestling with great theological issues, including suffering from blindness, which afflicted both Milton and Handel towards the end of their lives.

Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

On the omen/dread/imagination scale, this interpretation is still pretty steeped in despair.  Even if Handel did know of Halley’s scientific work, perhaps a mere lack of surprise and a good map weren’t enough anymore to chase away the darkness.

In 2017, individuals can decide for themselves what the darkness of the eclipse means to them, or doesn’t. The country is going a little crazy for the next couple days, just check Facebook:

Remember, no matter how salty your GBF is, the moon still throws the best shade
Credit: Justin Alva via Balloon Juice

Or is it?

Choose Love for #WATWB

I’ve been traveling for the past few weeks, and just got back yesterday. In a quirk of the International Dateline, our plane landed before it took off, making July 2, 2017 possibly the longest day I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Now that the post-trip laundry is mostly finished I’m posting, belatedly, for the We Are the World Blogfest (#WATWB).It is supposed to take place on the last Friday of every month. This event seeks to promote positive news, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. This month’s wonderful co-hosts are:  Lynn HallbrooksMichelle WallaceSylvia SteinSylvia McGrath, and Belinda Witzenhausen.

We are the World Logo

The story I chose for this month is the following: Mom of Sandy Hook victim says she forgives shooter, wants others to choose love by Allison Slater Tate in Today‘s parenting section.

Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse died in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement in 2016 in his honor. It is a program for schools that aims to change the classroom climate and make it a more caring and nurturing one, giving kids the tools and emotional resilience to “be grateful when life isn’t easy, to forgive when the person who hurt you is not sorry, and to step outside your own pain to help someone else.”

I would find forgiveness difficult if not impossible in Ms. Lewis’ situation. I wish such programs had been more available when I was in school.

Trophy

It’s that time of year again, for graduations and award ceremonies. These are generally happy occasions, but I personally find the experience a bit mixed. You see, I am not an award winner, not the one up on stage giving a speech. I am introverted, and, truth be told, not that accomplished.

More than that, though, I can’t go to an awards ceremony without hearing about the awardee’s positive attitude, the smile on the face, the spring in the step, the can-do spirit. The awardee is invariably “more” than their grades, or their work achievements, or their sports skills, and that something extra is what “really” earned them the award. It is not, we are told, the specific accomplishment that award has engraved on it or sculpted into it—not even they are handed a tiny golden man with an even tinier ball stuck to his foot.

This is all well and good–I mean, I wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days when the only award given out went to the worst insufferable know-it-all in the class. I like that there are more awardees these days, recognizing a diversity of contributors and achievements.

But I still can’t help wondering about the other kids, the other non-award-winners. The ones who, despite a modicum of achievement, can’t summon a positive attitude; the ones whose support systems are fraying, whose grip on mental or physical health may be precarious, or who just aren’t that into it, but who still put in the effort, come to school every day, and do the work. It’s damn hard to excel at something you dislike. But these kids do it.

I think most well-meaning adults would argue that attitude is a “choice” and if you’re not feeling it, you should just fake it until you make it. After all, it’s true that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to get it done. And from an adult’s point of view, it’s certainly a lot easier to like and bestow favors upon a smiling kid than one who is angry, frustrated or withdrawn.

But faking it emotionally comes at a cost. Student stress, anxiety, and depression have reached alarming levels, even among those who appear to be comfortable, safe, and financially solvent. Students talk about the burden of “effortless perfection” that they feel is expected of them, especially at so-called top schools.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. Students make these expectations of each other, and of themselves too. But I think that adults contribute to the problem when we make recognition all about the smile. I’d like to see, maybe just once during a 90-minute ceremony, a kid getting an award for completing something difficult and unpleasant, for dragging themselves out of bed and facing the inner demons for the 90th time that year, and not having fun doing it.

Trophy

Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

The last time I lived in the SF Bay area, I was a PhD student at Stanford University. I graduated from the Neurosciences Program, an interdisciplinary program for studying the brain that includes faculty from both the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine. Even back then, in the early 1990s, brain science seemed to me to be the field of the future, an exciting time full of promise to understand both the world and ourselves. I thought, rightly, that you could spend an entire career, an entire lifetime, studying the brain, and never get bored or tired of it. The tagline for this blog, The Brain–Is Wider Than The Sky, is taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem with that first line.  Continue reading Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

Thursday Doors: Middle School

When we moved to CA in 2015, we had an 11th grader and a 7th grader. We looked for, and ultimately bought, a house in walking distance to the local high school because we figured we’d get six good years of walking to school at that location, 2 years for the older teen, 4 years for the younger once he got to high school. Continue reading Thursday Doors: Middle School

Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

This review was first written in 1992, and I wonder how much has changed. The projected shortfall in scientists has not come to pass. It is more difficult than ever for PhDs to get jobs in science. But the challenge of public scientific literacy remains.

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They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second TierThey’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier by Sheila Tobias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This independently funded book, called an “occasional paper,” probably isn’t available in the local bookstore. I came across a largely favorable review of it in Science magazine, and sent for a copy. It addresses the question “what turns people off science?”

Continue reading Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

Book Review: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural HistoryBully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently unearthed some book reviews that I wrote when I was in Neurosciences graduate school at Stanford in the early 1990s. There I was the editor of a student newsletter called the “Neuron Free Press,” and we published book reviews about Neuroscience topics. 

This newsletter was published while the internet was coming into its own, before blogs. The dead tree versions of these reviews that I found at the back of an old file cabinet may be the only copies still in existence.  The books are no longer new but I think each one has retained its relevance and stood the test of time.

The first book covered is Bully for Brontosaurus, reviewed back in Autumn 1991 when its author, the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, was still alive and writing. I think it’s especially appropriate for Darwin Day.

Continue reading Book Review: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Thursday Doors: Pitzer College

This week’s Thursday Doors post shows more photos from our Thanksgiving trip to Southern California. We were on the beach and at a buffet dinner, but we were also checking out some college campuses for our 17-year-old daughter next year. (This trip is also why I missed Thursday Doors entirely last week).

One of these campuses was Pitzer College, a small liberal arts school in Claremont. It is part of the Claremont consortium, which also includes Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd. As a former East Coast girl, I had not heard of Pitzer until recently, when several college counselors recommended it to my daughter. My daughter is interested in small liberal arts schools, and this group of colleges seems to have the best of both worlds: a small liberal arts environment coupled with the ability to take courses and utilize resources at any of the five colleges in the consortium.

Pitzer has a strong emphasis on ecology, the environment, and sustainability. Here is a wall garden, right next to a door (yes, those plants are growing horizontally):

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They also have an organic garden on campus, with a chicken coop:

chicken coop

And a bike repair and recycle shop:Green bike program

And their students seem to have a healthy sense of self-expression, which you can see in the murals on campus:

Mural over Mead Hall Door

I have to say, the most interesting thing about these doors at Pitzer is not the doors themselves, but what is above, below, next to, or behind them!

 

 

Thursday Doors: German Language Camp

Last summer our daughter went to the MMLA German Language Camp for high school students at Green Mountain College in Poultney VT. In the dorm there was a floor for boys and a floor for girls. This one was for the girls. There aren’t actually many Germans in Vermont, but they did their best to dress it up.

Continue reading Thursday Doors: German Language Camp