Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fun in the Snow

We had another snowstorm yesterday here in Cleveland, but what made this one interesting was how the temperature was very near freezing, making the snow ideal packing snow. So while we got several inches the snow sculptors have been out, and some of the results are really great! So last night, after a physics department mixer in a nearby coffeehouse, me, my friend Nick, and Dan Akerib, a friend and incidentally chair of the department, took a few minutes after the caffeinated chatting to take a look around.
First stop: an igloo! I'd never seen one in person before and here it was, in the part of the field usually reserved for volleyball in warmer seasons, and it was pretty darn sturdy (Dan's in the picture for scale). The only question that remained was if we could actually fit inside as the builders were nowhere to be seen...
Answer: yep, the three of us could fit quite nicely.

Nick: (after the fact) You realize we were just in an igloo with the chair of the physics department?
Me: That sounds like some sort of code for something.

Nick also mentioned to me that last year when I was in New Zealand some enterprising students built an igloo that could sleep seven: five on the ground floor and two on the first floor (naturally they tested it one night). Last year they got a LOT more snow though.

Near the igloo there was this nice chap sitting on a bench, so Nick decided to keep him company. There was also another similar gent sitting on a bench closer to the main pathway, but unfortunately some vandals had gone in and smashed him up...
Last but not least, the snow dragon! Ah! He really was a marvel, and one of the art students spent a good amount of time working on him. I'm hoping the student later went back to add a hump or two but haven't gone to check.

There are a few other sculptures that popped up today but I didn't have my camera on me. The campus is a bit more unique, though, which I think is great because winter gets pretty unbearable otherwise this time of year.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Small World

Yesterday I met up with my mentor, Mike Lemonick, who is a wonderful writer and is great fun to follow around and ask random questions from. Everyone stops to talk with him, or at least say hi, and he's teaching a science journalism grad class at NYU this semester so I went out to lunch with them.

The most entertaining thing out of all this, though, was how last night during the science writers party at Fenway Park he mentioned that his brother was from Pittsburgh, and did I know Shady Side Academy because his nephew and niece went there. "What year?" I asked.

"The nephew's a senior in college right now and his sister is two years younger," was the answer, and I promptly felt like an idiot for not thinking about Mike's last name more.

"Your nephew is best friends with my brother," I explained, "and he was over at my house nearly every day in high school. And I still see him, a bunch of us went to Penn House Brewery over winter break."

This of course resulted in a prompt comparison of notes on every angle of the subject, including the conclusion that we both knew Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire very well as Mike had worked on Three Mile Island several summers ago. Which isn't surprising at all, because I knew his brother had met his wife there and my brother's friend did as well... I will note though I did feel a bit better at all this, because when I first saw Mike he looked strikingly familiar and I couldn't figure out why!

Oh, and if we're keeping track of the "does Yvette like scientists or science writers more" tally, score one for the science writers last night as their party at Fenway was just awesome. They had a plethora chocolate covered strawberries, free drinks, and a great band and dancing, and I can't say the scientists have ever really done any of those.

Friday, February 15, 2008


I went to my first press conference today in the scientific sense, which was a summary for the Mars Rovers by the people in charge of it (Steve Squyres from Cornell who's the lead guy, Charles Elachi who's in charge of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Richard Cook, and Andrew Knoll from Harvard). It was to announce the discovery that Mars was very, very salty per recent data to the point where it would've been detrimental to real life, and it's kind of cool to get all this embargoed information before others have it. (Except it's not embargoed anymore, so here's the press release.)

The best part was towards the end when Andrew Knoll, a huge bigwig in this sort of thing, said that evidence of life on Mars was probably best during its very early age so that's what they'll be focusing on. I raised my eyebrow but no one blinked, and they started taking questions from people working at The Guardian, The Daily Mail, MSNBC,, and all these people were asking arguably silly questions. The guys were very clearly happy to answer questions they could easily handle (no, the Bush plan for space doesn't really effect the Mars rovers, there really isn't any controversy over the discoveries of the Viking missions in the 70s, etc), so I decided to throw my hat in the ring and got the last question.

"Yvette Cendes, Journal of Young Investigators, this question is for Andrew Knoll. You were saying that the best odds of life on Mars are probably going to be during the very early age of the planet, but we know that was a period of very heavy bombardment [aka lots of asteroids hitting all the time] in the Solar System. How do you reconcile this with your hypothesis?"

"That's a good question," Dr. Knoll flustered, and proceeded to talk about things not relating to the actual question for a little while. He then aknowledged that according to current theory life on Earth only would have survived this period of bombardment by deep ocean vents, which you didn't exactly have on Mars, and that reconciling how/where life would survive on Mars where such environments don't exist is "a serious problem." Pwned! My fellow student journalists sure got a kick out of that, and Steve Squyres ran away from me afterwards when I wanted to say hi for some odd reason.

So I've realized I'd be a good science journalist if I want to do it because I can burn the head of the Mars missions should I want to. This is kind of fun.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Blogging From Boston

So just so no one hears any wild rumors... I won a national science journalism award to attend the AAAS conference in Boston this weekend. More specifically, it's through the National Association of Science Writers and consists of a travel stipend to Boston and attending the program and following around a science writer for the day (who, in my case, happens to be a senior science writer for TIME magazine), and the AAAS is the biggest general science conference in America. More as this unfolds, but in short right now I'm typing down in the hotel lobby right next to the convention center feeling rather pleased and excited about things.

Quick notes as I think of them, in roughly the order they happened-

~ Registering for the convention and all that was thankfully not a problem: as some of you might recall there was a flurry of activity upon me realizing I had no journalism professor to vouch for me legitimately getting press credentials, but luckily there was so much activity going on I didn't need to dig out my press clippings to prove this point. I subsequently got a cool badge with "press" written on it and a new canvas satchel stuffed with detailed schedules, itineraries, goodies, and a free puppy like all these conferences give out. Except this one doesn't have Maxwell's Equations or the Force equation stitched out on it, of course, so if anyone wants an AAAS canvas satchel let me know lest it end up in the back of my closet upon return home.

~ I met L.K. and his wife in the airport as they were going on the same flight as me. Turns out his wife is a wonderfully kind woman whose acquaintance I was pleased to meet, so that was interesting. L.K. also noted that coming to AAAS as your first conference is similar to getting your first car and it's a Hummer (ie it's huge and you don't know what to do with it), so we'll see how this goes.

~ Also interestingly, I lucked out and have my hotel room to myself (because there's an odd number of guys and girls in my group and I sent in my travel info last- let this be a lesson to you!). I soon realized this is the first time ever that I have a hotel room all on my own which is odd considering how much I travel: it's just usually my family is there or my friends or I'm in a hostel or what have you. Kind of interesting but I keep out of the room because it's eerily quiet, which is just as well I think!

~ Because it was such a gorgeous day in Boston, I wandered several blocks down Newbury Street primarily all the way to the Hancock Building for lunch at a place that sold great panini. I also kept my eyes peeled as I have a two-week-old Little Cousin who I'm going to visit while in Boston and I needed to get her something nice and cute. Because my cousins have a Labrador retriever, I ended up settling for a plush Spot toy with accompanying little cardboard-backed book for babies. Some of you will surely argue that I am premature in giving a newborn infant a book, but you've gotta start 'em young in my opinion. (Plus hey keep it in perspective, that book will so come in handy in just a few months!)

~ A bunch of us science journalist students through the program I'm in got together for dinner today, and as I'm sure you'd guess they're all wonderful people with a great geek twist. Of the seven I've met (there are 10 total) roughly half are journalism majors, and I'm the only physics/astronomy person as the most focus on biology (because that's what happens in these things). Because I was the only one who knew how to get around Boston at all we went to Newbury Street and wandered looking at the restaurants until settling for a nice Tapas place. We shared our dishes and decided on a rule that we should all try something new, be it portabello mushrooms or non-peeled shrimp the "squid cooked in its own ink" (which no one tried, hmmm), so I chose rabbit. It was pretty good!

~ Needless to say I like everyone pretty well. A few things I learned through everyone sharing stories and information:

1) I am a grossly underpaid writer. As in, no one could believe that I write regular columns and feature-length science articles and not get any compensation for it whatsoever because that sort of thing just doesn't happen at most other student newspapers. When I asked what the going rate was, the general consensus was between $20 an article and $12 an hour, which is a decent range but nonetheless something rather than nothing. Hmmm.

2) Despite being underpaid, I still have probably the most prolific streak of anyone when it comes to quantity (save some journalism majors whose lives revolve around the paper). For example, there was one guy who thought he was pretty cool for writing for an actual paper, instead of just a school one like most everyone else, but then he got to mentioning that he wrote an article a week but they were "only" paying him for 20 hours/week even though he probably worked twice as many hours.

"How long are the articles?" I asked, rather impressed.

"Pretty long," he said, "about 600-800 words. I refuse to turn them in until they're perfect."

I stared. You can argue what you want about the quality of my work, but I can't imagine spending what is essentially the same amount of time you'd spend working at a full-time job writing one brief (by my standards) article, even if it was a topic on which I was completely unfamiliar before. Perhaps my opinion is just what happens when you frankly don't have the time to play around with your work because that's not your primary focus?

3) Further in the "Yvette totally does not understand how the world works" category is the interesting fact that apparently my science journalism award thingy is up there in prestige. In a "70 kids applied for 10 spots" sense, which I totally wasn't expecting.

4) Tomorrow the Ig Nobel prizewinners are giving a lecture, and we all agreed to be going. It will be quite fun!

~ Ok, that's it for now as the brunt of the conference begins tomorrow and I must be going to bed. Will report on more later!

Sunday, February 10, 2008


The mercury is currently at 8F (-13C) with windchill at -15F (-26C), and the sun just set so we're looking at even colder temperatures tonight. Wouldn't be quite so terrible but the wind is blowing, and whenever the wind blows in Cleveland it starts snowing, so it's windy and snowy and all in all this makes me wonder why I was silly enough to not go to school someplace like Arizona.

The good thing about bad weather though is it forces you to stay inside and study, which I'm doing a decent amount of because I'm going to my first-ever scientific conference later this week in Boston (more on this later). And I just checked, it's about 30 degrees warmer in Boston and they don't get lake effect snow (obviously) so while there's something wrong with thinking you'll go to Boston to thaw out that's the truth this time around!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Quarked: Seeing the World Beyond Your Major

This week's "Quarked" was inspired by a discussion I had this weekend with a friend and focuses on the odd fact that Case students like to take a supercilious position when it comes to how much work they have. I've no idea how prevalent it is at other schools but suspect ours is a bit more excessive than the average. Article text in full-

One thing that fascinates me most about Case student culture is the masochistic tendency to compare workloads with others to see whose is the most difficult. "You're only taking 24 credit hours and didn't sign up for differential sadistical mechanics this semester?" I heard one friend ask another on the quad just recently.

"Not exactly," the friend bragged in a loud voice, lest anyone mistake his academic valor. "After all, I'm playing first tuba now for four music ensembles that I'm not counting as credits, and I'm pass-failing Advanced Sanskrit so it evens out." At this the friend gave a nod and proceeded to point out why his schedule was more difficult, and the pair continued down this line in a tone typically reserved for gardeners discussing prize orchids.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with a little work ethic, sometimes things can get a little out of hand. For example, earlier this week I was talking to a fellow physics major and the conversation turned to what he wanted to do later in life. I thought his plans to go into nuclear engineering sounded pretty cool, but upon hearing that sentiment he was a touch surprised.

"Lots of other physics majors call me a 'sell-out' for not wanting to do physics after graduation," he explained, and I gave an incredulous glance. The last I checked, being a nuclear engineer is quite impressive and respectable, and due to the versatile nature of a physics degree, only one in 20 students who graduate with one end up becoming physicists in the "sit in Rockefeller and discuss angular momentum" sort of way. Calling someone a sell-out for deciding against the traditional physicist path, particularly when the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of you doing the same thing someday, does not make much sense.

Things can get even worse if two people engaged in the bragging-about-workload duel have different majors because, as everyone knows, all majors which are not your own are "easy." This rule applies to humanities majors in particular, who are thought by many to have slacker tendencies that will undoubtedly result in their landing a job at a place like Wackadon'ts after graduation.

I confess I've committed a fair amount of ribbing in this general area myself, and my old English major roommate probably got bored with the What Do You Do With a B.A. in English? song around the 32nd time I played it. But silly songs aside I do have a sizeable amount of respect for English majors: they know what dangling modifiers are, can figure out how to get paid for writing stuff, and know well enough not do a major where the class average can be 50% on an exam.

Case students can approach their classes with an incredibly admirable amount of passion, and it's easy to use this passion to convince yourself of your own superiority. But what would happen if we were all passionate about the same thing? That's right, it would be boring! So what if a humanities major doesn't have to as many problem sets as an engineer, or if someone's dream calls them down a path different from your own? It is these differences that make others the wonderful individuals they are, and make the world beyond our own horizons a fascinating place to explore.

And as a final note to everyone, I recommend knocking off the bragging or at least taking a break from it on occasion to see what will happen. I promise, people will be a lot more impressed by your accomplishments and passions if they hear about them from someone else instead of you.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Behind Blue Eyes

I found this article in the newspaper today and think it's the coolest thing I've read recently:

Researchers in Denmark have found that every person with blue eyes descends from just one "founder," an ancestor whose genes mutated 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Before then, everyone had brown eyes...

Eiberg's team tested 155 blue-eyed people from Scandinavia, Turkey, Jordan and India, looking to see whether they had similar DNA sequences... To their amazement, they found that each individual had identical DNA sequences in that region of that gene, an indication that the original mutation happened recently enough that it hasn't had time to change.

For those of you who don't know, getting blue eyes comes from inheriting two recessive genes that determine the amount of melanin in your genes. That is to say, if you get the gene you're born with brown eyes (the default), but if you get the recessive gene from both parents then you get blue ones (if you have green it means you only have some melanin, but not enough for brown). According to the study, what ended up happening was two people in the Black Sea area a few thousand years ago had the gene through random mutations and had the first blue-eyed baby, and those genes ended up propagating to the estimated 300 million people who have blue eyes today.

Speaking as someone who has very deep blue eyes, I think this is pretty sweet because I now know I am related to Frank Sinatra, Jodie Foster, and a whole bunch of Scandinavians. (Anyone else?) It's always nice to know a little bit more about where you came from.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Saw the movie Persepolis over the weekend and it was just wonderful-

For those of you who haven't heard of it, which is pretty likely due to its limited release, Persepolis is a French-made movie chronicling a girl's life who grew up during the Iranian revolution and beyond. It's based off the biography of a woman who originally told her story through graphic novel form, and as a result it's animated in black and white (and, of course, subtitled!). It is truly a masterfully well-done movie, and you should all go see it.

And because I lead a life capable of covering the entire spectrum of culture in one weekend, I will note that like most of America I was quite estatic during the last ten minutes of the Super Bowl last night (because cheering for the Patriots is sort of like cheering for the Evil Empire). Oh, and my favorite commercial was the Doritos one with the mouse.