Sharpstown High, 1978-79

I recently discovered the high school I spent my sophomore year is slated to be demolished early 2018 when a new building is completed.  Sharpstown was an odd amalgam of Texas conservatism and 1970’s permissiveness.  Built in the late 1960’s, the building featured outdoor terraces and a courtyard allowing students to taste the outdoors between classes.  Sharpstown served as a bridge during the 1978-79 school year before my third and final high school.  That, along with Houston’s late 70’s oil boom, gave an ephemeral feel to my year there.

Although I teach at the college level, I always have a handful of students from local high schools.  It never hurts to take a look back and recall what it was like during those years.  I spent my freshman year at a small Catholic school of less than 400 students.  The teachers and administrative staff knew all the students.  Sharpstown had close to 2,000 students and only included grades 10-12.  The influx of new residents severely taxed Houston’s infrastructure, and the schools were no exception.  I never had any interaction with the principals, and I got the impression they were flying by the seat of their pants to put all the pieces together.  The burgeoning enrollment necessitated the use of temporary wooden classrooms built on blocks outside the main building,  The shacks as I used to call it.  The surrounding neighborhood was also different in ways I was not accustomed to.

I came from an older, denser, urban neighborhood in Buffalo built before the advent of the automobile.  Within a 10-15 minute walk were many shops, bars, supermarkets, bowling alleys, churches, and schools.  In fact, there were both three Catholic and public grade schools within walking distance.  If I wanted to go downtown, I could hop on a bus less than a five-minute walk away.  I had a great deal of independence that vanished in Houston.  If you didn’t have a car, you were skunked.  And at age 15, I didn’t have a car.  Turns out I would not have a bus ride to school either, for reasons known only to the school staff, a bus was not run out to my neighborhood.  So, like many a middle age guy, I can say I walked one and half miles to school.  Not uphill both ways though.  Seated upon the Gulf Coastal Plain, Houston is flat as flat can be.

That walk was uneventful, and once the temperatures cooled down in late October, not bad at all.  For the most part, the scenery was a nondescript mix of apartment complexes, fast food joints, and strip malls.  Two notable exceptions was the maze of baseball diamonds at Bayland Park used to film one of the Bad News Bears movies, the other was the corner of Bissonnet and Fondren.  The business on that corner, whose nature I have long forgotten, stunk to high heaven all day and night.  If nothing else, that smell served as a marker the school day was about to commence.

After homeroom, I was introduced to the Texas concept of gym class every day.  In New York, gym had always been a once a week deal.  In my experience, there is very little instruction in gym class.  If someone is struggling in basketball, why not instruct how to shoot rather than throwing them to the wolves?  A thought experiment that could be used would be to visualize oneself traveling with the basketball on the way to the hoop.  Imagine two scenarios, one shot with a high arc and the other with a lower arc.  Which will see more area inside the rim to enter?  That’s the high arc shot and a technique Robert Parish, then with Golden State and later with the Celtics, used with great effectiveness.  That lesson could be coordinated with a geometry section on conics to provide a link between concrete knowledge and abstract concepts for students.

It was in gym where I had my first run in with the school staff.  Having run cross-country and track the prior year, I approached a coach, described my times and goals along with a desire to try out.  He waved me off, said I wasn’t the type of person he wanted on the team.  An odd statement as it was my first day there.  Being fifteen and hugely annoyed, I unplugged myself from the extracurricular aspects of Sharpstown, to the extent where I have no memory of the sports teams there of any sort.  In my teaching, I make it a point to welcome every student in my class.  I work on the assumption each student has something to contribute to the class.

Something else to consider when dealing with high school students, and it’s a recent discovery, the brain continues to develop until age 25.  Teenagers tend to process their decisions in the part of the brain known as the amygdala as opposed to adults who use the prefrontal cortex.  Decisions made from the amygdala are emotional whereas the prefrontal cortex processes information rationally.  When discussing a controversial topic in class, I endeavor to keep the emotional temperature cool.  Passion is fine, but in class, you want to discuss these things with clear thinking.  We also have to be cognizant of the differences between now and then and how a teenager’s lack of impulse control can lead to consequences we didn’t have to contend with.  During high school, I was part of an aspiring punk rock bank.  Let’s just say I am happy not to have that effort for the world to see on YouTube.

Class sizes were large at Sharpstown, some teachers struggled with it, whereas my 2nd period biology teacher did not.  Ms. Buch ran a tight ship, treated you fairly, and pushed the curriculum to challenge you.  Resources were scarce, we only had one lab per semester rather than the weekly session I had been accustomed to.  Still, it’s hard to imagine a teacher doing a better job under the circumstances.  A’s had to be earned and my main competitor made it a challenge.  I had to match her score to get an A, but it was competition in a productive way, bringing out my best as a student.  In later years, when I heard the stereotype that women do not excel in science, I would remember this class and think it’s such bulls..t.  And it is.

Third period, out in the shacks, was something else all together.

My English teacher was eccentric.  He would pop pills in front of the class.  I don’t know what those pills were except they weren’t Tic Tacs.  Being 1979, we just laughed it off.  During the year we read The Catcher in the Rye.  Sitting in a windowless classroom, my only connection to the outside world being the hum of an air conditioner siphoning out the Texas heat, I just wasn’t feeling it.  Set in the 1950’s, the same decade my father left high school to work in a coal yard, I couldn’t identify with the endless complaints on prep school life by Holden Caulfield.  I thought Caulfield required a couple of weeks working at a Jack-in-the-Box to set him straight.

I was a bit too rough on Caulfield.  While prep schools offer outstanding academic preparation, on the East Coast they are usually the launching pad into the Ivy League, they are also very insular.  Phonies and incompetent people don’t exist only in prep school, but anywhere when the social structure has ossified to a point where they are not held accountable.  I’ve seen it in public schools and the private sector.  The key is to build your own social network where such people cannot impart their incompetence upon you.  Caulfield needed a more diverse life experience, which he attempts to pursue in the novel.

After English, it was back into the main building for French.  I have long forgotten most of the French I learned in that class.  I do recall gaining an appreciation for not having to know if words in English have a feminine or masculine case.  What I’ve discovered since, it’s easier to remember a language if you are situated where it is spoken.  Otherwise, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  It’s also where I learned a bit of Texan dialect.  Someone asked me if the bell was fixin’ to ring for lunch and I’m thinking, I didn’t know the bell was broken.

Typically you’re confined to the cafeteria during lunch but Sharpstown was an open campus, meaning you were free to explore the premises or leave the campus.  One might head to the west end of the second floor terrace smoking section for students.  The Mad Men sensibility had infiltrated high school.  One student would spend his lunch hour throwing a frisbee at one end of a stairwell alcove, then casually walk to the other side catching it at the end of its trip as it rolled along the semi-circled brick wall.  Sometimes I opted to go to a friend’s house across the street.  We’d joke about avoiding Rubber Biscuits in the cafeteria.   It was all good as long as you were back before the end of the lunch period.

High school culture is pretty tribal and the students were organized among musical tastes.  There were still some of the old 70’s standbys. The Who opened the school year with their final Kieth Moon album and Led Zeppelin closed out the following summer with their last effort.  Disco, while on its last legs, still had a bit of steam going (Donna Summer spent 10 weeks out of 52 atop the singles charts from September 1978 to August 1979). Although punk and new wave was making serious inroads, it didn’t get much airplay in Texas.  In the pre-internet era, it took quite an effort to hear what The Clash was up to.  However, Bob Marley started to get some airplay along with new talents such as Ricki Lee Jones.  One sizable contingent among the students were the Kikkers, named after the country radio station KIKK.  I plead ignorance as to what was happening in the 1979 country scene, as I said, high school is pretty tribal.

Now that I am on the teaching side, I endeavor to break down tribal barriers in class.  In retrospect, I can recall some teachers amplifying those differences.  That’s a mistake.  You want your students pushing out from their social comfort zones.  One way to do this is to throttle up on the subject content to the point so students have a greater sense of urgency to succeed in the course more so than expressing their social self-identity.  It’s not a coincidence gym class is where high school tribalism reached its peak.  With no instruction and only a requirement to put on your gym shorts to pass, it allows students to slide back on their worst instincts.  While tribalism in high school can be pretty silly, beyond that it can have dire consequences.

In November 1978, over 900 members of the Jim Jones cult committed suicide by drinking the now infamous Kool-Aid.  Actually, it was Flavor Aid, which was to Kool-Aid what Mr. Pibb was to Dr. Pepper.  Besides being quite insane, Jones was quite cheap.  That’s an outlier, thankfully,  However, tribalism can lead to dysfunctional workplaces and politics.  America is a more tribal, less goal oriented society now then in 1979.

My summer job in 1981 was at Ashland Exploration in the Houston Center downtown.  Down the block was James Coney Island where I would eat lunch along with oil execs, geologists, drafters, and administrators.  All of us jammed in school desks the restaurant used to seat its customers.  We’d talk politics and I’ll never forget one chemical engineer, who was conservative by nature but told me, always better to deal with moderates on the other side than extremists on your own side.  He also said you obtain political goals by seeking the golden mean.  Try having that discussion today and your likely to hear the latest from the conspiracy-industrial complex.

While I can’t change that on a national scale, I can at least demonstrate to my students that excessive tribalism, to paraphrase that fictional educator Dean Wormer, is no way to go through life.  Lack of self-reflection on the group affiliations in your life can lead you down a rabbit hole you don’t want to go.

Given my outsider status, I was not plugged into the Sharpstown culture as I had been at my prior high school, but Sharpstown was large enough and the social structure pliable enough to find a groove to navigate on.  The transient nature of the place gave me a set of friends from all regions of the country and internationally, including Cuba.  This was quite different from Buffalo where most families had resided there for several generations.  You don’t learn everything from a book, and having this diversity of experience was an added bonus.

It was a good crew.

Perhaps too good, and too rambunctious, we went though several history teachers before one was found that could manage us.  While I have been teaching, I’ve learned that each class has its own dynamic.  The dynamic in history was quite boisterous.  To be honest, I rather enjoyed it and looked forward to this class each day.  However, this was a difficult class for any teacher to handle and I don’t envy the task they had.  Taking control of a class after the year has started and the student behavior already ingrained is among the more difficult jobs a teacher will have to face.  Kudos to Ms. Newman for getting a handle on that situation.

From there it was back out to the shacks for geometry, except the hum of the air conditioner was often overwhelmed by the claustrophobic pounding of raindrops from the torrential afternoon thunderstorms that often hit Houston.  I don’t remember much about this class, only that the teacher was very unhappy to be there, making me very happy when the bell was fixin’ to ring and I could get out of there.

Then I would make the trek back home.  One student I met had to walk all the way towards Meyerland by the 610 Loop when he stayed with his father, a two-hour walk.  Guess I didn’t have it so bad.

My last memory of Sharpstown was bumming a ride home after the English final in May.  That final was difficult, not in a challenging way but in a ridiculous way.  Half of the exam consisted of obscure passages from novels we read throughout the semester and asked what chapter it came from.  How on Earth would I know that?  Nobody in the class memorized these things verbatim.  I left the shacks for the last time in a pretty foul mood, wondering what the hell that was all about.  I would find out in a few years.

During the summer, the Iranian Revolution caused block long gas lines to form and the massive Woodway Apartment fire gave pause to those who thought wooden roof shingles in Houston was a good idea. The ambient background noise included Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, My Sharona by the Knack, Children of the Sun by Billy Thorpe, and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Sharpstown started to fade in my rear view mirror.  On deck was a new high school, most noted for being the site of a KKK cross burning.

That’s a story for another time.

By 1981, I had moved back to Buffalo for college when Sharpstown appeared in the local newspaper by surprise.  My English teacher had been arrested for extorting sex with students for passing grades.  That bizarre final made sense, most likely designed to flunk students making them vulnerable to this predatory behavior.  Beyond the original article, I know nothing else of what happened.  Only that it was extensive and had gone on for a period of time.  I don’t know what assistance was provided by the district for the victims, but knowing what other victims of this type of abuse experience, it’s safe to say many are still suffering from the effects to this day.

A few years back, I heard a lecture by a neurologist on the physical effects imparted on the brain by repeated high stress episodes.  The doctor noted that modern brain scans on patients with PTSD are difficult to differentiate from those who experienced a concussive injury.  In other words, a traumatic event can physically damage and/or hinder development of the brain that can cascade into a life long pattern of depression, drug abuse, and sometimes, suicide.  This stresses the need for schools to coordinate professional counseling and medical attention for abuse victims as soon as possible.  That may seem like common sense, but as we saw with the Catholic church and more recently Penn State, these situations are often met with a determined wall of silence.

And this also highlights how inadequate the recent attempts to “teach grit” to students who are under duress are.  An analogy, grit is great to have if diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not a substitute for chemotherapy.  I find the arguments for teaching grit more of an excuse for resource deprivation towards schools in high need districts.  And grit will not be enough for the victims of sexual abuse.  If the district did not provide resources for those students at Sharpstown then, it should do so now.

As grotesque as the events described in that 1981 news piece was, I don’t think it would be fair to let it dominate my memory of Sharpstown.  There were some 2,000 students and they, especially those who rose above the high school culture, along with the teachers who did their best, deserve that prominent spot in my mind.

Sharpstown High has had a turbulent existence since I left.  The aspects of the building which made it the most distinctive of the three high schools I attended, the courtyard, the alcoves, the shacks, also make it very difficult to monitor what is going on inside.  The new building, a rectangle with a commons in the middle and the classes around the perimeter seems to be designed to address that need.  It’s understandable, especially getting rid of the shacks, but still, I’ll be sorry to see the old building go.

The Space Between Us

From our vantage point on Earth, we tend to think of our surroundings as the norm of the universe.  It is not.  When we study astronomy we focus on the planets, the Sun, stars and galaxies.  These objects represent a small fraction of the universe.  If you could shrink the Sun to the size of a grain of sand, the nearest star would be another grain of sand over four miles away.  On this scale, light would travel at seven inches an hour.  What lies in all that space between the stars?  A cauldron of plasma, dust, gas, and magnetic fields in conditions we do not experience on Earth.  Some of the most important processes in the universe occurs in these environments.

Plasma is electrified gas.  In the Sun, or in any star, the heat of the core separates positively charged nuclei (ions) from negatively charged electrons.  These free floating particles are then discharged into space via the solar wind.  Plasma does not occur naturally on the Earth’s surface although it can be created to be used in florescent lights and plasma TV’s.  As plasma carries an electrical charge, its movement is determined by the ambient magnetic field.  A charged particle travels along the path of a magnetic field line.  In turn, the solar wind drags the solar magnetic field towards the planets.  This is referred to as the Interplanetary Magnetic Field or IMF.  As a result of the Sun’s rotation, the IMF is spiral shaped much like water from a rotating sprinkler.  The IMF also undulates in a wave-type formation as the image below indicates.

Parker Spiral, Credit: NASA/J. Jokipii, University of Arizona.

The journey of this plasma is fairly uneventful until it collides with a planet.  In the case of Earth, the IMF connects with the Earth’s magnetic field to transfer mass (the plasma) and its energy.  Once this plasma enters the Earth’s magnetic field, it follows the Earth’s magnetic field lines eventually finding its way into the upper atmosphere near the magnetic poles.  Here, these highly energetic particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms.  The kinetic energy of these collisions excites the atom’s electrons to a higher energy level.  The electrons eventually fall back to their original energy levels and release the energy in the form of light causing the aurora.  Without this protective shield, life could not exist on Earth’s surface.  And that scenario is played out on Mars which lacks a magnetic field.

Most of the solar wind does not collide with planets.  What becomes of it?  Eventually, it hits the heliopause.  Here is where the solar wind meets the interstellar medium and no longer has the ability to push out any further.  Both Voyager I & II, launched in 1977 and still sending data back to Earth, are headed towards the heliopause.  Both have crossed the termination shock which precedes the heliopause.  It is here where the solar wind slows from supersonic to subsonic speeds.  It is not known specifically when the Voyager’s will cross this threshold into the interstellar medium.  But hopefully, it will occur before the Voyager’s last instruments are shut down in 2025.  What do we know about the interstellar medium?

Voyager’s golden record. The hydrogen electron spin state is depicted on the lower right. This provides a calibration for distance and time for any extraterrestrial life that might encounter Voyager. A detailed explanation of the golden record can be found here.  Credit: NASA/JPL

As hydrogen was created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, it is the most common element in the universe.  In interstellar space, it is not hot enough to ionize hydrogen.  Neutral hydrogen (HI) emits 21 cm radio waves.    If the spin of a hydrogen atom’s electron and proton are parallel, the electron flips its spin to be anti-parallel.  This action causes the electron to occupy a slightly lower energy level emitting radio waves in the process.  Unlike light, radio transmissions penetrate through dust clouds.  Think of it this way, if you have your radio on, the reception will be the same regardless how dusty your room is.  This has allowed astronomers to complete comprehensive maps of galactic hydrogen gas clouds.  This is crucial in mapping the Milky Way as hydrogen’s radio transmissions give us a better look at our home galaxy.

In a spiral galaxy, hydrogen tends to be found in the arms.  It is in these areas where stars tend to be born.  The rotational velocity of the hydrogen in the arms and its resultant red/blue shifts allow us to differentiate it from intergalactic hydrogen.  The 21 cm radio emissions are so ubiquitous that it was decided to use these emissions on the Voyager golden record as a calibration scale for potential extraterrestrials who might find the probe.  The thinking being, as this is the most common emission in the universe, any alien race would also know about it and use it to decipher the time and distance measurements.

A 360 degree map of hydrogen in the Milky Way. The oval represents a sphere flattened by making a cut from one pole to the other. Bluish gas is approaching Earth while greenish gas is receding from Earth. The plane of the Milky Way runs across the center while the neighboring Magellanic Clouds are in the lower right. Credit: HI4PI: A full-sky HI survey based on EBHIS and GASS, Astronomy & Astrophysics.

When there is a star near a hydrogen cloud, it can heat it up to the point where it ionizes.  When accelerated, charged particles emit radio waves.  In an ionized hydrogen cloud, when a negatively charged electron is near a positively charged proton, it accelerates and emits radio waves.  This is something akin to radio transmission towers on Earth.  Electrons are accelerated up and down the tower generating the radio transmission you receive at home.  Ionized hydrogen clouds are hot enough to emit visible light as well.  By combining radio and visual observations, astronomers have been able to map out the spiral arms of the Milky Way.

Orion Nebula as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. During winter and spring it is visible with binoculars.

Hydrogen is not the only element in interstellar space.  The second most abundant element is helium, also created in the throes of the Big Bang.  Beyond that there are trace amounts of other elements such as oxygen and carbon generated in the nuclear fusion of ancient generation stars that released these elements as a planetary nebula or supernova explosion.  While small in amounts, these are large in importance.  This is especially true of organic, carbon based molecules in space.  It is these molecules that form the basis of life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere.

Also occupying interstellar space are dust grains.  If lightwaves are smaller than the dust grains, it is scattered in random directions.  If a lightwave is longer than a dust grain, it is not scattered and allowed to pass through unabated.  Thus, on Earth, short wavelength blue light is scattered by dust in the atmosphere resulting in the blue sky.  Conversely, long red wavelength passes through dust and creates the red sky at sunset.  The same processes are at work in space.  Dust grains scatter blue light reddening celestial objects when viewed here on Earth.  In some cases, such as nebulae and the galactic center, dust can obscure our view entirely.  The answer is to view in even longer wavelengths than red light – infrared light.

Infrared light, which is basically heat, is not visible to the eye.  You cannot see body heat with your eyes, but you can view it with night vision goggles, which is an infrared detector.  At near-infrared wavelengths, located adjacent to the optical band on the electromagnetic spectrum, dust is transparent.  Far-infrared, which has longer wavelengths closer to radio waves, can detect dust formations that radiate in these wavelengths.  The Earth radiates most in infrared and thus, it is advantageous to have an infrared observatory in space protected from interference from Earth.  The Spitzer Space Telescope does just that by observing in the infrared.

A composite image in both far and near infrared showing stars in the Milky Way core and the dust that normally obscures those stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dust grains are important for life.  When dust grains begin to clump together around a protostar, it is the first step in planet building.  It has been theorized that dust is how organic material was delivered to Earth to form the building blocks of life.  The early Earth would have been too hot for organics to survive on the surface.  The theory is ultraviolet radiation broke apart dust grains, allowing them to recombine into organic compounds to be deposited on Earth via asteroids and comets.  The jury is still out on this, and while we cannot observe the formation of the Earth, we can observe the formation of other planetary systems via infrared and radio observatories.  The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will observe in the infrared and should advance our understanding of these processes greatly.

The interstellar medium has about one atom per cubic centimeter.  The intergalactic medium has less than one atom per cubic meter.  It is also very hot at 100,000 to 10,000,000 Kelvin.  This is not intuitive given the lack of obvious heat sources between galaxies.  We know the temperature as the intergalactic medium emits high energy x-rays indicative of hot objects.  The heat is generated by active galactic nuclei and gravitational wells of galactic clusters.  Temperature is a measure of energy which in turn is a measure of motion.  Since this space is so rarefied, it does not take a lot of push to move it to high velocities.  And since it is so rarefied, this is where dark energy makes its full impact.

The expansion of the universe slowed until about 5 billion years ago when dark energy became more dominant than gravity. Credit: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Nic Ross, BOSS Lyman-alpha team, Berkeley Lab

Dark energy is the force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.  Until about 5 billion years ago, gravity dominated the universe and was slowing down the acceleration.  Since then, dark energy has dominated and has accelerated the expansion.  What is dark energy?  We don’t know.  Within the confines of galaxies, gravity still dominates and we don’t feel the universal expansion on Earth.  However, these confines are but a small part of the volume of the universe.  The ultimate fate of the universe will be dictated by dark energy in the intergalactic void.  Some feel that the universe will end in a Big Rip where even subatomic particles are shredded apart by the continuing expansion of the universe.  Obviously, life could not exist in this state.  Worry not, this would be many, many billion years in the future.  Nonetheless, our universe has a life cycle.  And this underscores our need to understand the processes at work in seemingly, but not quite, empty space.

*Image atop post is Hubble wide field view of NGC 6791, an open star cluster that also has a couple of galaxies in the background.  Credit:  NASA, ESA, and L. Bedin (STScI)

Confederate Statues and Lost Educational Opportunities

At first glance, it’s easy not to muster up any sympathy for the college student who traveled to Charlottsville in Confederate garb, heavily armed, to salute the statue of Robert E. Lee.  The student was subsequently kicked out of Pensacola Christian College.  True, it was an exercise in poor judgement to rush into town in the aftermath of a violent neo-Nazi demonstration.  And the student’s understanding of the Civil War is flawed, to say the least.  However, having gone to high school in the South, I’ve experienced how that flawed understanding of the Civil War is promulgated by that region’s educational institutions.  This incident is not just a personal failure in judgement, but an institutional failure as well.

During my time in the South, I met countless characters like the student in question.  Steeped in the mythology of the Lost Cause, a viewpoint that the Civil War was a war of Northern Aggression, that the South was defending its economy against oppressive tariffs.  Slavery?  Nah, that had nothing to do with it.  Often the individuals I met who doubled down on this to the point where it was a major component of their self-identity, came from the lowest rungs of white Southern culture.  How does this happen?

Part of it is the promise that if you adopt this cultural outlook, you’ll move up in the ranks of society.  Go along to get along.  That’s a con, of course.  Once on the bottom, always on the bottom, no matter how furiously you double down on that.  For me, that was easy to figure out.  I moved down South my sophomore year in high school.  I could see the trajectory my Northern friends were taking in high school and compare to mine.  While strongly encouraged to adopt that same neo-Confederate self-identity as a means to fit in, I could clearly see my future consisted of menial labor unless I physically expunged myself from that situation.  What if I did not have that external social network to recognize that?  That is an alternative universe I am grateful never to have to visit.

I took American History in my third year of high school.  Thankfully, I had an African-American history teacher who had no interest in promoting the Lost Cause of the South.  That, however, is an anomaly.  Beyond the confines of that class, the societal/educational institutions of the South are geared towards a revisionist history of the Civil War.  While we can hold individuals accountable for a deeply flawed take on the Civil War, we also need to hold educational institutions accountable as well.  What changes need to be made?

A constructionist study on the causes of the Civil War should be implemented in American History courses.  Rather than lecture to the students, have the students take a look at the historical documents directly.  A good start are the Declaration of Causes of Succeeding States which, in plain language, describe the reasons the South succeeded from the Union.  There will be a lot of political/societal resistance to this.  And that is why it is important for students to examine the actual historical documents firsthand rather than play a game of which authority figure to trust on this.

In addition, a sequence on racial violence should be introduced.  Most of the Confederate statues in question were built during a wave of racial violence from 1900-25.  When I went to high school, this period of violence, which included riots with fatalities into the hundreds, was expunged from the history texts.  I did not learn of the Tulsa riot of 1921 that killed over 300 in high school.  Nor, for that matter, the Houston riot of 1917 that killed 17 in one night even though I went to high school in that city.  The real revision of Civil War history took place during this era.  An understanding that the cause of Southern succession was an reassertion of white supremacy is merely a restoration of history.

Another focus for educators is the matter of self-identity.  While it’s great to study history and understand how we got to where we are, it has to be emphasized to students it’s a mistake to base your self-identity on the past.  You can’t bask in a historic figure’s victories, nor take the hit for their faults.  Someone born in the present day South is not responsible for past slavery, anymore than I am for slavery that existed in New York prior to its abolition in 1827.  You only become complicit in past sins when you personally, knowingly or not, perpetuate the cause.  You have to establish your own life’s legacy in the here and now.  Education is not just delivering subject content, but building a student’s sense of self.  We need to be cognizant of that.

If educational institutions are going to expel students for adopting a neo-Confederate outlook, we have to be accountable to those standards as well – notwithstanding the intense political pressures that come along with that.  That goes for both the North & South these days.  During the late 70’s as I flew back and forth between the two, I was often reminded of the Byrds’ song Eight Miles High on the surrealism of flying between two culturally distinct regions.  Those distinctions have largely dissipated.  Today, you’re as likely to see a Confederate flag in Upstate New York as you are in Texas.  Lots of work needs to be done all the way around on this matter.

 

Life Magazine and the Detroit Riots (plus some other history)

During the summer of 1982, I worked at the City of Houston Tax Office.  Listening to homeowners grouse about their taxes 8 hours a day was not fun, but the job paid well, and it beat working at McDonald’s for the summer.  Lunch hour was literally that – one hour long and it gave me a lot of time to explore downtown Houston.  Across the street from City Hall was the central library.  On the first floor was a nifty bound periodical section that included all the issues of Life Magazine from its run starting in 1936 and ending in 1972.  The release of the movie Detroit this week concerning the 1967 riots brought me back to that summer.

Typically, to read old issues of a magazine such as Life, one had to head towards the microfilm room.  It was a treat to spend my summer lunch hours reading the real deal.  Historians will usually claim that history can’t truly be understood until 50 years afterwards.  It often takes that long for classified documents to become public.  However, I think there is certainly value in experiencing history as the people did during any given time period.  And for most of its run, Life was the go to source for photojournalism.  Being a World War II buff, I made it a point to examine every issue from 1939 to the end of the Nuremberg trials.  And it was the Detroit riots that provided a first crack in the edifice for me of standard World War II history, where America was entirely united in wartime.

I was nineteen and by then, I had a pretty good background on the war, the politics, and the battles, but was still lacking in nuance.  How did the Detroit riots of 1967 play into this?  To understand what happened in 1967, you have to understand the 1943 Detroit riots.  And those riots are not typically addressed in high school history or encyclopedia accounts of World War II.  Life magazine gave me a first glimpse into that aspect of American history and later in the 1980’s, Studs Terkle and Paul Fussell, among others, provided a more comprehensive understanding of America during that period.

Google has partnered with Time-Life and has all the issues of Life online.  Besides allowing me to relive the summer of ’82, we can take a look at how the Detroit riots were covered at the time.  It started in 1942, when a white mob attempted to block African-Americans from occupying the Sojourner Truth Homes.  As the war resulted in intense labor shortages, blacks were recruited from the South to work in the war plants.  Life’s coverage of that event can be found here.  Five months later, Life followed up with a series on the racial factions in Detroit and the ongoing tensions still existing.  Tragically, Life’s reporting was prescient of things to come.

The 1943 riots lasted from June 20-22 and left 34 dead.  The start of the riot, as is often the case, was generated by false rumors of both white attacks on blacks and vise versa.  The root cause was ongoing racial discrimination from housing and the best jobs in the auto industry.  Detroit’s population surged from 465,000 in 1910 to 1.6 million in 1940 resulting in a housing shortage that left blacks in sub-standard dwellings.  The casualties of the 1943 riot were mostly black as both white mobs and police outnumbered black residents.  The Life coverage of the riot notes that, “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S.”  In the end, Detroit blew up Hitler, but as Life noted, the riots were a huge propaganda tool for Nazi Germany.  Life’s nine page coverage of the riot can be found here.

The 1967 riot was a link in a long chain of racial tensions in Detroit.  The 1967 riot was more deadlier – 43 died and it came just after the Newark riot.  Life begins its coverage by referring to the riot as “the Negro revolt” akin to the phrase rebellion used today.  The economy was booming in 1967 with a national unemployment rate of 3.8%, even lower than it was in the late ’90’s boom.  However, it was 11% for blacks in Detroit.  Also, the decade saw the migration of whites and jobs out to the suburbs and out of reach for inner city blacks.  Add in the additional stress caused by the Vietnam War and you got a toxic brew of racial tension.  Life’s coverage of the 1967 riot can be found here.

Riots weren’t the only thing I read about in 1982.  Here are some links to articles that stand out to me 35 years later.

Germany invades Poland

Life Looks Back at a Year of Disaster – an end of year 1940 article covering fall of Western Europe to Nazi Germany.

War in Russia – Germany invades Russia.

America Goes to War – coverage of Pearl Harbor.

Battle of Midway

Red Army Fights for Mother Russia

Beachheads of Normandy – images of the first wave hitting the beaches.

Allies Squeeze the German Bulge

Iwo Jima

Concentration Camps Liberated

War Ends in Europe

Victory in Europe issue

Allies Round Up War Criminals

Atomic Bomb Dropped in Japan

Japan Signs the Surrender

Nazi Leaders Sing Their Swan Song

First Image of Earth From Space – taken by captured V-2.

The Feat That Shook the Earth – Sputnik launches space age.

JFK Memorial Issue

Week of Shock – MLK assassinated, LBJ declines to run for 2nd term.

Death of Robert Kennedy

To the Moon and Back – Apollo 11 Special Issue

The Big Woodstock Rock Trip/Norman Mailer’s Fire on the Moon/Manson Murders

Apollo 13 Returns Home

Attica Prison Riot

Nixon’s Great Leap into China

Local Interest (Buffalo – where I currently reside)

The Big Snow – 1945 blizzard

Coal Strike Affects Buffalo in 1950

Can This be Buffalo – 1965 Albright-Knox Festival of Art

These, of course, reflect my personal interests.  To explore the Google Life archives you can go to its homepage.  Also, the Google Life photo archive has millions of photos and you can take a gander at that here.  The online search function makes it easy to locate issues of interest, but browsing through issues and randomly looking at articles and advertisements can provide some nuggets as well.  The dichotomy between the articles on the war front and home front is particularly striking during World War II.

And what of the collection at the Houston library where I originally read these articles?  Its been moved to the closed stacks and replaced by a computer lab.  Like everything else, progress sometimes comes with a price.

 

Social Media in the Classroom

Social media, like all things on the internet, can provide great benefits or be a total cesspool depending how it is managed.  On the plus side, a teacher can funnel new discoveries directly to students.  This is much preferable to waiting a few years for that to be published in textbooks.  On the downside there are the usual trolls waiting for you.  And obviously, we don’t want the classroom to resemble a website comments section.  For this post, I’ll focus on Twitter and Facebook.

I was reluctant to sign up on Twitter with its 140 character limitations.  However, I teach astronomy, and NASA is a Twitter machine.  This is particularity true with ongoing missions. Once a mission has ended, but the data is still being processed, NASA seems to prefer Facebook to make those announcements.  In Twitter culture, there is an emphasis on acquiring large amounts of followers.  Unless you work in mass media, I would recommend looking for high quality of interaction over quantity.  The Twitter landscape is populated by trolls and bot accounts.  Target certain accounts that are subject related and be quick to use the block feature to prevent an interloper from ruining the experience.  If Twitter is being used in a class, using a private account may be a good option.

Twitter is at its best when researchers are disseminating and reviewing results.  At times, you may get to see the scientific process at work when scientists debate their results.  In the class, this can be a demonstration of the dynamics of scientific discovery.  Sometimes it’s messy!  It can be used to display professionalism when researches volley back and forth over the meaning of their data.  It can also be used to demonstrate that even professionals can stumble and personalize their arguments.  In science, its the argument, not the person, that wins the day.  Used wisely, Twitter can be a useful mechanism to bring current research results into the class.

Facebook is a different animal.  With greater privacy settings, it is easier to contain the trolling element without going completely private.  Once a mission has ended, NASA’s twitter accounts tend to go silent while further discoveries are announced on their Facebook accounts.  For example, after the Messenger mission ended, the discovery that Mercury was shrinking was released on Facebook but not on Twitter.  For astronomy, this makes Facebook a key supplement to Twitter.  Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit allowing for more descriptive posts.  Also unlike Twitter, you are not likely to see scientific debates on Facebook.  However, Facebook has a higher quality interface for images which is especially helpful for astronomy.  To start off, below are some links.

For Twitter, you do not need an account to access a public Twitter feed.  The blue check marks next to an account name verifies this is a legit feed.

NASA 

NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate

NASA Astrobiology Journal

NASA Solar System

NASA Sun & Space

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Of course, as you explore various Twitter accounts you’ll find others that strike your fancy.  Like Twitter, Facebook allows accounts to verify themselves as legit with a blue check mark.  Facebook requires an account to view other feeds.  Some good Facebook feeds to start with:

NASA

NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate Change

NASA Solar System Exploration

Curiosity Mars Rover

NASA Sun Science

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Over a thousand years ago, the Silk Road served to transport knowledge and ideas between Central Asia, China, India, and Western Europe.  The internet serves the same purpose today and social media is a key component.  With a little experience and time to manage it, social media can play a constructive role in the classroom.

The Subatomic World – It’s a Jungle Out There

In high school, students are typically introduced to the three basic particles that constitute atoms, that being, protons, neutrons, and electrons.  Unless you decide to take physics in college, education of the atom typically stops there.  That gives the impression that these particles are the smallest bits of matter to be found.  Both protons and neutrons consist of even smaller sub-atomic particles.  The electron cannot be broken down any further.  However, unlike the simple models taught in high school, it is not a particle that orbits the nucleus like planets orbiting stars.

Quantum mechanics dictate the properties of sub-atomic particles which behave quite differently from the large objects we can see.  As a result, their behavior can be counter-intuitive as our eyesight is not capable of resolving these particles.  In the quantum world, particles can pop in and out of existence and consequently, tunnel through barriers in a manner large objects cannot.  The Standard Model guides our understanding of this realm.  This model predicts dozens of quantum particles and configurations – the subatomic jungle.  This post will not be a comprehensive going over of that as that would require a Modern Physics course, but will serve to stretch the bounds of your knowledge beyond the simple atomic model.

Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom.  Protons have a positive electrical charge and neutrons have no charge.  Both protons and neutrons are made of quarks which have a charge that comes in thirds.  Up quarks have a charge of 2/3 while down quarks have a charge of – 1/3.  It takes three quarks to make a proton or neutron.  In the case of a proton, there are two up quarks and one down quark (the charge is 2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3 = 1).  The neutron is made of one up quark and two down quarks (the charge being 2/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 = 0).  Besides the difference in charge, there is a slight difference in mass between protons and neutrons.

Neutrons are slightly more massive than protons.  If the neutron resides in the nucleus, it is stable.  If it is a free-floating particle, the neutron eventually decays into a proton.  During this process, known as beta decay, an electron and an antineutrino is released.  Beta decay often occurs in nuclear reactors.  An antineutrino is the antimatter version of a neutrino.  Neither an antineutrino or a neutrino have electrical charge and their mass is close to zero.  Neutrinos are produced in the nuclear fusion of stars including the Sun.  In fact, each second, tens of billions of neutrinos pass through your body.  These particles interact very weakly with matter and it requires very complex instruments to detect them.

It can take many thousands, and according to some estimates, millions of years for a light photon created in the Sun’s core to reach the solar surface and begin its journey in space.  As neutrino’s interact very weakly with matter, it only takes a few seconds to reach the solar surface.  Thus, the study of solar neutrinos can provide clues pertaining to the current state of the solar core.  Of course, this same property makes it very difficult to detect neutrinos and require specialized instruments.  One such facility is the SNOLAB near Sudbury, Ontario.  The detectors are located 2,000 meters below the surface to shield it from cosmic ray noise.  This is similar to locating a telescope in a dark area to prevent noise from human made light.  Neutrinos can also give an early detection method for supernovae.  As a supernova will release neutrinos before light, detecting these neutrinos can alert astronomers to turn their telescopes to observe the moment light is released from these events.

Like neutrinos, electrons are a fundamental particle.  Unlike neutrinos, electrons have a negative charge.  In neutral atoms, the negative charge of  electrons offsets the positive charge of an equal amount of protons.  In high school, we are taught the model that electrons are point-like particles orbiting the nucleus.  This is a simplified model to start students off in understanding the atom and has provided the misconception that electrons are similar to miniaturized planets orbiting the Sun.  The reality is more complex.  Electrons are smeared into a cloud encircling the nucleus.  The cloud is a probability curve in which the electron exists in all its possible states.    Bizarre?  Welcome to the quantum world.

How would this translate to the large-scale world we can see?  Think of a dice in a box.  Shake the box, which number of the dice is facing up?  In the quantum world, all six configurations exist simultaneously in the box.  That is, until you open the box and the probability curve collapses to the configuration observed.

Helium atom with 2 protons and 2 neutrons in the core. The 2 electrons are smeared in the surrounding orbital cloud. The darker the area, the higher the probability the electron resides in the area.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that more we know about the position of a quantum particle, the less we know about its momentum (and velocity).  Also, the more we know about a quantum particle’s momentum, the more uncertainty there is about its position.  Thus, the atom is not mostly empty space as we are taught in grade school.  Credit: Wiki Commons

That’s how Niels Bohr saw it and it is referred to as the Copenhagen Interpretation.  To some, this explanation was unsatisfactory and led to Schrödinger’s cat.  Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment where a cat is placed in a box with a cyanide capsule that would be triggered when a Geiger counter detected a radioactive decay.  The decay had a 50% probability of occurring.  Thus, in the quantum world, the atom exists in both states-one where it had decayed and released radioactivity and the other where it had not.  But what about the cat?  Did it too exist in two states, one dead and one alive?  Worry not, no one has tried this experiment.  It was Schrödinger’s way of pointing out the inconsistencies between quantum mechanics of the atom and the law of relativity which governs how large objects behave.  Others, such as Hugh Everett III, sought another explanation.

In his 1957 doctoral thesis, Everett argued that the universe splits with each possible action.  Thus, in the dice example, once you shake the box, the universe splits into six different universes.  Each universe has the dice with a different number facing up.  This removes the need for an observer to collapse the probability wave.  It’s a fascinating proposal, as this would mean there exists separate universes for each course of action you could have taken in your life.  While many physicists are very enthusiastic about Everett’s work, they have not yet devised a way to test it experimentally as we are unable to observe other universes.  Unless such a way is devised, for now, we have to treat it as a very interesting hypothesis.  The same can not be said about the Higgs boson.

Unlike the particles above that make up matter, bosons transmit the basic forces of nature.  There are four of these forces, electromagnetism, weak-nuclear, strong-nuclear, and gravity.  Photons are particles of light that transmit electromagnetic force.  W and Z bosons transmit the weak-nuclear force that causes radioactive decay.  Gluons transmits the strong nuclear force that binds atomic nuclei together.  It is this force that is released in nuclear weapons.  Gravitons are a speculative boson that would transmit gravity.  To date, we do not have a quantum theory that explains gravity on an atomic scale.  And then there is the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle.

The God particle is a misnomer.  Leon Lederman, who was awarded a Nobel in 1988, referred to the Higgs boson as the Goddamn particle as it was so difficult to detect.  Lerderman’s popular book on nuclear physics published in the early 1990’s was to be titled after the original moniker, but the publisher shortened it to The God Particle.  While the Higgs boson has no religious connection, it is crucial as it imparts the property of mass in atoms.  Mass is often confused with weight.  Mass is constant whereas weight can change.  If you travel to the Moon, your weight will be 1/6th what it is on Earth but your mass will remain the same.  Weight is a measure of the force of gravity on a body whereas mass measures the amount of “stuff” in a body.

Aerial outline of the CERN facilities. Credit: Maximilien Brice/CERN

In 2012, it was announced the Higgs boson was discovered at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  The Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model and the evidence matched the prediction.  CERN is a consortium of 22 nations and operates by the Swiss-France border.  The LHC was opened in 2008 and is a 27 km ring that accelerates sub-atomic particles close to the speed of light via supercooled magnets.  Besides its many discoveries in particle physics, CERN invented the World Wide Web in 1989 to disseminate its work.  CERN allowed the World Wide Web to enter the public domain in 1993, making the internet boom of the 1990’s possible, not to mention, this blog.

The LHC is the world’s most powerful supercollider.  The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) that was being built in Texas during the early 1990’s would have dwarfed the LHC.  The SSC would have been a 87 km ring and three times as powerful as the LHC.  Construction on the SSC was halted in 1993.  Several factors conspired to do in the SSC, among them the economy, politics, and cost overruns.  The US economy entered into a recession during the early 1990’s prompting the federal government to look into cost cutting.  Then there was Texas senator Phil Graham, who brought the bacon back to Texas but delighted in nixing projects in other states.  Cancelling SSC was a way of returning the favor.  At the time of cancellation, over $2 billion had been spent and the project was running several billion dollars over its original estimate.

The SSC under construction. Credit: Physics Today

That the SSC had cost overruns is not a surprise.  In any project where technology has to be invented to complete it, there is a large degree of uncertainty with costs.  This is true of the space program as well.  When entering the realm of the unknown, the economics of that kind of project are not really known until completion.  The SSC site now lies abandoned, with over 20 km of tunnels dug.  Had it been completed, it could have opened our knowledge of quantum physics in the same manner the Hubble did for astronomy.  The largest American supercollider, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, was shut down in 2011 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  The next generation of supercolliders is being built in China, set to begin construction in 2020, will be twice the size of the LHC.  To date, there is no American proposal to match these efforts.

While the traces left behind in particle accelerators allow us to deduce the properties of sub-atomic particles, we are unable to see the particles themselves as they are much smaller than lightwaves.  Using x-rays, which have shorter wavelengths, we can see atomic structure in crystallized lattices, but not the particles themselves.  This gets even more problematic when it comes to string theory which posits sub-atomic particles consisting of strings with a length of 1035 meters.  Detecting this is beyond the capability of the LHC and while string theory is impressive in its mathematical formulation, it will remain a hypothesis until a means is found to experimentally verify their existence.  For other properties of sub-atomic particles, we can look into the most extreme environments of the universe.

If a hydrogen atom were the size of Earth, the nucleus would only be a few hundred feet wide with the rest being electron orbitals.  If that’s the case, why can’t we walk through walls?  When atoms are compressed in a smaller volume, electrons are excited to higher energy states and create outward pressure.  This pressure is what prevents you from walking through walls.  It takes a lot of energy to compress atoms.  In white dwarfs, gravity compresses matter to the point where all the available energy states are taken up by electrons.  The intense gravity of a white dwarf, 100,000 times that of Earth, is offset by the outward pressure force created by the energized electrons.  Neutron stars can compress matter even more than white dwarfs.  Formed by the supernova explosion of high-mass stars, these objects crunch electrons and protons to form neutrons – hence neutron stars.  A teaspoon of this material would weigh about a billion tons compared to 5.5 tons for a white dwarf.

The Sun, in about five billion years, will shed its outer layers and form a planetary nebula with a white dwarf at the core.  In a few tens of thousands of years afterwards, the nebula will dissipate leaving the white dwarf.  There is no longer any fusion process when a star becomes a white dwarf, its luminosity is caused by the initial core temperature of 100,000 C.  It takes many billions of years for white dwarfs to cool down.  In fact, more time than the current age of the universe of 13.8 billion years.

Understanding the nature of sub-atomic particles allows us to understand the ultimate fate of the Sun.  It has also allowed us to make many technological advances.  Transistors, lasers, semi-conductors all owe their existence to our understanding of the tiniest particles of the quantum world.  The pure theoretical work of modern physicists in the first half of the 20th Century made possible the world we currently live in.

*Image on top is the remains of neutrino collision at CERN.  The particle tracks represent electron-positron pairs recorded in the particle accelerator.  Credit:  CERN

 

See Hidden Figures the Movie for Entertainment, Read the Book for History

The film Hidden Figures, while high in entertainment value, takes some liberties with history.  That’s not unusual for the movie industry.  For starters, the book the movie is based on is 270 pages.  Taking the rule of thumb that a screenplay requires one page for one minute, meaning the screenplay for the movie clocks in around 120 pages, right there is a lot of cutting to do.  The first 172 pages of the book covers ground before NASA was founded.  I suspect the movie pushed these events into the NASA era as the public is familiar with NASA, but not its predecessor NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics).  Consequently, the movie misses out on World War II being a key trigger of the Civil Rights movement in and beyond NASA.

NACA existed from 1915 until 1958 when it was folded into NASA.  NACA wind tunnels and research facilities played a crucial role in advancing aviation from propeller to jet engines and towards the birth of the space age.  As the threat of war became imminent in 1939, NACA’s Langley facilities received publicity from Life Magazine as America needed to upgrade its aviation research.  The war would also change the American economy from one that endured double-digit unemployment from the start of the Great Depression in 1930 to a high pressure economy with severe labor shortages.  This shortage caused wartime employers to think out of the box when it came to traditional hiring practices.

The unemployment rate dropped from 14.6% in 1940 to a record low 1.2% in 1944.  Below are the number of jobs created each month during the war.  In 1942, 3.8 million new jobs were created.  To put this in perspective, with a much larger workforce, 2 million jobs were created in 2016.

New jobs created by month in thousands. Credit: BLS

The story of Rosie the Riveter is well-known as millions of new job opportunities opened up for women in war production.  What is not as well-known are the opportunities this opened up for African-Americans who beforehand were routinely discriminated in all but a narrow range of jobs.  In the case of the women in Hidden Figures, they typically would have taken teaching jobs in a segregated black school.  With the war ramping up the need for aviation research at Langley, opportunity came knocking for those who ordinarily would not have gotten it.

Located in Virginia, Langley was segregated during World War II.  Women were employed as computers to handle what was considered the drudgery of mathematical calculations.  Prior to World War II, America would demobilize after a war and Langley would have laid off many of its employees.  However, with the upcoming Cold War, much of the workforce stayed on.  And once women and African-Americans got the taste of opportunity, they were hungry for more.  One can trace a direct line between the massive labor shortages of World War II, the beginnings of integration during the 1950’s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

The effort to integrate Langley occurred during the 1950’s before it became part of NASA.  Integration at the base tended to go more smoothly than the surrounding region.  While the computers were assigned to engineering groups, effectively ending the white and black computing departments, the state of Virginia was fiercely fighting school integration.  Some school districts opted to shut down entirely while other towns opened all-white private academies to preserve segregation.  At the university level, Virginia offered out-of-state scholarships to black students to keep the state university all white.   These attempts to maintain segregation still lingered in the South when I moved to Texas in 1978.  Some schools chose to classify each white student as gifted to enforce segregation with all-white advanced classes.

The book delves into this matter more so than the movie.  When Mary Jackson wins court approval to attend an all-white school, the book notes her disappointment at the run down appearance of the building.  The cost of needlessly operating duel school systems to maintain segregation was inefficient and lowered the educational experience for both white and black students.  This is not restricted to the Deep South.  I experienced integration in the Buffalo school system from 1976-77.  It was no big deal for myself and my classmates but the same cannot be said for many of the parents.  Over the next few decades, the schools re-segregated as whites moved out of the city into all white suburbs.

Metro areas which lack diversity tend to be economically stagnant.  Young talent in fast growing industries favor diversity as that reduces the odds their talent will be left on the table.  The longer Buffalo attempts to maintain segregation, the more difficulty it will have adapting to the new high-tech economy.  The ability to adapt is a key feature in Hidden Figures and on an personal level, the main characters adaptation skills kept them gainfully employed at Langley for several decades.

Drag test of North American P-51B Mustang in NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s Full-Scale Tunnel, September 23, 1943. Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center

The three decades from 1940-69 encompassed three distinct eras in aviation.  First was the propeller planes of World War II, then the jet age of the Korean War, and finally rocket propulsion of the space age.  As the book notes, America was slower than Europe to embrace rocket technology.  Going back to when Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the New York Times for his proposals to use rockets for space exploration, America viewed this type of work as science fiction.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was named as such to disguise its rocket research program.  While the German V-2 brought rockets into reality, at Langley, up until Sputnik, the engineers were discouraged from working on space research.

Langley’s Hypersonic Complex (under NACA was the Gas Dynamics Laboratory) housed wind tunnels to test faster than sound conditions where Mary Jackson worked. Credit: NASA

When America was hurled into the space age in 1957, those at Langley who could not adapt were let go and missed out on the Apollo era.  Those who did adapt, as demonstrated in both the book and the movie, stayed on until their retirements in the 1970’s and ’80’s.  The retirement parties given were reflective of a different era in employee relations.

When I started working in the early 80’s, retirement parties were a common event.  At Exxon, the Graphic Arts Department would put together a poster representing the retiree’s career.  The last retirement party I’ve been to was in the early 90’s.  In the private sector at least, very few people make it to voluntary retirement, usually getting let go before then.  And the process is as impersonal as it can possibly be.  The idea being that’s how Ayn Rand would have wanted it, or something.  The current lack of social structure and churning of employees in the corporate world reduces productivity as job knowledge is chronically allowed to walk out the door.

First page of Fortran manual – the same used by Dorothy Vaughan. The full manual can be accessed here. Credit: IBM.

The engineers at Langley were not prone to let talent lie fallow.  The professional crew came from all parts of the country and had varying attitudes towards women and blacks in the workplace.  It was one such engineer who allowed Mary Jackson to work in the air tunnel and eventually move up as an engineer.  Another engineer convinced his superior to allow Katherine Johnson’s name as co-author on a research paper as “she was doing most of the work anyway.”  The women at Langley were numerous enough to build an extensive support network which helped them advance.  The African-American men not so  much.  They dealt with segregation via avoidance such as eating lunch in a black owned restaurant off the Langley premises to elude the segregated cafeteria.  Unlike as depicted in the movie, the most egregious episodes of discrimination came from the locals who were mostly employed as technicians.  One such example was a tech sabotaging a wind tunnel experiment run by a black engineer.  The engineer’s manager chewed out the tech publicly to prevent another occurence.

What lessons can we take from this history?  On an individual/company level, look at your employees talent and use it to the fullest for optimal performance.  That means allowing for diversity in the workplace.  To use an analogy, would major league baseball been better off without the talents of Henry Aaron and Willie Mays?  We know the answer as teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who were slow to integrate, suffered long stretches of losing seasons in the 1960’s as a result.  Also, adaptability is key for survival.  The instinct to stand pat should be avoided.   On a macro level, a policy of pushing for a high pressure economy can induce societal and economic change as employers are forced to innovate in their hiring practices.  While we can’t restore the past to bring about positive results, we can at least take home the proper lessons of history.

*Image above is from Katherine Johnson’s first author credit.  The full research paper can be found here.  Another notable effort from Johnson is on the navigation for Solar System exploration which can be found here.

The City and the Classroom

“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.” – Jane Jacobs

During the 1960’s, an urban dispute broke out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.  Nominally, the quarrel originated from Moses’s desire to build high speed expressways and master planned communities wiping out existing neighborhoods.  However, it was really an age old debate on how to build communities.  Moses favored a top-down process while Jacobs felt cities were best served by allowing neighborhoods to develop from the bottom up.  While watching the documentary Citizen Jane which explored this era, it occurred to me this topic is universal in nature and applies just as well in education.  If cities, as Jacobs said, transform illiterates into skilled people, certainly schools do the same.  What can we learn from this era?

The challenge Moses faced was how to integrate a new technology (automobiles) into cities and relieve overcrowding.  Urban renewal was not a new phenomena.  The streets of Paris were widened and many older, medieval neighborhoods cleared out by Georges-Eugene Haussmann between 1853-70.  Modern Paris largely owes its appearance to Haussmann’s efforts.  Moses’ efforts were less successful integrating the automobile into the existing city and along with his master planned communities broke down crucial social connections.  As the saying goes, bridges, not walls, build cities.  Moses’ work effectively built walls in the city.

Cross Bronx Expressway dividing north and south Bronx. Credit: NYCEDC

Things came to a head when Moses proposed to build a highway through the SoHo and Little Italy neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan.  A grassroots resistance effort led by Jane Jacobs put a stop to this plan and began the downfall of Robert Moses as a major power broker.  Jacobs was opposed to master planning and felt cities become great organically by problem solving decisions made on the street level.  As a result, there has been a tendency to view this as a you’re with us or you’re against us kind of debate.  The truth is, you need central planning to provide a framework for individuals to make those uncoordinated decisions to complete a city.

Moses left his imprint all across New York State and Buffalo was no exception.  Like New York City, neighborhoods were divided by the Kensington Expressway and waterfront access blocked by the Niagara Thruway.  An expressway was constructed across Delaware Park that was designated as vacant land on the planning maps.  Does this prove planning inherently to be a bad idea?  Not when you consider the parkway system destroyed was master planned by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1800’s.  The highly successful existing street plan had been designed by Joseph Ellicott based on the same blueprint his brother used for Washington D.C.  What differentiates good planing from bad planing and what can we take from that from building communities in classrooms?

Olmsted park and parkway system (green) complimented, rather than disrupted, the exiting city plan. This map of Buffalo is from 1896.

Infrastructure should not be viewed only as a means of moving material, but transporting and exchanging ideas as well.  This was Moses’ key mistake.  Interstates can move tens of thousands of cars in and out of a city, but unlike city streets, are not places for people to exchange ideas or build social connections.  When that aspect of a community is taken away, the community begins to decay.  When attempting to integrate new technology into the classroom, it has to be more than just delivering content, there has to be a mechanism in place to allow the class to exchange thoughts on the content delivered.  Many students I have talked to have felt alienated, especially in online classes, by the lack of interaction made available.

Ideological arguments often take the form of all or nothing stances.  In this case, whether discussing cities or the classrooms, we can’t look at it as all top down micromanagement vs. total freedom on the ground level.  It’s like saying you only need air or gasoline in an automobile engine.  One without the other will not make the engine work.  You need the right mixture for optimal performance and the same is true for planning vs. ground level innovation.  In education, the framework should be as follows:

A master curriculum for the course to cover, but allow the instructor the freedom to decide how to address it.  The instructor will know the students needs and abilities much more than the bureaucracy above.

Within the framework of the class, students should be allowed to explore their own interests within each topic after a minimum proficiency is proven.  In my course, this takes the form of discussion segments where students are allowed to present findings on a subject they have selected.  Students have to be allowed to breathe and choose how they delve deeper into the subject.

Going back to the city analogy, without an overall plan to provide a framework, the result is a free for all situation.  This would be reminiscent of when I lived in Houston during the late 1970’s when the city had no zoning laws.  You ended up with adult book stores, strip joints, and message parlors located next to schools, an obviously undesirable situation.  On the other hand, too much planning leaves neighborhoods devoid of any sort of vibrancy.  This was seen in the high-rise projects all across the nation that were eventually imploded.

When something implemented does not work out as planned, adaptability, rather than doubling down on a poor idea, is desired.  The aforementioned high rise projects looked great on paper, offering green space and play areas for children.  In fact, Jane Jacobs herself originally thought these would be great for city life.  Once the reality failed to match expectations, Jacobs reevaluated her position whereas Robert Moses did not.  The same is true for a lesson plan that looks great on paper but fails to light a spark in the class.  Keep what works, change what does not.

When introducing new technology into an existing classroom, it should compliment and enhance the current course structure.  While I teach online, I am wary of high-tech evangelicals who view the internet as a cure all for what ails education.  Technology can be a helpful tool. but the rush to “disrupt” the education sector can have the same results building highways in residential neighborhoods and parks did.  That’s not disruption, it was destruction.  We want to think in terms of improving the student experience, not to destroy it.

Come to think of it, that’s the approach to take in any community endeavor.

Carbon

Most are aware the role carbon, specifically in carbon dioxide, plays in global warming. What is important is not to designate carbon as something inherently harmful. In fact, without carbon, life would not be possible. So lets take a look at carbon and how it fits into the big picture on Earth.

Carbon is created in the nuclear fusion of stars.  When sun-like stars become red giants, their cores fuse helium and beryllium into carbon atoms.  When a massive star goes supernova, the explosion disperses the matter created by that star into the universe and is recycled into new stars and planets. Remember the old song lyric, “We are stardust?” That is literally the case. The matter that makes up most of our bodies was produced in the fusion reaction of an ancient generation star.

So what is carbon? Lets take a look at the image below:

Credit: Alejandro Portis/Wiki Commons.

First, note the number of protons in the nucleus equals the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus. Protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. The fact that there are equal numbers of both means the atom is electrically neutral. Also, note that there are four electrons in the outside orbital shell. This shell can fit a total of eight electrons. Thus, the carbon atom can form molecules with other elements by sharing four electrons in the outer shell with the other element. Atoms like to have their outside shells filled, or as many a high school chemistry teacher has said, are “happy” when those outer shells are filled.

Carbon Based Life

The study of organic chemistry is often treated as a course onto itself. What is important to understand is that life on Earth is carbon based. The bonds that a carbon atom can form with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms make it the backbone of organic molecules that life consists of.  Carbon atoms have the ability to form long complex chains of molecules to create carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids (such as DNA).

Nature likes to recycle. As noted above, carbon was formed in stars and recycled in new stars. Carbon is recycled on Earth as well. Ever hear of the term fossil fuels? That is because the fuel we use is carbon based. And those carbon based fuels are extracted from the Earth. How did those carbon based fuels get there? From the dead remains of plant and animal life that existed on Earth millions of years ago.

Hydrocarbons

The fuel we use in our day-to-day lives are based on hydrocarbons. The term is derived from the molecular structure of these fuels based on molecules composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. For example, natural gas is mostly methane which is a simple hydrocarbon based on one carbon atom sharing an electron with four hydrogen atoms. Hence, methane’s molecular formula is CH4. On the other hand, gasoline is formed by long chains of carbon-hydrogen bonds designated as C11H24 or C12H26. An example of some hydrocarbons is shown below:

Credit: United States Geological Survey.

Why do hydrocarbons make an excellent fuel source? There are a multitude of reasons. Hydrocarbons produce a lot of energy and can be controlled during combustion. Economically, fossil fuels are easy to store and transport. That also makes gasoline difficult to replace as not only do new automobile engines need to be designed, but a new infrastructure would need to be built to replace the current refinery-pipeline-gas station system. While great strides are being made in alternative fuel sources, fossil fuels will be a significant player in the economy for the foreseeable future.

To see why this is a concern, we’ll take a look at a simplified version of the carbon cycle below.

Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Genomic Science Program/http://genomicscience.energy.gov

Note how the use of fossil fuels results in a net intake of 6 billion (Gt=giga tons, giga = 1 billion) tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon is recycled between the land, oceans, and atmosphere. Why do fossil fuels emit more carbon into the atmosphere than absorbed back into land? The reason is, it takes millions of years to form fossil fuels but only a few months to extract and burn it. It’s the same if you run more water into a bathtub than the drain can take away. So, what happens to that carbon when fossil fuels are burned and released into the atmosphere?

Carbon Dioxide

To understand how carbon dioxide is formed, lets take a look at an oxygen atom below:

Credit: Greg Robson/Wiki Commons.

Note that oxygen has 6 electrons in the outer shell that can hold eight electrons. Remember, the carbon atom has 4 empty spots in its outer shell to share. That being the case, two oxygen atoms will combine with a single carbon atom so that the outer shells of the oxygen atoms will be completely filled with eight electrons and are “happy”.

Methane is the simplest of the hydrocarbon fuels. What happens when methane is burned for energy?

Oxygen is used as a catalyst to burn methane as follows:

CH4 (methane) + 2O2 -> CO2 (carbon dioxide) + 2H2O + energy

Note that each side of the equation contains 1 carbon atom, 4 hydrogen atoms, and 4 oxygen atoms. When fossil fuels are burned for energy, carbon dioxide is released in the exhaust and into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse Gases

The composition of the Earth’s atmosphere is as follows:

Nitrogen:                    78%

Oxygen:                      21%

Argon:                         0.9%

Carbon Dioxide:        0.03%

Methane:                    0.00017%

How is it that trace gases such as carbon dioxide and methane play a dominant role in the greenhouse effect but nitrogen and oxygen do not? That is a matter of the molecular structure of each substance. Before we get into that, lets take a look at the role greenhouse gases have on Earth’s ability to support life.

To appreciate greenhouse gases on Earth, we’ll take a look at a place without greenhouse gases, the Moon. The Moon is the same distance from the Sun as the Earth and provides a baseline to examine. Below is a comparison of average temperature on the Moon and on Earth:

Moon: 00 F

Earth: 600 F

In other words, without greenhouse gases, the average temperature of the Earth would be the same as the Moon at 00 F.   At that temperature, water on Earth would be frozen and human life would not exist. The point here is that greenhouse gases are not “bad”. In fact, we need those gases to survive. However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing and that includes greenhouse gases.

What makes a gas a greenhouse gas?

That question can be answered by looking at the molecular structure of the gases that exist in the Earth’s atmosphere. Some molecules, such as carbon dioxide, have molecular bonds that can stretch and vibrate, while others, such as nitrogen and oxygen, have molecular bonds that are rigid. In addition, the molecules whose bonds can vibrate are choosy at which frequencies they vibrate. To understand this better, take a look at the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum below:

Credit: NASA

Note that radio, microwaves, infrared, light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays are all forms of EM radiation. What differentiates the various types of EM radiation are the wavelengths. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy the EM radiation has. That is why gamma rays are very damaging to life and we must be careful not to overexpose ourselves to x-rays and ultraviolet rays. Greenhouse gases only absorb radiation in the infrared range. What exactly is infrared radiation?

As you can tell from the image above, our eyes can only detect a small part of the EM spectrum. Infrared radiation is one form that we cannot see but can feel as heat. The vibrational motions of atoms and molecules produce infrared radiation and all objects radiate in the infrared. In fact, humans radiate most strongly in the infrared as does the planets, including Earth. Night vision goggles are basically infrared sensors. Detecting heat from objects at night allow us to see those objects in the dark.  Below is an image of a cat in infrared:

Credit: NASA/IPAC

Note the yellow areas on the infrared image. These are the warmest areas of the cat. The nose, which is dark, is the coolest area of the cat.

As sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, the ground warms and radiates the energy back into the atmosphere as heat or infrared radiation.

What happens when infrared radiation encounters a greenhouse gas? The gas molecule absorbs the infrared energy and converts it to kinetic energy via vibration of molecular bonds. The molecule then stops vibrating and reconverts the kinetic energy back into the atmosphere as infrared energy where surrounding carbon dioxide molecules repeat the process. This prevents the infrared radiation from entering the upper atmosphere and escaping into space.  In essence, increasing greenhouse gases is like throwing an extra blanket on the Earth.*

The impact of the greenhouse effect is twofold. One, it traps heat in the lower atmosphere. This increases global temperature near the surface. Second, by preventing heat from escaping into the upper atmosphere, it cools the stratosphere.  This provides us with a key diagnostic tool to test if greenhouse gases are causing increasing surface temperature. If the increase in surface temperature originates from another forcing such as solar irradiance, then both the lower and upper atmosphere would become warmer. So how does the evidence look? The answer is below:

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

As the lower atmosphere has warmed the upper atmosphere has cooled. A good portion of the upper atmospheric cooling is due to ozone loss. The less ozone there is, the less ultraviolet radiation is absorbed in the stratosphere. However, the loss of ozone has not been enough to explain all the stratospheric cooling. The rest is caused by the greenhouse effect. You’ll note the two short-term spikes in stratospheric temperatures around 1983 and 1992. These were generated by volcanic ash ejected into the upper atmosphere from two separate explosions. The aerosols reflect sunlight and heat the stratosphere. However, the effect lasts on the order of 2-3 years and should not be confused with long-term trends.

Carbon Isotopes

All carbon atoms come with six electrons and six protons.  Where they differ is in the amount of neutrons in the nucleus.  Most carbon atoms have six neutrons, about 1% have seven neutrons and one out of a trillion will have eight neutrons.  Plant life produces carbon dioxide that favor the common six neutron configuration.  As fossil fuels consist of the remnants of past life on Earth, burning it produces less of the heavier seven and eight neutron carbon atoms than natural processes.  If the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is a result of the burning of fossil fuels, we would expect it to have a higher ratio of lighter six neutron carbon atoms.  Indeed, the amount of six neutron carbon to seven neutron atoms has increased since 1850, and are at their highest levels in at least 10,000 years.

Thus, the theoretical model meets data, meaning the best explanation is climate change is caused by human made greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide.

*Gavin Schmidt uses this analogy in his book Climate Change.  As Schmidt notes, like most analogies this is not perfect.  Under a blanket, heat is generated by the person using it.  In the atmosphere, the energy is received above from the Sun in the form of light and transformed and radiated by the ground in the form of infrared radiation.

**Image atop post is NASA computer model on the global distribution of carbon dioxide.  Credit:  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/B. Putman

The Great Meteor Storm of 1833

“And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” – Revelation 6:13

On the night of November 13, 1833, a young Illinois man was awakened by an urgent rap on the door.  A Presbyterian Deacon was issuing warnings to his neighbors that the day of judgement had arrived.  The young man walked outside to see hundreds of falling stars in the sky.  Noting that the constellations were in their usual spots, Abraham Lincoln concluded correctly that this was an unusually intense meteor storm and not the end of the world.  This scene was repeated across North America as many resorted to the biblical interpretation of what was happening.  When the Sun rose the following morning, a shaken populace realized life would go on as normal.  This meteor storm would begin our modern understanding of the science behind these events.

The world of 1833 was one without electric lights and the Moon had set in the early evening giving North America an unobstructed view of one of the great astronomical events in modern times.  The Leonids, an annual meteor shower that yields about a dozen meteors per hour, generated tens of thousands of meteors per hour in 1833.  Prior to this event, meteors were thought to be an atmospheric phenomena.  The word meteor is derived from Greek as meaning high in the sky and of course, is also the basis for the word meteorology.  Some good old fashion detective work by Denison Olmsted kick-started the modern science of meteors.

The 1833 meteor storm as reported by the New York Evening Post. Credit: Newspapers.com

Olmsted examined depictions of the meteor storm from across the nation via newspaper accounts, an arduous task 165 years before Google arrived on the scene.  His report included descriptions from New Haven, Boston, West Point, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri.  Olmsted also received word of a similar event in 1799, a finding that would play a key role in his investigation.  A cold front had moved through the eastern half of the United States dropping temperatures 15 to 30 degrees.  This had the effect of clearing haze from the previous days unusually warm weather making the seeing even more ideal.

Weather report from Buffalo describing the unusually clear skies the night of the 1833 meteor storm. Credit: Dennison Olmsted/The American Journal of Science and Arts.

Olmsted had noted there were no unusual observations from magnetic instruments.  This is important as some reports came in that the storm was accompanied by aurora.  Finally, Olmsted discovered that the meteors had radiated from a point in the constellation Leo.

Meteors from 1833 storm originate from the same radiant point in the constellation Leo. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski/Stellarium.

This data had led Olmsted to deduce that meteors were not an atmospheric event but caused by a cloud of debris in space.  This theory was strengthened in subsequent years as observations confirmed the meteor shower was an annual event – albeit with much less intensity than the 1833 storm.  The question remained, where did this debris come from and why was the 1833 storm so unique in its magnitude?  It would take another three decades to obtain the answer.

In 1866, Comet Tempel-Tuttle was discovered as it approached the Sun.  It had been observed before, but it was on this pass where its 33 year orbit was calculated to intersect the Earth’s orbit.  As a comet approaches the Sun, it forms two tails.  Radiation pressure from sunlight creates a dust tail, and ultraviolet radiation ionizes gas from the comet which is then swept away by the solar wind.  Cometary tails are very tenuous.  In fact, you could fit the contents of the tail inside a suitcase.  However, when these small particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, they burn up and cause the streaking meteors we see on the ground.  In the case of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, it leaves a fresh deposit of debris every 33 years.  This will often, as in the case of the 1833 pass, result in a spectacular meteor storm.

The two tails of Comet Hale Bopp in 1997. The blue tail is gas and the white tail is dust. Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria/Wiki Commons.

All annual meteor showers are produced this way and the interactive below demonstrates how Comet Tempel-Tuttle generates the annual Leonids meteor shower.

Can a meteor storm generate an aurora as some reported in 1833?  The answer is no.  Comet debris are insufficient in mass to disturb the Earth’s magnetic field to create an aurora in the mid-latitudes.  It is possible the quantity of meteors created an optical illusion of background light mistaken fo an aurora.

In 1866, observers in Europe measured hundreds of meteors per hour confirming the comets role in producing the storm.  Some detective work was required to link Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s prior passes to other meteor storms.  It was discovered that Chinese astronomers observed a Leonid storm in 902 AD.  In 1630, two days after Johannes Kepler passed away, another Leonid storm was seen.  And in 1799, as noted by Dennison Olmsted’s research, an intense storm occurred.  A large storm such as these do not happen with each pass.  The years 1899 and 1932 produced upticks in meteor counts, but were disappointments for those hoping for a repeat of the 1833 storm.  However, 1966 & 1999 produced bursts of several thousand meteors per minute.  Still, the 1833 event stands alone as the greatest of all meteor storms.

The most famous depiction of the 1833 Leonids is this 1889 illustration by Adolf Vollmy for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle.

The legend of the 1833 Leonids lived for decades afterwards.  Frederick Douglass recounted his memory of the meteor storm in his 1881 autobiography.

“…was also the year of that strange phenomenon when the heavens seemed about to part with their starry train. I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene..”Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass , page 127.

Olmsted wrote in his 1834 report on the event:

“Probably no celestial phenomenon has ever occurred in this country, since its first settlement, which was viewed with so much admiration and delight by one class of spectators, or with so much astonishment and fear by another class.”

By the end of the 19th Century, the nature of meteor showers was understood not to be a harbinger of the end of the world.  America had experienced much history between 1833 and 1900.  Frederick Douglass was five years away from freedom when he witnessed the 1833 meteor storm.  Lincoln was 30 years away from residing over the most costly war in American history.  By the end of the century, America was an emerging power that over the ensuing five decades and two world wars, would take over global leadership formally held by the European colonial power.  Leaving fear and superstition behind in favor of knowledge and education played no small role in that transformation.

*Image atop post is a woodcut carving of 1833 Leonid meteor shower over Niagara Falls. One witness described as such: “No spectacle so terribly grand and sublime was ever before beheld by man as that of the firmament descending in firery torrents over the dark and roaring cataract.” – From the Bible Readings for the Home Circle, page 367.