Tag Archives: science

A semester at sea

When I was in college I spent a semester at sea. I thought it would launch me into the fields of like marine biology and aquatics and stuff. I imagined myself really learning the nuts and bolts of life out on the open ocean, but it wasn’t anything like I had expected. Nothing I could have read or studied would have helped prepare me for the challenges of living on a boat.

semester at sea

Like, for example, I thought that there’d be like a big disembarking, like a “Bon voyage!” type of farewell. But no, they kept us in this stupid inflatable room on campus inside the Olympic sized swimming pool for two days straight. “What’s the point of this?” we all asked, “When do we get to go out to sea?”

The faculty explained that they were giving us a couple of days in a controlled environment to develop our sea legs. I told them that this was unnecessary, that I’d been on a boat several times. I was lying, of course, but come on, people have been travelling on boats for forever. Do you think that the pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic were forced to sit on some glorified pool toy for two days straight?

The worst part was that the swim team still had practice. The inflatable only took up like three lanes, so we had to just sit there and watch them all staring at us like this was the stupidest thing anybody could have ever decided to come to college and actually pay to do.

I was just about to give up, thinking about all of the regular classes that I’d have to sign up for after I backed out of the whole semester at sea, but one of my classmates, or shipmates, or potential shipmates, he backed out. I thought to myself, what a wimp, I can’t believe he quit. And then I realized how ridiculous I sounded, criticizing this guy for a decision that I was just about to make, so I doubled down on my commitment. I was going to earn those sea legs.

We finally made it to the boat and everything was just, again, not at all how I had imagined it to be, certainly nothing like the brochures from the student center made it out to be. I was pretty sure I’d have a roommate. One roommate. Not three. And I hesitate to even call them roommates, because it was hardly a room that we were forced to share.

These guys were a bunch of total nerds. Everybody had the same pair of knee high rubber boots from the first day, I was like, “Guys, what did your moms all go shopping at the same boat store?” and I turned to the first mate, he was checking us all in, and that guy was a huge nerd too, he hadn’t even cracked a smile. One of the nerds was like, “These are the boots they told us to buy. You don’t have any?”

And I don’t know how it was possible that I was accepted into this program, how they let me sit on that tube in the pool for two days, but nobody sent me like a checklist of stuff to buy. “They sent it to our campus email,” one of the dorks said, but I didn’t even bother replying, I never set up my campus email. I was still using my AOL email at the time, I’m not going to bother sharing my old screen name, but it was something lame, childish, you know, I can say that looking back now. Fine, it was SpleenHarvester6834. I don’t know. I thought it was badass at the time. I think I just saw the Hellraiser movies or something.

So I was totally underprepared without the waterproof shoes. But that’s OK, because I bought this pack of novelty eye patches and pirate swords from a party goods store. “Come on mateys!” I passed around the plastic trinkets, nobody took any, what a bunch of weirdoes, seriously, you’re going to spend a whole three months on a boat out on the open ocean and you don’t want to have even the slightest bit of fun?

And that’s what it was, three months of no fun, of performing a bunch of boring calculations. All of the ship’s work was mostly done automatically and, I guess reading the brochures would have helped, but it was all just lab work, just pointing stuff at the sky and taking seawater samples and eating this disgusting packaged food. I didn’t have a cell phone yet, so it didn’t matter that there wasn’t any service, but no TV, just a deck of cards that I brought that got wet with sea spray almost immediately after I busted them out.

I didn’t do anything, not that it mattered, you pay the price for a semester at sea and you don’t do any work, apparently the price tag has an included C+ minimum grade. I’ve never since spoken to any of my shipmates. It’s like, you know when Facebook came out and all of the sudden you start reconnecting with kids you went to Kindergarten with? There was nothing from any of those guys. Maybe they’re all back at sea, back at the open water, who knows, bunch of nerds, I bet you they have no idea what Facebook is. Still, I always find it strange that there’s basically no digital record I ever even boarded the ship.

The absolute worst part was, while I didn’t have any seasickness at all while on board, as soon as I touched dry land again, I started to feel the waves. After a couple of weeks I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me with Phantom Wave Syndrome, something about the brain and waves and, I have no idea, but everything’s always a little wobbly. I asked him, besides medication, is there any relief? “Well,” he told me, “You could always get back out there, back out to sea, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel anything if you were back on a boat.”

But fuck that, fuck the sea, fuck marine biology. I put my heart and soul into the water and it just sank, like it was encased in a cement defibrillator, a whole big vast ocean of nothing.

I want to be a space waiter

I want to go on a space adventure. I should go on one. It just sucks that they only pick physicists, scientists and military people to be astronauts. That’s not fair at all. Why can’t they just pick regular guys to go up space? There’s got to be something I’m good for up there. Like, what, astronauts don’t need waiters? Hey NASA, don’t you think maybe your scientists might be able to do all of their space experiments a little better if they weren’t too busy rehydrating their own space food?


That could be me, Rob the space waiter. I’d be your go-to cosmic server. Actually, you’d probably need to send up a kitchen guy also. Because look, I’ll gladly serve you guys whatever you want. Do you need anything else? A Diet Coke? How is everything going over here? But cooking? Space cooking? Yeah, you’re definitely going to need to hire a space cook. Trust me, I’m a good enough waiter, but you don’t want to see me behind the line.

That’s restaurant jargon. Like how you guys have space jargon, like “roger that,” and “Houston we have a problem,” and “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Blastoff.” In a restaurant, the line, that’s where the cooks make the food. One time I was like, “Boss, put me behind the line, I can do it,” and I just kept bugging him, over and over again, month after month until he was like, “All right, if you’re really that interested in pursuing a culinary career, I guess we could have you shadow the salad guy one day a week, you could learn the basics.” I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, the whole lemon that wound up in the deep fryer, the globs of boiling oil splattering everywhere, just, seriously, me and the space cook. We’d be a team.

As long as you guys aren’t paying me in space tips. Haha. That was a joke. No, I’ll go to space for free. Come on. But wait, while we’re at it, do you think it would be too much to bring up a space busboy? Just one guy, I usually have two busboys, but I’ll manage, I’ll help him out, help pick up his slack. I’m not above bussing my own tables, OK, but I think it would be fair to give me at least one extra pair of hands. And it’ll wind up being another pair of hands for you and the crew if you think about it.

Because if it were just me up there, just one service member taking care of the staff, I mean, if you think about it, we’d be up there for months, who knows how long, eventually you guys would get to liking me, I’m very personable, and so we’d be joking around, who knows, maybe you’d start letting me do some space experiments, nothing big, you know I’d start small, I’d work my way up, you’d be like, wow, are you sure you haven’t had any career astronaut training? I’d be a natural.

And then as you guys would all be taking turns complimenting me, talking about what a great job I did on my first spacewalk, you’d interrupt to be like, hey Rob, can I get another Diet Coke? Because for all of my supplementary achievements in the field, my primary task would still be that of a space waiter. And I’d say sure thing, one second, here you go sir, but it would gnaw at me, the resentment, the bitterness festering inside.

Just one space busboy, as a barrier between my mission and my ambition. You guys won’t feel as inclined to break down those professional barriers because you won’t have time to. I’ll be constantly on the space busboy’s ass, making sure that you all have fresh linen, that your water glass is always full. Well, what is it, not a glass, right, because of the zero G? Never mind, we’ll figure out the logistics.

I just, it’s not my fault I’m only a waiter. That’s what I did in high school, waited tables, and I did it while I was in college. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to go on a space mission? There shouldn’t be any reason why my career path hinders me from the types of scientific advancements I’d really like to pursue. Surely there has to be a way to apply my talents to outer space. Honestly, if you could rate your last experience in space, from a purely customer service oriented point of view, in what ways were you happy? In what areas do you feel like the service lacked? Where were there opportunities for improvement? I’ll constantly be asking you those questions. How is everything? Can I get you anything else? You need me, come on guys, space needs me. I need space. I seriously need to go to outer space. Please.

Understanding the Higgs-boson

I read this article in the Times today about two competing groups of physicists that searched for and ultimately found the elusive Higgs-boson particle. This article was huge. Like huge in its implications, yeah, but I was talking about length. It went on forever and ever. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, but I was reading the newspaper through my iPhone app when I got up in the morning, and I didn’t intend on sitting by the edge of my bed in my pajamas for that long.

But it seemed so important. And it is. I think. I’m not a physicist. That’s the problem with these articles, or with me, or with science. I’m not sure with what really. But I’ve been following the Higgs-boson for a while now, not that I was really making an effort. Much to the chagrin of the scientific community, somebody infamously dubbed the particle the “God particle,” a couple of years ago, and the sensationalized label kind of took off on the Internet. I’d see stuff about it from time to time, and the headlines would always hook me in.

Which is to say, I’d read, but not really understand anything. And that’s kind of how it was with this long article also. They explain how the hunt for the Higgs-boson started way before they even had the means of looking for it. It’s all math. It’s all logic. Based on their understanding of the universe, they kind of just figured out that something like the Higgs-boson had to exist. If they could prove it, terrific. If they couldn’t, then they had to scrap everything they thought they knew about physics, about the cosmos, and start over.

I read these science articles and I find that I’m only able to grasp the periphery of whatever it is that they’re talking about. For example, in this big piece, which is really like a huge victory lap, a summing up of sorts, they write about the giant particle accelerator that they used to conduct their experiments. They detail the two competing teams who used this accelerator to conduct experiments looking for the Higgs-boson.

And this is what I mean by me understanding only the generalities of what’s being discussed. They talk about the scientists, about their personal lives, about their previous successes and failures. They talk about earlier scientific breakthroughs that led up to this point.

But what about the actual Higgs-boson particle? From everything that I’ve read, I can tell you that it’s something big, for a particle, that bestows mass upon our universe. I think. There’s also something about an invisible force field that permeates the cosmos. So yeah, I don’t understand any of it.

Which is why I had to finish this article. If I can’t understand the science, then I can at least understand the article, the words written down in English. At least I can finish this piece. I had to finish it, to try and understand something. Like, OK, I have an idea of a force field in my head. Yeah, it comes from Star Trek.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s how the upper echelons of science trickles down to some guy who’s late for work because he’s sitting on the edge of his bed stubbornly refusing to get moving until he finishes this behemoth of a front-page newspaper article. Scientists do the work. Scientists understand the work. Then they try to explain it, not with math, not with logic, but with cool sounding analogies like invisible force fields and God particles.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be one of these scientists? To truly grasp whatever it is that they’re talking about? To be at the forefront of human intelligence, it must be the best feeling in the world. I’m insane with jealousy just thinking about it. But I’m insane with jealousy whenever I think about anybody understanding something that I don’t. One time I was out to eat with a big group of people. I wound up sitting next to this guy getting his PhD in economics at Columbia. I tried to strike up a conversation, “What kind of stuff are you studying?”

He seriously said, “OK well this is all very complicated so stop me if I’m droning on and on,” and he talked at me for like ten minutes straight about something regarding the Swiss currency compared to the American currency, and you know what? I’ve already said too much about the conversation, because I didn’t really grasp any of it. But I was determined to sit there and listen and nod at all of the appropriate times, at least making it look like to an outside observer that maybe I’m taking in something, maybe I’m capable of learning something really niche, something important and complex.

There’s so much to know about and to learn and to struggle with and master in this life. If I can’t know what I’m talking about, I want to at least be able to know how to pretend to know what I’m talking about. That’s got to be good for something, right?

Hanging out with a bunch of scientists

Science has taught me so much. The other day I was hanging out with a bunch of scientists. They told me they just figured out how to solve the majority of the world’s energy problems. The only problem was, as one of the scientists was explaining to me her proposal, she was talking way too fast, and at one point she said the word “gas,” and I don’t know if it was her accent or if she just misspoke, but it sounded a lot like she said “ass,” and so I started laughing. She got all upset because I was laughing way too hard.

It wasn’t even that funny. But you know how sometimes you’ll be listening to something really boring, something that just keeps going and going and going. It was a long speech, and it’s kind of my fault because, I don’t normally hang out with scientists, so I thought, OK, I’ll immediately introduce myself to everybody and then I’ll jump right on in with the heavy science questions. I read the paper enough to know what makes the headlines, and here I was, asking the scientists something about the Higgs-Boson and hydrocarbons and hydrofracking and hydrocortisone and I could tell that the group was impressed, here I was, a total science layperson that somehow had his finger on the pulse of contemporary science.

But I blew it. I gave out this misrepresentation of myself and it bit me. I tried really hard to look her right in the eye, to make a face of deep concentration, not at all betraying that I had no idea what she was talking about. I’d make a face every now and then as if I were somewhat confused, I’d bring my finger to the air like I might interrupt her for some clarification, but then I’d act as if whatever she had said just clicked in my brain, and that now I got it, and so I’d lower my finger, relax the expression on my face somewhat, and nod slightly, like saying, “Ah, yes, I see,” without saying anything at all.

But you know how scientists are, they just keep talking and talking and talking and talking like oh my God this is so interesting, and I haven’t even begun to get warmed up here, I can’t believe you haven’t taken a seat yet because this is only the introduction and once I get this projector running we’re going to be busy with Powerpoint presentations for the better part of the afternoon. And pretty soon I found myself focusing almost entirely on me, on my reactions to what she was saying, on my carefully dramatized facial expressions, and once I realized this, that I had completely lost any sort of grounding in whatever she was talking about – and what was she talking about? It felt like such a long time ago – I started getting self conscious, not just about my face and my facial expressions, but also my breathing, my blinking, my posture. Was I giving anything away? Should I have at any time added anything, like a question, an “Ah, yes,” but verbally? Was I expressing confusion when I should have been expressing understanding, or vice versa?

But she didn’t stop, and she didn’t look at all bothered, so I assumed everything was going along swimmingly. In fact, I don’t think she was even talking to me at all at this point. She was kind of looking at me, but looking through me. And maybe it was hard to tell because the more she lectured, the more it became obvious how engaged she was in the sound of her own voice, in her huge lofty ideas, about whatever it was that she started talking about in the first place.

So here we were, her talking, to me, but not really, and me, standing here, listening to her, but not at all, and not even for her sake, because she was on a totally different plane of reality, her body at this point merely a vessel for the pure science running through her brain and out of her mouth, completely oblivious not just to my face, to my expressions, but to everything, my posture, possibly my existence. Me, I was at this point focusing solely on making sure that if any of the other scientists were watching us, because I’m sure they’d have been at one point themselves an audience to this woman’s lecturing, they’d look at me and think, goddamn it, that guy sure surprises us, so engaged in what she’s saying, so clearly grasping everything.

But I wanted to make a break for it. The whole thing was getting exhausting. My facial expressions felt like they weren’t even working anymore. I was stuck in my head to an extent that I couldn’t even tell what kind of a face I was making. And just as I kind of tried to get back to the sound of her voice, to maybe find a way back into the conversation, to ask her to clarify something, to change topics subtly, something more on my level, something about TV maybe, that’s when it happened, that’s when she said “ass,” I’m sure of it, or, I was sure of it. I was sure enough that I didn’t stop myself from laughing at all, a big laugh, abrupt. She stopped talking. Nobody else laughed. Everybody looked uncomfortable. I was definitely uncomfortable.

“Sorry,” I told her, “I thought you said ass.”