Cassie Rodenberg: Electron-ic Bonds

Nature decontaminates
September 30, 2009, 5:55 pm
Filed under: Pesticides, Plants

When I think of contamination, I think of botched studies and ruined crops. Not so, friends.

Scientists in China have crafted a method to rid plants of their toxins and pesticides by spraying them with brassinosteroids (BRs), plant hormones, that metabolize insecticides and other undesirables. Even stranger, these are healthy…or so we think. Previous research suggests that plant hormones reduce cancer cell growth in humans. So have we found a natural super spray? Scientists don’t know but are crossing their fingers for a solution to crop loss.

Instead of employing a spray as a middleman, North Carolina State University is hiring plants to soak up fuel from soil. Using phytoremediation, researchers are sucking up heavy metals from a local contaminated site, a method much more cheap and sustainable than others on the market. The project has been going on for three years strong and has successfully slowed spilled fuel from running into nearby rivers.

Who knew trees were so stalwart? My houseplant died of a lemonade overdose…

The last musing, or the bridge between new and old
September 30, 2009, 11:19 am
Filed under: Musings, Science, Writing

On my better days I like to think of myself as scientist-writer, and I pride myself in seeing the science in ordinary life. Because of this, I’ve realized, I’m doing my field a disservice.

The problem of science is lack of public awareness, interest and understanding. As I grudgingly admit, this blog serves no purpose in teaching or making science interesting; rather, it merely shows that I see the world as scientific. Perhaps a good start, but it shouldn’t be continued, if for no other reason than it’s giving me much more attention than science – the exact opposite of my original intentions.

So, where does bring us? Back to science.

After contemplating the schematics of this new endeavor I wondered what subject I should take on. Science as a whole? Too big. I can’t possibly catch all the news. Then, as fate would have it, I began corresponding with a organic chemist at Princeton (thanks, David) who graced me with a question that chose my blog’s new direction: “Do you think our field [chemistry] will ever generate the same enthusiasm/vibe as biology in the popular realm?”

Upon reading it, I was visibly upset. Shaken, really and quite sad. A chemist, who obviously loves what he does, thinks the public prefers life sciences. Perhaps it’s true, but I’ve never entertained the notion, perhaps because to me, physical sciences are the most fascinating things on the science market. And then I start reading blogs and news and realized that, indeed, science media is ruled by psychology and biology. No wonder I always read ACS publications.

And so, I pledge to bring to you physical science news on the daily and whenever possible – blips of a quantum news that I find alluring coupled with my peculiar, and somewhat science-preoccupied, voice. Well, if you’ve been reading, perhaps you like it.

Welcome to Electron-ic Bonds; I hope you enjoy your science.

August 20, 2009, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Musings, Science

Resonance hybrids blur the line between their two (or multiple) selves so as to obtain dual identities, much like us. Living in downtown Manhattan, I see the two-toned armors: the fun-loving nightcrawlers and the Starbucks-armed businesspeople of the day; are they not the same? In a place where people transform overnight, I can’t help but consider their duplicity as a resonance of sorts, envisioning electrons in an ever-changing state.

But then, I wonder about this resonance nature. We all take carry pieces of ourselves around, perhaps stowed under our shirt collar or the heel of a shoe, to transform into the our “home” self and “work” self. And in truth, the crowd that does not display such resonance often warrants an eyebrow raise. But what of situations where we “cannot be ourselves?”

Often at such times, we wish to be anywhere else than our staff meeting or family reunion and feel miserable because our resonance is well, missing. What connects us to ourselves? Here, the scientist would say that of course resonance still exists, it’s just not captured at the moment.

I call your attention to other points in life where we “are not ourselves.” I think now of drug-induced activities, romantic affairs, hatefully thrown words in a heated argument. Are these not us, a part of our resonance? I believe so. I think, too often, we claim to have lost sight of ourselves for a moment, only to return to our senses and regret it. But, is this not us, a part of our character? Perhaps a negative blip in otherwise decent people… but still a blip that makes us who we are. The point of the deviation from the valence bond theory is that one structure cannot represent the whole entity. Our futile excuses for bad behavior are electrons that do dictate our nature.

We all have resonance structures, good, bad and indifferent. Nothing can account for our endless properties; we have electrons that evade being wrapped in single-structural boxes. But we must remember that every structure lays the bonds of our character, even the bad; therefore, we must be held accountable, as all molecules are.

July 28, 2009, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Musings, Science, Writing

How mathematical and scientific a sentence is… subject, verb with perhaps a few shards of preposition, adverb or clever conjunction. With a single punctuation mark, a slash, what sort of psychological curtain can we lift? A sentence is simply personal science: an addition with a pipetted keystroke.

Though a single organism, by definition, cannot itself evolve, I think we all believe that humans do on an emotional level. Notice, I do not say “grow.” I don’t believe that all of us “grow” in directional terms, unless “in spirals” or “u-turns” count as growth. No, I believe evolution is the right term because it involves mutation, undecidedly good, bad or indifferent. So thus, we evolve, a truly scientific verb and feat.

I’ve often imagined change, not in age but in emotional circumstance, the psychological bulk of who we are. Science in the form of forensics allows us to map people after death takes them, even allowing a craned-neck approach into the past. How many broken bones? Wear on bones? Children or no? Cause of death? Wisdom teeth removed? Science, with much effort, can give us each person’s story, perhaps an accurate depiction of how things were. But if we could choose to map our lives with words, the sinews and tendons of who we are and what we’ve been through, what would we say?

Life looks like a sentence, not an imprisonment, but “a set of words that is complete in itself.” What do our choices say about us? Did we choose lengthy prepositions or have a comma splice? Just as our bones show grooves and lines with wear and breaks, our punctuation reveals our struggles and victories.

Of course, a sentence is a personal matter, but I suppose I owe you mine. Please don’t judge me too readily, for it was a momentary creation like all good revelations are:

“My hands and I were bruised, and thus my ink-clad fingers wrote.”

I’d like to know your sentence.

time: a parasite
July 7, 2009, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Musings, Writing

The clock resting precariously near the edge of my nightstand is perpetually ten minutes slow, as it has been for the years I’ve had it. No matter how many times patient fingers hit reset, only to scroll through 24 hours to alight on the correct time, the little clock gradually loses ten minutes, though always only ten minutes.

I tend to think the poor clock’s problem aligns with my lifelong obsession (well the nearest thing to obsession I’ve ever had) with time.

Deep down I know that time is fake, made up, a distant record of humans’ fondness for order. But I like order, to say the least, a testament to my dozen or so Moleskine notebooks that litter my life: plans, appointments, musings and the like litter their pages. Yet I despise the notion of time. No, I’m not one of those perpetually late spirits that haunt the back of lecture halls, alerting the rest to my presence by a creaking door. No, I always find myself early to meetings, content to survey the near surroundings. Still, I staunchly don’t believe in time and its control.

It seems that in every conversation, time is a factor, whether we calculate someone’s age or their time at the company or just how long they’ve had that Mercedes. Without time, we lose much of our ability to make small-talk (the bane of every subway commute and dental appointment) and the ability to judge/discriminate against others – how outdated that flannel jacket is, how young that mother when she had her child, how old-fashioned is that idea…

Time is a way for us to judge people, places, objects on absolutely no meaningful grounds whatsoever, a way for us to sneer at something without having logic to back it up. There’s no essence for us to dislike something, so we dislike something about which our intended victim cannot defend. “You wouldn’t understand. You’re too young.” I would much prefer to be ageless, rather than be met with a patronizing adjective. However, my mother, who sells youth for a living and who is on an eternal quest for it herself, would give anything for that particular meaningless term: young.

If what is on the inside counts, as good societal values say it should, why do we choose to mislead ourselves by hiding behind time? Stopping people from entering or exiting our lives or simply living their own by a notion of age? “No, she can’t live alone, she’s almost 85. She must be senile.” We trap ourselves, no matter where we fall on the age and time spectrum.

So perhaps instead of being a century of recapturing youth, we should focus on detaching ourselves from parasitic time and become simply what we are: become simply a car that runs well, not a car from 1983, become  a woman with two children instead of a 56-year-old woman with two children. The former of both allow judgment, whereas the prior do not.

So, as for me, I am a woman who is a sometimes scientist, always writer with a clock….that, well, runs.

mad scientists
June 5, 2009, 9:35 am
Filed under: Musings, Science

I run my life like most scientists run their labs: with precision. I have a fierce independence that my mother originally noticed in me as a child, though she noticed this with a sadness that singes me even today. 

From what I’ve seen, many scientists feel this way. The cool control of the lab is exhilarating, having a teetering, pin-pricked purposefulness, which you pray will give way to a dizzying surge of accomplishment. Emotion is riddled in the lab atmosphere: the sheen of sweat on a beaker that spins at a frenzied pace, the whine of the particles melding with a solution. Independence is key.

This independence comes with a price, a constant, nibbling nervous energy of stagnation, regression, and, ultimately, failure. Failure and fear of grant rejection, of community ignorance, of the pressure you place on yourself. 

Usually, this low-level anxiety eats away at the corners of your drive and purpose until you finish what you started, but negative side affects include a voracious appetite for new projects, unsettling looks from family and insomnia. But is the end worth the means? For you, yes. You can’t help your independent nature any more than you can avoid your morning coffee. 

It makes sense that a large portion of life’s overachievers are scientists – those with the inclination to thrive and continue a consciousness-consuming project and goal. It’s harder for those that cannot justify there work as something for the “Greater Good.” Families that ask: “Do you really need to write now?” “What do you mean, you just got an idea?” And thus, those with independence are caught up in a continuous cycle, eased into becoming more and more solitary. Here, I think of old movies, where scientists are “mad” and pent-up in a castle tower. 

Luckily though, tools soothe and eventually drive you back to society. The gentle breathing of the fume hood eases the tension in your spine. The tap-tap-tapping of the keyboard massages your ever-stressed shoulders. The method captivates and remedies all ills, singing the softest of lullabies to your hands that seem to always need occupation.

Defying the unseen
April 21, 2009, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Musings, Science

I like to define. Ironically, though I am unwilling to be defined, I like to define objects and abstract terms around me; the thesaurus is a good friend. In science, it’s much the same: the be all and end all of knowledge is definition and, thus, understanding.

Recently, I’ve thought of forces unseen, abstract terms like love, power and hate define our lives as much as the principles of physics. These you cannot touch, but you can feel. These are often brushed aside, deemed unscientific, but aren’t they? Can’t you feel your force upon others or their force upon you? These immeasurables constitute much of day to day life. Unseen physics dominate our psyche the way actual physics make us fall.

These “felt” physics seldom contain ruled edges, content to lurk in the shadows of our conscious thought, where we remain only vaguely aware of their presence. This, I argue, is the problem. We have obligations to these forces as much as we do to physics.

We wear seatbelts in cars to prevent a crash because we know crash rates and dangers. Shouldn’t we have the same in life – remembering sympathy and reason? These, unlike physics, we can choose to ignore. Shouldn’t empathy come as naturally as gravity? It should, but it doesn’t.

We remember our obligation to gravity: we hardly jump and remain in mid-air. What has happened to make our innate physics equation go awry? We become all the worse when steeping a brew of disregard and hatred: kind, sympathetic efforts are dulled and lost. Physics is known for innovation, yet we muddle our equation, defying for no reason at all.