In Memoriam: John Updike

John Updike passed away two days ago, on Tuesday, January 27, and The New York Times published a detailed obituary. While the obituary did a very good job of summarizing his life and works, it didn’t mention the aspect of Updike’s life that made the biggest impression on me—his longstanding interest in science.

Thirty years ago, while a chemistry graduate student at Harvard, I lived and worked as a “caretaker” for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. This meant that my wife and I lived in the upstairs attic apartment of a stately house, known as Walter Lippmann House, just three blocks from  Harvard Yard. Our presence provided added security for this house, which served as the headquarters of the Nieman Foundation. We also had the job of setting up and serving snacks and meals for the many notables that passed through the house. At least three times each week, a well-known academic, writer, politician, or artist would give an informal presentation to the 20-25 Nieman Fellows, mid-career journalists who were spending the year at Harvard.  After serving the lunch, I would sit at the back of the room and listen to the presentation.

John Updike was one of those notables, and I was fortunate to hear him and meet him on at least two different occasions. Rubbing shoulders with the famous and powerful is part of the allure of a place like Harvard. While the shoulder-rubbing hasn’t profoundly changed the course of my life, it furnishes a storehouse of good memories.

My memory of John Updike involves science. When asked by one of the Nieman Fellows about what books and periodicals he regularly read, Updike surprised all of us by mentioning Scientific American. He said that he was a regular reader and that a writer and thinker in the 20th century should really be interested and involved in science.

His specific mention of science has come back to me time after time in the past three decades.  It’s given me the courage to dabble in creative writing about science.

I’ve read some of Updike’s poems, essays, and novels over the years (although certainly not all of them – he was incredibly prolific) and have seen evidence of his fascination with science. He also frequently wrote about the relationship between science and religion.

Here are two of his poems that prove, beyond a doubt, that he “got” science. He understood it, and he found words to bring it alive. He’ll be missed.

This short poem about neutrinos, “Cosmic Gall,” was quoted by the Nobel Prize committee when it gave the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics to Frederick Reines for the detection of the neutrino. (Gratuitous, editorial comment: It’s a pity and a scandal that Updike himself never received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

Here are the opening lines of “Cosmic Gall”:

Neutrinos they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.

And here’s a longer poem, “The Dance of the Solids,” that Updike wrote after reading the September 1967 issue of Scientific American, which was devoted to the science of materials:

Here’s the final stanza:

Textbooks and Heaven only are ideal;
Solidity is an imperfect state.
Within the cracked and dislocated Real
Nonstoichiometric crystals dominate.
Stray Atoms sully and precipitate;
Strange holes, excitons, wander loose; because
Of Dangling Bonds, a chemical Substrate
Corrodes and catalyzes – surface Flaws
Help Epitaxial Growth to fix adsorptive claws.

I wish more of today’s writers, novelists, and poets felt the same way that Updike felt about science.  He’ll be missed.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 8:47 am  Comments (2)  

Just Chill, Dad

How cold has it been this winter? It’s been so cold that my teenager wore a hat to school.

Here in Minnesota, in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, high school students choose their daily outfits very carefully. Many different factors can go into the decision-making process, but weather-appropriateness is not one of them.

For some reason, at my son’s high school, more than 90% of the students refuse to use their lockers. They insist on carrying all their books, supplies, and outerwear around with them from class to class. Parkas, boots, mittens, and snow pants just don’t figure into the fashion equation. (Maybe we should install space heaters in their backpacks and shoulder bags.)

Our educational system here in Minnesota (just like everywhere else) is becoming more and more cluttered with standards and assessments—for math, science, writing, and reading. I’m tempted to start a citizens’ revolt to also demand sartorial standards. (“The student will learn to observe the weather conditions, using electronic information or actual physical observations. The student will learn the properties of rain gear and cold weather gear. The student will choose the appropriate outerwear at least 70% of the time.”)

I guess I shouldn’t wait until the educational system does my parenting job for me. As a parent, I have to draw the line somewhere, even with teenagers. It’s my moral, legal, and paternal obligation.

So here are my tough rules:
• For cool weather, my son can’t wear shorts when it’s below freezing (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Sometime in late fall, he has to switch to long pants or jeans.
• For really cold weather, I insist on a hat when the wind-chill temperature drops into the frostbite zone—at -20 degrees or lower. At these temperatures, my childhood memories take over, and I can still hear my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mathre, saying, “Wear your hat at recess. You lose 2/3 of your body heat through your head.”
• My rule for wet weather? Well, I gave up on that one. If they want to get soaked, suffer wet hair, and wear soggy clothes all day, then go right ahead.

According to the National Weather Service website, last week’s coldest reading was an air temperature is -27 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill temperature was -41 degrees. Scientific studies have shown that, in these conditions, exposed skin will begin to suffer frostbite in ten minutes. Just to put that amount of time in proper perspective—that’s about the time required to read seven status updates on Facebook, write four text messages, or listen to three songs on an mp3 player.

I would hope that frozen skin might be a disincentive for teenagers. More importantly, however, those bitterly cold temperatures aren’t too good for cell phones, iPods, and body piercings either.

Maybe if I make a YouTube video about frostbite, set it to some hip-hop music, and release it to the Internet, my teenager will finally get the message.

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 10:18 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,

January 22 is “Thank Your Mentor Day”

Here’s a link to one of my blog articles on the ACS Careers blog:

Out of my high school graduating class of 400 students, three of us went on to get Ph.D. degrees in chemistry—an amazing proportion that’s a factor of 10 greater than expected. Was it something in the water?

No. It was Mr. Sturtevant, our chemistry teacher. He was enthusiastic, creative, and passionate about chemistry. He treated all his students (he called us his “little chemists”) with a respect that let us know we were on the cusp of young adulthood. more

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

NY Times article on one aspect of science and parenting

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the implications of parents, as scientists, using their children as subjects of scientific study. The article is “Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad.”

Most of the scientist-parents discussed in this article are scientists from psychology, medicine, and sociology. In my own experience as a chemist-parent, I haven’t faced many of the ethical issues raised in this article. However, there are important issues beyond just the ethical issues.

Here’s a comment that I just sent to the NY Times (see below). I hope this will be added to the conversation and debate at the NY Times website.


Leaving aside the important question of ethics (which is dealt with well by the article and many of the comments), is this trend of intertwining science and parenting a good thing for science and for parenting? I think the answer can be an emphatic “yes.”

When parents let their children share the parts of their own lives as scientists—the parts that encourage curiosity, experimentation, and direct interaction with the world through careful observation—they are giving their children a gift. In an era when science education in the classroom leaves much to be desired, these children will integrate these important aspects of scientific thinking into their lives. And society will benefit in the long run, because we need more science-literate citizens in the 21st century.

When parents (and this applies to parents of any profession or occupation) show their children that a job can be a source of deep satisfaction, a way to make a positive difference in the world, and a way to express themselves, they are giving their children another gift. Science can be a vocation and a calling. In this very human way, science is no different from many other professions (art, religion, agriculture, military service, and social action all come to mind as obvious examples). Scientist-parents shouldn’t deny their children a chance to glimpse the excitements and frustrations of their careers—which just happen to be in science.

And how does science benefit from having parents involving their children in scientific studies?

For all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, many insights and innovations come from our daily lives. If scientists, business executives, artists, and politicians are required to check their occupations at the door of their own homes (like they are required to slip out of their shoes and overcoats as they enter their homes), we will be drying up many wellsprings of creativity.

For scientists, these initial insights and innovations must be tested and explored through objective and repeatable research. As the article points out, this objective phase of science may require parents to leave their children out of studies that will be published in the scientific literature. Nonetheless, we can’t afford to ignore the creative phase of science.

More blog reflections about my own scientist-parent experience can be found at “The Alchemist in the Minivan” (

Published in: on January 18, 2009 at 9:28 am  Comments (1)  


Brrr… It’s verrry cold in Minnesota. This morning, the air temperature in the neighboring suburb of Eden Prairie is -21 degrees Fahrenheit. On the metric temperature scale used by all scientists and by the general public in nearly every country in the world, the temperature is -29 degrees Celsius. [Only the United States, Liberia, and Burma (Myanmar) haven’t yet switched to the metric scale for measurement.]

When the temperature gets this low, I start surfing the web pages of the National Weather Service so I can find the lowest official temperature that I can honestly claim to others. For example, this morning’s low temperature in the Twin Cities metropolitan area ranged from -21 (Eden Prairie, Flying Cloud Airport) to – 18 (Bloomington, Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport) to -24 (Lakeville, Airlake Airport).

My 17-year-old son must have inherited the same cold-seeking gene.  He told me yesterday that he had been roaming the internet to look at temperatures; he reported that our temperatures in Minnesota were the same as those at the South Pole (where it is currently summer).

The same sort of cold competition can be found in northern Minnesota, where three different towns (International Falls, Tower, and Embarrass) all claim to be the coldest place in the “lower 48.” This morning, the temperature in International Falls was -40. The lowest recorded temperature in Minnesota was -60 (Tower, MN, February 2, 1996).

During that extremely cold winter of 1996, the temperature here in Minneapolis dipped to -32 degrees Fahrenheit. I was thrilled. I bought several thermometers to keep outside on the deck, so I could monitor the cold. As long as it was going to be that frigid, I really wanted the temperature to plunge to -40 degrees. For me, that’s a magical temperature, for several reasons.

First, it’s the one temperature at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales coincide. -40 degrees Fahrenheit is also -40 degrees Celsius. At that particular temperature, the residents of the United States are international citizens in the world of measurement. Like the early Christians on Pentecost, we can understand each others’ languages.

And there’s a second reason I’m a big fan of -40 degrees. At just about this temperature, mercury will freeze solid. The freezing point of mercury, at standard atmospheric pressure, is -38.83 °C or -37.89 °F. If you’re using a mercury thermometer (not as common today as they used to be), it stops working at this temperature.  You can’t ever reach -40 on a mercury thermometer.

Just about a year ago, I was thinking about even colder temperatures, while working on a project for public television. My assignment was to prepare a timeline that showed the progress of low-temperature science, a timeline that would accompany the “NOVA” television program, “Absolute Zero. Here’s the hyperlink for my timeline contribution to the project, Milestones in Cold Research.

Here are several fun temperature facts I learned while working on that timeline project:

• The thermoscope (a predecessor to today’s thermometers) was invented by Galileo Galilei in the 1590s. The first modern-style, sealed-glass thermometer was invented in 1654.

• The world’s first home air conditioner was installed in Minneapolis, Minnesota—in 1914 by a man named Charles Gates. The machine, built by Willis Carrier, was almost 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 20 feet long. (Of all places to install the first home air conditioner, why in Minnesota?)

• At extremely low temperatures (20 nanokelvin or 0.00000002 degrees above absolute zero), a new form of matter can be observed. Called the Bose-Einstein condensate, it was the subject of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.

Now that I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing about cold, I think I’ll stay inside and read a good book in front of my fire.   I’ll probably choose a book about the cold–perhaps the famous short story by Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” about a man and his dog trying to survive in the Yukon in temperatures of 75 degrees below zero.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 8:31 am  Comments (3)