"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Friday, June 29, 2012

Enter that Lovely Maiden, Beauty

Hello Reader-Dearest!

The summer is now well underway.

I am now a competent Fortran-er and somewhat literate in the zeolite world.
Wait, now that I think of it, I don't think I ever mentioned what specifically I am researching this summer. Well... as specifically as it gets.

A model of  LTA, one of the zeolites
we shall be focusing on this summer. 
I am working on simulations of these lovely aluminosilicate minerals called zeolites. "Zeolite" is a fairly broad category. There are a number of different crystalline structures and zeolites can have different chemical compositions, but we're mostly dealing with silicon, oxygen, and aluminum. The cool thing is, their microporous nature makes them good molecular sieves. In particular, zeolites have been found to selectively adsorb carbon dioxide over nitrogen, hydrogen, methane, and other gases. This makes zeolites very promising materials for a number of processes, most notably carbon dioxide separation and sequestration. In the past, my professor and her students have studied pure silica zeolites (well, Si and O actually, but the key point is no aluminum) with varying structural properties, so as to examine the importance of pore structure to selective CO2 adsorption. This summer, we are going to start working on introducing aluminum into the mixture.

A structural model of MFI, another cool zeolite.
As for my own contribution... well, I only just received "the code" on Wednesday... and was immediately utterly lost in the dense network of files and the endless sea of Fortran lines contained therein. Yesterday I managed to calm some of that despair and anxiety so as to make fair progress in getting a better idea of how things fit together, but there is a very, very long way to go. However, I did submit my first few runs today! Yay! Look for more updates in the future!

I must say that, overall, I have been rather pleased with the path my summer has taken. I think I may say that I have successfully rekindled my devotion to the fair goddess, Beauty.

I cannot assure you of the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent God, but I can attest to the presence of this lovely maiden. I have caught glimpses of her darting swiftly between trees, and placing blossoms in flowing hair strewn over sun-kissed prairie grass; I have seen her floating serenely on the river and heard her joining in on birdsong whilst I make my way through the arboretum. I have heard her at turns laughing at me and soothing me with her song as I feebly attempt to coax music from the keys of a piano. I have seen her hand in gorgeous sunsets and clear blue skies, in giant dandelions, and in graceful, swooping little birds. I have yet to see it myself, but I have heard that she has even taken some of her beauty and placed it within tiny creatures, that they may bring light to the summer sky even when she has gone to her slumber or joined her sisters in distant lands for merrymaking.

Yes, piano adventures and arb runs have made it a lovely, beautiful summer indeed. The arb runs are unfailingly splendid- the piano, less so. But I think I have fallen in love with it nonetheless. I cringe whenever I play a false key, and I feel terribly embarrassed when I stumble over pieces like the too-familiar "Jingle Bells," but my soul begins to thrill when a piece which initially sent a series of winces shuddering through me comes together to resemble something which I may call music. Granted I can only play short and very simple pieces, but I am easily enraptured by the lovely sounds which that instrument is capable of producing when properly encouraged to do so. All in all, I am pleased with the progress I have made in two weeks of playing for about an hour a day, and I am very excited for the next seven weeks! I dare not strive for beauty, for something deep and soul-striking, but I do hope that by the end of it I can play something which may be rightly termed lovely. Nothing crazy or complicated, but still charming.

In addition to the beauty of piano and the natural wonders surrounding Carleton, I have found great pleasure in the social benefits of a Carleton summer. It is wonderful to be at Carleton, to be learning new things and challenging myself intellectually on a daily basis, and to still have time for casual hour-long chats with new acquaintances, for skype sessions with old friends, for cooking adventures, for Sayles slumber parties, for movie-watching, and for pioneering a summer social dance club. I have great hopes for this Summer Social Dance Club (hereafter to be referred to as SSDC), despite what appear to be administrative attempts to crush it. Well, not exactly. But it is very frustrating that the school insists on shutting down all of the buildings after work hours. Nonetheless, this week was very successful in bringing together new and old social dancers, and I now feel like I have dance children to teach and tend to and befriend this summer. It is very exciting! Hopefully logistics will not prove disastrous... but I have high hopes. I look forward to making friends with these new people and hopefully incorporating them into social dance culture!

In short, summer is lovely and sweet. I have been reminded that life has great potential for beauty, if I only toil faithfully to seek her out. She is a shy creature, and must be treated tenderly, but she is sweet and devoted if you patiently cultivate her friendship. I do hope that we may become fast friends.

Happy Summer, dear ones!   

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hailing the Summer

Greetings, fair Reader!

The summer adventures have begun.

 After a brief, happy sojourn home, I find myself back at school for exciting chemistry research adventures. I have finally more or less settled back into my room, with a new roommate and a new set of challenges to conquer. Exciting!

My research adventures started yesterday, and it rapidly became evident that I definitely have my work cut out for me in the next ten weeks...
I have already gotten a tiny bit deeper into Unix, discovered and explored Emacs, and am expected to gain working knowledge of Fortran by the end of the week, since that is the programming language I shall be working in. So in the last two days I have gone through about 160 pages of Fortran.... only 200ish to go! Woo!
Oh, and let's not forget the 100+ pages of reading that I copied for myself today....
It seems quite daunting, but I am rather excited, to be honest. A lot of work means a lot of learning... and I feel like the amount of learning I will be doing will be slightly ridiculous. In a good way.

But I do love that my nerdiness is increasing significantly. I think I may have to start gaming. Or go crazy and convert to Linux. Somehow or another I need to affirm my transition into this particular realm of nerdom.
In my mind, female computer sciencey nerds have a nice edge of badassery, and while skipping through my Fortran book, I like to think to myself- yeah... yeah, I could do that. I could be a cool nerd-girl. I could totally do that!
...But then I realize that my carefully penned notes, general tidiness and prim&proper-ness do seem to disqualify me from playing the role of badass nerd girl.
But hey, that doesn't have to stop me from feeling super cool about coding, does it?

I don't know why I am so enchanted by coding. Maybe because I have been woefully ignorant of how it all works. Computers and programming seem to be shrouded in some sort of magical veil. In some way, computers seem to grasp at the magic of life- quite literally.
Computers stand at the border between physical reality and the wonderful world of abstraction. They translate between the "real" world and the world of ideas. They partake in the mystery of Meaning.
Magic, I say!

I have set about reading I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. He is, quite simply, fantastic. The knowledge that he is at Indiana University seriously tempts me to delve into Cognitive Science and ambitiously strive to end up in his lab, because it could only be absolutely awesome. But I digress.
The book builds upon ideas Hofstadter introduced in Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB), but focuses on the concept of I, or the self. Consciousness. That slippery thing!

To my extreme delight, I Am a Strange Loop has succeeded in weaving together essential philosophical questions with cognitive science, basic neuroscience, logic/mathematics, and computer science. (It's amazing how he manages to meld together so many topics and questions I delight in!)
He plays with questions like: What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be me?  What does it mean to know? What is consciousness? How might consciousness arise? How can something have meaning?

I think that, through GEB, Hofstadter really got me to appreciate the idea that structure is the key to meaning. Structure... ah, how magical!
I do not think I am yet ready to write out my thoughts on the subject... my thoughts are still hazy and unorganized, but the picture is slowly starting to come together. I just have unstructured words to throw at you.
Words like logic, and structure, and thinking, and meaning, and language, and binary, and beauty.
Wonderful, magical words!

But I should stop my incoherent rambling on Hofstadter's books for the time being.

The days seem to be virtually endless. There is an amazing fifteen-and-a-half hours between sunrise and sunset!
By 7am it is bright and sunny, and the world beckons me to be out of bed.
Thankfully, I obliged the world today. I went for a walk-jog in the arb, and it was a wonderful, wonderful decision. The morning light was gold-like and happy, the plant-life was gorgeous, and a little creek which I found along my path convinced me that I was part of an enchanted world. It was absolutely lovely.

I am not sure what exactly I want to achieve during these bright summer days, but I know that I want to partake in a curious mixture of gentle loveliness and nerd-girl awesomeness. I want to go for daily walk-runs, I want to improve my flexibility, I want to attempt a plunge into the world of music by making an acquaintance with the piano.... I think mostly I want to realize that I really do have a certain degree of control over my life. It is the sort of truth that lurks dangerously in the background. Dangerously, because it is so obvious it seems to evade belief.

I have spent a lot of time feeling small and incapable and boring... and done nothing about it.
But, ha! That is not how the game is played, World! Nice try, but I've finally caught on to your trickery.
The game is played by soaking in programming languages. By having the courage to try to learn piano. By having the discipline to wake up in the morning and greet a beautiful day. The game is played by realizing that you want to do something worthwhile... and then taking a step in that direction.
It's so terrifying, but so wonderful and liberating!

I may get lost in the arb, or fail miserably at piano, or cook the worst meals ever produced on the face of the earth, or feel utterly lost in the world of chemistry. The chances are pretty high that all of these things will happen within the next few weeks. But I have a suspicion that with a bit of time and a lot of work, it's going to be okay.

Maybe there's still hope for badassery. Hmm. Can I be both lovely and badass?
Well... I do love a good paradox.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On The Midpoint

Well, the second year has come to an end.

I remember old middle school days, when I felt safely sheltered from adulthood and "growing up" by the endless high school years before me... and now college is half-past.
It is a bit surreal.
The passing of time seems to have a very strange quality to it. The years seem to fly swiftly by on fairy's wings, and yet days and weeks can drag by in an impressive manner.

In the midst of this strange passing of time, I find it difficult to assess my growth. Surely I change in subtle ways between moments, days, weeks, months, years... But the gradualness of the process makes me incapable of detecting the difference.
I am reminded of when I first learned calculus. The concept of the integral made the tricky concept of life clearer to me: it is the accumulation of changes that occur on infinitesimal time scales. Decisions made from instant to instant appear so incredibly trivial and inconsequential, but the summation of the values of those instants make up a life. Magical.
It is fitting that the integral encapsulates the great, elusive concept of infinity. How do we ever reach the infinitesimal? How do we ever progress? When and where do we capture the fleeting Now? How is it that the minutes and days and years slip by?
The mysteries of life and metaphysics seem to me to be intertwined with the wonder of infinity. It is lovely.

Yet somehow the time does slip by. Somehow "life" does get accumulated between duration-less Nows. And somehow or another, I do make small bits of progress.

As the term approached its end, I came to realize that I have learned things during my time at Carleton. Shocking, right? It is the sort of thing one hopes will happen, but it is wonderful when you realize it is actually true.
There are the little things- like realizing that my knowledge of the Greek alphabet has expanded tremendously since my old high school days, where alpha and beta and pi and theta were funky things that you used in math every once in a while. By the end of Set Theory and Computational chemistry, Greek letters were being carelessly spattered all over my work. When did gamma and phi and psi and epsilon and sigma and lambda (etc etc) become a natural resource to tap into?

Additionally, I have come to realize that tossing myself into reckless situations can be a good thing.
(To clarify, "reckless" in this context refers purely to academic recklessness. Reckless, indeed...)
For the first time in my life, I had the experience of sitting in a classroom where the teacher could very well have been speaking another language, because I certainly was not understanding what she was saying. She was speaking other languages- the languages of quantum chemistry, kinetics, thermochemistry... Languages of which I only knew a few basic words. I was a tourist in a foreign country hoping to rely on words like "food" and "bathroom" for survival.
But I still remember the moment where I re-read a textbook excerpt that was being assigned for about the 4th time. And that time- I UNDERSTOOD what they were saying. Between re-readings and nearly impenetrable lectures and frustrated struggles with foreign words and concepts... the pieces eventually came together. It was a glorious realization- and it would not have been possible if I had not taken the risk of utter failure. And I shall admit, for a while there I was rather concerned.
But there is something wonderful about going in scared and mostly lost, with only a bedraggled roadmap for company, and to slowly gain your footing to ultimately emerge triumphant.
I can now tell you a story about quantum chemistry, I can model a baby protein for you, I can perform ab initio calculations and tell you a bit about a chemical system of interest- I can do quite a few things I simply could not have done ten weeks ago.

There is also the world of dance. Two years ago, I probably would have laughed and blushed with embarrassment if you were to suggest that I would find myself waltzing freely with others in a couple of months. "Ballroom dancing" was something magical, wonderful, and fundamentally unattainable to those not blessed with extraordinary grace. Admittedly, I have yet to achieve a satisfactory level of mastery, let alone claim beauty in my dancing (alas, I have not been suddenly gifted with heaps of gracefulness), but I have managed to learn a great deal during the last two years. Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, east coast swing, west coast swing, tango, cha, rumba, samba... even some mambo and hustle and nightclub two-step... Two years ago I knew nothing, and in a few months I will have the privilege of introducing social dance to a new generation of future social dance lovers! It is terribly exciting.

I think that my understanding of things has also become more complex and subtle. Two years ago, I would probably have agreed with the somewhat vague statement that science is true. My understanding of models and scientific progress was limited. I was a naive empiricist.
I may still be a bit of an empiricist, but my appreciation for models has increased tremendously. I now value the utility of a good approximation and I understand the importance of knowing the limits within which a model can operate. I realize that there are ways in which our scientific knowledge is solidly grounded, and yet that there are more fundamental ways in which the scientific quest is deeply vulnerable to skeptic probing.

To focus on this spring, I think I can be proud of my accomplishments this term. Computational chemistry and set theory were both challenging and intimidating, but immensely rewarding. I did not expect computational chemistry to allow me to peer into the beauties of linear algebra. I remember the moment of wonder when I realized what my professor was explaining about vibrational modes- you want to understand how molecules move? Break down the motions in terms of an orthogonal basis set which will span the entire space of their motion, and now you can describe any movement your heart desires. Bam! Amazing.
I did not really expect myself to ever come to peace with quantum, but we managed to end on amicable terms. And set theory... ah, how to describe the beauty of realizing that you have built an entire world out of nothing? Or the beauty of the natural numbers, like infinite Russian dolls? Or the sheer wonder of successive limit ordinals, like dense black holes?

All in all, I am fairly proud of myself.
I do not think I have been able to say that in a very long time- I do not remember when. But I succeeded in achieving my goals for this term. No, I don't have a perfectly-filled goals chart- there are certainly a number of gaps. More importantly, I succeeded in fulfilling the aspirations underlying the carefully penned goals on my chart.

Three months ago, I was terrified: I really believed that this term was going to be painful, stressful, confidence-destroying, and unbearably lonely.
It has been painful. It has been stressful. I have been less-than-fully-confident at times. I have been lonely. These things are true. But they represent a small minority of my experiences.

I feared that I would have no great friendships during my time at Carleton, but I no longer have that fear. I have grown closer to a number of wonderful people, and planted seeds which I know shall flourish in the upcoming years.

I feared that I would sink into a pathetic fit of loneliness and moping. But I have realized that I am stronger than I believed. I do not have to fall apart when I am alone. Granted, on almost any occasion I would rather be joined by loved ones, but if I must stand alone, I can and I will.

Ironically, it has been one of my most enjoyable and fulfilling terms at Carleton.

I am still filled with fears and insecurities and doubts on a number of points. I still do not know what I shall "do" with my life. I do not know what exactly that mysterious thing called love has in store for me. I do not know what friendships shall blossom, what pains shall be suffered, what life lessons shall be gathered, nor if I shall ever attain beauty in my dancing.
But I am proud of what I have accomplished and excited for the adventures that are in store.

There is hope!
And for now, that's all I ask for.

Here's to the midpoint of my Carleton career. Huzzah!