Category Archives: Science

Book Review: These Broken Stars

Before diving into my review of this wonderful book, I’d like to also review the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. I. LOVE. IT. That’s really all that needs to be said, but I can boil it down to a few simple yet hugely important reasons. It’s easier and more comfortable to read than a book (try laying on your side with a copy of Game of Thrones!), Kindle editions of books are cheaper and don’t waste paper, and lastly, it frees up shelf space for those tomes worth having a physical copy of! I am already glued to my Kindle. Bury me with it.

TBS-CoverI just recently finished my second reading of the Game of Thrones series. I caught way more details the second time around, so it was worth the few thousand pages. As much as I could bury myself in Westeros, I wanted a change of pace so I downloaded the YA novel “These Broken Stars”. It’s a sci-fi, which I love, but it’s also a romance so I went in highly dubious (what with the unfortunate foray I once made into the Twilight trilogy). The reviews were great though, so I read the book– and they were right. These Broken Stars is in a whole other league than twilight. It has a plot, for one, and the characters have depth. The leading lady is neither helpless nor defined by her boyfriend; the romance feels real and even made my heart flutter a little bit. But the REAL magic was in the story. It’s basically two kids that survive a spaceship crash and are stranded on an alien planet. There’s an evil intergalactic terraforming corporation, disembodied alien life forms, and psychedelic, poetic looks into life, death, and consciousness. Major win. And it’s so well written, and didn’t muddy the science part by over-explaining stuff. The story moved in every sentence, entertaining from beginning to end. It’s a bit reminiscent of Michael Chriton’s Sphere (the first scifi i fell in love with as a kid) but, tossed in with a bit of Carl Sagan’s wonder and Philip K Dick’s pessimistic commercial-futurism (I just made that term up, but if you’ve read Dick you get what I’m saying.)

A sequel comes out in December, which I’ve already pre-ordered. I know I’ll want to reread this again before that. If you like YA romance, science fiction, or just a really good story, I highly recommend These Broken Stars.

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Hand, Foot, Mouth Disease (I has it)…!

Traveling to a foreign country, especially Mexico, you sort of expect to get sick. Of all other foreigners I’ve met so far, I’m the only one that has managed to dodge the “Moctezuma’s Revenge”, which you get from accidentally drinking the water or water-tainted food. I thought I was in the clear. I was wrong.

This past week I got very sick, and although I’m now on the mend, I feel compelled to write about the experiences I’ve had. I want to shed some light on the differences between the health systems in Mexico and America, and I also want to show this to the American Consulate, in the hopes that foreigners (and Mexicans too) stay away from a certain doctor.

Let’s go back to Tuesday. I had just returned from Playa del Carmen the night before, and woke up in the morning with a sore throat and achey joints. It wasn’t too bad, so I got dressed, hopped a bus, and went to school. During class, my hand began to itch. Upon looking closely, I could see three tiny white bumps on my thumb. I thought I must have gotten a spider bite in my sleep: that happens to me in Texas sometimes too. When I got home from school, things started to go way downhill. My throat hurt worse, and I felt a strange pain on my big toe. I assumed it was an ingrown nail, and didn’t pay much attention to it. Tere took me to the pharmacy around the corner.

Every pharmacy here has a “minute clinic” type thing, where you can see a doctor and get a prescription if you need one (this costs only 35 pesos- which is around $3 USD! It definitely has its pros and cons, but I think we need more of these in the states). After a two minute consultation, the doctor gave me a receipt for antibiotics and aspirin. Now, I know I’m not a doctor myself, but I know the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection, and I know that overuse of antibiotics is a very, very bad thing for my own health and for society as a whole (drug-resistant MRSA, anyone?) I was convinced I had a “24-hour bug” and would wake up the next day feeling fine. I chucked the antibiotics into the trash. To be honest, I might not have taken them even if it WAS bacterial.

However, the next day I woke up feeling much, much worse. Everyone in Tere’s family had their own opinion on how I got it (most of them to do with being in Playa) and they unanimously offered the solution, “take antibiotics”. Apparently, they take antibiotics WHENEVER they get sick here! They say they make them feel better, but whats really happening is their body just naturally getting over the VIRUS during that time! Nobody would believe me when I said “I’m sure that this is viral” (or, “estoy segura que tengo una infeccion viral). Tere’s son was POSITIVE that I got it from swimming in the ocean (funny, because I didn’t) and everyone else just assumed I was massively hungover (once again, wrong. I went to sleep early the last two nights in Playa).

And then the weird kicked in. The bumps that I had assumed were spider bites had grown, reddened… and multiplied. They were still barely visible to anyone but me– I’m not sure I would have even noticed them if they hadn’t hurt so bad. I also noticed that the pain in my toe was a bump and not an ingrown nail, and it too had multiplied. I freaked out, and hopped on the Google. It took me two split seconds to diagnose myself with the only thing that fit: Hand Foot Mouth Disease. Very common in kids, this funny-sounding disease can and does happen often in adults as well. It presents first with feverish symptoms and a sore throat, followed a day or two later by red bumps or blisters all over ones hands and feet. ONLY on hands and feet- nowhere else on the body. Rarely does a Google search for a mystery malady turn up with such a perfect match. I took a screengrab of the CDC page about it in Spanish (Manos, Pies, y Boca) to show Tere.

The next morning I woke up feeling a thousand times worse. I had blisters in my throat, and more appearing on my hands and feet every time I looked at them. One of my teachers drove me to the hospital Star Medica, which boasts the “best” doctors in the city of Merida. I must have found the one exception.

His name was Dr. Adolfo Solis, and he spoke perfect English. I said, “I know I’m not a doctor, but I think I know what I have…”

He said, “Well you know yourself better than anyone. Shoot.”

I told him, “I think I have hand foot mouth disease.”

After a long pause he burst out laughing. Shaking his head back and forth he said, “you Americans make these things up. There’s no such thing.”

To which I was stunned. Hand foot mouth, while it may sound funny and not be well-known, happens all over the world, and the first documented cases of it occurred in New Zealand in the 50s. Also, this doctor went to medical school in Iowa. How could he not know this? I took out my cell phone to show him the CDC page I had photographed IN SPANISH, and he literally pushed my hand away. He refused to look at the evidence that this disease was real. He then demanded that he examine me himself. He looked in my throat (without a popsickle stick or flashlight) for a grand total of two seconds. Then, he touched my stomach and remarked that I “had gas”. I asked him, “is that related to my sickness?” to which he replied with a curt “no”. Then he sat me down to talk to me about how all it was, was a bacterial infection. I haven’t had a bacterial infection in 5 years since my tonsils got taken out, and I told him this. Once again he used the phrase “you americans”, which he finished this time with “think every sore throat is Strep.”

I wanted to reply to him that no, I only know I had strep because doctors performed cultures and did tests to verify that, but he wouldn’t let me talk. He kept interrupting me and was incredibly condescending. I left his office minus 300 pesos, and with a new receipt for antibiotics. I was in tears three times, and he still didn’t give me the chance to talk.

I went home feeling anguished. If hand foot mouth is unknown here, maybe it doesn’t occur in Mexico, in which case, how could I have gotten it? I started to worry that I had a different, unknown bug. An unknown bug that’s doing very weird things to me– that’s much more frightening than hand foot mouth. I was worried all doctors in Mexico were like him, and I was scared to go and see another one. But as my symptoms and my pain progressed even further, I got desperate. That same night Maria Jose drove me back to Star Medica, where I saw two pediatricians. They examined me well, looking into my throat with a flashlight and tongue depressor. They looked at the sores on my hands and feet and said yes, that’s Manos Pies y Boca. They also said that there have been huge outbreaks of it here in the schools, and that they see it all the time. They gave me prescriptions for painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and mouthwash. They also didn’t charge me a dime (they also didn’t speak English, so I felt quite proud of myself for being able to explain my symptoms and express my gratitude).

So, I guess not all the doctors in Mexico are complete jackasses. But if I thought America was bad with overprescribing antibiotics- man, Mexico takes the CAKE.

I now have blisters covering every inch of the inside of my mouth, and they are extremely painful. The ones on my feet are pretty bad too because I have to walk on them- but the ones on my hands don’t really hurt much anymore. I feel very vindicated in knowing that at least in this one case, I was smarter than a doctor. Thank you, Google– what would I do without you?

Oh, and a side note: I’m fairly certain of where I picked this bug up. Two things about this virus are that 1) it takes about a week before you show symptoms, and 2) adults can carry/transmit it without ever showing symptoms themsevles. A lot of my friends here volunteer in schools, daycares, and charities that deal with children. And the hygiene situation in the schools is nothing short of ABYSMAL. One of the volunteers must have picked it up from the kids, and passed it along to me. So I didn’t get this in Playa, like everyone thinks. But hey, SCIENCE!– it’s not for everyone (I suppose).

Moral of the story? Doctors are not God. Go with your gut, you know yourself best. Even if everyone is telling you otherwise, listen to your instincts, and verify before putting poison in your body.

Celestun – The Land of Flamingos!

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Every time I go on an excursion with my friends here I think “Life can’t get any better than this”. But then we go on another trip, and it does. Last night we went out dancing. I forget the name of the club– but I don’t remember the last time I went out dancing and it was a blast! We definitely stood out in the crowd (both as foreigners, and the only ones dancing) but we didn’t care.

I got home around 2 am and set my alarm for 7, to go to Celestun. We had a van drive us there, about 2 hours away. We took a boat trip around the fresh water lake and into the mangroves. There were– no joke– 25 THOUSAND flamingos there.

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When the boat motor stopped, you could hear them quacking from every direction. There were also baby crocodiles (and one big one!), cranes, pelicans and ducks. And the mangroves! I’d never seen anything like it before. We thought our trip was ending when the boat veered into the forest, down a water way under the trees. It was absolutely stunning. We needed David Attenborough there to narrate for us! I’m exhausted, but today was incredible. It’s so cool to hang out with girls from all over the world. Learning what they think about Americans (MY accent is cool?! Pssh) is especially interesting. Hearing about their cultures (especially Estonia- shout out to Helen!) is equally fascinating too. I am really on top of the world right now.

Cenote Love

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Yesterday we took another awesome excursion, this time to the cenotes in Cuzama. For as many times as I’ve been to Mexico, I’ve managed to never see a cenote. Until now.

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They are absolutely breathtaking! Two of the ones we went to were small; one I didn’t climb down into because it had slippery wooden ladders, and there was a snake at the bottom. The third one was so big, you could have swam laps in it. And the water is the bluest blue I have ever seen. It looks illuminated, even though there’s no light down there. It was also the purest, cleanest water I had ever dipped myself into.

El Museo Del Mundo Maya

I just reached 100 followers on my blog! I’m flattered 🙂

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Today was amazing. I learned a lot of cool stuff about the Mexican president from my teachers. Congratulations, Mexico, you have your very own George Bush now! I should be careful, because it is illegal here for foreigners to participate in any political protests– but I highly doubt this counts, even if they were to read it. The President’s name is Enrique Pena Nieto, and the locals absolutely hate him. He campaigned against an intellectual, stole the election, and put all his friends in power– sound familiar? He then sold international rights to Mexico’s national energy reserves for the first time in 80 years, making gasoline here now more expensive than in America. The Mexican youth protested for a good six months after his election, and his government responded with imprisonment and threats. Recently Time Magazine ran a cover story on him under the headline “Saving Mexico”, and the people here are furious with us for it. When asked to name three books that influenced him, he first named the Bible (!), and then after floundering a bit came up with another title but couldn’t “recall” the author. His first wife died in a mysterious “accident” which, when pressed for details, he is vague and changes the subject (he’s now married to a very racy Telenovela star.) Just like Mitt Romney doesn’t know the cost of a gallon of milk, Enrique doesn’t know how much tortillas cost at the store. When he was asked, he said “that’s his wife’s job”– DISGUSTING! He’s young, dumb, and his attempts to speak English are almost as funny as George W’s. Please, please, PLEASE– watch this video on YouTube NOW!

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After class I came home to eat, and then hopped in a cab to meet a fellow Texan, John, at El Museo Del Mundo Maya (The Museum of the Mayan World). The building is a stunning work of modern architecture, the exhibits covered everything from the history of the Yucatan, to science, to the Mayan way of life today. Fun fact: the Mayan’s didn’t “just disappear”, as many people say. In fact, many rural Yucatecans don’t even speak Spanish. The Mayan language and culture not only didn’t vanish, but remain thriving today.

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Fun times!

Contact by Carl Sagan

9780671004101_custom-9dbc1094f61e99e3e3b7bcec4f8d777ad84d5a20-s6-c30I saw the movie Contact when it first came out in 1997, and I loved it. At the time I had no idea who Carl Sagan was, and more than a few key plot points undoubtedly flew over my 10-year-old head. Every few years I would happen across the film again and each time with a new level of understanding. I learned more about science, and more about stories. I learned who Carl Sagan was, and have watched his Cosmos: A Personal Voyage more than a thousand times. Every time I watched Contact I was moved, and I took something new away. It might just be my favorite movie ever.

So why on Earth has it taken me so effin’ long to read the book Contact, by Carl Sagan himself? I don’t know– I think I took a stab at it once when I was much younger, and stumbled on the science before I got far enough in. Maybe I was afraid that against the Hollywood adaptation I had come to love, the book would disappoint. Or maybe I was afraid that it would be too different, making the movie a betrayal of Sagan’s work.

Fears aside I dove into a paperback copy of Contact and finished it within a week. And… I absolutely loved it. And I still love the movie just as much. But I love Carl Sagan even more than ever… read my reasons (and spoilers, obviously!) below. Continue reading

Daydreams of Nightscapes


When I was a kid I was obsessed with the night sky. I went to summer camp deep in the heart of Texas, where the stars at night really are big and bright. I remember the first time I looked up and was overwhelmed with their awesomeness: it was bonfire night, an annual tradition at camp. Before the night ended, after the bonfire had died, one of the councilors told us to point our flashlights into the sky. He explained (as best he could to a group of children) that just as the starlight reaches us, the light from our flashlights will also travel across the universe, and millions of light years from now there might be a group of alien kids at an alien summer camp looking up at their alien sky and seeing our ancient, earthly light.

I was immediately hooked. I grew up with a fascination for the universe and I have never stopped being amazed at all the new things I learn. However, I realized the other day that I hadn’t actually looked at the universe in a long time. The last time I really went stargazing was two summers ago, out in the hill country again. My friend Jewel and I had found ourselves laying in the driveway, still warm from the hot summer daylight. We counted two shooting stars, named every constellation we thought we recognized, and then made up the rest.

It seems like fascination with the stars is something that is supposed to go away with age, like how adults stop playing make-believe when they grow up. Are people just too busy to look up at the stars now? Have they lost their childlike wonder?

I don’t think so. I don’t think people have left the stars, so much as the stars have left us.

Evidence:

This is a photo comparison showing the effects of light pollution on our view of the night sky. The picture on the left was taken during a city-wide blackout, and you can see the Milky Way stretching up and out across the night. The picture on the right is what the night sky looks like ordinarily– barely a star visible. No wonder people have lost their fascination with the night– out of sight, out of mind, right?

I was recently perusing the web for some new space images to use as my wallpaper, when I noticed an interesting genre termed “nightscapes”. Nightscapes are landscape photos taken at night– capturing both the earth’s horizon and the sky above. They are breathtaking, almost impossibly beautiful. Photographs of deep space, like those from Hubble, are fantastical and amazing. However, the juxtaposition of the Milky Way against the familiar serenity of Earth is evocative and powerful on a whole other dimension. The images force us to see the stars in relation to Earth, and Earth in relation to the stars. They remind us that we are a part of this mysterious universe, and that knowledge makes it even more unbelievably beautiful.

I am now absolutely obsessed with nightscapes. I can’t get over how astoundingly beautiful they are. Its a subtle reminder that beyond the haze of our smog and city lights, there’s a whole universe out there.

And it is awesome:

To see more awe-inspiring nightscapes head over to my Tumblr, Cosmophile.

The Long What, Now?

 

Before I clicked on the headline, I had to double-check that I wasn’t reading The Onion. It seemed too absurd to be true. But, you know truth- it’s stranger than fiction. And you really can’t make this stuff up. It was an article about a group called The Long Now Foundation, and their construction of a giant clock. In a mountain. Designed to keep perfect time. For ten thousand years.

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I immediately needed to know more. I read this excellent article on Wired.com. I highly suggest reading it if you’ve never heard about the clock (if you aren’t in the mood for some pretty dense reading, there is a very entertaining podcast from How Stuff Works that pretty much covers it.) The article was like a great book or a movie that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished it. I was completely fascinated.

But it’s not a movie, or a book, or even a story– what Long Now has done is barely a narrative; its a beginning at best. And yet, that’s exactly what Long Now wanted– to make us think of time differently. To think beyond the hours/days/years/decades that humans count. Long Now wants us to step back and take a broader view of time, to think of generations in the future and how our actions affect them. Their vision of the future is decidedly optimistic– after all, the ten thousand years haven’t even started yet– the clock is still under construction. Our story is just beginning, you see?

When I think about the clock– which I do often– I see an endless amount of stories, and possibilities. I become a kid again, completely lost in imagination. A clock, designed to keep perfect time for 10,000 years, built within a mountain. It’s a modern-day stonehenge: a pinnacle of human innovation that our descendants probably won’t understand at all.

What are future generations going to think  of the clock and further– of the people who built the clock? What would aliens think of them? Will the clock withstand the elements, the earth, the erosion of time, and– perhaps most likely– destructive intervention by the very creatures who built it? Our modern Stonehenge could very well be scrapped for parts within a century.

Or, imagine this: the clock is nearing the end of it’s 10,000 year run, and whatever radioactive civilization is around at the time is going completely bonkers because they think the world is about to end. Some weird religious belief, maybe. Think Y2K, but on a magnitude of 10,000. Of course, the world won’t end, the clock will just stop. How disappointing would it be if the last tick echoes through the chamber and NOTHING happens afterward? Talk about a let down… awkward silence! (On a side note, I’ve read conflicting reports on whether or not this clock has a giant cuckoo  that will pop out every millennia. I sincerely hope this is true.)

One of the most intriguing features of the clock is the chime. The chime’s various sounds were crafted by Brian Eno, which is awesome enough, but apparently they will be randomly put together to generate completely unique sequences for 10,000 years… whether or not anyone is around to hear it.*

See what I mean about the endless possibilities? The clock makes me wonder about the future, and stories crawl out of wonder in endless number. Like a brand new notebook with 10,000 blank pages, waiting for a writer. I won’t be around to read it at the end, but I have imagined so many possibilities of what might be in it. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know this: it will certainly be stranger than anything I can imagine.

Check out the Long Now Foundation for yourself.

* if a chime rings in a mountain and nobody’s around to hear it, does it still make a sound?