Heliocentric Coffee

Would we drink coffee with Nicolaus Copernicus?

Kristy: Sure. I mean the nice thing about those Renaissance Men was that they knew a little about everything, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something to talk about. The bad thing about those Renaissance Men, of course, was that they knew a little about everything, so I will no doubt leave feeling like a colossal idiot. But hey, grad school as me well acquainted with that sensation. I’m going to do my best to skip the hard science discussion and ask him about two things I find much more interesting: education and national identity. Yes, I realize the man revolutionized science, and that’s important, but I also think that makes it that much more interesting to know what he thinks of our current educational models. Does he applaud the trends toward specialization or wish people were forced to be more well-rounded? And yes, I’m very curious to know what he considered himself: Polish? Prussian? German? Silesian? Do any of these terms mean anything at all to him? Yes, I know it’s no more relevant to him than it was to thousands of people of his generation, but I’m not having coffee with them. I’m having coffee with him, and while were there I’d like some insight into identity perceptions is fifteenth-century Poland.

Cammy:  Coffee with Copernicus?  To quote Gus from Psych, “You know that’s right!”  Of course I want to have coffee with him.  He’s a lawyer, he’s a scientist, no one knows what flavor of European to truly call him–he’s like my really poorly timed and incredibly funny lookin’ soul mate.  A huge part of my family comes with that same troublesome cultural classification issue (Prussian?  Polish?  German?  Silesian?  Just confused?), so maybe his insight into where he puts himself could help with putting my only family tree into the right buckets.  I’m not so scared of the hard science discussion, but I am more interested in some of what Kristy wants to talk to him about, particularly the specialization vs. seeking broad-based knowledge.  I’m guessing he’d have some choice comments to make about how we’ve divided up subject matter and, in some cases, pitted them against one another (art and science mutually exclusive?  Not for him!).  At least with him, we’re not going to be limited on topics.

Coffee With A Girl From Space

Would we have coffee with Sally Ride?

Kristy: I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this ought to be Cammy’s domain. You’re probably right. But I got here first. Yeah. Sure. No, I can’t talk about the sciencey stuff. Yes, I’ll be concerned that she’s going to think less of me for being a social sciences major. Yes, thinking too much about the space program gives me anxiety… I just kinda feel like she deserves a cup of coffee. Because I really did grow up believing I could be anything I want to be, and that’s in large part due to women like her. My mother, who was born a few months after Ride certainly didn’t grow up with that, and she had a remarkably progressive father (who forced her to take chemistry in high school even though her guidance counselor said it wasn’t necessary for a girl). So yeah, I’d like to thank her on my behalf and that of my nieces. And I’d like to hear her talk. I bet she has some mortifyingly hysterical stories about the way the press reacted to her (according to Wikipedia she was asked if she was a workplace crier and if being in space would impact her reproductive organs). And while I know the topic might be overly trendy, I think it’s very interesting that she achieved everything she did, not only as a woman, but as a woman who was not straight. We don’t know how she personally characterized her sexuality, because she never talked about it publically. And I think I’d like to ask her about that. Obviously, she had every right to keep it private, and there was something very low key and cool about coming out in her obituary… but I’d like to know why she waited. I’d like to know what barriers she thinks still remain for people based on their sex and sexuality.

Cammy:  Oh, gee, do I even need to say it?  Hell yeah!  Seriously, she’s an astronaut.  In her later career she focused heavily on encouraging science for girls.  How could I not want to have coffee with her?  And on top of this, before Kristy can get too worried about how she would feel about a social sciences major….did you know one of her undergraduate majors was English?  That is actually one of the number one reasons she is bad-ass in my book and why I would love to speak with her.  She was a geek who could SPELL!  There always seems to be this strain between science and non-science and the real losers in this situation are those of us who straddle the divide.  Can an English major get to space?  Clearly the answer is yes.  Sure, she was also a Physics major, but she proves the two are NOT mutually exclusive.  I’d love to here why she didn’t just go for physics?  Why wasn’t her other major in something more typically cross-over (like math)?  How did that English degree help her?  Should we be encouraging not just science for girls, but science as part of the all-round renaissance girl package?

Coffee with… A Rocket Scientist

Would we have coffee with….Wernher von Braun?

Cammy:  Abso-fraggin’-lutely.  He’s the mack-daddy of rocket scientists, and being related to more than one of those, I feel compelled to talk with him.  In fact, I’m resisting the urge to drag those rocket-scientist relatives along for this coffee date (though it would probably wind derailed into something involving differential equations or something).  Usually the only things people can tell you about von Braun are “something about rockets” and “Nazis.”  They really like to focus on the whole “Nazi” thing.  But that’s not what I want to talk to him about–it’s been beat to death and maybe I’m being deluded, but I kinda feel like a lot more people would have joined the Nazi party in his position at the time than are likely to admit it, so I’m not going to harp on that one again.  No, I’d rather talk about what inspired him.  From what I’ve read about him, the fuel behind his interest in rocketry was his desire to see man exploring space, going to the moon.  He saw that happen as the driving force behind the rocket propulsion of the Saturn V rocket that fueled the Apollo missions.  So what the hell does he think of the state of things now?  He’d already broken with NASA in the 70s when it became clear that the direction they were headed was different than what he envisioned–this would have been around the time that NASA moved away from the Apollo-style modules that put men on the moon and over to the space shuttle.  If that was enough to drive him away from NASA?  Now we’re down to no shuttle, no operational alternative, and oh, by the way, the expertise and skill that he nurtured to get us to the moon?  Yeah, we’ve let it atrophy to nothing.  We could not do today what we did then.  I can only imagine he’d have something to say about that.  I’d also like to talk about some of the ideas he was developing back in his NASA days–plans regarding the logistics and realities of getting an orbital space station up and going–not like the current International Space Station, but a larger structure with rotational gravity.  And when all that gives out, I’m pretty sure we could have a nice conversation about music, as before he became a rocket scientist, he was on-track to be a classical musician.

Kristy: Yeah… before I go any further I’m going to admit I had to wikipedia this guy. I will now hang my head in shame. That said, I think I’m going to pass. It’s not that I have any problem with the guy. I can’t hold the Nazi thing against him–like Cammy said, I think a lot of us would be horrified by our decisions if we were placed in the same position he and so many Germans were. I can’t really condone his choice, but condemning him for it seems harsh, hypocritical and ignorant. Speaking of ignorance… maybe it’s because I write this following my qualifying exams. Maybe it’s because my brain power is totally spent. I just can’t figure out what the hell we’d talk about. I mean… I think space exploration is a worthy goal. I agree with Cammy that it’s absurd we’ve let our work in this area lapse so much. But it’s not something I’m as passionate about, and… there’s honestly no way I can have a conversation about this without sounding stupid. I’d blame it on not having rocket scientists in the family, but I can’t tell you much about flying fighter jets so it seems likely if I had a rocket scientist I wouldn’t have listened to him either. My main memories of the space program are largely traumatic. I have some understanding of the social and political issues involved, but not enough to make stimulating conversation and I doubt that’s what he’d want to focus on anyway. So I’m gonna let Cammy have this one and hope she has something interesting to report later.

Coffee With….Maria Cunitz

Cammy: Definitely want to have coffee with this woman.  There’s a shortage of women in the history of science generally, and an even greater shortage of those who get any press time (besides Marie Curie, bless her little Polish heart).  Cunitz was an astronomer in the 1600s in Silesia (Silesian roots, represent, yo).  She improved on Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (and apparently let the housework slide while working on it).  She also spoke seven languages (if you know anything about the location of Silesia, you know that at least 2 of those were just part of the area:  Polish and German).  She allegedly also had skill in music, art, medicine and poetry.  But the fact is, there just isn’t much known about her.  Part of this is due to, well, it was circa 1650.  And part was because of the times.  Many of her contemporaries ignored her astronomical calculations, her correspondence with other scholars had to be addressed to her husband and that same husband had to write a preface to her published work openly disclaiming authorship–because obviously no one would believe a woman capable of math.

So basically?  I want to have coffee to get the straight story here.  How pissed was she at playing games just to discuss her field with others?  When was she born (there are no accurate records to even tell us that much)?  Fleeing Silesia to avoid some of the Thirty Years War Conflict–was that done to avoid conversion to Catholicism (like her siblings who remained behind did), or just because?

Kristy: Yes.  Let’s face it, I might lack anything beyond a very basic understanding of physics and I lack even that when it comes to math.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect it.  And a woman of her era who managed to achieve that level of accomplishment in a field people didn’t even think women were biologically capable of comprehending?  That deserves something greater than just respect.  Besides, she seems to have been a serious Renaissance woman (in the figurative sense of the word).  Gotta love a woman who can write comfortably in multiple languages and who advocates the vernacular.  So yeah, I’d drink coffee with her.  I might get lost listening to her and Cammy talk about Germany, Silesia, and science.  But I’ll nod and smile convincingly.

A Little Night Terror

A couple of nights ago I woke up to a man standing beside my bed with a knife against my throat.  I was terrified, unable to move.  He pressed the tip of the knife into the skin of my neck, just hard enough to compress the skin a bit, but it didn’t seem to break the skin.  I could feel the knife clearly—it was cold and sharp.  He gave me an evil smile and, for a moment, I was absolutely convinced I was going to die.  And then suddenly I was able to move, and he was gone.  I was alone in my bed, safe and sound.  It wasn’t a dream—there was no sensation of waking up before the man disappeared.

It was scary, but, for me, not at all unusual.  I suffer regularly from what is called Sleep Paralysis with Hypnogogic Hallucinations (SPHH).  Generally with SPHH a person wakes up unable to move and with the sense of some kind of presence in the room with them.  Often he/she will see a figure which seems to be the source of this fear.  A common theme is for the figure to climb on the person’s chest and inhibit breathing.  Then after a period of time which can be as little as a few seconds or as long as fifteen minutes the person will find him/herself able to move, and the figure and the fear will be gone.  Many people will have this happen at least once in their lifetimes, and regular occurrences are more common than you might think.  To be honest, my experiences tend to be a bit atypical, but there is remarkable similarity in the stories which are recounted by people from all over the world.

The best explanation that science can come up with is that it’s caused by an irregularity in the sleep cycle.  Normally the brain paralyzes the body during REM sleep to prevent you from moving in response to your dreams and hurting yourself.  Scientists theorize that in SPHH part of the brain wakes up while part is stuck in REM; you are paralyzed and still dreaming, but you are also awake.  Thus far science has not come up with much of an explanation for why we all seem to be having the same or similar dreams when it happens.

The big problem inhibiting scientific research is that this is the sort of thing people don’t talk about.  We live in a society which likes to be grounded in the rational and scientific.  While there might be a perfectly rational and scientific explanation for SPHH, as an experience it does not fit within our normal perception of a rational reality.  Because of this, many people will not talk about their experiences.  To give you an idea how strong this compulsion to silence is:  My sister and I shared a room growing up.  We slept in the same bed for years.  And only last month did I find out that she also suffers from SPHH.  She had no idea what it was, but her hallucinations frequently involve spiders crawling on her chest.  (My sister’s also arachnophobic, which makes me wonder if SPHH is like boggarts and tailors itself to an individual’s fears.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon—science being inhibited by science.  For the record, I don’t generally believe that my SPHH is supernatural in nature (with one or two exceptions I won’t go into here), but it annoys me that it’s being dismissed, rather than studied because of social prejudices.

David Hufford who has studied the phenomenon can put it even better than I can.