Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cold Mountain

Anyone out there seen Cold Mountain? I love the movie. Back when I was a beach dweller here in San Diego I used to take walks down to the Blockbuster on Mission Ave. and purchase old VHS tapes they kept outside on a table for 2$. Lucky for me they were purging their supply back when I lived there. I have some gems on VHS (and a good thing I still own a VHS player!) (including Cold Mountain)

I tutor at the library and happened upon the Friends of the Library collection near the front door. What a deal! People donate paperback novels- everything from Garrison Keillor to Phillip Roth and Dan Brown....and Cold Mountain. Whatever is on the shelf is fair game for 50 cents. Yes, that's 50 cents. What a deal. For this reason I have my own copy of Cold Mountain. (I also own books I would never buy at the store price: Kite Runner, Memoirs of a Geisha, Devil Wears Prada, two Keillor novels, and Schindler's list just to name a few). If you've never checked out your local library for the cheap paperback (used) books then I would go take a look. I've never had such cheap, yet quality entertainment. In this case that is definitely not an oxymoron.

I digress but I return to the purpose of this post. Cold Mountain. What a powerful novel. Superficially it is a touching romance. The movie emphasizes the romance and the scenery. There is a bit of information about the war but really not much more than what you might learn from Gone with the Wind. The Civil War was initially portrayed as a romantic, exciting and noble cause for the good of the south. So different from what it ended up becoming at the end of the war- a blood bath of meaningless massacre and heartrenching horror. As also shown in Gone with the Wind many southerners became scavengers and hunters as their currency lost value and people's possessions were diminished by poverty and raids by home guard and invading soldiers.

Cold Mountain goes into a bit more detail than other civil war books about specifics of battles and cultural implications of melding the north with the south. I wonder how accurate some of the information really is. For example, one of the concerns of the southerners was that they would have to acquire an odd holiday from the north called Thanksgiving. Imagine dedicating one entire day just to giving thanks- I mean really, what a silly idea. Hard to believe this was a mockery amongst gentry of the south during the civil war.

The author is a genius in flashback techniques. The story is mostly told in retrospect as stories within the main story. Inman (the main male character) has been badly injured in battle and deserted his recovery process in an army hospital. In the chapters that focus on him he is wandering through the wilderness trying to find his way back to Cold Mountain. On the way he meets many different types of folks, some helpful and some hurtful. He also recounts his relationship before the war with Ada Monroe on Cold Mountain- the woman he is hoping to meet again alive in Cold Mountain.

While Inman wanders in the wilderness the chapters intersperse themselves with the account of Ada Monroe back in Cold Mountain. At the beginning Ada is a half-starved, desperate and abandoned daughter of a missionary father. His death left her near penniless and without skills to survive on their farm at Black Cove on Cold Mountain. Slowly, however, through the help of neighbors and a crass, abandoned uneducated farm hand named Ruby she gains a knowledge of growing her own food, tending livestock, and growing into self-sufficiency on her farm. Previous to this experience her skills were nothing that could actually be rendered useful: arranging cut flowers, playing the piano, reading novels.

All this survival on both sides is for one goal: reuniting the love between Ada and Inman. Slowly in the evolution of Inman's wandering and Ada's increased self-sufficiency we learn of a long-lost love discovered during a different time. A time before the war when gentleman existed in the south and integrity and honor reigned in the grand old south.

The scenery throughout the entire book is extremely touching. I really want to go to North Carolina to see Cold Mountain in real life. Apparently it is a real place.

I am enthralled by the writing and the plotline. The author draws us into a rather unusual romance between an ordinary farm boy and a woman of social standing. Then, we are drawn even more into the forces that pull them back together after they are separated. Inman nearly dies several times during his journey back and each time he scrapes by it seems that his desire to see and reunite with Ada drives his will and wit to pull through. It is love that truly saves the day in the end. Inman survives and arrives back home.

I won't reveal the rest of the ending. It is fascinating. I recommend a read of the book.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Jane Austen stage perhaps?

Its really interesting that Jane Austen's novels have eluded me thus far. I say that because I have heard about her and her writing in several situations and even watched a few of the Hollywood-interpretation movies since the '90s. It seems like the kind of movie that would grab me, doesn't it? An Anne of Green Gables or Laura Ingals Wilder turned adult romantic and an old-fashioned, harmless, complex exploration of relationships and their meaning. When I was in college, my favorite professor handed out a list of books she considered for our lit class. At least three of Austen's novels were on that list. I still have that list in a manila folder in my garage. And yet I've never picked up a single Austen novel.

But now.... but now I truly am inspired. On our flight from San Diego to Toronto I watched The Jane Austen Book Club. What an inspiration to read all of the Austen novels! About five women and one (lone) man meet once a month to discuss all of Jane Austen's novels. The themes of romantic relationships they discuss are so real they manifest themselves in their real-life relationships. It is truly touching.  And the really cool part of it is that there doesn't seem to be just one interpretation of the themes in a single book. I'm really intrigued by it. How can each person see the characters so differently?

So today in my lazy, pre-Christmas preparations (almost complete) I spent some time updating my wish list. I now have the complete novel set along with a complete movie set on my wish list. I actually chose to select the older versions of the Austen films for a very specific reason. Movies are only worthwhile if the content closely follows that of the text. According to the reviews the modern Hollywood renditions of the movie really don't treat the original plots of the novels fairly. Apparently some of the acting is spotty as well.

So here I am- yet to be made a Jane Austen fanatic.  They'll make a Brit out of me yet. So far I'm still pining away after LM Montgomery but maybe this is the bait to transfer my drooling affections to Austen. We shall just have to see.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My current wish-list of ambition

I always have a stack of books next to my bed that fit into this category: "I should really read this book to become a more educated scientist and a better teacher." The problem with the books in this category is that by the time I come home from work after a tough day the last thing I want to do is pleasure reading about chemistry. I'd rather pick up Narnia or Cold Mountain or even Schindler's List (as depressing as it seems) for crying out loud.

But, just today I received something that really piqued my interest in terms of thrilling science. It is called the Disappearing Spoon. Yes, thrills chills, it is a book of anecdotal information about the periodic table and the elements on it. It tells tales of poison, politics and even a bit of science mixed in. I haven't read it yet but the introduction talked about mercury and its haunting tendencies to poison and hurt people.
When I first read the summary I thought to myself, "this sounds like another rendition of Primo Levi and the Periodic Table." Primo Levi is the Jewish freelance chemist who wrote about his experiences in chemistry during world war II by focusing each chapter of his book on one particular experience. The experience was somehow tied into one of the elements on the periodic table- either peripherially or focally.  I can already see that this book is vastly different from Levi's. For one thing the author is not a bench scientist. And for another he is not telling personal experiences- he is recounting facts he learned about elements mixed in with some of his own impressions and conversations with professors during his science education experience. So far it is not evident that he has been employed in science beyond his basic education level.

So- as soon as I gather lots of riveting poisoner stories and other scandalous tidbits to shock my students with perhaps I will gain ambition to read the other two books on my ambition checklist. They are these two books:
One is based on history of science classes taught at Johns Hopkins and the other is a book written by a man exploring the nature of ocean waves with his daughter. Two very different books but both potentially helpful in getting nonscientists interested in science.

I just can't muster up the ambition to actually read these books.

Narnia: a holiday treat

I never thought of myself as a particularly enthusiastic  Narnia fan. When the movie came out five years ago I chuckled, enjoyed it and mentioned to John I wouldn't mind rereading "Lion, Witch and Wardrobe" as I had done in my childhood. Little did I know this would become my most treasured holiday gift!
At Christmas in 2005 I received the boxed set of all seven books. You'll remember that in 2005 John and I were first dating and didn't know each other all that well. I guess he took my admiration for the Narnia series more seriously than I did. I never expected (nor did I really want) all seven books. But, boy was this a lucky mistake.
Now, five years later I've just finished the fifth book in the series and am thoroughly excited and anticipating the movie. Voyage is by far the best book in the series. The allegorical similarity to the Bible is so striking it touched me on a very deep level and made me read with fascination of not wanting to put the book down.
As the children and the ship move through the islands surrounding Narnia looking for their lost Lords, they experience events that closely parallel the Bible. Now, I'm not one to believe everything I hear or jump on the bandwagon but I have to say this: If Francis Collins, head of NIH (currently) can have faith without empirical evidence to back it up then so can I. Period. So I digress back to my point.
There is a section where a particularly disagreeable character turns into a dragon by his own greediness only to be transformed in character through suffering until Aslan converts him back into a human again. He is a new person in character.There is a section where Lucy uses magic to remove a spell placed on a group of people who have become invisible. This section is rather like  Harry Potter meets Disney or Harry Potter goes to church section. It explores the fantasy of magic combined with underlying themes of how emotions like fear are handled. The whole issue of fear is explored on a deep level: does fear hold us back from doing things that are really not all that daunting? What is fear and how does it control us? It is fear that nearly prevents Lucy and friends from intervening here- only to find out that it was fear itself that was the worst danger in this situation.
My favorite part is exploration of the end of the world. In this part there is an image of the lion laying down with the lamb (Biblical prophecy) and then the ocean turning into a sea of lilies. And along the way a discovery of a whole people group living underwater like humans. The whole notion of the unknown is  powerfully explored with their discovery of the uniqueness of the environment.  Nothing seems to work the way it does in Narnia or on earth for that matter.  And then at the end Reepicheep takes his own individual boat by himself to explore the absolute ends of the earth while Lucy, Edmond and Eustace suddenly find themselves back at his aunt's house on the floor of the living room.
CS Lewis is such a treat. I'm growing to appreciate him more and more. Perhaps I'll reread Dawn Treader when I have time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another semester is over....

Well, another semester has come and gone and I have lived to tell about it. Seems like the exact same thing happened last semester: finals occur and then grading is finished and then I have to submit final grades. And someone is always unhappy. And I've found my unhappies already.

I heard this myself when I was a student but I don't think I really like it or believed it. "Its not the grade that matters." Over time I've grown to understand what this really means.

When I look at a chemistry text now I understand it in a much deeper way than when I was a student. I can cross-reference diagrams and find topics explained from different angles in different chapters. I never would have been able to do this as an undergraduate. It all came from years of experience and practice.

So the problem then is this: should we be coddling and comforting learners as they wade through the details of problem solving and reading the text by padding grades along the way? I don't know- I think in some ways it motivates people to give them positive feedback and encouragement. However, it certainly doesn't give them the real picture of their depth of understanding of the material. And- I'm not sure it accurately predicts how well they will perform in a more complex class (upper level)

I just gave a very hard final. I had students who normally get A grades fail the test. It was that hard. I took the questions primarily from the textbook test bank on a CD from the publisher. These are TOUGH questions. Most of them include answers that would seem logical if you don't understand the question on a very deep level. Of course, that wasn't the correct answer- only to be found through a detailed understanding of the calculations and logic behind each question. The test gave me some information about my students, however.

This test showed me which students really worked at understanding not only the math of chemistry but the conceptual grasp of big topics. One of the questions had them rank the boiling points of several compounds including covalent and ionic compounds. They were supposed to surmise that the strongest intermolecular forces and the strongest bonds lead to the highest boiling point. (The ionic compound always has the highest boiling point for this reason)  Even my best student missed this question. I'm trying to figure out how he missed this among many other more difficult conceptual problems on the test. I think it is because when we study covalent compounds I emphasize how hydrogen bonding is the strongest intermolecular force and causes the highest boiling point. What I usually don't emphasize here is that hydrogen bonding wouldn't create as high of a boiling point as ionic bonding.  So- for covalently bonded compounds ONLY,  hydrogen bonding would cause the greatest elevation of boiling point. Ionic compounds are in a whole different class altogether.

I hope my students take the experience of this excruciatingly difficult test as a motivating learning experience. This is but the first of many tough exams to come in their scientific or medical careers. It will prepare them to really study and think and examine what is important. It also teaches them there is no free ride. School is hard work.

I'll post this exam with the answers for my students next semester to chew on all semester. I plan to make the final more straighforward (with any luck I'll succeed- I had no idea this test would be this hard) I'm hoping that by chewing on the questions from this test students will be prepared to ask themselves and answer the really tough conceptual material.

Chemistry is no cake walk.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Arsenic in DNA?

Arsenic Article
I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about Arsenic in DNA. This is profound, if true, and a bit scary.

Arsenic? A  poison? Found incorporated in the genetic code of life. I was shocked. Researchers are suggesting this is new evidence that there is life outside of planet earth. This may redefine the essential elements of life.