The Sun, the Moon, and Stardust

I remember hearing a story when I was a little girl about the sun and the moon; two cursed lovers who were destined to chase one another across the sky. I heard stories of how one would hold its breath and sink to the other side of the world just to ensure its dearest love could dance across that wide expanse. Forever they chased, whispering their sweet nothings in the flickering of the light they shared. And yet- once in a great while, the gods granted them mercy. In the rarest of moments, their chasing would cease, they would meet in the sky and share a long kiss, a deep embrace; and all the world would stop, staring in awe as their love eclipsed this lonely place; so powerful it could turn day into night, if only for a little while.

Of all of the stories, the myths and the legends; this is the one I love the most. The years of searching, of chasing, of running across the sky; culminating in a moment that can still steal the heart and take the breath away.

Yesterday I experienced my first eclipse, and it was as magical as I had hoped. My hometown fell just outside of the zone of totality; we sat at about 99%, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to those dreamed-of areas where the viewing would be perfect. But I had an hour, my glasses, and good company. I’ve always been a bit of a science geek, and fell in love with the beauties outside of our planet when I was just a girl. I used to hide under my covers and read textbooks about the stars, sneaking peeks of articles talking about water on mars and what could be found on the moons of Jupiter. At eight years old I was convinced I would go there someday- or at least our moon, that dear little beauty. Losing that dream, stifling that sense of wonder and adventure for the sake of ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’ is perhaps one of my biggest retreats. You don’t realize unto you have stomped the budding plant under your feet that it had the potential to grow into a towering oak. That spark inside may have dimmed, but it still flickers. So when the eclipse came, I was prepared, giddy with excitement I didn’t even attempt to contain.

When I woke up, I tried looking out at the world and sensing a difference; were there any cosmic signs that today would be different than yesterday? Was the sun a bit brighter, or was that my imagination? It just felt like a regular Monday. At 9:06, I excitedly peeked up into the sky, wondering if I could see a difference- it looked like a regular day to me. And yet peering through my glasses, there was an entirely different story to tell. Just barely crossing in front of that bright orange glow- there it was, a beautiful orb intersecting in a delicate dance.

Walking outside, there was a buzz of excitement as people stopped every few feet to stare back up into the sky. The shadows themselves grew longer; the light cast between the beaches changed shape, looking for all the world like slivers of the holes you punch out of paper.

The world grew dim, an eerie twilight in the middle of the morning. And the thing that really struck me- it got cold. You don’t realize the power of the universe that we find ourselves in until right in that moment when the moon gains the upper hand and even the sun itself cannot stop it. It was beautiful, inspiring, and somehow managed to remind you of how small you really are. There’s something empowering in that moment, right there when you realize how bold and magical this world really is- and you are right there, a living and breathing part of it. You belong to it just as the sun does, just as the moon, just as the trees cast in those shadows- you belong to something so much bigger than yourself. It was powerful, it was amazing.

As I stood there in the false twilight, I couldn’t help but wonder how our ancestors handled this rare phenomenon; the stories that have been passed down tell a far different tale than my own. Many were fearful of this mysterious force that could turn day into night. The Incas believed that a jaguar was attacking the sun- and they would make as much noise as they could to scare the beast away from their beacon of salvation. Luckily for them- they won that batter every time. The knowledge that science bestows upon us has power. It can turn something that would traditionally inspire fear and uncertainty- and casts it into a new light of understanding. It can empower you, and remind you of your place in this world.

Have you ever heard the quote by Lawrence M. Krause? He said, “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: you are all stardust.” You can call yourself a child of God, or a child of the stars; it is no matter to me- the point is that we belong, right here. We belong to this universe, the this solar system, to this planet, to this dirt and this water- we belong to each other. We all stood in amazement yesterday staring up into the sky as the sun and the moon shared a loving entrance before traipsing back across the blue expanse. We shared a moment that had nothing to do with ideology, political viewpoints, no sparring between us vs them, no suspicion and no hesitation. We shared a wonder of this world- and in that moment we were finally united, even if it was only transitory, a tiny little breath of time. Strangers were sharing glasses and smiling towards the heavens, thanking one another. Defendants and Judges stood on the sidewalk with rapt attention and shared a moment, all of their differences cast aside as they smiled at one another. Perhaps if we stopped to explore the wonders of this world more often, we would remember what we have in common with it and with one another. We are not so different; we are all stardust. We are all just the moon chasing that beautiful sun across the sky.

These last three photos are all courtesy of NASA- thank you for making me feel like I belong to something much larger than myself.

The Healing Power of a Well-Placed Curse

My feet seem to have an uncanny ability to always find the one missing lego or the edge of the table leg I wasn’t paying enough attention to. I am not exactly what you would call a delicate flower; I am clumsy and uncoordinated, and when I hurt myself I can have the mouth of a sailor. If you see me in my regular daily life I seem pleasant enough, but watch me stub my toe once and you’ll hear a string of curse words you didn’t even know existed, laid out in colorful combinations you never would have thought to try. They usually don’t make sense, and my face will probably turn beet red after I realize what exactly I said in front of you; but you will walk away feeling thoroughly educated.

I never put much thought into this knee-jerk reaction, I just knew that yelling my obscenities and jumping up and down on my good leg made me feel better. But as it turns out, there is actual science behind this little fluke of humanity (studies like this make me kick myself internally for not joining the scientific community as my own career path). It is no secret that words have power; they can evoke tearful compassion, blood boiling anger, they can inspire uprisings and tear down governments. Words have the ability to lift the spirit or break the soul. Swearing itself evokes an emotional response; if you have ever been yelled at by a parent or glared at by a co-worker after allowed a particularly colorful four-letter beauty slip from your lips, then you have witnessed the response firsthand. We have created our own taboo language and imbued it with power, determining on a whim what is socially acceptable and what is not. If our response to mere words is so strong that we have created our own form of self-censorship, then what else can they do? Once again, science swoops in with the answers.

Researchers at Keele University’s School of Psychology were curious about the potential physical effects of swearing, and so they conducted their own experiment. This little test has been repeatedly replicated, and even found its way onto the TV show Mythbusters. They took 64 lucky undergrad volunteers and had them all partake in the ice water test. Each participant was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as they possibly could while repeating a single word. For a control, participants were asked to do this while repeating a fairly innocuous word describing a table. And then we got to the good part; those involved in the study were then told to do the exact same thing, only this time they choose whatever curse word their heart desired. As it turns out, when repeating their favorite swear word, participants were able to hold their hand in the ice water for substantially longer than they could with a regular mundane word. In fact, they were able to tack on an average of 40 additional seconds to their time. As we all may know from plunging our hand into a slightly-melted cooler looking for the perfect beverage during the summer months: an additional 40 seconds in once water is a long time. After repeated experiments, they were able to confidently declare that, yes, the act of cursing actually did have a pain-lessening effect.

Scientists aren’t sure why this link exists, but they suspect that the act of cursing triggers our natural ‘fight or flight’ response. The heart rate of volunteers accelerated, which suggests that the amygdala was being activated (this part of the brain is responsible for the fight or flight reaction). It might account for a slight increase in aggression; and anytime we physically experience an increase like this, our body is internally preparing for a fight- which means it is bracing itself for possible pain to be inflicted on us. As a measure of self-protection, it dampens the pain receptors so you can focus on what you need to do to get out of your sticky situation.

But why curse words specifically? Why couldn’t you just scream ‘pop tart, French fry, monkey , handlebar, potato’ at the top of your lungs instead? It’s interesting to note that curses themselves work differently than traditional language. Studies suggest that they originate in a different, older part of our brains. They are more closely tied to the emotional centers in the right side of the brain, whereas most language production takes place in the left cerebral hemisphere. This is something that can be seen in certain cases of brain damage where most language function deteriorates, and yet the patient can still scream the f-word quite clearly and at regular intervals. Pretty crazy, isn’t it?

Now, before you foul-mouthed fiends start jumping for joy, there is a little bit of fine print here. As it turns out, the more frequently we curse, the less emotionally potent these words become. This translates into your physical reaction as well. Which means if you curse like a sailor all damn day, then when you drop a slew of f-bombs after stubbing your toe, their pain-dampening effect won’t be nearly as strong as the girl who sits 3 desks down from you at the office and only says ‘snickerdoodles’ when she gets a paper cut. When she finally lets a good four-letter friend fall from her lips, the effect will be stronger. If you over-use your curse words, you are left with just plain words. You’ll be like Tony Stark without the Iron Man suite- it might do something, but it won’t be enough. So please, swear responsibly my friends.

So an Astrophysicist and a Writer walk into a Movie Theater…Nerd Night with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night I got to check something new off of my bucket list: watch Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture live! For any of you belonging to the race of the nebula-searching, battle-bot watching, Bill Nye adoring geekdom- you are probably bouncing in your seat as you read this, filled with anticipatory excitement. Those of you who don’t get your kicks with astrophysics are probably hearing crickets right now and are tempted to click on to the next writer’s post. but here is why you shouldn’t: you will find the most rewarding of lessons in the most unexpected places. The spark that ignites your destiny could be hidden in the words written on this page- or maybe not. The only way to know: dive in, my friends.

Like I said: I’m a bit of a nerd, and, in spite of the career direction I chose, I have always had a soft spot for the sciences. Why else would I have paid a pretty penny to sit in a hot theater with a few hundred other people and listen to a lecture given by an astrophysicist on a Monday night? And, whats more: I had a phenominal time. Nerdy science humor, the man I have watched give countless speeches on YouTube, who narrated the Cosmos series (and guest starred on the Big Bang Theory), who can take a seemingly dry subject and tease it just enough so that even the novice is hanging off of every word. Shoot- he has even graced the pages of comic books! This is why I found myself in that auditorium, this is why I loved every minute of it, and this is why I’m writing about it right now.

The subject: An astrophysicist goes to the movies- what the movies got right and got wrong. From The Breakfast Club to super bowl beer commercials all the way to The Martian and Gravity. I laughed the entire time, and (gasp) I was learning as we went. Movies and science? Oh heck yes, I am on board, let’s get this train moving.

Now, I could go on and on about all of the different things that I learned, but lets face it- the entertainment value I can spin on this wont be nearly as spectacular. Instead, I’m going to flip this into something we could all learn from. You see, there was an underlying theme to his anecdotes: know your work. As a writer, my research is vitally important to all of my projects. Even through my fiction I delve deeply into the different facets of my subject matters. Vampire story? No problem- lets peruse the history of their myths. Zombies? How about a neuroscience book that explains the causes of the ‘symptoms’ the undead are faced with. Future dystopian society? Perhaps a few papers on political and scientific developments projected in the next century- yes, that ought to do the trick. I could make an exhaustive list here, but you get the point.

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I am a bit ashamed to admit that I had never heard this quote until last night. But the moment Neil deGrasse Tyson quoted it, I could practically feel the electricity shooting through my brain to illuminate that lightbulb above my head. You see, the true mark of an artist is in the distorted truths. There is nothing more challenging than working within the parameters of the truth and finding a solution to your problems anyway.

Let’s take an example that was mentioned in the lecture. In the movie Gravity (this is not a major spoiler, but I warn you to proceed at your own risk if you still want to watch the movie). In the movie there is a scene where Sandra Bullock and George Cloony are out in space with a tether between the two of them. Sandra Bullock is about to run out of oxygen, but she wants to pull Goerge Cloony in. But he knows what the risks are, and in a sweepingly chivalrous gesture, he lets go of the tether and drifts out into space, effectively killing himself and forcing her to go back to the ship because she has no hope of getting him back.

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From a creative and elemental standpoint: this is pure theatrical gold. But here’s the problem. In space there is no gravity, in zero G’s there are no opposing forces pulling them in different directions, no chaotic swinging of bodies. Out in space all she would have to do to reel him back in- gently tug on the tether and he would slowly float back to her, no harm, no foul. And if he decided to let go of the tether- it would simply just sit there, floating right in front of him because there are no forces pulling it in any particular direction.

So, I ask you, what is the greater challenge for a writer? To take the easy way out and wreak havoc in space? Or find another possible way to separate your two characters? As artists, aren’t we always looking for the next greatest challenge? (Side note: the rest of that movie is surprisingly accurate. In fact, the theory of one satellite going down and taking out dozens of others is a big enough fear that NASA has an entire office dedicated to the problem). (Side-side note: if you are looking for some good inspirations for a sci-fi story or art piece, do a search online about the ‘orbiting junk’ around the earth. There is a map that shows all of the satellites and other debris circling our world, and it is astounding. There are even potential issues of accessibility in our future- want to go to Mars? Well good luck dodging all of the ‘trash’ we have littering the orbital field of our planet).

There is one other unavoidable risk you run when you choose to ignore the ‘rules’ of your world: alienation. Your readers (or viewers, as the case may be, depending on your chosen art form) come to your work with their own set of life experiences and knowledge. This cannot be ignored. For example, I work in the legal field, and when I am reading legal dramas or crime novels- I can give a fair amount of leeway for creative license. But sometimes the errors, intentional or not, become so glaring that they distract me from the real work. At times I have even gone so far as to put a book down because the inaccuracies were so blindingly brutal, I just couldn’t handle it anymore.

You see, my friends, we have so many potential fountains of knowledge at our disposal in our world now that we have no reason to ignore the facts. Take the time to learn something new- your craft and your audience will thank you for the extra effort. It is the difference between a mediocre work and something timeless. Respect the art. What do you have to lose? At the very least, you will avoid any potential factual call-outs on twitter from those who could have answered your questions all along.

 

The Neuroscience of Negativity (if you cant say anything nice…)

Last night I was at happy hour with a group of friends, there were nine of us total, carrying on a myriad of different conversations over yummy food and good drinks at our favorite Irish pub. By the end of the night, our numbers had whittled down to four. We were telling stories and venting a bit to one another when a man walked by our table and started talking to us. When he got us all to smile he clinked glasses and went on his way. When he came back through about fifteen minutes later he made a comment along the lines of ‘now what do I want to see?’ until we were all laughing and giving him the smile he asked for. While it was a fairly insignificant moment, it got me thinking about perception that others receive of us. It is all too common for us to spend a night gossiping and sharing stories of our weekly frustrations while laughing over a few drinks, and while I have never actually viewed this activity in a negative way (after all, we are usually laughing and making jokes the entire time), I couldn’t help but stop and think about the underlying stories: mainly, the weekly frustrations that life will bring and how we deal with those.

I generally try to be a positive person; I do my best to put on an optimistic front even when I don’t feel it inside because worrying others wont do anyone any good. Some days I have the fire burning inside already and nothing is going to get in the way of my good mood; but other days I have to remind myself, I have to build myself up to it. I’ve noticed that I have a harder time doing this with those that I am close to. I vent, I complain, I occasionally gossip- I do a lot of things that I’m not necessarily proud of. I fall into the negativity pit and all of the typical reasoning that comes with it. I tell myself that getting these negative feelings off of my chest will make me feel better. But, as it turns out, that is a bit of flawed thinking on my part. The truth is, the only thing that negative thinking will get you is more negative thinking. Don’t believe me? Just ask science.

Let me get my lab coat on (I don’t know why you want me to do this, I’m really not qualified to be teaching this class. Although last year I did read ‘Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep’- neuroscience explained through the afflictions of the zombie-kind). But, I’m dressed for the part and I wear glasses- that must make me a reputable teacher. Lesson one of neuroscience: synapses that fire together wire together. Let’s start off by explaining how this whole process works; now, the brain is a complicated creation that I wont even pretend to understand. So this overview isn’t going to be particularly technical.

Nerve cells make connections with one another in circuits that we refer to as neural pathways. These nerve cells, however, never actually touch, they just get very close together. If you have siblings, then the best example of this is when you would sit in the back of the car and they would hover their finger right over your face saying ‘but I’m not touching you’ whenever you tried to shoo them away. Unless that was just my childhood? Anyway, back to the lesson: So you have two very close neurons that cannot make physical contact. So how to they pass messages from one to the other?  (Fifty points to Gryffindor if you get it right before reading ahead). Answer: Through the synapse! Ah sure, but what the heck is that? Well, I’m glad you asked. A synapse is a structure that allows one neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron over a gap known as the synaptic cleft. They are vitally important, essentially acting as the pathway for your thoughts. Now, the body is an amazing example of efficiency. Whenever you have a thought (like you are right now), a synapse will shoot a chemical across the cleft to another synapse (think Spiderman slinging string to the building across the street), which effectively ‘builds a bridge’ that an electrical signal can then cross over. This signal carries the information that is pertinent to your thought. (I don’t know why, but I always picture a super secret FBI agent with a briefcase full of top secret documents.)

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Now, as I said before, the body is nothing if not economical. You see, every time an electric signal gets triggered, the synapses involved start to grow closer together in an effort to make their job easier. Their goal is to decrease the distance that the signal has to pass over to get from Point A to Point B. To keep the FBI analogy; its much easier to transport your top secret information from one room to another, as opposed to hopping in a car and driving across town. Isn’t that amazing? The brain will literally rewire its own circuitry to make it easier for you. It physically changes its internal map to line up the proper synapses together, effectively making it easier for that particular thought to trigger.

To put this in perspective of your daily life: think of some of those recurring habits you have: do you compulsively check your phone or social media? I bet it started with you getting bored and poking on your phone once or twice. But over time this compulsion grew, and pretty soon you are opening it and poking around on Facebook with virtually no thought behind it. You didn’t even realize you were doing it, but you were literally programming yourself to follow these habits. The shorter distance between the synapses makes these recurring thoughts more likely to occur. You are conditioning yourself for specific behaviors and thoughts- and you don’t even know you are doing it. Starts to make a bit more sense, doesn’t it?

This process can be a phenomenal asset- if you use it correctly. When you fall into the trap of bad thinking though; it is a dangerous weapon. You see, when you start thinking negatively or listening to negative speech- your brain is programming itself to follow this trend, those synapses are getting closer together and making it easier for that negative thought to reappear again. These close synapses not only make negative thoughts easier to come by, they also make it more likely for other negative thoughts to just randomly occur throughout your day, like when you are walking down the street without anything in particular on your mind (Scary, isn’t it?). Basically, by sinking into this thought pattern you are changing your personality to a gloomier outlook. As Steven Parton explains, “Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought…the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.” It is literally a race for thoughts.

This is not just an internal dilemma; suddenly it becomes very important who you surround yourself with. Humans are notoriously empathetic creatures (though it doesn’t always seem that way).During our evolution our survival hinged on the connections we could make with others. We are a species that thrive in small groups. What is the easiest way to make a connection? Through shared experiences and emotions. It’s in our wiring; when we see someone in an emotional state- good or bad, our own brains try that feeling on for size; by that, I mean that it tries to imagine what the other person is experiencing. Have you ever watched a video of people laughing? Something so simple- try not to smile yourself when you watch it. The reason why it’s so hard: your brain wants to relate to them, it wants to mirror their emotions to find common ground. How does it delve into this imagined world? Well, it fires those synapses, of course- attempting to emulate what it is seeing in the other person, effectively allowing you to ‘relate’ to them. Ever hear of ‘mob mentality’? Well, this is where that comes from- good or bad, we want to have common ground with other people. This explains the hype we all collectively begin to feel at a concert or sporting event- or the way we vent exhaustively at happy hour with our best friends.

You follow the same thought patterns as those around you; that’s why toxic relationships can be so potent and drag you down so quickly. That is also why you feel so refreshed and energized by that ‘happy friend’ you have who doesn’t seem to be effected by the negativity of life. I have a friend from high school who I only get to see a few times a year because we both live busy lives on opposite sides of the state. But every time I see her, I feel like a better person, I admire her outlook on life, it is contagious. My advice- hold onto these friends, do not lose touch. Find people that you want to be like and embrace their outlook. Look at yourself and decide which person you want to be- do you want people to walk away refreshed because of your attitude, or do you want to complain about the daunting trivialities of your daily life. You have a choice- the brain is an amazing creation; if it is capable of wiring itself one way, it is also capable of going in the other direction.

My fiancé has a trick that he learned a while ago; you write your goals or positive thoughts on a notecard. You read it in the morning when you first wake up and right before you go to bed. You carry it with you in your wallet and read it whenever you need to remind yourself. Why does this work? Because you are actively reminding yourself to think these thoughts, effectively forcing your brain to rewire itself to promote this new way of thinking. It moves those synapses closer together so that it becomes your default thinking, eventually weeding out those negative thoughts you once fought with.

At the end of the day, it is up to you how you will see the world. You get to determine which synapses fire together. You get the colors to shade your world in. Bright or dreary- the world is your canvas. At least now you understand why you may fall into these ruts, and you know how to get out of them. You can also understand why your outlook will not just change overnight. It takes a conscious effort to rewire a new way of thinking. Knowledge is power, as they say. Use it wisely, my friends.