The week in review (August 25-31)

The more money we raise to help us go to GeekGirlCon, the more places I will go wearing my Cthulhu hat.

The more money we raise to help us go to GeekGirlCon, the more places I will go wearing my Cthulhu hat.

Welcome to the weekly round-up of stories I wrote this week, wherever they hide.

  • A tour of physics, Angry Birds style (Double X Science): The odds are good that you’ve played Angry Birds, even if (like me) you don’t own a device that will run the game. My colleague Rhett Allain wrote a book for kids, using Angry Birds as an invitation to learn quite a bit about physics, from particle trajectories to cosmology. I reviewed the book for Double X Science.
  • My book-in-progress, Back Roads, Dark Skies, hit a major snag, and its future is unclear. Based on the responses I’ve received, I will not be able to find a publisher without changing the book in an essential way, so I’m feeling a little stuck. So, to show myself (if nobody else) that I’ve accomplished something in the 18 months I’ve been working on the book, I published two excerpts from Chapter 2: Of Bosons and Bison at Galileo’s Pendulum.
  • Microcosmos: My tour of the DZero detector at Fermilab, with a digression on my favorite New Yorker cartoonist.
  • Naming the animals in the particle zoo: The hows and whys of particle detection, in the context of the Tevatron at Fermilab. This excerpt also includes what may be my best joke yet, if I can say that about my own writing.
  • The Milky Way’s black hole, like Cookie Monster, loses more than it eats (Ars Technica): Astronomers have known for many years that our galaxy harbors a supermassive black hole. Yet, it’s a very quiet black hole: the material surrounding it emits very little light compared to other galactic nuclei. A new X-ray observation may hold the key: only about 1 percent of all the material swirling around the black hole is captured, making it a Cookie Monster-level messy eater. (And yes, I’m proud of combining Cookie Monster and black holes in one article.)
  • This doesn’t count as my writing, but I’m joining a number of friends and colleagues at GeekGirlCon in late October for some do-it-yourself science! Well, I’m going if I can afford it; you can help with that by donating to our cause. We’ve already raised more than $400, so I’ve begun photographing myself around the city wearing my Cthulhu hat. If you give us more money, we’ll do even more embarrassing things. You can’t lose.
  • Atmospheric science in a bolt of lightning (Galileo’s Pendulum): Lightning is powerful enough to split molecules into their constituent atoms, and strip electrons away. For a brief moment, lightning can heat air to 30,000° C, more than 5 times the surface temperature of the Sun. An astrophotographer took an amazing snapshot of a lightning flash, with a twist: he used a diffraction grating to split the light into its component colors. The result is that we can identify some of the chemical components of air produced when the molecules and atoms were blasted by the powerful electric discharge.

This week also marked both my parents’ birthdays. Happy birthday, Mom (Monday) and Dad (Friday)!



Frequently asked questions about my book-in-progress

Writing a book is one of those brain-consuming things. I swear I mention it to everyone (“Could I get a medium dark roast, please, and did I tell you I’m writing a book?”), but of course nobody could be as obsessed with my book as much as I am, so it’s not always obvious if we’re casual friends or the like. So, here are some answers to questions people frequently ask me, to save some time and advice that (though well meant) can be a little frustrating to me.

  • Q: You’re writing a book? What’s it called/what’s it about?
    The book’s working title is Back Roads, Dark Skies: a Cosmological Journey. I have a webpage devoted to it, but to summarize: it’s a road trip across the United States with stops at a variety of labs and observatories. Those scientific visits and the road trip itself are entry points into the work of modern cosmology, the study of the whole Universe.
  • Q: Do you have a publisher yet?
    Alas, no. I’ve been shopping the book around to potential publishers since last winter without success.
  • Q: Do you have a literary agent?
    Yes, I am working with an agent since I’m fairly clueless about how publishing works. My agent was recommended by a colleague who is a successful author, and she has successfully negotiated publication of other writers’ work (lest anyone suggest I hired her from a Craigslist ad or something).
  • Q: In that case, why not self-publish or publish as an e-book?
    Since I spent a fair amount of my own money traveling around the country for background research, I’d rather not spend any more of my own money to publish the book. Also, despite a few exceptions, traditional publishing houses are still the best way to get a large audience for the book, including public library readers and the like. As for e-publication, I don’t even own an e-reader, so I can hardly expect my readers to. (My own mother and grandmother  wouldn’t read it if it was electronic-only, which is a sad lonely thought.) Since cosmology isn’t remotely as popular as erotic fiction (and I refuse to call my book 50 Shades of Dark Matter), I suspect self-publication wouldn’t repay what I’ve already spent on the book.
  • Q: Weren’t you stupid for taking the road trip without a book advance to pay for it?
  • Q: What happens if you can’t find a publisher?
    That I don’t know yet. I have two other book projects in my head, one which certainly is closer to a “normal” popular science book. If Back Roads, Dark Skies can’t find a publisher, I may set it aside temporarily for the sake of writing a book that will actually get published. I’m not ready to give up just yet, though.

Talking about dark matter in a bar

Next Tuesday (June 4, 2013) I will be speaking at SciencePub RVA, a monthly gathering at The Camel in Richmond, Virginia. The doors open at 6 PM, and my talk starts at 7 PM. The event is free, but we’d love it if you would register, so we have an idea of the crowd size. (Also, tip your servers. Seriously. They’re your friends.)

Mining for dark matter

Dark matter makes up about 80% of all the mass in the Universe, but what exactly is it? To see how scientists are trying to answer this question, we’ll examine the evidence for dark matter in the Universe, from the early days of the cosmos to the structure of galaxies. Then, we’ll travel a half-mile underground to the Soudan laboratory in northern Minnesota, where one experiment works to detect dark matter particles directly.