When Stars Collide

I assume everyone spent today excitedly wondering what Scientists would have to say about the new research in short-term gamma ray bursts?

GRBs and I go way back. I have more memories linked to GRBs than to, say... macaroni and cheese. I'm watching Alton Brown's mac and cheese episode right now - is it true that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson or did I tune in too late for the sarcasm flag? (And now the fondue episode is on - I'm so haunted by fondue lately!)

The following are all of my memories of macaroni and cheese:

  • a zillion Kraft stovetop moments
  • the time my best friend Chrissy's mom made us mac and cheese and a little spider got into my bowl and I was upset because it would be rude to dump it out but I felt the whole dish was tainted
  • that horrible summer where I did all of my grocery shopping with a gas card
  • the first time I tried the ready-made orangey sauce in the foil packet
  • the first time I saw someone make homemade macaroni and cheese - I had no clue people ever did this (RIP Gene Lee)
  • the first time I made macaroni and cheese, using a Martha Stewart recipe with buttered breadcrumbs on top and baked (nothing has been good enough since)

Okay, I have more M/C memories than I thought. But I still have a strong personal relationship to the notion of gamma ray bursts.

See, the first time I went to college, it didn't really work out and quite a bit of money was spent on the brief period of finding this out. (Which is partially why dropping my two grad classes this semester is freaking me out. Familiarity! Discomfort! On the other hand, I can physically feel my teaching improve as a result, and I'm so much happier, when I'm not being miserable over possibly not making a mongo leap up the salary scale next year as I pay $250/mo in student loans... But let's continue to repress this all a bit longer...)

So, the second time I went to college, I was really interested in doing it right. And I did - summa cum laude (primp, primp) with early graduation and right into the job I'd set my sights on. (This is not the time to admit that I chose my job based on the degrees available in my small Texas city. I would have been a librarian, otherwise, damnit. Another post!) But of course I didn't know it would turn out well. I've always had more confidence in the moment than in the future.

So, I didn't tell anyone I was going to school. Except Mike, obviously. I didn't tell my friends. I didn't tell my co-workers. I didn't tell my parents, including my father who was my boss. Which means that my very first class - a ten-day accelerated "interim" semester that involved reading and responding to Hamlet-length material daily plus a research paper plus a presentation - had to coincide with possibly the largest static website I ever made in the shortest period of time with one of the most anal-retentive (but professional, but anal-retentive) clients EVER, and I couldn't say a word to explain the pain and fear on my face.

Basically, in one week I digitized boxes of photos and newspaper clippings (which had to be retyped, not scanned), redesigned the site a few times per day per the customer's latest ideas, wrote a (dare I say) kick-ass (for a freshman) paper on Shirley Jackson including submitting outlining and proof of research and all those tiresome baby steps, read several hundred pages of literature, attended class for five hours per day, plus did my regular day-to-day job of maintaining several sites (mostly real estate sites full of ongoing updates) in addition to the mongo site, plus spat out one of the lamest columns ever written, even for 2001.

But, I'll tell you, at the end of the week I felt like I could do anything, and it was inspiring all around.

But I didn't feel like I could tell anyone I was in school because, you know, I'd been excited about big plans before. Like, at least 2,974 diets, of which about three panned out, but only for a little while.

One of my favourite undergrad classes came out of the mandatory natural science requirement. I had to fight a little to take Astronomy online via Tyler Junior College/VCT - here's where I won't write AN INCREDIBLY LONG DIATRIBE ON THE BOGGLING MINDFUCKERY EXPERIENCED IN SOME OF THE ADMIN OFFICES AT VICTORIA COLLEGE, but just let me say how much fun it is for me to drop the F-bomb on that academic institution.

Living on the other side of the country is making me cocky. I'm uneasy ever since getting that fortune cooking advocating tact, but I will also point out that I had some good times at VC. Like, the aforementioned 10-day English class. And my Algebra  professor was awesome. And several people in the registrar's office were very cool. One counselor was THE DEVIL, though. And the person associated with a certain overhyped honour society (that I of course joined, because I'm shallow like that) was totally USELESS. And that chick who argued with me FOREVER about why it was NORMAL to print your full credit card number on a receipt has a special spot in hell. And all that 13th grade  microsocialization... You know, once you finish your two years and get to go to the university on the other side of the parking lot, it's a whole 'nother world.

But you probably don't know, because you don't live in south Texas, so let's get back to the bursts.

Yeah, so I took two semesters of Astronomy and loved it. Loved it. As with all of my classes at the time, I blogged it. I've since incorporated those posts into this blog, which means they make no sense, seeing as how they were once part of my secret academic blog and were never meant to be read by the public - I just thought that someday I might enjoy looking back on all of my posts that feature nothing but test/grade anxiety or excitement over figuring out which "star" is Mars whenever crossing the Wal-Mart parking lot at night.

Check out this Oh Be A Fine Guy Kiss Me chart I made at the time:

(please bear with any wonky/missing images -
SixApart suffered some data loss yesterday -
it's pretty shocking that they didn't have redundant backups in place)

Astronomy was fun; I learned incredible amounts of stuff, and I became a bubbling brook of galaxy-class trivia.

On to the memories.

Somewhere around this time, Dad and I took a small road trip trip together to visit my grandfather in the hospital, the first of such trips that would eventually end in Dad and I traveling in separate cars in opposite directions, having rushed to Fort Worth as fast as our separate schedule would permit, and pulling to the side of the street into an old parking lot in Giddings, Texas, very early in a damp November morning, as we passed each other coming and going. "Tell me what you think." "Hurry," I replied.

But on the first trip, Popo's first big surgery, we had a lot of time to talk. I got really excited about gamma ray bursts and wasn't it interesting how, back in the late 60s when we were first detecting them, we were worried that it was a threatening form of hitherto unknown Soviet technology, and so on and so on, so exciting, these mysterious, far-away, unspeakably enormous and brief flashes of energy.

Unfortunately, I've forgotten almost everything I know about GRBs, which was really never much, but at the time it was enough for at least 15-20 minutes of engaging my Dad's interest, which is hard to do, really, especially since he always introduces a rigorous question-and-answer session to any topic that you're able to hook him into, and woe the disappointment then silence then return to staring at Fox News or Lifetime (if Mom has stolen the remote) if you should fail to have sufficient related facts and/or trivia.

But I did well enough at the time that Dad later, in one of many elevator rides from the hospital lobby to what I came to think of my grandfather's floor, relayed a condensed version of everything I said to my aunt, which is about the highest nod of approval my father can give - consuming your input and putting his mastery storyteller spin on it for others.

So, no, I definitely have more macaroni and cheese memories than gamma ray burst memories, but GRBs remain close to my heart because I shared that moment with my father. It was the first time I passionately explained astronomy to an outsider. Sometimes I find a reason to throw astronomy at my literature students and they all perk up - partially because of the diversion, but I think also partially because I'm so obviously hepped up about it. It's contagious.

I never get that jubilant about Arthur Miller. In fact, I definitely like gamma ray bursts much better than The Cr*cible, which is nevertheless a fine play. I'd ten times rather talk about poor little Io getting pulled around by everyone's gravity or Hyperion's creepy orbit than discuss reading strategies or how to transition between essay paragraphs. Does this mean anything? Time will probably not tell. (Meaning: I'm enjoying my sudden and unexpected freedom from academia too much to consider a much-lusted-after astronomy degree and/or science teacher certification.)

All of which means that today's gamma ray insights were quite thrilling - big things colliding! - although the best part was yesterday when the news outlets were reporting that "tomorrow NASA will disclose their findings about short-term gamma ray bursts" and making much over the four related articles to appear in Nature. Aliens? With big flashlights? But today CNN isn't even covering the story.

There's (obviously) a lot more to gamma rays, but I'm going to go try to catch the rest of my tradition 4-5 hours of split sleep before another day in the literature/composition trenches. Sci-fi next semester, I keep telling myself...

06 October 2005 |






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