Sunday, January 29, 2006

Calculicious. . .

So I'm moonlighting as a substitute teacher for another couple of weeks. One of the teachers at Regan's school is on maternity leave, and so I've been teaching part of her calculus class. I really can't complain: there are only 5 students, they are all high school seniors (IE: basically adults, so no real discipline problems), and they are among the best students in their class. I'm doing my best to be clear in my lessons, but I've found they always need a bit more explanation than my original lesson plan entails. I think it's because I've been using this stuff since I started college. . . oh. . . 8 YEARS AGO!!! It's amazingly hard to remember what it was like when I was a high school senior, in terms of how much math I knew.

I'm doing my best, but it still seems as though I'm making the tests/quizzes a bit too hard. The students are smart, but they also want to do the minimum amount of work and reap the maximum amount of learning. I should aim for that balance as well. I'm pretty sure I made their semester final exam too hard, even though I didn't design most of it. Looks like a curve is in order. The regular teacher should be coming off of maternity leave in two weeks, but I get the impression she may take another week. That's fine. I could actually use the money.

Once my moonlighting as a substitute teacher is finished, I'll be able to concentrate more on my research. I need to make some progress and finish off this diurnal variation study, so I can put it behind me and move on to the next thing. I'm looking forward to the Puerto Rico trip in March! Mark is sending Dave and I down to Arecibo to install a field magnetometer for his MEASURE array. It'll be cool to get to see the Arecibo obervatory! That's the one they used in the movies Contact and Goldeneye. I'll bet it'll be tough to get the whole dish in one photo frame. . . Anyway, I'm going to San Gabriel Dam this wednesday with a group of engineers so I can learn how to set up one of these magnetometers. It'll just be two space science grad students fumbling around in the jungles of Puerto Rico in a month or two, and I need to be prepared. I wonder if we'll need machetes. . .

Rammed by a zebra shark, and happy as a clam!

It's cool how a hobby can make the other parts of your life all the more enjoyable. Now that I've started doing this volunteer diving program with the Long Beach Aquarium, I'm just plain happier. I'm excited every Tuesday because I know I'll get to be in the water with tons of amazing sea creatures. Two weeks ago, the experience was amazing. Not only did I get to feed the giant black sea bass again, but I got to feed the trevali. These are medium size fish that just swarm all around you when you feed them. I was literally at the center of a seemingly impenetrable sphere of hungry fish. Also, the red snappers can be pretty aggressive. I would not want to be feeding most of these fish without my neoprene gloves. During the last dive, Karen, a more experienced diver, suggested that I try something. In the tropical reef tank, there is a large male napoleon wrasse. This fish is about 3.5 feet long, and a beautiful shade of electric aqua blue. (See the picture above) Apparently, he loves the tactile sensation of air bubbles on his skin and in his gill slits. I swam down to the bottom of the exhibit, near a wall, and just started blowing a steady stream of bubbles. Just as Karen said he would, the wrasse mosied on over and levitated just a couple feed above my head, sitting in my bubble stream as if it were some sort of inverse shower. He even opened up his gill slits to let the bubbles caress his gills. It was amazing!

After the dives we heard that, over in the shark tank, a sand tiger shark had bitten the sawfish right on the rostrum (nose). We went down to the shark tank to see how it was, and found the veterinarian and the aquarists keeping the sawfish wet while the splint thay had constructed dried. The splint was basically made of water-safe epoxy and popsicle sticks, and was basically keeping her rostrum from bending much, since the sand tiger had almost broken it. The shark expert saw us lowly volunteer divers and said "Perfect timing! We could use your help!". Since we were already in our wetsuits, he had us help lift the sawfish (a large fish about 5 feet long from tail to end of snout) back into an isolated area of the shark tank. 6 of us slowly lifted her into the tank, which already had two harmless zebra sharks swimming about in it. We carefully tried to step over and around them as they weaved between our legs, much as a cat does when you're trying to feed it. One of them got spooked by another person, and turned and rammed right into my groin. It smarted a bit, but with my wet suit I was fairly well. . . ahem. . . protected. Anyway, when I woke up that morning I hardly thought I'd be rammed in the crotch by a zebra shark while helping rehabilitate an injured sawfish! It was an amazing experience as we watched the anesthetized sawfish slowly start to swim again.

Then, just last week, I got to feed the leopard sharks again. They weren't nearly as interested as they were the last time I fed them. I'm told it's because the water temperature in the Blue Cavern exhibit has been brought down to a balmy 58 deg F. When the water gets colder, the cold-blooded sharks' metabolism slows as well, and their appetite decreases. They did eat a bit, but I kept having to move closer to them and basically put the squid or sardine right under their nose and let them take it from my hand. Also, it was a bit tricky since the halibut (who, I'm told, must be fed using tongs because when they strike their sharp teeth can "take your finger off") kept coming after me. I would typically block their attacks with my fin, or just turn around and swim to another area. . . but I always had to keep them in my peripheral vision.

Later, as I was just getting in for my second dive in Blue Cavern, Chris the aquarist came up to me with about 5 huge sea stars in his arms. He wanted me to swim them down to the bottom and place them on the rocks. No problem! I grabbed three and put them on my arm, keeping my other arm free for buoyancy control and ear-clearing. Down I went, set them on some rocks, and came back up to get the others. Only when I got back to the surface, I found about 10 more waiting for me! After a couple more trips up and down the water column, I returned to the surface to find that the last three sea stars had managed to turn over and were now bellies (and feet) face down on the underwater step. This was bad, because they had grabbed hold of the rocky surface of the step and did not want to let go. I couldn't remove them without hurting them, so I ended up leaving them there. Hopefully they will migrate downward, so they're not in the way of egressing divers.

I'm glad I followed through with this volunteer diving program. It took a decent amount of work: passing an intense swim test, renewing my first aid and cpr certs, getting an oxygen first aid certification, and sitting through several hours of introductory aquarium classes. But it breaks up the monotony that can sometimes arise when all you do is research and organization and, for another couple of weeks, teach. Just the fact that I get to dive every week, for free, among fish I would normally only get to dive with in the carribean or the south pacific, is such a treat that it makes me more enthusiastic about everything else I do. I enjoy my space research more now that it's not the ONLY thing I'm doing.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dream a little dream of me. . .

Have you ever had an epic dream? I mean a dream that seems so real, so long, and immerses you so deeply in its world that when you awaken you feel as if years and years have passed by. As if you have just lived a large part of an entirely different life, and have finally returned to your real life after a sustained absence.

I have them once in a while. I can remember having them maybe three or four times a year, but I suspect I have them more often than that and just can’t remember them after I wake up.

In my dream worlds, there is often an overwhelming sense of purpose. Life is simpler, because circumstances make it clear what must be done at any given time. Sometimes my companions and I are being pursued by some powerful governing force, and we must endure an epic pursuit, and often personal and hard-hitting casualties, in order to reach a goal and fulfill our roles in the story. Sometimes our roles are heroic, sometimes mundane. Often there is a theme that we have some sort of mission, and we must do everything in our power to complete it. There are battles sometimes, and chases. There are acts of selflessness, bravery, and love. There are multiple adventures, and twists of the plot. Sometimes the dream is not an exciting adventure, but simply an alternate life. A life in which I have made different choices, or where chance has taken me down a different path, or where the dream world is so different from the real world that it is almost incomprehensible by comparison.

The ending is not always happy, nor is it always a real ending, and sometimes I awaken feeling that my dream-world adventure has been rudely interrupted; and I wish I could go back to sleep and re-enter my dream where I left off. There are other times, though, when I wake up and, after the few minutes it takes me to sort out which events happened in my memory from the real world, and which took place only in the dream, I feel relieved that the dream was not real, and I am happy to return to my real life.

In these epic dreams, the main characters are sometimes formed from people I know in real life, and sometimes not. They are the people I know from different realms of my real life; some from work or school, others from my family and friends, others from my past, others, perhaps, from my future. Then there are those who don’t really exist at all in real life. . . as far as I know, anyway. There are times when one of those imaginary characters, who exists only in my dream world, is so important to the story that he or she actually solicits a real emotional investment from me. When I awaken in bed, as I slowly realize which characters are real and which were complete fabrications of my id, I actually feel a pang of grief that the imaginary ones are not in my real life. In that moment, I know that as the sun rises higher I will forget more and more details of the “people” who, moments before, had been so important to me, and I will likely never get those memories back. I sigh and say a quiet goodbye to those characters, and later all I can remember about them is that they did exist, though briefly, in a sense that was very real to me at the time.

There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the Enterprise comes upon a derelict space probe, which immediately paralyzes Captain Picard, and transfers memories to his brain. Inside his mind, Picard is transported to a distant planet and a different society. He knows, at first, that it is not his real world, and claims to the people around him that he is not who they think he is. But each of them tell him that he is their old friend whom they have known for many years, and they don’t know why he is acting as if they are strangers. He even has a house and a wife. Years pass in his mind, and he comes to accept his predicament and take this new reality at face value. He learns a trade, has children, endures the death of his wife and best friend, sees his children grow up and give him grandchildren, and eventually dies an old man. He finally awakens on the bridge of the Enterprise, and it takes him a minute or so to realize who he is, and to remember the people around him, his crew, who were so familiar to him many decades before. He is told that he has been unconscious for only a few minutes, and he realizes that the space probe transferred the experience of living in the alien society in order to preserve the memory of their existence. The people went extinct when their sun went nova, and Picard’s memories and the now broken space probe are all that remain to speak for their ever having existed. Picard experiences grief and sadness that the people who became so dear to him never actually knew him in the real world. That his children and grandchildren did not really exist, or at least, were not really his. But they were real to him. He also feels peace; a quiet happiness that he had the opportunity to live an entire lifetime (a happy one, at that), and is now able to return to his real life to live out that experience as well.

I love that episode.

The mind is an amazing thing. It allows us to reason and solve problems, to feel emotions and interact with other life forms and the natural world around us. Even when we rest, it works to provide us some way to interpret our situation, even by providing us an alternate reality for a time.

In the end, I am glad to have these epic dreams. Some are wonderful adventures; others are nightmares. In the end, I am grateful to have the chance to live out many little pieces of different lives, which may have nothing else in common besides the fact that they are all tied to my own. I don’t know what happens at the end of this life, but I know that my time is limited, and these dreams allow me to cheat death, and convince myself that I have had more minutes of life than I actually have. That’s an illusion I am happy to live with.