Monday, June 7, 2010

Philly Moms: Horse latitudes, doldrums and dark matter

Horse latitudes, doldrums and dark matter

Original post to Philadelphia Moms Blog.

Moon My daughter plots weather patterns.

No, she doesn't want to grow up to be a meteorologist. It's part of her honors science class, and, throughout this past first year of high school for her, the class has prompted some very interesting changes at home. We've had to watch everything on TV that has to do with volcanic eruptions. And in a freakish sort of coincidence, the earthquake in Chile took place just around the time her class was studying tectonic plates - so she was able to add scientific snippets of information to each newscast in which the disaster figured.

Although the class is not her absolute favorite (that passionate honor is reserved for her history class - but that's a subject for a different post) it is the class that has generated the richest - and perhaps most varied - vein of conversation for us as a family.

My husband is pretty knowledgeable about natural history, so he can hold his own in many of the conversations engendered by the earth and space science curriculum.

Me, not so much.

Take the recent shift into astronomy. During one of our conversations I had to resort to trolling for stray bits of memory from years ago, when I was a reporter.

"Astrology is the mother of astronomy," I say to my daughter during one of our dinnertime conversations. "At least, that's what one of the astronomers at Colgate University said when I interviewed him for an article."

I see my daughter's eyes light up. "You interviewed an astronomer?"

I nod. This is good. It'll do something to amend my status as the goofy, dweeby parent. "And I got to check out the observatory while I was at it."

Even better. Respect. I think I see it flash across her face.

"What else did he say?"

"That stars are given identifying numbers now instead of names out of Classical mythology."

Okay, but a little too soft - I read this in her expression. She expects me to know about mythology.

I dredge, dredge, dredge my aging memory banks.

"And I misidentified the nebula he spoke about." I admit this after I realize it's the only other thing I remember about the article I had written. Of course, you always remember what you get wrong.

Still, my daughter is feeling generous. She gives me one more chance in the conversation to impress her. "What nebula?"


I'm not sure why some of us are hard-wired the way we are. Give me literature and poetry and I can find my way around the twistiest constructs. But math? I'm hopeless. And obviously I don't fare much better with the sciences.

I remember many years ago discussing this lack with a professor of mathematics at Colgate.

"But math, at its highest levels, is poetry," he said to me, unwilling to accept the insurmountable wall I had built between the field he loved and the one that held my heart. I mumbled something about never having even glimpsed that level, and left it at that.

But I look at my daughter and understand that she has bridged that wall. Or that it never existed for her. Like a true interdisciplinarian, I think she's able to hear music and poetry in math and science - and vice versa.

So, for her sake, I try to do the same.

When the conversation turns to weather patterns I key into the stories and poetry of the words: horse latitudes describe a subtropical region where winds are so variable that, reputedly, those aboard historical sailing vessels shoved their horses overboard in a desperate attempt get going again. Or the doldrums, a place of meteorological and vernacular calm, actually somewhere near the equator. It works for astronomy too. I'm pretty sure you can turn dark matter - that matter which can't be detected except by the gravitational pull it exerts - into a whole literary subgenre.

Sigh. No matter how hard I try I still won't be able to help her with chemistry or physics homework when she takes those courses - especially if she continues on the honors track. But when we look through that telescope she's been bugging me to get her, I think I can come up with some good stories.

Maybe I'll even chose a word or two from science.

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