“Now we are at the heart of chemistry”

These are my favorite lines out of all the books I have read. They are from Atkins and de Paula’s “Physical Chemistry” book, Reaction Dynamics Chapter. The book is a fascinating read (for physical chemistry students and instructors), it is easily accessible and these lines make it high literature. By the time you get to this chapter, you have discussed equilibrium thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and you have started thinking about molecules, why they behave the way do and how their molecular behavior results in properties you observe in the macroscopic world. But you have not gotten to the heart, yet.

My favorite teaching moment is when I say these lines in class. Students have come in, I have waited for them to settle, I have made eye contact with several of them that are waiting for their friends to be quiet. I say “Now we are at the heart of chemistry” and pause for dramatic effect. I know some eyes roll. But some of the students are intrigued. “Can you imagine being at the HEART of CHEMISTRY?”. I remind them of the energy levels, the partition function (“what was that?” “the number of accessible energy states”) and tell them that knowing the partition function will let us know whether two molecules will react or not. That knowledge is powerful. It takes us from single molecules, “bonds being ripped apart” to all the reactions we see around us and to life.  Transition state theory, which explains reaction mechanisms, is one of the hardest topics to grasp in physical chemistry. But, I remind you, it takes us to the heart and once you get to the heart it is almost like magic except that it is all rooted in theory.

I think I miss teaching.

 

Reading

Reading is solitary. Readers are not. Readers find each other. I just joined a book club. The idea is similar to all other book clubs (I assume). You read a book, and then you meet at a member’s house and discuss the book for about an hour.

We used to have journal club every other week when I was a graduate student. The idea there was to share the latest findings with fellow group members. Each member was responsible for one journal and would bring 2-3 interesting articles to share with the group. This was great to keep the group up to date on the latest articles and there would always be one or two articles that were really interesting. Here is what happened though: 1. “Oh I should read this paper.” 2. File under “must read”. 3. Forget that paper exists 4. Read that paper if and when you need it for your thesis/paper/research and not remember it from journal club. A more ideal journal club would be one where everybody comes to the table having read one interesting article in detail. The keyword here is detail. Depth is what science is all about. You need breadth, so keep up the journal club. But read that one article, discuss it, dissect it in detail. Go over its outline, the language, the flow. What is strong about it, what makes it a good paper, what makes it a bad paper? What is the major contribution, is it significant, is it interesting, would you like to continue that research, if so how?

If there is one occupation in which reading should take more time than the occupation itself, that occupation is writing. A writer must read more than she writes. I just made that up and not because I am a bookworm or an avid scientific article reader. In fact, I am not, and to be perfectly honest, I have not been for some time. Too much on my plate. Life got in the way. But low reading, I found, is a surefire recipe for my well to dry up. I cannot write. I cannot write because I have not been reading enough. (Boy am I glad my blog is hidden in obscurity and my students are not reading these words.) The one thing this sabbatical is helping me get back to is reading. All reading. Reading books, reading fiction, reading scientific articles.

I just read about the daily habits of wealthy people and it turns out they do a lot of reading, too. I don’t buy it. There are many readers that don’t make money. I know that the fact that those wealthy people read a lot is simple selection bias. But it gives me hope to hear that readers are cool. Reading is cool. I really look forward to more reading this year.

Children running barefoot

She is watching the forest

observing the moss grow

   and the ants move

Oh the ants move so fast

and the moss is so slow

Like a wise woman

The moss is patient,

waiting until a squirrel tail or

            a barefoot child running or

            a bird bouncing

touches it

Like a wise woman

The moss is giving

as it absorbs water from the air

and keeps the forest humid

Like a wise woman

The moss is the same from one generation

            to the next

 

It looks the same to the girl

the next day she visits the pond

with the rock

with moss on it

as she observes the moss grow

But the moss remembers other little children

and the squirrel tail that touched it

            decades ago

The moss is a new moss for having

            seen the girl with her new

            haircut

And the moss is the same

            like a wise woman

Visiting museums with children

I love visiting museums with my children. I love to see them get interested in or sometimes get bored by art. They call it like it is. If they don’t like the colors in a painting, they say it. If they think a sculpture has a funny shape, they say it. If they like a work of art, they stand before it to examine its every little detail. At the end of a museum trip, they pick their favorite piece of art and usually their reasons for choosing that piece are completely unexpected but never random. My whole attitude toward visiting museums with children is that it is a long term project to build lifelong museum visitors so I try to take it slow and let them flourish on their own time.

The key, for my family, to visiting museums is to sandwich the visit between some active (even better: outdoor) time because the biggest challenge is the fact that they need to be quiet during the visit. Also, as with all activities, rested and fed children are better behaved. A perfect time for a museum visit is right after breakfast. Museum cafeterias usually have terrible food so I usually plan the visit to be after breakfast and then we can leave the museum and have lunch at a real restaurant.

Children are natural artists, they express their emotions by drawing lines, dots, faces, houses as soon as they are able to hold a pencil. I always carry some paper and crayons or colored pencils with me. After some time, we find a seat in front of a piece of art they like and they draw for a while. Different museums have different rules, for example The Met allows sketching in pencil only.

I find guided tours very useful for school age children, but the guided tour should be a short one. Children also seem to love the audio guides. They can’t really get it to work the way it should but they love gadgets, so why not!

Another favorite is the activities designed for kids. The kids get to hear about the artist, and then take inspiration from the artist’s work to create their own art. This lets them get more engaged with the art and when they visit the museum they have fun finding the art work in the exhibit. At some museums, there is a treasure hunt and that’s fun for the kids. The treasure hunt diverts attention away from the art and toward the game but visiting museums is a skill that grows slowly so it’s great to have fun as you are acquiring this skill. If a museum does not have children’s activities, I invent games. This is one of my go-to, open ended questions: “At the end of the visit, I will ask you about your favorite piece of art and why”. Or if the museum is too big, I ask them to choose one piece of art in a room and tell me why they like it or they try to draw something similar to it.

My children’s favorite part of the museum is the museum store. I want to believe that the souvenirs they get from the museum store will a. remind them of some of the art they just saw, b. support the museum, and c. be original and more “artsy” than something they might find elsewhere. The item becomes a conversation piece later: “Remember our visit to the …?”. The rule for my children is that they can only visit the store after they’ve seen the art.

Even if your children are used to visiting museums, not all museum visits end up all fun and happy. Children may suddenly decide that the visit is over by starting to run around or by refusing to go into any more galleries. If you paid good money for the entrance ticket, you try to pull them together, but that rarely works. At those times, I take a deep breath, and just end the visit rather than deal with a full on tantrum in a quiet museum. Better still,  I keep the visit short and we leave the museum before they are burnt out. They are, after all, children, they get tired from too much stimulation, and they need time and practice to build up their stamina. But what to do about the ticket prices? Here are this mother’s solutions to building stamina without burning money on entrance fees:

  • Start with free exhibits. All of the national museums in DC are free and we spent one whole week going in and out of those museums. It was fantastic. There was something for everyone and plenty of space for kids to run around in between visits.
  • Most museums have free admission once a week. Those days are usually more crowded than others, but museums are never too crowded so why not check out some of the art on those days?
  • Go 1 hour before the museum closes when they usually let you in for free or for reduced prices.
  • My favorite is Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. The grounds are lovely and one accompanying adult entrance is free with one child. This is the best practice to get parents to bring their children to the museum.
  • You can treat walking around the old city as a museum visit. You can stop and point at interesting buildings and architectural details while you are out and about. This is a free activity that starts to engage your child in arts and builds their stamina toward long museum visits.

The following also seem like great ideas but I am never that organized (and I don’t see the point): 1. Pack some lunch to prolong the visit (I always plan ahead for a sit down lunch, though. I have some snacks and water, too.)  2. Read a book about the museum/artist before the visit with your children (Isn’t it more fun to discover art with no bias?) 3. Prepare ahead a full itinerary of the visit to maximize/optimize it (The information desks are very helpful at pointing to “important” works, if necessary. Also see my previous point. It’s more fun to discover the art work that’s “important” to you at your own pace).

My goal, for whatever reason, is to visit the Louvre with my children one day. I was exhausted from too much stimulation when I visited it (without children). That’s a full museum day and even adults need strong legs and a sharp mind for that visit. I hope to apply some of the lessons I have learned about visiting museums with my children at that visit. I am sure more coffee will also help.

 

 

 

 

Swan Lake and AKM

This week we went to the Zurich Opera House to see The Swan Lake. Elena Vostrotina danced as Odile/Odette and Alexander Jones was Prince Siegfried. The principals had good technique. The orchestra (Philharmonia Zurich) and the corps de ballet (Ballet Zurich Company) were very good, the costumes were very well designed and the lighting was truly masterful. The “swanness” of the four ballerinas and the other swan dancers was quite convincing. Yet, the magic of the Swan Lake did not come through. There was a lot of “acting” and miming but not enough conveying of emotion. The gesturing (miming drinking, pointing to the ring finger as a sign of marriage, the drunk old teacher) was an unnecessary addition to the choreography. The principals lacked passion for their roles and for each other in their respective roles.

A few words about going to the ballet at the Opera House. The building is very ornate, with a beautiful exterior and an even prettier interior. On the other hand, the hall is very small, as is the stage, which does not have enough room for a grandiose production that requires space (such as The Swan Lake with many crowded scenes). The scene for the duet between Siegfried and Odile could definitely have used more space. The pas de deux had to be performed framed by the other dancers and hence was not a private moment between Siegfried and Odile.  Also, Siegfried was not able to leap through the stage in his grand jetes and could make only so many turns in that cramped space.

I am but a chemical engineer, with no training whatsoever on music; how can I even begin to comment on a performance? Maybe, I am completely off base in this review, but I trust myself because I had a very good education watching incredible performances on the grand stage of AKM. This was the third or fourth time I saw the Swan Lake; the others were all at Ataturk Cultural Center, lovingly known as AKM for Istanbul’lu (Istanbul resident) music and art enthusiasts. I wish I could give you a link for its website but alas it is left to rot since 2008. (For a Turkish article about the current condition of AKM, please click here.) AKM is my childhood and my youth. This is where my parents and my friends’ parents took us for our first concert, our first opera, our first play. The repertoire for the regular Friday night and the Saturday morning concerts was always amazingly complex week after week. One of my mom’s friends took me to the Saturday morning concerts for a few years. Tickets were hard to find, you had to wait in line to get good seats. I listened to great Turkish virtuosos as well as world renowned musicians and conductors at those concerts. The acoustics in the grand hall are said to be inferior but that’s where I and many other Istanbullus first listened to many important pieces and our ears learned to hear and love that beautiful music in that sound atmosphere. As is appropriate for a culture that thrives on meeting and having food together, AKM had very spacious foyer areas, too. You would run into friends and have profiteroles during intermissions. AKM was a true congregation point for the arts; there we waited in line to get tickets for the Film Festival or the Music Festival or the Jazz Festival. (Well, you could not get the tickets straightaway, you first had to fill out a paper form to sign up to get the tickets.) AKM was a meeting point for us in my teenage years. In that age before cell phones, that was an easy meeting place. Whoever showed up would just wait in front of the ticket office. It was Ataturk Cultural Center and it was a center that attracted the Istanbul resident both for culture and for being “central”.

Then, in 2008 AKM was closed to be refurbished. Since then, every few years, one government official or another talks about plans for renovation. Latest photos tell a different story; only the pole remains of the steel staircase that once was elegance and modernism at the same time. AKM took center stage one last time during the Gezi protests. The glass panel exterior was decorated with flags and banners. One protest was that of the “standing man“, who stood for several hours looking at AKM. Others joined his silent protest. As they stood, the glass panel silently reflected back the image of the Taksim square and the protesters.

My favorite Siegfried remains as Oktay Keresteci and my favorite Odile/Odette is still Hulya Aksular. This duo was all emotion. Oktay Keresteci would soar across the grand stage turning and turning and Hulya Aksular with her slender body was both graceful and powerful. There was no hesitation in their steps and their command over their motions as well as their trust in each other were clear. I watched them at AKM. Where else?

I know, I am romanticizing a time gone by. In the 1990s, Istanbul had a lively arts and music scene. Istanbul is still “happening” with many events, but the absence of a grand opera house is hurting the cultural scene. Now you have to seek out new venues. Back then, you could always count on finding a performance at AKM. If you were a student, you could listen to an incredible concert or watch a world class ballet for less than 10 dollars. The AKM was a point of entry for all income levels to begin to love and appreciate music and the arts. Now, I cannot take my children to AKM for their first concert. Now, AKM is in ruins, and that time has passed and that Istanbul is gone.

Lab Girl

Lab Girl is a memoir by the plant scientist Hope Jahren. Hope Jahren sure can write. Indeed, her website is https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/. Not only can she write, you can tell when you read the book or her blog or her twitter feed that she must. She is a superstar communicator. You should stop reading this and go and read the book. But, here goes…

Writing. Most of a scientist’s day is spent writing. Writing grant proposals, writing journal articles, writing references for students. It is a lot of work. You don’t just write, you edit manuscripts written by students and colleagues. I’m telling you; it’s a LOT of work. Yet, some scientists can’t get enough. They write blog posts, they write popular science articles and some even write books. I wish even more scientists would write for the public. The scientific approach applied to world affairs, to politics, and to policy formulation would be such a welcome change from all the hand waving, the populism that drives hate speech, and the fake news we are experiencing today.

Wit. Hope Jahren is a funny and witty author. She is, nonetheless, dead serious about her research and will not tolerate any horsing around. She has a hard time in the lab as well as in life and she shares all of her troubles with us in a most heartfelt way. Her description of her failures are both self deprecating and encouraging. I felt like she wants to make sure the reader loves the science through the witticism despite the hardship.

Grit. While reading this book, I could not help but think about my favorite (fiction) book in the past 5-10 years: The Signature of All Things. Yes, it is by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray and Love fame. The Signature of All Things is an epic saga about Alba, who is a moss scientist. Like any moss scientist, Alba is patient. Alba has grit. Alba is in it for the long haul. Not only is Alba curious and asks questions, but she also knows that she must wait until all questions are answered. Alba perseveres. Sometimes, I think this is a trait of women scientist. We nurture our science. Hope Jahren is very patient, too. She says at the beginning of Chapter 8 “Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time.” (This chapter is worth the admission price so I will ask you to go and read the book again.) To make sure her students learn to be patient, too, her first assignment to them is to label empty vials. Then, with Bill (read the book), they tell the new recruit that he did it all wrong. She sees two ways out for when you run into major obstacles: Come back the next day and start over. Or you can work an extra hour longer and “stay in the moment of what went wrong”. Clearly, Hope Jahren always chooses the second option and wants her students to do the same.

Science. It’s all about the science, you know. When all is said and done, Hope Jahren is a plant scientist. Her main goal in life and in writing this book is to understand (and explain) how plants communicate, how they grow, why they grow, how they sometimes don’t grow and wait and survive, why they sometimes don’t grow. The how and the why keep Hope Jahren going. The how and the why keep all of us going. Once you start asking the how and the why, you are a scientist. She says it best: “What comes first is a question, and you’re already there”.

 

 

Global nomads

As soon as I arrived in my new life as an expat mom, this book was recommended by fellow expat moms: “Raising Global Nomads” by Robin Pascoe. The subtitle reads “Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World”. Robin Pascoe is an expat expert (title of her blog http://www.expatexpert.com/) and has moved to several different countries following her husband’s career.

I was happy to read that “Most kids turn out great”. Most expat parents tell me that children not only survive but they thrive in their expat life. In the book, these children are described as flexible, mature, and geographically aware; skills every person needs in a world becoming more politically polarized as we speak.

One valuable reminder in the book was to give my children time and space to grieve for the life they left behind. This is also described very delicately in the movie Inside Out. It is okay for the children to spend some time online with their friends back home. It is okay for the children not to adapt to their school on day one. It is okay for the children not to like their new life for a while. It is okay for the whole family to miss their old life. It is okay to feel sad (Cue: Everybody hurts by REM).

On the other hand, I took issue with these following points, which were raised frequently in the book: 1. The expat world is no place for a dual career family 2. The expat is usually a first world citizen trying to live in (or suffer through) an outpost location (described in the book as “out there” on page 7). Describing different locations as “out there” is certainly not a “global” point of view if we allow ourselves to fully experience our presence in a new country rather than just surviving it.

We are a dual career family, and it was discouraging to read that children of dual career families are the most susceptible to culture shock. I am lucky to have more flexible hours, but most women in dual career families will not. The book recommends that the mother, described like a 1950s housewife, takes the family through this transition while the working husband does not skip a beat in his new role at his new position. This is a shame. Unfortunately, though, it looks like Pascoe is correct, as shown by the number of stay at home mothers at my children’s school.  If companies need their employees to transition well into their expatriate life, they need to recognize that the employee (and his family) needs some time to get settled. Expat women, with their globally enriched experience and multitasking and flexibility skills, can add immensely to the workplace (https://womenintheworkplace.com/). This is only possible with commitment from companies to diversity and to work-life balance for the expatriate employees.

The book is an anectodal personal story rather than a help book and has a very focused and one-sided point of view. The author is drawing from her own experience and does not take advantage of parenting literature. Nevertheless, the expat parenting literature is limited and I am glad to have read this book at the beginning of my sabbatical year.

 

 

 

Surviving our first month in Zurich

Here is my simple checklist for the first few weeks so far:

  • Housing: It’s a homeowner’s market. There are so few available apartments at any point in time that they know you are in their hands. You can use homegate.ch or other websites to look for apartments but they never responded to us when we used the contact e-mail address/phone number. Probably easier to use an agent, who also uses homegate.ch. You make an application, they check your references and if they accept your application then you sign a contract. There are three set move-in, move-out dates. Finding an apartment was by far the hardest part of our move.
  • Registration at the Kreis Buro: You need to do this within 14 days of entry. If you change your residence, you need to change your address again at the Kreis Buro and at the Post Office.
  • Registration at the Immigration office: The Kreis Buro takes an appointment for you, you go to the Immigration Office and they take some information and your picture. Your Auslanderausweis Card will be sent to your address. This takes about 2 weeks – unless they send to the incorrect address like they did for us.
  • Getting a bank account: The banking system is extremely inefficient. We have used mobile banking in different countries so we thought it would be no problem for us. Alas. You need a machine to do e-banking. So, forget about transferring money using your phone while you are waiting for the tram.
  • Getting a phone number: You need your Auslanderausweis card to get a phone number. You can get a prepaid card.
  • Health insurance: There are a few health insurance companies that offer almost an infinite array of variations. It is impossible to pick a global optimum. Speaking with independent brokers is helpful. We spent a few afternoons on this, but I’m pretty sure we did not make the correct choices.
  • Transportation: Zurich is known for its excellent transit system and there are several options for daily/weekly/monthly passes. There is one male clerk at the Stadelhofen station who speaks perfect English and is very helpful to guide you through the various options for your needs.
  • School for children: Our children go to the international school. I am happy with this decision because the international community is always in transit and everybody is in the same boat as “foreigners” so eager to help you out. One book recommended by the fellow parents is “Raising Global Nomads”. More on this later.
  • Clothing for children: Children are outside most of the time so you need a snowsuit or rain pants during recess and school trips.