What I learned this week, February 12, 2021

Fog in front of my house, Richardson, Texas

Want to Reduce Brain Fog And Improve Clear Thinking? Give up These Things Immediately

Mental fog is often described as a “cloudy-headed” feeling.

Common conditions of brain fog include poor memory, difficulty focusing or concentrating, and struggling with articulation.

Imagine if you could concentrate your brain power into one bright beam and focus it like a laser on whatever you wish to accomplish.

Many people struggle to concentrate. And when you can’t concentrate, everything you do is harder and takes longer than you’d like.


Something in front of Braindead Brewing
Deep Ellum,Dallas, Texas

How to Stop Overthinking Everything

 

Deliberation is an admirable and essential leadership quality that undoubtedly produces better outcomes. But there comes a point in decision making where helpful contemplation turns into overthinking. To stop the cycle of thinking too much and drive towards better, faster decisions you can: put aside perfectionism, right-size the problem, leverage the underestimated power of intuition, limit the drain of decision fatigue, and construct creative constraints.


Mural on construction fence, Farmer’s Market, Dallas, Texas

How gut microbes could drive brain disorders

Scientists are starting to work out how the gut microbiome can affect brain health. That might lead to better and easier treatments for brain diseases.


Art Deco mural from Fair Park in Dallas

The Science Behind Miracles

How our minds push our bodies to defy expectations, beliefs, and even our own biology—in short, to make miracles.


Self Portrait
Andy Warhol
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Fort Worth, Texas

Why self-compassion – not self-esteem – leads to success

Talking about being kind to yourself may sound like something from a nursery classroom. But even cynics should care about self-compassion – especially if they want to be resilient.


Posing for photos at the Leaning Tower of Dallas

20 Realistic Micro-Habits To Live Better Every Day

m sick of lists of habits that are unrealistic for the majority of people. Even worse is when someone says to wake up at 5 am or run 10 kilometers every day and calls it a micro-habit.

This is not one of those lists.


Happy Again

How to be mediocre and be happy with yourself

In the novel Catch-22, the author Joseph Heller famously wrote: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

He’d taken a quote by Shakespeare on greatness and turned it on its head.

The implication was clear: mediocrity is a bad thing, to be avoided. Yet most of us go on to live what by most measures are pretty ordinary lives.

So what’s wrong with settling for mediocrity?

Short Story Of the Day (Flash Fiction), ‘Speriment by Bill Chance

“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida

20 Elements
Joel Shapiro
Northpark Center
Dallas, Texas

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#38). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


‘Speriment

Who and What are easy.. How and Why aren’t. Faith and Science. I have very little of one and none of the other. At six, though… Faith and Science can be conjured up from thin air.

I walked past the hall bathroom and something caught my eye. It was, not surprisingly, Little Sammy, hanging his tummy on the edge of the counter stretched out so he could reach the sink. He was filling a cup with water. The liquid was brown and foamy, it looked like it had Coke in it, and something else, something dark. I figured out the “something else” when I noticed the chocolate syrup spattered on the counter and smeared on his face.

“Sammy, what are you up to?” I asked, cleaning up some with a rag.

He calmly plopped a soft well-worm sliver of soap into the mixture which he still held in his hand. The soap floated, it must be Ivory.

“It’s my ‘speriment.”

“Sammy, What kind of experiment?”

“I have a book, it has the recipe. If I get the mixture just right, it’ll work. It’s a formula.”

This was technically a lie, but six year old boys live in a world where reality and fantasy are strangely mixed. As a parent this is the kind of statement you are better off letting pass.

I guess he came up with the idea of a “’speriment” after we dragged him to his big brother’s science fair – a horrific series of gaudy pasteboard displays of random information that had nothing at all to do with science. The middle school kids must have opened a musty encyclopedia in the back of the library at random and written up what fell out. Our oldest son Wally had a crude display on “Delirium Tremens” – which, after Uncle Percy’s performance last Thanksgiving… well Wally must have had some curiosity.

Usually Sammy’s public behavior is like a bomb going off. But at the Science Fair he strolled up and down the lines of kids with their crude, inane posters enraptured. He could not take his eyes off of the exhibitions of “The Fungus Among Us,” “Your Mighty Pancreas” or “That Will Leave a Stain.

Now, with Sammy, I didn’t ask what the “mixture” was supposed to do. He stirred it a little and then walked into the kitchen and began piling up chairs to reach the freezer above the refrigerator.

“Help me make room, Daddy,” he asked, “It has to be freezed all night.”

“Sammy, there’s more room in the big freezer in the garage.”

He pondered this for awhile and then relented, deciding that the garage deep freeze was indeed in the proper temperature range for his formula.

I thought to myself that sometime soon I was going to have to deal with a frozen chunk of diluted pop and chocolate, with some Ivory soap and God only knows what else added for a little extra kick. I think my wife would have made him throw it away right at the start – if she had been home. I let him mix it up, though, and he froze the whole concoction. I figured he’d forget about it and I’d throw it out the next day.

I went to sleep wishing I knew what the secret formula was supposed to do.

What happened to the muck in the freezer? I don’t know. The next morning the kids found that puppy on the front stoop. The kids had wanted a dog more than anything. My wife and I put them off – expense, hassle, the new carpets, that sort of thing. But a puppy on the stoop. You can’t say no to that, can you. So the ‘speriment was forgotten, by me at least, in a flurry of trips to the pet store, rearrangements of furniture, new sounds, new smells, and the excitement of a new member of the family. After a week I remembered, looked in the freezer, but it was gone. I don’t know why it was gone… maybe my wife found it – but she never said anything – and she would have said something.

It was the next morning after the ‘speriment, though, that we found the puppy… wasn’t it? A coincidence… I’m sure. Maybe. I wonder, sometimes, though, what a six year old knows that the rest of us have forgotten.

Periodic Tales

From the Telegraph Review of Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams:

Chemists have long had to put up with the condescension of physicists. In one especially egregious case, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb – informed his colleague George Kistiakowsky that he was no longer classed as a “first-rate chemist”, but as a “second-rate physicist”. This, Oppenheimer assured him, was a promotion. The project’s chemists thought this insulting; the physicists thought it hilarious.

Those pesky physicists….

I remember a physics professor extolling the ultimate virtues of his science (I’m not sure if he was aware that I – a lowly chemist – was sitting in front of him… he probably was) saying that physics is the most noble of sciences because it is the most pure – the basis of all other science. I simply nodded though I thought that, using his logic, mathematics would rise high above his craft. Now, the way I looked at it, without chemistry physics is only a bunch of squiggly lines on paper.

At any rate from both these disciplines, along with the various flavors of engineering and production, computer science, marketing and what-not…. comes e-ink, and from e-ink comes e-readers.

And from e-readers come Amazon’s periodic sales, which I peruse carefully. And from one of those periodic sales, came the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc – delivered through the ether for only a couple bucks right into my hot little hands.

That’s the book’s name in the US – in Europe it’s called Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – a better title in my opinion.

To you, I’m sure the book would seem to be the most boring pile of useless words imaginable – but I thought it fun and interesting. The author has had the lifelong hobby of collecting examples of the elements. He obviously also had the hobby of collecting engaging tidbits and stories about same. One day he had the bright idea of combining the two and coming up with a book. From the way the story is laid out – he used his publisher’s advance to travel to some of the more obscure locations where some of these elements were discovered or can still be found.

So, to extract a sample of phosphorus the author started out – as the early chemists did – by collecting a large amount of pee and letting it evaporate.

Each element’s discovery is spelled out as an adventure tale – many coming on the obscure transition from Alchemy to Modern Chemistry. Many great discoveries came from very odd places. For example, Ytterby – an obscure village in Sweden that gave birth to a slew of new rare earth elements – yttrium, erbium, terbium, and ytterbium.

I’m always getting yttrium and ytterbium mixed up.

I read the book through – though I wanted to slow down and take notes. You never know what interesting conversational anecdotes you may need to impress beautiful women in bars.

  • Dried blood is slightly attracted to magnets because of its iron content.
  • At one time radium was added to many products, especially those that supposedly had a therapeutic effect: Radium Butter, Radium Chocolate, Radium Beer, Radium Condoms, Radium Suppositories, Radium was put in Chicken Feed in hopes of producing Self-Incubating if not Self-Cooking Eggs.
  • The French Scientist Vauquelin isolated chromium by crushing emeralds and rubies. He proved the same element colored both.
  • Jezebel, from the Bible, used compounds of antimony as dark eye makeup.
  • Extremium and Ultimium were proposed as the name of a new element – Plutonium was used instead.
  • In Jean Cocteu’s 1949 film Orphee, Orpheus enters the underworld by passing through a mirror. This shot is achieved by having the actor push his hands into a pool of mercury that is disguised as glass.

 

from Orphee - the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

from Orphee – the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

Every page is chock-a-block with interesting tidbits like these.

The only letdown of the book was at the end, when the author tried vainly to sum up and leave the reader with an emotional connection with the periodic table. He should have simply run out of elements.

Now, again, I’m a chemist, not a physicist. But I do know physics. I was able to pass three semesters of physical chemistry… which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. With that knowledge, I realized that the author also left out one of the most interesting, if technically challenging aspects of his subject. He treats the very periodicity of the periodic table as a great mystery, one that was figured out by long scientific research but never completely explained.

He doesn’t talk about the electron shell model or atomic orbitals. That’s a shame. When you understand this concept, even without the daunting math involved, suddenly it all makes sense. A handful of simple laws are what define the outer-shell electron configuration of every element and that is what makes our world possible. It’s really amazing – if you do the work to understand it.

There are a surprising number of books on the periodic table and I have read a few in the past (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sachs is a favorite) – but Periodic Tales is among the most entertaining and readable.

Finally, as a chemist, a book on the elements ignores the most fascinating aspect of chemistry. It will be, almost by definition, limited to describing Inorganic Chemistry. Carbon is given short-shrift in the book. He talks about it mostly in terms of charcoal and the carbon oxygen cycle.

But it is Organic Chemistry that most people find so fascinating. I still remember the thrill I felt when I was first learning how to manipulate matter, not by the elements it contained, but by arranging the shape of a compound made of a single element (with a few other contaminants maybe thrown in for variety) – how the pattern made by its versatile bonds could give rise to an unlimited cornucopia of new compounds, with wild and outlandish properties….

But that’s a whole ‘nother book.