Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Star Stuff

I happened to catch a clip from a wonderful talk given by Dr. Niel deGrasse Tyson the other day ( if you're interested). This man has a wonderful way with words, and his enthusiasm for disseminating science is something that I deeply admire. Few people carry themselves or their message with such a sense of purpose, even in the realm of science education. It could almost be described as fervent or fanatical; yet this would completely discount the the innocent and playful manner with which he presents himself. His character might be best described as Carl Sagan after too many cups of coffee, crossed with Ralphie from A Christmas Story at the moment he unwraps his red ryder BB gun. He is entertaining, insightful, and astonishingly adept at delivering a lay version of daunting scientific topics without diminishing by one iota their potential to inspire and awe.

One of many memorable quotes that caught my attention was Dr. Tyson's use of the phrase "celebration of science," when discussing his involvement in advising science fiction writers. He states that he is happy to engage in discussions with writers because it promotes a "buoyant force" which keeps science alive in the public mind. While he is merely justifying his interest in giving out pro-bono advice, his choice of words reflects an attitude that I feel is often missing from the droves of individuals in scientific fields. He is not just contributing to science, butactively cultivating an appreciation for it. Throughout the talk he addresses the concept multiple times - including a pointed criticism of the steady mitigation of NASA, which he considers the birthplace of science "dreams" that inspire scientific progress

I share his attitude and concerns; perhaps we are losing heart in our quest for understanding. We have had the tools of science since the Enlightenment, and it seems that the interest in basic science may indeed be waning in favor of pragmatic and economic applications of scientific discoveries that we already have. I think that at times we need a true reality check - and not just to "snap out" of our somewhat bastardized modern view of science, but to "plug in" to the world around us, and reconnect with our most fundamental experiences as humans. Only then do we ever ask the truly inspired questions of the world around us, and only then are we motivated to use the tools of modern science purely for knowledge. And this is not to say that practical science is somehow wrong; only that our focus on the practical may be diluting the potential for asking (and perhaps answering) big questions.

Consider for a second something that Dr. Tyson mentions later in his talk; a simple way of understanding our place in the universe (borrowed heavily from Carl Sagan, I suspect). When studying the universe and it's constituent parts, we find that it is composed primarily of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. All are constantly being recycled - ejected from stars in supernovae, and condensed into new star systems. Some star systems bear planets, and some planets harbor old stars' hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. On at least one such planet, these elements interact chemically to define lifeforms capable of learning and understanding the world around them. These atoms, born of stars, are collectively self-aware,sentient. Sentience is a trait we ascribe to multiple animals on Earth, including humans. If we accept this, then we are, as Carl Sagan so poetically put it, "a way for the universe to know itself."

With this in mind, science can be thought of as applied sentience; a rational approach knowing the universe, and by corollary, ourselves. Celebrating science is not merely creating new technologies, publishing papers or relishing scientific history; but rather recognizing, practicing and deeply appreciating our ability to know.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Earth Day +1

Today I'd like to share an essay I wrote on a chapter from the posthumously published The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a collection of lectures from the great Carl Sagan. I originally intended to put this up on Earth Day, as it is of great value to understand just where life originated in order to more fully appreciate why our "pale blue dot" is so precious and deserving of our species' protection. It is interesting that such appreciation can be found (for me at least) by coming to grips with the notion that we are likely not alone in this vast universe. We share this unyielding expanse with countless other planets, some which likely harbor biospheres capable of supporting life. How might such life look or behave? Is it intelligent?

We may never know for sure, but we will never begin to understand if we choose the path of self-destruction. Our place in the cosmos is not unique in its chemistry or probability, but in our ability to choose whether we forsake the opportunity to maximize the potential of this chemistry. Our biology has brought us to the point of cognition, and with it brought the demons of arrogance and esotericism. Now we find ourselves at once both privileged and cursed by our own mental faculties, in a microcosmic tug-of-war between polarized ideologues who fail to see our world as nothing more than it truly is - a fragile, interconnected collection of star dust.

There is a great need for people such as Carl Sagan today. I like to think that perhaps we can each carry on his most prominent contributions to public knowledge in our daily conversations and interactions. Is it too much to ask to keep a little bit of "Saganism" in our lives, and make the most of these solitary notes we play in the cosmic fugue?

Now for the science - An essay on the molecules of life:

(In response "Our Organic Universe," a chapter from The Varieties of Scientific Experience)

Organic molecules, Carl Sagan’s “fundamental biological building blocks” of life on Earth are a cornerstone of the discourse contained in this chapter. Sagan himself defines them simply as carbon-based compounds, excluding carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Any student of organic chemistry would recognize this simple definition, and likely dread any further discussion of the topic. Biologists on the other hand, may be much more interested in further exploring the defining characteristics of organic molecules. They may be curious about why our planet’s life revolves around these modified carbon chains... Do organic molecules possess an intrinsic life-harboring property lacked their inorganic counterparts? A common distinction drawn between organic and inorganic compounds can be found in this very question – That is, organic compounds are distinguished as being derived from, or contained within living systems. Thus, compounds such as diamond are classified as inorganic despite being comprised solely of carbon.

Sagan likely saw a flaw in this understanding, and obviously spent some time pondering the nature of organics in the universe and their involvement in the origins of life. He saw that organic chemistry was the chemistry of life on our planet, but also recognized that understanding how organic chemistry had lead to life on Earth would necessitate a probe into organic chemistry prior to life. Since so much of our current understanding is based on observations of organic chemistry operating in biological systems, it would seem prudent to understand the chemistry of carbon compounds as they behave outside of these systems. Sagan reasons that this understanding can be found by looking beyond our planet – Beyond the realm of life as we know it.

His rationale is founded on early spectroscopic measurements which indicate the ubiquitous nature of organic compounds in our solar system (and the universe in general). Logic might suggest then, that given the apparent importance of organics to the origins of life, we might observe life where organics exist. This begs the question: What is the likelihood of such a discovery? Well, as Sagan points out – that depends. It depends on the state of water, the vapor pressure of atmospheric gasses, the exposure to energy sources such as ultraviolet radiation from starlight, etc. The organics are there, so what is the right combination of everything else? Well, it turns out that Earth is just about right. Not to be cheeky – This is glaringly obvious as I am clearly alive and writing this essay. But think about the example of Saturn’s moon Titan. Here is a satellite world harboring the same organics that likely gave rise to life on Earth. What would happen on Titan if conditions more closely resembled those on Earth? Would we see life evolve over eons as it has on Earth?

This begs the question: Is it really the chemical/molecular composition of our cosmos which enables life to spring forth, or are the limiting factors actually the conditions required to do so? If the Miller-Urey experiments are any indication, the precursor molecules for amino acids and nucleic acids can be formed in early Earth conditions from nearly ubiquitous organic material. And if, as Sagan argues, this wealth of organic molecules can come to exist on a planet through on-site formation, or by collecting from cosmic debris, then the probability that life forms from it would be dependent on the circumstances present on a planet more than the existence of the organic material itself. So, again we return to the likelihood of the existence of Earth or other Earth-like planets where liquid water may exist to catalyze the generation of higher-order organic molecules. A quick search online turned up an estimate that 20-60% of stars in our galaxy may contain earth-like planets within a “warm dust” zone around their star, where temperatures range from -280 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and support planetary formation. This would seem to indicate that our planetary conditions are not all that rare, and given the interstellar organic ubiquity discussed by Carl Sagan, perhaps the life we see on Earth isn’t all that rare either.

1. Loyd, Robin. “Study: Earth Like Planets Common,”, February 17, 2008. Accessed 2/10/2010.>

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cat 3 Debut Part Deux

Okay, so the race was a pretty fun event.

It didn't go quite according to plan, but I'm really pleased with our team's performance. Plus, I met a great new teammate- Doug Bailey. Doug seems like a fun guy to have on the squad, plus he's got some serious power in his legs. Should make for a good wheel in addition to our already strong squad.

The race unfolded with a series of "test" attacks from myself, and Frye before Mark took off on a multiple lap breakaway. The guys in his group weren't putting their fair share of work though, and despite our team's attempt to block, they were all eventually pulled in. Then I believe Doug took a dig and got off the front for a bit. I managed to throw a good couple of attacks midway through the race, but neither time was I accompanied by anybody, and the legs just weren't fresh enough to do the job on my own.

Things were looking good as we came into 3-laps to go, and I took a good dig up the inside of a gradual uphill bend to force a separation from the pack. The team did a great job of blocking, allowing myself Brian Krueger, and another rider to get up the road for a while. Knowing Brian and his strength, I was convinced we'd be able to keep the gap and take 1st-3rd. But unfortunately, the workload was split between Brian and I, while the third member of our break decided to do no work at all. We made a bad decision to call it quits once our third member failed to pull through, and were reabsorbed on the final lap. Brian and I were both pretty upset about the other guy, but I think we know that we did our best to make something happen. Sometimes, it just doesn't work out.

The race got a bit sketchy at times (as we all expected), and Mark was almost taken out on the last lap due to some unfriendly riding from another team. That's racing though. With some impressive composure, Mark avoided becoming pavement paste and wiggled his way through the ensuing mess to finish 10th overall. Way to go, Mark!

Doug finished 18th, while I meandered in for 24th and Frye cooked himself in an attempt to start a failed lead out train. Talk about sacrifice...

A shout out to fellow UW riders John Heile and Julio Jacabo on great racing today. John was in a bunch of the early breaks today, while Julio managed to sneak himself onto the podium with a sly move on the final corner and a quick kick into 3rd place. Nice job guys!

Good job to everybody on Team Wisconsin/MC2 today. Our team was represented in every break, and looks to be the most serious team threat in the 3's peloton this season. Things should shake out well for us this year.

Regards and thanks for reading.

Cat 3 Debut

Yo everybody!

I'm about to depart for my first cat 3 race - an early spring crit hosted by the Great Dane Velo Club. It's around a well-known, and safe course at Research Park Drive in Madison.

I'll be heading out with my Wisconsin/MC2 teammates Mark, Mike, and Nick - Plus local feline aficionado Bryan Fosler. I'll also get to see Brian K, a fast rider from Merrill WI who dumped some serious watts on the climbs with the UW team at our North Carolina training camp this past spring break. Can't wait to see how the 3's field looks for this season!

Should be a fun day of racing - I'll update briefly tonight on how the race goes.

My legs feel like crap after a long ride yesterday, and a total of 5 consecutive days on the bike/trainer - We'll see how it goes. I think my excitement will more than make up for any poor legs. I'm going to call it right now - Team Wisconsin/MC2 takes the victory, 4th place, 5th place, and um... 7th place? Why not?

Catch ya later - thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lindsey Wilson Race Weekend

Finally! Getting back into the swing of things - The spring road season has arrived for me.

This past weekend was the Lindsey Wilson collegiate race weekend, hosted by (as the name implies) Lindsey Wilson College (LWC). They did a great job, and I can't recall the general organization at a collegiate event ever being so professional and well-run. My props go to Lindsey Wilson for putting together a great weekend for the MWCCC.

Anyway, the drive out to LWC was about 10 hours, and it took a toll on us all. We passed out in our beds around 1:00 EST. We had to wake up and race at 8:00 CST, which seemed to confuse us all when we tried to get our heads around the odd division of time zones in Kentucky. Well, somehow we got an alarm set for the right time zone, and woke up on time to head out and support our riders who were doing the morning's individual time trial. Our women did great, but no men chose to partake. What's all that jargon about women being the fairer sex? Obviously, Wisco women don't buy it, and were eager to show just how strong they are in a race against the clock. Lindsey Durst, Kelly Egan, and Yvonne Schumacher took 7th, 8th, and 10th respectively in the Women's A time trial. Summer Ohlendorf, Holly Matthews, and Jenny Barr took 2nd, 3rd, and 6th in the B's. Way to rack up the points, Wisco!

We took a quick detour after the TT to pick up some basic groceries. I was taken aback by the lack-luster offerings at the store we chose, but I managed to scrape together a few nourishing items and high-tailed it back to the road race course with the rest of the group. Almost all of the races took off at the same time - Right around noon. Men's A's led the way, having the longest race (3 laps of a 25 mile course), and the other groups followed in order of race length/category.

The course was 25 miles of varied terrain, including some longer 1km+ gentle climbs (which favor my abilities), and one shorter 18% leg-searing ascent before the finish (NOT my strength). I knew it would be tough to hold on to the field on the final climb once I saw it, so I mentally prepared to sag and suffer on it. It turned out not to be the deciding climb though, with most of the attacks going on the longer ascents and exposed windy sections.

This was my first race with the men's A field, and it was a tough but valuable learning experience. My teammates James Pradun and Dallas Fowler helped keep my confidence up before the race with good tips about what to expect. Nothing can prepare you for what the field is actually like though, as I soon found out. Here's what I learned:

  1. The pack dynamics are astounding, terrifying, and reassuring all at once. Each person is remarkably adept at maneuvering the pack, and not at all shy to pop into the slightest gap - But it's all done responsibly, and after a while I felt pretty comfortable doing so myself. At least the other riders let you know when they're getting close - I don't think I've ever had so many other guys' hands on my butt in a 3 hour span of time though. As Dallas clarified, this is the "greatest" form of touching. Haha, okay Dallas.

  2. The attacks in the A's field are blistering. There's just no other term for it. These guys bury themselves to get a slight gap on the field. The race winner, Kip Spaude, is probably the epitome of this phenomena. I was barely able to hold his wheel when he attacked on one of the long climbs, and he got away from the field when he slipped past a group of other guys up the road (where I got hung up). Impressive - I see why this guy has a Facebook page devoted to his sadomasochistic riding style.

  3. The attacks don't stop. I can't remember a period of more than 30s where the field was at rest before another person shot off the front. It's a constant battle to recover from the previous attack in time for the next one. It's incredibly exhilarating, but quite tiring. Once a group gets away, there's still no respite - You're either fighting in the wind to catch them yourself, or shutting down attempts to bridge up to your teammates.

  4. The races are long. Never before has nutrition and energy conservation been so vital to finishing, let alone contesting a race. I figured this out after completing the first lap, and realizing that I hadn't eaten anything and barely sipped from my water bottles. It started to hit me into the second lap, and I managed to stuff in a Clif Bar and guzzle some water before I got too bonky. The Clif Bars saved the day - I love those things. Steady energy when you need it - Predictable, easy to get down, and a good variety of flavors. Thank you, Clif.
That's what stuck out in my mind the most. First impressions are everything, so I'm sure these will stick with me for a while.

The race itself unfolded like this:
0:00:00 - Race Starts
0:00:10 - James announces that he's going to do something "stupid."
0:00:11 - James breaks away with a couple of others in a VERY early attack.
0:00:15 - Dallas discourages the group from giving chase, giving James a good chance to build a gap.
0:01:30 - I hit a major pothole which was supposed to be marked, nearly taking myself and 2 others out. Got it back under control no problem, though.
0:02:00 - The attacks start. (from here on out just assume an attack every 30 seconds)
0:20:00 - I chase down a break, then Kip Spaude attacks on a long uphill. I snag his wheel.
0:21:00 - I lose Kip's wheel when he maneuvers through a group of riders that I don't negotiate so well.
0:30:00 - I join an attempted break on the second long climb. We get away for maybe a minute or two before the group pops and we slowly reincorporate into the peloton.
0:55:00 - The first steep climb forces a big separation in the field. I find myself tagging on to the tail end, and TTing with Adam Leibovitz, Dallas, and a couple of other riders I didn't recognize to rejoin the pack.
2:00:00 In a chase group after popping from the TT effort. (Leibovitz is one hell of a strong guy- Kudos to Dallas for sticking on his wheel).
2:05:00 We catch back on to the main pack at the steep hill. I get a feed from Holly (Thanks!)
2:06:00 I find Dallas filling his own water bottle (?) He joins our chase group.
2:40:00 I do too much work on a long climb, trying to chase back a Northwestern rider.
3:00:00 I pop on the final climb and mosey in for 24th place.

My knee started hurting after the race, and I ended up taking the next day easy. No crit for me.

I've got to comment on the Women's B/C criterium:

Holly and Summer went 1-3 in the race. Jenny Barr laid down a wicked sprint at the finish, besting all of the women in her chase group, and finishing 5th. The race went totally by the book from a spectator's point of view. Holly and a UIC rider duked it out while Summer and a LWC rider chased. Following them was Jenny, playing it smart in the main field and waiting to crush them in the field sprint. Each Wisco rider took the top spot in their finishing group. Way to go!

Great weekend for everybody else too:
- John H managed to grab some points in the B's crit
- Lindsey Durst, Kelly Egan, and Yvonne Schumacher represented with 5th, 7th and 16th place finishes in the Women's A's field.
- Randal Loaizo looked really strong in the Men's C crit. He finished 9th of 24, and nailed points in 2 of the 3 prime laps. Wicked.

Next weekend is a fast circuit race, TTT, and 6-corner criterium at Depauw. I'm looking forward to another great showing by Wisconsin!

Regards, thanks for reading.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday is Funday

This past Sunday ROCKED.

I was excited to wake up to the gentle hum of cars driving by my apartment window on dry streets, instead of the dreaded "shwooosssssssh" of said cars in sloppy winter road conditions. I had gotten a great 9 hours of sleep that previous night, and woke up with both a fresh mind, and fresh legs.

On top of it all, I had cleaned my coffee maker the previous night and knew I could look forward to a delicious (and fast) pot of my favorite sanity-inducing elixir.

What did all of these circumstances mean? What was the celestial prophecy that I was being handed on this fair February morning?

I was going to ride my bike - Ride it fast, and ride it hard.

After breakfast, and my prodigiously prepared cup of java, I met up with some bad actors at the Arboretum for an 11:00 group ride. The roads were a little bit damp near the arb (and throughout), but our spirits were all high. It was good to see some familiar faces - Julio Jacabo and Kevin Berger were there. Steve "Sparky" Knurr decided to make an appearance too, which was cool since I've heard so many references to the guy, but never gotten to ride with him. David Ziehr, Yvonne, Jordan, Rachel, and Kenny completed the core of the group who I knew. A couple of other strong guys showed up for the ride too - Seth and Dan, whom I hadn't met but enjoyed riding with.

Our route took us out of Madison to Belleville, and on towards New Glarus before looping home. We hoped to get in a steady 4 hours of riding - Not bad for February. I was pleased that after a jaunt through the Arb, my legs warmed up and were kicking pretty well. I spent some time hanging out in the middle of the group, chatting with people and getting used to riding in a sizable mass of cyclists once again.

Once we got to the outskirts of Belleville, Kevin and I took the reigns. Well... Actually, Kevin plowed up a hill and I tagged on thinking I might have an opportunity to shoot the breeze with him. I was wrong. We basically pulled at tempo until Belleville, whereupon Kevin shot off with 1K to go. Thank goodness he throws a good draft, because it was all I could do to hold on and save enough juice to make a go coming around him when we came into town.

Once out of Belleville, the pace started out innocuously enough. But then somebody had to make a joke about Steve... And he responded by upping the tempo up a steep little power climb. My lungs were getting a nice warm up amidst the chilly air, but the legs felt great. We made a turn on to Hwy W, and again motored up a westward incline. Kevin and I set the pace up the next brief hill, and we wrapped around into New Glarus for some coffee and food. Ziehr pulled a wonderful acrobatic maneuver and somehow caught his fender in his spokes as we took off from the Fat Cat Cafe after refueling. Classic - But I'd probably do the same thing, so I have to cut the guy some slack.

The way out of New Glarus is where the real rubber met the road. It wasn't too long before we faced a stiff head wind, and the big guys up front (Kevin and Dan) chose to keep warm by igniting their diesel engines and pulling us all along in echelon formation. The smaller guys seemed to jostle a bit for slipstreams, and I was reminded of the impending race season. Felt great! Each hill on the way back offered an opportunity to duke it out. First, I targeted Kevin as a challenge. I'd let him rocket up the climb, and then try to close the gap before settling into a solid pace beside him. Julio decided to play ninja games with us, and sneak-attacked us near the top of a steep road. If it hadn't have been for Steve's cheer from behind, I wouldn't have known what hit me. The move caught me by surprise, but I managed to accelerate just in time. I went to shift and put in a counter attack, but my heavy winter glove missed the lever, and I only managed to hold with Julio to the top. Next time, I'll be ready.

The next series of hills offered a chance for Ziehr to strut his stuff, as he came breezing past on the lower exposure of a medium-length power-climb. Realizing that he went a bit early, I steadily upped my pace before making a move. I chose to test my limits here, and go much earlier than ideal. My acceleration felt incredible (I love my bike), and I popped through three successive gears on the way up. Unfortunately, Julio must have known my limits more than I did, and played my move to his advantage. He waited until my cadence started to drop, and then lunged from behind me, just squeezing by to take the hilltop.

This ignited a bit of competitive nature that I hadn't felt in a while, and I dug deep into my reserves to mount a counter attack. I figured that if I jumped past him over the crest of the hill, that the downhill would buy me a bit of recovery before the next slightly uphill section. My legs on fire, I made four or five hard pumps past Julio, and tucked into the quick descent. As soon as the road pointed upward again, I took to the drops and attacked a-la-Pananti up a quick rise. Once my move was done, I looked back to ascertain the damage. I saw Julio coming down the previous hill, and thought that my move had worked.

I missed Kevin in the periphery.

In Ullrich-fashion, he barreled past me and never looked back. Not far behind him, Dan provided my only hope of catching on to Kevin's wheel. Once Dan was within a bike length of me, I jumped forward to catch his wheel as he passed. A quick moment of recovery on Dan's wheel allowed me to take stock of the situation. About 30 meters ahead of us was Kevin, plugging up a ~4% incline. I figured I'd let Dan pull me up to within 5-10 meters and then make another move to attack Kevin.

I slipped by Dan's right side, in the saddle, and then lunged forward and popped up a cog to pass by Kevin. Bad move. After getting a solid gap, I totally popped. I sat up, and Kevin cruised by, closely followed by Dan. I ended up giving chase over the next few rollers, and managed to catch back on to their wheels once, before Kevin shot away from the group at the base of a descent.

A few breaths, and kind words from Kevin later, and the whole group was back together.

We got one more opportunity to duke it out, and Kevin took the prize on a quick hill into Verona.

Sparky won the Tree sprint on Seminole as we came into Madison. I think he also referred to me as "Thomas the Tank Engine," at some point. Eh... Maybe he was talking about Kevin or Dan, I'm not sure. Whatever, it was a cool reminder of my childhood.

So... What did I learn on this ride?
1) Don't attack too early... And now I know what "early" means for my maximum intensity attacks.
2) Julio is going to be a great guy to race with, and a silent torpedo to launch for points.
3) Kevin makes my legs hurt.
4) I've got a lot more confidence about my own fitness heading into next week's first collegiate race.

Time to bring it to Murray, KY.


Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Slap in the face

Oh man. Last night I went to bed thinking that today would be completely different.

I was planning on having a leisurely morning (which I did), reading a little evolutionary theory, getting some P. Chem done, and then going on a nice long outdoor ride with some strong guys from town.

What did I wake up to? Snow! Surprise - It's Wisconsin, you schmuck!

Oh well, I suppose I can still get some quality training in, but I was really stoked to get out on a quality group ride. So now I'm left with a bit more of an afternoon than I had originally planned.

On the schedule (not in order of priority):
  • Arguing with creationists on YouTube comment boards when I get bored. Dirty pleasure.
  • Yoga baby! I love this stuff, my flexibility is already improving, and it sure does make you strong fast.
  • Emailing a professor I'm interested in talking with about organic chemistry/natural products/biochemistry research, and my future as a student.
  • Hopefully hanging out with some people.
  • Laundry - Can't escape it.
  • Homework - Probability distributions! Boltzmann Constants! Lagrange multipliers! Oh my! I feel more like a physicist/engineer than a biochemist these days, but it's pretty interesting stuff.
  • Finding true love? Hahaha - NAH! Bachelorhood has it's perks.
Maybe tomorrow I'll get back on two wheels, and show some people how this whole sport is done. Oh yea... Only 1 week to my first RR of the season. Should be fun!