Table Wobble

It’s one of the most annoying things ever (#FirstWorldProblems): a wobbly table. And no matter how hard you try, putting bits of paper or cardboard coasters under one of the legs, tightening screws, or just giving up and eating on the floor, you’ll never be left satisfied.

Till now.

In comes math – the solution to (almost) everything!

The Mathematical Solution to the Wobbly Table

As with many things in math, we start by making some assumptions. Let’s imagine your sitting at a 4-legged table that is really well made – so the legs are actually equal in length. You are, however, sitting on some pretty uneven ground, your table is very wobbly and has already caused you to spill your coffee.

You’ve tried putting a bit of paper under the table, maybe a paper coaster. For a while, this works. But eventually, the paper gets compressed and you’re back to wobbling.

But there is a solution: just turn (not flip!) the table! Somewhere on the way to a 90-degree turn, you’ll find an equilibrium!

Image of a table with an arrow indicating it'll be turned.
Oh, how the tables are turning.

I know, it sounds unbelievable. Magical even. But there is math to back it all up!

Consider the height of leg number 1 (the unstable one) off the floor as h. At the start of your struggles, this height is larger than one (because it’s off the floor, remember!), so h(t=0) > 0.

While turning the table 90 degrees, at some point that leg would move “under” the surface of the floor, if it could. So at some point h(t) < 0.

There a mathematical theorem that we can now turn to for help: the mean value theorem. This states that if you have a continuous function that is positive on one end, and negative on the other, there must be (at least) one zero value! This makes total sense if you think about it: to get from A (positive) to B (negative) in a continuous manner, you’ll have to pass through zero!

Graphical representation of the mean value theorem.
Illustration of the mean value theorem, with red dots passing through zero.

Of course “Mathematics is all theoretical”. Theoretically, turning the table will unwobble your table but there are many situations where it might not work: maybe your table isn’t perfectly square, or does not have four legs, or cannot be moved.

In that case:

“If you can’t move the table, you’ll have to use the paper trick.”

Good ol’ reliable paper.


Watch the explanation here:


Bland Beer

It’s not rally my fault, but I’m a little bit of a “beer snob”. I grew up in beer heaven: Belgium. The history, variety, and quality of beer in that small country – about 1/6th the size of Washington – would spoil anyone, including me.

Now I live in Seattle, and I honestly can’t complain because the microbrewery scene is just amazing, with 174 breweries (!) in the greater Seattle area. But as a Belgian beer-lover, I can’t help but cringe sometimes on the limited selection (does everything have to be an IPA?) and the way beer is served (there’s a special glass for that, people, and have you never heard of a good head?).

Told you – I’m a beer snob.

A vitrine with ~100 different types of beer bottles
A selection of Seattle-craft beers as seen at MOHAI.

So, no complaining in Seattle, but the general trend in the US is a preference for bland beer. And there are historical reasons for why that is.

Beer-history, the best kind of history!

The early days: how beer came to America

It’s not hard to guess how beer made it to American soil: it followed the British.

British colonialists brought their traditional dark beer over the Atlantic, bringing with them the tradition of drinking home-brewed “small beer” instead of water. Back in the homefront, water was extremely contaminated, so drinking a light beer while dining was the safe option. Even though the water was a lot cleaner in the colony, the tradition continued on.

Next to the light beers house-wives brewed at home, stronger beers were produced by brewers for social occasions. With the move to the colonies, there was a departure of the traditional malt beers: barley did not grow as well and was expensive to ship over, so colonialists switched to using corn, wheat, sassafras, molasses, and spruce – in addition to or instead of barley.

A red/brown glass of beer on a wooden barrel.
Early English settlers came to American with their darker ales – but probably not their fancy glasses.
Photo by Sarah Gualtieri on Unsplash

Overall, beer was not very popular in those days. Apples grow very well on this side of the ocean, so cider was a popular drink; and spirits are easier to keep for a long period of time, making whiskey and rum (the latter in the South), popular alcoholic beverages.

What did cause some switch to beer was religious-based temperance: rather than giving up drinking completely, some early settlers switched from spirits to beer.

Bier Her!

And then, the German immigrants came, bringing with them Bavarian-style lagers, which are mellower, more stable, more consistent and easier to keep than English style ales.

A table with beer and a basket of pretzels.
With German immigrants came lighter beer. And pretzels.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Lagers were easier to drink and became very popular with working-class Americans. With a low alcoholic content (3%), it would be something they could consume as a refreshment during lunch, without getting drunk too quickly. While being drunk on the job (for most manufacturing and mining companies) could get you fired, there were no rules against drinking during working hours.

By 1880, lager was fully Americanized. American breweries would have a diverse selection of beers (ales, porters, Weiss beers, …) providing beer drinkers with a choice, but blue-collar workers would have a preference for lagers. With an increased disposable income, but rising taxes on spirits, beer was the smooth and mildly intoxicating choice to end a hard day of work with.

Away with the non-lagers

In the early 20th century, American beer drinkers nearly totally shifted to lager- and pilsner-type beers, due to a variety of reasons. Blue-collar workers still preferred “a milder and paler” beverage and with technology advances, they could now drink it all year round.

Before the technology to cool down and heat, lager production and consumption depended on the seasons. Lager does not keep very well, but thanks to fridges they could be stored and consumed year-round. On the other hand, brewing lagers requires relatively high temperatures, and thanks to heating technology, lagers could be made all-year-round, including in the winter.

Another important development was religious-based temperance – again. The early 20th century came with a wave of state-level prohibition laws. Light beers were not considered intoxicating beverages, so they would receive a pass during the war-time prohibition period. Light beers also got an earlier repeal of prohibition – anything under 3.2% was not considered alcoholic enough to bother regulating.

And for those who really wanted to drink, there was a black market. Heavier beers lost it from stronger alcoholic beverages because let’s be honest, if you have to drink in secret, you’re going for the strong stuff. It’s also easier to smuggle (in terms of alcohol content) 40% plus spirits than ~8% beers, amirite?

Drinking beer, and especially ales and heavier beers, is an acquired taste. After 13 years of prohibition, and 16 years of not drinking heartier beers, Americans had lost the memories of full-bodied beers.

The great depression reinforced the public’s contentment with weak beers; it was cheap and simple, and their taste buds weren’t used to hoppiness anyway.

When the women do the shopping

During World war II and the postwar period, things didn’t really change. Grain rationing made high-end beers unwanted. A generation of American males had received 3.2 beer in their Army ration because a little bit of beer would aid morale. The South was an expanding market and favored light beer due to the hot and dry climate.

And women did the groceries.

The women doing the shopping would prioritize light, pale and non-bitter beer. In the 70s, “low in calories” would be an additional thing to add to that list, with some very successful marketing of “Lite” beers.

Breweries were growing, becoming more national and more homogeneous, and Americans liked lighter, paler, and less hoppy beers. In general, beers that were “less challenging” in taste in terms of bitterness and body. Americans tend to like to drink a lot and in social settings, for example during a sports-game that could last for several hours, so a lighter, less filling beer was more desirable.

And in come the craft beers

While the industry remains highly concentrated, with AB Inbev and Miller Coors accounting for more than 80%, small breweries have started popping up all over the country – but mostly in Seattle – in the last few decades. Americans are starting to drinking “real” beer again, with even the average hop in pilsners has started increasing.

Since the 70s, consumers started rising up against “big business,” including “big beer,” which was too big, too cold, too impersonal. People started homebrewing. People started traveling more and expanded their palate with foreign beers. And in ’82, the first American Brewpub opened in Yakima, WA. Most microbreweries began as brewpubs.

A bottle of St. Bernandus beer poured into a glass.
With increased travel came increased exposure to fancier beers. (Also, this is what good head looks like.)

Fancy beer would still be cheaper than fancy wine, “Champagne on a beer budget” if you will. And with the rise of the internet, consumers can better communicate preferences, demands, homebrewing recipes, and reviews.

Luckily for me, craft beers are now a thing. It seems that the new slogan for drinking beer is: “Drink less but better”

Will do, will do.

Source: Ranjit S. Dighe (2015): A taste for temperance: how American beer got to be so bland, Business History, DOI: 10.1080/00076791.2015.1027691

The best quote out of this paper is:
“The English did not demand better food because they had forgotten what good food tasted like, Americans did not demand better beer because they had forgotten what good beer tasted like.” Ouch.

Header photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Building confidence through comedy

A few months ago, I invited the wonderful Kyle Marian to Seattle to give a comedy workshop at GeekGirlCon.

Within 90 minutes, I saw a group of people going from being complete strangers to co-writers, participants going from hesitant to join the activities to laughing, and teenagers going from shy and reserved to stepping up on a stage to talk for 3 minutes; it was amazing to see community and confidence grow in such a short time.

What Kyle did extremely well during this workshop, in my opinion, was create a safe space for people to mess up – which essentially is crucial for building confidence.

Creating a safe space to fail

When you watch a comedy special, it looks so easy. The stand-up comedian moves smoothly between storytelling and jokes, seamlessly adding in crowd work, impeccably times their silences and their words to create space for laughs.

What you don’t see is all the work that went behind it, from jotting down random ideas in a notebook to having jokes fall flat at open mics. Comedy is hard work, and part of that hard work is being okay with things going wrong once in a while.

What I’ve found very useful, from my own experience as well as witnessing the GeekGirlCon workshop, is having a safe space to fail. A space where you don’t have to feel scared to voice out that random idea that you think won’t work, a space with such a supportive audience that by just forgetting what you were going to say, you’ll get an encouraging clap or laugh.

In the workshop, this is what Kyle had created: if an idea didn’t quite work, it wasn’t the end of the world but other participants would help to find a way to make the joke work, add an extra quip, add repetition (three is the charm), all while being super-supportive.

Comedy for Confidence

The first time I stood on a stage for stand-up, I did so through BrightClub Dundee. Two weeks earlier, I had gone through their training – a professional comedian taught us the ins and outs of comedy: how to write jokes but also how to hold the mic like a “real comedian.” I thought I’d just attend the training and maybe be a better presenter.

But after the training, I had an idea for a set and voila, there I was, on a stage, strumming Bruno the Blue Ukelele, adrenaline rushing through my veins.

It’s terrifying and exhilarating. Ask any comedian, they probably still get nervous before getting on a stage, no matter how long they’ve been doing this. But in another way, it really builds confidence. Standing there in front of 10, 30, 50 or 100 people, and getting that first laugh, you feel like you can take on anything.

And it’s even more of a confidence-boost to feel like you’re empowering others.

Geeky Comedy Seattle

So, I started this thing. I wanted to create a space for alternative, geeky, comedy (because that’s what I do) in a city that is, inherently alternative and geeky (Take that, Portland!)

Enter Geeky Comedy Seattle. It’s still early days, but if you want to come to a fail-safe place (as in, it’s a safe place to fail!), you can join us on February 1st month for a workshop and/or open mic, or come see the next show.

Enough with the shameless self-promotion.

Cuppa Coffee

I’m living the freelancer life: sitting in a coffee shop, typing away on my MacBook (obviously), having a cup of coffee. Here in Seattle, generally considered the coffee capital of the United States, I’m never alone.

More than half of adult Americans drink coffee every day, so there must be something amazing about coffee that makes some people consider it liquid gold, that you can drink*. I’ve heard people joke “don’t talk to me before my cup of coffee” as an excuse for their morning moodiness. I’ve also heard said that coffee is the “fuel of science”.

Let’s dive into what makes coffee so delicious, and – dare we say? – addictive**!

The Chemistry of Coffee

Coffee is a chock-full of compounds that contribute to its taste. Depending on the origin and roast of the beans, the exact composition of a cup of coffee will vary, but in general, these are the molecules that contribute to the taste of coffee:

  • Caffeine
    When you think coffee, you think “caffeine” (unless you’re a fervent decaf drinker). Caffeine is unsurprisingly part of what makes coffee so lovable, though mostly for its neurostimulative properties rather than its taste. Caffeine is actually a plant toxin, though not toxic to (most) humans, and on its own, it tastes bitter and basic (as in “alkaline and slightly soapy”), but it combines with other molecules in coffee to create new tastes – for example, caffeine reacts with proteins in milk creating a creamy, buttery taste.
Person telling a "blond" coffee bean: Pumpkin Spice Latte, Really? You're so basic!
(I’m good at art.)
  • Acids
    The “sour” taste of coffee is due to acidic compounds, which include quinic acid, citric acid, chlorogenic acid, phosphoric acid, and acetic acid. While you likely don’t really enjoy sour coffee, these acids balance nicely with all the other tastes in coffee. In addition, some acids, such as 3,5 dicaffeoylquinic acid, act as an antioxidant – so healthy too!
  • Theophylline
    More healthy stuff in coffee: theophylline is a molecule related to caffeine and is a mild stimulant that acts as a muscle relaxant (counteracting the jitteriness you might get from caffeine). It’s not only present in coffee, but also in some medicines to treat the symptoms of bronchitis and asthma.
  • 2-ehtylphenol
    This molecule gives coffee its slightly medicinal, tarry smell – and contributes to flavor because flavor is a combination of taste and smell (which you would know if you’ve ever had a cold!). Coffee might smell medicinal, and have some healthy compounds, but it’s not actually a medicine.
  • Niacin
    That said, niacin, or vitamin B3, is another molecule in coffee that is generally good for your health. It’s the result of another compound, trigonelline, breaking down at higher temperatures. Trigonelline itself gives coffee a sweet, earthy taste. So, double wammy, good taste and healthy vitamins!
  • Acetylmethylcarbinol
    This long named-chemical is present in butter and makes coffee taste buttery (wow!).

While those are the main contributors to the flavor of coffee, there are a lot more molecules present in coffee, some of which in large quantities might even sound unpleasant (looking at you, demethyl disulfide which smells like garlic, and putrescine which smells just like it sounds – putrid), but flavor is a matter of balancing all those tastes together into the complex and delicious flavor of coffee.

More caffeine, please!

One of the reasons people seem so addicted dependent on coffee is due to that bitter/basic molecule: caffeine.

Caffeine is a natural neurostimulant. That means that it activates the central nervous system, in this case by blocking the chemical pathway that usually makes you feel drowsy: the adenosine pathway. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, blocking its normal function (binding to adenosine) and therefore making you feel more awake and alert.

Some people don’t have the adenosine receptors that caffeine binds to, making them “immune” to the effects of coffee. Maybe you have that one friend that drinks liters of coffee without feeling the effects. This could be because they don’t have the right adenosine receptors, or because they produce more of a protein called CYP1A2, which regulates how efficiently someone processes coffee. People who produce a lot – this is about 10% of the population – can process caffeine really quickly.

Caffeine “addiction”

“I’m so addicted to coffee.” – You might have heard it from your co-worker, who was acting a bit snippy before having their cup of coffee, or you’ve said it yourself because you wanted an excuse for your morning mood.

Caffeine stimulates your nervous system by interfering with the signaling pathway in your neurons that make you sleepy. The more coffee you drink, and the more regularly, the more you get used to the effect it has on your body and the more you will need to achieve the same state of non-sleepiness.

Technically, this is classified as a “physical dependency“, because it does not stimulate any reward pathways in your brain – as addictive substances such as drugs do.

However, suddenly cutting out all caffeine will probably be unpleasant (unless you’re one of those immune-to-caffeine people). Ages ago***, I suddenly stopped drinking coffee after 6 weeks of studying and exams – during which I had multiple cups of coffee a day. I remember being very headachy and miserable and vowed to manage my coffee intake better. Other “withdrawal” symptoms might include caffeine headaches, fatigue, muscle pains, nausea and dysregulated sleep leaving you tired during the day.

Though, if we’re being fair, quitting coffee won’t really affect your life much more than making you irritable for a while.

The stages of coffee addiction - the character is looking increasingly jittery: Dunkin Donuts, Lattes, Espresso, Cold Brew, Nitro cold brew, snorting beans and screaming
Unless you’re snorting it.
(By Tommy Siegel)

So is caffeine good or bad?

A bit of both.

A dose of caffeine can boost your concentration, increase alertness and give you the energy you need to write a blog post on caffeine and sleep. On the other hand, it might mean you can’t fall asleep at night, or the sleep you have is of lesser quality.

Looking at long term effects, there is some evidence that suggests that caffeine consumption decreases the risk of some types of cancer – such as liver, mouth, and throat – and protects against cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. And in small doses, it can boost your long term memory.

There’s a caveat emptor**** though. Caffeine messes with your sleep, and sleep is important for memory and learning processes. So interfering too much with normal sleeping patterns can have an adverse effect on your long term memory. In addition, it is essentially a psychoactive substance and that jittery short term effect we mentioned earlier? That’s a small step towards anxiety.

It is generally advised to stick to 300-400 mg of caffeine a day (most caffeinated beverages have somewhere between 50 and 200 mg) and avoid caffeine after 2 pm, as it will likely affect your sleep!

Another thing to note is that caffeine is present in other things as well, including soda’s tea, and chocolate. For a 1 oz bar of dark chocolate, there is about 12 mg of caffeine. Even decaf coffee still has a little bit of caffeine in it!

Where does my coffee come from?

Image of coffee fruit growing on a tree
Coffee fruit on a coffee fruit tree. Merry merry fruit of the bush is he?
Photo by Gerson Cifuentes on Unsplash

The first step of the tree-to-cup process is picking the coffee fruit, which is called coffee cherries and looks a little bit like a cranberry. After the fruit part of the coffee is removed, the coffee beans are dried in the sun. These dried coffee beans are called green beans. The green beans are what is sent to coffee roasters, who roast the beans. These roasted beans are ground down and used to make coffee.

"Coffee Roast", comedian telling a coffee bean: Yo momma's so fat, they call her robusta!
(Still good at art. )

Coffee is grown in countries in Latin-America, Central and East Africa, India and throughout Sout-East Asia. The biggest coffee exporters are Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Seattle and coffee

Though Seattle houses the headquarters of Starbucks and is known as the coffee capital, a 2018 study claims otherwise. Apparently, New York is the best city for coffee lovers as it has the highest concentration of coffee shops and cafes. And Seattle’s most notorious rival, Portland, has the highest number of coffee manufacturers per capita. Ugh.

Americans aren’t even the highest coffee consumers, by far. According to Euromonitor International, the top coffee consumers in the world are in Finland, consuming 12 kg (or 21.2 pounds) of coffee per person per year (by dry weight). Compare that to the US, where on average 3.1 kg (or 6.8 pounds) of coffee beans are consumed per person per year.

That said, my battery is running low and I’m out of coffee.

* “If everyone jumps off a bridge, will you jump too?” – every mother ever.

** No, we daren’t. (We’ll get to why later.)

*** Eh, not that many, I’m not that old.

**** “Buyers beware.”

Sources and inspiration:

This post is a compilation of several blog posts I wrote for Decafino, but I also gained inspiration from the following sources:

Happy New Decade?

We’re two days into 2020. Just a few days ago, you couldn’t go online without seeing some recap of the last decade, or go anywhere without people jokingly saying “see you next year! Oh, next decade!”

And there I’d be, suppressing the urge to go “Well, actually…” and point out that because our calendar started in the year 1 A.D., wouldn’t the next decade start on January 1st, 2021? A year from now?

Why does the year even start on Jan 1st?

The first assumption is that everyone uses the same calendar: the Gregorian calendar.

In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar as an update to the Julian calendar. Both are solar calendars, i.e. it starts counting when the sun moves through a fixed point, and a year would last ~365 days. This is different from a lunar calendar – based on the cycles of the moon in which a month (or moonth?) would be 28 days – that would not nicely sync up with the seasons.

In the Gregorian calendar, the astronomical cycle of the earth around the sun, which is 365.2425 days long, is taken into account by skipping a leap year every 100 years. Sort of; this approximation has an error of one day every 3,030 years, or 26 seconds a year, even with the skipping leap years every 100 year but not on the 400s*.

For most things, most of the world has adopted the Gregorian calendar for their daily life somewhere between 1582 and the early 20th century, even if cultural and religious calendars were kept in parallel.

If you think too much about it, months seem completely arbitrary – except maybe solstices landing on sort of the same date – and other systems, like the Equal Month Calendar which has 13 28-day months plus an extra day or two depending on leap years – sounds more plausible.

But for all intents and purposes, the whole world has agreed that the year starts on January 1st, based on the ideas of a Medieval Pope. And when decades start would depend on Christianity too.

The year 1 A.D.

Our current calendar starts counting from 1 A.D. (or Anno Domini), with the year 1 the year Jesus was allegedly born.

Allegedly, because it wasn’t until 525 A.D. that the year was set by Dionysius Exiguus when he was devising his method to calculate Easter. Historians believe that Jesus was actually born at least a few years earlier, and not necessarily on Christmas day. In any case, 1 A.D. has now generally been adopted as “the start of counting of years” and sometimes referred to as 1 C.E. (common era) to avoid religious connotations.

But the most interesting thing about 1 A.D. – for me at least – is that there is no year 0.

The Roman numeral system had no concept of zero, and it wasn’t until the eighth century that the Arabic Numeral for zero was introduced in Europe – and eventually used widely in the seventeenth century.

If that’s the case, did we really just start a new decade?

Counting from zero

A decade is simply “a span of 10 years,” so new decades are constantly starting. We don’t celebrate them typically, except for the decades of our lives, and those that are generally considered in the calendar.

In the 20th century, we started referring to decades as groups of years having the same digits: the years 1990-1999 are referred to as the nineties (dixit nineties kid) as opposed to counting from 1 to 10 (in which case the nineties would have been from 1991-2000). You would think this is the more “mathematically correct” way of counting, but even in programming, there are systems that start counting from 0 just as a convention.

Every 10 years, and definitely at the start of the new millennium, the same discussion occurs: when do we start counting a decade/century/millennium?

A poll from a month ago shows that most Americans (64%) saw the new decade start yesterday, while about a fifth (19%) were not sure. Only 17% answered the new decade will start on January 1, 2021.

In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter. Having a new decade start on a year ending with a 0 looks nicer, and in the 21st century means we can make fun novelty glasses where the lenses fit in the zeros. I’ll continue to be pedantic and say that the decade doesn’t start until next year if only so I can forget about it and not do that “looking back on a decade” thing, ever.

In any case, whether you think the year started yesterday, or the decade, or if it was just a regular old day, have a marvelous 2020!

From Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

*The rule is that every year that is divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are divisible by 100, with the exception on that exception for years that are divisible by 400.

Sources: in-text links

Beer Try 2 – quick update

We’ve made it – here are the final updates from our second brewing trial.

A little while ago, we capped a bunch of bottles…

Photo of capped bottles

… and did an intermediate taste:

looped gif of tasting the not-yet-beer.
Text: Tasting... It's kind of sweet (like me) LOL!

After a week (well – it’s been two weeks at least by now) we opened our first bottle and gave it a try. I have to admit that I’ve had quite a cold lately, so my taste might be a bit off… Anyway, here’s the verdict:

  • We still didn’t get the type of beer as good as we’d hoped. It ended up being somewhat of a mild-tasting pale ale, or a very flavorful pilsner, or something in between. And no sign of the special ingredient.
  • We did get the alcohol content better; while we haven’t gone through the calculation, it tastes more like a proper beer (not a light version like last time) and after two of them I have to admit I feel a little giddy.
  • It pours really well, but the foam disappears quickly.
  • The responses overall have been pretty good – though mostly from people who dislike IPAs and were enjoying the non-hoppiness of our beer.
  • Final verdict: It was only the second try, it is more than drinkable and the process was fun to do! Next time, we should not have something else planned the same day and need to rush off.
Photo of the pale ale

In the meantime, we also made some Ginger Beer, which is very easy to make and tasted great! (Details later.)

If you feel like cooking things this holiday season and don’t want the multiple-week wait of beer, may I suggest stirring up a batch of tiramisu? It’s super yummy!

Happy Holiday’s Y’all!

Science of SciFi

Science of Scifi in computer-tech letters

Could we bring dinosaurs back to life? Will we ever make contact with aliens? Will robots take over the world?

With these questions in mind, 6 scientists and I-didn’t-really-count-how-many audience members gathered together for the panel The Science of SciFi, at this year’s GeekGirlCon – a celebration of geekiness in all its glory!

The panel consisted of local researchers from Seattle 500 women scientists:

  • Dr. Daniela Huppenkothen, who studies black holes and asteroids using modern statistical tools and machine learning methods;
  • Dr. Kim Bott, who studies alien life scientifically (yes, that’s a real thing and it’s called astrobiology);
  • Dr. Meredith Rawls, who writes software to handle terabytes of nightly data from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will ultimately become the highest-resolution movie of the night sky ever made;
  • Dr. Jeanna Wheeler, who works with mice and nematode models to understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS; and
  • Dr. Jenn Huff, who as an archaeologist focuses on questions like “what can technology we invented and adopted in the past tell us about how we relate to technology now and in the future?”

Guided by questions from the audience, we explored the links between scientific research and science fiction, looking at what advances are being made in fields portrayed in SciFi media, discussing fictional and real research, and what lessons each can learn from the successes and failures in the other.

Here are some of the take-home messages I’d like to share.*

Science fiction makes scientists

One thing that was immediately clear was how science fiction had influenced the panelists in their life. By seeing positive female role models in their favorite science fiction shows and movies – just think Samantha Carter from SG-1, Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, Ellie Alloway in Contact, and numerous female characters in the Star Trek franchise, – they had someone to look up to and aspire to be like.

Seeing female characters who were both physically and intellectually adventurous, who were tough and smart, who were well-rounded and passionate, showed the women on the panel, and many female scientists, that they too could be a scientist.

There are several studies showing that having representation matters. If all you ever see is people who are not like you doing a thing, you’ll be less inclined to do that thing. If we can create positive role models, show that STEM professionals come in all stripes, we’ll create a more diverse and exciting research environment.

Response to a Discovery’s very non-diverse promo video showing that – even if it’s not a full representation of everyone in science – #scienceisforeveryone.

… but we can still do better!

Despite there being quite a few inspirational science fiction scientists, the overall depiction of scientists and the science they do in movies, series, and books is often – well – inaccurate.

Scientists are not (always) super smart, geeky people who sit around in a lab coat for no apparent reason and solve the science thing within an hour. Oh, not to mention being a very attractive, mid-twenty-year-old with 4 PhDs. Or a software developer spending 30 seconds to find the bug in their software. Because that sounds totally possible, and I know some software engineers.

Little known fact: when you get a Ph.D., you get a bonus second Ph.D. on calling people on their shit. From: Rampage (2018)

Let’s also not forget the idea that for scientists in fiction, science is often their whole life. Showing that being super passionate about science, and science only, is the only way to be a good scientist is not a message we want to share. Could we have more well-rounded, realistic, scientists in fiction, please? With hobbies and all?

And while we’re at it, let’s get some science straight: mutated does not equal evil; mutation is the substrate of all the beautiful diversity we have everywhere!

Special acknowledgment to shows that do show good representations of scientists. The Martian depicted a scientist pretty well. And not to pull favorites, but The Expanse has a pretty good portrayal of gravity systems affecting how a body develops. Not to mention that long-haired people in space definitely tie up their hair and that there is space in space – and it takes time, fuel, and pulling Gs to travel through it.

Accuracy versus story

This brings up another question: does science fiction need to be scientifically accurate?

Sometimes science fiction is fun because of the story or the characters. Who doesn’t love some good space magic?

The consensus seemed to be that, as long as things are consistent with the story, and that the movie/series/book isn’t claiming to be super scientifically accurate while totally not actually being so, accuracy is not the most important thing.

Two characters in space speaking by touching helmets
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” In The Expanse, the solution is to hold helmets together so the vibrations can pass to the other person. Sometimes scientific accuracy is cool.
From: Paradigm Shift. Season 2, Episode 6 of The Expanse.

Human vs. Tech?

Another point was brought up during the panel: how will future technology shape our future?

It started with a discussion on making designer babies – whether this would be feasible, and what the ethical implications might be. With CRISPR/Cas9 technology making small edits to a genome a lot easier, it does not sound like something too far in the future!

While we are likely to be able to treat serious diseases with a clear genetic cause sometime soon, making genetic super-humans is a whole other deal. We don’t really really know enough about the genetics of intelligence (to name one trait) to make those changes! And if we believe science fiction, making superhumans usually does not end well.

That’s the way it usually seems in SciFi – tech will either be the end of us all or the solution to all our problems!

But if we’re being honest, technology is just heated up rock (quote from Jen). Most of our problems are of social nature, and technology will not be able to solve those.

For example, there are numerous examples of computers in general, and algorithms in particular, increasing inequality. We give computers datasets that are biased, so the automation will also be biased!

Technology is not the solution. It is an agent. We would better ask what humans are going to do with new technology. How will we shape our future?

Honorable quotes (slightly paraphrased):

“Can we ever train humans to be unbiased?” – Jeanna, as a response to the question of whether we can ever make AI/algorithms unbiased.

“I’ve never watched Interstellar, but I’ve read the scientific paper that came out with it.” – Daniela, commenting on how Interstellar felt a little close to her real work.

“If we can’t fix/control our own climate – we’re unlikely to be able to change that of another planet. Also, should we? Do we need another planet?” – Kim and Jeanna commenting on when we’ll be able to terraform another planet. Also, remember that time we *accidentally* left tardigrades to the moon?

“We do have spooky action at a distance” – Kim bot on how quantum entanglement explains how we can transfer information faster than the speed of light. Which is probably as close as we can get to having transporters.

* We talked about a lot more than what I’ve briefly described here. Feel free to reach out to any of the scientists on twitter to find out more or to ask your favorite science-versus-science-fiction questions!

Thank you to 500 women scientists (especially the Seattle pod) & the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) for their support in setting up this panel. Thank you to GeekGirlCon for hosting us!

Beer Try 2

A few weeks ago, we brewed our very first batch of beer. It was a mixed bag (of grains – haha!): our alcohol content was a lot lower than expected, but it tasted pretty nice regardless. Like a lighter version of a dark beer.

Excited to give things a second go, we gave things a second go!

The steps were pretty much the same as last time, so if you’d like to see a breakdown of the process, please find all of that here:
Brewing for Beginners – Part 1 for the making of the wort
Brewing for Beginners – Part 2 for an update on the fermentation
Brewing for Beginners – Part 3 for the bottling process
Brewing for Beginners – Part 4 for the best part of all: tasting!

This time around, we wanted to make a Pale Ale (with a special twist*). You can find the general recipe here; or scroll down and see the process in action!


* Rosemary. The special twist is rosemary. We added it to the hoppy-tea-making step during the last 10 minutes of the boil.

In addition to the rosemary, we made another change. We ran out of time to do the complete 90 minute boil. We only boiled for 60 minutes which meant we were left with a more diluted version of our grain-tea-soup thingy (and thus lower specific gravity). To compensate, we added extra sugar after the first few days to keep fermentation going.

Spent grain bread: basically a version of whole-grain bread. We forgot to add salt to ours so it ended up pretty sweet-tasting but other than that, quite nice! You can find an example recipe here.

Plane Food

Plane food is known to taste – well – not so good. The bad news is that researchers have found out why that is and there’s not much we can do about it. The good news is that researchers how found out why that is and now plane companies can prepare foods that have tastes that are more compatible with plane flight.

And then charge us an arm and a leg for it.

Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at that science, shall we?

Taste or flavor?

When we say something “tastes” good, we typically are talking about its flavor. Flavor is our general sensory perception of something we put into our mouth (phrasing?). It’s the combination of our other senses, mostly taste – what is perceived by our taste buds on our tongue and in our mouth – and smell – what is perceived by receptors in our nose.

Wait, there’s more.

Part of flavor depends on psychological factors, and hence from other senses. Have you ever eaten an apple that – while it may have tasted okay – had a grainy feel? Would you have said that the apple was “flavorful”? I wouldn’t. And food that just looks unappealing will have to work a lot harder to make our brain thinks it’s tasty.

Finally, it turns out that sound influences the way we perceive flavor. And that’s where planes come in.

Sight, Hearing, Smell and Taste all contribute to flavor
And also highly contributes to the uncanny valley.

Quiet in the cabin, please

Research suggests that one of the main reasons for plane food tasting so bad – apart from maybe mediocre cooking and aluminum food trays – is because loud noise environments significantly influence our sense of taste.

Airline cabins are notoriously loud. Noise is often over 85 dB, which is louder than that annoying open office you work in. During take-off and landing, noise can even up to 105 dB, but as your trays must be in the upright position – you’ll not be eating at that time anyway.

Here’s how your taste perception changes: sweet tastes are suppressed, while umami is enhanced.

That means that sugary drinks don’t taste as sugary and actually might explain how I – a non-soft-drink-drinker – can bear drinking a can of coke. A mini can of coke, obviously, that’s all you’ll get. You might have also noticed that the cookies you get on the plane taste suspiciously sweet off the plane (if you are like me and just put everything you get in your bag for a future snack).

On the other hand, umami gets a bit of a boost. Umami is the savory taste you find in foods with high levels of the amino acid glutamate, such as tomato juice, mushrooms, miso, and parmesan cheese.

Some airlines are very aware of this savory fact. The German airline Lufthansa started working with chefs to make more savory meals after they had observed that their passengers were drinking the same quantities of tomato juice as beer!

Left: tall person in a plane struggling to find space for his legs. Right: Person in front of the tall person declining his seat.
As if I don’t have enough problems on the plane. From

Where do we go from here?

Other airlines could pay attention and change their recipes to take advantage of that enhanced-umami effect. Or hand out earplugs for during meals (I’m not sure there has been research on how earplugs might help).

Or – as we do in our family – you bring your own food. Just knowing you made it yourself makes it taste better; let’s be honest, airplane food just always looks a bit mushy. So make an omelet sandwich!

Bone App The Teeth!

Original paper: Yan KS, Dando R. A crossmodal role for audition in taste perception. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2015 Jun;41(3):590-6. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000044.

I’m giving a public presentation – please send help

Giving a talk is hard. Giving a talk to the “general public,”* is possibly even harder. What if people don’t care about what you’re talking about? What if you’re not able to explain it in a clear way, without “dumbing it down”? There are many pitfalls to giving a public talk, and from giving and going to quite a few myself, I have a few ideas on how to make sure you nail your next talk!

A mistake I’ve seen quite a lot is diving straight into the data. But that will immediately lose anyone in the audience who is not an expert in [insert topic of talk here]. Here’s an example outline for a [fictional] talk about research on a sciency thing:

1. Set the stage

Tell the audience why they should care. Maybe your research is on ice shelf stability and there was something recently in the news about a city-sized chunk of ice breaking off an Antarctic ice shelf. Lucky you! (not so lucky for the ice shelf though). Use that powerful image as your first slide!

Chunk of ice breaking off an ice shelf (gif).
Elsa! Elsa! Please come help! [Stef Lhermitte / Sentinel 1 ESA]

Or maybe what you’re talking to contributes to the rising sea level? Great for you! (not so great for the Netherlands though). Use that striking image of cities that will disappear as your other introduction slide.

Part of Manhattan, and Jersey City but who really cares**, will flood with a 15 ft/4.7 m water rise (equivalent to the 2ºC temperature increase we should be more scared about). From: Before the Flood

Or, if you’re like me, your research is (was) about the Physics of Cancer. I like to start talks pointing out that “physics” and “cancer” are not necessarily two concepts that we think about in the same context.

A wordcloud about cancer, including words such as mutation, DNA, cell, screening, treatment, etc.
Can’t see “physics” anywhere! (Wordcloud from the Wikipedia page on cancer)

Whatever you’re research is about, there is a reason to care and a very illustrative image to accompany your impassioned exposé of why we should all be caring. You’re learning more about how cells work which can lead to better disease treatment. You’re satisfying our human need to keep on exploring by making better rockets to send into space. You’re leading to a better understanding of how humans interact with each other which will help us all be better to each other.

I don’t know, I’m just spitballing, but your research is important and we should care. And there is most definitely a meme, powerful image, or powerful gif available that shows us why.*** Because, let’s face it, we all like pictures more than words, no?

2. What do we know?

Time to show some numbers. Maybe there are some prediction models and the observations made in the last decades are increasingly matching those (scary) predictions. If you’re giving that talk about sea-level rise, show the climate temperature rise graph. If your talk is on a new and tinier microchip, Moore’s Law is your thing to show. If your talk is on cancer, you can give some numbers on incident rates, or how earlier detection can lead to earlier and better treatment.

In my case, my second slide is an overview of what cancer actually is, followed by an outline of what my talk is about: how understanding the changing mechanical properties of cells and tissue can help us better understand how cancer works, improve diagnostics, and come up with better ways to detect cancer.

What is cancer? Abnormal cell growth, abnormal cell survival, the ability to spread to other parts of the body, an accumulation of genetic mutations.
[Not a real representation of cells… contrary to popular belief (not really), they do not have faces.]

In short, set your research into a more general perspective. What is the current view on this subject, and where are the giant gaps in the knowledge. Because that’s where you come in!

Tip: if you ever start a slide with “there’s probably too much data on this slide…”, just don’t. Break it up into multiple slides. Only show the data that matters for what you’re saying. Anything but saying there’s too much data.

3. Time to shine!

This is where you can plug in your stuff. What is new about it? What problem is it solving? What does this new shiny data show?

Picture of me improvising a presentation
Look at my data, my data is amazing.

Some tips to help:

Show the process of your research and tell a story. People really like hearing stories about science is done. Maybe there’s an anecdote about how you were messing around with scotch tape and suddenly discovered graphene. Or about how you were able to hitch a ride to the field study and made an unusual friend. Or how the first time you set up the Atomic Force Microscope, which uses a tiny micro-probe, you broke the tip right when the professor walked into the lab.

Scanning Electron Image of atomic force microscopy tips
That triangle-shaped thing on the left labeled D is tiny and breaks really easily, especially when the scientist using it is being watched. From Bruker.

Also, don’t “half” introduce a complicated concept. If you need to explain a complicated technique to explain your results, go ahead. But don’t half-mention them and leave the audience wondering what that word (or abbreviation) was all about. Did you know that AFM can refer to Atomic Force Microscopy, Acute Flaccid Myelitis, or the American Film Market?

4. Conclusions

End your talk by looping it back to the first point. You told us why we should care about the subject, now tell us what your new findings mean for that subject. Add some future perspectives. Add another meme. Add an inspirational quote. Leave time for questions. Or if you’re me, you might take out a ukulele and sing a song.

Final conclusion, on the left a Nature Magazine cover showing scientists as superheros and a D'Arcy Thompson Quote.
I truly believe scientists are superheroes. Also, I find D’Arcy Thompson inspirational.

A final tip, make sure you plan your talk in advance! There is nothing more frustrating than seeing someone rush through their slides because they didn’t do a run through.

If you are in research and early in your career, such as a PhD student or a Post-Doc, you might have the chance to take some science communication training through your institution. I would highly recommend it! There are plenty of resources online as well!

Final thought, I secretly believe that scientists at all levels should take get training and practice about giving engaging presentations, to whichever audience, and learn how to make sure your audience doesn’t get put to sleep.

Good luck! You got this!

* “General public” is the worst blanket description of an audience. Let’s just say that the people who might come to a public lecture are not experts in whatever you are talking about but do have an interest in it (or they wouldn’t be there).

** I’m kidding. I’m technically from New Jersey.

*** Yes, I know I used a wordcloud as an example.