Archive for January, 2012

Catching Corelle

There is a magic moment that exists between the plate falling and the brain’s conscious decision to do something about it.  Cognitive function just isn’t fast enough.  The plate hits the floor.  The autonomic nervous system, however,  is perfectly capable of stepping into that magic moment, telling the hand to reach for the plate, even as it is falling, and in the same fluid instant, plucking it from the inevitability of destruction.  I don’t understand scientifically how this works, but I know it has saved many a dish in my kitchen.  Surprisingly, even as most other functions are slowing, I am still catching Corelle as it hurtles to oblivion.  It’s a mystery.


Understanding this to be a verifiable phenomenon, I have been motivated to study and utilize it in my own behavior.  I have never been able to remember names and faces.  Since I am indeed a visual learner and with language skills so far intact, this deficit is a puzzler.  Observing my thought process led me to an astounding discovery.  When presented with a human face, my first response, the one that clogged the magic dish catching moment, was the thought, “I can’t remember faces.”  In every instance, I was wasting the magic moment wherein I might have effortlessly linked the name and the face.  Based on this observation, I formulated an hypothesis:  The lag time that exists between autonomic perception and purposeful cognitive response is predictable and can be put to use to improve memory and performance.


Since 2007 I have been watching a lot of cable news trying to understand my culture beyond the purview of my lifelong geeky concerns.  I have watched hundreds of talking heads pontificate for way too many hours.  No notes.  Just watched and listened. Usually when a face would flash on the screen it was several seconds before the name and mojo of the speaker would appear.  I decided to utilize the situation and see what would happen.  Internalizing Nike, I told myself, “just do it”.  When a face appeared, I refrained from telling myself “you can’t”; I just spoke the name.  The amazing result was that I did know those people’s names and faces and could match them up amazingly well for a geek with a self diagnosed learning disability.


The next thing to do was to examine my learning process both past and present.  From the time I could prattle letters and numbers, I was convinced that only so much information could be stored inside my little noggin.  I guarded my mental capacity assiduously, refusing to memorize what I regarded as extraneous.  What possible use could be found for adding numbers, or worse still, multiplying them?  I would never have learned my times tables had a savvy teacher not taken away my library privileges until the deed was accomplished.  The problem was so bad that it was only in the seventh grade at boarding school that I began  sneaking down into the first grade classroom during the wee hours and using their flash cards to memorize addition and subtraction facts by flashlight.


My parents were complicit in this farce.  Mother told me that girls weren’t good at arithmetic, so I shouldn’t fret over it.  When I asked my dad for help, he showed me the all time best method for counting on my fingers.  I used that ruse until I invented a unique method of counting up visualized dots, unique to every numeral.  The number one had one dot at its base.  The number two had two dots, one at each end of its base.  Each number displayed its commensurate number of dots positioned for ready visualization, the larger ones distributed in domino patterns.


All this functioned marginally, earning me B’s but denying me the A’s I wanted.  I had created a monster.  A big ugly secret.  Guarding the secret became a knot of anxiety centered in my gut.  It moved in and took over my way of seeing the world of performance, like a cancer eating my ability to sing, play an instrument, speak before an audience, and of course doing arithmetic spontaneously in the presence of others.  While as a child soloist I had sung before large audiences, as a teen I abdicated that spotlight and became one of a gaggle of choir sopranos.  I had once played the piano with remarkable expression, but eventually gave up solo recitals altogether.


While arithmetic was ever my bane, conceptual mathematics tantalized me with its beautiful mysteries.  As a pre-schooler, I had spent my time on the potty tearing up squares of toilet paper into ever diminishing progressions that approached but never achieved zero.  I marveled at the fact that each unit alternated between being a square and being a rectangle.  There was surely some truth there lurking in the diminishing and alternating shapes. It was like standing between two mirrors and trying to count the images that replicated to infinity.  In the second grade I discovered the fun of walking to school using every available hypotenuse, amusing since I had not yet been introduced to Pythagoras.


Then came Algebra, and I fell in love.  Algebra was letters.  Friendly letters.  Numbers were involved, but peripherally.  I was the duck; Algebra was the water.  An elegant proof could bring tears to my eyes.  It was time to make those A’s, but of course I got tangled up in the under-drawers of my arithmetic anxiety.  It slowed me down and added a boat-load of fear to the mix.  I was stuck in the purgatory of being a so-so math student.  One day my teacher provided a life-changing insight.  He took away the pressure of performance.  He put an equation on the board and announced, “No one will be able to do this, but I’m letting you people try it just for fun”.  Silence.  All the smart-ass straight A students sat pondering, but I confidently walked to the board and chalked the entire solution.  The teacher smiled and said, “I always suspected there might be more to you.”  So I accepted myself as retarded at arithmetic but promising in mathematics.


That quandary haunted me through thirty-five years of a BS degree, and a career, though admittedly checkered, in engineering.  I was a rip roaring CAD jock and inventor, but never if somebody was watching.  Twice I made A’s in differential calculus, only to go on to twice make D’s in integral calculus.  Go figure. Now it’s all over, and I am free to puzzle out what that was all about.   I have learned not to believe people when they say “You can’t do that.”, “What will they think?”, “But you’re a girl.”, and the absolute worst, “You’re just a little old lady.”  I have started reconciling my bank balance without a calculator, adding and subtracting, though haltingly, in my head.  The secret: I use my magic moments.  My job is to “just do it” and to pass that winning algorithm on to those of my progeny who will listen, along with my still functioning set of Corelle.

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While on a church sponsored retreat and tucked into my cot at night, I began humming. The array of bare coiled springs under the mattress hummed back, but only when I hummed certain notes.  Later I asked my dad why.  He explained the concept of sympathetic resonance specific to the precise (tuned) frequency of that set of springs.  He explained that all flexible structures are capable of bending in response to external pressure, then returning to a relaxed state.  When subjected to a discrete frequency of vibration, a structure will attempt to flex and relax at that frequency, and at a directly proportional amplitude; the stronger the signal, the stronger the responding vibration.

The physical world is amazing, this case in point being the simple coiled set of springs supporting my camper’s mattress.   Everywhere I looked there were wonderful things to learn about.  In this case, the resonant frequency was determined by the composition, shape, and size of the spring wire, by the form and additive effect of the coils, by the fixed locations and terminations of the individual elements and by the nature of the coupling at the points of fixation. Not to be ignored is the length, width, and breadth of the integrated construct.  I have a suspicion that my presence, a weighted shape pre-loading the system, had an implication, but I hesitate, not wanting to spoil what I have understood as a lovely reality by introducing yet another complexity to obfuscate clarity of insight.  (Keep it simple, stupid!)  Visualizing, much less calculating, the whole concept would be difficult, but I was eager to try and see if I could be one of the relentlessly curious who would figure it out.

Equally interesting, imagine a still pond impacted by a single pebble.  The waveform generated propagates outward concentrically at a frequency specific to the viscosity of the fluid, and to the size, shape, surface texture, and weight of the pebble.  A second pebble, dropped at a distance from the original, sets up a pattern specific to its own unique entry.  When the two patterns intersect each other, a new (interference) pattern is created, and a whole new set of observations and inferences can be appreciated describing the additive (diffraction) pattern.  Though any number of waveforms and interstices can be introduced, a multiplicity of added pebbles, rocks, and boulders, creates great beauty and confusion.  Keeping to the simple truths fosters clarity, so I set aside the lovely complexities and pray over the bones of what is laid bare.

When I graduated from high school in 1956, girls didn’t go to engineering school, but that fact meant nothing to me.  My father said I could do anything I wanted to do.  Growing up resisting my mother’s confused realities was good training for resisting peer pressure that said that above all I must please the boys and play dumb.  That struck me as a very condescending attitude.  I wouldn’t like a boy anyway who would fall for such stupid manipulation.  I applied and was accepted at Carnegie Institute of Technology, with a major in Engineering Physics.

First week on campus, I bopped into the office of the head of the Department of Physics, introduced myself, and explained my intense interest in sympathetic resonance and the  spectra of frequencies interacting with physical structures.  A wise and gentle man, full of encouragement, Dr. Winbourne welcomed my innocent enthusiasm and assigned to me a small laboratory usually reserved for graduate students.  He piled it high with black boxes, high frequency oscillators, oscilloscopes, tuning forks, bridge platforms for vibratory analysis of tensioned wire, and pipes of adjustable length to experiment with vibrating air columns.  It was like having my very own toy store.  I jumped in and began trying to learn how it all worked and what to do with all that sophisticated instrumentation that was supposed to answer my questions.  I had a lot of class work, but I could still do this during free time.  It was a perfect setup.  I had two keys, one to the science building front door and one to my lab.  I kept to myself, bothering nobody.

Then one Saturday night before Christmas, as I was leaving, I stopped at the Physics Office to leave a note for the professor telling him I would be off-campus over the holiday.  As I scribbled on a notepad, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t alone in the office.  Five graduate students had slipped in, blocking both exits.  The eldest, a doctoral candidate I had seen in the halls, spoke first:  “We know why you’re here.  You can’t fool us.”

“Fool you?  What do you mean?  I‘m just leaving a note for Dr. Wilbourne.”

“That not what I’m talking about.  What are you doing in Lab 127?

“Doc assigned me that lab to do some experiments,” I snapped.  “What’s wrong with that?”

“You’re here to get your MRS degree.  We know what you’re up to.  You can forget about us.  We aren’t interested.”

“You?” I squawked.  “I‘m here to learn physics.”  My hands squeezed so tight my knuckles turned white, and my breath started coming in gasps.

“You’ll never learn this stuff.  We don’t like you being here.  Get it?   Hand over that lab key and don’t be inside the building except when you have a scheduled class.”

“I don’t have to do what you say.  Let me out!”  I pushed against the shortest creep who was blocking one of the doors with his blubber butt and belly.  It was pretty stupid of me to choose the biggest one to push against.  Did I want to get away, or did I want to prove to myself that it really was hopeless?  I’ll never know.  Sometimes even hindsight is less than 20/20.

Even the smallest of them was stouter than I was.  He grabbed my arm, smirking, and pointed toward my lab instructor.  “Robert, there, has your section for freshman physics lab.  An F in there would finish you.  Is that what you want?”

Robert piped up then, basically a wimpy geek but now emboldened by the others, “You didn’t get the picture, did you, when I wouldn’t let you check out materials and made you just watch the others do the experiments?  It’s a waste of lab space to let a girl do the set-ups, and it takes learning time away from the boys.  I really meant what I said.”

I assessed the dangerous possibilities of my situation and equivocated, “OK.  I’ll give the key to Dr. Wilbourne but not to you.  I‘ll do it.  I promise.  Now get out of my way.  I’m going to start screaming if you don’t let me out of here.”  They sneered and filed out then, heading down the hall.  They called back demands to remember what they had said, yuck-yucking to each other as they went.

The next day after class, I returned the key to Dr. Wilbourne.  I squirmed, full of shame, afraid to tell him what happened, and muttering that I just couldn’t spare time for extra lab work.  My stomach dropped like a rock, like it does even now when I think about the time I had my very own Carnegie Institute research lab but was dumb enough to let five bullies take it away from me.  I hate those assholes but not nearly so much as I hate myself for letting them do it to me.

I was part of the first tide of fearful but courageous young women who beat and broke bodies and brains against the irresistible flood wall of male science.  Now women take it as a given that they are welcomed and often even appreciated.  It’s tempting to hate them as well for giving no credit to those of us who made it possible for those who followed.  I do resist that temptation and feel only pride and happiness in their achievements.  That lovely confidence they claim as their natural right, makes me a retrospective winner in my own right.  Sounds like resonance to me!

__Dorothy Jeanette Martin

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