Inking Science

A few months ago, my friend Vale asked me to collaborate with her on a project. I remember it going something along the lines of:*

Vale: “So, I’m working on this project and was wondering if you wanted to be part of it.”

Me: “Yeah, of course.”

Vale: …

Me: “Wait, what is the project?”

Say “yes” and ask questions later

Though probably not valid for every situation, I knew that in this case, I would be fine to say yes before knowing what I’d said yes to. If you’ve read any of my other stuff, you know that I’ve done various “scicomm”** projects like developing a “Build a LEGO-microscope” workshop and organizing a lecture series called “The Science of SciFi”. These were both in collaboration with Vale (and occasionally other people). She’s also the one who got me into Bright Club!

It seems that we work well together. And working together on a new project (without even knowing what it was), sounded like a lot of fun.

Art-meets-science

By now, I (obviously) know what the project is. It all started with #inktober, an art challenge that challenges illustrators to draw something using the medium of ink every day for a whole month (can you guess which?). Vale took up that challenge, and made it even more of a challenge by deciding to bundle her illustrations in a book.

Every drawing is based on a scientist*** that she considers a personal inspiration and is linked to a word from the prompt list. She’d post the result with a short explanation of why she chose that scientist for that prompt. Sometimes they were pretty obvious (at least to me, of course “stretch” is about D’Arcy Thompson!), some rather funny.

Image result for inktober prompt list 2018
Official #inktober prompt list.

And then I come in.

Inspired by her drawing, I write a short text to go along with it. Sometimes it’s an anecdote. Sometimes it’s a quote. Sometimes it’s a short story about the scientist’s life. I try to make it as informative, engaging, unique and fun as I can.

… and then we have a book

Well, almost. We have the drawings. And we have the stories. And now we have a Kickstarter campaign to actually turn it into a book!

Sketch of what the book is going to look like.

It’s kind of awkward for me to sit here and write about a book I’m involved in, trying to get it made, aka trying to get the campaign funded. Like really, really awkward. So I’ll only do it once****:

Every little helps. Pledging helps, obviously, but spreading the word does too. If you like science, engineering, and math; and if you like amazing art; and if you like stories (and if maybe you also like us)… please share our project and help us make this book a reality!

Both Vale and I have found inspiration in these scientists, and we have found inspiration working on this book together. Hopefully, it will inspire you too.

*end of sappy book promo – I’ll be back next week with the usual science, nerdiness and hopefully some “Eureka!”s*

Just to remind you ;), you can find the Kickstarter page here:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1950391618/inking-science

*Severely paraphrasing. This was months ago. I might have also dreamt it but on the other hand, this project is happening so I guess that means the conversation happened too.

** or “science communication”, which is the umbrella term I use for STEM-related outreach, workshops, talks, and other similar activities.

*** in the broad sense of the word. They could be mathematicians, or engineers, or inventors. Creative STEM-people if you will.

**** on this blog, to be clear. My other social media channels will be swamped! Like, I actually really care about this project and am super excited and want to see it happen!

All of the art work shown in this post is by Valentina, and within the #inkingscience project.

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One million first digits of π: https://www.piday.org/million/

Find a date in π (like a time date; not talking about πnder): http://www.mypiday.com/

Find your name in π: https://www.atractor.pt/cgi-bin/PI/pib27Search_vn.cgi

More fun with π: https://lab.open.wolframcloud.com/objects/user-a596dba9-5782-467e-ae66-047a9a819454/FunWithPi.nb#sidebar=compute

Eat some π (any bakery near you)

150 years of elements

Here’s a riddle for you: what hangs in every chemistry class in middle and high school, leads to the creation of several nerdy t-shirts, and celebrated is 150th birthday yesterday?

Okay, it’s not a very funny riddle. Nor is it a very difficult one. The answer is: the periodic table of elements, first published on the 6th of March 1869 – exactly 150 years minus-one-day ago – by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

Professor scheikunde Dmitri Mendelejev in zijn bureau aan de universiteit van Sint-Petersburg.

Professor Dmitri Mendeleev

From Alchemy to Chemistry

In the olden days, we would have turned to alchemists to ask our questions about fundamental elements and what stuff makes up stuff. Even though alchemy was not really a “science” in the pure sense of the word – it relied heavily on spiritualism, philosophy and even magic – it set the stage for what would later become chemistry. And while alchemists were mostly trying to turn random metallic rocks into gold, or brew an elixir for eternal life, they were the first that attempted to identify and organize the different substances occurring in nature. The Elements.

The earliest basic elements were considered to be earth, water, air and fire. The discovery of what we might call “chemical elements” really kicked off in 1669 in Germany, by a merchant by the name of Henning Brand. Like many chemists-avant-la-lettre (alchemists), he was trying to discovery the Philosopher’s stone. However, like many muggles, he was not acquainted with Nicolas Flamel and did not succeed (Side note: Nicolas Flamel was actually based on a real person!). In stead, while distilling urine – as you would while trying to create eternal life – he discovered a glow-in-the-dark substance: phosphorous. And with that, the element finding had begun.

Chemistry can be considered to have originated in 1789, when Antoine-Laurent de Lavoiser wrote what is said to be the first modern chemistry textbook. In this book, he defined an element as a substance that can not be broken down to a simpler substance. A fundamental particle. This definition lasted until the discovery of subatomic particles (electrons, protons and neutrons) in the 1930s. Lavoisier’s list of elements included things like oxygen, hydrogen and mercury, but also light.

Dalton’s symbols of the elements. 1806 (Wellcome Images). Combine numbers 24 and 28 with some gin and get a nice cocktail.

Let’s glaze over most of the 19th century, where multiple different scientists realized that the atomic weights of elements were multiples of that of hydrogen (William Prout) and how there was a certain periodicity in terms of physical and chemical properties when the elements were arranged according to their atomic weights (Alexandre-Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois). The early attempts to classify the elements were based on this periodicity, and eventually, our Mendeleev came along.

“Chemical Solitaire”

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev is the father of the modern periodic table. In fact, in Belgium, we call the periodic table of elements “Mendeleev’s table of elements”. After (allegedly) playing “chemical solitaire” on long train journeys – quite common in Russia, I’m sure – he came up with a classification method based on arranging the elements by atomic mass and classifying them according to their properties. Elements in one group (column) have the same number of valance electrons: the number of electrons in the outer shell of the atom and available to react with other elements. Elements in the same column therefore from bonds with other elements in the same way, and form similar types of materials.

Because there were some gaps in the table – some atomic weights missing – he predicted the existence of elements that were yet to be discovered, and what their chemical properties would be. And this is what made his classification method so ground-breaking.

And indeed, in 1885 germanium was discovered, with properties – as predicted – similar to silicon. Same for gallium in 1875 (similar properties as aluminium) and scandium in 1879 (similar properties as boron), filling up some gaps in his periodic table.

The periodic table from Osnovy khimīi by Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, 1834-1907. S.-Peterburg : Tip. t-va “Obshchestvenna︠i︡a polʹza, 1869-1871.

The gaps are filled

Since 1869, the gaps in the periodic table have been filled, and new elements are discovered or created every few years adding to the high end of the table. The last update to the periodic table was in 2016, when the elements nihonium (113), moscovium (115), tennessene (117) and oganesson (118) were added to the list.

So today – okay, yesterday – we celebrated 150 years of chemical element classification, the anniversary of the periodic table of elements, and the collective pain of decades of highschoolers memorizing atomic masses and number of valance electrons.

The table of elements as usually taught today, with pictures of applications for each element (from https://elements.wlonk.com/index.htm).

Inspired by the coverage by vrt nws.

The interactive table of elements in the cover picture is from
http://periodictable.com/

What’s your brand?

Last Monday, I chaired a panel titled “Branding yourself – How creating a brand for yourself can increase your visibility, improve your communication skills, and help you navigate social media” at the Marie Curie Alumni Association Annual Conference. You can watch the full session here, where you can see the lively with panelists Martijn Peters, Nehama Lewis and Matt Murtha. However, I wanted to take the opportunity of having a blog to outline some thoughts I had before, during and after said session. Let’s call this An Incomplete Guide to Branding Yourself  – to be read with a level of skepticism because I am not an expert in this field whatsoever. Also, I rarely take myself seriously, and neither should you.

Personal brand?


If that would actually be my personal brand, the options are numerous. I’m notoriously clumsy and known to trip over nothing on a regular basis. I once tried kicking a football with both feet simultaneously, landed on the ball and fell backward, resulting in a broken arm. I once fell flat on my face while rushing to catch a bus I didn’t really need to catch. More recently (aka, last Tuesday) I sat in front of a bench instead of on it. But that said, I would prefer clumsy not to be my personal brand.

Though – come to think of it – I often use “tall, clumsy and nerdy – not necessarily in that order” when asked for a bio…

Let’s take a few steps back: what is a brand?

Basically, in a marketing context, a brand is what the customer/user/… thinks of a product or a company. It’s everything that is associated with that product (or company). This can mean a recognizable logo or slogan, but also an image of being a “green” company, or a “family friendly” company, or a “quirky” company. Remember Wendy’s witty responses on twitter? That’s all part of the branding.

Which brings me to the following point: What do people typically associate with “science”? A simple google image search doesn’t really look too promising:

58% old white guy with messy hair, 24% younger white dudes, 12% white ladies and 6% Dexter.
(percentages liberally rounded up)

“We need to change how the public thinks of science and scientists. We need to change the first thing people think of when they think of science. And the best way to do it? Be the brand.” *

Fair enough, but I how do I “be the brand”?

Similar to a “brand”, a “personal brand” is everything that other people might associate with you. Some people have very clear personal brands, just think of famous people like Oprah, or Bill Nye (I hear you automatically thinking: The Science Guy). But you don’t have to become famous to create a personal brand, and becoming famous should not be the goal of creating a personal brand. Creating a personal brand is useful for a number of reasons:

  • Thinking about how you want to brand yourself can help you figure out what makes you unique. You can create a vision of how you want people to perceive you and what your ambitions are in terms of career, or in terms of life in general for that matter. And for personal development, having a goal is always useful,
  • Creating a more visible internet presence helps your visibility. Having a personal brand (or something people “remember you by”) is incredibly useful for networking and landing your dream job.
  • As I said before, you can help market science (or STEM, or whatever field you are in). A powerful way to combat stereotypes is to show the rest of the world how diverse the people in your field are, and you can play your part by being the brand for your field.

With regards to actually creating a personal brand, internet presence and social media are probably the most powerful tools, whether you like it or not. My main tip is to check what turns up on the first page of google when you type in your name. Are you happy with what shows up? If not, use your internet superpowers to change your google presence (or more realistically, clean up Google search results for your name).

If you are okay with things like Twitter or Instagram or blogging, that’s a powerful method to control your brand, i.e. how you are perceived by people that might be looking for you on the interwebs. A general rule for social media is to stay authentic. It’s easy to spot people pretending to be something they’re not. That said, it’s okay to adhere a little bit to the “Fake it till you make it rule” in the sense that you can be who you aspire to be. For example, I’m not a professional science communicator, but it’s what I aspire to be. So I use it on social media, and on my business cards, etc.

Okay, this introduction was very incomplete

— I hear you thinking. And you’d be right. I highly recommend you go check out the video of the panel discussion because it was a very lively – and mildly entertaining – session (if I may say so myself) and while we might not have come up with absolute answers, we discussed topics such as authenticity, time management, and science communication in general.

Look at me professionally being professional and all.

And to quote a slogan from a famous brand: Just do it!
(also typically associated with Shia LaBeouf, for other reasons)


(Re)sources:

* Background about branding and quote from https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulmsutter/2019/02/10/turning-science-into-a-brand-is-a-good-thing

An example of how to create your personal brand (others available upon Google search, the internet is a marvelous place, people!): https://www.quicksprout.com/the-complete-guide-to-building-your-personal-brand/

Lost for words

If you are one of my three regular readers (*hi*), you might have noticed that I’ve been trying to churn out a post every week. While this quantity-over-quality approach might not have always worked in my favor, it is helping me hone my writing skills and figure out what my niche is (or so I hope). It was partially inspired by James Clear, who talks a lot about how small changes can help you build good habits and eventually make big life changes.

It’s not always easy though. Even with a steady list of ideas (I have around 13 “drafts” with random ideas and topics to write about), I often find it hard to find inspiration. Take this week. What do I write about? Do I stay topical and write about the history of Valentine’s day; the fact that if a girl sees a robin on Valentine’s day, she will marry a sailor; or the chemistry of cuddle hormones?

Okay, Rachel Ignotofsky‘s graphics are so cool that I’m putting that in here anyway.

Or should I talk about the legacy of Opportunity, which is now lost to us after a sandstorm on Sol 5111 (June 10 last year)? It was trending on twitter all day yesterday, so it’s something people care about, right?

Or should I talk about the history of popcorn and how the first pop was supposedly accidental? Accidental heating of some kernels in a bag must have given someone a heart attack.

I feel you, poppy.

But sometimes, I just don’t feel it. I don’t always feel like putting in the research I’d like to do to make a “quality” post (it’s easy to rewrite a Wikipedia article or someone else’s blog post, but it just feels wrong). I’m not always in the mood to be my witty self (*ahem, #humblebrag*) or I feel like the jokes I am making, are the result from inside jokes that only one person will get.

Wait, is this what writer’s block feels like?

Writer’s block has been around for ages but wasn’t officially called “writer’s block” until 1947. Creatives have always struggled with periodic dips in inspiration. Writer’s block leads to writers giving up on writing altogether. It causes musicians to hide from the world for years, and cartoonist to not create anything for decades. There are lists and lists available on the internet on how to overcome it, over 4000 books written about it (not by writers in a block though), scientific research conducted about the what and the how and the why.

Always use Calvin and Hobbes cartoons for anything.

None of this information actually helps me though. I’ve noticed a pattern in my writing motivation. When I have to write for school or work – like when I was writing for my PhD thesis – all other types of writing will turn into more of a task. Apparently, my brain can handle only so much writing. So for this week, I’m putting quantity over quality, and I’ll go back to writing that technical report that’s due soon.

Hey, did you know that Penicillin was introduced to the market on Valentine’s Day?


Cover photo from Lego Grad Student

All info about Writer’s block from Wikipedia. Sue me.

Definitely not the snowiest city…

(Note: I drafted this post on Tuesday, February 5 so it is slightly outdated.)

It has snowed in Seattle and the whole city has shut down. For the last two days, the schools and universities have been officially closed, the busses have been on their “snow route” and people (including me) have been penguin-waddling along the ice-ridden sidewalks.

Thank you, shoes, for having a grip on snow, ice, and reality.

So while the extreme colds of the Polar Vortex in the Midwest of the US seem to have passed, and the snow in Seattle is slowly starting to melt, I thought I’d check in on the snowiest and coldest places. I told you some time ago that Seattle is not the rainiest city in the US. Nor is it the snowiest, or the coldest. But which city is?

The “UDub” entrance was a prime position for your snowy Instagram pic. (People omitted)

The top three snowiest (major) cities in the US, based on data from 1981 to 2010,* are Rochester (NY), Buffalo (NY), and Cleveland (OH) respectively with 252.7, 240.5 and 173.0 cm of yearly snowfall on average. You don’t get that in inches, sorry you imperials. Seattle averages on a meager 17.3 cm.** However, US cities get practically no snow at all compared to Aomori City in Japan, where an average of 8 meters of snow falls every year (presumably based on data from 1953 to 2016).

If we take a look at coldest cities in the US, Fairbanks (AL, as you’d never have guessed), Grand Forks (ND) and Williston (also ND) make up the top three with -27.2, -19.5 and -17.7°C respectively. In fact, this morning my colleague walked in on high heels, on which I commented: “How do you do that in the ice?” Her reply was simply that she was from North Dakota, she’s used to it.

By the way, Fargo (ND) comes in on number four, deserving an honorable mention because of the awesome movie. And series. Well, I’ve only seen season one, but that was great.

The coldest inhabited place on Earth is considered to be Oymyakon, Russia (-50°C on average, a temperature I can’t even fathom). On Antartica, the coldest ever temperature to be measured was -92°C (even less fathomable).

And apparently, the coldest place in our solar system might not even that far away. The permanently shadowed craters at the moon’s south pole have shown a minimum temperature of -238.3°C, colder than some of the temperatures measured on the surface of Pluto. However, we have yet to measure temperatures at the polar, always shadowy regions of other planets, so it is possible that the Dark Side of the Moon is not the coldest place in our corner of the universe after all.

Anyway, I’m not complaining about living in a mild climate (at least not at this very moment), because it allows me to go on some really nice walks even in February. Last weekend, I walked on the apparently iconic Seattle viaduct, which is going to be demolished. I’m not attached enough, nor a proper Seattelite, to have an opinion on the demolition, but it was pretty cool to walk through the new tunnel (that opened two days later), the old tunnel (that will be filled in) and the viaduct.

Last chance to walk in the new tunnel because soon it will be filled with traffic jams.
Okay, the view was pretty nice.
Exhibit B.

* So I should point out that this might have shifted a little in the last 9 years.

** From Seattle’s Wikipedia page, it’s unclear over which time range this was measured.

Nap Time

I have a track record of falling asleep in inconvenient locations. Basically, if I’m sat down and not actively doing a physical or mental activity, I will doze off.

I fall asleep in the car – fortunately only when in the passenger seat. I fall asleep on the bus and on the train – often resulting in neck pain for the following days. I fall asleep during short plane trips, though not really during long ones – apparently trying to actually fall asleep counts as one of those mental activities that keep me awake.

A snap my “friends” once took of me dozing on a bus. I’m just glad they didn’t draw stuff on my face.

And I fall asleep during lectures and seminars.

I remember it starting in maybe my third year of undergrad, though probably I’ve been caught dozing during classes before [I distinctly remember seeing photographic proof for this, but I can’t find it anymore, so I guess that means it never happened]. To the hilarity of my classmates, and to my own horror and embarrassment, I was not able to stay awake.

Where to sit in class. Conclusion: it doesn’t matter, I’ll fall asleep anyway.

I was reminded of this recently when I attended the local grad seminar. The guy next to me was either accidentally prodding me just when I was dozing off, or was helpfully trying to nudge me awake. I still don’t know which one of the two it was, but because we never exchanged so much as a glance once the seminar was over, I presume it was just all an accidental coincidence. Or a coincidental accident.

I want to point out to everybody who as ever talked at me, that me falling asleep during a talk is not necessarily related to the amount of sleep I’d had, nor a reflection of the quality of the presentation (well, partially, I will elaborate on that in a minute*).

At some point, I even asked for help from a therapist. Her tips to stay awake included: wearing a rubber band on my arm to flick myself with (apparently, the acute pain would give me a short surge of adrenaline), eat something during class (but apples are kind of loud to chew on), or doodle.

It turned out that multitasking did help – a bit. For a little while. But even with elaborate note-taking, which wasn’t my forte – there are countless examples of lecture notes starting out optimistically during the first 15 minutes of class and then trailing off into nonsense and eventually just blank lines – and reading things on my phone – it always seemed a bit rude even though I was literally not paying full attention in order to pay more attention, nothing really worked. The few occasions where I remember staying awake, I either basically wrote a complete comedy set (needless to say, I actually didn’t pay attention to the speaker) or it was because the professor giving the lecture was exceptionally engaging to listen to.

And I really mean exceptionally engaging. Seriously, my demands are unreasonably high. That specific professor taught beginner quantum mechanics to a bunch of quasi-engineers. He just oozed interest in his subject, had just the right amount of quirkiness, and didn’t rely on powerpoint presentations. His classes were all chalk and blackboard. Not that chalk is a requirement for an engaging talk, but the fact that I had to take notes at the same speed as he was teaching, probably helped me stay alert. And awake.

Nevertheless, it seems that a lot of public speaking events in the scientific world, whether it’s lectures or conference talks, are notoriously sleep-inducing.

And the subject of many, many jokes.

While I realize my requirements for a talk that would keep me awake are unrealistic (I’ve been in talks that I genuinely found really interesting and still fell asleep), and I am in no way – I repeat: in no way – an expert in public speaking, I do have some suggestions on how to make your (scientific) talk just that tad more engaging**:

Tip number one – Be interested in what you are talking about. I know, that sounds really obvious, but the number of times you get the impression that the speaker doesn’t really believe in the things they are saying happens more than it should. I know that when I had to give talks about things I didn’t really care about, I definitely went into drone mode. I’m sorry for anybody who had to sit through that.

No, not this kind of drone. It would’ve been awesome if I’d literally turned into a drone. That would’ve woken people up.

Tip number two – Tell a story. Things are a lot more interesting to listen to if they have a beginning, a middle and an end. And some evil villain you had to fight (which could be a protocol that just wouldn’t go right, or that bug in your code, or your lack of general motivation). The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science gives workshops on using the power of narrative in scientific communication. You can still do the intro – methods – results – conclusion thing, just make it more of a story. Also, while you’re at it: be honest. If that experiment took months to get right, it’s okay to say so. Everyone in science has been through some kind of struggle to get data, but most people only show the shiny, polished end results. Every time someone showed some intermediate (failed) results in a talk, it’s gotten some laughs.

Tip number three – Experiment. Figure out what works for you. When I’ve had to give talks as a student for classes or during group meetings, which are generally all safe, I’ve treated it as an experiment. I’ve tried different presentation programs. I’ve tried not adding any text on my slides. The latter experiment failed miserably; I completely forgot what I was supposed to talk about, but luckily there was it was not a very important talk and the audience were all people I knew. Don’t try something completely new for your thesis talk, obviously; use “casual” presentations for experimentation.

“And this slide shows – uhm – random squiggles.” ***

Tip number four – Present a lot. Take every opportunity to practice. Try different types of settings. The only way to gain more confidence in presenting is to actually do it. I know, it sucks, but repetition actually works.

Tip number five – Be you. Add some personality to your talk. If you like to tell jokes, make a joke. If you enjoy adding a meme or two, just to it. Whatever floats your boat. The best talk I ever gave (in my *humble* opinion) involved me singing some songs about cancer and forces. At an actual conference. Obviously, the setting allowed for it, and I checked with the organizers first, but the response I got was overwhelming and a definite confidence boost. I took a risk to put some “me” in the talk, and it paid off.

Tip number six – This one is the most important one, I think. Keep it simple. Imagine you have to give the talk to a to a bunch of middle-schoolers. You want it to be engaging, you want your research to sound cool, you don’t want to overdo it with jargon and acronyms and walls of text. Even if your audience isn’t actually a bunch of 12-year-olds, this still applies. Be engaging, don’t overcomplicate things, and tell your audience why your research matters! The same rule counts in writing, actually. You can check what “grade” your writing style is for on this site, for example, what I’ve written here is about at great eight (I’m glad, it would have been embarrassing if I didn’t adhere to my own rule!)

We don’t all have to be excellent public speakers. But we can all at least try to not be awful speakers, and we can definitely try to not be sleep-inducing speakers. Well, except if I’m in the audience, then it’s all futile.


* Not sure if it actually will be in a minute, it all depends on your reading speed.
** This list is in no way to be considered a guide on how to make a good presentation. There are plenty of those on the internet (usually they come down to: don’t put too much info in your talk, don’t use too much text – pictures speak louder than words, repeat your take-home message – maximum three main points, and some more things to that effect).
*** This picture, however, shows my excellent photoshop skills!