My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Mon, 30 May, 2005

Good news from Baltimore, and new art

The Electron takes a break from whining, to bring you some welcome news of art success. I am just back from Balticon, the annual regional science fiction convention in Baltimore, where I displayed my art on a panel in the art show, along with many other artists and craftspeople. Though I have not been at my best either physically or mentally these last few months, I somehow have managed to crank out quite a lot of art, some of which you have seen on this Weblog. The "2K" painting which I presented to my father as an eighty-fifth birthday gift is now hanging in my parents' house, in a prominent place. Once I returned from Massachusetts, I immediately set about making art for the Baltimore show.

I have always done geometric abstractions, but I never had the confidence to make them large, let alone exhibit them at a public show. A number of factors have permitted me to work on this style as a new direction in my art. Some of these factors are technical: I have found that I can work on prepared pre-stretched canvas, sold cheaply at my local Aaron Brothers frame and art supply store, which is conveniently and temptingly located right next to my Trader Joe's workplace. I used to depend on bendy, fragile illustration board, or heavy Masonite which I had to prepare with white primer (known to artists as gesso). I also have new acrylic paints, expensive ones imported from Fratelli Maimeri of Italy, called "Polycolor," which give a super-brilliant color and very flat, unreflecting surface. This makes it really easy to photograph, with no light glare on it. And the wood-framed stretched canvas is so light that I can paint a larger picture without having a heavy board to heave around and drop on its corner, or on myself.

Other factors are artistic and, I guess, aesthetic or even philosophical. I have always painted space pictures, usually with my airbrush (precision paint sprayer) on a black background. I stopped painting them some years ago because it seemed that I was doing the same thing over and over again and not selling them for very much money. So I turned to doing those super-detailed architectural fantasies which you can see on my main Website at But again, there are only so many onion domes and minaret towers that I can do before I start repeating myself. Then I got "converted" to math and science. Math and science provide me with lots of good-looking lines, shapes, and curves from conic sections, graphs, and general geometry. So I took my old style of geometric abstractions, which I had only done in miniatures, and made them out of my mathematical forms. Then I stuck them together with space art, done the old-fashioned way with airbrush, spatter, and some brushwork detail. The acrylic work for the geometric shapes is done by hand, not by airbrush. My idea is to make art that has the qualities of mathematics and physics: brilliant, precise, mathematically determined, and forceful. In fact, the sketch for my most recent piece was done on the computer, and in a kind of reverse technological twist, the final was done in "conventional" paint on canvas. And there are plenty of permutations of image ideas so I won't have to repeat myself too much.

There is also the downright practical advantages of painting these pictures. They go quickly. I could spend up to five months painting one of those obsessive detail-fests. They impressed clients, but they drove me crazy. I can do a geometric abstraction in a few weeks at most. Maybe art that goes quickly is less profound or less valuable or even less "serious," but I just don't have the time to be profound, especially when I have a deadline.

The first really good result is the picture I just completed, which is entitled SPRING THEORY (yeah, string theory done in the spring.). Acrylic on canvas, 15" x 30". You're invited to view "Spring Theory" here. Since I have no real (i.e. mathematical) knowledge of string theory, I am using it purely as a "spring"-board for image ideas.

I finished this picture on Thursday before the Friday opening of the show. By Friday, it was on display, and by Friday night, it was already sold to one of my best collectors for a good price. It was one of the fastest turnarounds I've ever had, from studio to sale in less than two days. Needless to say, I'm pleased.

But that wasn't the only piece I displayed. The major work on my panel was an art quilt, which I designed and my very talented friend Sally Byers, the "Threadwitch," sewed into a quilt. This is not the first art quilt I have designed, but it is the first in my "geometric" style. The title of the quilt is CARTESIAN SOLAR CROSS, which combines Christian, mathematical, atmospheric, and astronomical elements. Every conic section is incorporated into this piece: ellipse, hyperbola, parabola, and circle. There are also straight lines and other mathematical curves. I did the original design in markers, and turned it over to Sally for the really hard work of quilting. She not only matched every color and designed section, but she added iridescent fabric to match my metallic paints, and details and textures in machine embroidery. The quilt is 56 inches by 38 inches (142 x 97 cm for you metric folks) and it was much appreciated at the Balticon show. Sally's and my quilt treasure is not for sale, at least not yet. Please have a look at the Cartesian Solar Cross Quilt.

I was kind of apprehensive about showing this new work, since the science fiction folk are used to fantasy art with dragons and babes and barbarians and vampires and medieval knights, or science fiction art with spaceships and aliens. It is a change from the architectural fantasy or angel art I used to show. So I was delighted when my friends and art appreciators (and collectors) said nothing but positive things about my new work. One major collector even said that it was "crossover" art that could be shown in a "fine arts" gallery as well as a science fiction convention art show. That is exactly what I am trying to do. It may not find its way onto book covers or any publications, but it will appeal to individuals.

Meanwhile, physics is still on my mind. Despite what most people, including scientists, think, I am not learning it just for the sake of getting art ideas. I am still working on classical mechanics. While painting "Spring Theory," I introduced myself to angular momentum and the inverse square law of gravity, using the Barron's text. My pace has not been fast, due to the heavy art workload, but I keep at it. In my next entry I'll talk about meeting Friendly Scientists and Mathematicians at the convention.

Posted at 2:46 am | link

Wed, 25 May, 2005

Unspeakable yearnings

Sorry, it's not what you might think. I'm filled with yearning, but it's not for the usual thing. But it comes, as it often does, from reading books. I am currently reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Alan Lightman. He is a physicist who became an author, and his writings are often about scientific subjects. I have not read many of his prolific writings, but I've liked everything I've read so far. This one, A SENSE OF THE MYSTERIOUS, is both autobiographical and scientific. I haven't read much yet, but have enjoyed reading about his early life as a young scientist-to-be.

One thing that I seem to find in almost all the biographies of scientists, at least the physicists I've read about, is that they start very early with experiments and tinkering. Lightman talks about his (often dangerous) childhood building rockets, electronic devices, chemical solutions, and electrical concoctions. I've read the same thing about physicists as different as John Wheeler and the frightening Carlo Rubbia. They fooled around with scientific stuff long before they ever got into formal scientific study.

This is where the yearning part comes in for me. I had my moments as a naturalist (as I described in an earlier Electron entry) and looked through microscopes and binoculars at the world, but I never built anything, never tinkered, never did any woodworking or carpentry or three-dimensional craft work. And no rockets or explosions or anything remotely dangerous. I was surrounded by electronics as I grew up, I used stereos and tape recorders and electronic music synthesizers, but I never built anything electronic, not even a "crystal radio set," and I never opened up one of my electronic playthings to see how it worked. I never worked on cars or anything mechanical. Why? Because I was a girl, of course. In the '60s, in my social class, girls didn't do these things. It was inconceivable to me that I could do any of that stuff, and so I never asked to do it, never wanted to do it because it never occurred to me.

My father, however, was a whiz at tinkering and doing all sorts of electronic and household appliance fixits. He could fix just about anything. There were always parts of tape recorders and stereo receivers and turntables and mini-synthesizers all over the house, things he was working on. I used to watch him work on these things, with electronic innards all over the kitchen table. But I never imitated him nor asked to do what he did. Father was also a great woodworker; many of the furniture pieces he built in the mid-sixties are still in service at the old homestead, and an art table he built is still going strong in my own studio. But he never taught me to work in wood. I didn't ask, most of the time; my attention was caught up in the inane pop culture of the time, in Star Trek or comic books or my own science-fiction fantasy universe. The one time I did ask whether I could do carpentry, my father simply replied, "Girls don't do carpentry." And that was that. I didn't ask again.

Now it is forty years later, and I am wondering whether it is too late for me to take up the tinkering that I missed in my childhood. Other women my age are busy doing appropriate middle-aged lady things like volunteering for social service, or wearing red and purple hats and discussing their divorces, or getting makeovers and facelifts. But I want another makeover entirely. I want to be the boy scientist tinkerer I never was. I have wanted to do this for years and years, but have not had the courage, or the foolishness, to actually do it. How does one start, when one has never done anything like it before? I would like to build things, whether electrical, electronic or wooden or, nowadays, cybernetic. I don't care whether it has a purpose or not. I have a soldering iron and a needle-nosed pliers, somewhere. I even have one power tool, an electric drill. Some years ago I asked my father for it as a present, just to shock him, since most tools were considered far too dangerous for me to use in my childhood. He gave me the Sears Craftsman, and I use it, though rarely, to put together things like display stands or picture frames. I'd like to use it more often.

Posted at 3:09 am | link

Sun, 22 May, 2005

Gaining Momentum

My current subject in classical mechanics is momentum. In a previous posting I marveled at the vectors in my world. Now with momentum, I can see that I also live in a momentum world (if not a momentous world.). Just about everything that moves has momentum, though I'm not sure about things that have no mass but still move. Photons have no mass but still have momentum. According to my reference sources, this is covered under Einsteinian relativity, something which is still a couple of years away for my study.

Non-physical things like ideas or information can be said to have momentum, but this is purely metaphorical. A sports team on a winning streak is also said to have momentum, but this is psychological as well as metaphorical. If you think you have momentum, maybe you do. I have definitely noticed changes in momentum in my own physics and mathematical studies, both negative and positive.

What makes me lose momentum in my study? It is much easier for me to lose it than to gain it. Wondering about what I will do with all the things I've learned, or why I am learning them, is a quick way to slow down. Thinking about how slowly I am learning things, and how vast the amount of knowledge and information there is to learn in even basic physics makes me depressed and even slower. Looking at the weblogs or reading articles about current scientists cuts my momentum down, because their hard-driving, intense lives are so unlike mine and their energy level is so much higher than mine. (Mountain climber! Jazz saxophonist! Marathon runner! And twenty-hour days at the particle accelerator too!) And I can stop in my tracks when I think about the overwhelming weight of gender in physics, which the Harvard fracas has only made more noticeable.

So what makes me gain momentum? Reading the right kind of books, about how discoveries were made, helps me. Reading about what even the best of the scientists still don't know also helps, because it gives me hope that there are still new things to be discovered or figured out. Solving a problem on my own, without hints or help, no matter how clunkily simple it is, gives my momentum a nice boost. But the strongest momentum builder, at least for me, is contact with my Friendly Scientists, those rare few who are willing to give me some of their precious time to talk about physics and help me clarify what I am learning. Since I am not in a classroom, I don't often get to have this kind of contact, and I might not even if I were in a formal school situation. (Don't bother the teacher!!) But my handful of Friendly Scientists are willing to put up with my questions and take me seriously even though I am an old gal doing this and not some fresh young thing full of potential. So to those of you, who know who you are, thanks for the momentum.

Posted at 3:13 am | link

Tue, 17 May, 2005

Modem Momentum

OK, I'm back on the broadband line, after the congenial Pakistani cable guy de-installed my old modem and installed a lender modem from Cox Communications. I have thirty days to get me a new cable modem before I have to return the lender to Cox. New modem: if I must. Was the old one broken? It didn't look that way, but one of my internet-technology expert friends said that it probably was obsolete rather than actually broken. He had the same experience with Cox and had to buy a new cable modem box. Evidently Cox upgraded its cable modem connectivity and security programs, and his (and my) original modem, which was about two years old, wouldn't work with the new stuff. I have a thirty-year-old radio that I bought in Italy in 1975, and it still works fine. So much for modern technology.

It has been a mental struggle for me over the last month for various reasons but I am back doing art and physics. I am working on a new piece for a show which is coming up in two weeks. It's another one of my space abstractions. Speaking as a true artist who works on pure ethereal inspiration with no thought to anything but High Art, this piece will be easy for me to do, will be bright and colorful, and will give potential customers a lot of bang for their bucks. So save your pennies and check it out at Balticon, those of you reading this who might just be there. So far it goes by the title "920," which is its catalog number.

I am currently pondering the conservation of momentum. I have so far experienced this only as described mathematically in books, and it doesn't quite make sense to me. However, my friends have said that lessons in the conservation of momentum are sometimes given at billiard tables, where the interaction of objects on a low-friction surface is clearly visible. I have not played billiards since the year I bought that radio in Italy, and I don't know whether billiard parlors are a proper place for me to be. Maybe someone I know has a private table in their house. I need momentum badly; I am behind the eight-ball of self-doubt. I hope some I can get some impulse soon.

Posted at 3:18 am | link

Fri, 13 May, 2005

Incommunicado, so to speak

I have not had my broadband cable connection to the Net for days now. I think that some construction digging in my area damaged an underground fiberoptic line, so nothing is coming through until my provider, or whoever is responsible for the underground network, finds the problem and fixes it. I will be visited by a cable technician this Sunday to try to find the problem, but it may not lie with my own studio equipment at all. We will see.

Meanwhile I connect briefly to the Wider World through an "archaic" and very slow dial-up connection through my not-so-archaic laptop. This is why I still pay money to a dial-up provider, just for situations like this, as well as when I'm on the road. It delivers my e-mail and allows me to put up this brief Weblog entry, but cannot do music or any kind of byte-heavy graphics.

When I reported my problem to the cable provider I actually talked to a real person. It was well after midnight so nothing much was going on, and I had a short conversation with him. He wasn't even in India; he was somewhere in the USA. He said that many customers, when the cable goes off, freak out. Unlike me, they don't have an alternative connection. They are all bound up in their broadband. So their only connection is lost and they are suddenly plunged back into the twentieth century. (Believe it or not, that was only five years ago.) They might actually have to call someone on the phone. Or even weirder, write or have printed some marks on a piece of pressed fiber, which is then placed in a folded piece of similar pressed fiber, brought to a place where one pays a small amount to have this marked fiber package sent to another location… I forget what this process was called.

I'm not freaking out. I connect briefly for utilitarian purposes, and then spend the time I would have spent pointlessly websurfing…pointlessly doing something else, like reading old magazines or looking through catalogs of stuff I can't afford. If I were truly devoted, I'd be spending that time studying physics. But I'm not. I do attend to it; I'm currently pondering the difference between acceleration, momentum, and impulse. I'm not freaking out at all. Really. Only two days until the cable guy shows up. Maybe it will be fixed by then anyway. I wait for those little green lights on the modem to go on. They're not on yet. I try to connect anyway. Page not found. No, I'm not anxious at all.

Posted at 2:21 am | link

Tue, 10 May, 2005

Electron lacks energy

I would like to present myself as always perky, cheerful, and eager to learn my physics in the screens of this Weblog but I regret that I can't, at least for the last few weeks. A number of different factors have slowed me down, both mentally and physically. Probably the most important factor is biological. I am at a Certain Age where changes happen to ladies, to put it gently. I recently tried a "natural" plant-based hormonal remedy sold over the counter which had quite the wrong reaction on me, and I am still trying to overcome its effects. Just because something is "natural" or "herbal" doesn't mean it can't get out of hand. Meanwhile, I put up with various non-threatening but unpleasant draggy symptoms which are predictably part of this passage. I don't know whether physics mixes well with menopause. Well, there is also the family and class reunion thing. You read here about my latest trip up to New England for my father's eighty-fifth birthday. I will be going back up there again in mid-June for the class reunion. The whole thing is making me anxious, the family is anxious about other things, the friends are anxious about me, and, like, my entire world is one nervous dither, which I would rather avoid, but I can't, my art is already up in their school gallery.

So I try to get art done and physics too, even if it's only one little drawing or one page of the text and a couple problems, despite a gross lack of concentration and eating too much broccoli. The trouble is, if you get a big bunch of broccoli, you have to eat it all before it goes bad. Broccoli is one of my favorite vegetables, but a week's worth of it is just too much. Fortunately it does not have any hormonal effects. It has other effects related to chemistry and physics, the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and gas diffusion in the atmosphere. Every action has its equal and opposite reaction, and I think I'll stop right there.

Posted at 9:39 pm | link

Thu, 05 May, 2005

Unacceptable Impulses

I'm back home, at work on the most basic high school physics, contemplating the proportionality of velocity, time, and impulse force. A lot of force in a short time can do the same work as a little force in a long time. Well, maybe. This is like my own path in learning physics. My hypothetical young teen physicsboygenius has a lot of learning force and can learn his classical physics and calculus in just a couple of months. I have only a little learning force so I have to drag it out over years.

There's all this exciting modern physics out there, packaged for us consumers in non-mathematical candy wrappers. I know many artists, writers, and non-technical intellectual types, who think that because they have read some of these books, they actually know about modern physics. Even worse, I find "spiritual" types who think that because they have read some of these sweetened books about modern physics, they think they know about it, and that it has something to do with spirituality. I would like to say something about this, but I am not qualified to do so. This doesn't stop other bloggers, but it stops me.

This Weblog is an exercise in limits, in many ways. (But I haven't gotten to calculus limits yet.) There are a lot of things I just can't talk about here, for fear of offending and losing my few readers. For instance, I hesitate to talk about religion because my Atheist readers will be put off. And I can't talk about gender, women, and physics, because it is such a controversial topic that it will cause my sensitive readers either to tune out or to violently accuse me of the worst sin a thinker can commit, which is, "making sweeping generalizations!!!" I wouldn't want that on my conscience now, would I?

So I must restrict myself to talking about my learning physics and mathematics, and my art work, or whatever interesting but neutral topic comes up. So I'm back to high school. There's work, force, distance, and there's energy, both kinetic and potential. There's mass, weight, acceleration, and Newton. I'm still in the seventeenth century, and will be for quite a while.

When I was in Cambridge I bought a couple of really nice books on modern physics and philosophy, which I will be reporting on here when I read them. Right now I'm holding them on the shelf, and not reading them. I don't feel as though I deserve to read about modern physics until I at least have learned more classical mechanics. I don't want to be one of those types who read the non-mathematical physics books and think they know what they are talking about. I want to be able to read the physics books that are nearly all math, and understand what the author is talking about. This may take forever, or at least a metaphorical forever. But I am consoled by one fundamental thing I've noticed, just with Newton's equations. Force equals mass times acceleration: a law that seems to work everywhere, at least in the world above the quantum level. Now that's one great big sweeping generalization.

Posted at 2:55 am | link

Sun, 01 May, 2005

Old School and High Culture

I come from a very arty family. Or, as we say in Massachusetts, "ahh-ty." My mother is a painter, my father a classical composer. I grew up immersed in fine arts and classical music, to the point where it took the place and the intensity of religion in my upbringing. Despite my youthful deviations from orthodoxy, and my current excursions into graphic novel heresy, I have never renounced the faith. So, when I return home, it is to a world of devotion and dedication worthy of a secular monastery. There are musical and artistic "saints," and sermons from mom and dad about high culture and art, as well as re-affirmation of the embattled and special nature of the faith community, surrounded by a vast polluted multitude of cultureless, invincibly ignorant heathens.

I've just finished celebrating my father's eighty-fifth birthday. Despite his protestations, he really is an important figure in American classical music, a part of the history of American music that includes people like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The Boston public radio station, WGBH, played some of his music on his birthday, and there was a splendid concert of his music on April 29 at the arts center in Natick, Mass. Father even played some of his own piano music, short pieces which are newly composed. He's still writing music at 85 years old! It should happen to all us "creative" types! You might still be able to access the "event details" if you type "Harold Shapero" into the "search" box on the NatickArts site.

During the week I helped my mother get her studio ready for an "open house." The studios are right across the street from the performance center. I framed pictures and repaired frames, then hung the paintings on the walls in proper rows. An "open house" is where artists invite local art-loving folks to visit them in their studios on a Saturday afternoon. The artists sit there and socialize, offer tea and cookies, and talk about their work if they are asked to. My mother graciously sat in the studio receiving guests all afternoon. I was there, too, showing off one of my own paintings, the Klee/Kandinsky affair which I mentioned in my previous post. The birthday party, concert, and art show was a three-day orgy of socializing and meeting old friends and relatives and giving gifts and eating. I'm worn out from all this hard work… but not as much as my folks are. Time to rest up.

I had my own art to take care of, too. This June will by my thirty-fifth high school reunion. I am class of 1970 at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass. I have been persuaded by a strong-willed classmate to show my art at a reunion group art show which takes place in the very same gallery in which I had my graduation show back in 1970. I hope I am at least somewhat better as an artist now. I brought a selection of my originals to Dana Hall during last week, in fact on the same day as my father's concert. (VERY busy week indeed.) It was the first time I had been back at my old school for perhaps twenty years. Dana Hall is a ritzy girls' prep school, originally started as the prep school for Wellesley College. Without going into too much detail, I'll just say that despite my parents' hopes for me, I was not happy there nor did I do well as a student. So revisiting this school for me means returning to the very same sites and classrooms of my youthful failures, humiliation, and social incompetence.

The 1970 alumnae show will be on display all the way through May, and will be visited by returning alumnae on reunion weekend which is in early June. I'll be up there for that weekend, and will meet many of the girls-now-ladies whom I fought with or schemed with or whined with during my high school days. I visited a math classroom while I was there. It was empty except for a young female teacher about half my age. On the blackboard was a polynomial equation and one of those detestable word problems which were the bane of my existence when I was struggling in school. I had that horrible feeling again, that I could not solve the word problem. I didn't solve it, nor did I solve the polynomial equation. I would have to go back to my notes and references to remember how to solve the word problem. If I had been a cocky little physics kid, I would have solved it correctly right there and then, with a smirk at the teacher.
I brought my physics books with me. There weren't more than a few minutes during any day to work on it, but I tried anyway, 'cause I can't live without it. I am using a very introductory text called "Physics Made Simple" by Ira M. Freeman. This is not the kind of text that a young Julian Schwinger would use. But it is helpful to me. It introduces me to very basic concepts which I can then explore more fully in my other texts. I have now been formally introduced to the concepts of work, energy, kinetic and potential energy, and power. I need all the energy I can get.
I managed to get back to Cambridge a second time during this whirlwind trip, and along with a friend I revisited the old house where I spent ten of my Cambridge years. The white physics building I mentioned in the previous post has been switched to engineering. A great big computer center building has been built right next to it, while in the back, where the cyclotron and parking lot used to stand, a huge new science building is under construction. The high energy physics department is now housed in a historic nineteenth-century house which was transported in its entirety from another location. It's right on the same street where I used to live. It looks kind of small to be a whole department's headquarters, so maybe it is just temporary until the slick new science building is done. The "radioactive" maple tree in front of the old physics building is gone. There is a small empty patch in the front grass area where it used to be. Maybe the radiation was just too much for it, or more likely, all the construction around it disturbed it too much and it succumbed to the stress of all the changes.

Posted at 11:59 pm | link

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