Monday, October 15, 2018

Geek Fest

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 17, 2018] ©2018

It was no accident that the other wives and I were not invited to Olof’s college roommate reunion in the Pacific Northwest.  This was the ultimate Geek Tour.

It’s actually fairly amazing that these six physics majors, now 70, have managed to stay in such close contact all these years.  Reunions are pretty much yearly, some related to weddings or milestone birthdays, others for no reason other than the pleasure of getting together.

Olof still likes to recall his first exposure to freshman physics professor and by-then Nobelist Richard Feynman as an undergraduate at Cal Tech. It involved a heavy steel ball attached by a cable to the lecture hall ceiling which was intentionally hurled at considerable velocity at the professor’s face, and, by not killing him, demonstrated some extremely important law of physics. It definitely got his students’ attention.

Whenever Olof and I have traveled over the years, Olof was always immediately attracted to the technical aspects of whatever we were doing.  When we lived in Sweden and were considering a trip up above the Arctic Circle to Kiruna, friends said, “Why would you go there?  There is nothing there but a huge iron ore mine.”  Olof lit up like a Christmas tree. “There’s a mine?”  (As an engineer, Olof’s heart beats faster at the thought of excavation.)  When he learned that one could take a three-hour mine tour, this trip was sealed in steel.

Another time, we took a large passenger ferry across the Baltic. As soon as the boat started moving, I was clicking away at the scenery and Olof was hanging precariously over the rail studying the ships steering capability and babbling excitedly about vector thrusters.  Engineers are very big on thrusters. (Or is it vectors?)

Two of Olof’s college roommates live in Washington state, and as it turns out, there is no lack of tech-y, physics-y stuff to do there.  Fearing glassy-eyed spouses whining “Are we done yet?” they opted this year to reune without us.  We wives imagined them geeking out by day, and hanging out at a local bar at night, lamenting the demise of the slide rule. 

Up first for the guys was a trip to Hanford in the southeast corner of Washington for a tour of Reactor B where plutonium was first manufactured as part of the Manhattan Project.  (Please ignore all errors; I truly have no idea what I’m talking about.)  Clean-up is still underway all these years later to make sure that all the reactor fuel is truly, safely “cocooned.”  Afterwards they went for lunch to what Olof described as a “nearby winery.” 

“How nearby?” I inquired. “Were the grapes the size of baseballs? Did the wine glow in the dark?”  Apparently not that nearby.

The next day they were off to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) which is a large-scale physics laboratory aimed at directly detecting gravitational waves.  As I understand it (and believe me, I really don’t understand it), gravitational waves were predicted to exist by Einstein based on his theory of general relativity, but he apparently didn’t think it could be proven.  But the detectors at LIGO were able to detect gravitational waves from two colliding black holes. For people with Olof’s background, life doesn’t get more exciting than this.

A brief somewhat sentimental (such as these guys get sentimental) side trip was taken to visit the nearby potato farm that was one of the roommates’ first investments.  In fact, he had tried to entice Olof to move up there and use his technical skills to manage a processing plant that would convert all those potatoes into frozen potato products.  Olof’s vision for himself at the time didn’t include being a potato farmer in eastern Washington. “Just think, Olof,” I said upon hearing this, “if you’d taken this path, imagine all the life experiences you would have missed, like four years in Riyadh, a year in Dayton, 18 months at a project at the Dallas airport, all those trips to Biloxi, more than a million miles on an airplane.  You could have just had a quiet life in Yakima churning out French fries!”

Then it was a drive back across the state to Everett, Washington, for a tour of the Boeing factory where airplanes are manufactured.  I hear they got misty-eyed.

It goes without saying that a hugely good time was had by all. They’re already planning next year’s trip and their top contender is to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva.  It was built to detect the Higgs Boson particle and for physics guys who actually understand muons and quarks and leptons, this would truly be a dream.  I have to admit it does sound sort of cool if I could acquire enough knowledge between now and then to have even the teeniest understanding of it all.  Is there a “Particle Physics for Dummies?”  Maybe a children’s tour?

Monday, October 8, 2018

Partners In Crime

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 10, 2018] ©2018

At my granddaughter’s first birthday, her mother tore off a small piece of the baby-sized chocolate cake and gave it to her.  My granddaughter ignored it, picked up the cake itself, and buried her face in it. I knew at that moment that my genes had been thrown forward.

Over the nine years I’ve been writing this column, chocolate has been a frequent topic.  I’ve written about research studies (undoubtedly paid for by Nestles) that extol the health benefits of chocolate, particularly one that maintains that chocolate increases brain function.  I have this study framed on my wall.

I have reported that, unknown to any but the most dedicated wrapper-reading chocoholics, one can supply ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of one’s daily calcium, riboflavin, protein AND fiber requirements (never mind a whopping 50% of your daily iron) with only twenty-five vending machine-size packages of M&Ms – all with no trans-fats and staying WELL within your daily sodium and cholesterol allotments.  

In a column about Nutella – a divinely rich chocolate-and-hazelnut heroin – I revealed my should-be-patented method for getting a half of a large tub of Nutella out in one tablespoon. (It involves burying the spoon into the Nutella jar about five inches up the handle.  Then with dedicated practice (it’s all in the wrist), one twists the spoon until a giganto glob of Nutella at least three inches in diameter is wrapped around it.)   In Inga’s world, this still counts as restricting oneself to one tablespoon of Nutella per day.

I’ve attributed my inability to lose weight to the Lindor Truffles commercial: “Do you dream in chocolate?” You betcha.  That’s what sabotaging my dietary efforts: it’s all that chocolate I consume in my sleep.  My ever-skeptical primary care physician suggested I should consider eating less chocolate in my sleep and while I’m at it, start exercising in my sleep as well.  She just never lets up.

I have been promised that at my funeral, some seriously unflattering (actually downright vicious) chocolate stories will abound.   Which, of course, is why I’ve tried hard to get my own versions of the chocolate stories in print while I’m still above the grass.  (Leaping upon my startled ten-year-old and shoving my fist half way down his esophagus to retrieve my Mrs. Field’s cookie was a reasonable act. He already ate his. That was MY COOKIE!) 

The kids will relate how I had them hide the Halloween candy from me but then rifled their rooms for it when they were at their Dad’s.  Or when they went out Trick o’ Treating, I had them stop by the house from time to time to dump out their bags so I could poach the Mini Mounds Bars. 

Anyway…when the grandkids are here, it is already an inviolable tradition that in the morning, Baba (that would be Olof) gets up early with them and makes Baba Pancakes – a choice of chocolate chip or blueberry.  Suffice to say, my granddaughter only ever wants chocolate chip.

Over Labor Day, I stupidly bought the chocolate chips a week early somehow deluding myself that I wouldn’t eat them.  I truly do not keep chocolate in the house, because it calls out to me. Really loudly.  In fact, it refuses to shut up.

As the Labor Day weekend approached, Olof couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be fewer chocolate chips in the bag.  He left a note one morning: “Inga – Rats have gotten into the chocolate chips again.  Better call Pest Control or there aren’t going to be any left for the kids!” 

So, I did the only reasonable thing.  I finished off that bag and bought another one, penitently handing it over to Olof with instructions to hide it. 

One thing Olof was clear about:  I wasn’t the only one from whom he had to hide chocolate chips. Our eight-year-old granddaughter is a mini-me where chocolate is concerned.  As I was tucking her in one night, she whispered conspiratorially that she knew where Olof put the chocolate chips but couldn’t reach them.  But, she added, I could.  We could split the stash 50-50, leaving enough for breakfast.

As tempting as this was, even I was loath to corrupt the morals of a minor.  I advised that we wait until after the last breakfast then tear the house apart if necessary. 

I told this story a few minutes later to Olof, mentioning that I hadn’t gone for the granddaughter’s plan, however tempting.  The chocolate chips were safe.  Olof laughed. “Of course they are,” he said.   “I’m on to you two.”  He had already moved them from the hiding place my granddaughter had seen, assuring me with a satisfied smirk that we would never find them.  And we didn’t.

But Thanksgiving is coming and grandkids will be back. Olof may THINK there’s a place in this house where chocolate chips cannot be found.  We will prove him wrong.