My Life This April: In Which I Go to a Research Conference, Get a Fellowship, and Take Way Too Many Exams

Good morning! This is my second My Life This Month post. For those who don’t know, I post once a week on Saturdays, with occasional extra posts (such as Beautiful People, which didn’t happen this month) on Wednesdays. On the first Saturday of the month, I post a book quote analysis; on the second, a science post; on the third, a book review; and on the fourth, My Life This Month. On fifth Saturdays, like this month, I post extra exciting things, like this month’s introduction to my work-in-progress.

One thing I’ve learned this month is that, in April, college ramps up. I’m nearing the end of the spring semester (my last final is May 16th), so I’ve done a lot of schoolwork and not a lot of writing. As you can see by today’s title, most of the highlights of my month were school-related. I’ll do them in order, though that order isn’t necessarily chronological.

Earlier this year, faced with the prospect of a career in genetics research, I decided I should visit UNH’s Undergraduate Research Conference, or URC (at UNH, everything is abbreviated). So, this past Saturday, I made an extra commute over to the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture’s URC event. COLSA is my college, so I hope to present at this event in the next few years, and I found it very interesting. Because I’m still a freshman and haven’t taken biochemistry yet, some of the presentations went over my head, but I enjoyed learning about various topics, including garbage-raiding elephants in Sri Lanka, the ability of horseshoe crabs to sense temperature, and how plants grow in hydroponic versus aquaponic agriculture systems (in hydroponics, you grow plants in just water; in aquaponics, you grow plants and fish in the same recirculating water). You can read more about the COLSA URC here, if you’re interested.

Secondly, some of you might have seen me talk about my work in a seaweed lab before. I have now been awarded a fellowship for paid work in that lab over the summer! I’m very excited; it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever applied for and received. It’s an awesome summer job and a great step forward for me, so I couldn’t help mentioning it just a little. 😉

The last one is really self-explanatory, so I’ll try not to complain too much. As I said, college really ramps up in April. This month, I have taken six exams and had one major paper and many various lab reports due. Welcome to the life of a genetics student. (It’s good, though. I really do like college. I just wish that I didn’t have three exams in one day sometimes. . . .) To make the focus more positive (one of my general goals for life), I’ve learned a lot, about photosynthesis, the cytoskeleton, reduction/oxidation reactions and batteries, and bioinformatics (look for a science post related to this next month!). And that’s just scratching the surface.

As far as writing goes, as I said, I haven’t done much. I set my own goal for the month with the Go Teen Writers April monthly challenge (check this blog out if you’re interested in writing challenges!), but didn’t get it nearly finished. I did write more than I probably would have otherwise, though, so in the end, let’s call it a success.

All in all, I had a good month, though a bit busy. I look forward to next month’s life post, when I can officially say I’m done with my first year of college! Woohoo!

What about you? What did you do this month? Have you ever been to a research conference? Do you think it’s something you’d be interested in? Have you achieved any milestones this month? Have you made much writing progress? Are you a college student, too? Tell me in the comments!

 

What I’m Reading: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

When a powerful young wizard unleashes a monstrous shadow from the netherworld, his life is changed forever: he must defeat the shadow or it will defeat him.

I was not originally planning to review this book this month. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to review The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea. And I flew through it and got excited about it and decided to switch my reviews, and here we are.

The Story: (Be warned, spoilers ahead. . . .)

Ged (or Sparrowhawk–Ged is his “true name”), a boy sorcerer-in-training at a sorcerers’ school, is proud and heady with power that many say is greater than that of any wizard in Earthsea. Provoked by a rival, he raises a spirit from the dead to prove his superiority–and a shadow-creature comes with it to attack him. He wakes up humbled, scared, and determined to no longer misuse his power. Once a full-fledged wizard, he travels all over Earthsea trying to run from the shadow that wants to possess him, but eventually turns to face it.

Earthsea. (Map from ursulakleguin.com)

 

And there are really big spoilers below, because the ending is so great that I can’t not talk about it.

In Earthsea, using something’s true name gives you power over it. Ged’s struggle with the shadow is that it supposedly has no true name. As he pursues it and grapples with it, it begins to look more and more like him; islanders he encounters are suspicious of him because they’ve seen a shadowy version of him passing by. Eventually, as he passes over the unexplored Open Sea in the hunt for his shadow, he realizes the answer. When he finally confronts it on the shores of the netherworld, he gives the shadow his own name: Ged. In this act, he recognizes it as the dark part of himself, and he frees himself–he doesn’t win or lose.

This is such a powerful ending, such a great message, and, as Le Guin herself says in her afterword, unconventional. Most fantasy books revolve around wars, which is not all bad (*cough* I’m writing one of those myself), but it’s refreshing to see something different. This whole story really revolves around Ged’s personal journey; his character arc is the story, which, honestly, is the way stories should be.

The one thing I didn’t like about the plot of this book was the way Jasper, Ged’s antagonist at school, was set up as an important character and then disappeared after provoking Ged into releasing the shadow. I feel like he could have been used so much more as a foil to Ged. Besides that, though, two thumbs up to Le Guin for her excellent story!

The Characters: Mainly, there is one character in this book: Ged. There are other side characters, such as the aforementioned foil, Jasper; Ged’s friend Vetch; Ged’s mentor, Ogion; and, of course, the shadow;  but Ged is really the focus. He is drawn from his shaping childhood through the events of his youth, culminating with his encounter with his shadow. And he is an excellently written character. I love how Le Guin went into his childhood to make this prideful boy sympathetic, so we are prepared to like him when he changes later on. Indeed, he is my favorite character in the book.

As far as other characters go, Vetch was my favorite. He is a bit older than Ged and provides the voice of a wiser peer, trying to stop Ged from raising a dead spirit and releasing the shadow. Later on, he is a true friend, and sticks with Ged to the end, even though Ged doesn’t want him to come along. I must admit, I’m a sucker for a good best friend/sidekick, and Vetch fills those roles admirably. I am very pleased with the hints that he’ll end up as Ged’s brother-in-law (although I have to read the rest of the series to find out if that actually happens . . .).

Something else Le Guin mentions in her afterword that is unconventional about the book is that, when she wrote it in the 1960s, she created a diverse cast. You don’t realize it until further in, but most of the people of Earthsea, including the principal characters, are varying shades of brown. I have to admit, I have not read many books with person-of-color protagonists, so this made for an interesting change, particularly since I appreciated the point Le Guin was trying to make at the height of the civil rights movement.

The Writing: As if I haven’t already raved enough about this book, the writing was excellent–the flow, the worldbuilding, the eloquence, all of it. I have to discuss one thing specifically: there wasn’t a whole lot of exposition about the world. It takes a brave writer to just drop the reader into the storyworld with no unnecessary explanation, and Le Guin does that. She explains just enough to keep the reader on track and leaves the unnecessary things alone. We hear about a creation story, legends, the balance of the world, but they’re not explained because they’re not terribly important to the story. The concept of true names is explained because it is important.

And her prose is so beautiful. Consider this bit of dialogue between Ged and Yarrow, Vetch’s sister:

“But I still don’t understand, Sparrowhawk [Yarrow said]. I have seen my brother, and even his prentice, make light in a dark place only by saying one word: and the light shines, it is bright, not a word but a light you can see your way by!”

“Aye,” Ged answered. “Light is a power. A great power, by which we exist, but which exists beyond our needs, in itself. Sunlight and starlight are time, and time is light. In the sunlight, in the days and years, life is. In a dark place life may call upon the light, naming it. . . .”

It makes you think, doesn’t it? The whole book is like that, very philosophical. It makes you (or me, at least) want to read more.

Overall: I really enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea. It chronicled Ged’s journey of learning about himself, a timeless theme. It was beautifully written, with excellent characterizations and philosophical thoughts on every page. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet!

What are your thoughts? Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? Any of Le Guin’s other books? If so, what did you think? (I’d love recommendations!) Tell me in the comments!

Chernobyl and the Depths of Human Stupidity

 

As some of you may know, I am currently taking a class called “Myths and Misconceptions about Nuclear Science.” It’s a great class. I’ve been learning a lot: about nuclear physics and radiation and nuclear power and how stupid people can really be.

So today, on that last point, I am going to talk a bit about Chernobyl.

Bit messy, huh? (Image not mine)

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear power disaster in history. You can kind of get a feel for that from the above photo. It involved a nuclear fission reactor in the Soviet Ukraine, one of four reactors on the site. (The other three kept working just fine for years after the accident.) The accident spread radiation all over Europe, killed 31 people either directly in the accident or from acute radiation sickness after it, and to this day, no one can live in a 1,000-square mile “exclusion zone” around the reactor.

So what happened? What was wrong with the reactor that caused this horrible accident?

Initially, nothing.

Obviously, all kinds of things were wrong with it later on, or we wouldn’t have photographs like the one above to show you all the devastation. But initially, the reactor was working just fine, like it was supposed to.

So, we have the same question again. What happened?

Well, on April 25th, 1986, the operators of the reactor started a test to see if they could make the reactor safer.

A diagram of an RBMK reactor, the same type as Chernobyl.

They wanted to find out if they could keep the electricity-generating turbines (in the upper right of the diagram above) going during shutdown, so they could keep the reactor core cool without having to use a generator or the like. (It’s very important to keep the core cool, even when the reactor isn’t running. You’ve heard of nuclear meltdowns? If the fuel gets too hot, it will melt through the floor of the reactor vessel, and sometimes through the building.) At Chernobyl, as in most reactors, the coolant was water, composed of hydrogen and oxygen.

Let me take a moment to explain some other components of a nuclear reactor. The most obvious necessity is fuel; usually, as at Chernobyl, this is uranium, a mixture of two different types, one of which splits more readily when slow neutrons are shot at it. In order to slow the neutrons down so you can keep a chain reaction going, you need a “moderator,” in this case, graphite. As we’ve already discussed, you need coolant to keep the core from overheating. Last but not least, you need a control system, usually rods made of neutron-absorbing material that can be pulled in and out of the core (see diagram). This helps keep the reaction in check.

Back at Chernobyl, the first thing the operators did for the test was to turn off the emergency core-cooling system, a violation of reactor operation guidelines. They then lowered the power of the reactor, but instead of holding it at the recommended level, they let it drop too much and started pulling out control rods to try to get the power back up. They turned on two extra water pumps for the test, then realized there was too much water in the reactor and reduced the flow, causing the reaction to increase. And when, ignoring safety system warnings, they pulled out too many control rods, the reaction rate skyrocketed (by a factor of 10,000 in 5 seconds), the water in the reactor flashed to steam, the reactor exploded twice, and the graphite lit on fire for a couple weeks, ultimately spreading radiation across Europe.

Clearly, this accident was caused largely by human stupidity (don’t turn off the safety systems in a nuclear reactor!), but the reactor’s design played a role as well. The RBMK was a cheaper style of reactor, so the containment building (which in U.S. reactors is often feet-thick concrete that can withstand missile blasts) was not adequate to contain the initial boiler explosion and the hydrogen explosion that followed. Because of the design of the reactor with graphite as the moderator and water as the coolant, instead of water being both moderator and coolant as in other reactors, removing water increased the reaction rate rather than decreasing it. In addition, without graphite, there would have been less chance of a fire and thus less radiation spread.

A reactor building in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Note the huge concrete containment dome.

In sum, Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power accident ever, was caused by a combination of human error and design flaws, but mostly by human error, since humans made the faulty containment and graphite-moderated design that contributed to the severity of the accident. Further, the reactor was working fine before the operators turned off and ignored various safety systems. Does this make nuclear power unsafe? The answer is complicated. Nothing is perfectly safe; humans can make grave errors with any power system. And in fact, chemical accidents have caused more deaths even than this worst nuclear accident. I think what we can learn from Chernobyl is that we need to be smart about safety: use the best designs, don’t skimp on safety systems, and never, ever turn them off.

If you’re interested in learning more about nuclear science and technology, you can check out Nuclear Choices: A Citizen’s Guide to Nuclear Technology by Richard Wolfson. Although it’s a bit dated (it was published when the USSR was still a country), it is easily readable for non-physicists and deals with many aspects of nuclear technology in an unbiased way. It is my textbook for my nuclear science class and my main source for this blog post.

What do you think of Chernobyl? Have you heard much about it before? Are you surprised at how much of a role human error played? How about design flaws? Do you have any questions? What do you think of nuclear power? Tell me in the comments!

Welcome to My World

Good morning! I bring to you today a rather enigmatically titled post, which turns out to be about a major part of my life: my current work-in-progress. I say that it’s a major part of my life because I have been working on it in various forms for roughly seven and a half years, and because its characters quite simply will not leave me alone. They are always in my head, and I love them a great deal.

But I digress.

Since I have been working on this thing so long, there is a lot to talk about. Lots of room for rambling.

Bear with me here.

I digress . . . again. I suppose I should begin with what the story is about. Then we can get to characters and storyworld and other fun things like that.

The Story

Sixteen-year-old Crow has lived alone in the forest ever since he escaped from slavery. When, while evading capture, he runs into a strange girl named Mirage Windsong and she turns out to be his long-lost twin sister, his control over his life suddenly vanishes. He is swept into a quest for the family he never knew he had, and he and Mirage must find them before war breaks out or their mysterious enemy hunts them down. And Crow must decide what freedom and family mean to him.

This is a YA fantasy novel (something between epic and sword-and-sorcery), just to give you an idea of the genre. It is set in another world, which we’ll get to under “setting” below.

The Characters

Crow--face, intense look. Hair needs to be flatter and darker. :): Mirage--hair, eyebrows, facial structure to some extent:

Krina: Kela (when he gets a little older)--face, hair color, hair length:

These are my four point-of-view characters. The Windsong twins, Mirage and Crow, are on top. They meet Krina and KelastĂ«r (Kela for short), who are below (left to right). (By the way, I really need to find better pictures for Crow and Kela. The ones I put in are really not even close, and it’s driving me nuts. Just realize those are rough images.)

Crow is the main character and my favorite. He and Mirage were separated at the age of four (I will say no more here–that would be giving away spoilers), and he ended up as a slave. When he was ten, he suffered an injury that left an ugly red scar down his right cheek and onto his torso. At sixteen, he still has nightmares and doesn’t like to talk about it. He is an introvert who gets along best by himself, so it’s a bit of a shock to his system when other people come along.

Physically, Crow is around five and a half feet tall (he grows later on), with black hair (flatter than the picture!) and gray eyes. He’s very tough and strong from having to survive on his own. And I could probably ramble much longer about him, but for the sake of keeping this post from becoming a behemoth, I will stop here.

You may recognize Mirage from her Beautiful People post last month. For those who don’t know, she is a changeling and mĂ«rnevna (enchanter) and basically a genius. She lives in a hut in the woods with her elderly mentor, and while she loves him, she longs to go out and see the world and its many libraries. She prizes intelligence and knowledge, and tends to roll her eyes at people who think changelings were exterminated 400 years ago.

Mirage looks much like her brother, but her hair is curly and she has blue eyes instead of gray. She is initially slightly taller than him, but this changes with time. She also has various powers that he does not, such as shooting lighting out the tips of her fingers and shapeshifting into different animals. Another fun fact about the twins is that they are telepathic with each other, which makes it really interesting to watch them talk.

Krina is a farmer’s daughter from a country village. She was the fifth girl in a family with six children, so when she was young, her father sent her to be “adopted” into a smaller family that needed a woman. She has missed her real family all her life, though she doesn’t remember them well, and she secretly dreads an arranged marriage to her master’s son. She doesn’t really have friends, so she talks to God a lot. Her private dream is to be a healer or a midwife; she is very caring and loves helping people.

Krina is a little shorter than five and a half feet. As in the picture, she has wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. She attracts the attentions of a lot of boys in the village and might (or might not. . . .) end up being a love interest in the book.

Kela is . . . where do I begin? To flip my character descriptions up to now in reverse, he has bright red hair and blue eyes, and is in fact a member of a red-haired race. He is a fisherman’s apprentice in a coastal village, but having been abused by his master, he runs away at the beginning of the book. He loves to play the fiddle and sing at festivals, and he’s afraid of heights, which is fitting, since he’s barely more than five feet tall. He also talks a lot (a lot), and spouts witty comments left and right, both of which drive his companions insane. I can always count on him for comic relief. (Can you tell I love him, too?)

These are the four principal characters for the first book. There are many and various others, but the ones described above are the most important, and, I think, the only ones I need to post about for now.

The Setting

I wish I had a decent map to show you all. Unfortunately, the current version is covered in numbers because of the lack of space for writing the names of duchies and lordships. (If a bunch of people comment wanting to see the map, I shall try to put it up in this post.)

As I mentioned earlier, my book is set in a fantasy world. The continent is called Terylia. (The whole world used to be called Terylia, but I changed that when I realized that the characters in my country hadn’t explored their whole world, or even their whole continent. The southeast part of the continent is the world to them.) The country in which the first book takes place (did I mention this is a four-book series? Probably not. It’s a four-book series) is called Rāianor, and it is based loosely off medieval Europe. It has five borders, four with other countries and one, the longest, with the sea to the south. Some of the significant landmarks for my story are the D’ormien River, the Sālāki Kevenār (a large and largely unexplored forest), the Riāsan (a smaller, more tropical forest to the north), and the Selfir River (which runs within the Riāsan). Some important cities are Selfir, which sits on the hot springs near the headwaters of the Selfir River, and Ryneli, the capital and seat of government.

That was a very long paragraph. Hopefully you didn’t find it too abstract. (As I said, I can try to post the map if people want, but it has no labels, so it probably wouldn’t be too helpful.)

There are also a number of important and interesting countries that surround Rāianor. Fyliārn (or Falarnkh in its own language), to the north, is the most important for the first book because its people are the ones invading Rāianor. Jezmia (Jezamh), to the east, is the country where Crow was enslaved for much of his life. Dāiamir, to the west, used to rule the entire area before its empire broke up. Due in part to its large size, it still suffers copious amounts of civil unrest. It is populated entirely by red-haired people (this is the red-haired race I was talking about earlier). And I think I will leave everywhere else for another time.

Writing Progress

This is my longest- and steadiest-running writing project. I pick up other books, drop them, and come back to this one. I’ve been working on it since I was eleven, in one form or another. I have ripped it apart and stitched it back together with a new plot so many times I can’t even count.

Fortunately, I have finally reached the point where I am working on the second draft with the same plot lines (though I am still very much a character-driven writer and have numerous issues with the current plot which still need to be resolved). I am trying to edit it into a sort of polished form by next January. So, yeah, that’s my progress.

Well, I guess that wraps up this very long-winded post! Whew. Tell me, did you enjoy reading about my work-in-progress? Would you like to see a map? What is your current work-in-progress? Have you ever worked on one project for seven years or longer, or are you better at finishing quickly than I am?

Thanks for reading!

 

Book Quote 2: Oliver Twist

As they passed Sunbury Church, the clock struck seven. There was a light in the ferry-house window opposite which streamed across the road and threw into more sombre shadow a dark yew-tree with graves beneath it. There was a dull sound of falling water not far off, and the leaves of the old tree stirred gently in the night wind. It seemed like quiet music for the repose of the dead.

Hello, all, and happy April! Let’s start off the month with a book quote. Last month’s was from Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring, to be precise). This one is from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which I reviewed last month. Needless to say, Dickens books are quite different from Tolkien books, though both were masterful writers. I particularly like this quote for its descriptive qualities, so that’s what I’m going to focus on today. What can we learn about descriptive writing from the quote above?

1. It suits the mood. At this point, Oliver Twist and a thief, Sikes, are on their way to commit a robbery, and Oliver, our main character, is afraid. Because of this, he (or, more properly, the omniscient narrator) does not see cheery light casting welcoming rays into the darkness, but light that sets a tree and the gravestones beneath it in shadow. You can sense the foreboding just by reading this one paragraph of description.

2. (Spoiler alert!) It serves to foreshadow a later event. I won’t give too many spoilers here, but near the end of the book, someone dies. Dickens has snuck in some very clever foreshadowing about twenty-five chapters ahead of time (yes, this is a long book) with his description of the graves and his comparison of water and wind to music for the dead. It’s smart to add moments like these early in the book so the climax doesn’t come completely out of the blue for the reader.

And there you have it! Lessons about description from a paragraph of Dickens.

What do you think? Have you ever read Oliver Twist? Can we draw some advice from this quote that I didn’t note here? Do you enjoy reading Dickens’s descriptions as much as I do? Tell me in the comments!