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Big Science in a Small City

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My new hometown has one of the largest concentration of PhDs in the US, surveys say.

As a fan of science and scientists, this news makes me beyond-happy.

Back in Brooklyn, I read physicists' biographies the way friends followed baseball. There's the pitch...and a way to compute the spin and velocity!

The fact that quarks were named for James Joyce's quirks of language fascinated me. Physical and fictive poetry shared so many crossover points.

Science and music shared lovely links as well. Richard Feynman played the bongos. Einstein had his fiddle.

My Rocky-Mountain high-Science hometown has its sci-musico types, too.

On Sundays, I play bluegrass fiddle with a group I've nicknamed The Engineers of Superior. The group's real name is Knapweed, which is also the name of one of our town's smelliest plants.

In addition to being really nice guys who like really bad puns (If a song stinks, blame it on the weeds!), the Engineers earn their living in the applied sciences. Their ability to get to the root of a chord or ground a question about volts and valencies is a huge source of happiness to me. Their ability to create order through instrumentation holds particular appeal on days when I've been writing fictional worlds from scratch.

Last Sunday I showed up to practice with a dozen cookies -- which is pretty standard for me -- and a scientific request, which was pretty unusual.

I had broken the A-string on my fiddle while recording a demo for my alt-country band a few days earlier.

I'd replaced the broken string with one of the used strings I kept in my case.

But had I picked the right string?

Violin strings have different thicknesses.

The lowest string is widest; the highest one is finest. This difference between them is measured in millimeters. Yet it's crucial to proper playing.

"Does anyone have a caliper?" I asked the Engineers.

At which point time did that metaphysically quantum slow-down-and-stretch thing it does in moments of potential personal embarrassment.

I had no idea what a caliper was. And yet, I'd asked for one. Where had I gotten such a crazy (or possibly clever) idea?

The facts pointed to my new-West friends. I'd been spending a lot of my free time with folks who worked at the adorably acronymed research spots in town - NCAR, NREL, UCAR, NOAA. I'd adopted their lingo, it seemed, the way I use "y'all" when I hang out with friends from Texas.

But lingo without linguistics can be dangerous, I knew. A lifetime ago, on a Eurorail trip to Portugal as a student in Italy, I ordered "polvo" for dinner. Pollo was Italian for chicken. And I was kind of a play-it-safe eater.

"How big of a difference could one letter make?" I thought, as I bit into the octopus.

One of the great things about life out West is that people respect newbies. And they don't begrudge mistakes.

The Engineers of Superior had invited me to join their Sunday group even though I was just starting out in their field, musically. They were equally welcoming to my test-drive of science.

"My caliper's in the office," the lead Engineer said. "But perhaps we could try my micrometer."

Last week at the Conference on World Affairs at CU, I heard a panel of scientists including breast-health denizen Dr. Susan Love, science podcaster Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Michelle Thaller discussing "Big Ideas in Science." One of the Big Ideas that came up during the Q and A that followed the panel involved the lack of women in tenured positions in physics, biology and chemistry.

The situation is frustrating, they agreed. But reality is changing, even if the facts of tenure aren't.

Talking science used to be seen as the equivalent of "if you can't do, teach". But in a world where communication is getting faster and education is a global lifeline, talking Science may be as important as measuring it. And, intuition, that classical feminine of tools, is increasingly valuable.

In the mid 1990s, I interviewed several young women physicists for a solo show about women and science.

Some of the women I met were young science stars, like Harvard's Melissa Franklin. Others are less well-known. All of their words were fascinating. So were their facial expressions. It would be unorthodox to use the words love and science in the same sentence. But the word that came to mind as I listened to these women of science discuss their methods and inspirations was: ardor. And ardor is a wonderfully contagious thing.

My next post will celebrate three super-cool words of science I picked up here in the Rockies last week.

Oh, and yes: The micrometer proved I had picked the right string instinctively.