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Big Science in a Small City (Part 2): Three Cool Real Life Science Terms

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I live in a Rocky Mountain city of 100,000 persons. A thrilling number of these persons (would you mind if I said "people"? Persons sounds so...impersonal.) are scientists.

As a fan of science, I get goose-bumps chatting hanging out with people who ponder, pursue and decode the world's nano- to exo-.

My new housemate and his fiancee moved to the Rockies for scientific reasons. She wants to farm. He's studying at CU to become a Green Efficiency Guru.

That's local dialect for environmental engineer, he told me, shortly after I moved in.

"Although I'm not trying to engineer the environment. That's something much bigger than what we should be fiddling with," he added.

I smiled.

I had been a classical violinist out East. And now, thanks to location, inspiration and opportunity, I have become a Rocky (if somewhat rocky) fiddler.

Right now, I was a fiddler with a mildly scientific home-repair problem. The handle to the tiny grooved metal rod that would open my window hinge, and my window thereby, was missing. I needed a replacement. So far, so simple.

In addition to being Science City, my town is home to the the hardware store di tutti hardware stores. The place is the size of two football fields. It has 25 aisles and a 2:1 sales associates to customer ratio. If you're a person of vision, as so many people are here, the hardware store is a place where dreams can come true.

Last year, I helped a local inventor-turned-tech-CEO write his memoir.

The book chronicled his optimism about the value of new discoveries despite the technical and financial hurdles involves.

In the late 1980s, my client told me, he had built the prototype for one the world's first cell-phone chargers using stuff he'd bought at the local hardware store for under $20.

His bosses didn't see the genius of his idea. So he started his own company, which was dedicated to high-tech invention and his idea of the American Dream. Thirteen patents later, the project that started with local hardware parts and a vision has paved the way for things like Bluetooth and On*Star.

I was psyched to be going to the Store of Dreams to get the thingy I needed to open my window. But I decided that more precise terminology would be helpful. As would a bit of methodology.

"You want to measure the spline," my Green studies housemate said. He looked up from his computer model of heat-leaching ground systems and grinned. "Isn't that the best word ever?"

Which leads me to my first Cool Rocky Mountain Real-Life Science Term:

According to the online dictionary a spline, _spl_n\ (aka thingy) is "a key that is fixed to one of two connected mechanical parts and fits into a keyway in the other ; also : a keyway for such a key".

The etymology of the noun unknown, told me. But its uses were immediate.

"I'd like a handle for my 11/12" window spline, please," I told the sales agent at the hardware store.

"Right this way," she replied. Ten minutes later, I was filling my room with fresh air.

Words of Science can open doors as well as windows. And they tickle minds, too. So, for all you fans of science, words and random fun facts, here are two more Real-life Science terms:

Sublimation: In Brooklyn, sublimation meant dinner with friends at 52 Clinton as a reward for not sleeping with some cute guy with Big Issues.

But here in the Rockies, the word relates -- as many things do -- to snow.

The other day, I was walking the dog through a 60-degree morning. The night before had been sub-freezing, which is pretty normal here.

While my dog did her thing on a grassy patch to my right, I studied the pile of snow to my left. The thing was about a foot tall, which was no big deal. But it seemed to be steaming its way back into the air. Which was a big deal -- to me, at least.

Back East, these conditions would have called for an LL Bean duck-boot day. But there I was, observing the up-go in a pair of pink ballet flats. The ground was that slush-free.

Snow that went up? Well, yes, a friend in a governmental sun-and-wind power lab assured me.

In the Rockies, snow doesn't melt. It sublimates -- turns from a gas into a solid without passing through a liquid state. This can be semi-crappy news for the land, when it's in need of hydration. But in terms of Laserium-type shows of Nature on sunny post-snow mornings, it's a pretty cool, yet hot - as in, sublime - thing to see.

My third cool Science word arose during bread-making (that pun was intentional, if, yes, sorry, excruciating).

The other night my housemates decided to make a loaf of bread as a mid-afternoon snack. The key to a good loaf in the Rockies depends on altitude-friendly yeast, they told me.

They poured some yeast into a mason jar, added some water, a pinch of flour and went off to work on their wedding plans. An hour later, I a jar of bubbling goo was subletting our kitchen.

"It's alive!" I said.

"Actually," they said. "It's off-gassing."

According to the online dictionary, off-gassing refers to the arrival of a noxious substance. But "yeast farts" could replace noxious in our home lab, we decided.

Science is playful as well as hard-working in the Rockies. And that's one of the "billions and billions" of things I love about it.

In my next post, I'll share three cool moments in local Science from my new hometown.

If you're a scientist here, drop me a line! I'd love to include you.

And yes: The bread was delicious.

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