Chapter Four: Who is Walter Huxley? (excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Silver Year)

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I’m almost finished with the self-edit of my novel. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to post an entire chapter to my blog. Not much context is needed, for this chapter can almost stand alone as a prologue, but I recommend reading the novel’s teaser I posted before it if you haven’t already. WARNING: Although the offending material is in the minority, if you’re deeply religious, or offended by vulgar language and/or explicit sexual content, I highly advise you to keep scrolling on (also sorry for WordPress’s strange formatting). Enjoy!

Chapter 4

Who is Walter Huxley?

“I am equipped with the tunnel of life. Through it passes new life into this world, into this dimension! I am equipped with a portal to another dimension. Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Do you hate me because I refuse to be fruitful, to multiply this dimension? Is this why you scream, you bleed, you pain me so? Oh my vagina, vagina . . . VAGINA!”

“Okay thank you Avery,” the group’s moderator Raymond smiled plastically like a Christian camp counselor.

“But I’m not finished yet!” Avery responded angrily.

“As I’ve said before,” he said cautiously, “we have a limit of ten minutes per reading in order to allow time for everyone.”

Avery’s narrow face compressed behind her glasses, then exploded, “Fuck! Shit! Cunt! . . . d-d-dick sucker!…” Raymond kept his plastic smile on as she rattled off a torrent of obscenities.

The regular attending Octo-owls all knew Avery had Turret’s, although no one was brave enough to confirm that with her. It was just one of the many elephants that sat amongst the cluttered cluster of chairs in the cafe. Everyone had their elephant. Walter imagined however that the young poet did exaggerate the severity of her syndrome in order to be limitlessly exonerated from calling whosoever whatever whenever she felt like it. He liked her for that. Often what she screamed out loud he screamed in his head.

A few hands clapped politely as Avery walked hurriedly with her head down from the lectern back to her seat. Her small feet scurried like field mice under her long black dress. Her arms crossed over a binder she always had clung to her chest like a security blanket. There was a tautness of mistrust in the language of her string-beanish body. Given the disability, her past was most likely saturated with ridicule. Her eyes remained toward the floor as she sat. Two large ears poked out like satellite dishes through her straight black hair. Walter, although not particularly wanting anything more, had a strange fascination about nibbling on those ears. No other ears had evoked this feeling in him but hers. For some reason, those ears were the most beautiful he’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry to put you through this,” he said turning to Lola. “Are you sure you want to stay?” Lola laughed quietly.

“Yes. This is quite entertaining to say the least.”

There were many entertaining types amongst the Octo-owls. Writers generally are misfits and the group had every shade. The Octo-owls began as a group of eight struggling writers who defecated their bad writing on one another every Tuesday night at the Sit n’ Stay Café in order to purge their minds of it. One of these writers, Raymond Troy, wrote a moderately successful romance novel and he attributed it to these sessions. Inspired, he decided to open the group to the public in order to help other struggling writers. Although the membership now fluctuated above and below eight, the name stuck. Each week those who read their works out loud, no matter how bad, were credited with a week of writing. Consecutive weeks of writing were rewarded with progressing benchmark tokens: first week, one month, three months, six months, a year and so forth. In plain language, it was Alcoholics Anonymous for those suffering from writer’s block. This was where Raymond, also a recovering addict, adopted the structure.

Although Walter didn’t wholeheartedly believe in the meetings, he figured he should take advantage of them as they were less than a block away from his soon to be former home. The meetings were encouraging only because typically everyone else there was much worse off than he was, whether it be financially, giftedly, or in most cases mentally; he often felt like a well-able runner competing in the Special Olympics. There were a few bright spots however, such as the regular attendee Wyatt Stroud, a heavily Hemingway-influenced novelist who Walter had become friendly with. He came from Texas originally and always wore what is sometimes referred to as a Canadian Tuxedo: a denim jacket and jeans. He had a thick build, beard, and Texan accent.

The other regulars fell somewhere under the loose label of what Raymond defined as writers. There were novelists, poets, songwriters, copywriters, screen and play writers, speech writers—it seemed any title addended with the word writer was invited. There was even a cookbook writer named Thomas Tucker. Tom’s inclusion was debatable, but the group seemed to look passed this as he filled their bellies every week with food. His food, unlike their writing, was remarkable. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts; Tom provided them with nourishment—for many of the Octo-owls were starving artists, while they provided him with taste buds.

Some other notable regulars were of course the vagina-obsessed poet Avery Hynamen. There was James Riggle, lead screamer for a local hardcore metal band, Death is What She Breathes. Every week he’d come up and scream out a fresh set of lyrics, most often about his on-and-off-again girlfriend Jezebel, scribbled onto pizza boxes, napkins, or once an old pair of her panties. With the exception of his multicolored tattooed skin tone and gigantic earlobe plugs, he resembled and spoke like a white rapper more than the suburban trust fund inheritor he was.

Then there was Layne Grimey, an Octo-owl original. He was an unemployed middle-aged comic who thought being unnecessarily honest about his insecurities and misgivings was the ticket to fame. Walter much preferred to hear Avery’s nonsensical vagina monologues to Layne’s unpleasant rants about a small penis, suicide attempts, and a cheating spouse who left him over ten years ago. More often than not, his standup ended in a bath of tears and awkward laughs, but he came devoutly every week as if it was the only thing keeping him alive.

Lastly there was the Christian erotic fantasy writer Louis Bonner, who somehow, in impressively wild and creative fashions, justified the perverse fantasies of his prolonged virginity in the eyes of God. Walter always looked forward to his readings, a favorite being the story of the passage of God’s seed to the Virgin Mary through a line of diversely intercoursing angels from Heaven to Earth. For the regular members of the Octo-owls, including Walter, the meetings were more for therapy than penmanship training.

“Walter, I see you’ve brought a new friend . . . What kind of writer are you my dear?” Raymond said in his nasally squeamish tone.

“Oh no, I’m not a writer,” Lola said uncomfortably, “just a supporter.”

“Oh, well we’re glad to have you…” Raymond flimsily held out his palm, indicating her to finish.

“Lola.”

“Lola. What a pretty name. So you’re supporting Walter huh?” She looked at Raymond dumbfounded.

“No I just sat next to him because he’s cute,” she said with a sarcastic snare.

“I want to fuck his brains out too!” Avery blurted in agreement from the back of the room. Everyone’s eyes shot towards her and she quickly tucked herself behind her binder like a turtle retreating into its shell.

Well then, big yummy ears here I come! Walter thought excitedly.

“Well Walter, would you like to give your reading for this week?” Raymond said sternly to bring the attention back on himself. Walter began to feel clammy.

“Umm… okay.”

“And did you do your own writing, or did you opt for the assignment?”

“The assignment.”

“Okay then, tell us, who is Walter Huxley?”

Walter stood from his chair and gingerly made his way to the lectern near the front window of the café. He grabbed it like a teenage boy feeling breasts for the first time. Breathing deeply, his eyes stayed glued to the paper in front of him. “Relax Walter, we have no judgments here,” Raymond said.

Sure, not outwardly, Walter thought, knowing the many unavoidable judgments he passed on others who stood behind this lectern. However, it was not the Octo-owls he was concerned with, it was Lola. In this gathering of nutcases he was tame, but Lola would be the first person of full sanity to hear his work. He took a deep breath and began:

“I’m sometimes hard to understand because I unconsciously start speaking in metaphors. My train of thought often wanders after budding from an idea as it has to bend and twist around the soil of my brain, but it will almost always bloom into a destination. On the rare occasion it does derail itself from too much momentum and mass, I apologize for the casualties, but my train was never intended to carry passengers . . . In other words, I babble. But hopefully you can find the beauty between my babblings, or at least get some odd enjoyment out of my odd enthusiasm.

“I sometimes also make up eloquent sounding words—being fully aware of my lexical violation, but artful linguistics sometimes requires it. Also Shakespeare made up his own words so fuck off. Speaking of comparing myself to Shakespeare, you could describe me as arrogant, self-absorbed, promiscuous, impulsive, reckless, narcissistic, irrational, contradicting, charlatanic, satanic, insecure, indecisive, self-loathing, self-loving, or just down right confusing, and at times, you’d be absolutely correct because at one time or another I probably was. But in the process of choosing an identity one must try on all their available masks.

“I try to guide my life according to the quotes of no one but myself, but often discover someone may have said them better before me. This is what I call inspiration, and for the sake of sanity, it’s always welcomed to know I’m not alone. Great philosophy is like a puzzle made from a broken mirror; once you peace together its brilliance, you realize it’s only yourself staring back.

“The greatest writers are always the greatest liars, but within their lies is a beautiful truth we call philosophy and this is why we forgive them. However, as much as we writers like to lie, it’s only a covering to expose our darkest truths; our most revealing insecurities so you’ll understand the reasoning behind our philosophy: our insanity. Carefully concealed in our pages you can find every perverse thought inscribed on the bone of our skulls like day markings on a prison cell wall. But it is this vicious honesty that balances the pendulum of our characters; the reason why you hate us, love us, pity us, worship us, and immortalize us; and the reason why you see yourself within us. We sacrifice sanity for the salvation of others’.

“I am Walter Huxley and I am one of the loneliest people on earth; I am a writer. I have friends, but not a best friend. I have lovers, but no one to love. I do however have writing, my wonderful and tortuous writing.

“I presume I have sparked your interest because I did my best to scare you away, or at least lose you—that’s what I was trying to convey with the whole train metaphor thing if you didn’t get it. Anyways, I only ask if you’re going to step inside my head, please wipe your feet before doing so because it’s already filthy enough.”

Walter’s eyes came up from the paper. The look on everyone’s face was not one of satisfaction or dislike, but confusion. Shit, shouldn’t have looked up, Walter thought to himself.

“Uh… eerrum…” His eyes became lost in the words on the paper and slipped like someone trying to find a footing on ice. He closed them until the dizzy spell passed. These dizzy bouts of anxiety had become a common occurrence lately. When his eyes reemerged, the confused expressions still remained.

“Walter are you okay?” Raymond asked finally.

“Yeah . . . I just haven’t had much to eat today.”

“Here, eat some of my honey-baked cornbread!” Tom excitedly rose from his chair with a slice.

“Thank you Tom,” Walter said, gratefully taking the offered piece. His face lifted with joy as it entered his mouth.

“Well?” Tom asked beggingly.

“Oh Tom, fantastic as always!”

“Oh goodie!” He squealed with delight and clapped his hands.

Please sit down Tom. Are you finished Walter?” Raymond didn’t like when things were out of order.

“Yeah I think—no wait, I’m not. I’m sorry, that was a piece of shit.”

“Aww… what?!” Tom panicked. “I knew I should’ve used the blueberry honey over the clover—stupid-stupid-stupid!” Tom repeatedly smacked himself on the head. Although debatable as a writer, Tom certainly was an artist, this display of self-abusive perfectionism an emblematic mark.

“No Tom, not your cornbread, my writing. That was the most disorganized clusterfuck of thoughts to be put on paper. It just reeks of pretentiousness. That’s what you do when something sucks, just lather it up with a lacquer of pretentiousness so nobody can look into it and see it for the piece of shit it truly is.”

“Walter come on, that’s not true. It’s a diamond in the rough,”—Raymond’s favorite consoling comment and the metaphor he used like a truck stop whore throughout his entire novel.

Walter tried to continue reading but couldn’t, so he just stared through his audience blankly. “How did I get here?” he said thinking out loud. “This isn’t what my life was supposed to be. I had everything I wanted and I threw it away, for this? Please someone tell me I’m not a fucking writer!”

“That’s not true. You are a writer, you’re just a—”

“Yes Raymond, a diamond in the rough; I get it, but you can only polish a turd so much. Maybe I’m not being clear enough. Let me strip away the cryptic metaphors so maybe you all can understand—I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I was a rock star—or at least very close to one, and now I work at Guitar Center. In addition to my experience as a professional musician, I also have a degree in physics, and even a few years of managerial experience, but still, the best job I can get is Guitar Center working with high school kids. I’m in debt to my eye balls and it keeps growing every day because once again, I work at Guitar Center. Everybody wants money from me and I’m forced to pay them back—whether it be by law or lawsuit—before I can even feed myself. My bank, because almost every debt can be forgiven except for a student loan; my band and label—correction my former band and label—because I decided to back out on being a rock star, and for what? To be a writer? A skill that I’m so brilliant at that I can’t even put together one page!” Walter paused, his breath pulsing rapidly. Whether he liked it or not, everything was finally spilling out.

“Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if it wasn’t my songs, my ideas, and my work that brought those assholes to stardom anyways. And now they’re suing me?” His eyes couldn’t help but direct themselves toward Lola. While the Octo-owls had some understanding of his past, only she knew fully. “Granted they are in their right to do so. A band is a relationship and signing a record deal is like signing a marriage certificate and I bailed on the honeymoon. I guess I could fix all this; I could go finish the one album I promised. The problem is I can’t. No matter how hard I try, my pride seems to choke my voice—or maybe it’s the fact that two people no longer exist in this world on account of me. Every time I try to sing those songs I can’t help but be reminded of this.”

At this point the waterworks began and his voice strained somewhere between a scream and whine. “Can dreams only come true once in life? Is there no coming back after abandoning your entire life’s work at twenty-five? Is it too late for me? I don’t know and that’s the scariest part. With my first dream I was always so sure, but now I doubt myself every day. Every time my pen touches paper or my fingers to a keyboard something tells me I fucked up. But yet every time I think to go back, something pushes me back towards writing. It’s so frustrating being stuck in the middle and not making any progress in any direction. In fact, it’s what I hate the most; not being broke; not having to move in with my grandmother; not my degrading job; not losing everything I worked so hard for; but being stagnant! I have a dream, but no direction.

“It just wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be my silver year; the silver anniversary of my birth. While technically it still is, I just thought the celebration would be a little more grand; I thought I’d be on top of the world, not crushed beneath it. I guess I just like to be miserable and broke because every time I’ve managed any sort of stability in life, I have an irresistible urge to throw it all away. Why can’t I be like everyone else and just settle into a nice and cozy life?”

He then took his lathered piece of shit and began tearing it in a puerile fit. “Why-why-why-why…”

“Because you’re a writer,” Avery squeaked from behind her binder. “We’re the loneliest and most miserable people on earth—you said it yourself.” The perplexed faces transferred to Avery. They were used to her fits of shouted vulgarities, but a coherent, cohesive thought? This was a first. After a moment’s pause she shouted, “F-F-FUCK YOU! Suck my dirty clit you cum-sucking retards,” to scare away their stares.

“You understood what I was saying?” Walter said feeling touched.

“Uh-huh.” She smiled sweetly.

“You’re right,” Walter said, “I am a writer. But I’m not miserable without a purpose; I’m miserable because I want to change the world.”

“What do you mean you want to change the world?” Layne Grimey, the sad comedian asked.

“Well like you Layne, although not so… vividly, I funnel my misery into my writing in the hope that everything that’s ugly now will someday be seen as beautiful; that it will all be worth it in the end because I changed the world.”

“But that’s just absurd, who just says they’re going to change the world? No wonder you can’t write; that’s a lot of pressure.” Layne looked as if he was chewing on a piece of gristle trying to mull the idea over.

“But doesn’t every artist hope that their work will have an impact on people?” Walter said to the entire room. The Octo-owls looked at one another then slowly nodded their heads. “Then you too, in some way, want to change the world.”

“But you say it so bluntly,” Louis Bonner, the repressed virgin added. “I mean it sounds really egotistical and crazy when you say you want to change the world. Jesus says we should be humble.”

“You don’t think Jesus was ever called crazy and egotistical? Do you think he brought—for better or worse—Christianity to the world by being passive?”

“Oh, so you think you’re Jesus then?” Louis said dignified. Walter and he had stumbled into many debates on faith in the past so Louis’s objection was almost expected.

“Don’t put words in my mouth Louis. I’m simply trying to illustrate if everyone was meek, this world would never change. So thank God for the few men who are brave enough to try, otherwise we’d still be stuck in the Dark Ages.”

“Well I guess you’re right. Amen to that.” Suddenly many hands with questions went up throughout the room. Walter was beginning to feel the subject of a press conference. He pointed to his friend Wyatt Stroud, the Hemingway novelist.

“Why do ya wanna to change the world?”

“I’m not sure exactly. It’s just programmed into me. Some people grow up wanting to be doctors, firemen, football players—I’ve always just wanted to change the world. I thought being a rock star would enable me to do so, but I found it not to be the case, at least not in the way I want to change it.”

“So you want a revolution then?” James Riggle the screaming suburbanite stood from his chair. “Fuck yeah! This country’s gone to shit. It’s about time someone does something about it. I’ll join you.”

“Thank you James, but no. I don’t want a revolution, and certainly not a war, but more of a renaissance. As you know, two people have already died in the name of my pursuit to change the world and I don’t want anymore. Life is special and I want people to realize that. I want them to ponder and poke at the phenomenon of it because maybe then they’ll appreciate what a rare gift it is. Nothing puts that in perspective better when you realize that Earth is but one of hundreds of billions of planets in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. The earth is insignificant, and while I’m certain life exists somewhere else in the universe, it is rare, and intelligent life, extremely rare. So how lucky are we that we exist? That the winds of energy that control the cosmos happened to deposit matter in the form of the human race? Regardless of how you believe that came to be, there’s no need for theology to tell you how special it is. If we humans realized this more, I think we’d start behaving differently. We’d start looking out for ourselves and this world better because right now as a species we don’t particularly have a universal view of existence; it’s extremely shortsighted. We only have one Earth and our survival is dependent on preserving it along with the other life forms we share it with. We’re resting upon a fragile tower of life built from the microbial levels up, and each piece pulled from this tower only brings us closer to our own demise.

“Also I feel the time in which we exist is one of the most important in history—particularly in American history, but hardly anyone seems to realize it. Thanks in part to the social leveling of the Internet—much analogous to the social leveling seen after the creation of the printing press, America is experiencing a midlife crisis of sorts in which we’re finally starting to turn away from our youthful, imperial arrogance to embrace an economy built on the sharing of information and the empowerment of all individuals; a symbiosis of humanity and capitalism for the betterment of both. Although these seem like conflicting concepts on the surface—”

“Okay Walter. I let you go a few minutes over, but I’m sorry, your time is up,” Raymond asserted his lasso over the meeting again.

“But I want to hear what he has to say d-d-d-dick sucker!” Avery contested.

“I’m sorry but the program must follow certain rules and guidelines in order to work.”

“I’ll gladly give up my readin’ time to hear him out,” Wyatt said with his Texas charm. “I love it when Walt starts goin’ on about space and time and all that other stuff.” Agreements went around the room like a bombing brigade.

“You don’t want to do that,” Raymond smiled uneasily, squirming in his chair, “you’re getting your three-month token today.”

“Fuck my token!” Concurrence resonated again and the room became noticeably louder.

“I’m sorry that’s just not how things work! If we want to be better writers we must follow the program. Walter please take a seat.”

“Why because it worked for you?” James Riggle the screaming suburbanite proclaimed. “Not everyone learns the same way.” Walter was pleased in the way this meeting was going. Apparently he wasn’t the only one holding in a dislike for Raymond and his program; maybe the Octo-owls weren’t as hopeless as he thought.

“Yeah, here’s someone we’re tryin’ to help with their writin’ and yer program is prohibitin’ us from doin’ so,” Wyatt added. “Isn’t the whole point of us meetin’ here every Tuesday to help each other? Who the hell cares about tokens and time limits. I vote to get rid of both!”

The room shook with agreement. “This isn’t something that’s up for a vote!” Raymond retorted. “The program works fine just the way it is. Its design has been proven.” Raymond’s shell of authority was beginning to crack and fall around him.

“Proven? The only person it’s worked for is you,” Walter joined in. Suddenly a pride in being a writer rose up within him—although he had yet to prove himself as one. “We’re writers; we don’t like structure. We learn on our own terms!” The Octo-owls began to holler and bang their fists on anything nearby.

“And that type of reasoning is why you’ll fail. You need structure; this is why you all came to me!”

“We don’t come for you, we come for each other, our fellow Octo-owls, right fellas?” Wyatt’s booming voice cut through the noise while Raymond’s shrills struggled to find footing.

“If you don’t agree with the program you can leave, but the Octo-owls is my creation and I am the only one allowed to change it!” Raymond’s sincerity was revealing itself to be all but a perfunctory measure to the fulfillment of his ego.

“Fine we’ll call ourselves somethin’ else. That name doesn’t even make sense anyways.”

“You idiots can call yourselves whatever you’d like, but it won’t be here! Good luck, I highly doubt any of you will do anything with your lives, much less have a career in writing,” Raymond said pointing to the door.

The uprising came too quickly to realize that the group formally known as the Octo-owls were now without a home. Raymond’s sister owned the café, and only through him did they have access to it after hours.

“My house is only a block away,” Walter said. “We can go there for now.” The group looked around apprehensively, not sure what they had just done like someone coming down from a blind fit of rage. For some this had been a ritual for years; their entire life’s focus was aimed on getting their next token.

“I can’t!” Layne screamed frantically. “I can’t leave. I need this too much.”

Raymond smiled sinisterly. “Anyone else? This is your last chance.”

“I can’t do it too,” James said sitting back down in his chair. “I’m sorry guys, but it sounds like a lot of work starting all over again.”

Louis still seemed to be at a draw. “I need to pray; I need to let God decide.” He picked up his things and left hurriedly.

“I’m going to stay too,” Tom folded. “I just need mouths to feed and it looks like most of them are staying here.”

Wyatt and Avery went to stand by Walter’s side. Lola was still in her chair on the verge of laughter. Having no vested interest, she could objectively sit back and see the hilarity in it all. She was also a little drunk from the whiskey she’d been drinking earlier. “Wow you guys take your little book club, or whatever this is, a little too seriously,” she said finally giving over to laughter.

“Avery Hynaman, Wyatt Stroud, Walter Huxley, and Lola whoever you are, you are officially banned from the Octo-owls! Leave immediately!” Raymond executed like a judge.

“Oh no, I can’t be in your club; I’m so sad!” Lola said mockingly. “Whatever shall I do with my life?” The refugee Octo-owls joined her in laughter and continued to do so as they all exited.

As the group of four took the short walk to Walter’s condo, Lola stared queerly at Walter. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing. This night just isn’t what I expected it to be—but when is anything ever as expected when it involves you? I guess I’m starting to realize really what a strange life you lead Quarky, even by my standards.”

“Well strange moments are what I adore most in life,” he said with a proud smile.

The group gathered together atop the sparse furniture left in Walter’s condo. “This is all I have left, sorry Wyatt,” Walter said placing a paint bucket upside down on the floor. Avery sat awkwardly on the beach chair—binder still clutched, and Walter joined Lola on the broken cot.

“Ah, it’s okay Walt.” Wyatt’s voice bounced around the walls of the empty and tile-floored condo without coming to rest.

“As you can see I’m moving out soon—in fact tonight is the last night I’ll have the place, so we’ll have to find another place next week, or whenever we meet next. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend as regularly as I have.

“But who’s going to lead our meetings?” Avery asked afraid.

“Who said I was the leader?”

“Well, I just figured since you kind of spearheaded this whole thing.”

“Why? Just because I was the guy behind the lectern when we decided we had enough of Raymond? We all decided this on our own. How about we have no leader? We’ll just keep everything very democratic. Plus, I don’t know how great of a leader I’d be right now. I’m at a very . . . unstable point in my life.”

“Well, should we at least have a name?” she asked.

“We don’t necessarily need one, but I’ve got a nomination.” Walter smiled. “The H-Bar.”

“The what?” Wyatt blurted. “What’s an H-Bar?”

Walter laughed. “Umm… how to explain this?” Walter had the name stored away for some music project or an actual bar, but never thought of how to explain it in layman terms. “Well in quantum mechanics there’s something called Planck’s constant—”

“How’d I know it had something to do with physics?” Lola sighed.

“Hear me out. Really, it’s a cool concept, and the more I think about it, it actually fits us well. As I was saying, in quantum mechanics there’s something called Planck’s constant, and in calculations, it’s represented by a lower case h with a line slashed through the top of it—an h-bar. Quantum mechanics was birthed from the discovery of Planck’s constant because it determines the size of individual units of energy, mass, and other constituents that make up the subatomic world. For example, an individual unit of light is called a photon. In order to calculate how energetic a red photon is versus a blue one, you have to multiply the light wave frequency of the color red or blue by Planck’s constant. From this you’ll find a red photon is less energetic than a blue photon. Planck’s constant is also used to determine the mass of particles, electron orbits, and much more. It gives us the framework we need to work around a world that we cannot see.” Bewilderment hung on their faces. “Sorry, it’s kind of tough to sum up so briefly.”

“So if I wanted to calculate the energy produced from the eight-thousand nerve endings of a female clitoris during an orgasm I could use Planck’s constant to do so?”

Walter tried not to laugh but couldn’t help himself. “Well, if you wanted to use subatomic units for your calculation, then yes . . . I’m curious Avery, please forgive me if I’m wrong, but I assumed you had Turret’s, but you’ve yet to have a single tic since we left the café.”

“I do—or did. I’ve had it under control for some years now though.”

“But what about all the—”

“Dick suckers, cunts, and fucks?” Avery finished.

“Yeah.”

“That’s just me using it as a cover to keep people at bay; to allow me to tell them what I honestly think.” She smiled acceptingly. “That’s why I like what you said about writers being overly-honest liars. It really spoke to me. I embellish my syndrome to be overly honest with people.” Walter secretly celebrated that his guess had been right. The others looked at her more baffled than they were before about her.

Anyways, I’m still not gettin’ all this. How does Planck’s constant, or the h-bar apply to us?” Wyatt asked.

“Well I always thought, how cool would it be to actually see the quantum world in person? What if we were able to shrink down to the world in which we can see Planck’s constant in action? In the quantum world, things are very strange. We could disappear and reappear in another place, walk through walls, be in two, three, or as many places as we’d like at the same time; basically a world with infinite possibilities and realities. Granted, I don’t know how in control we’d be of these possibilities and realities, but it’s still a place I’d like to visit. I often imagine this place as a bar—that I’ve aptly named the H-Bar—when I do thought experiments in my head. Anyways, writers—like the H-Bar—are typically strange. We don’t always fit into reality, so we create our own; we explore the dimension of time as if it were a room, and that’s why the H-Bar is our kind of place, a place with no such thing as time or reality . . . I don’t know, what do you think?”

“It’s beautiful!” Avery said starry-eyed.

“I still don’t get it exactly, but I like it,” Wyatt added, then presented the name for a final vote. “All in favor of the name the H-Bar say yay.” The group of four responded in agreement. “All right, welcome to the H-Bar everyone!” There was a short celebration and then silence.

“Now what?” Avery asked.

“Well I don’t know about you, but if this is a bar I’m having a drink,” Lola said heading towards the kitchen. “Anyone care to join?”

“Great idea!” Wyatt concurred and everyone followed.

Lola searched through Walter’s empty cabinets without success. “I guess all we have is this one glass,” she said holding up the glass she drank from earlier.

“Fuck it, let’s just drink from the bottle,” Wyatt said, eyeing the bottle of Jack Daniels thirstily. “It’s the best way to drink Jack anyhow.”

“I like your style,” Lola eyed Wyatt keenly. Walter took the empty glass and filled it with water from the tap. “What are you doing?” Lola asked puzzled.

“I need a chaser.” She laughed.

“Maybe you’re really not cut out to be a rock star after all.”

“I’ll need a chaser too,” Avery said meekly.

“I guess you and I are the only real drinkers here Wyatt. I’ll let you have the first drink.” Lola tipped the bottle towards him.

“Thanks, but I feel like we should be toasting to somethin’—any suggestions?”

“How about we toast to time?” Walter suggested.

“Why do I feel another physics lesson coming on?” Lola rolled her eyes.

“Let’s celebrate this place in space and time, because in the real world, we’ll never be able to come back. While our future is infinite, our past is zipping up right behind us, closing its doorways forever. May this moment someday become a treasured memory as the beginning of something great!”

“Cheers.” Wyatt took a mouthful then handed the bottle to Lola.

“Cheers,” she said and passed it to Avery.

“Cheers.” Avery warily took a small sip with a grimacing face. She coughed and reached for the glass of water. “Here you go,” she said passing the bottle to Walter. He stared down its orifice.

“I really hope this is the beginning of something great because I could really use some great right now. Cheers!” he said then dove into a generous drink.

“Damn Walter,” Wyatt said impressed. Walter came up from the bottle coughing and extinguished the burning the best he could with the remaining water.

The group spent the rest of the night how most people envision writers spending their free time—getting fucked up. Eventually separated by their vices, Lola found herself alone drinking with Wyatt in the spare bedroom, and Walter found himself smoking with Avery in the living room.

“This is the first time I’ve seen you without that binder clung to your chest,” Walter said to Avery while they sat on his cot.

“Because I feel relaxed,” she grinned puffy and glossy-eyed.

“Good . . . Do you mind if I do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time?”

I-I-I guess that depends on what it is,” she said nervously.

“Just tell me when to stop if you don’t like it.”

O-o-okay.”

Walter’s eyes locked onto those beautiful ears he had so often fantasized about. He combed her hair behind the right one and took in its full magnificence. God, I am so weird, he thought before slowly leaning in. His open lips hovered over the ear, breathing softly into it. He took her low moans as a sign to proceed and gently bit down on her lobe. A scream grated across his ear drum.

“What?! Should I stop?”

“No-no, keep going!” she pleaded. He tugged more aggressively at the ear. “Uh… Uh… Uh—Ahhh!” Typically a woman screaming in pleasure was a good thing, but he hadn’t even kissed her yet and she was blaring like a siren. Walter suddenly felt awkward, but pressed forward as most young men would. His hand found its way up her dress and began climbing up her thighs. By the time it reached the promise land however, her underwear was soaked and she was coming down from what he estimated to be at least three orgasms. Never being in this predicament before, he was confused as to what he should do next.

“Um… are you okay?” he asked.

“Use your Planck’s constant to calculate that,” she said emphatically.

She then grabbed his head and kissed him forcefully in gratitude. All right, two girls in one day; I haven’t done this since I was on tour, Walter thought as her kiss seemed to signal she was ready for more. But to his surprise, she took his head and clung it to her chest as she so often did with her binder. Still holding his head, she then laid down on the cot and proceeded to go to sleep. Walter tried to remove his head but she clutched to it tighter. At this point he was too exhausted, high and drunk to fight her, and he too dozed off.

The next morning Walter awoke to a hammering headache exacerbated by the noise of a lawnmower outside his living room window. In a haze, he was slow to realize that he was alone. All that was left of Avery was a still wet stain on his cot and a jarring pain in his neck. Peculiarly, he felt a little depressed. She didn’t even offer a customary phone number or goodbye.

“Good morning dear,” Lola said coming out from the hallway in her underwear and Bob Dylan shirt. “Remind me to never pass out on a tile floor again.”

Walter sat up. “And remind me never to volunteer myself as a human teddy bear again.” She sat down beside him on the cot and immediately shot up.

“Is that what I think it is?!” she said looking at the stain. Walter laughed. “Fucking gross.”

“Well at least someone got off last night,” he said wryly.

“What, did mousey not reciprocate those howls of pleasure I was hearing from her last night?”

“As much as I’d like to take credit, not much talent was required; she finished multiple times before I even got her dress off. In fact, it never even came off.”

“And then what? She left?”

“No, she fell asleep.”

“And she didn’t at least have some sleepy sex with you?”

“Sleepy sex?”

“Yeah, you’ve never taken a girl home that was too drunk to fuck, so she just lets you hump her while she passes out?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I like my partners to be at least conscious while I hump them,” he said looking at her cynically. “She made no effort to return the favor, instead she just cuddled me very aggressively.”

“Ah, the old spooning blue ball move—typical bitch. How some girls can sleep with an awkward boner in their ass crack all night beats me.” Lola’s brutal honesty was such a gift at times. The insight she gave to the other side of a sexual transaction had proven itself invaluable to Walter.

“No,” he gasped through laughs. “I was unwillingly made little spoon. She cuddled me like her binder, and she’s surprisingly strong; my neck is killing me.” Lola laughed barkingly in response. “So how’d you fare? Where’s Wyatt?”

“Two words: whiskey dick. He felt so ashamed he left last night.”

“So that makes three strikeouts and one goal.”

“I think you’re mixing up your sports, but yeah. Want to go to breakfast?”

“Sure—wait, let me check.” Walter opened the last remaining moving box and took out a jar half-full of pocket change—all that was left to his worth. But at least now he had hope. Avery, as perplexing as she was, was a small spark of confidence in his writing capabilities. His writing had meant something to her.

—Or so she said, one of Walter’s inner voices began. Maybe she just said that to get you in bed. I mean, she just up and left without even a goodbye or number. You’d think if she really felt a connection to your writing, she’d at least want to hear some more . . . Was I just used by Avery Hynamen?

The voice of doubt was hard to silence once it started, but he tried:

No. Maybe she just saw the stain and got embarrassed like Wyatt. Yeah that’s it. Come on Walter give yourself some credit.

“Walter!” Lola shouted.

“Yes?” he asked dumbfounded.

“You’re talking to yourself again aren’t you?” His eyes went down in embarrassment.

“At least not out loud this time. How could you tell?”

“You think I can’t tell by now when you go into that little head of yours? Come on I’ll pay today,” she said slapping him on the butt. “Even though you’re not technically my client anymore, we’ll be discussing business so I can write it off.” Walter was in too dire straits to refuse a free meal.

“Getting wined and dined by the label again, just like the good ol’ days.”

They returned to the Sit n’ Stay Café for breakfast. “Raymond practically begged me to ban you from the café, but my little brother’s club is supposed to bring me business, not take it away,” Susie, the Sit n’ Stay’s owner and Raymond’s sister said. “I didn’t put up with his little ego trips when we were kids; I don’t know why he’d think I’d put up with them now. The regular for you dear—the Elvis right?”

“Yes Susie,” Walter said as she jotted down his order.

“And for you beautiful?”

“Ah no need to flatter this one Susie; she’s just a regular.” Walter often brought his catches from karaoke night to her café the next morning for breakfast.

“Thanks asshole.” Lola scowled. “The Mediterranean sounds great.”

“All right I’ll put that in for you,” Susie said and collected the menus.

“So have you thought about it?” Lola said to Walter.

“Thought about what?” He pretended not to know.

“The show! Aren’t you tired of not having enough money to even eat? And you can finally write everything off for good: no more of me hounding you, no more lawsuit, no more Perfect Crime. You can finally focus on just being a writer.”

“You really think that I can just write off Quinn Quark with one show? No, here’s what will happen: I do the show, the record of course sells and my debt goes away, but instead of you and the label hounding me, I’ll be hounded by the media and the fans for an eternity about another show, a reunion, or another record. I won’t be taken seriously as a writer because no one will get passed my music, and I’ll turn into a miserable drunk and die in my late twenties like a reincarnated Jim Morrison. Are you willing to kill me for this show Lola?” Walter said with some shaded sarcasm. She sighed.

“Oh fuck off. Stop postulating the worst will always happen and maybe it won’t.”

“Oh yeah, because my life has just been a fountain of good fortune lately. Excuse me for not being a little more optimistic.”

“Here’s your coffee guys.” Susie returned to the table. They both took the break in the conversation to pantomime mutual annoyance of each other with petulant facial expressions. “Food will be up soon.”

“Thank you Susie . . . Besides Lola, even if I wanted to do the show, you know I can’t sing.”

“Stop fucking saying that because it’s not true!” Lola’s frustration sprayed over the sleepy café, causing everyone to look briefly in their direction. She then softened her tone. “Only in your head does your voice not work. It sounded in perfect working order last night when you were singing and playing guitar for your little mouse girl. Can you at least meet with the band in a rehearsal studio and just see what happens? I’ll even bring along Minnie Mouse if that’s what it takes.”

“Am I sensing a little jealousy Lola?” Walter said, playfully smiling. Lola let out another throaty sigh.

“You’re not going to do it are you?”

“Nope.”

They remained silent until the food arrived. Walter hungrily began to stuff his mouth while Lola stared at him in disgust. “Aren’t you the least bit curious as to where the show would be?” Walter, unable to respond verbally, shook his head no. “Oh too bad, I mean you always talked about how much you wanted to play the Greek.” Walter choked on his Elvis.

“The Greek Theatre?!” he said with his mouth still full. “Yeah right, Perfect Crime could never fill the Greek. That’ll just put me more under water.”

“I don’t know, have you looked at how many downloads and plays your online demos have received lately? No wonder the label is so angry they can’t cash in on it. Your enigmatic, J.D. Salinger-like persona has done nothing but spark more interest in Perfect Crime.”

“I have been getting recognized a lot more lately,” Walter said pondering. “And if I do the show it’s only going to get worse.”

“Okay, just thought I’d mention it,” Lola said and began eating. She could tell by the look on his face the voices were battling inside his head. Walter spoke so much of how badly he wanted to play the Greek on the two’s many visits to the Griffith Observatory. Both rested in the same municipal park, Griffith Park, nestled into the Hollywood hills (quite literally the Hollywood Sign overlooks both). He always said one day he’d play at the Greek in addition to also being a guest astronomy lecturer at the observatory’s monthly lecture program, All Space Considered.

“Who’s going to play bass?” Walter asked as casually as possible.

“Some studio guy named Flea,” Lola responded in the same casual tone.

“Flea?! The same Flea who played with The Mars Volta?”

And The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Yeah that Flea.” The voices began to spat so much he couldn’t keep focus on his food.

“Okay I’ll try.”

Lola coughed. “You’ll what?! Did you just say you’ll try?”

“Yeah, I’ll try. No promises, but I’ll meet up with the band and see how it goes.”

“Oh Quarky!” she sat up and kissed him. “I know you don’t believe in him, but I’m going to take this as proof—thank God!”

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Teaser for My Upcoming Novel, The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

Four years, four months and four days ago, I began what was originally to be a memoir of my European trip and my quarter-life crisis year of 2012. However, over the years and 400 or so Word document pages later, “my little inside joke with myself”—as I lovingly refer to it now, has grown into something quite different and spectacular. Although I have probably a good three to six months of editing and post-production work left, I am elated to announce my book is finally finished! It feels surreal, for this project has been floating in the background of my life, occupying every spare hour I have, for so long. While it’s still not quite ready for public release, below is a link to a teaser for all of you who keep asking to read it. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to enjoy a congratulatory beer with myself :-).

The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

It had been Walter Huxley’s teenage dream to become a rock star and he sacrificed everything to make it come true: a promising future as a physicist, a well-paying job, a loving girlfriend, and even two people’s lives. But when one is born with the desire to brand his name on the world, he’ll destroy his own to do it. However what happens when you realize your dream was not your own, just an expectation of everyone around you? And even worse, you realize this just as you’ve made your dream a reality, a reality in which you now hate but can’t escape.

On his twenty-fifth birthday, this is where Walter finds himself, living in the shadow of a character of his own creation, his stage persona, Quinn Quark. Quark is a character everyone loves but Walter: a dark and enigmatic madman; a charismatic and self-destructive genius; an immensely talented songwriter with a pretty face and the budding hopes of a generation on his shoulders. Quark was the resurrection of popular culture’s most beloved and missed creature: the rock star.

After attempting to destroy Quark and abandon his teenage dream forever, Walter finds himself lost and in financial ruin, but surprisingly more famous than ever. Just as he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown—all in view of the public eye, he becomes the unexpected recipient of a birthday gift from a long-forgotten friend, an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe. At first reluctant, he only goes as a means to escape his newfound fame in America, but in the process of traveling through eight countries, Walter meets a number of characters—in and outside his head—whom will alter his life forever.

The Silver Year is not only a journey of the world, but of the ubiquitous transition into adulthood known as “the quarter-life crisis” through the messy mind of a genius—or madman. Really, it’s up to you to decide the difference.

 

What Science Would Be Without Religion

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By Bradley Stockwell

A few years ago if you were to have asked me whether or not religious institutions have impeded the progress of science, I would have given a vehement ‘hell yes’. I would’ve given the accounts of Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, and the many others who risked or gave their lives in the name of science as examples. However over the years I’ve learned that making such a blanket statement is rather prejudiced. This is not to say there hasn’t been significant efforts by religious institutions to repress science, but also without them, most of the principles and methodologies of modern science and medicine would’ve never been established.

The Roman Catholic Church was vital in the development of systematic nursing and hospitals, and even still today the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. The Church also founded Europe’s first universities and Medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon are considered the fathers of modern science. Furthermore, after the Fall of Rome, monasteries and convents became strongholds of academia, preserving the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Simplicius and many more. Clergymen were the leading scholars of the day, studying nature, mathematics and the motion of stars. And while some may blame Christianity for the Fall of Rome and decline of intellectual culture during the Middle Ages, this claim is unjustified and is a much more complex issue probably better reserved for a history class. Additionally, many forget that while the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the much more Christianized eastern half remained relatively strong and continued into the 15th century as the Byzantine Empire.

Not to focus solely on Christianity, Islam also had a part in the preservation and flourishing of science. An Arab Muslim named Ibn al-Haytham, considered to be one the first theoretical physicists, made significant contributions in the fields of optics, astronomy and mathematics, and was an early advocate that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence—essentially the scientific method. Caliphs during the Islamic Golden Age established research institutes, sent emissaries around the world in search of books, then funded projects to translate, study and preserved them. Much of the Ancient Greek science we have today would have been lost and the European Renaissance hundreds of years after would not have been possible without their efforts. Also, at one time arguably, Arabic was the language of science. The “al’s” in algebra, algorithm, alchemy and alcohol are just some of the remnants.

The Islamic world also imported ideas from Hindus, which includes the Arabic numerals we still use today and the concept of zero. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, The Spirituality of Science, I see many parallels between science and Dharmic beliefs, such as reincarnation and entropy: the universe is cyclical; life and death are just different stopping points on a grand recycling process; matter, like the body, is created and recycled, while energy, like the soul, is immortal and transferred. The correlation I find most fascinating though is the Hindu concept of Brahman to the laws of thermodynamics. According to belief, Brahman is the source of all things in the universe including reality and existence; everything comes from Brahman and everything returns to Brahman; Brahman is uncreated, external, infinite and all-embracing. You could substitute the word energy for Brahman and get a simple understanding of the applications of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. It’s funny how the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, seemed to grasp these concepts thousands of years before science did.

In conclusion, although it’s still hard for me to look past some of the civil atrocities wrought by religious institutions—in particular when they’ve been intimately tied to a governing body, I think when you tally up the scores, science has benefited greatly from religion and any impediments are heavily outweighed. In a day when it seems popular to present everything in a dichotomous fashion—either you’re with or against us, I think it’s important to remember that for the most part, we all have what’s best in mind for humanity, and it’s when we work together that the best results are produced. Until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

How Old Are You?: How The Atomic Age Solved One of Biology’s Greatest Mysteries

atomicbomb

By Bradley Stockwell

My two favorite arenas of academia are science and history, and the more I study the two, the more I see how interwoven they really are. There’s no greater example of this than something called the “bomb pulse”. Whether you know it or not, lurking inside of you is a piece of Cold War history—even if you weren’t alive at the time—and it is this little memento that finally solved one of biology’s most elusive secrets: How old are you? And I don’t mean how many times has the cellular clump of mass known as you swung around the sun, but how old are the individual cells that make up that mass? Your skin cells, heart cells, neurons—your body is constantly renewing itself with new cells and it is only as of 2002 that we began to have a definitive answer for how old each one was. With this post, my intentions are twofold. One: I want to tell you about one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century, and two: I’m hoping that by wrapping them in this titillating story, I can also slip in a few basic principles of nuclear chemistry. With that said, let’s begin!

Between 1945 and 1963, over four hundred nuclear bombs were detonated, unleashing an untold number of extra neutrons into the atmosphere. Some of these neutrons found their way into nitrogen atoms, causing them to eject a proton. If you’re familiar with some basic chemistry, when a seven-proton nitrogen atom loses a proton, it becomes a six-proton carbon atom. However, because these carbon atoms still have two extra neutrons from when they were nitrogen, they become something called an isotope, a variant of an element which differs in neutrons, but has the same amount of protons. In this case, these slightly more massive and radioactive isotopes become an isotope of carbon called carbon-14.

When I say radioactive, all I mean is that the atom’s nucleus is unstable; that it is emitting energy in the form of ejected subatomic particles or energetic light waves to stabilize itself until it becomes a stable isotope, or a completely new element altogether. This radioactive decay comes in three main forms: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha decay—which only happens with heavy elements like uranium—is the ejection of something physicists call an alpha particle, but chemists just call it a helium atom, a bundle of two protons and two neutrons. In fact, almost all the helium here on Earth came from this type of decay. Think about that the next time your sucking down a helium balloon; you’re inhaling the atomic leftovers of uranium, thorium and other heavy, radioactive elements. Beta minus decay is the ejection of an electron and beta plus decay is the ejection of the electron’s antiparticle, the positron. Gamma decay is the emission of an extremely energetic light wave called a gamma ray and it is often emitted in conjunction with alpha and beta decay.

alphabetagammadecay

The time it can take for a radioactive element to reach a stable form can be anywhere from instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe. Because individual atoms decay unpredictably, the way in which we measure this loss is through probability, or something called a half-life. This is the time it takes for half a quantity of radioactive material to decay into a more stable form. This is not to say if you have four radioactive atoms, in x amount of time you’ll have two necessarily, but more that each individual radioactive atom has a fifty percent chance that it will decay to a more stable form in x amount of time. For example, carbon-14, the star of our story, has a half-life of 5,730 years. This means if you had a pound of it, after 5,730 years you’d have a half pound of carbon-14 and half a pound of nitrogen-14, carbon-14’s more stable form. Then after another 5,730 years you’d have a quarter pound of carbon-14 and three-quarters pound of nitrogen-14, and so forth. This is how carbon dating works; by measuring the relative portions of carbon-12 and carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter, archeologists are able to determine its age.

carbon14Dating

The period between 1945 and 1963 in which all this atomic testing was happening is now called the “bomb pulse” by the scientific community. It was called this because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was doubled during this period from all those free neutrons crashing into nitrogen. In 1963, when the Soviet Union, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited all above-ground detonations, the amount of carbon-14 began to decrease by half every eleven years and will eventually be depleted somewhere around 2030 to 2050. This isn’t because the carbon-14 is decaying into nitrogen-14 (remember the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years), but because it is being absorbed by the life inhabiting our planet, which includes us. Although carbon-14 is an altered carbon atom—a carbon isotope, it still behaves like a carbon atom because it is the number of protons in an atom that determines its chemical behavior, while the number of neutrons determines its mass; and like a regular carbon atom, these carbon-14 atoms have been binding to oxygen, forming CO2, which is sucked up by plants during photosynthesis and then fed to the rest of us through the food chain. Like the plants, our bodies too can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14, so for the last seventy-plus years all this extra carbon-14 has been used by every living creature to build new cells, proteins and DNA.

bombpulse

While our bodies can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14 (because they have the same amount of protons), scientists can because of their slight difference in mass (remember carbon-14 has two extra neutrons). The difference in mass is measureable through a technique called mass spectrometry, which sorts atoms by weight. Without getting too technical, an instrument called a mass spectrometer strips atoms of some of their electrons and launches them into a magnetic field, which alters the atoms’ course, and because of inertia, heavier atoms take a wider path than lighter ones. By measuring how many atoms travel along certain paths, scientists can determine how much of a specific atom—in this case a carbon-14 atom—is in a sample.

So what does this have to do with determining a cell’s age? Well for a long time nothing. But somewhere around 2002, Krista Spalding, a postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, wanted to challenge the longtime doctrine that said the human brain couldn’t create any new neurons after the age of four. There had been growing evidence that the adult hippocampus—a seahorse-shaped region deep in the brain that is important for memory and learning—could regenerate neurons, but no one knew for sure. Spalding and her postdoc advisor, Jonas Frisén, had a hunch that the “bomb pulse” period could somehow offer a solution and it did, culminating in a paper by Spalding, Frisén and their team published in June 2013, which conclusively found that the hippocampus did produce approximately 700 to 1,400 new neurons per day, and these neurons last twenty to thirty years. How you ask? Well there’s an episode of Radiolab (a wonderful science podcast I recommend you all listen to) that has a much more colorful version of Spalding and Frisén’s journey here, but because I know I’m probably already pushing your attention spans, I’ll just give a brief overview. You see, atmospheric scientists have been measuring the amount of carbon-14 and other elements in the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s, giving us an extremely accurate timetable of how much carbon-14 is and was in the atmosphere at any given time after. By correlating this data to the amount of carbon-14 found in a cell’s DNA (while other molecules are regularly refreshed throughout a cell’s life, DNA remains constant), researchers can determine not just the age of a hippocampal neuron, but any cell. So by accident, the nuclear age finally shed light on when tissues form, how long they last and how quickly they’re replaced.

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You—and every other living organism—are continually creating new cells. Cells that make up your skin, hair and the lining of your gut are constantly being replaced, while others, like cells that make up the lens of your eye, the muscles of your heart and the neurons of the cerebral cortex, have been with you since birth and will stay with you until you die.

So why is this so important? Well firstly, it gives us a key insight into the mechanisms behind many neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and many more. Really we’ve only just begun to dig into this Pandora’s box so to speak, and unfortunately time is limited (well unless we start blowing up a bunch of atomic weapons again, but let’s hope humanity has moved past this) because, as I said, this measureable spike of carbon-14 in our atmosphere from the “bomb pulse” will eventually be depleted somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Despite what the “bomb pulse” is and will offer to scientific research, isn’t it cool just knowing which cells have been at the party of you the longest? Or that like the rings of a tree, or the sedimentary layers of rock, our bodies too tell the story of our times? With that, until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

 

How Pencil Lead and Sticky Tape Won a Nobel Prize

 

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By Bradley Stockwell

First off, I want to apologize to all of my six followers to this blog. I know I left you in anxious anticipation over my follow-up post to Climate Change Part I on future green technologies. However, after three months of procrastination, I confess I still haven’t written it. I’m sorry, but I’m easily distracted and while attempting to assemble it I came across a story too good not to tell about a fascinating material called graphene. Graphene is the thinnest, strongest and stiffest material on Earth; it conducts electricity and heat better than any other known material; it is transparent and two-dimensional and is the basis for all future technologies and A.I. At the moment, its potential of applications looks limitless. Oh did I mention it was discovered with nothing more than pencil lead and tape? They even gave the guys who discovered it the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Shit, if I knew it was that easy I could’ve scratched Nobel prize in physics off the bucket list a long time ago.

So what is graphene exactly then? In short, it’s a sheet of pencil lead (graphite) an atom thick. But to understand how we arrived at the discovery of graphene, we need to tell another story, the story of carbon. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon which simply means it’s one possible way to structure carbon atoms. The carbon atom has six protons and typically six neutrons in its nucleus. Sometimes the nucleus has eight neutrons, in which case the carbon atom is known as carbon-14. Carbon-14 is unstable, meaning it radioactively decays, but the decay is consistent over long periods of time. Because this form of carbon is found in many materials, measuring its presence gives us a way to age materials—or what is known as carbon dating. Carbon-14 however is not an allotrope of carbon, it is what is known as an isotope, something covered in detail in a previous post, Flight of the Timeless Photon.

Allotrope formation is dependent on the electrons of a carbon atom and the way in which they bond to other carbon electrons. Carbon has six electrons, two of which are buried in its innermost shell near the nucleus, and four in its outermost shell which are called valence electrons. It is these four outermost electrons—and a ton of heat and pressure—that make the difference between a lump of coal and a diamond, another allotrope of carbon. In diamond, a carbon atom’s four valence electrons are bonded with four other carbon valence electrons. This produces an extremely stiff crystalline structure. In fact, a typical diamond is made up of about a million billion billion atoms (1 with 24 zeros after it) all perfectly arranged into a single pyramidal structure, which is key to its extraordinary strength. But diamond is not the strongest and most stable allotrope of carbon. Although DeBeers may want you to think otherwise, a diamond is not forever; every diamond in existence is actually slowly turning into graphite. The process however takes billions of years so no need to worry about your wedding ring just yet.

Graphite is not a crystalline structure like diamond, but planes of carbon atoms connected in a hexagonal pattern, with each plane having an extremely strong and stable structure—stronger and more stable than diamond. Some of you may be asking, is this not the same graphite we write with and grind up into fine powder lubricants? Yes indeed it is, and the conundrum of descriptives can be blamed on electrons. In diamond, a carbon atom shares its four valence electrons with four other carbon atoms, whereas in graphite it shares its electrons with only three (see graphic below). This results in graphite having no electrons left over to form strong bonds between layers, leaving it up to something called van der Waals forces, a weak set of forces generated by fluctuations in a molecular electric field. Basically it’s the universal glue of matter and is something all molecules naturally possess. Because these forces are so weak is why you’re able to write with graphite—a.k.a. pencil lead. As you press your pencil to paper, you’re breaking the van der Waals forces, allowing layers of graphite to slide across one another and deposit themselves on a page. If it weren’t for the weak van der Waals bonds, pencil lead would be stronger than diamond and this is behind the advent of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is spun graphite, lathered in an epoxy glue to overcome the weak van der Waals forces. Restriction of van der Waals forces is also behind the phenomenality of graphene.

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Since graphene is a single layer of graphite one atom thick, there is no need to worry about weak van der Waals forces. By default this makes graphene the strongest and thinnest material known to man. Also, because its carbon atoms are not structured in a crystalline lattice like diamond, which leaves no free electrons, it also conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. This means because of its transparency and thinness, we could literally add touch sensitivity to any inanimate object and possibly entire buildings. It also allows for something called Klein tunneling, which is an exotic quantum effect in which electrons can tunnel through something as if it’s not there. Basically it means it has the potential to be an electronic dynamo and may someday replace silicon chips and pave the way for quantum computing. Graphene was purely hypothetical until 2004 when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered it. As stated in the title of this post, they discovered it with nothing more than a lump of graphite and sticky tape. They placed the tape on the graphite and peeled off a layer. They then took another piece of tape and stuck it to the piece of tape with the graphite layer and halved the layer. They continued to do this until they were left with a layer of graphite one atom thick. I’m not exaggerating the simplicity of the procedure in any way. Watch the video below and you can replicate the experiment yourself, the only catch is you need an electron microscope to confirm you indeed created graphene. Until next time my friends, stay curious.

Climate Change Part I: Where It Went Wrong & Why It’s Stupid to Still Deny It

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By Bradley Stockwell

1878 World’s Fair: Augustin Mouchot’s solar-powered motor is a gold medal winner and initially receives generous government funding for development. However the funding is soon cut due to a dramatic decrease in the cost of coal production.

1900 World’s Fair: Commissioned by the French government, the Otto company displays the recently invented diesel engine running on peanut oil without any modification to the original design. The inventor of the engine, Rudolf Diesel, learns of this and becomes a leading proponent for the development of biodiesel fuels to spur agricultural development. However after his death in 1913 and with the emerging petroleum market on the rise, the motor is redesigned to run solely on petroleum diesel fuel.

The Egyptian desert 1913: Frank Shuman, the inventor of safety glass, presents a solar power plant which promises to make solar energy—a limitless, renewable energy source—more cost-efficient than coal. He too receives generous accolades and funding from the German and British governments, but ultimately with the outbreak of World War I shortly thereafter, funding is cut and put into the exploding petroleum market, leaving Shuman’s solar collectors to be recycled into weapons.

Detroit, Michigan 1908: Henry Ford’s first Model T rolls off the assembly line and it runs on gasoline and/or corn ethanol. Ford envisions one day however that all vehicles will run solely on agricultural fuel sources. One of particular interest to him is hemp. In 1941 he even constructs a lightweight car that runs on hemp biofuel and is constructed with plastic panels made partially of hemp. Nevertheless the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937—backed by the petrochemical company DuPont—would eventually kill the domestic hemp industry and with the onset of World War II, gasoline engine technology would only see further dominance.

Now that we’re facing down the barrel of a global climate crisis, it’s easy to look back and see where it might have been averted. It’s not like we weren’t warned; as far back as 1896 (read here) the scientific community has cautioned us about the consequences of a fossil-fueled civilization. But humanity’s myopic view of the future has not only undercut our ingenuity, but it now endangers the survival of our species—and many others I may add. However there’s hope and I’d like to pay tribute to this hope by highlighting today and tomorrow’s most innovative and coolest technologies on the frontline in the fight against climate change. But first…

THE PROOF:

Believe it or not, our planet breathes. In the spring, the forests of the Northern Hemisphere inhale carbon dioxide to grow and the amount of CO2 in the air decreases while the amount of oxygen (O2) increases. Then in the fall, when leaves fall and decay, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This same respiratory cycle happens in the Southern Hemisphere, but there is far more ocean than forest in the South. This has been happening for tens of millions of years, but wasn’t noticed until 1958 when the oceanographer Charles David Keeling devised a way to accurately measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. However this discovery also unearthed quite a big elephant in the room for humanity: climate change.

You see, CO2 in our atmosphere acts as an insulator for heat sent here from the sun. Without it, our planet would be a frozen wasteland and with too much of it, it’d be hell on earth and the difference between the two is not much—six molecules of CO2 per ten thousand to be exact. Since the formation of the earth, volcanoes have been spewing CO2 into the air. Then water and life came along and the CO2 was absorbed into the oceans and harvested into more organic matter. Over the course of millions of years, this bled our atmosphere of CO2 (which is a good thing when you’re cultivating life) until CO2 comprised just three-hundredths of a percent of our atmosphere—three molecules per ten thousand. And for at least the last 800,000 years this percentage has stayed relatively the same until the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Hmm… anybody see a strange correlation? We know this because we’ve drilled into glaciers and extracted and measured trapped air from that long ago. Since about the turn of the century, CO2 levels have risen a staggering 40%. And as of January 2015, we’ve officially added another molecule of CO2 per ten thousand—four per ten thousand in total—in the span of about 100 years. Earth hasn’t seen CO2 levels this high in over three million years, when horses and camels roamed the high arctic and sea levels were at least 30 feet higher; a level that would drown many major cities today.

While one more molecule per ten thousand may not sound like much, remember the difference between frozen wasteland and hell on earth is only six molecules per ten thousand and life providing oasis sits delicately in the middle at three. And it’s not like the earth is just naturally dumping all this additional CO2 into the air. We know it’s man-made because CO2 created from the burning of fossil fuels is slightly lighter than that of say volcanic CO2.

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This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

The strongest force driving climate change is us. It’s undeniable and those who deny it in my opinion are just too scared to admit it. And it is scary. It’s not like we can keep going along like this and still have another 200 years before we add two more CO2 molecules per ten thousand to the atmosphere. We’ve already set off a chain reaction of sorts. Because temperatures are rising, ground that’s been frozen for a millennia is now beginning to thaw. That ground is densely packed with organic matter and the thawing of that organic matter is releasing more CO2 into the air, causing the temperature to rise even higher and thaw ground even quicker. This positive feedback loop is also happening with the melting of sea ice. As ocean temperatures rise, more sea ice melts and more heat is absorbed into the oceans instead of being reflected back into space, which causes ocean temperatures to rise faster which in turn melts the ice faster. Not only are we contributing heavily to climate change, but now we’ve triggered Mother Earth to follow suit.

But as I stated previously there is hope. We haven’t reached the “point of no return”—the point at which no amount of effort will save us from catastrophic global warming—yet. That point is at 4.5 molecules per ten thousand, so we are damn close. If we continue at our current rate, which is adding two more CO2 molecules per million per year, we’ll reach the “point of no return” somewhere around 2042. But I have faith in humans; faith that we’re too smart and too adaptive to let that happen. After all, we come from a long pedigree of very successful survivors, so let’s put it to use. If not for the sake of saving the world, at least for the sake of technological progression. We know fossil fuels won’t last forever so why not start solving that problem now? Also wouldn’t it be cool if we had concrete that healed itself and roads that talked to us while collecting solar energy? This is just a preview of some of the green technologies and innovations on the horizon that I’ll cover in part two of this series. Until then, stay curious my friends.

Why Drive-Thru Attendant is The Proudest Position I’ve Ever Held

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By Bradley Stockwell

The further I progress in my adult life, the more I realize what an important role my first job had in building the foundation of it. Let’s be honest, working as a fast food drive-thru attendant just plainly sucks. It’s extremely stressful and degrading; you make minimum wage, have some horrible bosses and you go home every day smelling like greasy meat. I had everything from insults to water balloons to milkshakes to sex toys thrown at me (yes for some reason people love playing practical jokes on drive-thru attendants). I witnessed physical altercations—was even involved in one myself, auto accidents, arrests and people performing sex acts while I handed them their food (completely separate from the sex toys incident). Yet despite all this, I am continually grateful for the preview the drive-thru gave me of the real world in all its ugly and fascinating glory.

Social Skills

Customer service is an obvious requirement of a drive-thru attendant. Since food is a universal need, the walks of life I came in contact with—and had to make happy—was quite expansive. Also if you get between hungry people and their food, be prepared to see some claws come out. To avoid—or if need be remedy—angry customers, I learned there was no one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone has their own individual ticks, stresses and personalities and to succeed in customer service you need to be an excellent reader of people. As a naïve 16-year-old boy who was raised in a nice suburban community, I wasn’t so good at this in the beginning. However by the end of my two-year tenure in fast food, there wasn’t a soccer mom, senior citizen, crackhead, or corporate businessman I couldn’t charm.

Communication

As the drive-thru attendant you’re sort of the quarterback of the team. Every part of the transaction runs through your hands from taking the order, collecting the money and handing the order off to the customer. All three of these things need to be double-checked for accuracy because if something goes wrong, all the blame comes back to the customer’s only point of contact—you. While much of this was dependent on me, the food—the most important part—depended on my kitchen staff. I found out early in my fast food career that having an open line of communication with them was crucial. For me this meant I had to learn some Spanish. Repeating orders out loud in Spanish to my kitchen staff increased the accuracy of them tenfold and I can’t tell you how many times knowing a little Spanish has come in handy later in life.

Teamwork and Leadership

Additionally, I also took interest in my kitchen staff’s job roles. While my initial motivation to get behind the grill and fryer was out of curiosity, it helped me realize some of the challenges and stresses they had to deal with day-to-day—such as getting burned constantly. I even let my kitchen staff take a few cracks at the headset to understand my job also. Although we preferred our own positions in the end, it built rapport between us. Understanding and respecting how each person contributes to the team’s success as a whole was an invaluable lesson that helped me succeed later in management. But most importantly, I found working with people who respect and have a positive relationship with each other can make even the worst job very enjoyable at times.

Stress & Time Management

To this day, it’s hard to put into words the stress I felt during a lunch, or dinner rush. The headset is constantly ringing with nagging customers, orders need to be bagged, drinks need to be made, customers need to be greeted at the window, and it only took one slip for the whole thing to fall into chaos. Along with the above mentioned duties, it was also my job to make sure bags, condiments and cups were stocked and the shake machine and ice bins were regularly cleaned and filled. If these things weren’t done before a rush or shift change it meant disaster. My fellow employees, and most importantly the customers, depended on me getting these tasks done, so I quickly learned not to procrastinate them; to instead get them done in small chunks throughout the day. To also ensure rushes ran as smoothly as possible, I memorized the totals with tax for almost every combo meal and the dollar menu up to ten items that way I could fill orders while taking new ones without having to be in front of an order screen.

Optimism

My most valuable lesson sort of happened by accident. Being a musician, I began treating rushes as performances just for the fun of it. Instead of focusing on how much my job sucked, I instead focused on how many people I could make smile or laugh. If the situation was appropriate, I sang to people over the intercom, did caricature voices and just really tried to be the most entertaining drive-thru attendant I could be. I learned that when I took pride in my job—no matter how menial it was, the day went by a lot faster and at times I didn’t even want to go home.