Lessons In Chemistry and Physics From A Toddler

1) 1st Law of Thermodynamics — the energy of the universe is constant. That is to say, if one system or object gains energy, another system or object must have lost energy. As the day progresses, I steadily lose energy, and W steadily becomes more and more energetic.

2) 2nd Law of Thermodynamics — entropy is always increasing. “Entropy” is a fancy chemical word for disorder. ‘Nuff said.

3) Processes are reversible. However, a process that occurs spontaneously in one direction requires an input of energy in the reverse direction, and vice versa. It takes me significant effort to clean up the house. W can take it apart again with no apparent expenditure of energy.

4) Macromolecules bind to one another via an “induced fit” rather than a “lock and key” mechanism. If you pound hard enough, you can get the square peg into the round hole.

5) The laws of the macroscopic universe are constant, and effects are predictable and reproducible. When W squeezes the fruit smoothie pouch, fruit smoothie comes boiling out all over the floor. Every. Single. Time.

6) The most damaging types of radiation are undetectable by humans. Beware the silent toddler.

7) The true nature of a particle is a mathematic combination of all possible states of that particle. Like Schrodinger’s cat, a toddler can exist in multiple (and completely oppositional) states at once. Like ecstatic and enraged. Or exhausted and wired.

8 ) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it’s impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. This is because the act of measuring the position affects the momentum, and vice versa. Similarly, the very act of checking up on a toddler’s current activity affects the toddler’s next action, making it impossible to predict with any certainty what said toddler might do next.

9) Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion — every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When W throws herself on the floor of the grocery store and starts screaming and ripping all her clothes off in an attempt to get me to pick her up, all I want to do is run. Far. Away.

10) Gravity. It works.


What lessons in the physical sciences has your child taught you?




Growing Up Geek — You Can’t Fight Nerd Genes

Today was W’s first Christmas party. It took place in the department where her daddy and I both work at the university. I got her all dressed up in a little skirt and an awesomely geeky shirt that I had made for her, which spells her name using atomic symbols from the periodic table. The shirt was a big hit with my co-workers, but it was, after all, a chemistry department party.

Anyway, all this got me thinking a little bit about my beautiful little girl and the family into which she was born. Her daddy and I are geeks, pure and simple. We were the “other” kids — not the popular kids — in high school. Neither one of us got invited to the parties the cool kids threw, and my prom date was a male friend, while my husband didn’t attend his prom at all. Of course, some of the kids who are weird in high school are the ones who are most interesting afterward (probably because we have to work harder in order to make friends). In the end, while growing up geek kind of sucked at the time, I wouldn’t change a thing about my social experiences in retrospect.

All of which brings me to my daughter. She comes from a family full of scientists, and we all tend to be more analytical than is considered “cool” among the popular kids. Furthermore, we’re readers — my husband and I have walls of books where most people have a TV — and we’re rarely up on pop culture. I certainly won’t prevent my child from watching TV at friends’ houses, but I’m not going to buy one just to ensure that she can get her daily dose of programming. Instead, I will continue to read with her (as I do now), and will hope that as she gets older, she starts sneaking books under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime, just as I did. Am I setting her up to be strange? I’m not going out of my way to try to turn her into a nerd, but the odds aren’t in her favor.

I want my daughter to have a wonderful childhood. I want her to be spared the pain of social ostracization (because if high school was barely tolerable for me, elementary and middle school were torturous, socially-speaking). I want her to enjoy a big circle of friends, as that’s one of the lovely things life has to offer. But I also want to raise a socially conscious thinker. An observer, a philosopher, a constructer of theories and considerer of ideas, regardless of the career path she chooses. I won’t go out of my way to make her not fit in with her childhood peers, but I’m trying to anticipate the possibility that she won’t, and to prepare myself for the heartache of watching her go through what I went through, trying so desperately to fit in, to no avail. As a mother, I want her to have a wonderful childhood, but more than that, I want her to have a beautiful life. Should she end up going down the same social path I did when I was young, I’ll have to remind myself of where that path leads, and how much strength of character it takes to be different when your peers put so much emphasis on being the same.

I’ll just have to wait and see what happens, and I know she’ll be a wonderful person no matter what she does…but a tiny little part of my heart hopes she’ll fly her geek flag proudly, just like mama and daddy.


What do you hope your child does (or doesn’t!) have in common with you?



The Neat Chemistry of Wool

I love cloth diapers. Love. Them. W has only had diaper rash twice in her whole 8.5 months on this planet, and then only when she (or I) was on antibiotics. I have a really water-efficient washing machine and we line-dry, so I feel good about what we’re doing for the environment, and to be honest (and this is just a weird thing about me) I hate the smell of disposables. We’ve started having trouble with cloth at night, though (which, according to all the Internet forums* on cloth diapering, almost everyone does around this age). She nurses all night long, and pees through everything I’ve tried. Literally, I am pretty sure I’ve tried everything that modern diaper technology has to offer. And I’ve given up. So I’ve decided (again, with the help of all those awesome mommies on the Internet and my amazing local diaper shop**) to take a big step back in time and go with the tried-and-true; I’m putting her in prefolds and a wool cover. Prefolds. Like, those big rectangular things that you associate with cloth diapering from the 1900s. It turns out they’re super-absorbent and awesome. As far as the covers go, I knit, and the covers come out really cute (shorts for summer — see picture — and long pants for winter). She sleeps in these. And wool really, really appeals to the chemist in me. Because there’s no plastic, the pee chemicals don’t get trapped against her skin and start to break down, which can cause diaper rash. The natural lanolin on the wool reacts with the urea in the pee (isn’t that cool!?) and just like fat reacts with lye to make soap, the lanolin and urea literally make soap in her diaper. No, it doesn’t foam. But it doesn’t smell like pee, either! Also, wool absorbs a tremendous amount of liquid, so she doesn’t wet the sheets even though there’s no plastic pant over her diaper. The next day, I air out her wool cover for 24 hours (I rotate two of them), and it’s clean- and fresh-smelling by the following night. I have to wash and re-lanolize her covers about once every 3-4 weeks (which is really, really easy and not nearly as scary as it sounds). That’s it. No more pee in the bed (which, since she’s in my bed, is a really big deal to me). And super-cute wool-covered baby bum.

*The decline of the English language sometimes makes me sad. Like all regular gender-neutral Latin nouns, “forum” should be pluralized “fora.” But no one says “fora,” (in fact, I have to keep fighting with my word processor autocorrect to keep it from changing “fora” into “for a.” Everyone says “formus.” So I will too. But my brain autocorrects it.

**My amazing local diaper shop also has a website, so I just want to say thanks to GoGo Natural.


Do you cloth diaper at night? If so, how do you do it?

Shocking New Research Shows Women Can Breastfeed Successfully!!

Disclaimer: I tried to write this post straight. I really tried. But the snark kept rearing its head, so I stopped fighting it.

Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a stunning bit of research earlier this month. Through a longitudinal analysis (meaning that the researchers followed one group over time) of mothers and their breastfeeding babies, the researchers concluded that…wait for it…exclusive breastfeeding can support human infants for the first six months!


Ok, let’s start with the methodology. The study wasn’t very big — 41 total mother/baby pairs lasted the whole 25 weeks. That decreases the extent to which study results can be generalized to the population (yeah, because before a few doctors sat around watching 41 babies grow for six months, there was no evidence that humans could feed their infants effectively, just like Every. Other. Mammal. Does.) From a scientific perspective, that sample size is an issue, but there are bigger fish to fry here.

The data collected confound me. Researchers measured the quantity of milk the babies drank, and compared average caloric intake to “references for energy requirements.” Um, really? Was that necessary? Because the authors also note that the infants grew normally per World Health Organization (WHO) charts. Let me say that again: the babies grew normally. But despite the simplicity and accuracy of using WHO growth chart comparisons to determine whether the infants in question were getting enough food, the researchers wanted energy intake data. This involved using radioisotope-labeled water (no, this is not dangerous, but it is expensive), a variety of analytical techniques (expensive in terms of equipment required), and many, many statistical techniques (basically math problems, which are expensive in terms of time) to…arrive at the conclusion that the babies were eating enough. What a misallocation of medical research dollars (which are limited in availability to begin with). Some other researcher didn’t get funding for his/her study so that these guys could feed kids radio-labeled water to determine what anyone with a scale, a measuring tape, and access to WHO’s website could have told them. (Shaking my head. Sometimes science makes me sad).

But my problems with this study run deeper than the way it was conducted. There’s a common notion propagated by the popular media, society, formula companies, and so on that most women can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed, and/or that human babies need something besides milk to thrive. The complete analysis of the extent to which this is balderdash is too much to get into here, but suffice it to say, human babies all over the world thrive on nothing but breast milk up to (and often well past) the six month mark. This research (together with the attitudes that necessitated it) is evidence that we’re “outsciencing” ourselves (there’s a word you don’t often hear). By this, I mean we sometimes lose sight of the fact that while, yes, we are NEAT animals that do clever things with our paws, we’re ANIMALS nonetheless. We EVOLVED from other animals and maintained the traits and abilities that fostered survival. We never drove the cave-minivan to the cave-superstore to buy cave-formula and cave-cereal (with iron!) for the cave-4-month-old. What did we do? We nursed our infants, just as chimpanzees do, just as dogs do, just as bats do. And you know what? If MOST women weren’t capable of supporting infants with breast milk, humans as a species wouldn’t have thrived. But we did. And substitute or supplement infant food is very, very new in the grand scheme of human evolution.

It’s a shame that so many women convince themselves, before or during lactation, that they can’t do it (a few legitimately can’t make enough milk, but this is rare). It’s a shame that society supports this notion by giving formula as gifts at baby showers, and that hospitals send new mamas home with bags of formula samples. It’s a shame that so many pediatricians push cereal at the four-month visit, despite WHO recommendations to wait until six months of age. It’s a bigger shame, though, that researchers lend credence to all of this by formally studying something (using statistical techniques that miss the forest for the trees) that should be as obvious as the force of gravity. What’s next, a study to determine whether the concentration of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is adequate to maintain cellular function in humans? We should have people inhale labeled oxygen and then measure radiolabeled waste output!

There’s another shame in this study, though, in the way it might be interpreted by physicians, mothers, and childcare gurus. No doubt some will interpret the data to mean that exclusive breastfeeding can support a baby for UP TO six months, rather than that exclusive breastfeeding can support a baby for AT LEAST six months. This distinction may seem insignificant (after all, even the most fervent of breastfeeding mothers usually start a few solids — even if just for entertainment purposes — at six months of age). However, the connotative difference is important because the former interpretation (the one I suspect we’ll see floating around the interwebs) suggests that if all goes well, you’ll probably be able to nurse your baby successfully for as many as six months. The latter is a much stronger assertion: there is generally no medical reason to supplement a baby with solids or formula for six months. It’s worth pointing out that the researchers didn’t continue the investigation beyond 25 weeks, so there’s no way to say (based upon this study) how long a human baby could go on milk alone.

Well, hey, in the end, thank goodness this study came along and demonstrated that breastfeeding can meet the nutritional needs of an infant. What a relief. I’d been wondering lately whether my cave-ancestors might have given their babies cave-cereal to keep them thriving (and whether I should be doing the same), while here I am just bumbling along, trying to raise my baby like…a mammal.

Nielsen et al. Adequacy of Milk Intake During Exclusive Breastfeeding: A Longitudinal Study. Pediatrics. 2011 Sep 19. [Epub ahead of print]. Accessed 2 Oct 2011.