Category Archives: New York City

My alternate Sandy reality: a love letter from a former New Yorker

I am just under 3 months and just over 800 miles removed from Hurricane Sandy. Watching the news, I’m overwhelmed with relief, distressed for our friends and layered with a veneer of survivor’s guilt. We couldn’t have known, but we made a lucky escape in our move to Tennessee. A part of me longs to be in New York for just a minute, to hug my friends and to embrace the city that was my home for more than 8 years. The combination of news, reports from friends and my experiences of minor crises in the city have left my imagination racing with pictures of what my alternate Sandy reality might be like.

We would have stocked up on water, filled the bathtub and secured our small grill and plants from our front deck, just like we did last year for Hurricane Irene. This time we might have huddled in our narrow hallway overnight, the only place in our two-bedroom apartment away from windows. Our power might have flickered but would have stayed on. We’d be safe, shaken and grateful.

We’d have spotty cell phone service at best right now: a Verizon tower went down in our beloved Bay Ridge. After the storm passed, we would venture out, looking at fallen tree limbs. Our minivan, parked on the streets, would be covered in leaves or maybe damaged  by limbs or crushed by a fallen tree.

I would attempt to resume work in my home office while distracted by details and destruction. My husband would wonder how he would cross the giant transit chasm between Brooklyn and Manhattan so that he could teach on the Upper East Side. His hour-long commute would likely stretch four-fold.

It might be months before we shopped at Fairway again. Our regular stock-up supermarket in Red Hook was flooded. 

A part of me will always live in New York, where I established my career, met and married the love of my life and built relationships with so many wonderful people. New Yorkers sometimes get a reputation as rude and unhelpful. But one of my favorite memories of New York comes from my first days in the city, living in East Harlem. Everything felt foreign, including the neighborhood’s lingua franca, Spanish.  On an early shopping trip in the rain on Third Avenue, my rickety granny cart got stuck in a pavement crack. I pitched forward onto concrete, bruised and disoriented. Two complete strangers stopped, helped me up and made sure I was okay. I was alone in the city, but somehow everything was going to be fine.

New Yorkers are plucky, resilient people, and the city will recover, but also evolve. I hope I will always carry that  strength and resolve with me, no matter where I live. New Yorkers and New York, I love you. And if I could figure out a way to hug five boroughs, I would.


The Science of Monet

Before we left New York City, we finally made it to the New York Botanical Garden. What finally kicked us into gear to make the trip was a special exhibition about Monet’s Garden at Giverny (It closes October 21).

Though Monet can sometimes loom on the edge of a giant Impressionist cliche, I’ve always been a fan. In college, I slept under a comforter covered in one of his famous garden bridge scenes. And during college, my roommate and her mother went to Giverny on a summer trip. “If you get the chance,” she said, “just go.”

I took her advice nearly 5 years later as I traveled in France with friends. We were in Paris for a few days, and I’d spent time in the city before.  So one day while they did some city sightseeing, I hopped on a train to Vernon and a bus to Giverny.

Though I’m sure the garden is amazing throughout the growing season, it washed over me in waves of color delight in May, like eating a multi-course artisanal meal. Monet harnessed as much creativity in his garden design as he did as he when spreading those paints across the canvas. I’d always imagined that some of the pinks and purples that worked their way into the water lilies were enhancements, creative license that Monet took in his paintings. But the day I was there, the cloudy sky and the surrounding blooms imbued the water with rosy hues that were factual rather than fictional.

My brain didn’t quite make this leap as I wandered through the garden, but over time I’ve realized that– though I’d never describe him that way first– Monet was a scientist. He experimented with a garden, and his paintings are his lucious lab notebook.

The NYBG does a nice job of recreating his garden and framing Monet as a botanist. It’s a stunning exhibit, and a good proxy of the real thing (Though if you’re in France, as my roommate said, just go!). But the analogy is far broader– he was a creative observer. To top it off, almost any art history discussion of Monet talks about his declining eyesight and the increasing abstraction in his work. He’s a classic example when psychologists talk about color perception. Monet was scientist, observer, case study, and an amazing artist all in one.

All photos are mine taken in May 1999 and May 2012.


Cocktail hour in the Facebook age

Whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or a science communicator, most of us spend some time at conferences, or more appropriately noshing on cheese, fruit and other snacks, and sipping free wine or beer at the end of the day. And then depending on how well you know the other people in the room, you start conversations about who you are, what you do, or what you’ve been up to lately.

Last Friday, I mingled in one of these rooms, networking with my colleagues, and I was struck by how Facebook is changing these types of conversations.

First of all, I don’t routinely connect with my work colleagues on Facebook (usually Twitter or LinkedIn, first). Maybe they chose to connect with me, or I’ve had enough conversations with them that I chose to connect with them there. I’m not unusual. A Pew Internet study indicates that about 10 percent of our “friends” are colleagues. But I ran into several of them last week. And when I made conversation, I realized that many of the things that were once polite conversation starters are now old news because they’ve already had a life on Facebook.

With one colleague we almost had a little joking game about it, she says, “How are you? I saw on Facebook that your husband finished up his Ph.D. and you’re still making all that pottery.” Check and check. “So what else is going on with you?”

But I also don’t assume that people stalk my Facebook page or my Twitter feed. So, if you offer up information that already appeared elsewhere, are you being social and looping people in on life information that they might not have heard? Or are you that boring person droning on about information that the other person is hearing for the third or fourth time? Social media offers opportunities to connect with people we might never meet otherwise, and I see that as primarily positive. But it also can give us a sense of knowing people when we’ve never met them in person or a false sense that I’ve had a conversation with someone when I haven’t.

In certain ways, I feel like this idea isn’t incredibly different from my experience as a freelancer, working closely with editors who I only communicate with via email or phone. I remember meeting one long-time editor at a conference a few years ago. He was standing 10 feet from me, but asked loudly, “Is Sarah Webb here?” I’d probably written at least 15 articles for him by that point, and it was funny but natural that he wouldn’t recognize me in a crowded room.

Maybe as a journalist I’m oversensitive to the idea of what is news. But I don’t think we can completely ignore that choice to share information, and that nagging question of whether other people are interested and whether we’re beating a dead horse. For now I think I’ll take my cocktail hour lead from my colleague. Here’s what I know, and what else is new?

Image courtesy of


A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin


Biology on a Dinosaur Scale

Titanosaur nest

Last week, along with a group of other journalists, I got a sneak peek at The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, an exhibit that opened on April 16 at the American Museum of Natural History and will be open until January 2. This exhibit departs from the traditional dino-formula of towering skeletons by asking questions about the biology that supported the growth and maintenance of those massive bodies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big dinosaurs. The model of the Mamenchiosaurus strains the room proportions, but the best part is her double-role as a screen for videos that describe how she breathed, the hundreds of liters of blood coursing through her body and 30-ft-long neck, and how she digested hundreds of pounds of food each day.

But though Mamenchiosaurus is daunting in size, she’s positively awe-inspiring once you get to the exhibit where you push a pump that simulates the heart that would pump her blood. I managed to keep her going for a few heartbeats, but I soon got a warning message: “The dino is dizzy.” I didn’t last much longer.

Mamenchisaurus at the AMNH's The World's Largest Dinosaurs

In a quick conversation with respiratory biologist, Dr. Steve Perry, I learned about their über-efficient lungs. Like birds, these dinosaurs likely had lungs with two chambers. As a result, they could absorb oxygen both as they inhaled and as they exhaled, boosting their ability to extract oxygen from the air to 35 percent from the 20 percent that we mere humans manage.

By making all kinds of connections to large animals that currently walk the Earth—elephants, giraffes, and even large egg-laying birds—it became a little easier to wrap my head around these large creatures roaming the Earth. It was fun to get some biology to add some meat to those bones.

More on the research that formed the basis for this exhibit in Science and in the New York Times.

Want to follow a dinosaur on Twitter? @Giant_Dino

Image credits: © AMNH/D. Finnin



Whales in NY Harbor, Part III

Blue Whale, copyright our corner of Brooklyn, we’ve been waiting for our local whale sighting. But it looks like it just might be a matter of time. According toNY Daily News article, local boat owners are already making money off a revenue stream that seemed confined to calmer waters: whale watching tours.

I’ve posted before about the acoustic evidence that whales are living right here in the busy New York shipping lanes. Christopher Clark and colleagues listened in on the giant mammals with underwater microphones and recorded a complex chorus of several species. But lack of funds has paused any follow-up research.

Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll try to time my harbor walks for whale sightings  and bring along my binoculars. But I hope we and the whales can adapt to each other. I’d like to keep cetaceans in my neighborhood.

Image credit:


Science at the Circus

X Bud Roses Troupe, Credit: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus
X Bud Roses Acrobat Troupe at the Big Apple Circus

We finally went to see the Big Apple Circus last week before they finished up their run at Lincoln Center. Though I’d been to larger 3-ring circus performances, I love the intimacy of this single-ring show, where you can connect with the facial expressions of the clowns and marvel at the strength, talent, and skill of performers within 50 feet of your seat. They charmed me just as thoroughly as many of the younger viewers who sat nearby.

We also spent three evenings in November watching PBS’s series Circus, a documentary that followed the Big Apple Circus through an entire season. Great stories and a wonderful picture of the lives of modern performing nomads. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to go on the road with an extreme act, now you can latch on  for a few evenings from the comfort of your living room.

The circus also provides an entertaining way to think about physics. PBS caught on with several educational science videos that they made to accompany the Circus series.

Newton’s laws of motion were never so funny as when they’re presented as part of a dog act. To illustrate Newton’s 3rd Law, the dog and Luciano’s butt exert equal and opposite forces.

Watch the full episode. See more Circus.

Check out the  treasure trove of internet information about both the history of the circus and circus science.

Image Credit: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus


Snow: the marvel of frozen water

Credit: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture

From my unplowed street in New York City last week, two feet of beautiful fluffy white stuff morphed into frustration if you actually needed to leave the house. But secretly snow still reduces me to an 8-year-old child every time I see a few flakes. I grew up in Florida where I rarely saw a few pellets and never made a snowman or snowangels until sometime in college. Nor did I have to shovel  the disappointing aftermath, gray ice-slush hunks of industrialism on asphalt.

Snowflakes form six-sided moments of magic that come and then waft away, forcing us to slow down, whether we want to or not.

I’m not the only one who got swept away with the snow this week.

For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall—that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever more strange and complex patterns, until, at last, like us, they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.


Exploding Color

NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr
NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

Yesterday, we plotted how best to see the NYC fireworks display tonight with the least amount of inconvenience. In other years, we’ve had friends with roof access and good proximity. And a few years ago, we lived in an apartment in New Jersey that sat on a hill facing Manhattan with a bay window vantage point of much of New York Harbor.

That view was my favorite feature of that apartment, which we paid for in sweat equity– a climb up narrow stairs to the third floor. Any time of the year, but particularly on summer evenings, we might hear pops and crackles and head to the window to see where the colored bursts might appear next. Though we usually had no idea of the reason, the sky exploded in color just for us.

As a chemist I know that the palette of those bursts is all about burning different metal ions to produce fountains of shimmering color. And there’s a downside: some of the chemicals– such as perchlorates– in traditional fireworks can cause health and environmental problems. While researchers are working on greener solutions, conventional pyrotechnics are still cheaper.

Even if it means fewer displays, I hope more fireworks shows will “go green”– and red and blue and purple. Even if fireworks occur less often, the “added color value” would be worth it.