On String Cheese and Anisotropy

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String cheese is like an organic transistor…sort of.

A colleague who is a professor and a mom recently said to me, “I eat string cheese every single day of my life. Swear to God it doesn’t taste the same if you don’t pull strings off.” She was of course referring to that perverse group of people who prefer to chomp string cheese like a carrot stick instead of delicately peeling off strings along the long dimension.

Because it’s the kind of person I am, that got me thinking about anisotropy: a fancy word for a common concept, the idea that the properties of a bulk material are different in different directions. Does string cheese really taste different when cut in the longitudinal and transverse directions? It certainly seems plausible…

Anisotropy seems to be the norm in life. For example, we design and manufacture materials so that they have maximum strength along the directions where we need maximum strength, sometimes sacrificing other directions. Often, the very nature of the manufacturing process imposes lasting anisotropies within a material. This is certainly true in the case of string cheese, which is much easier to pull than bite (you’re wasting energy, biters!) in part because of the way it’s made. Could this affect the way our taste receptors respond to compounds in the cheese? Who knows?!

In science, anisotropy makes things complicated (and interesting!) because it forces us to speak of the properties of a material “in a particular direction” rather than “of the material” per se. If we’re measuring in a situation where anisotropy is expected, we have to either work really hard to measure in a specific direction or account as best we can for averaging effects over the measured area or volume.

I’m most familiar with this idea in the context of organic semiconductors, whose electronic properties are often anisotropic because of the way they’re made. Materials scientists and engineers are continuing to study how the microstructure of a material relates to charge-carrier mobility and how we can control the former along desired directions of current flow.

Adventures in Lyon! 6: Reflections

I’ve been back from Lyon for about a month now and had plenty of time to settle back into my usual routine in Atlanta. Spending a month in France was the experience of a lifetime, but I’m glad to be back! In particular, not having a toddler around to keep my sleeping schedule honest was a struggle (not to mention the eighteen hours of daylight and blackout shutters in my apartment in France). It’s nice to sleep soundly again.

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Atlanta is reasonably famous within the US as a city that likes to bulldoze its historical architecture and build something new on top of it. One thing I learned in France is that the old European nations tend to view the entire country this way: as a young upstart still trying to find its way in the world. One the one hand, being steeped in history that runs back over two thousand years leaves one with this constant sense of awe just walking around. You become hyper-aware that millions of other people have walked where you’ve walked. On the other hand, it’s easy to feel small in the midst of all that history: who am I next to the French Resistance in WWII or the revolutionaries?

Stateside, one gets the sense that we’re still in the process of creating our history, of crafting our national story. Monuments are relatively rare and we have debates about destroying some that have been erected. American identity is a fluid concept (and, I think, we like it that way). This can be hard though, as we have little to grasp onto in the way of inspiring national history…leaving many people to define themselves by their work rather than by where they live or those who came before them. Even so, I kind of like it that way. We are still in charge of our own destiny.

Yes, we tore down a stadium and built a new one right next to it. Why not?

It was fascinating to contrast the organization of the European Union (and what people in France said about it) with the federal system in the United States. Imagine New York began as a sovereign nation and was “asked” to join the United States “Union” as part of a “deal.” What would the “nation” of New York think of the “nation” of Mississippi? It’s difficult to even fathom but it gives one a sense of the language used and the thought process in the EU. The EU is not, and will never be, a country per se as the very notion of Western statehood came into being as distinctions between places like France, Germany, the Czech Republic, etc. emerged. No one within the EU wants to trample on national sovereignty, yet complaints about its economics are common in the rich countries. The disproportionate amount of federal aid going to southern states in the US is an annoyance for us, but France and Germany propping up Greece is an international issue with big implications. Interesting contrast, right?

All in all, Lyon was the trip of a lifetime and I really hope I get the chance to return!

Adventures in Lyon! 5: Exchanges

Last summer, in an event completely unrelated to my trip to Lyon this summer, my wife and I hosted Camille, an exchange student from Lyon, at our house in Atlanta for a month. This summer I was able to repay the favor by visiting her family’s gorgeous home in Francheville, a suburb of Lyon accessible by the C20 bus line. To help orient Atlantans, this is roughly the distance from Mercedes-Benz stadium to Decatur Square. Even so, Francheville has the vibe of a quaint and picturesque French town—things are much more dense in France, where land is at a premium!

In an effort to learn as much as I could about how the “real” French lived, I blasted her father with a barrage of questions: what do you think of the migrant situation? What’s it like for young families? What do you think of Americans? What’s it like being a businessman in Europe? All of his answers are a post for another day; it’ll suffice to say here that he was incredibly open, warm, and downright funny the whole time.

The house was filled with delicious food throughout my stay, including some fruit tarts that will stick in my brain for a while. They don’t have a television on the first floor of their house but do have a large window that looks out onto the rolling hills of the French countryside. It was just as quiet as a typical American suburb…reinforcing in my mind an idea of Hans Rosling that people at similar income levels throughout the world live similarly, regardless of where they are.

Camille’s father was able to score tickets to France’s last friendly soccer match before the World Cup, which happened to be in Lyon and against the national embarrassment US men’s national team. We had a bit too much fun rooting for the USA, to Camille’s annoyance! (We just wanted to see a “close game.” And that’s what we got, as the final was 1 – 1. I consider that a win!)

I visited them once more just before I left to christen their newly installed swimming pool. Camille’s father took me back to my apartment in Vieux Lyon on his Vespa—a rather frightening ride considering that a very large and very steep hill separates Francheville from Lyon. He billed it as an “authentic European experience,” and it certainly was!

Adventures (near) Lyon! 4: Paris and the Pasteur Institute

We hit the road to Paris and paid a visit to the Pasteur Institute. The Institute’s museum is located in Pasteur’s former house and includes several rooms preserved since the 1800’s! One of my favorite rooms contained glassware, instruments, and even chemicals that Pasteur used in chronological order, tracing his work from fermentation to pasteurization to vaccination. The rest of the Institute is a scientific research center, something like an amalgamation of the CDC and National Laboratories in the United States.

Everybody with any interest in science has heard of Pasteur, but to a practicing scientist the myth of Pasteur seems a little too perfect. Pasteur’s productivity was a cut above everyone else’s during his time. To an extent, this was because he had latched onto a deep idea that everyone else had missed. At the same time, the story of Pasteur has a dark side: he kept his notebooks secret for his entire career. Once they became public, it was clear that he had exercised some deception in reporting his discoveries. I suppose we can conclude that in launching the field of microbiology, he was as much a marketer as a scientist. The whole issue of Pasteur’s legacy is interesting because his discoveries directly saved thousands of lives. It’s hard to argue that his deceptions weren’t worth it in the long run.

In the afternoon, we checked out some of the research facilities. I toured the protein crystallography center, where automated machines are used to set up thousands of crystallizations in a matter of a few minutes. The entire process of forming and handling crystals is managed by machines—all the scientist does is examine images and use computer interfaces to “grab” microscopic crystals. Truly amazing, as I can still remember when the process of protein crystallization was extremely painstaking and long winded!

For the rest of our time in Paris, I tried to get off the beaten path as much as I could (can’t stand waiting in lines). There are all kinds of interesting hidden gems in the vicinity of the more popular tourist attractions in Paris. For example, the Crypte Archéologique museum is underneath the Île de la Cité—while people were waiting to see Notre Dame above me, I was exploring Roman ruins unearthed at the center of Paris in the nineteenth century!

Earlier this year, I happened on a neat little book about experiencing Paris and its environs by train. The first chapter mentions several cathedrals that are just a short train ride from the center of Paris. The cathedral of St. Denis, near the end of the no. 13 Métro line, contains the remains of most of the kings and queens of France. In contrast to Westminster Abbey in London, this church is far from the center of Paris, evoking the classic image of the French aristocracy as detached and elitist. Smiling down on the unassuming sarcophagi of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI is exactly as satisfying as it sounds! The crypt beneath the church also includes an ancient Roman cemetery containing the remains of Saint Denis himself.


Adventures (near) Lyon! 3: Grenoble on a Whim

Last Saturday, on a whim (and a waitress’s recommendation) I took a train to Grenoble in southeastern France. The city is just a jump over the mountains from Turin, Italy. It actually reminded me a lot of Denver, in that the city itself is mostly flat but massive mountains are visible just a few miles from town. I was hopeful that without a car, I could still find my way to some hiking trails…thankfully, that was the case!

Upon arriving at the SNCF station in the morning, I hopped out and took a walk through town, aiming to fuel up before hitting the mountains. After grabbing a sandwich I discovered Grenoble’s wonderful cable car, which takes passengers from the city proper up to the Grenoble Bastille, an old military fortress now home to a museum, restaurant, and monument to the famous French geologists of the Alps. Placards point out the names of mountains in the distance and recount the geological history of the region. Can you believe the view of the city from the Bastille?!

The Bastille is also the trailhead for a number of hiking trails heading up Mount Jalla, a peak in the foothills of the Alps. Signs point the way to key landmarks with both distances and estimated times. Near the summit I encountered a monument to the mountain troops of France, which were obviously critical during the World Wars. Lookouts along the trail give even more gorgeous views of the city below!

In case the mountains weren’t enough for you, Grenoble is also sporting a couple of rivers, the Isére and its branch the Drac. Unlike Lyon, the branching occurs somewhat outside of the city. The photo below shows the Drac, the smaller of the two. Not far from that river I found an office of the Communist Party of France: “champagne for the 1%…paid for by the 99%!”

Adventures in Lyon! 2: Homesickness

I was hit by a pretty bad bout of homesickness during my first few days in Lyon (still recovering). It came out of nowhere, but the feeling reminded me a lot of graduate school. One thing I’ve figured out is that “depression and anxiety” is a bad name for a nameless feeling that involves short periods of intensity followed by long, crippling fatigue. The two seem to occur over and over in a cycle, as intense “anxiety” tires one out and the ensuing “depression” results in inaction until a breaking point is reached. The dependence of the two make one follow from the other: “anxiety-and-depression” is a package deal, not two separate feelings. This cycle deserves a better name.

Being in a foreign country exacerbates the problem, as something as little as a breakdown in communication at a shop signals the fact that you’re surrounded by people who cannot understand you. You run into barriers—human barriers—at every turn, and they seem somehow more real than the walls one puts up when facing depression at home. The anxiety of the misunderstanding people around you feeds your anxiety.

Thankfully, I have a wife at home who understands all this and has been extremely supportive. That’s made the transition to living in Lyon a lot easier. The key, I’ve found, is to recognize and name the feeling as it’s happening. Being mindful of it doesn’t even necessarily make it go away, but does prime the mind to recognize it the next time it comes around, softening the blow. Slowly but surely, it happens less and less. I’m still in the adjustment process, but I have noticed improvement over time. Perhaps there’s room for me in Lyon yet…

I don’t want to imply that it’s been all bad, either! The history here is incredible. Roman, medieval, and modern European history coexist in a mishmash that is in some ways disordered, but in other ways reflects enduring norms in the city. I’ve been chugging my way through a 950-page book on the history of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Lyon was a part until the 14th century. The photos below are from a hill above Vieux Lyon, which includes Roman ruins, a Roman amphitheater still in use for shows today, and a gorgeous cathedral built in the 1800s (alongside a tower built by scientists as a competing monument). You can’t find architecture spanning this length of time anywhere in my neck of the woods!

Adventures in Lyon! 1: Arriving and Settling In

Greetings from Lyon, France! I’m here to teach organic chemistry to students from Georgia Tech while soaking up as much culture and language from France as I can. It’s taken a couple of days for me to get settled in, but now that the jet lag has worn off, blogging can commence.

All told, the journey to Lyon was fairly uneventful. If you’ve never been, ATL is not only the world’s largest airport; it is also in my experience the most pleasurable to get through—so much so that it has subconsciously softened my stance on the TSA in recent years. (This time, I found myself incredulous that I had actually made it through security without one internal rant about security theater. It seemed like I blinked and was on the other side of the metal detectors. That may have been because last time I went through, it was with a toddler.) I didn’t even have to take the plane train to reach my gate—a rare treat!

My wife claims that in-flight movies are the best part of international flights, and this one had a cornucopia of good stuff. I took in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Avengers: Age of Ultron (a nice opportunity to figure out what was going on in Infinity War), and Black Panther. Things took a nasty turn when it was time to sleep, though…

I am such a Bob Ross nut that my wife got me a joke book of BR quotes for my birthday last year (best gift ever). With the first Bob Ross collection disappearing on May 31, I was not a happy camper upon discovering that The Joy of Painting isn’t even available outside of the US, not to mention the rest of Netflix on the plane. Mindfulness meditation had to do. As the plane lights dimmed and people one by one nodded off, I was reminded of an experience from my childhood…

Upon arriving in Paris, I hopped onto the cheap alternative to the SNCF train network, Ouigo. This is essentially the cutesy counterpart to the overpriced big guy, similar to Lyft (in the early days, at least) versus the taxi companies. Great ride. Although I feared that getting from the Lyon airport to the center of the city was going to be a pain, it turned out to be a breeze. I’d finally made it to Vieux Lyon!

Settling in has been interesting. I’m getting dead tired around 4:00 pm each day, but I can make it through the day without needing a nap. So far, I’ve visited the university quarter (INSA and CPE…there’s a whole post’s worth of interesting differences between American and French universities), the Musée des Confluences (where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet), and various cafés and markets around town.

I thought I could speak French…I totally cannot speak French. 😅 See below for a few photos from my first few days in Lyon.