Jun 282011

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Vintage) by Michael Brooks

In this book, Michael Brooks covers thirteen science cannot figure out… yet. These thirteen things are completely baffling to our current understanding: dark matter, dark energy, cold fusion, homeopathy, placebos, evidence of life on Mars and many others. When things get weird in science, science either digs in or denies everything. Brooks not only discusses the problems and possible solutions, but he shines the light on science and their tendency to dismiss anything outside the tight circle of understanding. The book stimulates one to think about these anomalies and to question some things we have been taught to believe.

A good example is cold fusion. In the early 1980s, Pons and Fleischmann¬† announced discovery of cold fusion and were subsequently professionally destroyed when others couldn’t reproduce their experiments. Brooks reveals the continued research in this area and how it has been completely ignored by the press and scientific journals. Yet, several experiments have confirmed their research. Most of the research has been conducted by the military under code names so no one would realize the topic of study and point the finger of derision. There appears to be something to cold fusion, but science is a little to conservative to take a second look.

The book is interesting, but can get a little long winded and tough to consume in spots. Brooks does a good job of explaining deep science to the lay reader, but some of the descriptions can get a little tedious. The material is interesting, but unapproachable for most of us. I understand the problem with dark matter in the universe presents to science, but have no context of what can be done about it or even why I should care. It is just a novelty for me. Most of the mysteries explained cannot be brought home as to why these problems should concern us beyond the trivial. If you want that kind of an explanation of science, try Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition.

In the epilogue, Brooks admits he is hoping to stimulate the future scientists who can solve these problems, much as his science teacher did for him. For that, I applaud him. Something or someone needs to spark the minds of tomorrow. However, I believe the ship has sailed for this closet physicist.

Jun 062011

Layoff is one of the most feared words in the English language. Through no fault of their own, the job has disappeared. Layoffs are usually unexpected, traumatic and devastating to both the family and individual being let go. No one wants to be laid off.

I was laid off from the small software company I worked for back in 2004. Perhaps I was nuts, but I actually volunteered. The company was laying off 40% and I didn’t believe for a minute that would be the end of it. As a manager, I knew it was coming and had a view of the future most didn’t. I knew our parent was planning to sell the company. The severance package being offered was not likely to get better with the next round, so I decided to take it.

Starting in mid-January, I became unemployed. I took a vacation with the family and a little time for myself. On the surface, this may have looked foolish, but we had the money from the weeks and weeks of unused vacation time I had accrued. Since I hadn’t taken the time with the family earlier, they deserved it. We had a wonderful time and it was very relaxing, especially knowing nothing was piling up back at the office. Yes, I had that nagging concern of not having a job to go back to, but the severance package went a long way to keeping those feelings at bay. I had a year’s cash in the bank.

In March, I began investigating franchises, thinking I wanted to start my own company.Over the next few months, I looked at several, but couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on any of them. I came very close to one, literally a day away from signing. However, I developed second thoughts and backed out. I decided owning a franchise wasn’t for me. It was time to find a job.

It quickly became apparent that I hadn’t developed a network over the years. I had to start from scratch. With the help of a great coach, Paulette Esposito, I began networking in earnest. Through the summer of 1994, I met with over 125 fascinating people in all walks of life, position and places. It was an education in people and I had a front row seat.

In October, I finally got the break I had been hoping for. Through a networking contact, a job was created for me, where I was the only applicant. Those are the odds I was praying for. Corporate America being what it is, it still took until the following February for all the paperwork to come through and actually start the job. I worked a temp job while waiting, but I remember the wonderful feeling of getting back to the status of “full time employee.”

So why tell this long story? The pivot point for me was that long year out of work. Being unemployed is not something I would wish on anyone. However, the experience is not something I would trade, either. I learned so much about myself through that year. That learning has changed the way I look at myself, my career and my skills completely.

I discovered I love meeting people. I thrive on it. I have said more than once if I could find a way to make networking pay, I would do it full time. Learning stories and making connections to solve problems is the most gratifying work I have ever done.

What was really exciting was when I could start helping others by connecting them with people I had already met. This happened a few times, most notably when I was able to connect a woman in the Department of Education to a man in the Board of Education, who had told me the week before he had solved the exact problem she was facing. The relief on her face was priceless.

I also learned one of my strengths is mentoring and helping people. I recognized it through my meeting with people and telling my story. When asked for their advice, they would parrot back to me this skill I hadn’t recognized as valuable. I thought every manager grew the people they led, advised them on their careers and coached them to greater productivity. As they told me it wasn’t the norm, I discovered those were the skills I most wanted to use. These conversations gave me confidence and trust in myself that set me up for success when the opportunity did come along.

Odd as it may sound, I treasure the year I was out of work. I learned more about myself during those months than I thought possible. While the time was stressful for both me and my family, the introspection set me up for greater success later. This is one pivot I will appreciate forever.

Jun 032011

I had one of the best science teachers in Mr. Ashcraft. He was everything one would want in a teacher: inventive, funny, engaging, knowledgable, passionate and concerned. Through challenging experiments and lively lectures, he lit up our interest in science. I looked forward to his class. I attacked research papers with eagerness. I even tried to unravel the math behind black hole research (I didn’t have a prayer in 9th grade).

I hadn’t given much thought to science, other than science fiction, prior to Mr. Ashcraft’s class. The biological sciences bored me. Physical science, though, turned me on. Fracturing rocks, learning weather patterns, and designing electrical circuits were fun.

About halfway through the year, Mr. Ashcraft pulled me aside and asked my future plans. Naturally, this ninth grader was clueless. Future? I was looking forward to lunch. He told me I should be a physicist. Perhaps even an astrophysicist. Now that sounded cool. Of course, I had to look up astrophysics, though. I didn’t know what it was. It is the study of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies. Even more cool!

That spark of interest took hold and set the tone of my studies from then on. I was going to be an astrophysicist. I found a loophole in the rules of our school district so I could skip biology and take physics and aeronautics instead. I took all the math classes, even though I didn’t really like them. I watched the new space shuttles launches, with the absolute certitude that I would work on them one day. Every research paper where I could control the topic was around space science.

On to college, I enrolled as a physics major and loaded up on the classes. That is when I ran into trouble. Calculus. My brick wall. I took the three required classes twice each over the next couple years and never understood the topic. It was horrible. Ever had that nightmare where you walk into the final exam and can’t understand a single question on the page? I lived that one in my last attempt. I turned that test in with only my name on it. Zero. Zip. I blanked on every question. I didn’t know where to start on a single problem. That ended my physics career. You can’t decipher the heavens if you can’t do the math.

It might be easy to say the end of my physics career was the important pivot point. Naturally, much changed as a result. However, ¬†the more important pivot point was that moment of encouragement from Mr. Ashcraft. He saw a student who had an interest in something that was his passion. I, unfortunately, saw his advice as something I “had to do”, not something to “investigate”. I spent years pursuing his dream, rather than finding my own. Too late, I would see this as a pattern. Someone suggested I go to a Vo-tech school for computer programming. I signed up for a two year course, even though I didn’t have the passion for it. That resulted in a ten year career I didn’t really enjoy. A band teacher suggested a career in performance. Fortunately, I knew enough by then that I really hated practicing, a requirement for a performer. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about it. I’ll admit I still do occasionally.

One of the things I inherited from my father was talent to do many things. He was a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. I don’t believe he ever found his passion. I don’t know if I have found mine yet, although I believe I am closer than he ever was. I believe my passion to be in training, teaching, but not in a classroom. I also have a streak of entrepreneurship, along with a passion for achieving. Could I have discovered this without the experiences I have had? I really don’t know. Perhaps not. But decades of side tracks definitely have left me far from what I could have achieved.

While I don’t regret the pivot point of Jr. High science, I do believe I allowed it to get in the way of learning what I really would like to do. I have permitted, almost required, myself to chase every suggestion made to me by someone I admire. The problem with having many talents is everyone has advice. This has led me in so many different directions, sometimes I don’t know which way is “my” way. That is the journey I am on. It is interesting, not necessarily rewarding, often frustrating, yet perhaps more common than I think.

How about you? How have you found your passion? Who influenced you? Have you always known or has it come through years of wandering about? How did you recognize it? Please share your comments. I would love to hear them.