Working From Home

Ideas more or less related to teaching and learning physics at Luther College.

Three days ago I had a video meeting with my outstanding senior project students and I was invigorated by my first-ever meeting with them in this format. They are doing great things as we assess the long-term variations and population dynamics in a group of low amplitude semi-regular variable stars we have been studying for more that we have been monitoring for more than 15 years. I hope you recognize that I have been able to use three hyphenated words (hyphen-words?) already. I plan many more. I have written about these studies (no, not hyphen word studies) many times before, with progress updates and glimpses into our processing on the fly as we try to figure things out. Not too long ago I deduced that my entire life has been a series of these long-term, slowly unfolding projects. All the way back in graduate school I chose a detector development project that kept me there as long as possible. I have caught fish in each of the past 217 months. My wife Kristin and I are trying to catch fish in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, a project we envisioned stretching over the next dozen years and then well into retirement after that. I have been working on getting my gardens in respectable shape for nearly twenty years. I have always known that I was a homebody, firmly tied to place, but I now realize I am a sort of timebody as well, appreciating slowly developing concepts. I wrote about these ideas in an article called A Gently Flowing Stream that recently appeared in Iowa Outdoors magazine. As you might guess from the title of that publication, the effort to catch fish a fish in each Iowa county formed the heart of that story, not looking for period and amplitude evolution in low-amplitude semi-regular stars. Believe it or not, this all brings me back to working from home a few days ago. The real point hidden in that article is that building a life around such slowly-evolving projects is a way to connect us to the flow of humanity that has come before and will come after – my paltry few decades of stellar data fit in the much longer human struggle to understand just a little bit. My effort to fish Iowa through space and time connects me to those all who have lived and will live from the bounty this land has to offer. But with a fairly serious cancer diagnosis last fall I was forced to reflect on where these projects were headed.

We have been following a fairly unorthodox approach to my treatment for what we are calling oligometastatic prostate cancer. It seems to be largely in line with what they describe in this MedPages article. I’ve had androgen deprivation therapy since September as well as treatment with abiraterone acetate. Five days before that first senior project video meeting I had a radical prostatectomy and extended pelvic lymph node dissection. That turned up one positive lymph node to go with the lone visible bone metastasis that we will treat with radiation in a few weeks. All this is serious stuff but not without at least some hope. You know - bone metastasis bad, only one very small metastasis ok; lymph node involvement bad, only one node ok; PSA 69 in September bad, PSA since January undetectable ok. I started back with a few hours of meetings two days ago and meetings with advisees today. The biggest downer in the near-term is that I can’t see me taking data for at least a month, likely more and if we get to be too late it’s not clear we will have enough time this summer for taking data at all to make sense. It would be the first missed data season since we started in 2001.

Reaching this third paragraph, it’s time to get to the point of all this rambling, but I am not sure there is a lot of meaning to be made here, this being so different from what I typically write. The two loyal readers of this blog know that I usually write on one of three topics: (1) the research, what we are doing new and why it still gets me excited to take data every night after so long; (2) teaching, particularly general astronomy, and how we try to approach and assess what we are doing and why I still get excited thinking about it and doing it after so many years; (3) words, phrases and clichés I find interesting, odd or confusing and somehow applicable to 1 and 2 above. Of course, writing about my own introspection at having cancer is none of those and the meaning is a little fuzzier. When I sit on the observatory stairs and watch the world get dark as I await the opportunity to shoot images of our field, I feel close to the universe and all the people who have ever been, feeling molecularly connected to everything in a way that I can’t quite explain to those who don’t get it and don’t need to explain to those who do. Struggling with this cancer is like that in a way. The battle is so private and individual and yet so broadly shared with all of humanity that, in a very real way, I now feel closer to the entirety of all that has been and will be. If you’ve read the other things I’ve written you know that I can get pretty boring talking about what a gift it is to be part of all this – making a living talking to wonderful students about the universe and being a very tiny part of the scientific enterprise.  And I guess that’s where we’ve landed here. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, I tried to pray for strength or protection or something like that. I am uniquely bad at praying; most people wouldn’t recognize what I do as praying I suspect, my prayers being mostly a sense of warmth and humility at feeling the connections to everything that I described earlier, as well as thoughts about the human race and the universe and beauty. I am not even sure what I call prayers have words most of the time. They are diffuse. Still, I tried to ask for help from that big connection in the form of something people might call a prayer and all that came out was a river of gratitude for everyone and everything and the unearned good fortune that has been mine. When we think about clichés in (3) above, the story of Lou Gehrig standing in Yankee Stadium and considering himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth has almost reached that level, but I get it. For now, I will continue engaging in the long-term projects as I am able but I might think about their purpose and appropriate progress for them a bit more, something I maybe should have thought about when they started. I will continue teach; I will continue to learn. And speaking of category 3 blog posts, expect a beauty in the near future built around my favorite song lyric of all time, “The heat was hot,” from America’s Horse With No Name.

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