So how was your Thanksgiving? Mine wasn’t bad but getting there and back was, well, a story…

We left on Wednesday for Houston where my brother-in-law and his wife live (he’s an engineer with Boeing and he works on the Shuttle program). We flew out of Portland (which is even smaller than Manchester) and were lucky enough to find absolutely no line at the counter or at security (it is Maine, after all). But an hour or so before our scheduled departure time we found out that our plane was delayed coming in from New York which meant that our flight out would be delayed (turns out our nearly brand new Embraer 190’s weight and stability computers needed to be rebooted which can only be done at the gate and thus it got caught in a “traffic jam” at JFK). Anyway, we had a connecting flight out of JFK at 1:10 PM and only had 35 minutes originally to get between flights. If we missed that connection the next flight didn’t leave for Houston until 8:00 PM. Yes, that’s 7 hours in JFK the night before Thanksgiving – also known as Danté’s Sixth Circle of Hell.

Nonetheless, it rapidly became a moot point when we realized we would miss our connection before we even left Portland. The airline was kind enough (and, actually, they really were nice about it, seriously) to book us on a flight to Austin which is about a 3 hours drive from Houston. So, frantically, as they tried to deboard the arriving passengers, clean the plane, and get us on, they changed our flight to Austin and yelled down to the guys on the ground to change the stickers on our luggage so it went to Austin and not Houston (ah, the advantage of flying out of Maine). In the process we quickly dialed my in-laws and had them rearrange our car rental so we could pick it up in Austin and return it in Houston (the airline wouldn’t pay for the car rental since they argued that we could have waited for the 8 PM flight – personally 7 hours in JFK ranks slightly below cleaning toilets in my book).

So off we went to JFK. The ride was extremely bumpy and an E190 is not a huge plane (not tiny either, but small enough to really feel those bumps). We were seated in row 2 and there were probably 30 rows or so. So as we were about to get off the plane in New York (and it turned out to be the same exact plane taking us to Austin but we had to get off and back on again anyway), my son threw up in the middle of aisle. Remember, we were in row 2 which means all but about 4 people on that flight had to step over my son’s puke on their way out of the plane.

We figured it was air sickness (which it was) and as we were waiting for them to clean the plane so we could get back on, we were frantically calling the pediatrician to see if he could take bonine (a drug that helps such things). Of course, this was during the one hour a day when the doctor’s office is closed for lunch and we were calling on a cell phone which kept cutting out. So, since we only had about ten minutes, we never got through and had to get right back on the plane.

The flight to Austin did smooth out after awhile, but not after my son puked twice more. The flight attendants were nice enough to give my poor wife (who was sitting next to him since I was still nauseous myself) a few trash bags and a stash of rubber gloves. About the only redeemable aspect of this part of the trip was the fact that our airline had 36 channels of DirecTV in each seatback. Of course my son insisted on watching the Food Network…

We arrived in Austin at dinnertime with the prospect of a three hour drive to Houston so we asked where we might find a place to grab a bite to eat. Now, this is a little bit complicated since my daughter has Celiac disease which is a severe gluten intolerance (that is she can’t eat anything with wheat, barley, or oats in it and can’t eat anything even prepared on the same stove). Amazingly enough there are some national chains that have gluten-free menus including Chilis which we were told could be found on the way to Houston, about 20 miles from the airport. Now, the first half of the 180 mile trip to Houston, it turns out, is not on a highway but rather on a four-lane divided road with lights (though not many). We were doing very well until we were about eight miles from the restaurant. That’s when we came to a dead standstill. Now, we had been assured that even in the worst traffic the restaurant was no more than 30 minutes from the airport. It took us 50.

As it turns out one of the lights on this road was out and, combined with rush hour and Thanksgiving traffic, an eight-mile jam had formed. We inched along at between 0 and 15 mph all the way to the restaurant (mind you, with one sick kid and one cranky kid, plus two parents hungry enough to start aiming for roadkill). And, as it also turns out, the restaurant was right before the light that had gone out. And, no kidding, ten feet – yes, ten feet – before we got to the restaurant’s driveway, the light suddenly began to work again.

Regardless, we had finally made it to Chilis in Barstrop (Belstrop?), Texas – only to find out that there was a 35 minute wait (and it was really smoky which made my wife’s asthma go nuts). Amazingly enough, the folks at Chilis were really nice. They told us it would be faster to order take-out, which we did, and they said we could use the bathrooms even though we were eating in the parking lot. They rushed our order and the manager felt such pity on us that he gave us a stack of gift certificates to Chilis (good thing they’re building one near my house). No burger has ever tasted that good.

Well, that’s about it – the rest of the trip was uneventful. A bit anti-climactic I suppose, but it felt utterly absurd as it was happening. We did quite nearly miss our connection on the way back thanks to the fact that we had to get from gate 24 to gate 1 (partially via a shuttle bus) in ten minutes – oh, and it wasn’t really gate 1, it was gate 6 and I only realized it when I noticed we were headed for Fort Lauderdale and not Portland, but hey…). But we finally made it home.

It was quite a trip and not one I wish to repeat, but my heartfelt thanks do go out to Gina and the JetBlue ground crew in Portland, the folks at Enterprise in Austin, and the manager and crew at Chilis in Barstrop (or Belstrop?). Your kindness and understanding kept me from committing some heinous act of violence I would have later regretted.

Hey cutey, what’s your number?

I’m in search of a number. No, not that kind of a number – I’ve been happily married for nearly ten years, thank you. The number I’m in search of might actually be more elusive than anything one might hope to be handed in a dark, crowded bar. It is so obscure and difficult to obtain that a mere sixteen (some say seventeen) people have ever obtained this number (though, loosely, I believe that number to be much higher). In fact it is not a single number at all but rather a variable with a minimum (and most desired, but impossible to obtain) value of 1. The lowest known instances of this number, however, are a handful of 3’s. Curious are you? Not enough bad television to watch? This number happens to be the answer to the question: what do Bill Gates, Richard Feynman, Hank Aaron, and Natalie Portman (AKA Padmé Amidala, Darth Vader’s former love interest) have in common?

As it turns out they are all in possession of an Erdös-Bacon number. While most of us in science and mathematics probably have an Erdös number, only a handful of people possess an Erdös-Bacon number.

For the uninitiated, you are in possession of an Erdös number if you can trace a series of collaborations (officially via co-authorship) back to the enigmatic mathematician Paul Erdös. Erdös himself had an Erdös number of 0. Anyone who coauthored a paper with him (and he had at least 509 coauthors) had (or has) an Erdös number of 1. Anyone who coauthored a paper with one of them has an Erdös number of 2, and so on.

My quest to obtain an Erdös number actually began after I had unwittingly obtained one. A decade ago, fresh out of engineering school (which I can’t refer to as “college” with an entirely straight face), I found myself stuffed into an anonymous cubicle somewhere near Washington, DC. It didn’t take long for the Dilbertesque reality of government contracting to suck out my soul. And so, within two years, I, along with my wife who at the time was having her own reality problems at a large DC law firm, decided to – drum roll please – publish a paper. The paper led to a company (which predictably failed) and eventually, via a very circuitous route, to here. But let’s return to that paper for a moment.

My wife and I had three coauthors – a kinesiologist and astronaut from Penn State; my wife’s father, a now retired teacher and school technology specialist; and my own father, a now retired high school English and Drama teacher who has a role to play in this quest a bit later. It is via the kinesiologist that I (and the other authors of that paper) obtained an Erdös number of 6.

Oddly, despite a doctorate in mathematics from St. Andrews (you may be familiar with them from the GAP project or, perhaps, from my former advisors’ pet project, the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive), that single paper marks my only path to Erdös. I have had virtually no coathors in succeeding years (which may be due to the utter obscurity of my research – I’m a world expert on the unification theories of Sir Arthur Eddington – I’m sorry, I seem to have lost you). Anyway, the point is that I nonetheless have an Erdös number. What I don’t possess is a Bacon number which means I also don’t possess an Erdös-Bacon number which is the sum of one’s separate Erdös and Bacon numbers.

So what’s a Bacon number anyway? If you’re currently ravenous, as am I, this might conjure up images of strips of pork sizzling on a griddle (apologies to “Old Ben” and the 880 pound porker at this year’s Fryeburg Fair in Maine). Or perhaps this conjures up images of the venerable Quantum Pontiff, AKA Dave Bacon, who was recently seen at London’s Royal Society impersonating Newton. In fact, it has nothing to do with either (as far as I know). One’s Bacon number traces a path (officially through film roles, semi-officially through film credits, and unofficially through association) back to actor Kevin Bacon. Now, while I do not formally possess a Bacon number, as of yet, I’ve come close and could claim an unofficial or pseudo-Bacon number based on more than one association.

One of my closest associations stems from the fact that one of my good friends is the nephew (and, until recently, subterranean houseguest) of the president of Warner Brothers. Almost thirteen years ago, while on winter break, this friend and I spent a week relaxing in said uncle’s Malibu beach house which used to belong to the late Steve McQueen (whose son Chad was still the neighbor). As it happens, the week was mostly spent in the company of my friend’s grandmother, so no luck there in obtaining a direct Bacon number, though this friend of mine is currently working for an Australian film company (and his uncle is still Warner Bros. president), so there’s still hope.

Now I happen to have a few other Hollywood connections. As it happens, my hometown of East Aurora, New York has produced a disproportionately high number of Hollywood types. Two of the better known have direct connections to nearly everyone in my family via a local community theatre group, though appearing onstage with an actor (or serving on the crew of a production) does not technically qualify one for a Bacon number. So, despite the fact that the actress who played (the now dead) Mrs. Huber on Desperate Housewives was on the first date I had with my wife (long story), and despite the fact that my wife, a few years later, babysat her nephew (who is now approaching six feet tall), I struck out again.

But the utter irony in all of this is that it is actually conceivable that my father (affectionately known to certain people – primarily former students – as “Beard”) just might have an Erdös-Bacon number. Since he was a coauthor on the same paper as the “astrokinesiologist” (who happens to be one of his former students), he has an Erdös number of 6. Since he was a long-time Drama director and coach (as well as English teacher), a number of his former students have gone on to theatre-related jobs. One, in particular, gave Hollywood a try (you might remember him as creepy lawyer Roy Cohn in a flashback episode of The X-Files or Principal Cole in Donnie Darko). In any case, I have a vague recollection that my father appeared in an independent film (ok, that’s really, really a stretch on more than one level) with him many years ago (I’ll have to confirm this at some point, but if I don’t it makes for a more interesting story). If so, my father – the retired high school English and Drama teacher – would have an Erdös-Bacon number of 8! That’s one better than Natalie Portman (whose Erdös number was obtained under her real name, Natalie Hershlag), and is tied with physicists Fred Alan Wolf and John Hagelin as well as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.

But I suppose that’s stretching it a bit. In fact, Hank Aaron’s Erdös-Bacon number is also a stretch since it is derived from the fact that Aaron and Erdös once happened to sign the same baseball which doesn’t really count as a publication I suppose. The others are entirely real, though, including Natalie Portman’s. And remember Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years? That would be Danica McKellar (who more recently appeared on The West Wing), who has an Erdös-Bacon number of 6. And in case you’re wondering who possesses those 3’s, that would be Hank Aaron (if the baseball counts), Paul Erdös himself (his Bacon number is 3), and MIT applied math professor Daniel Kleitman whose Erdös number is 1 (he was one of the 509 coauthors previously mentioned) and whose Bacon number is 2 (thanks to his appearance in and consultation on Good Will Hunting).

And so my quest continues. But I’m still relatively young and my wife thinks I’m rather dashing (at least I hope so). And perhaps, someday, someone will make a film about Eddington

More fodder for my argument

The following job advertisement appeared in this month’s Physics Today:

Radiation Oncology Physicist (Postgraduate)

Provide CyberKnife linear accelerator physics support to physicians treating radiation oncology patients under supervision of board-certified medical physicists. Collaborate with oncologists to design treatment plans, incl. external radiation therapy & brachytherapy. Dev. & program software for physics measurement data analysis, imaging & dosimetry…

And it goes on from there. Once again, I fail to see merit in the argument that pre-medical students shouldn’t take physics. How in God’s name are doctors supposed to collaborate with physicists if they’ve never taken physics? Of course it would seem to me potentially beneficial for the physicists to have had some biology as well, but I just don’t get it – particularly the strangely myopic view of the anonymous commentator on my previous posts on this topic.

Take this example: want to collaborate with someone from Japan? They will likely know a bit of English but it sure makes things easier if you know a bit of Japanese as well.

Domo arigato (どうもありがとう), Mr. Roboto.


For cryin’ out loud, the US ranked 139th worldwide in voter participation!! Exercise your right to vote, whether you vote for Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, or Mickey Mouse!!

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