Thursday, December 31, 2015

Yearly Science Roundup: 2015

I couldn't let 2015 go without recapping my top science stories of the year! There were three standouts to me in 2015. As always, these are my personal choices, so this is a completely biased ranking. You have been warned.

3. Paris Climate Agreement

In an agreement that was better than expected--though not quite enough, scientifically speaking--the nations of the world promised to try and keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Accountability is still shaky, but the U.N. agreement does state that nations must report their progress every five years.

Mayors from hundreds of cities pledged that by 2050, they would run their towns only through renewable energy. This will give a much-needed economic push to the renewable energy industries. But the reality is that fossil fuels remain the cheaper option unless nations move to tax them, which is unlikely.

The moral of the story is that the Paris Summit was a major step in the right direction, though naturally more steps are needed. I'm choosing to look on the bright side, though. Every journey takes many steps, so as long as we're walking forward, that's better than standing stubbornly still.

2. New Horizons Reaches Pluto

People might be surprised that this isn't my number one, and I admit it was a close call.

On July 14th, New Horizons flew past Pluto, going faster than any man-made object in existence. It took nine years to get out to the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto is located at the edge of our solar system, and collected a wealth of knowledge in a matter of hours--including our first ever up-close pictures of Pluto!

Scientists are learning a bunch from this mission, but my favorite thing about it was how excited it got the public about space exploration. Everyone loves Pluto, and when we finally got to "meet" the dwarf planet this year for the first time, we learned Pluto loves us, too! The big heart-shape is a plain of frozen glacial nitrogen, brilliantly reflecting sunlight from three and a half billion miles away. How cool! Literally!

As for my number one science story of the year...


Sorry, space. The paleoanthropologist in me wins out this year.

This story had ME written all over it. A new relative of ancient humans. Cool caves. A team of all-lady scientists. Live-tweets (and blogs!) of the discovery. And more fossils than can yet even be COUNTED.

Yes, the discovery and publication of Homo naledi is my number one story of 2015. The Rising Star Expedition began two years ago when reports came of a cave that appeared to have human remains. From there, Lee Berger assembled a team to explore this cave and see just how much was down there.

Turns out...a LOT was down there. So far, over 1500 fossils have been collected, from about 15 individuals--several of which seem to have associated skulls/skeletons. MIND-BOGGLING. For perspective, less than 5 finds in the history of early human paleoanthropology have consisted of an individual with skull and skeleton bones together. And here, in this one cave, are so, so, SO many more. Adults, infants, elderly...all here.

The species was given the name Homo naledi, after the cave in which they were discovered. I was lucky enough to see models of them in person in October. The hands and feet of these early humans are astonishing--so similar to ours, even though they themselves were only the size of Lucy. Their hands could certainly manipulate tools, but their brains were close to that of a chimpanzee's. Additionally, the way the fossils are deposited suggests deliberate, perhaps ritualistic, disposal of the dead by other members of the species. WHAT?! Wow. We have a lot to learn about this new species, and it is going to greatly influence our understanding of human evolution.

The biggest question remaining is the age of the specimens. There is no easy way to deduce it, because of the nature of the find, but I have faith science will find a way. This is too big of a find not to put our best efforts towards.

There are still a ton more fossils down in the cave, but to access it, you have to be an incredibly brave spelunker--and incredibly small! One passage is only 8 inches wide. I can't wait to see what more comes from this find in the future, and am still just completely blown away by what's been found so far.

So there you have it. My top science stories of the year. Onwards, to 2016!

My 2015

Last day of 2015. This year can only be described as a rollercoaster.

January 1st, 2015, no one had any idea there was 9 feet of snow on the horizon for Boston. And I had no idea what was on my personal horizon, either. I started the year at a low point, with only one hope--that even though my book wasn't selling, the new one I was writing would. That was what I clung to as the snow piled up, burying all of us Bostonians in our own trapped worlds for months on end.

At work, life was taken over by the new program I was lead developer on. We scrambled to make up snow cancellations, and I scrambled to pull together a new workshop in a third of the usual development time.

When the snow finally melted and we could venture back outside, I got severely poisoned by my food allergy and spent over a month in misery, occasionally passing out--once so badly that I broke my finger upon falling.

Still, I pressed on. The book had to get finished. The program had to get out the door. I refused to fail any of my commitments.

July arrived. I was walking on the thinnest of wires between health (and sanity) and complete immune breakdown. I knew it--and that was the saddest part of all. I knew it, and pushed myself on anyway. My book was drafted and sent to my agent, but the program wasn't done yet for work. That had to get done. It had to!

Mere days before its premiere, my immune system finally gave up on me and my single-minded obsession to GET EVERYTHING DONE. I woke up with a fever of 102, went to work ANYWAY, and then that night had to be rushed to the ER by a couple of very loyal friends as I spiked to almost 104.

I'd failed.

I had never felt more shame.

The 104 degree fever stayed. For a full week. The fever stayed, I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and I ended up having such a severe cough that I fractured at least one rib. My program did end up going out the door on time, but I wasn't there to see it off.

People had to babysit me. Feed me. Feed my cats. I barely remember most of those days. I wasn't me. I wasn't human.

It's hard to put into words how it feels to have your autonomy completely taken away by an illness. Meanwhile, around me, life went on. My program went on without me. Everything I worked for...and in the end, I wasn't needed. Or at least, that is how it felt.

The fever broke, and I turned to what I'd clung to at the beginning of the year--my new novel. I had gotten revision notes back from my agent, and slowly began chipping away at those.

I'd learned a valuable lesson--I'd learned how hard was too hard to push myself. But I'd also learned where the line was (much to the chagrin of my friends), and now knew how to safely toe it. Hah!

I was broken, depressed, and barely had a shred of energy to give, but I wasn't going to give up on my dream of being published.

And that's when I got the phone call that changed everything.

I'd been offered a book deal by HarperCollins. Not for the new book--no, that one still wasn't out there in the world. For the old book. The one I'd assumed we would have to shelve.

I was going to be PUBLISHED! AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

Arguably the biggest dream of my entire life. I still wake up in disbelief, months later.

And thus, 2015 flipped. My ribs healed. I finished revising the new novel.

...I interviewed for and got a new job at the museum.

My writing life and my work life both drastically changed as I went into the fall. I rushed to keep up, but the year had already taken its toll. I was exhausted--physically, mentally, emotionally.

And then, I had to go and hurt my right knee (for those not in the know, that's my GOOD knee--my left was broken years ago). I was put in a brace, had activities restricted once again...and then learned that this will likely be a lifelong affliction. That I will have to live with bum knees forever, and that there is very little to be done to change that.

As I said at the beginning, 2015 was a rollercoaster.

The year wrapped up with me flailing around at work, saying goodbye to six years in one department and trying to get a grasp on my new job, while simultaneously getting my first revision notes from my publisher. The need to DO EVERYTHING and BE THE BEST I CAN BE rose up again and I had to smack it down on repeat, since I know what that need drives me to and never again want to experience illness like I did over the summer.

A true emotional rollercoaster, from start to finish. One that I never could have seen coming.

Beyond the rollercoaster, though, I learned a lot in 2015. I learned my limits, and I also learned just how much I can accomplish before tipping over the edge. And this morning when I asked myself what I was most proud of in 2015, I surprised myself with my answer.

It's not surviving pneumonia or the numerous other health issues. It wasn't creating a new (highly successful!) program for work. It wasn't getting promoted, or even getting my book deal. It wasn't finishing my first ever revision for my HarperCollins editor or signing my contract.

It was finishing that book that I set out to finish last January.

I don't know if it's because that book was the most complex I've ever written, and has tormented me for years trying to get it onto paper, or if it's because I kept pushing on with it despite all the obstacles the rest of my life threw at me along the way. But whatever it is, that new novel is unquestionably the accomplishment I'm the most proud of in 2015. I wrote it. I did it. Despite everything, I did it.

As for 2016...well, I'll write another book. After all, that's what my publisher wants.

Signing off on 2015, a very tired but exceptionally proud,

Katie Slivensky

Monday, December 14, 2015

Before The Force Awakens

Before The Force Awakens, a 9 year-old girl watched A New Hope...and had her entire life change in two short hours.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl rewatched that rented library VHS every day of the week. Then she begged for the next two, and repeated the process with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi before her parents caved and just bought her the full set.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who wanted to be Han Solo. She took an old black vest and masking-taped a cut-out pocket inside of it, as her secret smuggler's pouch.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who threw all "age appropriate" books out the window and read nothing but Star Wars novels from age 9 on out.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who built a life size version of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon out of tinker toys in her basement.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who spent as much time as possible with friends who grew to love Star Wars just as much as she did. Action figures and computer games (with joysticks for the ultimate X-wing experience) were staples for years of "hangout time" to come.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who had every Star Wars encyclopedia and guide book memorized to the tiniest detail.

These 1st two photos are care of SWBFF Carolyn Nishon.
Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who unknowingly wrote her first piece of (alas, uncompleted) fanfiction. (Crossover fanfiction, I might add, entitled Jurassic Jedi. The Falcon goes through a wormhole and crashes straight into Isla Nublar.)

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who subscribed to the Star Wars Insider--a monthly (and later, bimonthly) magazine for fans. She especially loved Anthony Daniels' hilarious column, and sometimes would allow herself to skip ahead just to read it. Of course, she would go back to read the rest of the magazine multiple times over to make up for it.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who gave herself a Star Wars name and invented an entire alien species, language, and culture to match. (Katla Srivon, Kalokian X-Wing Squad pilot, at your service.)

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl following every shred of news she could find--pre-internet!--about The Phantom Menace. Who got spoiled about Qui-Gon's death because she bought the CD before the movie hit (a track is literally called "Qui-Gon's Funeral"). Who then saw the film 9 times in theaters, and was puzzled why everyone at school started to treat it like it was a joke.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who tried to remain loyal as a fan while everything she loved got mocked around her.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who clung to her Star Wars novels as a place to hide away from the bitterness that slowly began surrounding her obsession.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who stood fast and went to the midnight show of Attack of the Clones. And cheered loudly with the entire audience when Yoda drew his lightsaber.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who entered what she thought would be her last "new" Star Wars viewing ever at a midnight in 2005. Dressed as a Jedi, two stormtroopers in the theater immediately "attacked" upon her entry, and she got to pretend to battle their blasts off with her lightsaber. Her 9 year-old self would have passed out in excitement to learn where she was and what she was doing a decade after her obsession began.

Before The Force Awakens, there was a girl who loved Star Wars. Who lived it, breathed it, to such an extreme level she was convinced somehow it had to be real. It just had to be. Somehow. Please. Please.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl became an adult.

Star Wars became a thing of the past to her. Her old self. The child she once was and often misses being. The fantasy world she lived in to cope with adolescence.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl decided to write her own stories to reach kids at that magical age Star Wars reached her. Maybe even about space. And robots.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl learned there would be new Star Wars movies. OH MY GOSH YAY!!! ...And then she learned that these movies would destroy the entire canon knowledge she had memorized in her bones from the books beyond Return of the Jedi.

...Her childhood gone. Like Alderaan. In one horrific moment.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl felt crushed that they would do this to her. That they would take away something she cherished so deeply. That they would pull this on their fans! The ones who had stayed by them, even through the roughest of times!!! It wasn't fair!

Before The Force Awakens, that girl had to come to terms with a lot of things. That the world didn't know Star Wars like she did, save for a select few who weren't anywhere near making up a majority of movie-goers. That her childhood might be over, but that wasn't a bad thing. That she was now in a position to create stories of her own for new generations. That her 9 year-old self would, once again, pass out in excitement to see where she was, and what she was doing.

Before The Force Awakens, that girl had to remind herself that in order to be excited about the future, a person can't cling to the past. That it was finally time to grow up...

...And give herself the chance to be a kid again.


This Thursday, I'll be sitting in a theater full of fans, music blasting me to a galaxy far, far away.

And finally, I'm happy to report, I am very, very excited about it.

After all, you never know how 2 hours can change your entire life.