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Friday, January 23, 2015

Giving Up Science For a Life of Writing

University of Iowa logo
University of Iowa logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Kids, this is an example of how you can be someone other than what you studied in school. You do what you like, and where your passion is, put all your heart into it. Be the best that you can be!


OAKLAND, California – Growing up in Beijing as the daughter of a physicist, Yiyun Li seemed destined for science. But she would surreptitiously read from Tang dynasty poetry while “pretending to do math.” Years later, studying for a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Iowa, she read short stories clipped from The New Yorker as she did lab work.

“My parents were very much against writing and even very much against me reading literature, which they thought put wrong thoughts in your head,” she recalled. “I don’t think they liked me reading anything but science.”

About a dozen years ago, Ms. Li abandoned medicine and enrolled in the renowned writing program at Iowa. Since then, she has published two highly praised short-story collections, written a pair of novels, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” (a no-strings attached stipend of $625,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years) and been named to lists of “ best young American writers.”

Yet, when she arrived in the United State in 1996, she had written nothing in either Chinese or English, a language she could speak, if not yet colloquially.

“She’s an interesting case for a writer writing in a second language,” said John Freeman, a former editor of Granta, the British literary magazine that named Ms. Li, now 41, to its best young novelist list.

“There’s an elegance and smoothness to her writing that is actually disguising the quite passionate and intense feelings of equivocation and loss that her characters feel.”

Ms. Li’s latest novel, “Kinder than Solitude,” from Random House, shifts between China and the United States. Its four main characters start out as adolescent friends growing up around a Beijing courtyard in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. After the oldest is poisoned, perhaps by one of the others, the survivors drift apart: One becomes a prosperous but soulless businessman riding China’s economic boom, while the other two flee to America, settling in college towns like Berkeley, Madison and Cambridge but never quite learning how to fit in.

Because of these immigrant touches, Ms. Li is often grouped with novelist like Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart and Daniel Alarcon as a first-generation “new American” writer. But she points out that she came to the United State as an adult, and did not grow up bilingual.

“I actually don’t know what an immigrant writer should be written about,” she said, “and if you look at my characters, they don’t struggle as immigrants. They actually do fairly well. If they want, they can have a good life. It’s more that they have to deal with their internal struggles” and the problems they bring from China.

Ms. Li seems to have adapted smoothly to America. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and described ferrying her sons, Vincent and James, to music lessons and sports; her husband, Dapeng Li, who was her college sweetheart in China, is a software engineer at the Pandora music service.

Ms. Li said that in China she did not write anything in Chinese, except a journal she kept as a teenager. Though most of her characters are Chinese, when she hears them talking in her head, they are speaking English. English “felt very natural to me very fast,” she said. “I think in English, I dream in English. I came to English as a grown-up, which is probably to my advantage. The disadvantage is that you don’t have that intimacy with the language.”

The writer Amy Leach, a classmate at Iowa and still a close friend, said, “We’ve talked about how it can be an advantage not to have all those ready-made clichés springing to your mind and precluding more original thinking and wording.”

Ms. Li said, “You miss a lot of idioms, cultural things,” if you don’t go to middle school or high school in the language. “On the other hand, I think if you do approach a language as a grown-up and then use it to write, you also bypass a lot of silliness.”

Taken from The New York Times International Weekly, TODAY Saturday Edition, March 8, 2014

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Artificial Leaf Unfurled… Yet Again

Macro of Wet Leaf
Macro of Wet Leaf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

General Electric is promoting a feel-good collection of videos these days.

Each film chronicles an innovative idea, like Daniel Nocera’s. This Harvard chemist has pioneered the artificial leaf, an invention that generates energy the way a tree does. Light strikes a container of water and out bubbles hydrogen, an energy source.

The short film about his idea has Mr. Nocera saying that his device will one day be in people’s homes, pumping out energy.

“Close your eyes,” he says, and “think about your house being its own power station.”

Such artificial-leaf optimism could also be found a year ago in a Los Angeles Times article that held the artificial leaf “could create enough clean fuel to power a home for a day in developing countries.” And the year before that, in The New Yorker. Or go back one more year, to The New York Times, where Mr. Nocera said, “Our goal is to make each home its own power station.”

So, where are the power stations?

Prowl the edges of contemporary invention, and you experience a lot of this frustration. A scientist announces a breakthrough in battery technology or algae biofuel, and the talk ramps up quickly.

But there always seems to be an obstacle between the big idea and self-sufficiency. Sometimes, it’s the idea itself – a technological bug that seems fixable turns out to be weird and inscrutable. But in this case, the technology is sound, say researchers including David Tiede of the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

Mr. Nocera’s idea is based on Photosynthesis. When light bombards a leaf, it splits water in the leaf into oxygen, and then binds the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates, its food.

Mr. Nocera’s leaf mimics this process. A vessel of water is exposed to light. A silicon strip coated in catalysts breaks down the water molecule such that on one side oxygen bubbles up, and on the other, hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel.

The issue isn’t the invention – it’s how to use it.

“If I give you a canister of hydrogen that we got from the artificial leaf, you can’t use it right away,”
Mr. Nocera said.

 You need a fuel cell, which can turn hydrogen into electricity.

There are efforts to begin incorporating such energy technology into daily life, such as the development of hydrogen-powered cars.

“If we had fuel cells in your house and your car, then everybody would be trying to implement the artificial leaf right now,” Mr. Nocera said.

The other obstacle is the market place.

A few years ago, he was asked to produce the energy equivalent of a gallon (3.78 liters) of gasoline and keep costs around $3. As he neared that number, the fossil-fuel industry upset his plans with a surge in cheap natural-gas extraction, driven by hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

But therein lies a glimmer of hope. Hydrogen can be produced by fracking, but it comes at a cost of carbon pollution. Still, widespread fracking might lead to widespread hydrogen use.

Fracking could drive the establishment of an infrastructure for using hydrogen at the home,” Mr. Nocera said. “And then the next thing everybody might say is, yeah, but that hydrogen is making CO2. Then the artificial leaf would show up.”

Unable to resist, he said, “Your house will be its own gas station.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, April 12, 2014