worry capacity

There is a cool demonstration science teachers do in general chemistry classes where we fill a clear cylinder with water to the top and then carefully add paperclips one by one. Students count the paperclips as they are dropped in until the water spills over the edge. When we’re really careful, we can add dozens and maybe a hundred paperclips before the water molecules break free of their hydrogen bonds (intermolecular forces where the electron deficient hydrogen on one water molecule is strongly attracted to a lone pair of electrons on an electron rich oxygen on an adjacent molecule; like the molecules are holding hands; like molecular magnets) and spill over in a stream of molecules.

Those hydrogen bonds work together to keep the water molecules touching and in the liquid state. All of life depends on hydrogen bonds. Don’t get me going. I seem to have lost my point. Hold on. I’ll remember in a sec.



Oh, yes. There’s the thread. The final breaking point of those strained hydrogen bonds when the bubble of water hovering above the cylinder finally flows is analogous to the breaking point of worry when we exceed our capacity to keep the lid on tight. Emotions flow. We cry. We lash out. We hurt for the sake of others. The overflow can happen while we sleep. Dreams wake us up and remind us of the stresses we tamp down all day long. COVID. Work. Family. War. While our side of the world points away from the sun the other side of the world bombs each other. Capacity exceeded. The camel’s back can’t take even one more tiny paperclip.


spring break perspective

From the relaxed energy well of spring break, we (professors and our students) sit at a local minimum in an intermediate state of stability. We can look back along the energy diagram path that brought us here, up and up and up to where our most recent transition state must surely be, but we cannot see that apex, a point where the first derivative of the semester energy function (and thus the slope of its tangent) equaled zero; we have slid down so fast. We remember that unstable transition state position as a sleepless, foodless, chaotic time of breaking and forming bonds, when we peered over the edge of the drop that brought us here. In our current spring break intermediate state, we are well-rested, fed, and relaxed, hence stable. If we dared to peek ahead to the next transition state, we’d see it has a much higher activation energy than the last TS, and there is no hope of seeing beyond it to the end of the semester, though we know the river of time will drag us there kicking and fighting to keep our heads above water.

TWL: the end

I like hellos better than goodbyes, beginnings better than endings. This is the last Tuesday with Laurie. It will be very hard for me to stop my weekly commitment, but I’m doing it. This is the end. I’m retiring my COVID reporting post.

The end of my little Tuesday writing habit is not the same as the end of our global pandemic.

When I first heard the term endemic, I thought it meant the end. I was wrong.

Renaming the pandemic an endemic means we have surrendered. The human race missed its chance (or maybe never had a chance) of beating this contagious shape-shifting virus. Humans are weary and have given up. In the endemic we’ll just live with coronaviruses. We will each ride our own raft making decisions for ourselves and only ourselves and will no longer be expected to consider how our actions affect anyone else. This will be a huge and uncomfortable shift for many, a relief for others, and will go utterly unnoticed by those who cultivated such inward facing perspectives for the entire pandemic.

Here’s your last data on this Tuesday from this Laurie.

As of 2/22/22, almost 6 million humans have died from complications due to COVID-19, almost 1 million of them Americans.

Worldwide, 427 million people have contracted COVID-19, 79 million of them Americans.

Sleeves were rolled up for 10.4 billion doses of vaccine.

This week the omicron surge in America decreased by almost 40% again: only 0.6 million new cases. We seem to be heading for a well-earned break (before the next surge).

Mask mandates are relaxing. Spring is coming. We are hopeful but no longer naive. My state has decided to stop reporting case numbers and to reduce testing in March. Others have already done this, and more will follow. This will help it seem like case numbers have dropped, but we won’t be certain.

Here are your last graphs from this Laurie. Stay well.

All data reported in these 110 weeks were collected from Tuesday 7:20 pm EST data updates on the Johns Hopkins COVID Dashboard.

TWL: just under a million

Just under a million hours is about 100 years.

Just under a million pennies would be a nice sum, but it would be heavy.

Just under a million total US deaths from COVID so far, devastatingly sad.

Just under a million new cases of COVID-19 in the US this week.

Considering we were breaking 5 million cases per week in January, just under a million cases in a week is a good sign. It’s more than a 40% decrease from last week. If this keeps up, we can hope for another summer lull, before the next school year surge. We could all use a break, a million pennies, and a COVID-free century.

TWL: wait for the next one

I am so tired.

There are many steep staircases both in the building where I work and outside on my campus walks from the parking lot and to the lecture halls. I climb at least a hundred steps every day on my old legs while my wimpy lungs struggle for breath under my KN95 mask. About once a week, early in the morning while the place is still quiet, I hold my breath under my mask and press the button with my elbow and take the elevator for a three-story ride up. If someone gets on with me, I get off silently. I give up. I wheeze up the steps under my mask. This morning I was not silent.

The elevator stopped just one floor up, two to go. The doors opened on a young, unmasked face.

I said, “Do you mind waiting for the next one?”

She said, “Oh, I have a mask in here somewhere,” as she blew breath into the elevator, stepped toward me, and unzipped a bookbag pocket.

I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and said, “OK. I’ll walk,” and pushed past her.

“Fine by me,” she breezed in, still unmasked, and let the old lady walk. She certainly enjoyed the ride up one flight and wore her mask only when someone insisted all day long. Masks probably make her break out, and she likes to show her new lip gloss. Maybe her granddaddy told her not to get vaccinated and her roommate already had COVID last month anyway. Perhaps she had a sore throat yesterday but didn’t get tested because she didn’t want to miss a quiz. She’s probably sick of the whole damn pandemic and thinks adults are just carried away with their stupid worry about the 900,000 dead people and the ever-growing body count.

Not all 20-year-olds behave this way. Most wear their masks indoors as required and would have let the old lady have the ride alone. The rude ones take up all the air in the room and all the energy in the universe. They wear me down and make me sad. Their grandmothers don’t know they behave like this.

They also spread airborne COVID. They don’t care at all. They probably won’t pay the price for their behavior. They won’t even give it a thought until they are old. By then, I’ll be dead so I won’t care either.

I’m not just tired. I’m not just sad. I’m also angry. Their actions effect their peers who miss labs and quizzes and lectures and tests because of being infected by them. Grades slip. Scholarships are lost. Stress increases. Sleep diminishes. Mental health suffers. Future paths change. All because a selfish person defied the rules set to protect others and breathed everywhere.

COVID is a symptom of this pandemic. Humans are the reason it won’t end.

But, hey, only 1.7 million newly sick Americans this week.