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San Mateo Ixtatán: post-Apocalypse

Mayans everywhere celebrated the “end of the world” on December 21, 2012 for what it was: the end of an epoch, and the beginning of a new one.  And in the intervening five years I can say with certainty that San Mateo Ixtatán, my beloved home during the 2007 Guatemalan school year, has certainly entered a new era.

The trip across the border was unremarkable: La Mesilla was loud and hot, and the Huehue bus terminal was pestilent…all to be expected.  But just an hour into the ride, the change became apparent: the crest of the Cuchumatanes was covered with houses, the graveyards in San Juan Ixcoy and Soloma were overflowing (such is life, eh?), and the city centers were bustling even more than usual, with bright tiendas coated with advertisements for not two, but three cell phone companies (¡bienvenido, Movistar!).  There was an ATM in Santa Eulalia, and a surgery center, too.  And the road was paved, all the way (almost!) to San Mateo.  Unbelievable.

Progress in the area has taken its toll, of course.  The trash problem, while it hasn’t gotten worse, certainly hasn’t gotten better.  The diesel fumes seemed thicker, mixing with wood smoke to produce a particularly headache-inducing stench.  And for the first time I actually saw smog on the horizon, though perhaps it’s just because everyone is torching their fields at this time of year.

While there still may not be an ATM in San Mateo, the change is palpable.  There are daily bus routes to Nentón and Gracias a Dios, which just a couple of years ago were only accessible by pick-up.  There are newspapers, and even the occasional cheese vendor.  And there are two university campuses, not to mention that the town is bursting with secondary school students, of which there was not a single one just over a decade ago.

And the school.  Oh, the school.  The Centro Comunitario de Educación “Yinhatil Nab’en” (“Semilla de la Sabiduría”), or CCEYN, where I taught more than five years ago, has truly come into its own.  Occupying one of the largest buildings in the town, it is still bursting at the seams, having achieved nearly Harvardian status among the Mateanos.  Everyone in the town knows where the school is, and knows that the students pick up their trash, speak excellent Spanish, and can, if they so desire, go on to do great things.  And all of this is now being accomplished largely by San Mateo natives, with the help of just a sprinkling of foreigners.

The visit to the school was clarifying.  My two years of high school teachingone in San Mateo, and one in Virginiamade me realize that while I love teaching, teens just aren’t my target age group.  But now, more than half of the teachers are the brightest of my ex-students, and they’re amazing.  They’re sharp, they’re mature, and as it turns out, they’re teaching their students all the stuff I taught them.  A teacher’s dream come true, to put it mildly.

One clear reason for the continued success of the school is the complete revamping of the curriculum, which was spearheaded by teacher and organic farm guru Cara Hendren, in collaboration with assistant director Joe Martin, the rest of the CCEYN teachers, and a group of Mexican education consultants.  They made a bold move and finally shifted the entire curriculum to project-based learning, which, in retrospect, is what we should have been doing all along.  I realized only at the very end of my year of seemingly unsuccessful teaching that the Mateanos thrive on collaboration.  Americans are competitive and individualistic.  Mateanos are not.  They’re cooperative, and they thrive on one another’s success.  The concept of cheating is foreign, and traditional “Western” education just doesn’t suit them.  The new system, however, seems to be the perfect fit.  The kids are still nuts, for sure.  But in spite of (and probably due to) their unlimited energy, their recent accomplishments are countless: they’ve built bathrooms out of recycled bottles, helped install the first septic system in the entire town, and wired all of the classrooms with lights, all of which they did as part of the curriculum.

It was an unforgettable trip.  I’ve gained perspective, I’ve solved some mysteries about my time there, and I’ve confirmed that the peopleas I’ve always suspectedare some of the most wonderful people in the world.  San Mateo has its problems, to be sure, most of which I suspect can be solved with enough time, money, and national development.  But in spite of their troubles, the Mateanos continue to hold dear what many of us in “developed” countries have lost: the warmth of loving families, and the strength of a supportive community.  And that is what will keep drawing me back to the chilly Mayan mountains for the rest of my life.

Chat Hull is currently a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies polarization in forming stars.  He began his astronomy career as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where he met Beth Neville Evans, then the director of the Ixtatán Foundation, who was gracious enough to hire him.  He taught math, physics, and music at CCEYN in San Mateo Ixtatán during the 2007 school year.  In his free time he enjoys singing jazz, and writing reviews of all of the Indian restaurants in Berkeley.

To see photos of his recent trip to San Mateo Ixtatán, click here.

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Article Flurry

Ladies and gentlemen— 

And now, for something entirely unrelated! 

In the summer of 2005 I engaged in astronomy research at the University of Rochester through a “Research Experience for Undergraduates” program, funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Some of the research seemed mundane, some was incredibly exciting, and some was just plain incomprehensible to me at the time (and some still is!). 

But to make a two-year-long story very short, I got extremely lucky, and I’m now listed as the third author on two journal articles, one in the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) and one in Nature. 

To have an article published in ApJ as an undergraduate is fantastic, and requires some luck.  To be published in Nature requires way more than luck (many university professors don’t have papers published in Nature).  But to be published in both over the span of two months—again, as an undergraduate, or at least recent alum—is too glorious for words! 

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic, and chances are I’ll use those two publications to my advantage in the near future when I begin the grad school application process.  But that’s a story for another entry. 

Anyway, onto the content. 

Due to rules from the two journals, I’m not allowed to upload PDF’s of the articles to any website until six months from the date of publication, so if you all want to see the real thing, just shoot me an email.   

Or, if you want to purchase and download the articles online, here’s the information for each one: 


Nature article: 




[] – this is Nature’s weekly “Podcast,” or radio-show-esque recording outlining the most exciting of that week’s developments.  Make sure to look for the 30 August recording; our portion ranges from 15:14 – 18:58. 

Citation: Watson, D. M., Bohac, C. J., Hull, C., Forrest, W. J., Furlan, E., Najita, J., Calvet, N., d’Alessio, P., Hartmann, L., Sargent, B., Green, J. D., Kim, K. H., & Houck, J. R., “The development of a protoplanetary disk from its natal envelope,” 2007, Nature, 448, 1026. 

Astrophysical Journal article: 



Citation:  Dubus, G., Taam, R. E., Hull, C., Watson, D. M., Mauerhan, J. C., “Spitzer Space Telescope Observations of the Magnetic Cataclysmic Variable AE Aquarii,” 2007, Astrophysical Journal, 663, 516.


Also, if you want to see the flurry of articles written about our Nature paper, go to Google and type in the following: 

“Journal Nature” “Dan Watson” 

(You can even get a few hits if you replace “Dan Watson” with “Chat Hull” – Google knows who I am now…!) 

They’re all pretty much the same story, and there are lots of them…but they’re all interesting!  (And as is to be expected, some are better written than others.) 

And finally, I present to you my own for-the-general-public version of our Nature research, with a short sidebar about the more confusing ApJ article.  My article puts more of a focus on the “missing link” in star formation than on the “rain” that you’ll see highlighted in the online articles…feel free to compare, contrast, and comment! 

This article should be published within the next few days in Penn Yan’s highly regarded Chronicle Express, for those of you who are within its circulation radius… 



Chronicle Express article: 

[Here are two cartoons that go with the article]

Spectrum of NGC 1333-IRAS 4B (full size) 

Spectrum of NGC 1333-IRAS 4B (full size)

Cartoon of collapsing protostar 

Cartoon of collapsing protostar (full size)

ROCHESTER – Penn Yan native Chat Hull, University of Rochester physics and astronomy professor Dan Watson, and their colleagues from UR and other North American universities may have found the missing link in the formation of solar systems like our own. 

In their paper[1], published in the August 30, 2007 issue of Nature, a leading international science journal, they describe how they used the Spitzer Space Telescope to peer into the cold, dark regions of a young, developing star, known as a protostar, called NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, located about 1,000 light-years from Earth. 

What they saw was a stormy scene: a protostar surrounded by enough water to fill the Earth’s oceans five times, and a forecasted precipitation rate of approximately 23 Earth-masses of water per year. 

“Raining” down at speeds faster than a mile per second, supersonic chunks of ice pelt the surface of a dense, dusty disk surrounding the infant star and vaporize on impact, creating what astronomers call an “accretion shock.”   

The astronomers detected this supersonic hailstorm by analyzing the infrared light emitted by the star.  Much of this light was emitted by the “shocked” water as it cooled down after falling from a cloud surrounding the natal star and slamming into the protostellar disk. 

“The news here…is this missing link of how the disks assemble themselves within these envelopes,” says Watson in Nature’s August 30 podcast, referring to how the spherical envelope—the cloud of dust, gas, and ice that surrounds a very young protostar—collapses to form the pancake-shaped disk.  “This is the first time we’ve ever seen the process by which the surrounding envelope’s material arrives at the disk,” he adds. 

Astronomers think that stars begin as cold blobs of dust and gas, which then begin to contract and form a hotter, protostellar core in the blob’s center.  As time goes on, the spherical cloud surrounding the protostar collapses onto a flat, dense disk.  And finally, the material in the disk either falls inward onto the forming star, or condenses to form planets, sometimes resulting in solar systems similar to our own. 

The discovery in IRAS 4B of an accretion shock, which, according to Watson, “has been searched for and theorized about for decades,” fills a gap in the long-accepted theory of stellar and planetary formation: while astronomers have long been able to study the later stages of star formation, they had never seen evidence of the earlier stage when the envelope falls onto the disk. 

One of the reasons astronomers haven’t been able to solve this puzzle until now is that the clouds that surround the youngest, “Class 0” protostars such as IRAS 4B are simply too thick and dusty.  “What’s special about the Spitzer Space Telescope,” says Watson, “is that it lets us see through dense dust and gas clouds.  In fact, we’re now able to see what used to be invisible material at the cores of protostellar condensations.” 

Class 0 protostars are stars in their earliest stages of formation, and may be anywhere from a few thousand to ten or twenty thousand years old.  “We think that what we’re seeing in [IRAS 4B] now is quite a lot like what our solar system was like at the same age,” Watson says. 

This research also sheds light on how our own, rocky, watery Earth may have come to be.  “For the first time,” Watson says, “we’re witnessing the arrival of some future solar system’s supply of water.” 

However, although the water vaporizes after crashing into the disk, it isn’t ready to fill any Finger Lakes yet.  According to Watson, afterward the water must refreeze to form “asteroids and comets before it will be the stuff that will decorate the surfaces of the rocky planets someday and form oceans.” 

Chat Hull is currently living in Guatemala and teaching high-school math and physics in the rural, Mayan town of San Mateo Ixtatán.  He and Jessica Butler, a fellow teacher and Penn Yan resident, will return to their homeland in early November after the end of the Guatemalan school year. 

Chronicle Express sidebar: 

Chat Hull also contributed research to another paper that was published in the July 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal[2]

In the paper, Hull, Dan Watson (see associated article), and other astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope to observe a star known as AE Aquarii, located in the constellation Aquarius. 

AE Aquarii is a binary (two-star) system known as a cataclysmic variable, which consists of a bloated, aging star that is sloughing off much of its material onto a quickly rotating white dwarf, an extremely dense, ancient star remnant. 

The white dwarf is thought to expel most of the material streaming onto it from the aging donor star (see image).  However, the exact conditions near the star are not known, as the spectrum of light emitted from the binary system includes several features that have yet to be explained.  Research is ongoing.




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Ladies & gentlemen:

Welcome to my Blog of Glory.  My Blory?  Glog?  More to come once I hit the road for Guatemala on January 2, 2007.


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