Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Column: Lessons in Mercy

This column appeared at on 9 February 2016, the first in a series of six on mercy in the psalms.

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.  Lk 6:27

Grading is the hardest thing I do.  It’s not that there are so many papers to grade, or that the math for my graduate course in quantum mechanics is so complex my students’ assignments looks more like runes than English. It is that I must, over and over again, balance mercy with justice, compassion with discipline.

Without fail, each time I mark a midterm exam, I hear Jesus’ words from the 7th chapter of Matthew:  “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”  It keeps my red pen focused on comments that will teach, not scold, and reminds me to be attentive to each student, even the ones whose handwriting makes me cross-eyed. Give me wisdom, I ask God, that they too might gain wisdom — at least when it comes to chemistry.  Teach me to be merciful, O Lord, as you would be merciful.

How do we learn to be merciful as our Creator is? From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has urged us to live mercy, to be mercy-ing. In Misericordiae Vultus, in which he formally announces the Year of Mercy that began in December, the Pope tells us we must first of all open ourselves to the Word of God, to rediscover the silence in our busy lives and meditate on mercy in the scriptures.

For many years, I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s universal public prayer, as a way to steal moments of stillness in the midst of busy days.  The psalms are the skeleton on which the Liturgy of the Hours is built.  As Jesus turned to the words of the psalms on the cross, so, I seek their steadfast strength and solace in my daily life.

The word “mercy” appears dozens of times in the English translation of the psalms used at the Liturgy of the Hours.  Psalm 51, the first psalm and last psalm we hear at Mass in Lent, and which opens Morning Prayer on Ash Wednesday, begins with a plea for mercy. “Have mercy on me, God…” It is one of the psalms that I know by heart.

I hear in this psalm a short lesson in what it might mean to embrace mercy. Make me hear rejoicing and gladness. To live mercy means being aware of the wellspring of joy and peace upon which our salvations rests. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit.  To live mercy means not turning my back on the troubled or troublesome.

Mercy, says Pope Francis, is the beating heart of the Gospel.  As I enter into these Lenten days, I put my ear to God’s heart, seeking its comfort in my own sinfulness, and praying that my heart, too, will take up the rhythm of mercy.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Names and faces

A topological line serving as a hotness manifold.
It's the time of the semester where I'm working at putting names and faces together with my students. I'm also working on an essay about thermometers, inspired by a visit to the Museo Galileo in Florence last fall, and thereby putting names to faces ranging from Gabriel Fahrenheit to Pennsylvania born zoologist Mable Frings.

The research for the essay has surfaced many interesting characters.  Historian Hasok Chang, who wrote this wonderfully wrought history of the thermometer — and who went to the same high school my friend Robin did.  Mathematician Jim Serrin —  may I call him Jim, I wonder? — who crafted my favorite definition of a thermometer ever: "There exists a topological line M which serves as a coordinate manifold of material behaviour. The points L of the manifold M are called 'hotness levels', and M is called the 'universal hotness manifold'."

Last week I tracked down what I thought was the earliest reference to the use of cricket chirping rates as rough thermometers (there is a famous chemistry problem about this phenomenon), to a Prof. Dolbear in 1898.  Then I picked up a paper on chirping rates (grasshoppers this time) by a husband and wife team, Hubert and Mable Frings, which opened with an incredible review of the chirping literature, tracing it back to....Margarette Brooks in 1881.  Mable, I'm hugely impressed with your ability to track this down in the days before citation indices or electronic databases with full-text search capabilities.  (At least I assume it was Mable...)

I read a short section of Mable's biography.  She suffered a compound fracture of her leg in a car accident in the 1930s, and went on to do field biology.  It makes complete sense that she'd have the patience to track down obscure data.  Their work contributed to a number of key discoveries in animal behavior and indirectly, to a deeper understanding of human epileptic seizures (though I would perhaps not consider them as obscure as Wired does here.)

None of this will make it into the essay, but there is something important to me about knowing the people behind what I'm reading, it adds a certain depth to the picture I'm developing of the science.  It like having a conversation with them over dinner, where we bounce between plunging the depths of science and forging social ties.

See a photo of Mable and Hubert Frings here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Column: With one accord

Looking up into the central vault.
 Last October, Math Man and I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, an experience that I'm still trying to put into words.  I can say that I agree with Pope Francis' assessment, Gaudi is a great mystic.  (There is a movement to have Gaudi canonized.)

After I submitted this column, my friend Cathy shared this moving and beautiful video of the Apostles Creed.

This column appeared at on 2 Feb 2016.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures. — From the Nicene Creed

I could hear each and every voice, all 20 of us who had made it to Mass in the aftermath of last week’s epic blizzard, as we recited the Creed. The pastor, firmly starting us off, “I believe…,” the snow-suited youngsters in the back, the retired teacher across from me. We couldn’t let the tide of voices from a packed Sunday Mass carry us along. All of us were needed to bear the standard of the faith.

Last fall, I visited Antonio Gaudi’s magnificent church, La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona. The words of the Apostle’s Creed, in many languages, are emblazoned on the walls of Sagrada Familia behind the main altar. I read this starkly simple statement of what we believe again and again — in English, Latin, Spanish and Catalan — each word taking on a new depth. Wondering at the way the bones of what we believe are built into the bones of this sacred place.

The quiet strength of our voices last Sunday pushed me again into this sort of slow meditation on the creed, to think more deeply about what I was affirming, word by word. In particular, I heard anew the statement of the paschal mystery that anchors my faith:  that Jesus suffered, died and rose again “in accordance with the Scriptures.”
The Apostles Creed in English on the interior wall.

The word we use in the English translation has changed with the new Roman Missal, from fulfillment to accordance. It struck me that the cor in accordance derives from the Latin word for heart, cor. Jesus’ coming, his death and his resurrection, was more than prophecy fulfilled, as the Gospel for the day proclaimed. Jesus’ sacrifice was of “one heart” with the Scriptures.

In retrospect, it’s obvious even without the new translation, how could Jesus, the Word made flesh, be anything other than of one heart with the Word we hear in the Scripture? But in this Holy Year of Mercy, it reminded me again that our faith principally resides not in a list of historical happenings, nor in a big book of rules, but the core of our faith lies in the heart. In the love of God, who as St. John reminds us, so loved the world that he gave to us his only Son. And so, with one accord, we pray and we believe.

Monday, February 01, 2016

If you give a mouse a cookie

When it came to circular tales, my kids preferred the warped humor of Bill Grossman's My Little Sister Ate One Hare, to the still transgressive, but more sedate If you give a mouse a cookie... by Laura Numeroff, but I still read it aloud often enough to be able to recite much of it.

Last week, a student emailed me to tell me I had a typo on the problem set.  Clearly the equation to the right (Hardy's approximation to cosine) should read cos ( ) = 1 - (x2)/...

I thanked her and then thought I should just make the correction and send it out to the class, rather than try to describe it in an email.  How long could that take?

The file was created in Pages. The new Pages.  At home.  My computer at work didn't have the new version, so I went to update it.  To update it, I had to install the new version of the Mac OS.  The new Pages needed me to reinstall MathType.  Some where in all this I had to install Java.  I felt like I was trapped in an adult nightmare version of If you give a mouse a cookie...  And if you're stuck in such a loop, of course you should complain on Facebook, where I friend will suggest that you need a cookie.  And a cup of tea to go with it.

By the time it was all updated, I'd almost forgotten about the missing 1 in the problem set.  Maybe I should go fix it now?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Minimalist KonMari

My laundry, tied up by load in furoshikis
Marie Kondo's tidying book is all the rage.  It promises not only organization, but painless, persistent organization.  While part of my mind is thinking, what part of the second law of thermodynamics does Ms. Kondo not understand?, the rest is crying, is this the holy grail of tidying, will at last all be wondrously organized?

I suppose I could have spent my sabbatical ruthlessly purging my possessions, asking each one if they were a source of joy.  But I didn't. What I did do is apply a dash of KonMari to my laundry and to my office.  This violates Kondo's principles (do it all, she says, or nothing), but not mine, so off I went.  I found a one page version of her folding methods (easier than flipping through the book) here and tackled my dresser and closet.  Some worked well with the storage I had, some didn't.  Several months later, things are still tidy without a lot of mental work going into keeping them that way.

There is something of the Liturgy of the Hours in this discipline of putting things away just so.  Each day I begin again, each four week cycle ends, only to repeat.  When I cannot find the words to pray, I can open my book, and begin — like my socks, the psalms are tidy and waiting for me.