Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On the immensity of space


The Total Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 - fly along with the shadow! from Eclipse2017.org on Vimeo.

(A version of this post appeared on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.)

Not quite two months ago I spent a late morning and early afternoon watching the moon slide across the sun, turning midday Philadelphia into twilight and back again.  I stashed the eclipse filters for the occasional look at the sun, and dove into the semester.  But each time I head out for a late evening walk and see the full moon hovering over the neighborhood school's field, I think about it coming between the earth and the sun.

I tend to think of the moon and sun as large objects ponderously processing through space, from my perspective taking ten or a dozen hours to creak 'round the sky. Their movements marking out days, months and years, not so much minutes and seconds.  So I was struck on the animations of the eclipse by how fast the moon's shadow moved across the ground, even when you account for the acceleration (in this video slightly more than a factor of about 13).  With family in California, I've flown coast to coast more time than I can count.  It takes me 5 to 6 hours to fly from here to there, soaring through the sky at three-quarters the speed of sound.  The umbra — the shadow —  took only 90 minutes to make the same trip, traveling at more than 1200 mph.

As I walked yesterday afternoon, watching the sun vanish behind the horizon as my spot on the earth rotated to face away from the sun, it occurred to me that the moon's shadow isn't the only thing moving fast.  When standing "still" on earth I am, of course,  in motion relative to other points in the universe. Points on the surface of the earth (at my latitude 40oN) are moving at 750 mph. Fast indeed, but not so fast I cannot imagine it.

In this moment in history, where I can climb on a plane and be on the other side of the world in half a day, or video chat with my kids who are thousands of miles away or I can go to a lab downstairs and with a quantum mechanical trick, nudge atoms around, arranging them to suit me, I might be tempted to think of myself as commanding great powers. At least until I think about how fast the earth is moving around the sun.  67,000 mph hour.  The solar system?  Orbiting the galactic center at a half million miles per hour.  I am moving through space at speed I cannot truly fathom: a thousand feet flash by in a millisecond, a hundred thousand in a second.  Eighty thousand miles in a minute.

Lines from Psalm 29 from Lauds, Week I, came to mind:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
The Lord on the immensity of waters;
The voice of the Lord, full of power,
The voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
The Lord on the immensity of waters, the Lord on the immensity of space.  Adore the Lord in his holy court.

The psalm ends with an assurance that God, whose strength we cannot fathom, who with a word can strip the forests bare, and spin a universe into being, will grant us peace.  I can think of nothing else we need more now than this. Peace and God's unimaginable strength to sustain and protect us on this tiny world hurtling through space.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Pathetic prayers and holy defiance

The end of the letter from Dom Christian.  The entire letter is reproduced here:
  http://www.moines-tibhirine.org/images/stories/Testament/manuscrit.pdf
Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress, has a post up entitled "A prayer for Somalia, and for the pathetic killers who face eternal darkness."  I was taken aback by both the title and the prayer.

I was reminded, too, of the very different stance evident in the letter left behind by Cistercian monk Dom Christian de Chergé, who was abducted and subsequently killed by terrorists in Algeria.  In it, he prayed:
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. 
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
(I learned of the story of the monks of Tibhirine from a poem by the luminous Marilyn Nelson, which I enjoin you to read, the full text is here.)

Scalia begins by asking us to place ourselves with the hundred of peoples who died and were injured in the bombings, to see beyond the numbers to the human stories. As we did for those struck down in Las Vegas.  But then she shifts to praying for the "pathetic killers," a prayer she characterizes as "holy defiance." She prays (or quotes someone else's prayer, it's unclear): "for the murderers who will spend eternity apart from the Source of All Love, that they may yet turn away from what is dark, and into God’s marvelous light."

She prays for their redemption, not their condemnation, but I wish there were more mercy, more a sense of that those who killed are as much children of God as those they killed. Dom Christian ends his letter with
Yes, I want this thank you and this goodbye to be a "God bless" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours. 
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
I am praying for those killed, and those who killed. But I'm praying, like Dom Christian, that I will be graced with a moment of clarity that lets me forgive, in the hopes of being one day a happy thief in Paradise.  That I will grasp that what it means to put on Christ: to forgive, to redeem, to die, to rise. That prayer, I think, might truly be "holy defiance."

________
Read the entire letter from Dom Christian here in French, here in English.





Memory management

One of the platters from the 80 Mbyte drive I used in grad 
school.  Note the magnetic materials has been scraped down
to the bare metal. Always back up.  I lost six weeks of work
that had to be retyped in.
It's the start of fall break here and fall weather seems to have arrived with it. (Though not quite to stay, the temperatures for next weekend exceed the 90th percentile for high's at this point in October.)  I've been looking forward to some time to write and some time to do some of the low priority things I'd pushing to the back.  Even as I write this, I keep remembering things I wanted to accomplish!

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at St. Edward's University in Austin for their annual Lucian symposium.  Four speakers, a dinner, a student poster session. My talk was organized around the tools that chemists have for exploring structure, including some we might not think of as "modern" such as paper models, making the case for broadening the base of tools chemists have access to along with modernizing them.

Along the way I showed some of the computational tools I had used, including our "big" drive.  80 Mbytes and the size of a washing machine.  I can now keep 128 Gbytes on my key chain and forget I have it.  One feature of the coding I did in those days was the need to intentionally allocate memory for lists and arrays, including deciding could be moved into memory as a piece. For these computationally demanding tasks, having a carefully designed overlap was key.

My to-do list feels like that old-fashioned overlay.  I have the teaching list, the administrative list, the writing list, the personal lists. Load them in, wiping what is currently in memory.  Repeat.  Can I keep things from accidentally writing over what I need to keep in working memory (the load of wash in while I write?).



Saturday, October 07, 2017

I go before you always

We buried a parishioner today, a woman of 103. The funeral was small, a handful of friends and relatives.  I stood beside the font near the entrance of the church, vested in baptismal white, as we clothed her body one last time in white, outward sign of the inner reality of her immersion in Christ, then took the processional cross and stood in front of the coffin.

"Let's go, Michelle," came the sure low voice of the pastor behind me.  As the cantor sang the refrain, "I go before you always," I smoothly lifted the cross high, and my eyes on Christ in the crucifixion scene which hangs in the lunette of the dome, led the small procession to the altar.  Me, the pastor, the pallbearers and her body. I go before you always.  I could almost sense the corresponding heavenly procession.  The cross before all. A great cloud of witnesses.

At the end of Mass we sent her soul onward, incense under and over her casket, around and around, a great cloud of prayers gathering her up.

Afterwards, I went out back to get my bike, to find the censer cooling on the ramp behind the church.  The holy wreathing the quotidian. Remember that you are dust, it said, and unto dust, you will return.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Talking football and quantum mechanics

My mom and dad with my sibs.
The ur-football fan in my life was a woman, my mother, who took immense joy in the nuances of the game whether it was the local Bearcat high school team or her beloved Raiders.  My father wasn't a fan, but Math Man is, so on Sundays in football season, she'd call him from California and they'd watch the game "together," chewing over the plays and their execution.

So I found it, well, funny, to hear Florida Panther's quarterback Cam Newton smirk and say in response to a female reporter' question, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like...it's funny."  (After careful thought and 24 hours, he's decided this wasn't an acceptable response to the reporter's question.)

I'm trying to imagine this in my context, asking a question at a seminar or talk only to have the speaker smirk and come back with, "It's funny to hear a female talk about quantum mechanics like...it's funny."

I actually don't have to think all that hard. Two years ago at a dinner before a talk, the female speaker asked me a technical question (what basis sets I preferred to use with a particular density functional, if you must know), and as I started to respond to her, I was interrupted by a young (undergraduate) male researcher at the table.  "Why are you asking her that question?" he demanded of the speaker, clearly irked.  Perhaps because I am one of the people who did the work, and the first author on the original paper?

The whole incident reminds me of Rudyard Kipling comments on visiting Chautauqua (a resort in New York State where women denied educational opportunities in more formal venues gathered each summer to study): “I’m awfully sorry for the girls who take it seriously. I suppose the bulk of them don’t... One never gets to believe in the proper destiny of women until one sees a thousand of ‘em doing something different.  There is something wrong with it.”