Thursday, September 14, 2017

Aliens have landed on my roof

Classes have begun at the college, a season about which I have selective amnesia.  No matter how many times I have done this (33 times, I'm counting), no matter how prepared I am with handouts and room arrangements and...it is always nervewrackingly chaotic and utterly exhausting.  It's fun like riding a really big wave is, equal parts exhilaration and terror, and you can feel pretty bedraggled by the time you wash up on the beach.

And of course, while you are riding this wave of new school year energy, you can't do anything else. All this to say, it felt delightful today to have some quiet time to do some research and a bit of reading.

I had Jon Larsen's  In Search of Stardust1 on my stack of books to read because last spring the upper division research methods course I taught did an experiment to measure the heat capacities of meteorites, using the method developed by the Vatican Observatory's Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Bob Macke, SJ and colleagues.2 The students were curious about the astrochemistry context (where do the samples come from, how can you distinguish regular rocks from these stony aliens) and I've been collecting resources for this coming spring when a new batch of students will make these measurements.

I tend to think of meteorite strikes as spectacular and rare events, fireballs roaring through the sky that finally come crashing to earth.  Still they aren't as rare was you might think — tens of thousands of meteorites weighing as much or more than a euro coin hit the earth each year, most of them landing in the water.  But what takes my breath away are the hundreds of trillions of micrometeorites that come to rest on earth each year, adding as much as 100,000 metric tons to the earth's mass.  Invisible, unremarked.  Perhaps as many as one a day hits the roof of my house, there are surely some of these ancient bits of dust in the water I drink, still others stuck to my hands after weeding the garden.

Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, discovered that you could find and identify these micrometeorites by looking at the dust on urban roofs, previously it had been thought you couldn't find them in the midst of the general detritus of a city. But a careful eye is rewarded, as these cosmic intruders have a characteristic morphology. Their shape and appearance means you can sort them out under a microscope, much like Pasteur manually sorted the crystals of tartaric acid, and they are astonishingly beautiful.
From J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust , p. 51.

Larsen offers a brief and readable glimpse into the science of micrometeorites, but I enjoyed simply browsing the images, reading them as I might clouds.  There is a golden glass meteorite with deep blue inclusions (p 51) that looks like some alien aquatic creature's shell, while the burnished cryptocrystalline specimen on page 45 looks like a bronzed wasp's nest — until one remembers it is less than a millimeter long. One scanning electron microscopic image of an ablation spherule from the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 looks like a tiny alien skull.

As much as I learned about the dust from outer space, Larsen's register of the terrestrial imposters gave me an entirely different view of road dust, which contains polished spheres of glass from the reflective markings on the roads and tiny crystals, microgemstones.

In one of the most beautiful passages in Isaiah (Is 54:11-12) we are told, "I lay your pavements in carnelians..." Who knew it was literally true.  The world is a beautiful place, if only we know where and how to look.

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


1. J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust   If you get it at Amazon through this link, the Vatican Observatory Foundation will get a donation. There was an article in the NY Times last spring about the project as well.

2. Guy J. Consolmagno, Martha W. Schaefer, Bradley E. Schaefer, Daniel T. Britt, Robert J. Macke, Michael C. Nolan, Ellen S. Howell, "The measurement of meteorite heat capacity at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen vaporization" Planetary and Space Science87 (2013) 146-156

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Renewing vows: 9131 days

It's the nine thousand one hundred and thirty first day since Math Man and I walked through the doors of the parish church, processed down the aisle and vowed to stand by each other and cherish each other in weal and in woe.

It's our 25th anniversary, if you don't want to do the math (yes, Math Man included the leap years!).  It's not a prime number, but composite, with a prime factorization of 23 x 397.

Our sons had a life sized photo cutout of us made and restaged the wedding — right where it happened in our parish church. It is an entirely different take on renewing your vows.  They photographed the 'event' and gave us the photos (and the cutout) for an anniversary present.

It seems unthinkable that we've been married more than 13 million minutes, millions seem so large and the time so short.  Other significant dates to come?  On January 22, 2020 we will have been married 10,000 days and on Monday, May 13, 2024 for a billion seconds.  Billions and billions. And yes, these days are on my calendar!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods

I've lost count of laundry loads and dishwasher runs and dinners cooked, the house has been bouncing since I got back from Rome in early August. The boys have come and gone again, back to school and work, one to the east, the other west.  The Egg's friends have come to visit, sleeping on sofas.

The long and short of serving.
My sister-in-law, No-no came to drop my niece, She of the Book, off at college.  From Houston.  They arrived here the day Harvey hit, awoke Sunday morning to texts from my brother Geek Guru that the waters of the nearby bayou had risen fast and he and my nephew were shocked to find they were now trapped in the house.  They spent a damp, dark day surrounded by flood waters, checked on by police on a Zodiac, watching neighbors get pulled out by boat and helicopter.

They are, I am relieved to say, now safe. When the waters went down, they evacuated to my other Houston brother's house. The house is OK, it was raised up past the 100 year flood level.  The garage and the cars in it?  Toast.

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods. And yet still, ordinary time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blood Feuds: The Great Bryn Mawr Bake Off

"Can you search to find what to substitute for glucose syrup?" I asked Crash.  Corn syrup, as it turns out. "It's cool to find a use for corn syrup besides making blood." he mused.

Math Man likes eclairs.  For Father's Day I bought him a book of fancy eclairs (or rather a book of eclair recipes) to browse, and promised to make him some.  The Egg has been home for a few days between a summer of math research and the start of his senior year and binge watching the Great British Baking Show.  Crash is also here for a few weeks between a stint in England and his next stage management gig, and thought to stretch his cooking repertoire beyond Budget Bytes and blood. Hence the eclairs.

Raspberry and chocolate, it still looked like Macbeth in the kitchen yesterday. (See below)

This afternoon we had The Egg making bread, Crash making choux for the eclairs (from Tom's mom's recipe after the book's recipe failed us) and me making braised short ribs for The Egg's departure dinner.  It was a lot like an episode of the Great British Baking Show.  Right down to Chris fanning the chocolate glazed eclairs with the baking sheet.




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Angels in glass

From a old column for CatholicPhilly

Stair treads in Hiroshi Sugimoto's installation, at the restored Go'o 
Shrine on Naoshima, Japan. c. Michelle Francl
No one lingered after the 12:10 Mass. The breezes that spun through the open stained glass windows whispered of an August day too wondrously crisp and cool to be inside.

“What can I do to help you get out sooner?” I asked the sacristan.

“Could you close the windows?”

I found the pole and started down the south aisle. The light streamed through the canted stained glass, and I paused for a minute to read the names inscribed along the bottom of each century-old pane.  “William and Margaret White” under St. Patrick and St. Bridget; the Ancient Order of Hibernians made a gift of St. Rita and St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Each window gently puffed as I swung it closed. “Peace be with you” they seemed to say, blessing me over and over again as I worked my way around the periphery of the sanctuary.

I am reminded of a line from Sainte-Chappelle by Eric Whitacre, a choral composer famous for his intricate a cappella works: Et angeli in vitro molliter cantaverunt.  “And the angels in the glass softly sang.”  Whitacre’s piece tells the story of a young girl visiting Sainte Chappelle, a medieval gothic church in Paris renowned for its striking stained glass windows.

The girl hears the angels in the windows softly singing “Sanctus, sanctus.” Her voice and theirs twine until the light itself sings, “Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”  The score is crystalline, I can hear the dust motes dance in the light that streams through the windows, the stone walls of the church itself sing.

Even a silent chapel has something to say to us. The design of a church is meant to both speak to us of God’s saving work and to encourage us to speak to God in return. Images, whether frescos or stained glass windows, facilitate these conversations.

St. John Damascene, an eighth century Syrian monk, wrote that holy images move him “to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that light and darkness speak to us of God [1147].

Stained glass windows sing to us of the company of faith to which we belong: the angels, the saints, the artists who take light and darkness and bend them into a shape that moves us closer to God, the people who supported these artists financially and in prayer as they worked.

Next time you find yourself in a quiet church, see if you can hear the soft voices of the angels and saints in the glass singing, then join your voice with theirs in hymns of praise, thanksgiving and supplication.  Et lumen canit.  For the Light sings.

________

Read the story of the angels in glass (as sung in the Latin or the English translation) here.

Listen to Eric Whitacre talk about the composition of Sainte-Chappelle (along with some snippets of the music).

Take a virtual tour of the Sainte Chappelle sanctuary.