Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Briefly seated

Airline boarding areas are constrained places.  Once there, you are reluctant to leave its confines, metaphorically constrained by thoughts of missing your plane. There are the literal constraints of too few seats and electrical outlets, combined with too much luggage. Is the crowding deliberate, I wonder?  Is it a slow compression, pushed ever closer to our soon-to-be fellow passengers, getting us ready to be packed into the cabin. We eye each other. Will he be noisy? How much stuff do they have? Will she be sitting next to me?

At Burbank I was fascinated by the number of briefcases that required their own seats. Fully half the chairs in the waiting area were occupied by briefcases and coffee cups, chaperoned by hefty guys dressed in flying-on-business clothes — blue shirts, no ties, sports jackets and grey pants. Their arms were crossed, their legs splayed out. They, for the most part, stared straight ahead. Don’t tread on me.  Arrayed along the wall are bearded guys in shorts and flip-flops, chic young women, and one grey-haired professor, earphones plugged in to a podcast. #privilege

In the Phoenix waiting area there are seventeen wheelcharis lined up to board, their occupants icons of confinement.  They are boxed in on one side by a railing, on the other by seats, with barely a foot between them. Meanwhile the woman on the end of my room repeatedly does a series of core exercises, her feet raised off the floor, beating time to an unheard tune.  We all bounce with her, the connected chairs neatly delivering the impulses down the line. #physics

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Whose race are we running?

This is the third stop on a blog hop for Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World). Find the rest of the tour here.

"Compare and despair, that's the advice I got," noted the young Jesuit novice across the table from me. A group of us were having coffee and a last conversation before beginning the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  We were nervous and uncertain of what lay before us in these thirty days in silence. Whatever God wanted for each of us during these days and over the next years, it would be different.

Almost a decade later, those words have returned to me again and again.  I have offered them to students worried about their progress in a course relative to their peers, murmured them to myself when looking at a piece of writing that was nowise as good as that essay by...stopping each of us in our tracks.

Last weekend, reading Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter, I scribbled "compare and despair" in the margins of the section on his third habit:  "Don't win the race, contribute to the (human) race." When we focus on winning, on besting those around us, we are never quite content with what we have. Someone always has more.  More money, more time, more honors. So we compare ourselves, and come up wanting, despairing of what we haven't achieved, rather than rejoicing in what has been given to us. Turn it around, suggests Lowney, and look not to get more, but to do more. To consider making the next move not one that positions you to move up, but makes the world a more just and a more loving place.

Science can be pretty competitive at times, no one wants to have their research scooped by another group barreling down the same road.  But another weekend read reminded me again what winning could mean.  The abstract for a feature article in the latest issue of Chemical Communications ended by noting that the translation of this chemistry "into real-world applications, starts to demonstrate the power of this approach, and its potential to transform the world around us for the better." Prof. David Smith goes on in the article to explain why he shifted his research to tackle fundamental questions in supramolecular chemistry from a different perspective: "[E]xplaining to someone with a life-limiting condition that you are using all of your skills to understand how peptides interact with one another in toluene somehow felt inadequate."  There were many directions he could have taken with his initial groundbreaking work, some more likely to "win" the science race than others, but he chose to seek a win for all of us, not just himself.  Something that might make this world a more loving place.

As I start to plan for the summer's research and writing, and my work with students next fall, I'm reminded to ask the question, not how many people will read this paper or cite this work compared to my peers, but what is the potential of this work to transform the world into a more just and loving place.  It's a good habit to get into.

Full disclosure, Loyola Press gave me a copy of this book.  You can watch a short clip about Habit 3 here and read a sample chapter or two here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

small & fond & local

If you haven't listened to the Jesuitical podcast — do.  Even if you aren't in their demographic (which I'm pretty sure I'm not.)  I found it because they interviewed my boss at the Observatory, Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ. This week's episode is a conversation on faith with poet Mary Karr, and in it their weekly "Consolations and Desolations" plunges into the depths. 

Karr read "The Voice of God, (from her latest collection taken from a series, "The Unholy Bible").  It's the Book of Wisdom rewrit and begins,
Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
    could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
It's the end of the semester here, generally stressful, and this year a bit more than usual. (Or maybe age is catching up with me?)   The days spit me out at the end, damp and knotted and with a to-do list longer than when I began.  Out of the depth, I cry to you, O Lord. Hear me, and if you can't answer me, might you at least answer some of my email? (#modernMiracles)

So here is the answer, take a hot bath, not rumbling under my feet on a city street, but Bluetoothed into my earbuds.  Speaking of modern miracles. God, whispering in my ears. Take a hot bath, it'll cure ninety percent of what ails you.

The voice of God: "small & fond & local"

You can read the whole poem here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Wild Light: A Eulogy for a Photochemist

My most senior colleague, Frank Mallory, died last fall, and yesterday we gathered at the college's Great Hall to remember his life with music and laughter.  Family, friends, collaborators, fellow musicians met to make music and exchange memories.  He had been at Bryn Mawr for 60 years, 54 of them teaching undergraduates and graduates.  This is what I had to say.

“Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light.”  — From John O’Donohue’s poem Matins

Light. As a quantum chemist, that is one way I imagine the universe. As primordial darkness gone wild with light, as an infinitely, and infintely varied assembly of Schroedinger’s wave functions. Complex forms which extend out from their centers to infinity.  Molecules. Atoms. Electrons. Nuclei.  In this sense, we are all light.

Perhaps in the same way we can say we are light from light. That light is where we begin, atoms built into molecules into cells into our bodies, and it is our destiny, what we surrender with every breath. It is what we live and move and have our being within.

As a photochemist and an NMR spectroscopist Frank worked in light of all sorts. It was his tool to alter the fabric of the universe, the ultraviolet light that drove the Mallory reaction to so neatly warp one molecule into another.  Radiofrequencies were a tool for exploring the universe, for interrogating atoms, asking who was talking to who, and why.  And ultimately it was  the medium in which he worked.  In the hunt for routes to ever longer ribbons of carbons, Frank gathered atomic wavefunctions into new forms.  Light again from light.

But I don’t want to forget that Frank was light.  Light to a legion of chemistry students — though not literally a legion.  As I write this, I realize that Frank would be tapping at my door to tell me that a Roman legion was 5000 men, and then to tell me how many students — to the student — he had taught. Light brings clarity and Frank brought a precise and clear light to science and to language.

Frank was light to colleagues and friends.  When my husband died, Frank and Sally came to stay with me at the hospital, all through a dark night. They took me home.  Frank was a steady light.

Frank held up a light into the past, he was a bard — a consumate story-teller and a deep repository of lived history of both the college and the field of chemistry.  Thanks to Frank, every time I mention the word “electronegativity” or “Pauling” in Park 180,  I see Linus Pauling stretched out in the front row, drawling, “Mr. Mallory….”

Frank was wild light.  Ask those of us who have been greeted by singing gorillas, or laughed so hard at word games around a dinner table we could hardly breathe, or who kept track of the Flyers by the orientation of the tickets on Frank’s door.

Frank was light. We are light. As light from light, we all bear some of Frank’s light to hand on: students, friends, colleagues and family.

“Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light.”

I  can think of no better way to wish my friend and photochemist colleague on his way, except to say “May perpetual light shine upon you, Frank.”  May you continue to be wild light.

A real presence

Loaf of Hackney Wild, ready to be slashed and put in the oven
Crash is home for a couple of weeks, between a spring  and the start of the summer Shakespeare season.  He brings with him new break baking skills — honed in a London bakery.  I've been enviously admiring his photos of crispy sourdough loaves from afar, and dutifully keeping his Atlantic crossing starter alive, so was excited to get to give it a fly this weekend.

This is not a recipe for quick bread, you start three or four days ahead of time.  A leaven is made from the mother starter.  And fed up for a few days. Finally, in goes the flour and water. The dough is stretched and turned, again and again over 5 hours.  Then into a basket it goes overnight, to be baked after Mass this morning, where the gospel took up the story of the disciples who had walked to Emmaus, and who had recognized Christ in the breaking of the bread. And where three young members of the parish received the Eucharist for the first time.

It was hard to wait to bake this bread, harder still to wait for it to cool once it came out of the oven.  When I had asked one of the young First Communicants if she had been excited, she told that she could not wait, and told her siblings (and parents!) that they had to be out the door early. "I was afraid I wouldn't get there in time, that I would miss communion." She had, I thought, a well developed practical theology of the Real Presence going, she knew what she desired and it wasn't the dress or the party or the relatives. It was God incarnate.

The week before I'd been sitting in the pews before the vigil Mass began, taking a short walk to Emmaus myself, when the unmistakable smell of fresh bread insinuated itself into my meditations.  I looked up to find a young man in suit, with what I suspect was a still warm loaf of bread wrapped in foil, in search of someone in the congregation to give it to.

There is bread here, and a God we come to know in the breaking of bread with each other.