Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dispatches from Rome: Judging gelato

A corner in Tivoli.
It was hot and there were still about 2 hours to go before the bus returns to collect the astronomers and astronomically associated from Tivoli, where we'd gone to see the Villa d'Este, a mid-16th century garden of watery delights and a villa designed by a cardinal hoping to be Pope (his hopes would be crushed).

More than a thousand water features spread out over an enormous formal garden, even the bannisters on the grand staircases had water flowing down them.  And the whole thing is gravity fed, not a pump to be found.  It was certainly an apt place for the Vatican Observatory Summer School to go this year, given that the theme was water in the universe.

(And despite all the water we saw, and the oceans on our little blue ball floating in space, water on Earth is not particularly abundant by comparison with other places in the solar system.)

But after touring the grounds and walking the medieval city in the midday heat, it was flavored water we were in search of: gelato.  And not just gelato, but really good gelato.  In the end, it was five of us following the director of the observatory through the streets, peering into gelato shops, where he would make a quick visual assessment and say, "Nope, not this one.'  We wound our way up the street until we found a spot that passed muster, where indeed the gelato was "molto bene!"

"Just how can you spot the good gelato with just a glance?" we wondered.  The bearded Jesuit revealed the secret.  Since this is not a Dan Brown novel, there are no codes in the names of the stores to break, the basic premise is to reject places where the gelato is piled up into huge mounds, since that requires the addition of stabilizers.  The other 5 criteria are laid out in this article:  how to spot good gelato from 15 feet away.

The author notes that there is no such thing as a bad gelato, so if you can't find a place that passes the test, buy and enjoy nonetheless.

A 3 minute drone tour of Villa d'Este:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fictional chemistries

That Mars habitat?
A version of this post appeared at Culture of Chemistry

"The basement corridor is dim, I can hear pumps chugging, hoods noisily venting, and the solid-state physicist down the hall swearing. 'Welcome to Mars!' says the cheery sign outside my colleague’s door. Perhaps it is the pile of grading on my desk or the endless round of meetings on my calendar that is fuelling my escapist fantasy, but every time I pass Selby’s office, I imagine the door is a portal and if I were to walk through, I’d  find myself in a habitat on Mars, its pumps working hard to compress the thin atmosphere." — from "Strangers to Fiction" in Nature Chemistry8, 636-637 (2016).

I've been a sci-fi fan for going on five decades, devouring Heinlein (while spitting out the sexism like watermelon seeds), laughing my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, imagining myself in labs on Mars, mining comets, and exploring strange new worlds.  There are moments when I wish I could write good fiction, but it's not my genre.

The onset of summer, and memories of biking to the tiny library when I was in elementary school, along with making a list of chemistry related fiction for the Nature Chemistry piece, prompted me to think about what the most memorable SF stories I've read were.

Perhaps topping the list is The Cold Equations (Tom Godwin) about a young woman who stows away on a space shuttle and in the end must die.  It gets me thinking about unrecognized consequences, and while I read myself into the story the first time I encountered it, now I see students and sons in the doomed stowaway.  (And I agree with Cory Doctorow, the writer forces this solution, I keep thinking of alternate solutions.)

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall is another one that I can remember the details of long after I read it.  My puzzle solving self enjoys the way the scientists and historians put the pieces together to figure out what is to come.  I thought of this story, too, when I visited James Turrell's Backside of the Moon on Naoshima in Japan.

Flower's for Algernon (Daniel Keys) left a deep impression. What does it mean to be human?  How do we treat those we encounter?

The Worlds series by Joe Haldeman.  Perhaps because this one has a female protagonist?  Maybe because it is both dark and hopeful?  I can almost hear Marianne O'Hara of New New York play her saxophone.

You can read the Nature Chemistry essay here.  My list of fictional chemistry is here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A litany for a pastor

The pastor of my parish, an Augustinian friar, died yesterday.  He was young, or least my age, which feels to me young. There will be a mass on Thursday at the parish, another on Friday at the Augustinian church on Villanova's campus.  I wrote the intercessions for Thursday's liturgy, reaching for the form of a litany, thinking, too, of a long ago theology grad school classmate and Dominican sister who would remind us that we should always be blessing.  May he be blessed, may we all be so blessed.

In baptism
John was marked with the cross, clothed in Christ,
and entrusted with the eternal light, undimmed in sharing.

        May that Light guide his way home.

In the Eucharist,
John was nourished by the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

        May he be welcomed to the eternal feast in the halls of heaven.

In Holy Orders
John was anointed to sanctify God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people, a priest forever.

        May he now joyfully celebrate at the heavenly altar.

John tended the earthly gardens God entrusted to him with joy, tenderness, mercy and compassion.

        May the communities at Monsignor Bonner, Villanova, Maggie Valley and Our Mother of Good Counsel continue to grow in love and mercy.

        May the gardens he planted flourish for years to come.

For all who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith,
who await us in the heavenly kingdom.

        We pray.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Column: The madness of wearing ladies' straw hats to church

Dome of St. Thomas of Villanova in center, telescope dome to the right.
This column appeared at on 10 June 2016.

The Church of St. Thomas of Villanova is set into the rim of a volcanic crater, high above Lake Albano and across the piazza from the Apostolic Palace outside of Rome, where popes have come to spend the summer off and on for 450 years. It’s also a hundred feet from where I am staying this month while visiting the Vatican Observatory, so this Sunday I walked out my front door and down the street for Mass.

Daily Mass at the Observatory is sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and after two weeks and with the help of a missal, I can muddle my way through the responses in the latter reasonably well. I left my Italian missal in my apartment, so was delighted when the ushers handed out hymnals with the Order of Mass in the front.

Or at least I was delighted until 10 seconds before Mass began, and a sister slipped into the pew next to me, reached over and took the hymnal from in front of me and slid it neatly onto the shelf in front of her.

No, no, I thought. I need that. And there was no getting it back. Without the missal, the limits of my Italian were “Amen” and “E con il tuo spirito” (And with your spirit). The Confiteor was utterly beyond me. I was, I fully admit, more than a bit disgruntled. I wanted to participate, but was stripped of the language to do it.

I started to come around by the Gloria. I realized that if I stopped lamenting, stopped trying to figure out what I was supposed to say, and instead listened closely, I could understand the words. I could let the people around me give voice to what my heart desired to pray.

It reminded me that when I know the responses by heart, they can become too automatic. I can forget to listen to the voices around me, the People of God come together to celebrate. I can forget the power these words have to reconcile, to praise. I forget that the words, no matter how easily they come to my lips, merely scratch the surface of the mysteries on the altar.

Writer Annie Dillard wonders in her essay “An Expedition to the Poles” how we can face these mysteries. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”

For a fleeting moment last Sunday morning, I had a deeper sense of what lay underneath the words I say each time I go to Mass, and wondered if instead of hymnals, the ushers should be handing out crash helmets.

By the sign of peace, I could say firmly to the sister next to me, “Pace.” Peace. And Grazie mille. A thousand thanks for the lesson in listening.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

My bones are shuddering

I am sitting in a small courtyard of the Holy See, outside the Vatican Observatory, writing.  The sun is warm, the fountain burbles, the birds chirp and the silence punctuated by the occasional church bell.  Pace. Peace.

I pulled up Facebook to wish my niece a happy birthday, and instead see a friend's posting about another mass shooting:  "We have blistered into callouses where our hearts and compassion used to be."

I opened a link to the New York Times and my stomach turned over.  I wept.

Have pity on me, LORD, for I am weak;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are shuddering.
My soul too is shuddering greatly—
and you, LORD, how long?
Turn back, LORD, rescue my soul;
save me because of your mercy.  — Psalm 6:3-5

My soul shudders, and I wonder how long we can continue to close our hearts to such violence?  How long before we allow ourselves to be rescued?  Before we can admit that we can never assure our own safety?