Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Elements of chocolate

A chocolate periodic table
Searching for information is a risky business.  On the rare occasions I enter a physical library, I risk enchantment in the stacks.  A book catches my eye, I pull it out, tap the dust from the top, and open it.  I have been known to sink slowly to the floor and read (nowadays hoping not to get crushed when another patron shifts the compact shelving); shaking myself 20 minutes later to find I still have not located the volume I was looking for, but richer for some piece of trivia.

I say this to point out that link diving is not a solely a modern malady.  Looking for some piece of arcana? Beware! You risk loosing minutes, if not hours and having your memory stripped of what you were originally looking for.

It began when I clicked on a link in a piece my sister-in-law shared with the chocolate bar above captioned "I eat periodically." I ended up in search of the trace elements in my favorite treat.  I also realized there is more than one way to answer the question, depending on what you mean by chocolate.

You can find what I discovered on my chemistry blog, but the short answer is there are a lot of trace elements in chocolate including iron and copper (all of your recommended dietary allowance of both those elements in a single bar). There quite a bit of potassium (which makes it significantly radioactive) and a tiny dollop of uranium.  Or looked at another way there's CHoCoLaTe:  Carbon, Holmium, Cobalt, Lanthanum and Tellurium.  Or you could think of it as a way to taste 20% of the periodic table in each and every bite.

Cat on a hot tin roof

Long ago, when the kids were young, we used to beg for Five Minutes of Peace (after a book called Five Minutes' Peace, where a mother elephant pleads with her offspring for 5 minutes peace, which of course is not to be had, even in the bathtub) in the hope of finishing some task (the dishes, grading, a piece of writing).  This summer neither Crash nor The Egg are home during the days — or even most nights.  (Crash has gone to Montana to work with Shakespeare in the Parks; the Egg is working technical theater at a local program for teenagers and young adults — double shifts for three weeks!).  So you would think I could write uninterrupted.

As if.  Fluffy misses all the activity, and so has taken to being within five feet of me when she is in the house.  Sleeping on my desk. Sitting on my keyboard.  Stalking my mouse and the cables.  Deciding to help me cook.  Pet me.  Fill my bowl.  Let me out to sun on the front porch. I left something messy in the backyard, could you clean up the remains?  Toddlers have nothing on cats.

Just in case I was getting sentimental about the children being grown and for the most part no longer living at home, Fluffy decided to remind me of one of the rituals of summer.  Young Crash was from the start an excellent sleeper, though pretty much light activated, which meant in the summer he woke with the dawn, greeting his bleary parents with chipper conversation.  This morning, at 5:27 am, the cat (out for the night protecting us from errant rodents and other things that go bump in the night) climbed onto the roof outside our window and meowed stridently.  I went downstairs to let her in.  No dice, she knows the screen comes off.

So there I am, at half past five in the morning, trying without my glasses to snap the screen back in.  While the cat stands on the sill.  I put her down (without dropping the screen onto the lawn!), turn back.  She jumps up.  Math Man wakes up.  "Can  I help?" "Can you move the cat?"  He does. She comes back.  I finally get the screen in.  Fluffy curls up on the floor, within her five foot radius, purrs loudly and goes to sleep.  She got up long enough to have breakfast, and is now totally snoozed out behind my screen.  Dreaming no doubt of mice and staff who are more cordial when asked to let her in at dawn.

I must say, I now have about 5 hours of peace!

And the roof is shingles, not tin, and at 5 am, not very hot.  I, on the other hand....

Friday, June 26, 2015

What prompts your writing?

Last week my friend Robin and I were talking about what gets us writing.  Julia Cameron's Morning Pages (three pages written each and every day, by hand) came up; I talked about my 10 mintute free write habit, which sometimes shakes things loose (and sometimes doesn't).

These days I've been thinking about writing prompts, those one or two line suggestions that push you to write about something you might not have thought of, or in a way that makes you acutely uncomfortable ("Using words of only one syllable...).  For one of my sabbatical projects I've been reading books and lists of writing prompts (yes, I have read, cover to cover, 1000 Awesome Writing Prompts and am well into 642 Things to Write About) and imagining writing prompts for scientists from the prosaic  — "Describe your research in 2 sentences." — to the wacky — "There is a button in the hood.  No one knows what it does.  Do you push it?  Why or why not?  If you do, what happens?"

Interesting things I've found along the way:

So what prompts my writing?  Sometimes those 10 minute writes, often an image.  A walk can shake things loose.  I keep a little book in my bag where I scribble down my own private prompts (which I admit that sometime later I can't alway read or remember what I thought was so inspiring — what was I thinking when I scribbled down "tea on Tuesday/Sherlock/watchmaker/became, not veiled" last February? I've no idea at all.)

What about deadlines?  I know some people who swear by deadlines as inspiration, but I find they provoke more terror than prose.  I have a whole slew of deadlines coming up, for some very interesting projects (including a bilingual one — woot!).  I asked Math Man last night to remind me that no matter how interesting the project, I'm booked up until late August!

What prompts your best writing?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Downpours in the news

By kunal (kunal.vicky) via Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA 3.0
Late Tuesday afternoon I sat at my desk upstairs and watch the sky grow darker, the wind more furious.  The lights dimmed, then dimmed again, but somehow did not go out. The rain arrived, from the first flecks on my window to torrential downpour was a matter of a minute.  A line of thunderstorms swept through, leaving behind a sci-fi flick sky:  an odd shade of gold with clouds that looked like small cottonballs stuck to the underside of still grey thunderheads.  It was hard to know what to make of it all, other than it was clear we'd been tempest-tossed.

The current news cycle feels very much the same.  Charleston.  Laudato Si'. ACA. Tim Hunt.  Rachel Dolezal. More vitriol.  More finger wagging and hand wringing.  Sorry, not sorry. There are lots of words, flying as fast and furious as the storm, but very little in the way of broad based sustained response.  We're tempested.

I struggle in places to see any hope.  What can I say to people who flat out reject the dignity of huge swaths of humanity, who see themselves as better, more deserving than the majority of humanity, that would move them an inch, a micrometer?   Yet how can I say nothing?

As I read Laudato Si' I keep hearing the underlying questions about how we define progress, whose lives does it improve, what are the risks to the most vulnerable. We live now in a moment when demographics rule, where marketers construct homunculi from bits of information: where we live, who we vote for, what we buy, what websites we visit. We confuse these constructs, built entirely from surface markers, with living breathing human beings with the capacity to think, to love, and, alas, to sin in things both mundane and horrifying. Knowing that I'm a grey-haired Catholic woman in her 50s who receives Communion in the hand, uses a hyphenated name (in some contexts) and eschews make-up may tell you about the next pair of shoes I will buy, but it does not tell you who I am, who and what I love.

How does our cultural reliance on demographics feed into racism, sexism and not-so-random acts of discrimination?  We sort people into ever smaller boxes, so are we surprised that the conversation becomes ever more divisive, our contacts contracting into ever tinier circles?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Column: Laudato Si': let us sing as we go

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 19 June 2015.

Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope. — Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ [244]

This morning I read Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on caring for our common home, the Earth. All 40,000 and some odd words of it. It was a difficult read at times. Not because I lack the necessary background to appreciate either the science or the theology — I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, did some of my graduate research on atmospheric chemistry with Sherry Rowland, who won the Nobel prize for his work on ozone depletion, and have completed many hours of graduate theology course work — but because it brought into such sharp focus the challenges my most vulnerable brothers and sisters face and my role in them. In his letter, Pope Francis invites us to “become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” [19]

Pope Francis begins by sketching out some of the most pressing and troubling difficulties facing creation: pollution, a culture of waste, climate change, reduced biodiversity and the need for clean water. As I read, I could hear the canticle of the three young men from Daniel whispering below the surface: “All you winds, bless the Lord … fire and heat, bless the Lord … all you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord!”

All of creation calls out the name of God, I am reminded, as I listen to the ways in which humankind has stilled some of the voices in that chorus, “making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.” [34]

Coming so soon after the Easter season, where each week my parish began Mass by blessing water and sprinkling the congregation, I am struck by the pope’s attention to water. Water was created, we hear in the words of blessing, “to make the fields fruitful and to refresh and cleanse our bodies. You also made water the instrument of your mercy.”

Water is such a potent symbol of salvation. We are immersed in it at our baptism. We mingle it into the wine that will become our very life. Yet Pope Francis reminds us that most of our poorest brothers and sisters live where the water brings not life, but disease and death. Drought plagues farmers whose crops fail and whose land is mercilessly scoured away by the wind.

We must act boldly, the pope says, for the sake of “the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power” [241]. While much of the work must be done as communities and nations, each of us, he says, can follow the example of St. Therese of Lisieux and undertake simple acts with love. [230] Such actions “call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.” [212]

Recycle and reuse what you can. Don’t waste food. Turn off the air conditioning. Say grace before meals. Keep the sabbath. Celebrate the Eucharist. Simple daily gestures that break us of the habits of selfishness, and push back against a throw-away culture.

Despite the headlines that say, “Pope aligns himself with mainstream science on climate change,” at its heart this letter is not about whether we should be for or against climate change; the science is, in fact, quite settled.

This teaching document demands all of us recognize the particular vulnerability of the poor to ecological damage and open our hearts and our minds to see how we might treat our common home so that all, but most of all the poor, might live with dignity.

Let us sing and praise the Lord, as we go. Laudato si’, mi’ Signore!