Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Five Books

Only five books? And the five best books? Last month I did an interview via email with Caspar Henderson (who wrote a marvelous bestiary for the new century: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings) on the best five books I would put on a reading list titled "Chemistry."  It's now up on the site — Five Books.  But the hardest part was not answering the great questions Caspar posed, but figuring out what five books to list. What did I want this list to do? Teach you chemistry? Maybe. Or give you a sense of what I find fascinating and beautiful and compelling about chemistry? Definitely!

I thought about various friends, curious and readers, but who don't have much background in the sciences and math.  What would I pull from my shelves for them to read?  Something that teaches you to decode a bit of the chemistry, a biography - what is the life of a scientist really like.  Something that is compelling, that drags you into a story you can't put down. Something that shows off the beauty of the world at the atomic and molecular level.

Something that teaches you to decode a bit of the chemistry:
Why does asparagus make my wee smell? And 57 other curious food and drink questions by Andy Brunning of Compound Interest. A bold graphical look at the chemistry of what we eat, with lots of quick explanations of weird (but useful) words of science like chromatography. 
What is the life of a scientist really like:
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith.  Of course there had to be Marie Curie. And this unsparing biography of her pulls the curtain away on what it can mean to plunge into research with all your being.
Compelling stories with chemistry at their heart:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Some molecules are thugs, some turn witness for the prosecution. Real crimes, real molecules.  (And her new book on the rise of food safety, The Poison Squad, which is in the stack on my desk, is just as good.) 
The beauty of the atomic and molecular world:
H2O: A biography of water by Phillip Ball Chemistry laid out for the layperson with care and delight. Clouds are not what you think!
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. There's a dark side to the periodic table.
Read the whole essay to find out more about what is fascinating about chemistry (at least to me), what I do as a chemist, and of course, about these five books. Want more book recommendations about chemistry? Want to know what the runners up were? Leave me a note in the comments!

Chemistry not your thing? Go read Caspar's bestiary about the wildly improbable creatures that inhabit the very real world, from sea butterflies to yetis (or at least yeti crabs), it's a wide ranging exploration of the corners of the biological world. To quote a reviewer: "There is something lovely about a book that takes on so many disciplines and tackles them with confidence." There is indeed.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Very right moments and the phone

Vatican City State's phone book
I want to channel the Dowager Duchess of Downton, who views the phone with suspicion. I want to crisply tell the person who called me fifteen times — every 30 minutes — on three different numbers yesterday that they should cease and desist. What was so urgent? Thankfully they left me a voicemail the first time so I would know.

"...this call is to inform you about some legal enforcement actions filed on your social security number. We have got an order to suspend your social at very right moment because we have found many suspicious activities on your social before we go ahead and suspend your number. Kindly call us back on our number which is ..."

Any awkwardness in language is not the fault of Google Voice's transcription, I note. I did listen to the message, which was in a synthesized male voice. This is a scam of course, "socials" don't get suspended, at very right moments or not.  They called, I blocked, they called me at a different number, I blocked again.

But it made me think about how few phone calls I get these days that are not scams, political calls or cold sales calls for one thing or another. Given the choice to give up voice or text, I'd give up the voice functionality of my phone in a heartbeat. Math Man calls more often than he texts and a colleague calls from time to time, but other than that, I have returned to the era of asynchronous written communication.  Delivered through the offices of the elves of the interwebs rather than the Dowager's minions, but nonetheless, passed from one (virtual) hand to another, I have control of my interruptions. The phone assumes I'm free to drop whatever I am doing to answer it, that I am interruptible. It's rarely a very right moment!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Guns, thoughts and prayer

In a reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. John Chrysostom described the custom of the early church: “The gift of prayer used to come into one person in the church, and he would be the person set aside to ask God for the things which would benefit them all.” What should we pray for?  Every week this is on my mind, as I either write or help edit the universal prayers. There are always far more needs than what we can say aloud, which is perhaps the most difficult part of this ministry: to deliberately set out to hear where the world is crying out for God, and then have to set some of these needs to the side, to be caught up in the closing prayer but nonetheless left unsaid.

There has been a shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Cue "thoughts and prayers." Prayer, we keep using that word. I do not think it means what we think it means. As someone who writes regularly about prayer, every time I see this phrase in my Twitter feed or hear it uttered by a politician on the news, I wonder what we all think we’re praying for. Are we offering to make some generic noise in the direction of God’s ear and then move on?  Or do we have something specific in mind that we expect God to come down and take care of.  Perhaps a miracle that restores the lives lost or some divine assurance something this horrific will never happen again — or at least not happen to us.

What are we praying for?  In the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia, says, "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless…It doesn't change God — it changes me.” Are we willing to pray fiercely, even desperately, to be changed?

Remington claims its version of an AR-15 rifle will give you “the confidence and firepower to get the job done.” Are we willing to pray to change the conversation, to dispense with euphemisms and say aloud what the job of a gun is: “This AR-15 will allow you to kill or maim another human being. Many human beings. Quickly.”

Are we willing to think that we can change — that we could imagine ways to reduce if not eliminate the carnage, as other countries have done? Or should we be praying for forgiveness from the families of the classroom’s worth of children who will be shot to death in the next week because we don’t dare to dream that change is possible.

Can we pray for the vision to see how guns change us?  To grasp that we might secretly relish holding the power of life and death in our hands, to consider we sometimes buy guns because they make us feel a little like gods ourselves, or if if not gods, at least like a superhero.  Or a patriot.

We say now is not the time in the wake of a tragedy to think about the solutions, that we should focus on thoughts and prayers for the dead, the dying and those who loved them. But what are the prayers for, if not to change things, above all ourselves? We must go beyond issuing vague petitions in the wake of a tragedy, and instead offer ongoing, concrete prayers for our own change of heart and for the hard, realistic thinking and respectful dialog it will take to change a nation.

Perhaps the next time our president and congressional leaders are offering their thoughts and prayers in the wake of a mass shooting, they might take the lead and say what those prayers and thoughts are. That would be a miracle worth praying for.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Wheeling about

I went to California to see my dad, who's ill and for the moment in a care facility bridging the gap between hospital care and home. Wheelchairs were part of the landscape this trip.  Dotting the hallways, parked in corners, tucked between the curtains in the room. Occupied and not.  I felt tall in this community, where nearly everyone is in bed, or in a wheelchair, some so bent I could not see their faces.

The first night I left my dad's room, but it was late and various doors had been closed and lights turned out. I got turned around in the dark (this would a theme of this trip!) and couldn't find the exit. I walked past a man who seemed to be dozing in a wheelchair parked in the corner.  Suddenly he called out in a loud voice, something I couldn't figure out.  Had he mistaken me for someone else, or this place for somewhere else?  I turned to be sure he didn't need anything, and he looked up and me and repeated firmly, "¡Para alla!" My jet lagged brain flipped a switch into Spanish.  Directions to the exit. He then gave me careful and correct directions, in Spanish, to the main exit.

I came in on Sunday to find a family in one of the corridor alcoves, the elderly mother in a wheelchair, her daughter leaning forward to say, "Mom, you can choose to be happy." Her mother took a breath and replied, "I am sad." I wanted to cry for them both.

And then there was the elderly man in the wheelchair at the end of the offramp for Highway 101 in Salinas. Struggling to hold up a sign, though the inscription was illegible, I had no trouble reading it. Help me. There was no place to pull over and help. Huge trucks came rumbling off that ramp, heading for the coast.  Would they sideswipe him? Who do you call? I had no idea.

My temporary and relative vantage point left me feeling not powerful, but powerless. Reeling from seeing through so many eyes, Christ dancing in ten thousand places, scarred in limb, yet lovely...

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

Monday, October 15, 2018

All who hunger

Interior of Mission San Miguel
On Friday I drove the 163 miles from San Jose Airport to my dad's house outside San Miguel.  The road is achingly familiar, Math Man and I drove it so many time when we were out here on sabbatical 20 years ago. I go past the stand of eucalyptus trees near Gilroy that meant we were finally free of the Bay Area traffic. The old train siding north of Gonzalez, now collapsing. The prison in Soledad, lit up on the night drives and the signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers in that area.  And Salinas, the half way point where we would stop on Sunday drives back up to the Bay Area — the two kids asleep in the back of the car — and get a chocolate milkshake to share.

I stopped at "our" In-N-Out Burger in Salinas on the way down and ate outside on the concrete tables, drinking in the sun that has been so scarce in Philly for the last weeks.  Inside were couples and families and CalTrans workers and EMTs.  Outside, it was me and the homeless guys with their black garbage bags by their sides.  I'd seen them walking along the farm access roads next to 101, backs bent, garbage bags over their shoulders, dust puffing beneath their feet. I was touched by the number of people who  stopped by the tables to ask these guys if they needed anything, if they needed a meal. No one was going hungry in this moment, which warmed me more than the sun.