Friday, September 13, 2019

Release the penguins! A score for the start of classes

I am in my last year as chair of the chemistry department, I'm also chairing a major committee for the college. The last three weeks have been...packed? I ran across this music meme again last week and realized it's the perfect score to accompany the start of the semester for a department chair (or faculty member, or support staff, or student, or parent...the slope of the ramp from summer to fall is steep for us all!).

When the day gets chaotic (and they all have), I visualize the score, and find my spot on it. Before school began its advice to "keep both feet together" and to "cool the timpani with a small fan" reminded me to plant my feet, stand my ground and attend to self-care and care for my students and faculty. Of course, nothing goes as planned, as the "light explosives" portended.  But now the saxes have moved downstage (where hopefully they will calm down. Honestly, I didn't mean to double book their rehearsal room and I'm so sorry the piccolos drove them out with that shrill arpeggio. If your hearing doesn't return soon, do let me know.)

"Play ball!" and the first day of classes was upon us, even though I still needed a relief pitcher for Thursday afternoon organic lab, and yes, a tempo of 788 beats per minutes seems about how we usually play this section, why do you ask?  Of course, two measures later you can certainly understand why I've "gradually become agitated"given that metronome setting.

But here we are, at the end of the second week, and I'm relieved to say I've reached the measure where I'm instructed to "release the penguins." Watch out, they've gotten quite grumpy cooped up in my office these last two weeks, but once on the loose, not my problem any more.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Scottish tern signs

[Ed: No, the title is not misspelled.]

Math Man has spent the last three days chasing a small ball around the Scottish dunes, in the hopes of managing to put it in one of eighteen 4.25" diameter holes (or since we are, at least for the moment, in the EU, 108 mm holes). Meanwhile, I've walked many miles along the shorelines of the dunes. Yesterday, at Brora, the views and the walk were extraordinary. The day was spectacular, the beach perfect for walking, and the occasional bench perched on the dunes above the beach a perfect spot to sit and think, take in the view, or even write a bit.  All of which I did. It was a day I hope to return to in memory again and again. But what stands out almost as much as the day were the signs.

At the far end of the beach, there were signs on the dunes, warning of nesting arctic terns. Don't disturb the nests and keep your dogs under control.  I carefully avoided the fenced off dune areas. Not carefully enough, apparently, as a tern came swooping down, chirping wildly.  I moved quickly off the dunes and down to the water. Yeah, no. I am still too close. Now the tern is diving closer and closer, I can feel the air pushed down as she swoops across the back of my neck. I flash on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.  I pull my back pack over the back of my neck to protect it and head off the beach. I run into Math Man at the top of the dunes, and while telling him about the terns, get dive bombed again. He suggests — firmly — that I should depart and take the tetchy tern with me. I finally get far enough down the beach to reassure her that I'm not going to disturb her chicks. Promise.

There were signs on the road for: deer crossing, heavy plant crossing, elderly people crossing...and otters crossing. There is a robust population of river otters in Scotland and they occasionally cross the roads (for the same reason as the chicken — to get to the other side.) I note that the heavy plant sign is not warning of weighty plants stalking cars, but an industrial plant truck exit. I love how the language shifts make my brain turn sideways. I'm with the late Toni Morrison, perhaps the tower of Babel was not a loss, but a gain. A gain of perspective, a gain of narratives, a gain of joy.

Read (or listen) to Toni Morrison's beautiful Nobel prize address. My favorite lines: "Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Scottish turns

Math Man and I went to Edinburgh last week, to see the Fringe Festival (Crash Kid is the stage manager for Four Woke Baes which is on at the Fringe - go see it :). Also see comedian Tiff Stevenson and Kiinalik at the International Festival...or any of the literally thousands of other performances on right now).

On Sunday morning we undertook to meet Crash for breakfast on the other side of Edinburgh, he's got limited availability around rehearsals, performances and the need to pre-cook s'mores for those performances. Having more or less mastered the Lothian buses, we checked times on Google maps and saw we were just in time for the bus a short walk away. Fabulous!

We follow Google maps directions to the bus stop. Alas, Google left us 40 feet away from the bus stop. Why alas? That would be 40 vertical feet below the bus stop. Edinburgh, the birthplace of Harry Potter, is a city of multiple levels and tiny alleys and staircases that wind between them. We found steps up and dashed up them and around the corner to just make the bus, now dripping in sweat and hearts pounding. Whew. We had a lovely breakfast with Crash and an incredible ramble through the botanical gardens. A nice ending to our time in Edinburgh, Google maps notwithstanding.

Yesterday we drove up north of Inverness. (We are in the birth country of golf, and Math Man gets a bit excited about golf, so we are planted up for a few days while he indulges in some sea side walking chasing a ball and I indulge in walking, period). Math Man played a course on a spit out into a firth, I walked down to the point to (hopefully) see dolphins. No dolphins, but some amazing lighting bolts. Math Man gives up the game after 10 holes and we get in the car to head to where we are staying about an hour away.

I fire up Google maps, and we head off down the country roads. We go through a little town, turning every 50 feet it seems. "Go left," I say firmly. Math Man turns left and say, "Ferry?" I look down at Google maps and the next direction shown is a little ferry icon. Indeed, with no warning at all, Google maps has directed us to a ferry. Which is here. Which is ready to go. We drive on and they winch up the ramp most of the way and we're off. The timing was so smooth it was like a scene from a James Bond movie, where the bad guys chasing 007 are just a fraction of a second to catch him before he flies/sails/motors away.

Turns out we are on the smallest car ferry in the UK, it holds two cars (barely, the ramp won't go up the whole way with us on board) or one van.  And despite the joke when we asked where it was going, it was going to Nidd across the bay, not Norway. And it certainly did save us time. Slàinte mhath!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A short Roman archeological expedition

Termini Station at midmorning

I got an early train into Rome on Monday, headed to the physics library at Sapienza to look at a copy of the proceedings from the first conference on the periodic table, held in 1969 in Rome (and Vatican City) and Turin. I was hoping to find a photo of the conference attendees, or barring that a list of participants, but was destined to be disappointed.

Smaller than Bryn Mawr geology van, but a sign that I was
in the science zone.
Sapienza is about a 10 minute walk from Termini Station in Rome, so an easy trip. I had no trouble finding the physics buildings, I just followed the physicists. I can spot them anywhere (I think). The stacks are closed, but the student at the desk was delighted that I'd brought all the information he needed to pull it for me. I was surprised to find the book was for the most unopened, that is it had come with the folded pages uncut. The reader was supposed to cut them with the paper knife that surely lay on the little side table next to the comfortable leather wing chair. Unsupplied with a paper knife (and trying to imagine the reaction of the desk staff to my taking out such a knife and slicing into the book given that I was scolded for trying to scan with my phone a single paper from the volume), I was glad the one paper I really wanted, along with the lists of contributors and table of contents, had been opened.

I was interested to discover that this meeting on the periodic table was attended mostly by physicists, or at least the contributors to the proceedings were physicists, and eminent physicists at that: Emilio Segré, John Wheeler, spectroscopist Charlotte Moore from the National Bureau of Standards (who discovered technetium (element 43) in nature, after it had been produced artificially) and Georgy Flerov (for whom flerovium (element 114) would be named).

One of Fermi's early accelerators.
The best tidbit that I won't use in the talk is from Segré's paper, where he starts imagining that there might be worlds made of anti-matter in some remote corner of the universe, where anti-chemists would be doing anti-chemistry. But of course, that anti-chemistry would be anticlimactic, or at least uninteresting, as it would be the same as as the chemistry here. Somehow positing the existence of alien civilizations doesn't strike me an uninteresting (even if their chemistry mirrors ours)!

I arrived back to chaos at Termini. A fire had been deliberately set at a main junction north of the city and every long distance train was delayed 3 hours or outright cancelled. The place was filled with anxious travelers and long lines. Thankfully the train to Albano was running on time, and I walked the quarter mile out to the platform and an hour later was sitting at my desk in the Specola.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The ancient and the inaccessible: the moon and the periodic table

Pope Paul VI looks at the moon through a telescope at the
Vatican Observatory in July 1969. The then director of the
Observatory, Fr. Daniel O'Connell SJ, stands at his side. 
Next week I am off to St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) to give an invited lecture at the 4th International Conference on the Periodic Table — a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev's proposal that the chemical elements could be laid out in a table where elements in each row (now columns) shared many properties. This periodicity of properties led this method of organization to be called a "periodic table."

Pope Paul VI in one of the Vatican Observatory's domes
reading a message to the Apollo 11 astronauts.
The lecture I've been asked to give is based on an essay I wrote for Nature Chemistry earlier this year, "Isotopic Enrichment" (Isotopes are variants on elements. For example, carbon-14 dating tracks the radioactive decay of a heavier than normal variant of a carbon atom.  Most carbon is carbon-12, where the number indicates the mass of a single atom,) The title of this blog post comes from an article ten years ago in Science by Frank Poitrasson on what the distribution of the isotopes of iron can tell us about the history of the earth and the moon. (He describes events so cataclysmic as to be unimaginable. Think two planets colliding and some of the iron on earth vaporizing off into space.) History has a literal weight.

Bob Macke SJ  (left) and Guy Consolmagno SJ (attired for
the occasion) in front of a display of ephemera from Apollo
missions at the Vatican Observatory outside Rome.
When I was 11 or 12, a touring moon rock (I presume from Apollo 11 or 12) was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I was long space obsessed and having devoured Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel, anxious to go traipsing across the surface of the moon myself. (That's also the book where I first learned about isotopes, half-lives and their use as clocks to measure huge stretches of time.  The same potassium you find in a banana contains an isotopic "clock" — potassium-40 — that ticks off time on the billion year time scale, back to the birth of the universe.) So I was anxious to see this off-world connection.

A lunar sample collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan
and Harrison Schmitt, sealed in acrylic. I was |<- -="" this="">| close!
There was a field trip to the museum. I rode the yellow school bus in from the tiny Illinois town I lived in. I stashed my lunch in its wrinkled brown bag along with the rest of my groups' lunches to be picked up at our set time. Then I made a mad dash to the moon rock display. There was already a long line, which inched forward. Finally I was close enough to see the case — a Star Trek-esque dias, from which a light glowed in the dim room.  People passed the case, oohing and aahing. At last I was there. To discover there was nothing I could see. Even standing on my tiptoes, all I could see was the very top of the glass dome over the sample. The moon was as inaccessible to me as ever.

When I came to Bryn Mawr, I was excited to discover that one of  my new colleagues, Weecha Crawford, had been one of the first geologists to study the lunar specimens, which had to be handled as if they were precious jewels (which they are). But still, I had yet to see a moon rock.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Bob Macke, the Jesuit brother who is the curator of meteorites for the Vatican Observatory, assembled the observatory's collection of Apollo ephemera for us to enjoy at the morning coffee. One piece of which is a moon rock from Apollo 17, along with a small Vatican City State flag that went to the moon and returned! (Samples and country flags from that mission were given to each sovereign state at the time, including the Holy See.)

At last, I have been as close to (a piece of) the moon as I will get. Like St. Thomas, I didn't need to touch it, to know it was real. Unlike Thomas, I didn't even need to have seen to have believed.  Happy anniversary to Apollo 11!

Read about the goodwill moon rocks here.
A wonderful piece by Bob Macke SJ about what it is like to do the scientific research that continues on the lunar specimens is here, "Moon Rocks and Me".
There is a front page story at the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano by my colleague, the director of the Specola, Guy Consolmagno: Pallida luce dei nostri sogni (it's in Italian, but click to translate and read the memories of one of the Jesuits who was in the gardens the night Pope Paul VI came to watch the moon landing and read a message to the astronauts. More about that night is at the Vatican Observatory's Sacred Space blog.)