Friday, November 17, 2017

Worry(ing) Beads

Former Vice President Biden has been seen wearing a rosary wrapped around his wrist.  The rosary belonged to his late son Beau.  You might think it touching that he wears this keepsake.  You might think it inspiring that he holds this iconic Catholic sacramental so close.  Those of us whose clothes often lack pockets might even think it practical.  Or you might think that no one is really in a position to criticize someone else's prayer life.  Ah...but not everyone would agree.

It's sinful.  It's sacrilegious.  How dare he, he's not a real Catholic/a good Catholic.  It's wrong, wrong, wrong.  And the very best?  Try to see in those who wear a rosary an opportunity for evangelization. Should you see someone with a rosary around their necks or on their wrists, take a moment to teach them how to really pray with it.  Or if you can't manage that, pray for their conversion. (*face palm*)

Oh, dear.  I wear a chotki, a knotted prayer rope which looks much like a rosary, around my wrist. It's a pray help far older than the rosary.  The tradition stretches back to the 4th century desert solitaries, The method for tying the knots is attributed to St. Anthony the Great.  Please, do not try to tell me how to 'really' pray with it.  (Yes, people have tried.) And while I think we should all pray for each other, you don't need to pray for my conversion on this account.

I'm trying to imagine under what circumstances I would possibly consider approaching someone and "correcting" their prayer.  Frankly, I can't think of any.

Yes, yes, I realize that at times people have worn rosaries and chotkis as jewelry, with no intention of using them for prayer.  I still think you have to assume that they are worn in good faith.  No scolding.  No sanctimonious prayers for their conversion.  Instead, try this one:  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me — a sinner.


The chotki is worn to remind one to "pray without ceasing" as St. Paul recommended to the Thessalonians. Prayers ropes are worn on the left hand (or kept in the left pocket). To pray with them, take them off and hold them in your right hand, and say the Jesus prayer on each knot.  My preferred variant:  "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." They come in many lengths from the 33 knot version I wear to longer versions of 100 or 300 knots such as the one that has been seen on Pope Francis' wrist.  Traditionally they are made of black wool and have a tassel on the end of the cross to soak up your tears of contrition for your sins.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Writing Exercises

It's a book.  In February of 2016 I created a document on my computer labeled "Not By Bread Alone."  Forty-seven reflections and 12 months later I attached a document with the completed manuscript to an email to my editor.  It felt oddly unceremonious. Somehow a book manuscript ought to have real heft, to weigh something more than a few electrons.  But off it went, weightlessly and nearly instantly, to Liturgical Press to return with edits and queries, and as proofs and as final proofs.  No version weighing my computer down anymore than that first blank file had.

In many ways it was like making the Ignatian Exercises again, this time in the form of the 19th annotation — a retreat in daily life.  There was assigned scripture. There were familiar themes: contrition, the Gospel stories, gratitude and humility.  The Third Week came again, and the Fourth dawned with joy.

There was repetition, as each reflection was visited multiple times growing from a sketched sentence or two to full length.  (Not to mention the repetition that accompanied the proofs.) Colloquies were made as I crafted questions for readers to grapple with.  And there was a prayer to end each day's contemplations.

It was a privilege to walk those roads again, almost a decade after making the 30-days.  It was a privilege to write a path to walk with others. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.



You can buy the book at Liturgical Press, $5 for the large print version, less for the easier to carry around version or for larger quantities, or for the weightless ebook!


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Writes first time, every time

I've been going "back to school" in the fall for 53 years.  At some level the questions haven't changed since kindergarten:  What to wear? Will the kids in my class like me?  Will I be able to do the work? What supplies do I need?  I loved the sensation of writing on a stack of fresh paper, the scent of the ballpoint ink tickling my back brain.  The snick of the three ring binder as I snapped a completed assignment in.

As I tried to crack a case of writer's block a few weeks ago, I decided to get off the keyboard and onto a pad of paper.   I tend to start writing on paper, move to the keyboard, then back to paper at the end.  But was midway through a complete re-write of an essay I was writing in circles, unable to find a line through it that would make sense to a reader.  It was a bit like decided to take the next offramp from the highways when traffic has come to a crawl and try the side roads.  They might not be as fast, but there's hope that you'll get there eventually, and you're moving and filling the page.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones has a writing exercise that I sometimes use with my students:  "Pen or pencil.  Five minutes.  Go." What tools do I pick up to write with? Does it matter to me? Sometimes.  Why and when?
This task:  Yellow college-lined pad of paper. With a pen. Not a pencil.

I had to rummage in the drawer of office supplies to find a pen. The drawer contains principally leftovers from school supply lists gone by (why, oh, why do we have so many unused protractors in there?)  I pulled out a classic Bic pen, the one that I remember from my own school days. Clear plastic, medium point, viscous tacky blue ink.

I remember the ads on TV where they would strap the pen to the skate of an Olympic figure skater who would do some fancy turn, ice chips flying.  They'd take the pen off and write with a flourish.  "Writes first time, every time."  I thought that might be a good omen for the writing.  It was. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stuck

Door knocker in Albano Laziale, outside Rome.
It was late on the Friday afternoon of fall break and the science building nearly empty when I went to the ladies room.  Right.  TMI. Anyway, I got stuck in the stall, the mechanism that turns the latch was stripped and while it latched without incident, it wasn't unlatching for anything. Call for help?  Or crawl out?  Checking the floor and thinking about how long it might be until someone heard me, I opted for the latter, which brought back memories of elementary school, when several classmates and I had latched the doors to all the bathroom stalls shut, then slithered out underneath.  Needless to say, sister was not pleased with us.

I am grateful that the floor was reasonably clean, that in my sixtieth year I can still do that and that no one came in as I was doing so.  I put a sign on the door, and a call in to facilities to fix it.

Today, I was stuck again, this time locked out of what I wanted in to.  Before I went off to teach, I dumped the remains of my soda (don't judge) into my insulated bottle, screwed the top on and left it on my desk, all set to grab on my way out the door to the meeting I had across campus directly after class.

After class I dumped my teaching bag, grabbed the papers I needed and my cold beverage.  I hiked up the hill, took the last seat at the meeting and...couldn't open my bottle.  Ugh.  I tried again. And then realized I was not going to be able to open it.  The soda had released its CO2, increasing the pressure inside and effectively sealing it shut. We have this issue every time I do bomb calorimetry, students can't get the top off with 25 atm of pressure inside.  The bombs, I must point out, have relief valves.  I wished for one on my bottle.  Since it wasn't 25 atm inside (was it even 2?) all it took once I got home was Math Man (larger hands) and a bit of leverage.

I'm hoping I'm all unstuck for the rest of the week.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Yearning for the living God

My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.  — Psalm 63:2b, Morning Prayer, Sunday, Week 1

Two weekends ago my parish anointed the sick at the 5 pm evening Mass.  We normally reserve the front pew for those who find it too demanding to get to communion. We keep space so those in scooters or wheelchairs can sit with their families close to the front as well, seating to the north and south of the altar is moveable chairs instead of pews.  The ministers of the Eucharist know to come to people sitting, bringing both the Body and the Blood.

At this Mass, though, we needed more space yet, so an entire wing was set aside for those who were to be anointed, chairs spaced widely so the priests could move through for the sacrament.  When it came time for communion, there was a bit of a scramble, but a minister quickly came through and distributed the Body. But the cup did not follow.

One of the ministers of the cup noticed and when her line vanished, walked to the other side and gave the cup to the first row.  Sitting across the altar from the scene, I realize that almost everyone was leaning toward the  minister as she gave the cup to the first person in the row, hoping she would come to them. Yearning with their whole selves for the living God.  Do they believe in the real presence?  I don't need a CARA survey to tell me, their posture gave it away.  Their souls are thirsting for God, the living God.


A perceived nonchalant attitude toward receiving the sacrament attributed to Catholics' failure to grasp and assent the doctrine of the real presence is a common trope in some corners of the Catholic web.  I wonder how much of this is seeing what they think the data show.  According to CARA, more than 90% of those who attend Mass weekly believe what the receive is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.  Numbers drop to 2/3 of those who attend at least once a month, but not weekly.  But... if you look closely at the demographics, about 80% of the congregation at a given Mass are there every week, and that roughly 85% of the adults in the congregation believe as the Church does. Not that "about half" or "two-thirds" that gets cited in these screeds.  The people in the pews know, don't school them. The real question isn't about the Real Presence, it's about why people aren't coming through the door in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On the immensity of space


The Total Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 - fly along with the shadow! from Eclipse2017.org on Vimeo.

(A version of this post appeared on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.)

Not quite two months ago I spent a late morning and early afternoon watching the moon slide across the sun, turning midday Philadelphia into twilight and back again.  I stashed the eclipse filters for the occasional look at the sun, and dove into the semester.  But each time I head out for a late evening walk and see the full moon hovering over the neighborhood school's field, I think about it coming between the earth and the sun.

I tend to think of the moon and sun as large objects ponderously processing through space, from my perspective taking ten or a dozen hours to creak 'round the sky. Their movements marking out days, months and years, not so much minutes and seconds.  So I was struck on the animations of the eclipse by how fast the moon's shadow moved across the ground, even when you account for the speeded up motion  (in this video slightly more than a factor of about 13).  With family in California, I've flown coast to coast more time than I can count.  It takes me 5 to 6 hours to fly from here to there, soaring through the sky at three-quarters the speed of sound.  The umbra — the shadow —  took only 90 minutes to make the same trip, traveling at more than 1200 mph.

As I walked yesterday afternoon, watching the sun vanish behind the horizon as my spot on the earth rotated to face away from the sun, it occurred to me that the moon's shadow isn't the only thing moving fast.  When standing "still" on earth I am, of course,  in motion relative to other points in the universe. Points on the surface of the earth (at my latitude 40oN) are moving at 750 mph. Fast indeed, but not so fast I cannot imagine it.

In this moment in history, where I can climb on a plane and be on the other side of the world in half a day, or video chat with my kids who are thousands of miles away or I can go to a lab downstairs and with a quantum mechanical trick, nudge atoms around, arranging them to suit me, I might be tempted to think of myself as commanding great powers. At least until I think about how fast the earth is moving around the sun.  67,000 mph hour.  The solar system?  Orbiting the galactic center at a half million miles per hour.  I am moving through space at speed I cannot truly fathom: a thousand feet flash by in a millisecond, a hundred thousand in a second.  Eighty thousand miles in a minute.

Lines from Psalm 29 from Lauds, Week I, came to mind:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
The Lord on the immensity of waters;
The voice of the Lord, full of power,
The voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
The Lord on the immensity of waters, the Lord on the immensity of space.  Adore the Lord in his holy court.

The psalm ends with an assurance that God, whose strength we cannot fathom, who with a word can strip the forests bare, and spin a universe into being, will grant us peace.  I can think of nothing else we need more now than this. Peace and God's unimaginable strength to sustain and protect us on this tiny world hurtling through space.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Pathetic prayers and holy defiance

The end of the letter from Dom Christian.  The entire letter is reproduced here:
  http://www.moines-tibhirine.org/images/stories/Testament/manuscrit.pdf
Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress, has a post up entitled "A prayer for Somalia, and for the pathetic killers who face eternal darkness."  I was taken aback by both the title and the prayer.

I was reminded, too, of the very different stance evident in the letter left behind by Cistercian monk Dom Christian de Chergé, who was abducted and subsequently killed by terrorists in Algeria.  In it, he prayed:
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. 
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
(I learned of the story of the monks of Tibhirine from a poem by the luminous Marilyn Nelson, which I enjoin you to read, the full text is here.)

Scalia begins by asking us to place ourselves with the hundred of peoples who died and were injured in the bombings, to see beyond the numbers to the human stories. As we did for those struck down in Las Vegas.  But then she shifts to praying for the "pathetic killers," a prayer she characterizes as "holy defiance." She prays (or quotes someone else's prayer, it's unclear): "for the murderers who will spend eternity apart from the Source of All Love, that they may yet turn away from what is dark, and into God’s marvelous light."

She prays for their redemption, not their condemnation, but I wish there were more mercy, more a sense of that those who killed are as much children of God as those they killed. Dom Christian ends his letter with
Yes, I want this thank you and this goodbye to be a "God bless" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours. 
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
I am praying for those killed, and those who killed. But I'm praying, like Dom Christian, that I will be graced with a moment of clarity that lets me forgive, in the hopes of being one day a happy thief in Paradise.  That I will grasp that what it means to put on Christ: to forgive, to redeem, to die, to rise. That prayer, I think, might truly be "holy defiance."

________
Read the entire letter from Dom Christian here in French, here in English.





Memory management

One of the platters from the 80 Mbyte drive I used in grad 
school.  Note the magnetic materials has been scraped down
to the bare metal. Always back up.  I lost six weeks of work
that had to be retyped in.
It's the start of fall break here and fall weather seems to have arrived with it. (Though not quite to stay, the temperatures for next weekend exceed the 90th percentile for high's at this point in October.)  I've been looking forward to some time to write and some time to do some of the low priority things I'd pushing to the back.  Even as I write this, I keep remembering things I wanted to accomplish!

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at St. Edward's University in Austin for their annual Lucian symposium.  Four speakers, a dinner, a student poster session. My talk was organized around the tools that chemists have for exploring structure, including some we might not think of as "modern" such as paper models, making the case for broadening the base of tools chemists have access to along with modernizing them.

Along the way I showed some of the computational tools I had used, including our "big" drive.  80 Mbytes and the size of a washing machine.  I can now keep 128 Gbytes on my key chain and forget I have it.  One feature of the coding I did in those days was the need to intentionally allocate memory for lists and arrays, including deciding could be moved into memory as a piece. For these computationally demanding tasks, having a carefully designed overlap was key.

My to-do list feels like that old-fashioned overlay.  I have the teaching list, the administrative list, the writing list, the personal lists. Load them in, wiping what is currently in memory.  Repeat.  Can I keep things from accidentally writing over what I need to keep in working memory (the load of wash in while I write?).



Saturday, October 07, 2017

I go before you always

We buried a parishioner today, a woman of 103. The funeral was small, a handful of friends and relatives.  I stood beside the font near the entrance of the church, vested in baptismal white, as we clothed her body one last time in white, outward sign of the inner reality of her immersion in Christ, then took the processional cross and stood in front of the coffin.

"Let's go, Michelle," came the sure low voice of the pastor behind me.  As the cantor sang the refrain, "I go before you always," I smoothly lifted the cross high, and my eyes on Christ in the crucifixion scene which hangs in the lunette of the dome, led the small procession to the altar.  Me, the pastor, the pallbearers and her body. I go before you always.  I could almost sense the corresponding heavenly procession.  The cross before all. A great cloud of witnesses.

At the end of Mass we sent her soul onward, incense under and over her casket, around and around, a great cloud of prayers gathering her up.

Afterwards, I went out back to get my bike, to find the censer cooling on the ramp behind the church.  The holy wreathing the quotidian. Remember that you are dust, it said, and unto dust, you will return.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Talking football and quantum mechanics

My mom and dad with my sibs.
The ur-football fan in my life was a woman, my mother, who took immense joy in the nuances of the game whether it was the local Bearcat high school team or her beloved Raiders.  My father wasn't a fan, but Math Man is, so on Sundays in football season, she'd call him from California and they'd watch the game "together," chewing over the plays and their execution.

So I found it, well, funny, to hear Florida Panther's quarterback Cam Newton smirk and say in response to a female reporter' question, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like...it's funny."  (After careful thought and 24 hours, he's decided this wasn't an acceptable response to the reporter's question.)

I'm trying to imagine this in my context, asking a question at a seminar or talk only to have the speaker smirk and come back with, "It's funny to hear a female talk about quantum mechanics like...it's funny."

I actually don't have to think all that hard. Two years ago at a dinner before a talk, the female speaker asked me a technical question (what basis sets I preferred to use with a particular density functional, if you must know), and as I started to respond to her, I was interrupted by a young (undergraduate) male researcher at the table.  "Why are you asking her that question?" he demanded of the speaker, clearly irked.  Perhaps because I am one of the people who did the work, and the first author on the original paper?

The whole incident reminds me of Rudyard Kipling comments on visiting Chautauqua (a resort in New York State where women denied educational opportunities in more formal venues gathered each summer to study): “I’m awfully sorry for the girls who take it seriously. I suppose the bulk of them don’t... One never gets to believe in the proper destiny of women until one sees a thousand of ‘em doing something different.  There is something wrong with it.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A few thoughts and prayers

Near is the LORD to the broken-hearted
and the crushed in spirit He rescues. Ps 34:19

Listening to Donald Trump quote the psalms in his remarks to the nation after the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday made me gasp aloud, it was such a switch from his usual nondescript religious language: "God bless America!" and "thoughts and prayers."  And though he attributed it only to "scripture," after decades praying the psalter I had no trouble recognizing the source:  Psalm 34.

It drove me to pick up Walter Brueggemann's short and pointed book, Praying the Psalms, last night. In it, Brueggemann points out that the psalms as prayers are direct, perhaps uncomfortably so.  The images are concrete and familiar.   Mud and bees.  Waters frozen, hoarfrost scattered like ashes. Tears. Vengeance.  There is an unfiltered immediacy to them.  A trust so deep we feel we can say anything?  Or a world so shaken, there is nothing left to lose?

We pray, and in doing so presume to entangle ourselves with the transcendent, all-powerful, ever-living God.  How can we imagine such an encounter will not leave us untouched, unshaken, unmoved?  What are we thinking?  "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me." (C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands) Are we willing to pray to be changed?


Beg so that your continuing prayer of petition appears to be a pledge of your faith in the light of God in the darkness of the world, for your hope for life in this constant dying, for your loyalty of love that loves without reward. — Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Prayer of Need” in The Need and the Blessing of Prayer




Sunday, October 01, 2017

A lens on the sacred and the daily

There are no unsacred places;

There are only sacred places

And desecrated places.
— Wendell Berry

There's a meme on Facebook these days, a challenge to post one black and white photograph a day for a week, a glimpse of your day.  I've been enjoying seeing the world through the eyes of various friends. The incredible photo of a bumblebee on a sunflower, one petal folded over like a sunshade.  A sky that looked like rippled silk. Mugs holding hands.

These are apples in the sous vide, seen from above, with a bit of spice and brown sugar.  Simmer at 70oC for a couple of hours, then chill. 

I spent a good chunk of Saturday cooking ahead for the week (and the month), along with organizing the results of the monthly major shop.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Aliens have landed on my roof

Classes have begun at the college, a season about which I have selective amnesia.  No matter how many times I have done this (33 times, I'm counting), no matter how prepared I am with handouts and room arrangements and...it is always nervewrackingly chaotic and utterly exhausting.  It's fun like riding a really big wave is, equal parts exhilaration and terror, and you can feel pretty bedraggled by the time you wash up on the beach.

And of course, while you are riding this wave of new school year energy, you can't do anything else. All this to say, it felt delightful today to have some quiet time to do some research and a bit of reading.

I had Jon Larsen's  In Search of Stardust1 on my stack of books to read because last spring the upper division research methods course I taught did an experiment to measure the heat capacities of meteorites, using the method developed by the Vatican Observatory's Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Bob Macke, SJ and colleagues.2 The students were curious about the astrochemistry context (where do the samples come from, how can you distinguish regular rocks from these stony aliens) and I've been collecting resources for this coming spring when a new batch of students will make these measurements.

I tend to think of meteorite strikes as spectacular and rare events, fireballs roaring through the sky that finally come crashing to earth.  Still they aren't as rare was you might think — tens of thousands of meteorites weighing as much or more than a euro coin hit the earth each year, most of them landing in the water.  But what takes my breath away are the hundreds of trillions of micrometeorites that come to rest on earth each year, adding as much as 100,000 metric tons to the earth's mass.  Invisible, unremarked.  Perhaps as many as one a day hits the roof of my house, there are surely some of these ancient bits of dust in the water I drink, still others stuck to my hands after weeding the garden.

Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, discovered that you could find and identify these micrometeorites by looking at the dust on urban roofs, previously it had been thought you couldn't find them in the midst of the general detritus of a city. But a careful eye is rewarded, as these cosmic intruders have a characteristic morphology. Their shape and appearance means you can sort them out under a microscope, much like Pasteur manually sorted the crystals of tartaric acid, and they are astonishingly beautiful.
From J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust , p. 51.

Larsen offers a brief and readable glimpse into the science of micrometeorites, but I enjoyed simply browsing the images, reading them as I might clouds.  There is a golden glass meteorite with deep blue inclusions (p 51) that looks like some alien aquatic creature's shell, while the burnished cryptocrystalline specimen on page 45 looks like a bronzed wasp's nest — until one remembers it is less than a millimeter long. One scanning electron microscopic image of an ablation spherule from the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 looks like a tiny alien skull.

As much as I learned about the dust from outer space, Larsen's register of the terrestrial imposters gave me an entirely different view of road dust, which contains polished spheres of glass from the reflective markings on the roads and tiny crystals, microgemstones.

In one of the most beautiful passages in Isaiah (Is 54:11-12) we are told, "I lay your pavements in carnelians..." Who knew it was literally true.  The world is a beautiful place, if only we know where and how to look.

(A version of this post appeared at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.)


1. J. Larsen, In Search of Stardust   If you get it at Amazon through this link, the Vatican Observatory Foundation will get a donation. There was an article in the NY Times last spring about the project as well.

2. Guy J. Consolmagno, Martha W. Schaefer, Bradley E. Schaefer, Daniel T. Britt, Robert J. Macke, Michael C. Nolan, Ellen S. Howell, "The measurement of meteorite heat capacity at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen vaporization" Planetary and Space Science87 (2013) 146-156

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Renewing vows: 9131 days

It's the nine thousand one hundred and thirty first day since Math Man and I walked through the doors of the parish church, processed down the aisle and vowed to stand by each other and cherish each other in weal and in woe.

It's our 25th anniversary, if you don't want to do the math (yes, Math Man included the leap years!).  It's not a prime number, but composite, with a prime factorization of 23 x 397.

Our sons had a life sized photo cutout of us made and restaged the wedding — right where it happened in our parish church. It is an entirely different take on renewing your vows.  They photographed the 'event' and gave us the photos (and the cutout) for an anniversary present.

It seems unthinkable that we've been married more than 13 million minutes, millions seem so large and the time so short.  Other significant dates to come?  On January 22, 2020 we will have been married 10,000 days and on Monday, May 13, 2024 for a billion seconds.  Billions and billions. And yes, these days are on my calendar!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods

I've lost count of laundry loads and dishwasher runs and dinners cooked, the house has been bouncing since I got back from Rome in early August. The boys have come and gone again, back to school and work, one to the east, the other west.  The Egg's friends have come to visit, sleeping on sofas.

The long and short of serving.
My sister-in-law, No-no came to drop my niece, She of the Book, off at college.  From Houston.  They arrived here the day Harvey hit, awoke Sunday morning to texts from my brother Geek Guru that the waters of the nearby bayou had risen fast and he and my nephew were shocked to find they were now trapped in the house.  They spent a damp, dark day surrounded by flood waters, checked on by police on a Zodiac, watching neighbors get pulled out by boat and helicopter.

They are, I am relieved to say, now safe. When the waters went down, they evacuated to my other Houston brother's house. The house is OK, it was raised up past the 100 year flood level.  The garage and the cars in it?  Toast.

Labor, crosses, prophets and floods. And yet still, ordinary time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blood Feuds: The Great Bryn Mawr Bake Off

"Can you search to find what to substitute for glucose syrup?" I asked Crash.  Corn syrup, as it turns out. "It's cool to find a use for corn syrup besides making blood." he mused.

Math Man likes eclairs.  For Father's Day I bought him a book of fancy eclairs (or rather a book of eclair recipes) to browse, and promised to make him some.  The Egg has been home for a few days between a summer of math research and the start of his senior year and binge watching the Great British Baking Show.  Crash is also here for a few weeks between a stint in England and his next stage management gig, and thought to stretch his cooking repertoire beyond Budget Bytes and blood. Hence the eclairs.

Raspberry and chocolate, it still looked like Macbeth in the kitchen yesterday. (See below)

This afternoon we had The Egg making bread, Crash making choux for the eclairs (from Tom's mom's recipe after the book's recipe failed us) and me making braised short ribs for The Egg's departure dinner.  It was a lot like an episode of the Great British Baking Show.  Right down to Chris fanning the chocolate glazed eclairs with the baking sheet.




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Angels in glass

From a old column for CatholicPhilly

Stair treads in Hiroshi Sugimoto's installation, at the restored Go'o 
Shrine on Naoshima, Japan. c. Michelle Francl
No one lingered after the 12:10 Mass. The breezes that spun through the open stained glass windows whispered of an August day too wondrously crisp and cool to be inside.

“What can I do to help you get out sooner?” I asked the sacristan.

“Could you close the windows?”

I found the pole and started down the south aisle. The light streamed through the canted stained glass, and I paused for a minute to read the names inscribed along the bottom of each century-old pane.  “William and Margaret White” under St. Patrick and St. Bridget; the Ancient Order of Hibernians made a gift of St. Rita and St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Each window gently puffed as I swung it closed. “Peace be with you” they seemed to say, blessing me over and over again as I worked my way around the periphery of the sanctuary.

I am reminded of a line from Sainte-Chappelle by Eric Whitacre, a choral composer famous for his intricate a cappella works: Et angeli in vitro molliter cantaverunt.  “And the angels in the glass softly sang.”  Whitacre’s piece tells the story of a young girl visiting Sainte Chappelle, a medieval gothic church in Paris renowned for its striking stained glass windows.

The girl hears the angels in the windows softly singing “Sanctus, sanctus.” Her voice and theirs twine until the light itself sings, “Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”  The score is crystalline, I can hear the dust motes dance in the light that streams through the windows, the stone walls of the church itself sing.

Even a silent chapel has something to say to us. The design of a church is meant to both speak to us of God’s saving work and to encourage us to speak to God in return. Images, whether frescos or stained glass windows, facilitate these conversations.

St. John Damascene, an eighth century Syrian monk, wrote that holy images move him “to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that light and darkness speak to us of God [1147].

Stained glass windows sing to us of the company of faith to which we belong: the angels, the saints, the artists who take light and darkness and bend them into a shape that moves us closer to God, the people who supported these artists financially and in prayer as they worked.

Next time you find yourself in a quiet church, see if you can hear the soft voices of the angels and saints in the glass singing, then join your voice with theirs in hymns of praise, thanksgiving and supplication.  Et lumen canit.  For the Light sings.

________

Read the story of the angels in glass (as sung in the Latin or the English translation) here.

Listen to Eric Whitacre talk about the composition of Sainte-Chappelle (along with some snippets of the music).

Take a virtual tour of the Sainte Chappelle sanctuary.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Unexpected eclipses

Midway to the peak of the eclipse.  No, I didn't look through
the camera to take this!  Note the lens flare just to the right
of the sun.
"Aunt Chel," called my youngest niece as she bounded through the front door of my dad's house, "it looks funny outside."

I got up and went to check.  I agreed, something was off. The sky was dimmer than it should be and an odd color, not the desert blue I expected late on a Sunday afternoon, but colored a bit orange.  Thunderstorm incoming?  No, not a cloud in the sky.  And I'm in the desert. Right. Fire? This is more of a worry, there is only one road out from my dad's small farm.  We don't smell smoke, but still, I'm uneasy. And then there are the trees....something is just not right.

We go back inside to check if there is anything on the Cal Fire site about nearby fires, my dad and sister-in-law have worried looks on their faces as I describe the sky. As I'm opening up my laptop , my stepmother mentions in passing that she'd heard something about an eclipse coming next month. Next month?  "Or perhaps today?" I wonder aloud. I hadn't heard anything, but I live on the other side of the continent, and I'd been on retreat for the last week, staying in a hermitage in a spot even more remote than my dad's farm, and before that, spinning around in the end of semester chaos.  
You can see the "bite" the moon has taken out from the sun in
the lens flare!


I type "eclipse" into the search box. We are indeed in the middle of an annular eclipse of the sun, the moon's shadow will sweep over California, but not reach the East Coast.  80% of the sun's disc will be obscured by the sun at the peak.  This is a noticeable amount of shade, and we've noticed.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and take my niece and nephew out to show them how to observe the eclipse by making pinhole cameras with sheets of paper, and by looking at the crescent shadows on the ground (the leaves on the trees serve as ad hoc pinholes, or you can make your own grid with your fingers).

The crescents are visible in the
grid made by my niece's hands.
This time I know there is an eclipse tomorrow. The reports on the radio, TV spots, news reports are hard to ignore.  I am prepared.   I have glasses to watch with, and a pair of binoculars with the appropriate filters on them.I have a good sense of what the sky will look like; outside Philadelphia, where I live the sun will be just under 80% obscured.

But I wonder if being so prepared will change the experience. Will it be as viscerally disturbing, or just a fun science-in-the-neighborhood day, much like the Wallops' rocket launches we gather at the school field to watch?  What do I miss when I am not sitting uneasily on the edge of uncertainty?

The mathematics and science that let us predict eclipses, not only their time and track, but also the phenomena we ought to observe, take my breath away, but I confess I don't long for a universe that I can completely predict.  It reminds me of a line from one of Alice Walker's poems (Before you knew you owned it): “Live frugally on surprise.” Surprise is part of the delight of doing science, the interesting questions for me come when molecules surprise me, in their structures or or in their behavior.

Similarly, my heart and soul are not captured by an utterly predictable God, a clockwork deity. I long to be surprised by mercy, ambushed by God, caught in a whirl of life and love beyond my comprehension, just as I was caught by surprise by that eclipse.



A version of this post appears at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's blog, The Catholic Astronomer.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Whale's Tale



Crash criss-crossed the country in a little red Fiat this summer.  Kentucky to DC to Pennsylvania, back to Kentucky, on to Chicago. Seattle, San Francisco and my dad's Central California farm.  All this to come and go from his job in Montana, where he was stage managing Macbeth for Shakespeare in the Parks,1 or more precisely, managing the production until it was ready to criss-cross Montana and the Dakotas.

It's a fascinating program, the actors take everything on a 6000 mile road trip — including the stage itself — except for the tech crew.  They rehearse with the help of the tech crew, but in the end learn to do for themselves.  Including putting up, taking down and packing the stage into the giant trailer they tow, nicknamed The Whale. (See the timelapse embedded in this post!)

Read Crash's interview with two of the actors here:  SixByEightPress.


1. Not that Shakespeare in the park, note the plural and the distance from New York.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

J.F. Powers and cloaks of invisibility

Betty Powers, with J.F. Powers and their daughter
There is an interesting piece in Commonweal ("His Bleak Materials")by Jeffrey Meyers on Catholic novelist J.F. Powers. I've read Morte D'Urban and several other of Powers' stories, and found Meyers' perspective on his priest characters intriguing, casting them as ordinary men with no special talents trying to negotiate their way through the thickets of the world and the church, despite the seemingly (and perhaps truly) irreconcilable differences between these spheres.  I can relate.

I was more intrigued by Meyers' lead into the article, which sketches a monastic version of Powers' life (he lived near St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, a place I've spent time writing and retreating).  He describes Powers' doing his laundry on his knees in a rusty bathtub, and his "hairshirt house" — drab, shabby and cold.  It's a sharply unromantic view of a writer's hermitage.

But where is Mrs. Powers in this sketch?  Powers was married and had five children. Were they perhaps living elsewhere?  No, they were not.  At least one other person lived in that hairshirt house, but somehow she has been rubbed out of this particular picture of Powers. It made me think about The Astronauts Wives which I recently read, and how many of them had been majoring in STEM fields, but dropped out when they married, their other selves tucked into a drawer or a footnote.

Betty Powers née Wahl is not neglected in John Rosengren's memories of Powers ("The Gospel according to J. F. Powers").  Next time I'm in Collegeville's cemetery, I will look for her grave.  She was a promising fiction writer when Powers was introduced to her by one of her professors at St. Ben's and continued to write and to publish after she was married.

Powers died while folding his own laundry.  An ordinary task.




Friday, August 04, 2017

Arboreal alarm clocks

I walked down the driveway yesterday morning, the cicadas howling in the humid air.  Classes, you need to get ready for classes. Their fall alarm seems so much louder when you've been away. This year, after a cicada-less stop in California, the sounds of summer fading to fall feels like an alarm going off at 3:30 am for an early flight, rousing me from the deepest of sleeps.

Usually the end of the summer creeps up slowly. The cicadas hum, the air gets misty, the leaves on the trees wrinkle ever so slightly, their spring greens grow dusty and faded.  The garden begins to look a bit spent.  I don't need my calendar to tell me summer is waning (though one of the astronomers at the Specola kept saying, "July is going to be over, it's going to be the 8th month of the year."  He was aghast at how the year had flown.  Me, too.)

It's been a good summer, with stretches of time for thinking and writing, time to explore some new projects and finish off old ones. There was time with family (wedding!) and time to tidy.  A bit of retreat time.  Time seems more expansive, perhaps because of the longer days, or perhaps because they are less hectic, more predictable.

And for the record, there is a full month of summer left before I begin teaching.  If only I could hit snooze on the cicadas, and blissfully go back to my midsummer's dreams.


Monday, July 24, 2017

An observer from the Vatican


Not this telescope, a very modern Celestron scope with
an autoguider
It was a clear evening, hardly any humidity veiling the gardens as we came down from the terrace, one of the Jesuits wondered if it might not be a good idea to pull out one of the small(er) telescopes and look at the heavens. So at about 9:30, three Jesuit astronomers, a philosopher of science and I convened in the courtyard, lights out, except for the light in the pool of the fountain.  It won't be fully dark for another hour.

This telescope has an autoguiding system, you sight on four stars to calibrate, then you can just pull up a celestial feature from the menu and the telescope will twist and turn until it has the selected feature in its field of view.  Very cool. The hard part is figuring out what you might want to see and whether or not it is visible.

The visibility depends on whether a particular feature is "up" on this time of the year,  the light pollution in the sky,  and whether or not it is behind the roof of the Specola!  And if you are tall enough to see through the eye piece.  I had to stand on a chair (carefully, so as to not fall on the telescope) to see a couple of things.

What to look at?  Jupiter!  The moons again, strung out like a necklace of pearls, and just a wisp of its stripes to be seen. Saturn, where we strain to see the Cassini division in the rings, and wonder if that is one of the moons of Saturn we see, or....

We pulled out Turn Left at Orion (Guy Consolmagno SJ and Dan Davis' great guide to the sky, even without a telescope, just a good pair of binoculars, you can see fascinating things), to see what we might see. Astronomers suggested galaxies they had studied.  We saw Vega, icy blue. We looked for double stars.  We saw a ring nebula, which Rich Boyle SJ called a smoke ring, and for all the world that's what it looked like. Does God blow smoke rings?

There were things to be seen even if you weren't looking at the telescope.  I saw a meteor streak across the sky.  We watched a satellite sail majestically across the heavens, wondered if it was the international space station (no, you can find the ISS's orbits as a function of time on the web and I checked the next day).

There is something about looking up at the heavens, even when the scientific work does not actually require it, that pulls you deeper into the mysteries of both God and the astrophysics.




The title comes from a time when Br. Guy was visiting a telescope to do some observing, and went to Mass at a local  parish where the pastor announced they had a visitor:  an observer from the Vatican. Not that kind of observer!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Talking trash and the Lateran Treaty

There's a phone book. No, there is not a direct listing for the
Pope. Yes, I looked.
I am not in Kansas, and most definitely not in Bryn Mawr at the moment.  The Vatican Observatory is just across the border from Italy, in the Villa Barberini, the gardens and farm that form part of the Holy See's extraterritorial properties (this part of Vatican City State is, at 140 acres, bigger than Vatican City proper).  I'm staying in an apartment in the extraterritory, which is delightful, looking out onto a small enclosed garden gone slightly feral, with huge orange flowers, overgrown white roses, a pair of palm trees and an old, old olive tree that a flock of swallows calls home.  And a fountain.

There are many ways I'm sure I'm in another world, I would know it even with my eyes closed.  The chant drifting in through the open window in my office, which I realize with a start is not a recording, but the nuns in the cloister next door chanting their Office.  The burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, the trucks circulating through town towing billboards and booming out ads, and the incredible silence that drops over the town between 2 and 4 for the riposo, the after lunch rest in the heat of the day.  And then there is the trash and recycling, which has to be transported across international boundaries.
View into the enclosed garden.

The question of how to deal with the Specola's garbage required consulting the provisions of the Lateran Treaty of 1929!  Rather than drive the trash and recycling into Rome (indeed, someone used to do that), now it gets moved across that international border between Vatican territory and Italy (and the Vatican reimburses the municipality for the services.) Though it sounds like a long haul, but it's just a few feet from the storage room to the street, a shorter distance than the recycling travels down my driveway at home.

In other ways, this feels much like home. The corso, with its eclectic mix of shops is different from Lancaster Avenue only in that cars are more likely to stop for you at the crosswalks and the incredibly narrow sidewalks. Walking two abreast is a challenge and at peak shopping times, I imagine it looks like a parade of ants threading their way from food source to home and back. The cascade of bells from the cathedral (which are just about even with my window and not even 100 meters away) remind it's noon, louder than Bryn Mawr's bells which chime the hours aways, but still a gentle cue to the passage of time.
Duomo (cathedral) in Albano, St. Bonaventure was once 
the bishop here.

And I will miss the after Mass-apertivos on the terrace overlooking the gardens. The other night was humid and the long tree lined avenue that leads away from this end of the gardens was misty.  The birds whirled up as someone walked by. The whole scene looked like it had been done with CGI, I half expected to see orcs come roaring down the avenue.  The sunsets have been glorious and the evenings pleasant, even as the days are hot.



I walk past the cathedral and can see the top of the cloister out my window, all so serene at the moment, but in World War II, the bombs did not spare it.  L'Osservatore Romano has the story here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Column: Just Enough Distraction

I find much wisdom in Lewis' Letters to Malcolm, though I was somewhat vexed to find that Malcolm was fictional.  Much of the appeal of the book for me is in its tone, and its ability to limn questions without answering them.  I find mystery appealing.  The full quote is:

“A clergyman once said to me that a railway compartment, if one has it to oneself, is an extremely good place to pray in 'because there is just the right amount of distraction.' When I asked him to explain, he said that perfect silence and solitude left one more open to the distractions which come from within, and that a moderate amount of external distraction was easier to cope with. ” — C. S. Lewis. “Letters to Malcolm.”

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 20 July 2017

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you’ Mk 1:35-37

Next week, they are tearing down the wall of the building 20 feet away from my office. Last month they were using jackhammers to remove the terrace underneath my window. It’s been a bit noisy in my office, to say the least, and likely to get noisier. So, in the absence of students and classes to teach, I have fled to the hills, literally.

I’m writing this from my temporary office in the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — now housed in the papal gardens in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. My desk is tucked up under the eaves of what was once a cloistered convent for Basilian nuns, renovated for the Specola’s quarters in 2009 when the nuns moved next door.

The quiet here is almost as deafening as the jackhammers at home. I can hear the papal roosters crowing, the burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, and the traffic brushing past the walls that separate the Holy See from Italy, but no one is knocking on my door asking if I know when they will tear out the classroom down the hall or if I’ve thought about curriculum planning for the spring yet. I can work in peace.

Working at the Specola is, to use C.S. Lewis’ image, much like praying on a train: “[T]here is just the right amount of distraction.” Not so quiet that my to-do list dances in my head, not so noisy that I can’t hear what creation and the Creator have to share this morning.

I often long for the perfect spot to pray, to go off like Jesus walking long before dawn into the hills to be with his Father in silence and solitude. But perhaps what I need more than the occasional retreat is to learn to find the spots where I can pray with “just the right amount of distraction.”

Even Jesus did not remain hidden away, but returned with Simon and his disciples to tend to the needs of others. So, too, I need to catch the moments between meetings to look toward God, to take a few minutes to sit in the piazza’s late afternoon buzz and pray.

In finding these pockets of space and time, I’m practicing tuning my ears to the murmur of God at work in all things and at all times, even when the walls are falling around me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Princess Bride, Chemistry and Rome

The 3rd century amphitheater is in use,
concerts start next week.  Note the exit.
I'm working on an essay about what it means to be an experimental science, wrangling with the philosophy of science literature, Including this delightfully brisk paper by William Goodwin, "Experiments and Theory in the Preparative Sciences" ($), which might be summed up as "Experiment.  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  (My apologies to Inigo Montoya.)

Two other words I learned this week do not mean what I think they mean.  Agone and vomitorium.  The church built on the site of St. Agnes' martyrdom is Sant'Agnese in Agone.  You might think (but I couldn't possibly comment) that agone refers to Agnes' agony.  Nope. Its root is the Greek agora, amphitheater, as this are used to house a sporting arena.

And on a walk up the Colle dei Cappuccini (the hill where the Franciscans have a church), there is a 3rd century amphitheater, with two vomitoria — large exits that let the audience pour out at the end of a performance.  Not what you thought!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Eternal City

The heat was incredible in Rome when I arrived last week.  I ran with sweat and swilled water at every opportunity.

I spent a day and a bit in Rome before heading off to Albano Laziale where the Specola is located.  I visited various churches, walked the streets and did my back to school shopping (for me and for The Egg).

I enjoyed the irony of the guys dressed up in the toga and centurion outfits, outside the Pantheon, while someone thrashed modern music on an electric guitar a few feet away.  Did I mention the heat?  OMG. The Pantheon was packed, and despite the signs asking for silence, the whispers grew to a roar.  The swallows flying up and onto the drum of the dome inside looked like something out of a Fellini film.

Despite the drought, at least some of the fountains were on, including those in Piazza Navona.  I ducked into the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, sited where Agnes was thought to have been martyred.  The head of Saint Agnes is kept in a reliquary in a very plain chapel, in full view not five feet away from you, a crown of laurels framing her skull.

Then there was the body of St. Camillus in St. Mary Magdalene. Right there, from the 16th century, in impeccably clean clothes in a glass case. If it were not for the glass walls, I could have reached out and touched him. I left wondering who cleans and cares for these bodies, and why do we display them, so we can look upon a miracle, the incorruptible body of a saint?  

The domes in the summer light which streamed through high windows.  The man, the body of Christ, wrapped in a dirty sleeping bag half hidden behind a car on the steps outside of St. Augustine’s.  His chest bare and his legs sticking out, he looked like he could be a Christ taken down from the cross. He slept fitfully in this heat.  As I stood not 5 feet away, reading the sign about the church. Signore, pieta!

Rome's attractions are less attractive in the heat, I now understand why popes and emperors fled to the Alban hills in the summers.  It's almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler up here than in the Eternal City.

Monday, July 17, 2017

O Canada

Before I headed off to the Specola for a couple of weeks of science, cappuccino and gelato, Math Man and I went off to Canada on holiday, Cape Breton Island. We were there for Canada Day (the 150th), where Math Man was bemused by all the people wearing red in the little town park, waving tiny Canadian flags.  It seemed so...unCanadian to be so flamboyantly Canadian.  There were fireworks.

I saw a bald eagle, my first ever in the wild, 30 feet over my head on the 5th hole at the Highland Links golf course in Ingonish.

Parks Canada has put red Adirondack chairs out in national parks all over Canada to encourage people to sit and admire the view.  There is a nice view behind Math Man, but he is also facing a gorgeous view.  We are on a small peninsula poking out into the Atlantic.  Some of the red chairs are pretty remote, a couple even helicoptered in according the Park Ranger I met atop Mt. Franey, 1400 hard won feet above sea level.

Speaking of Mt. Franey, I climbed it while Math Man played 18 holes of golf on the course below.  There is a red chair on top of it, which I was determined to sit in. The trail is steep, and after the first half kilometer, quite rough.  I made it to the top, enjoyed the view, sat in the red chair and chatted up the ranger. How did the red chair get up there, I wondered. In pieces?  No, no, we drove it up the road.  Yep, that's how she got up there.  She drove.  (I couldn't have driven up the road, but I could have walked down it.)

Math Man and I hiked on the other side of Cape Breton Island, on the Mabou mine trail.  It follows a track that was used by carts (hard to imagine as it clung to the edge of the steep cliffs) to go from house to house. Not much sign of the houses left, except the occasional rose bush gone feral along the way.

And there was Tim Horton's. A red sprinkle donut.  O Canada!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A day at the Vatican Observatory

I am at the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — for another week, and here is a taste of a day at the Specola in photos.


8 am
A view out the edgy apartment I stayed in for
the first two days in Albano.
It's a cup of tea and a chance to check my email in the apartment I'm staying in at Albano Laziale, a small town about an hour outside Rome where the Specola has been since 1930 (having moved out from their quarters in Vatican City in Rome).
















The entrance to the Specola
9 am
I've left Italy to go to work in another country, no passport control needed, I just opened the door with a key and walked in.  The Specola is housed in the Papal Gardens in Castelgandolfo, where Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent the summers (and I understand why - it's decidedly cooler here than in  Rome).  An "extraterritorial" part of Vatican City State's, the gardens cover more area than the Holy See in Rome.

10 am coffee and conversation is sacrosanct
10 am
Cappuccino!  The astronomers meet for coffee and conversation in a sunny room off the courtyard. Alessandro Omizzolo (a specialist in galaxies and a priest of the diocese of Padua) is the barista.  Paul Mueller, SJ, the superior of the Jesuit community here and a philosopher of science is headed out the door, while curator of meteorites, Bob Macke SJ points out the science humor on the bulletin board (in both English and Italian) and Gina Savinetti (who cooks for the Specola) stirs her cappuccino.

Bonus - Guy Consolmagno, SJ, who directs the Observatory returns from a month-long sojourn in the US.  Last stop was Philly!

View into my office from the Specola library
11 am
Working in my office under the eaves, the view is over the courtyard, the library right outside the door.  It looks nothing at all like what Dan Brown described in The DaVinci code, despite the bearded Jesuit brother who directs the Observatory working downstairs.  You know you are at home when the network recognizes your laptop as soon as you lift the lid!  It's a great spot to work, quiet, light filled and in the heat of last week, delightfully cool.








George Lemaître's signature in the guest book.
Noon
There are historic photos and artifacts dotted around the building, every visit I find something I haven't seen before.  Fr. George Lemaître, who put forward what has become known as the Big Bang theory was a visitor here, as you can see from his signature in the guest book (it's directly above Martin Schwarzchild's).

Pranzo with the Jesuit community.
Meanwhile, I am finally catching up on work email, clearing out the backlog from the vacation I took right before heading to Rome, the travel (from Cape Breton to Rome in 48 hours) and a couple of days of work in Rome proper.








1 pm
Pranzo!  Lunch with the Jesuit community.  The other two guests at lunch are here from the Deutches Museum to tend the Specola's historical clocks.  The treats Alessandro is holding were baked by the guests. After lunch, we headed up to the "alta" for coffee and conversation(or grappa, or for those of us still struggling with jet lag, Coke Zero)



4 pm
Bob Macke consulted with me and my students last spring as we worked to set up an apparatus similar to his to measure the heat capacities of meteorites.  We had trouble with atmospheric water condensing into our liquid nitrogen (which messed with the mass measurements we were tracking). Bob has a useful bit to add to our set-up:  a pasta storage container to enclose the dewar.

Bob Macke SJ with some scientific
equipment!
The scientific group working at the Specola is a diverse one, including the Jesuit staff, other astronomers and technical staff and a dozen adjunct scholars like myself, and sloshes from one side of the Atlantic to the other (between the VATT on Mt. Graham in Arizona and the Specola outside Rome). To help everyone get to know each other, Bob Macke is filming short interviews with each person that can be shared internally. It's been great to find out what other people are doing on the research front, and how they found themselves working here.  Bob recorded my interview this afternoon.

Afterwards, I dug into working on the proofs for a manuscript.  I have an inordinate attachment to commas, which Crash has been kind enough to point out to me.  So most of the work on this paper has been pulling out comma after comma, which really does make it read more smoothly.

7 pm
One of the graces of the Specola that I particularly appreciate is the small chapel upstairs, and daily Mass, whether in Italian (that's the language of the house) or in English, or sometimes a mix of both.

Giuseppe Koch, SJ (the Specola librarian) presided tonight.  The opening line for his homily was, "Io sono Giuseppe!" true and from today's readings about Giuseppe and his fratelli (Joseph and his brothers).  I'm glad of the small Italian missals which let me blunder my way through the responses.

8 pm
Gelato!  Along with the pane quotidiano, one of the best parts of my daily routine here.  Today Alessandro treated Guy to gelato on his return (along with me and Bob).  I have limone e frutti di bosco in hand, that's Bob's cone in front, with Oreo gelato. Who knew?

Curious about the work of the Observatory?  You can read more about it at the Catholic Astronomer blog, or ask me in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

#Scienceathon: Day of Science

Today the Earth Science Women’s Network is hosting Science-A-Thon, in which participating scientists are chronicling a day in their life on Twitter and Instagram (follow #dayofscience and #scienceathon).

I'm working from the Vatican Observatory, the Specola Vaticana, this week. The Specola might seem focused on anything-but-earth science, but the meteorites that the earth sweeps up as she moves through the heavens are clues not only to the otherworldly, but to our own planet's history.

8 am
It's a cup of tea and a chance to check my email in the apartment I'm staying in at Albano Laziale, a small town about an hour outside Rome where the Specola has been since 1930 (having moved out from their quarters in Vatican City in Rome).

9 am
I've left Italy to go to work in another country, no passport control needed, I just opened the door with a key and walked in.  The Specola is housed in the Papal Gardens in Castelgandolfo, where Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent the summers (and I understand why - it's decidedly cooler here than in  Rome).  An "extraterritorial" part of Vatican City State's, the gardens cover more area than the Holy See in Rome.

10 am
Cappuccino!  The astronomers meet for coffee and conversation in a sunny room off the courtyard.

11 am
Working in my office under the eaves, the view is over the courtyard, the library right outside the door.  It looks nothing at all like what Dan Brown described in The DaVinci code, despite the bearded Jesuit brother who directs the Observatory working downstairs.  You know you are at home when the network recognizes your laptop as soon as you lift the lid.










UPDATES as I go today.

____________________
This is a first ever fund raiser for the Earth Science Women’s Network, so if you are inclined to support them, you can donate here.