Sunday, December 30, 2018

Holey, wholly, holy family

All of us, at a somewhat younger age.
I grew up in a house with six kids and a dog (and a seemingly immortal goldfish), watched over by two parents who imbued us all with an insatiable curiosity, a generous measure of grit and the notion that if you researched it, followed the directions, and practiced it, you could do pretty much anything.

From my dad, I learned to bake bread and rolls and to patch and paint walls like a pro. Our relationship survived learning to ride a bike and to drive a stick shift, and (barely) the time I left fumes in the tank of the car with the inoperable gas gauge. (I think of him every time I put the clutch in on my car or my gas gauge shows empty.) I can rig and sail a small boat and paddle a canoe. I'm not afraid of a screw driver or a power drill (but have a quite reasonable respect for table saws). We fought about politics, sometimes bitterly. He was willing to ask hard questions about God and the life to come. He sent my sons a book on backyard ballistics — don't ask.

There were times when there were holes in the family, times when we were wholly family, and occasions when we were well and truly holy family.

My dad died this morning, perhaps aptly on the this feast of the Holy Family. At home, as he wished, with my sister at his side reminding him of all those waiting for him. I was on a plane, on my way to California to see him.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. 




About that goldfish.  The goldfish was the sole survivor of a coterie won at a school fair. One morning my father found it on the floor, having somehow tried to leap out of the aquarium. It was still pretty lively, so he tossed it back into the tank. Where, other than some odd scales on its side where it had laid on the rug, it flourished for years to come.



Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas!



Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ in Wreck of the Deutschland

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Prayers!

A couple of Sundays ago I was sitting next to a family with two young boys at Mass, one an infant, the other about two. They reminded me of those days when Mass was a full body workout, as we juggled babies in arms and toddlers at our feet.  (If you think distractions in prayer are a problem, try praying with a toddler and a three-year old, then we can talk distractions.)

Last week as we prayed the universal prayers for the needs of the world, to which the assembly responded, "Lord, hear our prayer," the two-year old suddenly burst out, "Prayers!"  I turned to his mother who moved quickly to shush him and whispered, "Lest we think they aren't listening!"

I'd written those prayers, and I always worry that I'm missing the little ones, that these prayers go straight over their heads. But apparently not entirely. "Prayers!"

It reminded me of my summer visit to the Specola, where Mass was celebrated with the three or four of us who were around.  There was no haste in these celebrations of the Eucharist, and when it came time for the universal prayers, they came in fits and starts, in English and Italian from all present. For those from the community traveling, for those in ill health, for local difficulties, for our families, for the world, the Church.  Prayers, we cried again and again. As we proceeded with the liturgy, I imagined those prayers piled on the altar, spilling over, offered up with the gifts, the whole to be sanctified, to be made whole in what was broken.

So many people in my life right now have asked for prayers, friends and family both. I pile the prayers at the foot of the altar - for my dad, who is struggling with serious health challenges, for my sister-in-law who is hospitalized with meningitis, for a young friend undergoing surgery. For the nation, for the Church, both in difficulties...for peace on earth. The needs are great and small alike. "Prayers!" indeed, I think.

What will my community pray for tonight?
For the People of God, to whom God has chosen to come close… 
For those who long for light, for those whose lives are overshadowed by war, economic unrest, or violence in their neighborhoods and homes…
For the safety of those who must travel, for pilgrims, immigrants and refugees… 
For the homeless, for children and families who will not have a roof over their heads tonight… 
For the sick, for children who are ill and for their parents... 
For our dead, those in need of our prayers and those now singing joyfully before the Lord…
Prayers!


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Elements of revenge

I seriously can’t write fiction. I suspect it's not lack of imagination, but some odd form of writer’s block. Or perhaps it is too many years devoted to sifting defensible reality from experimental and computational data. Or is it that I’m unwilling to ask a reader to be confused about the real, the possibly real and the entirely imagined? Or maybe it is because the one and only piece of published fiction I wrote, came (almost) true within the year?  Would any other fiction I wrote become real? That’s clearly a flight of fancy, but even with one data point, do I want to take the risk?

I was invited to write a commentary on the elements that scientists thought they'd discovered (but hadn't) for Nature Chemistry's issue celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table.  The IUPAC guideline for element names says that you can't re-use names already in circulation in the literature, even if they were ultimately discarded. Which got me thinking if that could be a way for an unscrupulous scientist to crush the dreams of a competitor of having an element named for them. Despite my demonstrated inability to write good fiction, I drafted an introduction to the essay that played out this idea.

In the end, I wrote a non-fictional introduction to the essay (which you can read here if you are of the mind to do so). But if I were to write a piece of fiction about the elements, it might begin like this:
_______________________________

Prof. Exuvgen leaned back in her desk chair and wondered for the thousandth time why she’d ever signed that retirement agreement. Time was slipping through her fingers.  In a month, she’d have to hand over the key codes and walk out the door.  No access to her data and worse yet, no access to the tools she would need to analyze it, that idiot of a director had made it clear her account would be wiped — wiped — at midnight on the 30th, and anything left in her office trucked out to the dumpster.  Tang Woh Kow, they maintained, was right. There were 243 elements in the universe and no more. When Tam Besper saw the traces of zuzenium in 2069, right in this building, that was the end of the era of the element hunters. The last chance to have your name remembered in every chemistry book in the solar system, if not the galaxy. Though if the Vulcans had their way, everyone would be using the systematic names.

Running her hands through her short grey hair, she turned again to the data on the screen.  She’d spent thirty years working toward puncturing Kow's ceiling on the elements, the last ten racing Sabaxoar’s extravagantly funded group on the moon. What was it Maxine had said at that last meeting? Oh, right. Time. That she wasn't in a hurry, she had years to work on this, given lunar life expectancies. And with that Maxine shook her blonde curls and floated off.  Would the director take her more seriously if she looked less weary, grey and face it, old?

Time. It's running out, was there enough to say, now, without a doubt, that they’d turned up an atom or two of 244 Sym in that last run? Maybe, though maybe that oxide of muscovium was rearing its ugly head, this wouldn't be the first umbral element sunk by 115. Certainly there was strong evidence of a new isotope of 243.  Time, there just wasn't enough time.

She tapped the bud in her ear, and started composing the manuscript of one last paper.  “We present here evidence for the creation of the 616 isotope of 243 Zz, half-life 82 msecs, along with traces of element 244, Uuq.” She glanced up at the list of proposed names for 244 her group had kept on the whiteboard, derived from the names of birthplaces and long dead mentors and far-flung galaxies and grinned wickedly. “…for which we propose the name sabaxorium, symbol Sx, in honor of our respected and long time competitor in this hunt, Maxine Sabaxoar.”

Four months later, Maxine wakes up to a tweetstorm of congratulations for having the first trans-zuzenium element named for her. She pulls up the paper and seeing the unmistakable traces of MvO in the accompanying supplementary data dump, shrieks, "I've been robbed.”
_____________________________________
Notes:  
In the 1970s, Tang Wah Kow of New Method College in Hong Kong suggested (based on an odd theory about triads and octaves) that the upper level for an element was Z=243. Further, he proposed that when that element was ultimately discovered, it should be called zuzenium (Zz). The suggested name he said was, "...deduced from a Chinese idiom 'The name stands behind Zun Zen, who (Zun Zen) came last on the list of successful candidates in a royal examination." [In "An Octagonal Prismatic Periodic Table" J. Chem. Ed. 49, 59 (1972)]

Cross-posted from Culture of Chemistry

Monday, December 17, 2018

O Wisdom

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Long Hauls

Tray table on my last flight.
QOD: Do cloistered monks get called to jury duty?
I had jury duty today, which meant a rush hour drive to the county seat in Media.  They had 650 jurors on standby, they called 85 of them in.  I was...number 84.  But only about 60 people showed up, more women than men, more my age than younger, not very diverse even for this not so diverse county. Which made me wonder what the overall stats were.

There was a lot of waiting for a trial scheduled to start today. We got oriented. We filled out another form or two. We got an hour break. We came back. We waited for 45 minutes and then got a 2 hour lunch break. At 2:30 they warned us the cafeteria was closing, in case you wanted another snack. There was more waiting. Then we were thanked and sent on our way.

It struck me that this experience was a lot like a long haul flight in a really wide-bodied plane where the court officers were the flight attendants. We were 60 strangers packed into a tight space with limited bathroom access. The orientation videos included evacuation procedures, and a bright message from the people in charge, encouraging us to explore the features of our 747...uh courthouse.  Like flight attendants, the jury staff were attentive to what comforts they could provide, but also like flight attendants, this was not their real job. And we got regular updates from the flight deck - or rather the judge's chambers on the delay.

It was a lot like flying Southwest.  Choose your own seat. Friendly staff doing their best to get you from one end of the day to the other without anyone melting down.  Bonus: I got to watch the Mars landing — which I would have missed if I'd been teaching.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Funneling memories


Last week, I pulled out the cheap green funnels I bought at Ikea to re-fill the olive oil bottle, a bridge between here and Rome, where the apartment held an identical pair and where I watched the woman in the cafe next to the market pull out hers to re-fill a bottle of olive oil. I felt connected to cooks in across times and places, and wondered at the memories these very inexpensive utilitarian items held.

Holiday cooking always ends up using nearly every utensil, bowl, pot and pan in my kitchen. Memories cling to so many of them, nearer the surface than usual.

There are the orange Tupperware measuring cups my mother bought me when I started graduate school. The choice that year was orange or avocado green, and when the kitchen is crowded, I'm grateful for the way the orange cups pop on my dark countertops 

The year Tom and I were married, he bought me a sturdy set of glass bowls, a nested dozen. Not all have survived the ensuing decades, the largest shattered and the smallest vanished, and perhaps there's a metaphor to be found in there, but mostly I'm looking for the right sized bowl for Crash to use for the apples he is slicing.

The torus shaped glass pitcher, bought to celebrate a milestone for Math Man. It had us talking shapes at the dinner table: what else is topologically equivalent to a one-holed torus? A landscape with an underground tunnel? For a moment, the glass seems to flow in the sun, the top rim opening like a blossom and stretching to enclose the table with kids and friends and even the cat. With a tunnel at its core. I want to cling to more than the memories.
 


Sunday, November 18, 2018

A page from the Book of Imaginary Beings

Not a chronophage, but a beetle of unknown
provenance. Still, this is how I imagine them.
My office is infested with chronophages. Creatures that gnaw at my calendar, leaving it, and me, a shell.  It's rather like the mouse that found the remains of the Halloween candy I had stored on the shelf in my office, and ate the one remaining Milky Way bar, leaving behind (a) all the Skittles and (b) a nearly intact wrapper.  I hadn't even realized it was empty until I picked it up. (And what does this tell me about Skittles, if even the mouse eschews them?)

The surest sign of this infestation is that while my to-do list and appointments list grow exponentially longer, time remains unrelentingly inelastic.

I'm quite sure the phages got in through my email. Every time I opened it up, there were more requests for my time. Which will take me some time to find some time for, eating time long before they land on the calendar.  They slip between pages of papers on my desk.  I'm sure I saw one fall out when I picked up that folder of problem sets to grade. Once loose in my office, they rapidly spread to the phone, laying eggs in my voice mail.  A few lurk just outside my door, hitching a ride on my teaching bag should I be so careless as to set it down.

I fear that I might have transported them home, as I scoured the calendar for a 2-hour block to go grocery shopping for the impending holiday.  Not here, dishwasher being delivered — maybe. Not there, evening event.

The plague of chronophages is insidious. None of the requests in my email, or knocks at my door are unreasonable, nor is anyone asking who I would not wish to accommodate.  As they say about traffic on the radio, the problem is volume. Sheer volume.


I've been reading Caspar Hendersen's "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings" -- a modern bestiary, which lends itself to dipping in and out, and will wait patiently until I can return to its pages. Which led to my seeing these barely there imaginary beings in the corners of my office. For the in-class writing exercise last Thursday, I asked my students to describe one of their internal writing companions: the Editor, the Distractor, the Coach, the Cheerleader and the Taskbeing. It makes me wonder who I should queue up to deal with the phages?  Could I send the Distractor? Would it be like matter and antimatter?

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.


Friday, October 05, 2018

Hard teachings

I read a column this week in a local Catholic paper about the need for the Church to return to the Gospel - but that then focussed entirely on issues of human sexuality, something that I argue is not the moral core of the Gospel.  These teachings should be "black and white," no nuance, says the author. But the moral core of the Gospel is direct, it is black and white, it's just not focussed solely on these issues: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind. And your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you do for another in need, you do unto me. 

The author notes that young people feel that the Church has nothing to offer them, and that if only we offered clarity they would come. I think they might, but I think the clarity they desire is focussed outward, onto what we have been missioned to do. Who are we to be for the world? How can we do the hard work of loving our neighbor in a culture that considers human dignity to be a luxury?  These questions take us far beyond the issues of human sexuality.

The Sunday readings might seem as if they lend themselves to black and white and "hard teachings," but in a reflection for Give Us This Day a few years ago I wondered if we had missed the hardest teaching of all.  That perhaps God's interest in marriage and fidelity and human love isn't primarily about individual needs and wants or marriage and divorce law, but is pushing for something far deeper. Something that applies to all of us, married or not, divorced or not.  It makes me wonder if young people sense our superficiality when we focus only on the "black and white."

I wrote this:
“Are you trying to tell me that my husband is dead?” I asked the surgeon. “Yes.” In that harrowing moment of my first marriage’s dissolution, I  finally grasped in my bones the reality of these words:  they are no longer two but one flesh. Half of me had been torn off, and what remained was pouring out onto the floor in a pool of tears. 
It is tempting to hear these readings from Genesis and Mark as mere marriage instruction, demanding husbands and wives to cleave to each other no matter the cost. I see in them instead potent images of what it feels like to be one body, not just in marriage but as the People of God: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my  flesh. We proclaim in the Communion Antiphon for this Sunday that we are one body (1 Cor 10:17). But do we feel in our bones that we are one flesh, mingled with Christ in our communion, as the water and wine mingle in the cup we share? One. Inseparable. 
These readings point us to realities beyond marriage, challenging us to deepen our  fidelity to one another and to Christ as members of his One Body.  This indeed is a hard teaching for all of us, not just those struggling with marriage. Are we torn open by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters? Do we weep for each other as we would weep for a beloved spouse? We are no longer two, but one flesh. One Body. Inseparable. Christ.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ite, missa est

c. Tina Gulotta Miller
It's been just over a month since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report describing the ways in which many American Catholic bishops covered up credible reports of abuse by priests of their dioceses. The Church is roiled by accusations.  I'm horrified to hear people — children of God, made in the image and likeness of God — called "filth" because of their sexual orientation in the comments of a Catholic news site. Fingers point. There are cries of "not me" or at least "not us anymore." Prayer services are scheduled.  Let's all fast on the Ember Days or say a rosary or adore the Sacrament.

Personally I want to rent my garments and wail on a street corner for the wounds to my beloved Church, nothing so decorous and planned as a prayer service will do.  No delicate rosary is clasped in my hands, that I might count off grace-lit prayers on its jewels. The rough wool of a prayer rope chafes at my wrist and the knots catch on my fingers, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I sit not in a church redolent of incense, candlelight glimmering off the gold of the monstrance, but watch a woman rock a tiny child to sleep so her worn mother can do her homework, the smell of bleach drifting past, the holiest thing I have seen today. I keep vigil at the door of the shelter, a tabernacle for this one night, the Body of Christ kept safe.

Ite, missa est.  Go, they said, the Mass is ended. Go, not to repeat what has been done here in all reverent beauty, but to do it again amidst the wild roughness of the world. Go knowing how to hold the Body of Christ up, and say, this, this is God incarnate, come to dwell among us. This wailing child, this exhausted mother.  If you cannot see Christ in the beggar at the door, said St. John Chrysostom, you will not find Him in the chalice.



Sunday, September 09, 2018

In space, no one can hear you scream

Content warning:  seven motifs of disgust


The sneakers in question, post mouse corpse removal.
I have a pair of sneakers I love, Chuck Taylors with sci-fi images on them.  I haven't worn them since before I tore the ligaments in my ankle last winter. They've been sitting in my study, under my desk, waiting for the swelling to go down. I pulled them out this morning after Mass, figuring they'd be a cheery spot on a rainy day.

Oh, there's a dried leaf in there. As I grabbed the stem, I wondered absentmindedly how such a large leaf had ended up in there. Huh, that's a pretty odd shaped stem. It was bit stuck, so I pulled and found myself holding....half a mummified mouse by the tail.

I shrieked.

No one heard me scream. Not Math Man, the two floors down in the basement doing laundry.  Not my brother The Artiste visiting from New York, on a call with his headphones on.

I scrubbed my hands in the sink. Once, twice. I dried them, and wondered about washing them again. I could empathize with Lady Macbeth, out damned spot, out.

________
The other half, you ask? Stuck in my shoe. How much do I love these shoes?  Enough to take it out on the driveway in the rain and clean it out. How much am I grossed out? Enough that I won't wear them without socks.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

A murmuration of starlings

Over the wall from the Specola, I could just see the vines growing up the sides of the Poor Clares' cloister next door.  One afternoon, when it was cool enough to have the window open, I could hear the nuns chanting, a low murmur burbling like the fountain in the courtyard.  I stood up to stretch and out the window I could see a murmuration of starlings, a dark wing against the sky, swirling up and out of the cloister, then diving back in, always staying with the bounds of the enclosure. A visual chant.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The proud in their conceit

Icon of Our Mother of Good Counsel in Castelgandolfo
It was odd to be in Rome, literally within the walls of the Vatican City State, when the report detailing the horrific sins of the Church, her priests and her bishops, in Pennsylvania was released last week. This morning, a letter from Pope Francis on the sexual abuse crisis, addressed to the People of God, appeared. In it he quotes the Magnificat, the Gospel canticle to be proclaimed each evening by those obliged to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours:
"For the Lord remembers the promise he made to our fathers: 'he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty' (Lk 1:51-53). We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite."
Evening Prayer is one of the two hinges of the Hours (morning prayer is the other), this is a Gospel that should be in the mouth of every ordained Catholic priest, deacon and bishop in the world every day. Underneath Pope Francis' words, I could hear the old Latin saw I learned in theology, "lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi" — the way of prayer is the way of belief is the way of life, or more literally, the law of prayer is the law of belief is the law by which we live.

Each time I pray the evening Office, I feel measured against those words.  Where have I been proud, what are my conceits?  Where have I lifted up the lowly or been sent away empty? Where have I grasped, rather than opened, my hands?  Is what I pray what I believe, how I live?

Pope Francis blames clericalism, and I don't doubt that is one root of the abuse crisis. But perhaps it is as much that we have failed to teach those in authority to pray these Hours, not as an obligation, but as a gauge, a measure of mercy and of justice.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Buon ferragosto!

Statue of Mary in the papal gardens, a favorite spot for Popes
to pray.

It's the Feast of the Assumption, a holy day of obligation in the US and of course, here in Italy. Here, however, it is also a major holiday - ferragosto. Stores are closed, many for the whole week.  Even the supermarket with 'orario continuato' — continuous open hours, they don't close for the mid-afternoon rest — is closed today.  You could definitely feel the anticipation in the air yesterday afternoon as people ran last errands around town.  Me, too.  I bought melon and tomatoes and herbs from the farmer's market in the square and some salumi at the supermercato. Everyone was wishing each other a cheery "Buon ferragosto!" 

Bit of mosaic in floor at San Pietro.
This morning when the bells from San Pietro started to ring at 8 to nudge people planning on going to the 8:30, I grabbed my bag and headed out to church. It's a two minute walk to this 6th century church, named for St. Peter the Apostle (who apparently evangelized the Romans living here back in the day). The church was already half full, the Eucharist is on the altar almost all day for those who want to come in and sit.  I sat.  Mass at 8:30 was full, but I should have paid attention to the seating pattern. Sit nearest the open door that overlooks the plain below. The breeze is delightful, as I discovered when I went up to communion.

San Pietro after Mass. The sisters are in the 
prime spot.
There is a clear sense of celebration in the town. Local restaurants are doing a set "ferragosto" menu and I went out with the Jesuit community here across the square for a two-hour pranzo, the main meal of the day.  Pace yourself, I was warned. Two types of antipasti, bread, wine, water, lasagna al forno, crispy calamari and shrimp. Another pasta and fish dish: paccheri di scoglio. That last translates literally as "slaps of rocks" - actually pasta with clams, shrimp and mussels in the shell; paccheri is large tubes of pasta that apparently make a slapping noise when they hit the plate. Finally, watermelon for dessert and an espresso so you don't (quite) fall asleep at the table.

I went back to the apartment to change for my afternoon walk, dodging kids with squirt guns and enjoying watching the women of my age dressed in their best out walking. I don't have the panache to wear some of the shoes (or the willingness to risk my ankles) - so much gold lame and so many glittery sequins. Though you have to admit, it absolutely goes with the feast:  Risplende la regina, Signore, alla tua destra. (or in the US, The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.)

Now, of course, it's afternoon thunderstorms, so I'm waiting it out, the local weather suggests we'll get a break soon.  Meanwhile, the papal roosters are annoyed at the changing light, the thunder and the ringing bells to announce Mass at one of the five churches within a few minutes walk. They are crowing up a storm!



Sunday, August 12, 2018

Do you believe in miracles? Santa Maria on the way

The skull of St. Agnes is behind the small 
green circle of leaves above the tabernacle.
It was hot, hot, hot and humid in Rome yesterday. I took an early train into Rome from Albano, having finished up a couple of significant writing projects the day before and having checked on the weather, which suggested it was only going to get hotter over the weekend.

When I got off the Metro at Spagna just before ten in the morning, I was struck by how empty the piazza at the bottom of the Spanish steps was. After the bustle of Termini station, it was so deserted it was eerie.  As I walked across the middle of the empty plaza, feeling like I walked into a Fellini film,  I suddenly understood why there was no one else there.  The sun was already high enough for the entire center to be in the full sun, with the heat radiating off the black basalt Sampietrini pavement. In the two minutes it took me to cross I was drenched in sweat and wishing I'd had the sense to pop up my Japanese umbrella/sunshade.

An actual dome in Sant'Ignazio.
I meandered my way from the Spanish steps to Piazza Navona and back again, walking nearly 9 miles as I did so.  I had back-to-school shopping to do along the via del Corso, mostly shirts and pants for the guys.  I ducked into various churches over the course of the day - a miniature pilgrimage as a counterpoint to the shopping.  I lingered in Sant'Ignazio with its faux dome, prayed in Sant'Agnese in Agone, which has a magnificent dome which you are NOT allowed to photograph, but where the attraction for me is a closet-sized Eucharistic chapel in the back with the skull of the martyr in the altar for all to see.  At the end of the day, walking down one of Rome's serpentine alleyways, I was suddenly confronted by a trumpeting angel, bearing down on me from the roof of Sant' Antonio dei Portoghesi, into which I took an unplanned peek. A baroque jumble screamed at me as I walked through the door.  I back right out again.

Sant' Antonio dei Portoghesi
I hadn't planned on a visit to Santa Maria in Via — Mary of the way — either, but ducked in on a whim.  Built in the late 15th century and completed under Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ in the 17th century, it sits on the site of a miraculous well. The story is told that on a September night in 1256, the well in the stables of Cardinal Pietro Capocci's residence overflowed.  An icon of Mary imprinted on a tile was found floating atop the waters.  Pope Alexander IV promptly ordered a chapel built over the top of the well. [Bonus - today is the feast of St. Clare, who was canonized by Pope Alexander IV.]

The church is full of anachronisms.  There is a Caravaggio tucked into the corner of a side chapel, in a spot so dark I could not make out the subject (the sign on the altar rail is the only way I knew the artist — and I can't find any such painting on the list of the Caravaggio's in Rome, I'll have to go back and double check).  Why is there an enormous teleprompter stuffed into yet another side chapel?  And the plumbing for the miraculous well would not be out of place in a fancy wet bar.

The holy well in Santa Maria in via, you can see the sink and
the faucet on the right hand side where the young man is 
filling up a cup, just like at the coffee bar.
Yes, the well is still there, and cups are set out for the steady stream of people who want to drink from the miraculous water.  I now have a bottle of this holy water for a friend, and another bit to take home.

I wonder if anoint my aching ankle and foot in the water from the well, it will be healed. I'm almost afraid to do so.  If it improves, will that increase my faith (the point of miracles.) I don't think so.  It it doesn't get better, then what?  I still believe.

I'm sorely tempted to make the holy water into a holy ice cube and ice my foot. That will definitely make it feel better, and to the people of Bellarmine's Rome, would look as much a miracle as the floating tile did. But I suspect that is cheating.
Seen in the window of some very chic
shop by the  Spanish steps.
Ankle or no, I adored these flaming shoes. Just what I need to lecture about thermodynamics in. They'd be perfect for the combustion of organic compounds lab — except of course, no open toed shoes in the lab!  Pink or black? Black, I imagine!

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Ghosts of elements, spectres of the universe: Angelo Secchi SJ's stellar spectra

A plate of Secchi's spectra.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of astronomer Angelo Secchi, SJ, the pioneer behind stellar spectroscopy, which opened the door to our understanding of what makes up a star.  I'm spending a couple of weeks at the Specola Vaticana outside Rome, of which Secchi is arguably one of its founders, though the official founding of the current incarnation of the Specola would come nearly 15 years after his death.

[A version of this post is cross posted at the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog, The Catholic Astronomer]

If you’ve seen the flash of yellow-orange flames when a pot boils over on a gas stove, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the ghost of an atom, specifically sodium.  The color is part of the atom’s spectrum, which shows which types or frequencies of light are absorbed by that particular atom.

In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton used the Latin word for ghost, spectrum, to describe the bands of colors he saw when light shone through a prism. In 1814 Joseph von Fraunhofer noticed he could see bright lines instead of the bands of colors when looking at certain flames through a prism.  He went on to develop an instrument to measure these spectral lines, called a spectroscope.

Fraunhofer noticed a series of missing colors, dark lines, when looking at the sun’s light through the spectroscope, and went on to characterize the light from several stars as well.  Fifty years later  Jesuit polymath Angelo Secchi invented a series of spectroscopic instruments specifically for examining the patterns of colors in the light from stars and the sun and used it to build a catalog of more than 4000 stars.  Secchi classified the stars by recurring patterns in the light, which were a clue to the star’s composition.

Around the same time Secchi was building his catalog of stellar spectra, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen (the inventor of the ubiquitous Bunsen burner) were involved in a more down-to-earth scheme. Kirchhoff and Bunsen teamed up to create a spectroscope that used Bunsen’s new hotter, gas burner to ignite samples.  They noted that that when they combusted a pure element it produced a characteristic set of lines, a spectral fingerprint, that could be used to identify it.

In October of 1860, Kirchhoff and Bunsen announced they had used their spectroscope to discover a new chemical element, which they named cesium, for the blue color of its principal line.  Chemists quickly began to use Bunsen’s spectroscope to find new elements.  A few months later Kirchhoff and Bunsen found two bright ruby red lines in an extract of a silicate mineral lepidolite, the spectral traces of another new element, rubidium.

Thallium’s ghostly green emanations were first observed by William Crookes, indium, ironically named for its violet lines by its color blind discoverer Ferdinand Reich.  Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran spectroscopically painstakingly identified element 66 in a sample extracted from his marble hearth, and instead of naming it for the colors of the lines, called it dysprosium, from the Greek for “hard to get” — because it was.

Hunting for new elements spectroscopically meant you didn’t actually need to have any of it in your lab or even on your planet, as long as you could observe the light from a burning sample.  In 1868 several chemists and astronomers independently observed a faint line in the spectrum of the sun, and assigned it to a new element, helium, which as far as they knew did not exist on earth.  It would take nearly 30 years for two Swedish chemists to confirm that it was present on earth — by matching the spectrum with that of a gas found in a uranium ore.  (All the helium found on earth comes from radioactive decay.)

These ghostly lines produced by elements helped fuel yet another critical discovery that would have far reaching consequences for chemists’ understanding of the periodic table:  quantum mechanics.  Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanical model of the atom opened the door to explaining the line spectra of chemical elements. Though more accurate and sophisticated quantum mechanical models of the atom now exist, Bohr’s model showed the relationship between the lines and an atom’s electron by insisting that the electrons’ energies were quantized, that is, they could only have certain energies.

So why do atoms have ghosts?  When an atom is heated to high temperatures, as in a flame or a star, the energy it absorbs excites its electrons.  You can think of the electrons in an atom as being on an energy ladder. (this isn’t quite correct as far as the quantum mechanics goes, but it is a reasonable approximation and easier to visualize.)  They can only have energies that match the rungs of the ladder, and each type of atom has a unique arrangement of the rungs.

When an atom absorbs energy, its electrons move to higher rungs.  Excited electrons are unstable. They quickly return to their original arrangement, giving off some their excess energy in the form of light as they fall back to their original rung.  The color (the wavelength) of the light emitted depends on the difference in energy between the rungs.  The colors of light emitted are the ghosts of the energy rungs.  Since each element has a unique pattern of rungs, it will have a unique spectrum of emitted light and so revealing their presence to the sharp eyes of spectroscopists.

The spectra that Secchi so carefully observed (and hand drew!) were not just a way to identify a particular star, but clues to its chemical composition and even more critically to its evolution. Chemists and astrophysicists still use the light emitted and absorbed by atoms and molecules to identify their presence.  We hunt for the structure of the universe in its ghosts.



If you want a way to see the ghosts of atoms for yourself, try this inexpensive DIY folding spectroscope you can attach to your phone. Use it to check out the light from a neon sign or from a street light!

For a wonderful description of the elements, including stories of how they were first discovered, read John Emsley’s Nature’s Building Blocks.

Want to read more about Angelo Secchi, SJ? Try Adam Hincks SJ's piece in American Magazine or my colleague at the Specola Bob Macke SJ's piece about Secchi's more terrestrial scientific pursuits.

This post is a version of an essay written for a collection commissioned for the UN’s International Year of Light in 2015.  


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Walking in the heat

Public gardens in Albano.
The sensible thing to do when it is 96o F out is to take a nap. Truly.  Instead I have been walking. Yesterday I walked across the bridge at the far end of town which spans the valley separating Albano from Arricia. Today I walked the gardens in Albano, just below the Specola.

The views have been spectacular, towns and small orchards spread out below like toys. But part of the joy of the walking is what I can see at this pace. The discovery of the grotto underneath the plaza where I cross the street most days to pick up a loaf of bread.  The doorknockers and door stops, lion's heads and horses' hooves. And my favorite, which reminds me of Thing in the Addams Family (the hand in the box on the table).

It's also interesting to experience these towns as they were when foot travel was the only choice. I can walk from the center of historic Albano to Castel Gandolfo in under 30 minutes. The same can be said for the walk to Ariccia. Many of my walks parallel the Appian Way, or follow it for short periods. These are well worn paths, Ariccia has been settled for almost 3000 years, Albano, in this location at least, for 2000 years.

Though the walk from Albano to Arricia is much faster now that the bridge spans the valley, before the bridge was built in the mid 19th century by Pope Pius IX...well, not with his own hands...you had to walk down and up a very steep slope The country here is steep, I think twice before walking down a street, knowing I'll have to walk up it to get back.

The bridge is not the original bridge, but was destroyed by retreating German Army at the end of World War II, was rebuilt and then collapsed abruptly in 1967 (which created such wonderful ruins that they inspired Fellini to film there). I think I was glad not to know about the collapse as I walk across the once-again-rebuilt span.

Monday, August 06, 2018

The epitome of epithymy

Dictionary in the library at Jesuit Center in Wernersville.
The son known herein as Crash recently pointed out to me a feature of the online version of my beloved1 Oxford English Dictionary which I hadn't noticed before.  Words are assigned to one of eight frequency bands.

Bands 7 and 8 are common words in speech and writing, appearing with a frequency of one word in a thousand or more.  Band 4  comprises words that appear less commonly, roughly one word in a million, but "most words remain recognizable to English-speakers, and are likely be used unproblematically in fiction or journalism." Example - bipartisan, which may appear more often these days than one might be led to assume from this.

I'm working on an essay for Nature Chemistry on chemists' tendency to use epithymetic language when talking about atoms or molecules.  Epithymetic is the perfect word to use in this context. It is also in Band 2, which the OED describes thus (emphasis mine)
Band 2 contains words which occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people. Many are technical terms from specialized discourses. Examples taken from the most frequently attested part of the band include decanate, ennead, and scintillometer (nouns), geogenic, abactinal (adjectives), absterge and satinize (verbs). In the lower frequencies of the band, words are uniformly strange or exotic, e.g. smother-kiln, haver-cake, and sprunt (nouns), hidlings, unwhigged, supersubtilized, and gummose (adjectives), pantle, cloit, and stoothe (verbs), lawnly, acoast, and acicularly (adverbs), whethersoever (conjunction).
Yeah, no. I won't be using epithymetic anywhere in that piece.

On the plus side, I'm adding some uniformly strange and exotic words to my vocabulary this week. Urusula La Guin's essay on the use of the word f*ck in discourse added swounds and gorblimey. Swounds is a euphemistic shortening of God's wounds; gorblimey, is another shortened oath, God blind me. Swounds is Band 1 - the zebras of the word world.   The frequency band information gave me sprunt, for spruce and smart. My office at home is pretty sprunt these days, after my summer's efforts to clean things up.



I would like to state clearly that I did not marry Math Man merely to get the two volume OED with the magnifying glass in the little drawer, though it made a very nice dowry (Band 5), I must say.

Epithymetic means "connected to desire, about appetites" - and this piece is about the language of desire, about electrophilicity and nucleophilicity and electron affinities.  See, it's perfect.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Glooo-ri-a! Gloria!

The lights in the street outside the church. The St. Rita's
Triduum at my parish definitely could learn from this event!
Not Gloria in excelsis Deo! but a cover of Laura Branigan's "Gloria!" was ringing through the square in front of the 11th century church of Santa Maria della Rotunda as I walked home through it last night.  It's part of a three day celebration in Albano Laziale to mark the deliverance of the city from a cholera epidemic in 1867. The people came to this church to pray in front of what is traditionally considered to be a very early Syrian Christian icon of the Theotokos: Mary in her role as Christ-bearer, mother of God, Dei Genetrix as it is inlaid in the wall of the church. 

The celebration includes Masses and prayer times, but also nightly concerts of secular music and pop-up restaurants in the blocked off streets nearby. There are flashing lights arching overhead. 

As I threaded my way through the crowd in the square, I thought how strange it was to be walking the streets of this ancient Italian town and seeing the streets of Pittsburgh in my mind's eye. (This morning, I still have the tune stuck in my ear).  But it turns out that the version made famous by Flashdance isn't the original, it's a late 70s pop song by Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi! (Listen here.) So definitely Italian.

This morning I went to one of the closing Masses (there are three today), enjoying the way the small congregation's responses were amplified by the round church (which is in an old Roman temple or bath).  There might have been fewer than a hundred people in there, but I have rarely felt so engulfed by the liturgy, so firmly grounded in the faith proclaimed. 


Saturday, August 04, 2018

So about that second tunic...

So the trip to the Specola was — to a first order approximation — smooth.  Yes, the plane left a bit late, but clearly it usually leaves a bit late, because we were on time to Rome.  I managed to buy my ticket on the express into Roma Termini and my ticket on to Albano on the TrenItalia app.  Woot!

But.  I managed to hit the daily gap at Roma Termini where it is two hours between trains to Albano. Any other time of the day, they run every hour. It's hot and muggy, but I discover the terrace upstairs where I can get a cold drink, watch the trains and the train board and most importantly, sit for the next hour and half.  The Albano train pops up on the board, and I know from experience just how long a walk it is out to Platform 18, so I grab my luggage and go. By the time I get there I am soaked, but the train is blissfully air conditioned and ready to board.  At which point I should be enjoying the cool air and 45 minutes to recruit my strength for the walk up the hill to the apartment where I am staying.

Except. Except they are doing track work, so they are bussing from Ciampino to Albano (I knew this when I bought my ticket). Twenty minutes and we're off the train. The conductor gives me directions to where to find the bus. I haul my growing-ever-heavier bag down from the platform and back up the indicated stairs and seeing a bus ask about the bus to Albano.  Not this one, but wait right here.  I wait in the sun.  No bus.  I check the time.  It should be here in a minute or two.  No bus. Five minutes?  No bus.  I go inside and ask about the bus. Oh, that bus leaves from the other side. Next one? In an hour. Back down and up I go. I find the spot and hope that the bus will appear. A bus arrives with a spate of TrenItalia personnel in bright red polo shirts. Yes, this is your bus.  Up goes the luggage.

It is icily air conditioned, so after a bit I look for my "second tunic"...only to remember with a start that I had left my nice sweatshirt on the bench at the station. I guess I didn't need a second tunic after all.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Take One Tunic

My second tunic/sweatshirt and lots more stuff.
I'm off to Rome, or more precisely, Albano Laziale, the small town just outside of Rome where the Vatican Observatory is situated, just behind the gates to the papal gardens.  As I packed, my mind kept drifting back to the Gospel from two Sundays back
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick—
no food, no sack, no money in their belts.
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic.  (Mark 6:8-9)
Yes.  Well.  I have packed a snack, have a checked bag and a carry on, stashed my miscellaneous euros in my wallet.  I definitely packed a second tunic (and a third and a fourth...).  I'm not wearing sandals, though I did pack a pair.  It sounds like an all around fail, new evangelization or old, even before you consider my electronics.

It got me thinking about what the modern version of sandals and a walking stick might be?  Or that second tunic that Matthew suggests might be allowed.  Walking shoes?  A phone? What reminds me of my origin and my destination, of the source of what I have?

If I could take just one thing, and trust that the rest would be provided, what would it be?  My laptop. A virtual tunnel to almost anywhere, to information, to communications, to clothes and food. A battery for electronics.  Though  the more I think about it,  perhaps my laptop is not a sign of radical dependence, but of stubborn independence.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A wisdom of wombats

A wise wombat, perhaps, but not a wisdom of wombats.
One of my editors wondered in a blog post about submitting a research paper to a journal just what collective noun might best fit a group of reviewers.  @pkennepoh suggested in a tweeted reply  a "murder" of reviewers.

Researchers who publish papers in academic journals have a fraught relationship with reviewers, in large part because we have seen the enemy and he is us. We are both the reviewed and the reviewers in turn.

Peer review is one way academic journals, particularly academic science journals, assess work submitted for publication. The reviewers, two or three, are chosen by the editor for their familiarity with the area of research, closely (you hope) read the work and offer their thoughts to the editor about the value of the work to the field, often its novelty. They are weighing the evidence presented to be sure it is sound. As a general rule, they aren't repeating the experiments. It mostly works.

Great peer reviewers push you to plug holes and sharpen the presentation of your arguments. Awful reviewers can be pedantic and ridiculous. You wonder if they read more than the title of the paper and your name.  Reviewer #2 is often caricatured as the reviewer asking that you cite their work (not so inadvertently revealing their identity) or demanding extra experiments or one more spectrum or climbing on their particular hobby horse regardless of its relationship to your work.

I've had fabulous reviewers, and one reviewer who simply stated that any computational work was nonsense (and in those days of pink carbon copy reviews, signed all the copies, then whited out his name.)  His, you say? His. I held it up to the window to find out who should never review my papers again.  And I had two papers which came back with "Accept without change." from all parties.

So what collective noun might I suggest for these anonymous clusters of colleagues - besides a murder of them? There are a boatload of "terms of venery" (collective nouns for groups of critters) to inspire. My favorites for reviewers:

a shrewdness (apes)
a bellowing (bullfinches)
a busyness (ferrets)
a siege (herons)
an unkindness (ravens)
an ambush (tigers)
and last but not least a wisdom (wombats)

But what I'm truly all in for?  a murmuration.  Applied to starlings, it comes from the Latin for murmurings or grumbling.  The murmurs of supports, the grumbles of the grumpy. It seems to cover it all.



A video of a murmuration of starlings.
Photo is from Wikimedia, by JJ Harrison.

Monday, July 23, 2018

A scholar's mug

One of the two yunomi from St. John's pottery.
Not the scholar's mug!
A few years ago I spent a few days on retreat at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota. In many ways St. John's resembles a medieval monastic enclave. There are bees, a woodworking shop that provides the furnishings for the college, a library, a guest house and a pottery. And a post office, but that sounds pretty modern. 

Caught out in a walk by a sudden thunderstorm, I ducked into the pottery.  There was a fire, there was tea. I spoke with the potters, learned about the huge wood burning kiln named Joanna that is fired but once a year, traded stories of travel in Japan. And I bought two yunomi (tea mugs), one that clearly shows the hands of the potter on it, and another, called a scholar's mug, rougher and clearly marked by the ashes of the kiln.

The first time I used the scholar's mug, I filled it generously and carried it to the table where I was writing.  I absentmindedly picked it up to take a sip, to find the cup too hot to handle.  Ouch!  I left it to cool. The next time I made tea, I made a collar for the mug using a furoshiki, like those you get at a coffee bar.  I quickly got better at folding either a small furoshiki or a thick paper towel to use.

It took almost a week for me to discover the trick of the scholar's mug. Fill it half full. The tea stayed warm, the top cool enough to comfortably hold.  It made me get up to refill it, to stretch at more regular intervals.

This is a true story. And a parable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Receive The Body of Christ: The Weight of Glory

I slept at the shelter last week, drifting off to the sounds of the beeping delivery trucks at the Acme across the street on an air mattress in the hallway. The Virgin Mother and I stood guard at the door. I had arrived after everyone had settled in for the night, the lights dimmed and the air hovering between warm and cool. It reminded me of a summer's night at Wernersville.  Just enough of a breeze stirring, a sufficiency of grace, a heaping measure of silence.

I was up at 5:30, washing my face, thinking as I did of Jane Hirshfield's early morning icy, awakening slap.  5:38 am, the van appeared at the door, simultaneously the sun appeared over the horizon, its rays careening down the still and dim hallway. A little one popped out into the dimness, bright pink skirt, and brighter blue shoes, twirling in the sunlight with the motes of dust.

Two mothers calmly juggled babies and bags out the door.  And the little one raised her arms, wordlessly asking for a boost to the van.  I leaned down and picked her up. Receive the body of Christ. Amen.

I was surprised at how little glory can weigh, and how much.

Jane Hirshfield's poem, A Cedary Fragrance, recalls the early morning routine in the Zen monastery where she trained.

Read this bit from C.S. Lewis's Weight of Glory

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Trying to ground grounding in science

My ungrounded feet in rubber boots.
This week the Washington Post has an article headlined "Could walking barefoot on grass improve your health? Some science suggests it can."  The link itself is subtitled: The science behind grounding.

The article gets a lot of things right about atoms (they make up everthing!), but it confuses "free-radicals" with positive ions. (Free radicals don't have to be charged.) Then it tries to explain why negative ions can help. And while it is true that a positive ion and a negative ion can react in some circumstance to produce a neutral compound (think of hydroxide and hydrogen ions reacting to make water in an acid base reaction), random negative ions won't necessarily disarm a free radical.  You need an antioxidant for that, a molecule that can participate in a reaction that can soak up extra electrons.  You still need to eat your vegetable and wear sunscreen.

Negative ions and positive ions co-exist quite nicely in your body. You need those positively charged potassium ions, in fact, to keep your heart beating rhythmically. So on its face, the "science behind grounding" given in the article is bunk. If all those negative ions in the ground started neutralizing all the positive ions in our bodies, we'd be dead.

While I get this is a not a science news piece, but a perspective piece (a "[d]iscussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences"), I wish someone at the Post had fact-checked the science.  Yes, it feels nice to walk barefoot on the grass, or to be outside.  I'm pretty certain the negative ions aren't the reason why.