Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Elements of chocolate

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

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

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

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

Cat on a hot tin roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

What prompts your writing?

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

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

Interesting things I've found along the way:

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

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

What prompts your best writing?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Downpours in the news

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

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

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 19 June 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laudato Si': The world is a joyful mystery

Yew tree in the middle of the cloister
Franciscan friary of Irrelagh, Killarney National Park
“Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...” — Sufi mystic Ali al-Khawas quoted in Laudato Si'

Yesterday I read Laudato Si' from start to finish, sitting in my cool study, where (if the windows are open as they are now) I can hear the wind stirring in the trees, the bees humming, birds calling and the groans of the neighborhood air conditioners.  It wasn't particularly hot here yesterday, but terribly humid and so I'd turned on the little window air conditioner to wring some of the water out of the air.  That lasted until I read [55]:
"People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning."
I felt like I'd been snatched from my desk and dumped back into the basement at Eastern Point retreat house, midway through the First Week of the Exercises, painfully and excruciatingly aware of how my daily life tramples others.  Earlier in the text, Pope Francis had noted that the goal of this first exericse was we might "become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it." [19]

Now that I've read to the end, I'm no less uncomfortable, and busily asking myself not only what I can do, but how long I can continue to be "painfully aware."  Can I change my life in response to this awareness?  Pope Francis makes clear that this is not a problem to be solved and then its back to our regular programming, but a call to a new way of living, one that acknowledge the preferential option for the poor in all that it does.

As a scientist, though, perhaps my favorite line is "the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise." [12]

So far, my favorite response to the encyclical is this one from Jennifer Fitz at Sticking the Corners:  "The terrible problem with Laudato Si'"

My column on Laudato Si' for CatholicPhilly can be found here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Checking out

The tiny town in Illinois I grew up in did not have a public library in its earliest years.  Instead the bookmobile made its regular rounds, parking on the street in between the elementary school and the Catholic church.  It was an ever changing set of books to explore, and I can remember the excitement of seeing what might be there this week.  Eventually a part of the municipal offices were given over to a library, with a few shelves of books for children.  I could ride my bike over there in the summers, and exchange the books in my basket for new adventures, then head home and curl up under the crab apple tree in the backyard and travel worlds far beyond the dairy farms that surrounded my piece of the earth.

Every summer there was a reading program for kids, with prizes for those who read the most books.  Even though I was a voracious and fast reader, I never came close to topping the list.  My mother finally explained that to win, I would need to stick to short and simple books. Doctor Zhivago counted the same as Green Eggs and Ham.  I had no interested in winning on those terms, but doggedly kept entering, watching my rocket crawl toward apogee while I explored biographies (Marie Curie and Clara Barton), science fiction (Robert Heinlein and Asimov) and whatever I could dig out about space and rockets (which I built).

Today I'm borrowing both fresh air and wireless from the Chester County Public Library while I wait for my car to be serviced down the road.  It's a gorgeous day, and their wireless reaches out to the grounds where picnic tables and benches are scattered. The parking lot is packed, and people are scattered around the grounds, mostly workers from the mall across the street on break.  I'm under a tree, working up data and writing, and thinking about those glorious stretches of summer when I was free to wander the stars.  And about the magic of the internet that lets me wander far and wide from under a cherry tree.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Compassionate chemistry

The Egg got his wisdom teeth out on Wednesday, it was a tough go, and early in the game we had some trouble getting ahead of the pain, even with a best practices management plan from the oral surgeon.  But get ahead we did, and I'm grateful for the chemistry that made him more comfortable.  Still, I'm aware of the huge holes in the pharmacopeia with respect to pain. There is really just a single class of drugs (opiates) which effectively relieves moderate to severe pain, and the side-effects are substantial.  And many people around the world do not have access to even these.  Compassionate chemistry research?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Column: Where is God?

For another writing project I've been reading A First Initiation into Carthusian Life [Gracewings, 2010] which is the source of the quote below, advice for novices on both prayer and practical aspects of life in a charterhouse.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 11 June 2015.

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Mark 14:22

Where is God? As I sat in church on the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, it seemed very clear where God was. On the altar, the Body and Blood, under the appearances of bread and wine. In those gathered to celebrate, the priest and the assembly. In the Word proclaimed and preached. Christ is here, truly present in all these different ways. Then the Mass ended, we got in the car and went home.

On Sunday morning, I watch furiously as a woman runs a stop sign, all the while chatting on her cell phone. Sunday night, I’m sleeping at the local shelter, feeling helpless in the face of an inconsolable child and her exhausted mother. Monday finds me seething as two people cut in front of me in line at the grocery store. Where is God, now?

An anonymous Carthusian writes, “[God] is … wholly present wherever he acts, that is to say, everywhere. Open your eyes. You will see signs of him everywhere ….” It is, he points out, a practice, one that requires a continual mindfulness, a particular way of seeing the world. Can I see the many ways the Body of Christ is held up in this world?

I want to squeeze my eyes closed and avoid looking at the person cutting me off in traffic or ducking in front of me to take the last loaf of bread. I struggle, too, with the situations that I cannot put right, where nothing I can do in that moment will help. The friend in intractable pain, the child who is overtired and sleeping in yet another new place, replete with strangers.

Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar Godfrey Dieckmann, O.S.B., famously asked his students, “What difference does it make if the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, if we don’t?”

When I say “amen” to the Body of Christ, when I assent to bearing within me God made flesh, when I profess my desire to become what I am about to receive, does this mean I am willing to say “yes” to being helpless, to being crucified on another’s cross as well as my own? To be present to the exhausted mother, to listen to the friend in pain. Does it mean I can see beyond the mindlessly rushing drivers to see, however blurred, God’s presence?

I have less trouble finding Christ, as St. John Chrysostom would say, in either the beggar at the church door or in the chalice, than I do in seeing the face of God in the troublesome, than I do when faced with painful situations that call out for something I cannot provide. Still, I trust that Christ’s presence in the bread and wine has made a difference, that God-within-me will recognize God within my neighbor, and so open my eyes to see God within us as well.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Congratulations! You've been selected...

Today's calls:

"Out of area"  They called five times yesterday.  Today I picked up, and asked them not to call any longer.  "Do you want to make a one time donation before we take you off the list?" Editor's note, caller has not identified the organization they are calling on behalf of.

"Congratulations, you have been selected to receive a free cruise to the Bahamas.  That's right, you heard correctly..."  Click.  I hang up.  It's a recording.  I have no qualms at all.

I remember the days when door to door soliciting was more frequent.  The Fuller brush man, the Avon Lady, the egg man.  I understood, too, why people posted signs that said, "No soliciting" on their doors.  And, of course, each of these phone calls is an interruption.  They are not cost free as far as my work day goes.

Why, oh, why, is there no way to put "no soliciting" on our phone?  We are on the no call list.  We have an unlisted number.  I never give out the landline number to businesses.  (Hurrah for Google Voice!)

I have a hard time being rude to the person calling, these are people working from scripts, with high supervision.  It's a job, and a stressful one at that, which feeds them and houses them.  But I wonder about a calling algorithm that calls a number four times a day (am, afternoon, dinner, after dinner) for days on end.  At what point does it move from "solicitation" to "harassment"?

The obvious solution is to take the phone out of my office.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Column: Shopping with Jesus

From wikimedia.
This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 28 May 2015.

Then the just will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” — Matthew 25:37

Last week Jesus showed up at the Acme while I was pondering the powdered donuts in the Tastykake display. Could I afford those? Today this was a calorie question; 35 years ago, it would have been a question of budget — the answer, alas, is still “no.” I never went hungry when I was first living on my own, but I never put anything in my cart without considering the cost, either.

Christ was dressed as my friend Catharyn, comfortable in jeans, leaning on her cane, and came along to chat as I wound my way through the aisles. I reached for a can of coffee, part of my standard list for the food box at church. Catharyn grabbed another, “This one is cheaper, and you get more.”

We hit the baby aisle, discussing which size diapers would have the greatest impact on the smallest members of the Body of Christ and pediatrician Catharyn’s wish that more people would remember that formula is expensive.

By the time we reached the check-out line, I was looking at what was in my cart with an eye to a budget again. Not mine now, but the budget of the young mothers I meet at the shelter, for whom diapers and formula and a good cup of coffee enables them to go to work, and so, put food on the table.

The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church reaffirms “the preferential option for the poor … in all its force” to which the tradition of the church has borne witness from its very beginning. It quotes Pope St. John Paul II, who says our particular concern for the poor should inspire our decisions, big and small, and even our own manner of living.

The care of the poor and those on the margins is at the core of our relationship to Jesus, who St. Matthew tells us, says he is the poor one, the one who is starving, and the one who longs for clean water to drink and bathe in.

Does encountering Christ in the Acme change my grocery list? Does knowing that Christ lacks sturdy shoes to wear to work affect my budget? How much force does the preferential option for the poor exert on the way I live?

Looking at the abundance in my backyard, towering trees clothed in green arch down the block like a cathedral, fruit trees sprouting apples and plums and pears, it can be hard to remember that people lack for food and safe housing right here in Philadelphia, as much now as in Lent or at Christmas.

The Salvation Army bell is long gone from the front of the Acme, but Christ now asks me each time I visit, “when did you feed me, and what have you given me to drink? How do you care for the least among you? How do you learn to see me?”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 182, states: “The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. To this end, the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force.

“This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods.

“Today, furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed, this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future.”

A list of things to consider giving to your local food bank (call or check web sites to see what they need most): diapers (larger sizes), formula, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, dried fruit, jam, peanut butter, coffee, canned fruit, canned vegetables, canned meat, pasta dinners, juice boxes, rice or other staple grains (in small, sturdy bags because people have to carry it home and most food banks do not have the capacity to repackage bulk items), money (your dollar can stretch even further than Catharyn’s careful shopping when the food bank spends it).

Glass containers are problematic for most sites because they are too easily broken. Pop tops are helpful for those without access to a well-stocked kitchen. Pick healthy choices when you can, just as you would for your own family.

See also the list at St. Francis Inn, an organization in Philadelphia that serves the hungry and those in need of safe shelter.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Fire and Water

"Ginger ale bottles" by hugovk
Dandelion & Burdock, Ginger Ale.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Last week I sat down in the comfortable chair in my office (finally cleared of the accumulation of end of semester stuff) to read.  I had my notepad, my favorite pen — and a cold can of ginger ale.  Once settled in, I reached for the still closed can, but knocked it over.  It hit the floor, punctured and began spinning, spraying soda everywhere. Including on a bookshelf.  And on the three sorted-but-not-yet-shelved stacks of books on the floor.

My panicked mind fished out the line from a 14th century prior of the Carthusian charterhouse, Le Grande Chartreuse, "My fathers, my fathers, ad libros, ad libros; let the rest burn, but save the books."1

I dried off my collection of Karl Rahner's writing and my books on the Exercises, and there seems to be no lasting damage.  But what does it say about my mind?

Ginger has a fiery bite.  If you're up for some chemistry, you can read about chemical names and zingiberene, the molecule responsible for much of ginger's flavor on my other blog.

1.  As quoted in An Infinity of Little Hours (Nancy Klein Maguire), p 29.