Saturday, April 30, 2016

Science fiction in my tea: Gagh

I have a lousy cold.  Where is Dr. Crusher when I need her?  Or barring that a replicator that can produce, "Tea.  Rose vanilla chai.  Hot." on command?

When I'm not writing final exams or grading this week, I'm working on a twinned pair of essays on science fiction in chemistry/science fictions in chemistry.  This morning I picked up my cup of tea (with honey and citron rind in it), and as a well soaked piece of citron rind slithered out, my first thought was "Gagh."  No, no, not a expression of disgust, but gagh, the Klingon delicacy, serpent worms.

Can you read or watch too much SF?  Probably not, but if you can, I clearly have.

While hunting around for science fiction references in the primary chemical literature hasn't been all that successful, I have found (and read) the original ice IX paper [JCP 48, 2362-2370 (1968)], which acknowledges Kurt Vonnegut's prior claim in Cat's Cradle, and a couple of great spoof papers, including one from the German literature in 1890 that fooled enough people to get cited in the primary literature.

Have any favorite SF novels involving chemistry, even peripherally?  Or know of papers in the scientific literature that reference alternate universes? I'd love to know! There's a whole set of compounds named for characters in Puccini'sLa Bohème, including musettamycin, but I'd be shocked if there were more opera buffs than SF fans working in chemistry.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A red solo cup and the shape of privilege

We were on campus to go to the senior theater students gala — dinner and warm remembrances of the students from their faculty and peers.  It was lovely, the faculty worked the bar, every last student,  from actors to directors to tech crew, including the work study students who weren't majors, was feted and applauded. So perhaps that's why the walk back to the car was such a shock.

A big lacrosse game was going on in the stadium, complete with an enormous CBS sports mobile studio.  A group of JV players strode past us, chatting volubly.  As one finished his drink, without a sidewise glance, he cavalierly tossed his red solo cup on the ground, almost at my feet.  It had the air of royalty, a sense of utter indifference. Clearly, trash — where it landed and what happened to it after that— was not his problem.  Ever.

There was no trash on the ground, not even weeds in the flower bed where the cup came to rest.  Just this one red cup, discarded by an athletic twenty-something who couldn't be bothered to look for a trash receptacle.

Would he wonder who picked it up?  Would he be surprised to discover a nearly sixty year-old full professor felt compelled to pick up his garbage?  Actually I'm certain he didn't give the fate of the cup a nanosecond's thought.  He's lucky that I was so stunned and his legs so long that I couldn't catch up with him, return the cup to him and request that he put it where it belonged: my professorial persona is not intimidated by 20 year-olds, no matter how tall and overprivileged.

I though about that cup off and on all day Sunday.  What shape, I wonder, does my privilege take?  What do I toss to the side, without looking to see who it's about to hit, without giving a moment's thought to who will have to pick up after me?  What do I throw away that others could use?

Privilege.  Sometimes it looks like a red solo cup.  Sometimes it's not quite so easily recognized.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hidden dimensions

"What dimension are we working in?" I prompt the student in my office.  "One." "Which means the Hamiltonian must be..."

I've been talking about "boxes" in one-dimension, three-dimensional vibrational breathing modes — spherically symmetric molecules that expand and collapse like stars going nova — and molecular wavefunctions that sit in four, twelve, or fifty-two dimensional spaces.

But what does it mean to be between (integer) dimensions?  Fractional dimensions are a way of describing the complexity of mathematical objects, such as this Sierpinski triangle being assembled on Bryn Mawr's green.  It has a dimension of log23 or about 1.58.

It looks like we are working in 2 dimensions but it's not quite. Where did the missing .42 dimension go?

Math Man has long dreamed of constructing an enormous Sierpinski triangle, math writ large.  All the pieces fell into place earlier this spring and on Sunday the game is on, a 9th level Sierpinski triangle build at the Wagner Free Institute of Science (a very cool space).

K'Nex donated about half the 30,000 some odd pieces needed.  After the event the pieces will get packed up into kits for teachers.  You can support the project here.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Are you religious?

Detail of frame Library of San Marco, Florence
Next fall I'm teaching in the college's 360 program again, as part of a cluster of courses on contemplative practices - in Buddhism, in the Abrahamic traditions and in the secular world.  It's an incredible program to be a part of, as it criss-crosses disciplines as well as continents. We spend time in a silent retreat house in the US. We go to rural Japan.  We read papers about f-MRI and Carmelite mystics, and take a look at what happens when Buddhist practices get pulled from their roots and turned into treatment modalities.

Previous courses also got me thinking about my own faith and its practice. I wrote last time that taking a hard academic look at what I simultaneously live and breathe feels a bit like autologous dissection.

At the end of an information session about the course, a student came up to me and asked me point blank if I was religious or spiritual.  I admitted to being religious, and that I thought that the two were not mutually exclusive, so it was "and" rather than "or".

I know that "spiritual not religious" is a well-worn category, but "religious not spiritual" seems an oxymoron to me. Or at least it should be.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016



I ate the cheesecake.
I left my notes at home.
It was not the dog's fault.
I don't know everything.
I need a sign from God sometimes,
just the tiniest little sign.
Just one word,
or a splash of water,
a piece of bread, broken
and multiplied.
I need to see just a small piece
of forgiveness,
a little resurrection.
Just one word
I don't know everything.
It was not the dog's fault.
I left my notes at home.
I ate the cheesecake.
Forgive me.

Rev. Diane Roth

I didn't leave my notes home today.  But I seem to have misplaced my patience.  It is most definitely not the cat's fault, and I want to tell the students swarming my office that I don't know everything, and that sometimes I lose the threads that are holding together three classes, an exam, four different problem sets and all the majors who want to know what to take, when and who they will be when they emerge from this place.  Which problem 3 are you asking about again?

I needed a sign, a tiny sign, that God has not left me alone to hold up this corner of the world.  So I looked out my window, to see the topmost branches of the fifty foot tall tree stirring in the breeze against an ice blue sky edged with pink.  A sign.  Nothing substantial, nothing that I might cling to, just a passing touch, like the ones exchanged by long time lovers.

I don't know everything. "Forgive me," I say to the last student, "my patience is exhausted."

"Confessions:"  © Diane Roth. Used with permission.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Thinking resurrection, practicing joy

Living the Joy of the Resurrection from Joyful Films on Vimeo.

It was almost 80oF today, now it's raining.  Snow perhaps on the weekend. Cool air stirs into the warm, rousing storms.  Grief stirs into the Easter joy, rousing memories that flash and rumble.  The 11th anniversary of my mother's death was yesterday.  She loved holidays, and the little things that made them special.  The traditional birthday eve wish to "sleep tight my little 10 year-old" and its corresponding morning greeting, "good morning my big 11 year-old."  The chocolate bunny that appeared in my Easter basket long after I left home.

A couple of weeks before Easter, I sat down with a young film maker to talk about what resurrection means for a project for CatholicPhilly.  I love what he pulled out of the hour or more of conversation: Practice joy as faithfully as we practice penance in Lent.

It's been a challenging week, but I've been remembering my mother in the little things that mark the holiday. The jelly beans from my basket tucked into my lunch. And I'm choosing to practice joy as diligently as I kept Lent's disciplines. Taking a walk with a former student between meetings, noticing the tulips that were coming up on her campus, enjoying the unexpected warmth of a March afternoon.  Welcoming the stillness that enveloped the chapel this morning when the presider began, "In the name of the Father..."  All stirred into the chaos of the week, flavoring the long days.