Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tu es Petrus

The dome in St. Peter's

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. 

"You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven." — Mt 16:18

The Egg has just ended his almost two week tour of Italy with his college choral group, Pomona Glee.  They finished in Rome, singing a concert at Chiesa San Marcello and the Vigil Mass for Corpus Christi at St. Peter's Basilica. Yes, that St. Peter's, the papal basilica (which despite its iconic nature is not the mother church of Christendom, the papal basilica of St. John Lateran holds that honor).  A great way to wrap things up, but there was a moment when a last minute glitch threatened to derail their last musical outing!

I took the train in from Castel Gandolfo to Rome, walked 20 miles around Rome over 2 days (eventually ending up at the Holy Door in St. Peter's but that is a story for another day), got to hear their concert at San Marcello and enjoy a meal with him, and then went to Mass to hear them sing.

They swept into the basilica, in concert dress and in concert mode, following their director and not sightseeing, quickly and quietly settling into the choir box to the side of Bernini's altar of the Cathedra.

Glee in front of Bernini's Cathedra.
Suddenly an organist appeared, pulling stops with one hand and flipping up the music stand with the other.  He had a choir with him, and it appeared that the choir slot had been double-booked. A parish had come to walk through the Holy Door and the parish choir came with them to sing at the Mass.  Except our choir was scheduled to be here.
Much angry Italian ensued, drawing in more and more people. Eep. You could watch the students' faces to see how the argument was going. Oh, and because the mics were live, the show was being broadcast to the entire basilica.

In the end, the parish choir got set up with a mic stand on the floor, the organist firmly planted on his bench.  Glee sang the entrance antiphon. A cardinal and several concelebrants came up the aisle, along with a slightly bedraggled altar boy in a red cassock. The organist took over when Glee finished (unless you count the chord that he hit mid-stream), I had never heard angry organ before.  I was impressed that anyone could draw such emotion from the organ.  Glee sang the four pieces they'd been asked to sing (Exultate justi in Domino/Viadana; Ubi Caritas/Mealor; Ave Verum Corpus/Byrd; Tu es Petrus/Duruflé).  The parish choir sang their two hymns and the Mass parts.

The Byrd Ave Verum Corpus was so haunting, so beautiful, sung at communion.  I fully admit to crying as I went up to receive, between hearing my child sing in that space, having walked through the Holy Door myself, and to be with all the pilgrims who had done so, I was full of emotion.

The cardinal celebrating Mass had kind and politic things to say about the beautiful singing, and the choirs, plural.  He exited to Salve Regina done by the choir, and Glee went out singing a minute of glorious and perfect music, Duruflé's Tu es Petrus. The dome literally rang with their last chord.

Everyone left happy (I think), there were photos of the altars of the two choirs intermixed.

Friday, May 27, 2016

DotMagis: Imagine: Quantum mechanics meets the Spiritual Exercises

I arrived in Italy Wednesday, after 24 hours of travel, planes, trains, and two very short car rides.  There is something apt in this post about science and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola appearing at DotMagis yesterday, as I'm spending a short stretch of time at the Vatican Observatory (the one just outside Rome), where I am one of their newest adjunct scholars.  The Observatory is staffed by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, the order of priests and brothers founded by St. Ignatius, seeking God in all things, in this case, in the heavens, both literally and figuratively.
"Imagine,” I say. Imagine that you are ascending a staircase, can you choose any height, or does gravity hold you to certain positions in space? Put yourselves into an atom, feel the tug of the other electrons and the nucleus wax and wane. Wend your way through five pages of math, and then tell me what color you think flamingos should be. “It helps,” says Sufi mystic Rabi’a in a poem about contemplation, “putting my hands on a pot, on a broom, in a wash pail.” It helps, I suspect, to think of flamingos when faced with equations... 
St. Ignatius might not recognize the traces of his Spiritual Exercises in my course, but each time I say to students, “Feel the forces,” and each time I encourage them to contemplate data that defies common sense, I hear for a moment the instructions of my director during the Exercises to put myself into the contemplations, to put flesh on the bones of the Gospel, and to dig for God with bare hands. For what I desire for my students, I suspect God desires for me as well: the courage to stand before the ineffable, to look and see the world as it is, and to wring the real from what in this moment I can only imagine."

Read the rest at DotMagis:  Imagine: A lesson from science class

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Advice to students: write

Crash with large diploma.  In Latin.
I have them for four academic years, sometimes for just one class, sometimes for three or four or a year of research.  I teach them to think like a chemist, to wield the tools of quantum chemistry with confidence and, I hope, a bit of panache.  I turn around twice and they are coming to my office, not to ask about the problem set, or to plan their courses, but to start adulting (as the subject line of so many Crash emails styled it.)

I want to go to graduate school. What do I do next? I’ve got an interview next week, what should I say about my research?  Advice goes back and forth.  What advice, I ask them, should I give to next year’s students about this course, what did they wish they had known before they began?

Turn around once more and they are walking across the grass and up the hill into adulthood.

Some of my students will be itinerant scholars, moving from place to place after a few weeks, month or perhaps a year. Write, I tell them, every week or more.

Start a blog, open up a document in your favorite text editor, by hand in a journal.  It doesn’t matter where the words go, just that they go.

Address your narrative to someone, so you remember to unpack the interior movements, so your words are not amorphous, but take on a shape. Write for your parents, your friends, your future self, your nieces and nephews, sons and daughters yet to be born.

Don't worry about length.  Five words, five hundred. Don't worry about capturing it all.  You can't. Write about the little things as often as the big ones.

Write often.  You'll never write as often as you think, but write when you think of it.  Don't wait for the perfect time.

I think I should have been giving this advice to all my students. Write, no matter if you are on the road, or planted for four years in a doctoral program, or starting a working life. Write often, write with purpose, catch the details when they are fresh.  You will not, I think, ever regret having this door to these days of your life.

And in the end?  Archive it, of course.  Scan it, if you wrote by hand.  Print it out if you did not.  On acid free paper. Either way, put it on the shelf, with a few photos and other ephemera.

It's never too late to start, so even if you are not newly graduated, write! I'm off to take my own advice, traveling to Rome, I'll write. Often.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Science fiction and chemistry

Topi Barr's Antithiotimoline is in this vintage Analog
Seven years ago, Andy Mitchinson, an editor at Nature, wrote at The Sceptical Chymist (Episodes II and III) about the dearth of science fiction that involved the particular science of chemistry in a substantive way.  Why isn't there more of it?

He pointed to a list put together by Connie Willis, an award winning SF author, and an article by Philip Ball in Chemistry World.

I'm working on a column for Nature Chemistry about the ways in which chemistry and science fiction play off each other.  Is science fiction more than escapist entertainment?  Should chemists care that there's not more chemistry inflected fiction out there?  Should we deliberately expose students to science fiction? Should we encourage them to write it?

To go alone with the piece, I'm trying to create a periodic table of chemical fiction, not limited to just science fiction.  Are there pieces on my list you particularly love?  Something I'm missing?  I'd love to hear in the comments!

For a full set of elemental science fiction short stories, I encourage you to browse Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction (thanks, Kateri!).  What really happened to the Hindenburg?

The list to date!

Author Work
As Asimov, Isaac Whiff of Death, The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline, Thiotimoline to the Stars, Pate de Fois Gras
Pb Ball, Philip The Sun and Moon Corrupted
Ba Barr, Topi “Antithiotimoline”
B Bujold, Lois McMaster Vorkosigan series
Ac Christie, Agatha "The Blue Geranium” in The Thirteen Problems
Cl Clements, Hal Phases in Chaos
Co Conan Doyle, Arthur Holmes
Md Dewar, Michael “Temporal Chirality:  The Burgenstock Communication”
F Foster Wallace, David Infinite Jest
Ag Goodman, Allegra Intuition
He Heinlein, Robert Glory Road, Have Spacesuit will Travel
Hf Hoffman, Roald Oxygen
Li King, Laurie Russell & Holmes series
U Le Guin, Ursula “Schrödinger’s Cat”
Sn Lem, Stanislaw “Uranium Earpieces” in Mortal Engines
P Levi, Primo The Monkey’s Wrench
Am McCaffrey, Anne Pern series
H Piper, H Beam Omnilingual
Kr Robinson, Kim Stanley Mars series
O Sachs, Oliver Uncle Tungsten
Dy Sayer, Dorothy The Documents in the Case
Sm Smith, Edward Elmer “Doc”  “Tedric,” “Lord Tedric" in The Best of E. E. “Doc” Smith
Ne Stephenson, Neal Anathem
Br Stoker, Bram Dracula
Fr Vance, Jack “Potters of Firsk”
K Vonnegut, Kurt Cat’s Cradle
V Vourvoulias, Sabrina INK
Hg Well, H.G. “The Diamond Maker” in The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents
C Willis, Connie The Sidon in the Mirror

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Grace in a rush

A mug taken on retreat. What do I need?
Almost thirty years ago I had a fire which destroyed most of the kitchen in the house I'd moved into two weeks before.  I did as I'd been taught in the lab safety class when I was a graduate student, using the fire extinguisher on the fire, as I backed out the door.  I banged on a neighbor's door, "Hi, I'm your new neighbor, can you call 911? My house is on fire."

Seven fire trucks came (this was overkill, but nonetheless appreciated), and when all was said and done, my kitchen was a sodden mass on the driveway. Dry wall, cabinets with the dishes in them pulled down and thrown onto the driveway, a sooty grey mass, not even the broken glass sparkling. All the walls in the house covered in smoke to within an foot of the floor.

After it was all said and done, I stood on the driveway and wept, not for the broken dishes, but for the upheaval of it all.  Where would I sleep?  Cook? There had been no time to grab anything, all my attention had been on the fire.

I thought about that afternoon tonight as I found myself with 10 minutes at the end of a busy day to grab what I might need to spend the night at the homeless shelter.  Sleeping bag.  Pillow.  Got it. Thermos?  Did I remember my reading glasses?  My book!

I relieved the sister on duty, and rolled my sleeping bag out on the air mattress by the front door and went to text Math Man.  Phone?  Where is my phone?  In the car, as it turned out, but there was that moment when I wondered how I would manage without the phone that is alarm and calculator and communicator all rolled into one.

This morning when I came home, I read of the evacuations in Fort McMurray.  No chance to go home, no idea when they can go home, if there is a home.

There are some lessons I need to keep learning.