Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dispatches from Rome: Judging gelato

A corner in Tivoli.
It was hot and there were still about 2 hours to go before the bus returns to collect the astronomers and astronomically associated from Tivoli, where we'd gone to see the Villa d'Este, a mid-16th century garden of watery delights and a villa designed by a cardinal hoping to be Pope (his hopes would be crushed).

More than a thousand water features spread out over an enormous formal garden, even the bannisters on the grand staircases had water flowing down them.  And the whole thing is gravity fed, not a pump to be found.  It was certainly an apt place for the Vatican Observatory Summer School to go this year, given that the theme was water in the universe.

(And despite all the water we saw, and the oceans on our little blue ball floating in space, water on Earth is not particularly abundant by comparison with other places in the solar system.)

But after touring the grounds and walking the medieval city in the midday heat, it was flavored water we were in search of: gelato.  And not just gelato, but really good gelato.  In the end, it was five of us following the director of the observatory through the streets, peering into gelato shops, where he would make a quick visual assessment and say, "Nope, not this one.'  We wound our way up the street until we found a spot that passed muster, where indeed the gelato was "molto bene!"

"Just how can you spot the good gelato with just a glance?" we wondered.  The bearded Jesuit revealed the secret.  Since this is not a Dan Brown novel, there are no codes in the names of the stores to break, the basic premise is to reject places where the gelato is piled up into huge mounds, since that requires the addition of stabilizers.  The other 5 criteria are laid out in this article:  how to spot good gelato from 15 feet away.

The author notes that there is no such thing as a bad gelato, so if you can't find a place that passes the test, buy and enjoy nonetheless.

A 3 minute drone tour of Villa d'Este:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fictional chemistries

That Mars habitat?
A version of this post appeared at Culture of Chemistry

"The basement corridor is dim, I can hear pumps chugging, hoods noisily venting, and the solid-state physicist down the hall swearing. 'Welcome to Mars!' says the cheery sign outside my colleague’s door. Perhaps it is the pile of grading on my desk or the endless round of meetings on my calendar that is fuelling my escapist fantasy, but every time I pass Selby’s office, I imagine the door is a portal and if I were to walk through, I’d  find myself in a habitat on Mars, its pumps working hard to compress the thin atmosphere." — from "Strangers to Fiction" in Nature Chemistry8, 636-637 (2016).

I've been a sci-fi fan for going on five decades, devouring Heinlein (while spitting out the sexism like watermelon seeds), laughing my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, imagining myself in labs on Mars, mining comets, and exploring strange new worlds.  There are moments when I wish I could write good fiction, but it's not my genre.

The onset of summer, and memories of biking to the tiny library when I was in elementary school, along with making a list of chemistry related fiction for the Nature Chemistry piece, prompted me to think about what the most memorable SF stories I've read were.

Perhaps topping the list is The Cold Equations (Tom Godwin) about a young woman who stows away on a space shuttle and in the end must die.  It gets me thinking about unrecognized consequences, and while I read myself into the story the first time I encountered it, now I see students and sons in the doomed stowaway.  (And I agree with Cory Doctorow, the writer forces this solution, I keep thinking of alternate solutions.)

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall is another one that I can remember the details of long after I read it.  My puzzle solving self enjoys the way the scientists and historians put the pieces together to figure out what is to come.  I thought of this story, too, when I visited James Turrell's Backside of the Moon on Naoshima in Japan.

Flower's for Algernon (Daniel Keys) left a deep impression. What does it mean to be human?  How do we treat those we encounter?

The Worlds series by Joe Haldeman.  Perhaps because this one has a female protagonist?  Maybe because it is both dark and hopeful?  I can almost hear Marianne O'Hara of New New York play her saxophone.

You can read the Nature Chemistry essay here.  My list of fictional chemistry is here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A litany for a pastor

The pastor of my parish, an Augustinian friar, died yesterday.  He was young, or least my age, which feels to me young. There will be a mass on Thursday at the parish, another on Friday at the Augustinian church on Villanova's campus.  I wrote the intercessions for Thursday's liturgy, reaching for the form of a litany, thinking, too, of a long ago theology grad school classmate and Dominican sister who would remind us that we should always be blessing.  May he be blessed, may we all be so blessed.

In baptism
John was marked with the cross, clothed in Christ,
and entrusted with the eternal light, undimmed in sharing.

        May that Light guide his way home.

In the Eucharist,
John was nourished by the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

        May he be welcomed to the eternal feast in the halls of heaven.

In Holy Orders
John was anointed to sanctify God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people, a priest forever.

        May he now joyfully celebrate at the heavenly altar.

John tended the earthly gardens God entrusted to him with joy, tenderness, mercy and compassion.

        May the communities at Monsignor Bonner, Villanova, Maggie Valley and Our Mother of Good Counsel continue to grow in love and mercy.

        May the gardens he planted flourish for years to come.

For all who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith,
who await us in the heavenly kingdom.

        We pray.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Column: The madness of wearing ladies' straw hats to church

Dome of St. Thomas of Villanova in center, telescope dome to the right.
This column appeared at on 10 June 2016.

The Church of St. Thomas of Villanova is set into the rim of a volcanic crater, high above Lake Albano and across the piazza from the Apostolic Palace outside of Rome, where popes have come to spend the summer off and on for 450 years. It’s also a hundred feet from where I am staying this month while visiting the Vatican Observatory, so this Sunday I walked out my front door and down the street for Mass.

Daily Mass at the Observatory is sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and after two weeks and with the help of a missal, I can muddle my way through the responses in the latter reasonably well. I left my Italian missal in my apartment, so was delighted when the ushers handed out hymnals with the Order of Mass in the front.

Or at least I was delighted until 10 seconds before Mass began, and a sister slipped into the pew next to me, reached over and took the hymnal from in front of me and slid it neatly onto the shelf in front of her.

No, no, I thought. I need that. And there was no getting it back. Without the missal, the limits of my Italian were “Amen” and “E con il tuo spirito” (And with your spirit). The Confiteor was utterly beyond me. I was, I fully admit, more than a bit disgruntled. I wanted to participate, but was stripped of the language to do it.

I started to come around by the Gloria. I realized that if I stopped lamenting, stopped trying to figure out what I was supposed to say, and instead listened closely, I could understand the words. I could let the people around me give voice to what my heart desired to pray.

It reminded me that when I know the responses by heart, they can become too automatic. I can forget to listen to the voices around me, the People of God come together to celebrate. I can forget the power these words have to reconcile, to praise. I forget that the words, no matter how easily they come to my lips, merely scratch the surface of the mysteries on the altar.

Writer Annie Dillard wonders in her essay “An Expedition to the Poles” how we can face these mysteries. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”

For a fleeting moment last Sunday morning, I had a deeper sense of what lay underneath the words I say each time I go to Mass, and wondered if instead of hymnals, the ushers should be handing out crash helmets.

By the sign of peace, I could say firmly to the sister next to me, “Pace.” Peace. And Grazie mille. A thousand thanks for the lesson in listening.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

My bones are shuddering

I am sitting in a small courtyard of the Holy See, outside the Vatican Observatory, writing.  The sun is warm, the fountain burbles, the birds chirp and the silence punctuated by the occasional church bell.  Pace. Peace.

I pulled up Facebook to wish my niece a happy birthday, and instead see a friend's posting about another mass shooting:  "We have blistered into callouses where our hearts and compassion used to be."

I opened a link to the New York Times and my stomach turned over.  I wept.

Have pity on me, LORD, for I am weak;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are shuddering.
My soul too is shuddering greatly—
and you, LORD, how long?
Turn back, LORD, rescue my soul;
save me because of your mercy.  — Psalm 6:3-5

My soul shudders, and I wonder how long we can continue to close our hearts to such violence?  How long before we allow ourselves to be rescued?  Before we can admit that we can never assure our own safety?

Friday, June 10, 2016

Erdos numbers, itinerant scholars and pilgrims

Students and faculty of the Vatican Observatory Summer 
School, with various members of the Observatory staff on an
outing to Villa d'Este in Tivoli.  
Paul Erdős was an extraordinarily prolific Hungarian mathematician. He wrote over 1400 papers, with more than 500 co-authors; to put that in context, the median publishing mathematician has 2 papers in (all likelihood) his lifetime, with a handful of collaborators, perhaps 5 at most. Erdős was an intinerant scholar, who moved from conference to campus, showing up at a mathematician's door and announcing, "my brain is open." He owned what he could carry.

For most of my visit, I've been packing my backpack for the day and trooping from Castel Gandolfo to Albano, setting up shop on a table in the library, working on my small laptop screen.  I can carry everything I need, including an umbrella in case of sprinkles (or deluge).

As my time at the Observatory this summer comes to an end, I'm thinking about Erdős line, "my brain is open."  This moving to another spot, with different people to talk to, different spaces to work, opens my brain.  "Have you read John M. Staudenmaier, SJ's essay To Fall in Love with the World? Perhaps the introduction would be helpful."  I have now, and it absolutely was helpful.  The lack of screen space, which I thought I might find annoying, has been a gentle nudge to not try to do so much at once.  To leave some room for serendipity.

There is something to walking, to moving, that shakes us up, unsettles us:  am I lost? will I make it to my destination before it gets dark?  before it rains?  before the cafe closes?  To be a pilgrim is to remember that we live in uncertainty.

To be an itinerant scholar is a bit like being a pilgrim in that it's unsettled, but also not quite the same.  It's about figuring out how to enter into community, about finding stability.  With the young astronomers who are here, with the woman at the Pasticceria Al Duomo who recognizes me and knows my favorite sweet roll and who helps my Italian along by making me list my order before I pay for it.  With the group that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist together as we figure when to kneel and when to stand.

My brain is open. Time to go home.

An Erdős number is the number of edges you have to traverse in a graph of collaborations (where each edge represents a co-authored paper).  Erdős has an Erdős number of 0.  If you were one of the 500 some-odd who co-authored a paper with Erdős, your Erdős number was 1, and so on.  Math Man has an Erdős number of 4, a distinction he shares with about 83,000 other people.  Need to know your Erdős number?  Try this collaboration distance calculator at the American Mathematical Society's MathSciNet, use the button on the right for Erdős.  You can read more about collaboration distance here.

And if Ignatian spirituality is of interest, I highly recommend John M. Staudenmaier, SJ's essay To Fall in Love with the World.  Written for Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits more than 20 years ago, it remains on point, treating of the American notions of individualism.  Read the preface!

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Ecclesia supplet

I have been staying in Castel Gandolfo, which is at one end of the Pontifical gardens (Villa Barberini) since I arrived, but today needed to move to Albano (at the other end of those gardens, about 2 miles away where the Observatory is located).

There's a great walking path, and it's downhill, so I thought I'd just put my bags on the trolley and let gravity do the work.  Rain?  It sprinkled a bit, but it didn't look particularly threatening.

As I head out down the street, I run into the rector of the Jesuit community at the Observatory walking up the hill, who offers me a ride back, if I'm willing to wait a bit while he has a short meeting.

It still doesn't look very threatening, but I said, "Yes, thank you!"  My bags and I hung out at the Bar Carosi on the square, while I enjoyed a sweet roll and some reading for the essay I'm working on.  All very pleasant. Then I look up to see the clouds roiling over head. They are low, dark and threatening.  The rain starts. Then it really starts. Then the thunder rolls.

When my ride returns, he notes wryly, "You have chosen wisely."

So I got a ride back with a member of the Roman Curia.  Ecclesia supplet.


Ecclesia supplet means "the Church supplies" and is a technical term having to do with the validity of a sacrament or appointment when an error has been made, and doesn't really apply to this situation at all, as much a blessing as the ride turned out to be.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Column: Through the Holy Door

Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
This column appeared at on 6 June 2016.

I am sunburnt. My feet hurt. The last 900 meters of this two days of pilgrimage is straight up the side of a volcanic crater. One step at a time, I remind myself. Which is, of course, how all pilgrimages begin and end. With one step.

I am in Rome, where pilgrims have come for centuries, and with the Jubilee of Mercy, I am one of many pilgrims making their way to the city today. Wherever I was, signs pointed the way to the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, and groups of pilgrims swept past.

My pilgrimage began yesterday, with a visit to the church of St. Augustine, where I lit candles in front of the tomb of Augustine’s mother St. Monica and prayed for my parish, long staffed by the Augustinian order. Today I made my way to St. Peter’s to visit the tomb of St. Peter and to walk through the Holy Door — and, I confess, to hear my youngest son’s choir sing at the Mass for the Vigil of Corpus Christi being offered at the main altar in the basilica.

The line to get into St. Peter’s was long, the temperature approaching 90, and there was not a dot of shade to be had, but no one was complaining. When a stray cool breeze would waft past, people would sigh in relief. There was much gratitude for small mercies, long before we walked through the door.

I walked with a long stream of faithful through the door on the far right of the great basilica’s steps, our hands reaching out to brush the images inscribed on it. After walking almost 20 miles over two days, it was a joy to walk through the Holy Door into the vast cool of St. Peter’s, the joyful gentle hum of pilgrim’s voices speeding their steps up the ramp and through.

Afterwards, I stood on the top of the basilica steps and watched the groups of pilgrims come through the square, many of them carrying crosses in procession, stopping to pray three times as they approached the Holy Door.

In announcing this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis encouraged us to “constantly contemplate the mystery of mercy.” As one way of doing this, we are encouraged to make brief pilgrimages to walk through the Holy Doors that are open in cathedrals and shrines throughout the world. As I made my way through Rome, I was reminded at every turn of the ways in which mercy always surrounds us. The cool water pouring forth from street corner fountains, the gift of a good map. People willing to point out the way.

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” opens the papal declaration of the Year of Mercy, so it seems apt for me to make this walk on the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi. As the choir sang the communion hymn, “Ave verum corpus,” I looked up at the face of Christ. “Miserere mei,” have mercy on me, came the music billowing out of the choir box, layer upon layer, echoing the depth and richness of God’s mercy.

Mercy swirls around us always, on pilgrimage or not, in ordinary years as well as extraordinary ones. It is held up before us on the altar, received into our hands and hearts, and made present in the People of God, who, too, are the very Body of Christ. I look now into the faces of those around me, and see Christ, the face of God’s mercy.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Lord of the Rings

Fr. David Brown, SJ adjusting the telescope to
observe Jupiter.
Deum creatorem Venite adoremus  — Come adore God the Creator — is the Vatican Observatory's motto, inscribed on the wall of the dome of one of the two telescopes on top of the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo.

Last night a group of eight students and faculty from the Vatican Observatory Summer School went observing with Fr. David Brown, SJ (a specialist in stellar evolution and the caretaker of the telescopes here).

We went through the big wooden doors that open from the piazza into the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, packed into the miniature elevator and rode up to the roof. The view at sunset was astounding, the crater splayed out before us on one side, Rome and the far distant Mediterranean on the other.  That view is a gift.

Students at the VOSS observing Mars.
David had opened the dome as we were taking in the view, and we climbed the steps up and in.  First target Jupiter. Three at a time, we rode the platform, which groaned and creaked and shook its way high enough up for us to reach the eyepiece.  My turn came and I put my eye to the lens and there it was, a soft blue-green orb, striped (no red dot) and four moons in a tidy row. Whoa.  The Galilean moons.

Mars was lower in the sky, which meant the platform needed to get higher, and higher still to see Saturn.  I rode the platform up and up, and when I looked through the lens, the first words out of my mouth were, "Oh, my God!"  followed by "I mean that in the very best way. " Floating in front of my eyes was Saturn, its rings clearly visible, the Cassini division a dark stripe running down the middle. And two jewel like moons.

I loved the slice of sky you could see through the dome, and the view from the windows.  And the way the dome closed, by pulling on a rope.

It was not the same as seeing the pictures.  Not at all.

Oh, my God, indeed.

You can read about the Zeiss telescope here.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Full, conscious, and active participation

Dome of St. Thomas of Villanova in Castel
Gandolfo.  Designed by Bernini in 1658.
I went to the 8:30 am Sunday Mass at the church a 100 feet from my front door.  The Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova is like a jewel set in the crown of the crater, you can spot the dome from just about anywhere (useful when navigating home!).  The church was designed by Gian Bernini, who also designed the altar of the cathedra in St. Peter's Basilica, at the request of Pope Alexander VII in 1658.  It's small — there were perhaps 80 people at Mass today and every pew was full — but airy and full of light with its high dome and clerestory windows which at this time of year, at least, perfectly catch the morning sun.

I've been managing Mass in Italian reasonably well, thanks to my Order of Mass in Nine Languages (shout out to Liturgical Press for this resource).  I had left this helpful book behind in my apartment this morning, but figured (correctly) there would be a hymnal with the Order of Mass in it.

One of the lectors went around before Mass began and handed out hymnals with the Order right up front to each of us.  Hurrah.  Ten seconds before Mass began (literally), a sister slipped into the pew next to me, reached over and took my hymnal.  From right in front of me.  She then stashed it on the shelf in front of her. Noooooo.  I need that.  I turn around to check the back table.  Nope, no helpful stack for latecomers.  No easy way to let sister know that I don't know the responses well enough to make them in Italian without that book she is not using.  Short of reaching over and grabbing it back. Which I just can't bring myself to do.

So much for full, conscious and active participation, I thought. Thankfully the Kyrie comes early in the process and (mostly) put an end to my petulance.

The homily was wonderful.  I'm certain of this because the presider was one of the Jesuit astronomers and I have heard him preach at daily Mass at the Specola (in English); he breaks open the Word with evident joy and a delightful thoughtfulness.  That and I managed to catch about 1 sentence in three.

It left me thinking, though, about how we experience liturgy.  Are we aware of how little we grasp, even when we know the responses, where the language is familiar?  Annie Dillard's riff on this in her essay An Expedition to the Poles came floating back:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Friday, June 03, 2016

One, holy, catholic and apostolic

Summi pontifices in hac basilica sepulti.
"All of the Popes buried in this basilica."
From  Peter to John Paul II.
It's hard not to feel immersed in the Roman Catholic tradition where I am.  The Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo is at the end of the street, papal coat of arms front and center.  The gorgeous 17th century Bernini church of St. Thomas of Villanova is also in the square.  And then there was St. Peter's in Vatican City.

The list of the popes buried under St. Peter's Basilica felt daunting, particularly Peter's name at the very top.  These names chiseled into the wall instantly called to mind the line in the Nicene creed, "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."

But truth be told, it was not St. Peter's where I felt these four marks of the church most strongly, but in the tiny Jesuit chapel tucked into the Vatican Observatory where I've been going to daily Mass. At most a dozen of us, speaking a half-dozen different languages, gathered around the altar.  We represent the church universal, the catholicity of the faithful, coming from five different continents (and at least one in the crowd has been to all seven continents.)  A member of the Roman Curia, or perhaps, two.  Young astronomers.  We share the one table, the one cup, the one bread.

One.  Holy.  Catholic.  Apostolic.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Jesuit Thermometer

Diagram of a thermometer similar to
the one describe by Leurechon, c. 1638.
Note that  hotter temperatures have 
smaller magnitudes degrees associated with 
them. Image from Wellcome collection, 
used under CC license.
This is a version of a post from my Culture of Chemistry blog.

This post is in part inspired by my current location (the Vatican Observatory outside Rome, staffed by Jesuit scientists) and in part by a piece I wrote earlier this year for Nature Chemistry (Changing chemistry by degrees).

The word thermometer was first coined (in French) in a book of mathematical recreations written in 1626 by Hendrik van Etten, the pen name of Jesuit Jean Leurechon.  It's also an early example of adding a scale to a thermometer, though there's a long way to go before anyone will have a reproducible scale such as those we take for granted today.
Such thermometers, he (correctly) predicts will be practical instruments, as they might be used to monitor the temperature of a room or a furnace, to record the weather and to measure fevers in the ill.

One oddity about the thermometer described is that a reading of 9 degrees was colder than that of 2 degrees, the liquid dropped in the tube as things warmed up.

A century later, Anders Celsius constructed a temperature scale based on water's phase changes which ran in the same direction.  Water on Celsius' scale boiled at 0 degrees and froze at 100 degrees. This reverse run didn't last long, two years later Carl Linnaeus (of taxonomic fame) used the scale to describe conditions in a greenhouse, but flipped it to the form in which we know it today, where 100 is the boiling point of water.

It is tempting to think that Celsius' scale ran in the direction it did because it mimicked the scale used by Father Leurechon. But Fahrenheit's scale, which preceded Celsius' by two decades, runs in the modern direction, higher temperatures are hotter.

This also parallels the classic notions of degrees of heat in play during the medieval period. There were four (or eight or six, depending on the source) degrees of heat, the first being more or less physiological temperature, the fourth being a blazing hot furnace.

Read the version for science-sorts at Culture of Chemistry.