Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ever ancient, ever new

Door honoring Pope Benedict
in St. Thomas of Villanova church
in Castel Gandolfo.
I just sent off a draft of an essay about water, prompted by reading a paper about "primordial" water, water trapped in the rocks for 2 billion years or more.  Where does the water on earth come from?  For that matter, where does the water in the universe come from?  In one sense, it's incredibly old. The hydrogen atoms, the two H's in H2O, were made when the universe was 1 second old.  One second. My mind still can't quite take it in. It will take almost another half billion years for oxygen to make an appearance, three times that for water to begin to form.  The earth's water is almost as old as the solar system itself, 4.5 billion years old.

Detail.  Note equations! You can see the tail end of a
double helix at the upper left. 
But individual water molecules don't last long, the average lifetime is on the order of milliseconds. So no water molecule is old, those particular two hydrogens and that oxygen might stay together for a few milliseconds, then exchange a hydrogen with another water, an eternal dance, hand over hand.  The atoms are ancient, the molecules — brand new.

The famous line from Augustine's Confessions kept running through my head, "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!"  Water, ever ancient, ever new.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Transition states

In chemistry, transition states are high energy states, corresponding to the structure at the high point between reactants and products. These structures are stretched and bent beyond the normal bounds of molecular structures.

It's been a week of transitions here, and it's been high energy as a result.  As of Monday morning I took over being chair of the chemistry department.  (Think service — she who does the paperwork — not power here.) I'm already two meetings and three crises deep.

The Egg's show closed, sending him cartwheeling into a couple of weeks of summer vacation.  He started work less than 24 hours after he finished his European choir tour.

Crash graduated from Wonderful Jesuit University in May, a month so busy I didn't get a chance to write about it, or maybe I'm just in denial, as honestly it seemed as if we'd just dropped him off a month or two before.

Yesterday, he packed up the tiny red car, a task which required stretching normal space I suspect, and left for Kentucky with The Egg at the wheel.  (He has a nine month long (paid!!) stint with Actors Theatre of Louisville's professional training company.)  Six hundred some-odd miles and eleven hours later he arrived in Louisville.  He has rented an apartment, he starts work tomorrow.

When I asked him yesterday how he was doing, he commented that the transitions are always the hard part for him.  If molecules could talk, they'd say the same thing.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Guidelines, prayer and terrorism: For what else shall we pray?

  • Casualties figures in this list are the total casualties of the incident including immediate casualties and later casualties (such as people who succumbed to their wounds long after the attacks occurred).
  • Casualties listed are the victims. Perpetrator casualties are listed separately (e.g. x (+y) indicate that x victims and y perpetrators were killed/injured).
  • Casualty totals may be underestimated or unavailable due to a lack of information. A figure with a plus (+) sign indicates that at least that many people have died (e.g. 10+ indicates that at least 10 people have died) – the actual toll could be considerably higher. A figure with a plus (+) sign may also indicate that over that amount of people are victims.
  • If casualty figures are 20 or more, they will be shown in bold. In addition, figures for casualties more than 50 will also be underlined.
— from Wikipedia entry for monthly summary of the toll from terrorist attacks.

At morning prayer, after we pray for the Augustinians who have died, the presider will often say, "...and for what else shall we pray?"  It's the question that I face each Wednesday night.

I am part of the team that writes the universal prayers for  my parish's Sunday liturgy, usually writing a draft for us to work from every other week.  We cannot pray specifically for every thing, every week, yet we think it important to pray specifically for some things every time we gather for prayer, whether at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours.

But which specific things?  Which weeks?  Do we pray only for the things close at hand? How do we listen to the needs of the world outside our own orbits?  The attacks in Nice and Normandy were impossible to miss, but how many of us can recall the horrific bombing in early July in Baghdad in which more than 300 people died?

Last week I was looking for the details of an attack in Somalia, which I had heard about., but couldn't remember when it had occurred.  Should we pray?

Which is how I found that Wikipedia has tables of terrorist attacks, one for each month, including one for the not-yet-begun month of August. Sortable by date or by casualty count. Bold numbers if over 20 dead. Underline when there are more than 50.  There was something so disheartening about seeing a blank table for August, and something so appalling about the guidelines to decide which horror was horror enough.

So for what did we pray?  For those whose lives have been wracked by violence... in France, Germany, Japan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia...and in our own cities and neighborhoods…

Now the list for August has begun to grow.  For what shall we pray?  And why?

"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me."
— C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Column: Mary Magdalene and talking to the Pope

St. Mary Magdalene - scientist?
Domenico Fetti, Maddalena penitente
About that time I made Pope Francis laugh, and why the feast of Mary Magdalene is so important to me.

This column appeared at on 22 July 2016.

What would you say if you met the pope? I had a chance to think about that question last fall when I was asked to write an account of an imaginary conversation between myself and Pope Francis about science and faith. It was tough to write, not only because it was hard to imagine any circumstances where I would speak with the Holy Father, but because, well, what would you say?

Little did I know that less than a year later, I would be standing in a garden in Vatican City, waiting for an audience with Pope Francis, once again wondering what I would say if I had the extraordinary privilege of speaking with him.

How did I end up here? In March of this year, I was honored to be appointed an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory, to be in this way a part of the Church’s mission to seek God in the created universe, and to be witness to the ways in which science and faith can work together to help us grapple with the ultimate mysteries of creation.

Fast forward to June, when the students and faculty of who were attending Vatican Observatory’s biannual summer school and those members of the Observatory staff who could, had a private audience with Pope Francis.

So what did I say to Pope Francis? “¡Gracias!” Thank you for elevating St. Mary Magdalene’s day to be a feast. He looked puzzled for a moment, in part because I had so badly mangled the Spanish for Magdalene, and just perhaps because this wasn’t quite what he was expecting someone from the Observatory to say after his remarks to us about science. Then he laughed aloud, grasped my hands and said, “Bueno.” It is a good thing.

Why was I so grateful for this change to the Church’s liturgical calendar that that’s the one thing I would choose to say to the pope? Timing, they say, is everything, and the official announcement of the elevation of Mary Magdalene’s feast to be of the same import as the 12 apostles she had been sent to, had been made the day before.

But in truth it was because this feast is to me a potent reminder that nature is a place to encounter God, not only as the creator, but as the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene met Jesus after the resurrection in the garden, a space hollowed out within a city to let people come closer to nature.

I can meet God, and indeed Christ, in my scientific research, in the depths of the atoms as well as in the breadth of the stars. Science, too, is sacred ground, a meeting place for the everyday and the extraordinary.

Christ sent Mary Magdalene as the first witness to his resurrection, a reminder that anyone and everyone is called to announce the Gospel’s good news. The new preface written for Mary Magdalene’s feast reminds us it is our duty “to preach the Gospel to everyone.” It nudges me, too, to remember to listen for Christ in the unexpected corners, in the ordinary people I meet as well as in the extraordinary. It’s a good thing.