Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Contemplating sliding scales

I have an essay out in this month's Nature Chemistry —"It figures" — about how the computational tools we use shape what we teach and not necessarily in good ways.  It's framed around slide rules, an obsolete analog computer that used to be as much a marker for nerd as a plastic pocket protector.  Science and engineering students wore them like light sabers on their belts.

They've faded from popular imagination, most of my students have never heard the term, or if they have, don't really know what they look like.  The last slide rule slid out the door of Keuffel & Esser in 1975 (they sent their engraving equipment to the Smithsonian).  A few years ago ThinkGeek sold replicas. You can still find the classics, used and even unopened packages ready to sell to engineers and scientists.  The Oughtred Society has a online museum, as well.

Writing this article reminded me of the aesthetic pleasures of non-electronic geeky things. Like my stereoviewer for looking at stereopics of molecules.  It's like the difference between chopping my onions with the deliciously sharp knife I brought back for The Egg from Japan and tossing them into the food processor.  Perhaps slide rules are like rosaries, a way to mindfulness and contemplation for scientists?

It reminds me a bit of this poem by the Muslim mystic Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī, though for her it was potatoes, not onions.

Don't know how to use a slide rule?  It's fun, it's geeky. No need to buy one to play, check out this simulator and these instructions (written to respond to Crash's questions) at Nature Chemistry!

You can read the article here:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Summer Schooling

I spent my elementary school years in rural Illinois, a few minutes' bike ride to dairy farms and gravel roads.  These 1960s summers were filled with new things to learn and explore.  How to ride a bike, how to sail a boat and paddle a canoe and how to bake a chocolate cake  - starting with Black Midnight Cake from the 1958 Betty Crocker Cookbook.  (I'm still wondering why the recipe called for adding the dry ingredients alternately with the water.)

I read books and books, science fiction, short stories, novels, Russian novels, classic literature.  Courtesy of the local parks and rec department and my mother's signature on innumerable blue mimeographed permission slips, I went to Cub's games, and waited in line to to see the moon rock at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.  Only to be too short to actually see it. (That experience led me to body check the guy who tried to push in front of the kids who had waited all day to see the Pope at Independence Hall.)

Summer wasn't for schooling, but regardless I learned a lot in those long, unstructured days.

What's up this summer?  Books on the current pile.

Keep the Damned Women Out (Nancy Malkiel's almost 700 page history of co-education in the Ivies)
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Mason Currey)
River Flow (David Whyte's poetry)
A Short History of Astronomy (from the ever-growing Oxford series)
A Sense of Direction (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, on walking the Camino and the 88 pilgrimage trail in Japan)
Bleaker House: Chasing my novel to the ends of the earth (Nell Stevens)
A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived (Adam Rutherford)
Room (Emma Donoghue - I finished this in one sitting yesterday)
The Wound of Knowledge (Rowan Williams, yes, that one)
The Gathering Edge (Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, another installment in the Liaden universe)
The Beginning of All Things (Hans Küng)
Two from the Mageworlds (James Macdonald and Debra Doyle)

Recipes to try?
These cakes!  I bought the book just to oogle them.
Colorful deviled eggs.
And a whole boatload of things I saved on the New York Times Cooking site.

Local walks.  Riding my bike.  Rome.  California to see a niece married.

It's been a long time since the 60s, but summer remains a time to explore many worlds, interior and exterior. Where are you traveling?  What are you reading?

And now I finally know why -- to reduce the formation of gluten in the cake, making for a lighter confection! Ah!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Veiled criticism: What does it mean to be Roman Catholic?

Holy Door open for Year of Mercy in St. Peter's in Rome.
Melania Trump is Roman Catholic. Or not?

I'll admit I was surprised to see the news flash by on Twitter today that Melania Trump is Roman Catholic, after her office confirmed that she identifies as Catholic, though a little digging shows that it was on her Wikipedia entry as early as February. I posted a link to the story on Facebook with a "What?!" which provoked a conversation about the rules for a valid Catholic marriage and what makes someone Catholic. Are you Catholic if you say so?

I'm going to start with Pope Francis' advice: Who am I to judge? Because when it comes to deciding who is Catholic, or a real Catholic, or a practicing Catholic, particularly when you are a public figure there's a lot of judging to go around.

There are three things required to be Catholic:  be baptized with a Trinitarian formula (though not necessarily baptized in a Catholic rite), believe what the Roman Catholic Church believes (minimally the Creed), and acknowledge that the Pope and his bishops are charged with keeping the faith, such that you owe them obedience in matters of faith and morals. Generally these last two are done formally, professing the Creed in public with the intention of being a visible member of the Roman Catholic Communion, but it is not clear that they must be (though I'm no canonist).  I'm thinking of the crypto-Catholics in Japan, were they not Catholic?

We Roman Catholics have a lot of rules about who can receive sacraments, or be godparents or lectors, or whose children may be baptized or receive first Eucharist, who can be married within our walls and not -- and how that all might happen. Some are well rooted in the theology of the Church and the sacraments and others not so much, some are just barriers, walls to keep out...who I am never really sure. Do we want to be keep out the child of the single mother who must work two jobs and therefore cannot attend the 30+ required Saturday catechetical classes so her child can receive First Eucharist? (Note these classes are for the parents, there is another set for the kids, and this isn't my parish!)  No exceptions.  No kidding.

We make up a lot of stories, too, about who is a good Catholic and who is not. Wearing a veil - when visiting the Pope or at Mass - doesn't make you more or less Catholic, or a better or worse one.  Nor does praying the rosary.  Go to Mass twice a year, or twice a week or twice a day. Receive the Eucharist, or not.  Is your marriage valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church or not?  It does not matter. There is no more or less when it comes to being a member of the Body of Christ.  There is only grace, and grace in abundance. Because we are all sinners, all undeserving of that grace.

"Who are you?" someone asked Pope Francis early in his pontificate. "I am a sinner," he replied.

Who I am to judge?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Kyrie eleison

Dawn from New Camaldoli in Big Sur. May 2012.
Oja Gjielo's Kyrie is running through my head - literally, my earbuds are in.  Earth is spinning by on the giant screen on the wall.  Without my glasses, I couldn't figure out what the brown blur was. The desert.  The desert is almost as enticing as outer space at the moment.

The last few weeks have had me contra dancing with words, passing down the line from one set to the next.  From book review to essay to opinion piece to my own book.  I send one spinning back to the editor or press, to be caught up into the dance on the next.  Yesterday I sent the last piece hurtling back across the ocean to my editor.

I think it's summer, a sort of desert time on some academic calendars. The regular rhythm of classes falls away, followed by what I always imagine is going to be a gentle transmutation into the summer's writing and deeper thinking. Days to spend contemplating long horizons and wide open landscapes. A brilliant sun illuminating my work, bringing what needs to be done into sharp focus.  Cool nights to refresh the soul.

I forget that that summer is always entered through a veil of fire, followed by a plague of gnats.  Grading and meetings, graduations and good-byes, and the occasional crisis.  This year has been no exception.  As I clear out the ashes of the year, filing papers, shelving books, writing reports, the gnats descend.  I bat at the cloud of emails, and they buzz all the more angrily.

Never mind hermitages and anchorholds. Today, I'm longing for a pillar in the wilderness (there are still modern stylites -- Maxime lives atop a 131 ft pillar in the mountains).  I managed a couple of hours atop my virtual pillar today - in the early stages of a new project.  The view was magnificent and enticing.  I could barely hear the gnats.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dot Magis: Sacred cacophony

St. Benedict Fra Angelico via Wikimedia Commons
“From holy Easter until Pentecost without interruption let ‘Alleluia’ be said both in the Psalms and in the responsories.” —from The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 15.

" breath caught in my mouth. Alleluia? I had barely thought the word in weeks, and now we were singing it in four parts, in Lent. St. Benedict’s Rule flashed through my mind. Wait, I wanted to say, until 'holy Easter'! 
Holy Easter duly arrived, and with it, a delightful explosion of Alleluias. But I still wondered at my discomfort with those out-of-season Alleluias. I was reminded of St. Ignatius’s caution to retreatants in the Spiritual Exercises (#127) to 'not read any mystery that is not to be used on that day or at that hour, lest the consideration of one mystery interfere with the contemplation of the other.' It can be hard to hear God’s voice in a cacophony, even a cacophony of sacred mysteries." — read the rest at DotMagis
I have a short piece up at DotMagis reflecting on how the out-of-season singing of alleluia made me more aware of the need to be present to each of the tasks and people that appear in my inbox and at my door even in this particularly chaotic time of year.  Just as with the sacred mysteries of the Exercises, I mused, take things one a a time.  What I hadn't quite realized when I wrote it is that these swirling demands are not like sacred mysteries, they are sacred mysteries.  Enveloped as they may be in difficult personalities, or troubles that I can't unravel in a few lines, even popping into my inbox, these are collisions with the sacred.  And surely a mystery.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Party lines

Writing for publication I sometimes feel as if I'm a character in an epistolary novel.  My manuscript goes out, crisp and clean on my screen, and returns speckled with conversational balloons.  "Is this what you meant?"  "Could you shorten/expand/clarify this?" "Rephrase, please." I respond, "No, no, not at all." "Yes." "Of course."  When we run out of conversation, it goes to print.

Crossing conversations are challenging. Facing the piece that came back in the fall with multiple editors in conversation with each other and with me in the margins was like doing battle with an octopus, it tentacles wrapped around my prose, prising one free only to find two more clinging to a paragraph.  This week the cross talk consisted of not one, not two, not three...ok, lots of...pieces that had been consigned to editorial hands returning.  Science. Not science. Short.  Long. And the book, the book came back, too.

It's a cocktail party in my computer.

Monday, May 01, 2017


It's the first day of final exams.  I always think it will be a quiet day, no classes, no grading yet.  But as always, it was a day packed with meetings: office hours, writing conferences with the research methodology students, award ceremony (two ! chemistry majors being honored), reception for a retiring colleague (with a surprise appearance from an alum, now herself a faculty member).  A steady stream of people through my office and in the hallways.

I came home and scrounged up a meal, savoring the silence along with the local bread and cheese. A neighbor was practicing the trumpet, beautiful jazz borne on the wind, dancing down the street and drifting in the window to languidly wrap itself around my ankles.  Now the wind is stirring the new leaves.  The insects are pinging against the screen door, and the neighbor's air conditioning whines like a giant gnat, which I only noticed when it ceases.

This silence sluices over me, cool and dark.