Saturday, March 31, 2018

God breathing in God

"...simply God breathing unto God in one unbroken line of praise. Alleluia. He is risen. Alleluia. We are risen. Alleluia. You will rise again. Alleluia, alleluia, an infinity of alleluias." — From "Alleluia" in Not By Bread Alone, 2018, Liturgical Press.

Listen to Easter.  Breathe in Easter. Alleluia.

All creation holds its breath

“All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent. ”

Anita Barrows.
Rilke's Book of Hours. Book of a Monastic Life, I,17

Stay here

I stood on the altar, wrapped in a veil of incense,  facing God made flesh in a church grown dark.  Flames flickered and people slowly gathered from the corners of the church. A procession formed, as the choir sang Tantum Ergo.  As the last light vanished down the center aisle, I led the way off the altar.

The cloud of unknowing. The cloud moving at night through the desert.  The puffs of smoke floating up before me to briefly flare in the light pouring out from the vestibule, and part before me. The measured pace of the music and the presider behind me, Christ's body cradled in his hands, guarded by this incense which surrounds us.

We reach the altar, passing through the silent crowd.  The presider incenses the altar and the blessed Sacrament. He kneels, and without thinking, I fall to one knee.

The choir shifts to a Taize refrain, "Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray." I'm thinking of Tom, of staying with him through the early hours of a Holy Thursday; of those who stayed with me; of staying with my mother in her last moments.  I hear the call stay with each other, to remain present to the person we really don't want to listen to, to the person who talks over and over us, to the ones who make us uncomfortable, or frighten us.  Stay here, with me.  Remain here with me. The music ebbs and flows around us. The church itself seems to breathe. Stay. Here.

This is surely liturgy as summit, we have gathered and done what we were asked to do with serene grace, with incense and music, and beauty all around. But this is also liturgy as the font of holiness, as discipline, as training ground.  Kneel here, so that you might know how to kneel before Christ in less recognizable or acceptable guises. Let your feet be washed, that you might know how to accept help, not just give it.

Fr. John leans over and murmurs, "Can you get up?"  My kneeling had not been in the plan, as we weren't sure my ankle would let me get up again without help.  But prayer is sometimes entirely in the body, and in this case it surely was, all those years of praying on my knees in front of the tabernacle and my body decided before my conscious mind had time to weigh in.  "Yes," I assured him. And gratefully, I had no trouble getting up.

The church gradually emptied, I headed out to the parking lot to go home and change and re-splint my ankle before returning for Compline at 10:30.  I get outside to find cars jamming the parking lot, caught in a tangle with traffic from the grocery store across the street and couldn't help but hum...stay with me.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Note on the Explanation of the D-lines in the Spectrum of the Night Sky

This is a tale of astrophysics, quantum mechanics and the hunt on Twitter for the unremarked, but utterly remarkable women physicists and chemists who dug out the secrets of atoms and molecules.  A version of this post appeared on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.

The moon and stars are not the only lights in the night sky, the very envelope of air that surrounds us glows, day or night.  One of the sources of the earth’s airglow is a 3 mile deep layer of sodium atoms about 50 miles above the earth’s surface.

There are roughly 8000 sodium atoms in a milliliter of air up there. In fact, there’s not much air at all, the pressure is about a millionth of what it is as sea level.  Even so, only 4 in a billion of the atoms in that layer of the atmosphere are sodium.  When these sodium atoms get energetically excited, they can relax back to their original state by releasing some energy in the form of light.

Quantum mechanics predicts the light won’t be white light (that is light comprising many different colors or frequencies) but sharp lines, single frequencies.  The marked lines on the top in the photo are reference lines from a flame test of sodium (Na) and lithium (Li) solutions. (If you’ve ever splashed salty water onto a gas burner, you’ve seen these spectral lines for sodium, the bright orange-yellow flash.) The line at 5892 Angstroms is the yellow sodium D-line (actually two lines that are so close together they aren’t resolved in this photo), the green line at 5577 is from excited oxygen atoms.  Long before anyone reached these altitudes, these ghostly lines could tell us something of the elemental make up of the atmosphere.

Where did these traces of sodium come from? Before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you another one.

My interest in the sodium atoms can be traced back to a photo from a 1938 conference posted to Twitter last Christmas by @curiouswavefn, trying to identify the one woman attendee.  Just like the more recent story of @mycandacejean's search for the identity of an unknown woman in a conference photograph (see the New York Times) Twitter was able to identify the woman. She turned out to be (not Marie Curie or Mrs. Einstein as some tweeters suggested) but Dr. Carol Anger Rieke, a Harvard trained astrophysicist.

Not long after that photograph was taken, Rieke would move to the University of Chicago, where she would do foundational work in my field of computational chemistry (with Robert Mullikan, who would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1966). But while there she continued to contribute to the astrophysics literature with James Franck (another Nobelist, who had just moved to Chicago from Germany) with this short communication:  A Note on the Explanation of the D-lines in the Spectrum of the Night Sky.

Rieke and Franck write that the source of the sodium atoms in these recently (1929) identified lines was thought to be salt kicked up into the atmosphere by sea spray.  We now know that these high-altitude metals are have an extraterrertrial origin, deposited there when meteors ablate, burn off.  Small amounts of sodium are found in meteors called ordinary chondrites, less than one percent.  As metals go, sodium evaporates pretty easily, and so is released high in the atmosphere.

In tracking down the source of the atmospheric sodium, I ran across another paper, which uses methodology I developed as part of my doctoral work, that can be fundamentally traced back to Rieke’s work with Mulliken.  It felt a bit like coming full circle.

More about Rieke and two other remarkable women of the atomic era who were not Marie Curie — or either of the two Mrs. Einsteins — can be found in an essay I wrote, Atomic Women, which appeared this month in Nature Chemistry.

For more stories of exceptional women scientists, listen to the fabulous Prof. Raychelle Burks bring to life three accomplished women chemists: Mary Sherman Morgan (rocket fuel!), Alice Ball (effective treatment for leprosy) and Rachel Lloyd (first American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry.

Wait, there's more.  The Story Collider has a great piece by another woman chemist who once taught at a nearby college (Swarthmore), Prof. Alison Williams:  "They would talk about thermodynamics like it was poetry and quantum mechanics was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I actually still think that sometimes.  I love quantum." Me, too! 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Eat me!

The sign at the edge of the water at the Naples Botanical Gardens read, “CAUTION: Preserved wetland systems and stormwater management lakes provide habit suitable for alligators.  The feeding, harrassing or other disturbance of alligators is strictly forbidden.” 

As we wandered along the lakeside path from the Brazil gardens toward the Florida garden, Math Man wondered if the sign was really just to cover the gardens if some alligator managed to sneak in through a storm culvert.  There are no fences, it seems as if any alligator could just wander up and snack on the visitors.  So, really, alligators? Surely there'd be a fence if there really were alligators.

There is a terrace overlooking the lake, for bird watching. There is a large heron wading in the shallows on an islet across from us. It’s bucolic.  Suddenly there is a thrashing in the water, startling the heron, followed by what looks for all the world like a log gliding through the water. Except it has eyes. It sinks into the water until just the eyes are visible, gliding through the water. At last the alligator wallows onto the shore and….sits there.  The kids are agog.  So are we. 

Look carefully on the left hand side of the photo, that log on
the grass is not a log.  The heron doesn't seem bothered.

One bloodthirsty child wonders if the heron will get eaten.  Her mother murmurs under her breath, “Not quite what we came to the botanical gardens for…”  “The circle of life…” hums her father.

Two six- or seven-year old girls in flowered dresses with matching floral headgear, settle themselves on the steps, decorously tucking their dresses under their legs. They are riveted to the scene across the way.  “Eat it!” one of them eggs on the somnolent alligator.

To no avail. The alligator seemed content to nap in the sun.

Bonus:  Check out these man...or rather gnome... eating plants to crochet

Friday, March 09, 2018

Inked in

It's almost spring break and I went looking today for some recreational reading.  I love SF/fantasy, but after listening to a series of classic SF short stories by male authors in which women are generally portrayed as weights around the ankles of swashbuckling men (think Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll") or bundles of raw emotion ("Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey) I was looking for something a bit more....balanced.

I opened up Facebook to find Sabrina Vourvoulias posting this great list of SF/fantasy by women collected by UnboundWorlds (Sabrina's Ink, of which I was a beta reader, is on the list.) I've added several new books to my to-read list!

Other terrific women authors writing SF/fantasy that I've enjoyed lately include Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Vorkosigan Saga won a Hugo last year.  Like Miles, I'm not short, I'm concentrated, and the woman characters are strong and nuanced.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1: 1929-1964, edited by Robert Silverberg; only one of the 26 stories included is by a women "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Sex in the citadel of science

Happy Women's Day!  Celebrate by listening to the fabulous Dr. Raychelle Burks bring the stories of three women chemists you might never have heard of to life.  Mary Sherman Morgan — who absolutely was a rocket scientist. Alice Ball, who developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, ending the banishment of people with leprosy in Hawai'i to Molokai (and died tragically young) and Rachel Lloyd (first American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry).

They are all fascinating chemists, but I was intrigued by Lloyd, who earned her degree very close to Bryn Mawr College's founding.  Given that she was in Philadelphia, I wondered why she hadn't come here, but went instead to Zurich, where she earned her degree in 1887.  Turns out that she applied to the newly founded Bryn Mawr in 1884 to be a chemistry professor, but the college declined to hire her, at least in part because she didn't have a doctorate. She joined the faculty at University of Nebraska, Lincoln after getting her doctorate.  Bryn Mawr wouldn't hire a woman chemistry professor for almost another 100 years (Geri Richmond, now at University of Oregon, and this year's winner of the American Chemical Society's highest honor, the Priestley Medal). The second woman hired onto the tenure track in chemistry at Bryn Mawr - was me, in 1986.  The department is now the only PhD granting chemistry department in the country where more than 1/2 the tenured faculty are women.

I wrote a piece on women chemists who had their hands on the inner working of the atom for Nature Chemistry that will come out at the end of the month!  Arguing that perhaps it is not so much that women don't or didn't do science, it's that we just ignore their contributions: past and present, but hopefully not in the future.

And then there's this piece about how we literally build women out of science. Literally, I do mean literally. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Learning to recognize the unrecognizable

I recently finished Barking to the Choir, by Greg Boyle SJ. In it he tells a story of reading the paper on a Sunday when the doorbell begins to ring incessantly. At last, the other Jesuit he is with puts down the paper and answers the door.  When he returns, Boyle asks who it was. "Jesus, in his least recognizable form." responded his Jesuit colleague.

Last week, in the last stage of my journey back from Washington to Philadelphia, I was left in a wheelchair, parked just outside the door to 30th Street Station. I was shivering, not quite warmly enough dressed for the bitter wind blowing off the river, bedraggled from the travel, on top of several long work days, and not enough sleep.  My rolling luggage, a bulging tote bag and crutches leaned against the wheelchair. The sock on my left foot was filthy.

When I had arrived at the station on the weekend, this very spot was occupied by an older man in a wheelchair, begging.  People had given him a wide berth as they entered.  People were giving me a wide berth now, unwilling to meet my eyes. Some sidled away as they slipped through the door, others walked briskly past, and many simply chose another entrance.

When I realized what was happening, I wondered if I had put up my hands, or had a cup, would some soul have tried to give me money? I rather thought even more people would abruptly switch course to go in the other door.

I'd like to say that now I understand what it must be like to beg on the street for a meal, to huddle away from the wind, guarding your belongings.  To be ignored, or worse yet, seen but disregarded. But I don't. Ten minutes, or even ten days, are not enough to know.  Like all those sorts of experiences — elder for a day with vaseline smeared glasses and thick gloves, or the challenge to eat for a week on the $30 allotted by SNAP — the knowledge that this is not your permanent reality changes it.  I have a safety net. Victor will pull around the corner and pick me up, chauffeuring me home where I can put on a clean, dry sock and put my foot up on a pillow by a warm fire.

I wonder if this is what the entrance to heaven will look like. No St. Peter in a robe and halo lounging by a wrought iron gate, his keys jangling as he checks a list: Am I in or out? Perhaps the pearly gates are a way station, with many doors.  Which will I chose? The one next to a figure in a wheelchair or huddled on the ground? Will I pause before walking in? Sit down and talk, or will I walk briskly to another door?

Saturday, March 03, 2018

I went to Washington DC and all I got was...

...a sock.  Like Dobby, the house elf.  Well, and the crutches, too.

I tore the ligament in my ankle last Sunday. (Yes, this is my traditional DC injury - see "On reading Rahner in the emergency room").  It's....inconvenient.

In the spirit of Chesterton, who called an inconvenience an adventure wrongly considered, let me reframe.

I got a pair of sock slippers, great for travel! Also useful for freeing any house elves I might encounter.

The boot on my foot is warm and toast in the cold and damp weather with its fuzzy liner.

No matching of socks required in this week's laundry.

I'm convinced, I'm on an adventure.