Sunday, April 22, 2018

Wild Light: A Eulogy for a Photochemist

My most senior colleague, Frank Mallory, died last fall, and yesterday we gathered at the college's Great Hall to remember his life with music and laughter.  Family, friends, collaborators, fellow musicians met to make music and exchange memories.  He had been at Bryn Mawr for 60 years, 54 of them teaching undergraduates and graduates.  This is what I had to say.

“Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light.”  — From John O’Donohue’s poem Matins

Light. As a quantum chemist, that is one way I imagine the universe. As primordial darkness gone wild with light, as an infinitely, and infintely varied assembly of Schroedinger’s wave functions. Complex forms which extend out from their centers to infinity.  Molecules. Atoms. Electrons. Nuclei.  In this sense, we are all light.

Perhaps in the same way we can say we are light from light. That light is where we begin, atoms built into molecules into cells into our bodies, and it is our destiny, what we surrender with every breath. It is what we live and move and have our being within.

As a photochemist and an NMR spectroscopist Frank worked in light of all sorts. It was his tool to alter the fabric of the universe, the ultraviolet light that drove the Mallory reaction to so neatly warp one molecule into another.  Radiofrequencies were a tool for exploring the universe, for interrogating atoms, asking who was talking to who, and why.  And ultimately it was  the medium in which he worked.  In the hunt for routes to ever longer ribbons of carbons, Frank gathered atomic wavefunctions into new forms.  Light again from light.

But I don’t want to forget that Frank was light.  Light to a legion of chemistry students — though not literally a legion.  As I write this, I realize that Frank would be tapping at my door to tell me that a Roman legion was 5000 men, and then to tell me how many students — to the student — he had taught. Light brings clarity and Frank brought a precise and clear light to science and to language.

Frank was light to colleagues and friends.  When my husband died, Frank and Sally came to stay with me at the hospital, all through a dark night. They took me home.  Frank was a steady light.

Frank held up a light into the past, he was a bard — a consumate story-teller and a deep repository of lived history of both the college and the field of chemistry.  Thanks to Frank, every time I mention the word “electronegativity” or “Pauling” in Park 180,  I see Linus Pauling stretched out in the front row, drawling, “Mr. Mallory….”

Frank was wild light.  Ask those of us who have been greeted by singing gorillas, or laughed so hard at word games around a dinner table we could hardly breathe, or who kept track of the Flyers by the orientation of the tickets on Frank’s door.

Frank was light. We are light. As light from light, we all bear some of Frank’s light to hand on: students, friends, colleagues and family.

“Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light.”

I  can think of no better way to wish my friend and photochemist colleague on his way, except to say “May perpetual light shine upon you, Frank.”  May you continue to be wild light.

A real presence

Loaf of Hackney Wild, ready to be slashed and put in the oven
Crash is home for a couple of weeks, between a spring  and the start of the summer Shakespeare season.  He brings with him new break baking skills — honed in a London bakery.  I've been enviously admiring his photos of crispy sourdough loaves from afar, and dutifully keeping his Atlantic crossing starter alive, so was excited to get to give it a fly this weekend.

This is not a recipe for quick bread, you start three or four days ahead of time.  A leaven is made from the mother starter.  And fed up for a few days. Finally, in goes the flour and water. The dough is stretched and turned, again and again over 5 hours.  Then into a basket it goes overnight, to be baked after Mass this morning, where the gospel took up the story of the disciples who had walked to Emmaus, and who had recognized Christ in the breaking of the bread. And where three young members of the parish received the Eucharist for the first time.

It was hard to wait to bake this bread, harder still to wait for it to cool once it came out of the oven.  When I had asked one of the young First Communicants if she had been excited, she told that she could not wait, and told her siblings (and parents!) that they had to be out the door early. "I was afraid I wouldn't get there in time, that I would miss communion." She had, I thought, a well developed practical theology of the Real Presence going, she knew what she desired and it wasn't the dress or the party or the relatives. It was God incarnate.

The week before I'd been sitting in the pews before the vigil Mass began, taking a short walk to Emmaus myself, when the unmistakable smell of fresh bread insinuated itself into my meditations.  I looked up to find a young man in suit, with what I suspect was a still warm loaf of bread wrapped in foil, in search of someone in the congregation to give it to.

There is bread here, and a God we come to know in the breaking of bread with each other.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Coffee or when in Rome

This isn't coffee either, hot chocolate at the local coffee house.
When in Rome...I drink coffee.  Nowhere else. Everywhere else in the world,  I drink tea.  So it's perhaps more than a little ironic that I'm quoted in a recent Washington Post article about the brewing controversy in California requiring the labeling of coffee as a carcinogen.

But coffee is iconic.  I say, "let's get coffee" to mean, let's find a time to talk that's not over a meal and not in someone's office but at a place where hot beverages are sold and consumed.  But where there will never, ever be a good cup of tea to be had.1 So I talk about coffee.

When I talk about the molecules we eat and drink, I also talk about coffee, a complex brew of a thousand or more different molecules, that most people have some experience with. It is my push back point for molecular madness of all sorts.

Yes, some of the names for chemicals are harsh and discomfiting. What is acrylamide anyway, I imagine acrylic nails or crunkled tubes of paint in high school art class. It certainly doesn't sound like anything I want in my morning pick-me up.  Nor does oxidane, an industrial solvent used extensively in the preparation of coffee. But that last is just water, while the former is perhaps a carcinogen.  The names aren't important in assessing the risk a molecule poses.  Molecular structure and the resultant reactivity are.

Nor does source matter, natural or not. In this case acrylamide is an all natural carcinogen.  Acrylamide is found at much higher concentrations in other foods (see this list at the FDA).  It doesn't matter if it is "clean," organic or non-GMO. If it has sugars (this means fruit) or starches(vegetables) in it and you cook it at high temperatures, it has acrylamide in it, and often far more than coffee. Tobacco smoke has acrylamide in it — if you need another reason not to smoke.

This rush to judgement on coffee makes me wonder about a strain of chemophobia that I see circulating from time to time, one with an extra dash of Puritanism.  Pleasures are bad for the soul, and so by extension must be for the body.  I wonder if coffee and sweets and even artificial sweeteners come in for more than their share of judgement for this reason. 

I'll still drink coffee in Rome, though not in California. 

1.  This is true in the US, and in Italy.  But in Ireland I can get better cup of tea at a gas station convenience store than I can at very good restaurants in the US.

Monday, April 02, 2018

ISO Patron saint of mansplaining

Catherine of Siena/Franceschini via Wikimedia
I'm well into the second week of a run of mansplaining.  I've had quantum mechanics explained to me — twice.  I've had the liturgical rubrics for the Easter Vigil explained to me.  I've had the context of the photo that illustrates my recent essay in Nature Chemistry explained to me.  I've had the lectionary (incorrectly) explained to me.  I've had Marie Curie explained to me. She's fragile (probably as a result of her zombie status), and I must be careful not to suggest that men dominate science, because Marie might be diminished.  I've had chemistry explained to me, repeatedly.  Many men have explained things to me.

Enough. I need a saint to light a candle to that I might have patience.  A patroness for the patronized.  Some ideas!  Others?

  • Mary Magdalene
  • Catherine of Siena
  • Hildegarde of Bingen
  • Marie Curie (how not?)