Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Take One Tunic

My second tunic/sweatshirt and lots more stuff.
I'm off to Rome, or more precisely, Albano Laziale, the small town just outside of Rome where the Vatican Observatory is situated, just behind the gates to the papal gardens.  As I packed, my mind kept drifting back to the Gospel from two Sundays back
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick—
no food, no sack, no money in their belts.
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic.  (Mark 6:8-9)
Yes.  Well.  I have packed a snack, have a checked bag and a carry on, stashed my miscellaneous euros in my wallet.  I definitely packed a second tunic (and a third and a fourth...).  I'm not wearing sandals, though I did pack a pair.  It sounds like an all around fail, new evangelization or old, even before you consider my electronics.

It got me thinking about what the modern version of sandals and a walking stick might be?  Or that second tunic that Matthew suggests might be allowed.  Walking shoes?  A phone? What reminds me of my origin and my destination, of the source of what I have?

If I could take just one thing, and trust that the rest would be provided, what would it be?  My laptop. A virtual tunnel to almost anywhere, to information, to communications, to clothes and food. A battery for electronics.  Though  the more I think about it,  perhaps my laptop is not a sign of radical dependence, but of stubborn independence.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A wisdom of wombats

A wise wombat, perhaps, but not a wisdom of wombats.
One of my editors wondered in a blog post about submitting a research paper to a journal just what collective noun might best fit a group of reviewers.  @pkennepoh suggested in a tweeted reply  a "murder" of reviewers.

Researchers who publish papers in academic journals have a fraught relationship with reviewers, in large part because we have seen the enemy and he is us. We are both the reviewed and the reviewers in turn.

Peer review is one way academic journals, particularly academic science journals, assess work submitted for publication. The reviewers, two or three, are chosen by the editor for their familiarity with the area of research, closely (you hope) read the work and offer their thoughts to the editor about the value of the work to the field, often its novelty. They are weighing the evidence presented to be sure it is sound. As a general rule, they aren't repeating the experiments. It mostly works.

Great peer reviewers push you to plug holes and sharpen the presentation of your arguments. Awful reviewers can be pedantic and ridiculous. You wonder if they read more than the title of the paper and your name.  Reviewer #2 is often caricatured as the reviewer asking that you cite their work (not so inadvertently revealing their identity) or demanding extra experiments or one more spectrum or climbing on their particular hobby horse regardless of its relationship to your work.

I've had fabulous reviewers, and one reviewer who simply stated that any computational work was nonsense (and in those days of pink carbon copy reviews, signed all the copies, then whited out his name.)  His, you say? His. I held it up to the window to find out who should never review my papers again.  And I had two papers which came back with "Accept without change." from all parties.

So what collective noun might I suggest for these anonymous clusters of colleagues - besides a murder of them? There are a boatload of "terms of venery" (collective nouns for groups of critters) to inspire. My favorites for reviewers:

a shrewdness (apes)
a bellowing (bullfinches)
a busyness (ferrets)
a siege (herons)
an unkindness (ravens)
an ambush (tigers)
and last but not least a wisdom (wombats)

But what I'm truly all in for?  a murmuration.  Applied to starlings, it comes from the Latin for murmurings or grumbling.  The murmurs of supports, the grumbles of the grumpy. It seems to cover it all.

A video of a murmuration of starlings.
Photo is from Wikimedia, by JJ Harrison.

Monday, July 23, 2018

A scholar's mug

One of the two yunomi from St. John's pottery.
Not the scholar's mug!
A few years ago I spent a few days on retreat at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota. In many ways St. John's resembles a medieval monastic enclave. There are bees, a woodworking shop that provides the furnishings for the college, a library, a guest house and a pottery. And a post office, but that sounds pretty modern. 

Caught out in a walk by a sudden thunderstorm, I ducked into the pottery.  There was a fire, there was tea. I spoke with the potters, learned about the huge wood burning kiln named Joanna that is fired but once a year, traded stories of travel in Japan. And I bought two yunomi (tea mugs), one that clearly shows the hands of the potter on it, and another, called a scholar's mug, rougher and clearly marked by the ashes of the kiln.

The first time I used the scholar's mug, I filled it generously and carried it to the table where I was writing.  I absentmindedly picked it up to take a sip, to find the cup too hot to handle.  Ouch!  I left it to cool. The next time I made tea, I made a collar for the mug using a furoshiki, like those you get at a coffee bar.  I quickly got better at folding either a small furoshiki or a thick paper towel to use.

It took almost a week for me to discover the trick of the scholar's mug. Fill it half full. The tea stayed warm, the top cool enough to comfortably hold.  It made me get up to refill it, to stretch at more regular intervals.

This is a true story. And a parable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Receive The Body of Christ: The Weight of Glory

I slept at the shelter last week, drifting off to the sounds of the beeping delivery trucks at the Acme across the street on an air mattress in the hallway. The Virgin Mother and I stood guard at the door. I had arrived after everyone had settled in for the night, the lights dimmed and the air hovering between warm and cool. It reminded me of a summer's night at Wernersville.  Just enough of a breeze stirring, a sufficiency of grace, a heaping measure of silence.

I was up at 5:30, washing my face, thinking as I did of Jane Hirshfield's early morning icy, awakening slap.  5:38 am, the van appeared at the door, simultaneously the sun appeared over the horizon, its rays careening down the still and dim hallway. A little one popped out into the dimness, bright pink skirt, and brighter blue shoes, twirling in the sunlight with the motes of dust.

Two mothers calmly juggled babies and bags out the door.  And the little one raised her arms, wordlessly asking for a boost to the van.  I leaned down and picked her up. Receive the body of Christ. Amen.

I was surprised at how little glory can weigh, and how much.

Jane Hirshfield's poem, A Cedary Fragrance, recalls the early morning routine in the Zen monastery where she trained.

Read this bit from C.S. Lewis's Weight of Glory

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Trying to ground grounding in science

My ungrounded feet in rubber boots.
This week the Washington Post has an article headlined "Could walking barefoot on grass improve your health? Some science suggests it can."  The link itself is subtitled: The science behind grounding.

The article gets a lot of things right about atoms (they make up everthing!), but it confuses "free-radicals" with positive ions. (Free radicals don't have to be charged.) Then it tries to explain why negative ions can help. And while it is true that a positive ion and a negative ion can react in some circumstance to produce a neutral compound (think of hydroxide and hydrogen ions reacting to make water in an acid base reaction), random negative ions won't necessarily disarm a free radical.  You need an antioxidant for that, a molecule that can participate in a reaction that can soak up extra electrons.  You still need to eat your vegetable and wear sunscreen.

Negative ions and positive ions co-exist quite nicely in your body. You need those positively charged potassium ions, in fact, to keep your heart beating rhythmically. So on its face, the "science behind grounding" given in the article is bunk. If all those negative ions in the ground started neutralizing all the positive ions in our bodies, we'd be dead.

While I get this is a not a science news piece, but a perspective piece (a "[d]iscussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences"), I wish someone at the Post had fact-checked the science.  Yes, it feels nice to walk barefoot on the grass, or to be outside.  I'm pretty certain the negative ions aren't the reason why.

Friday, July 13, 2018

At a loss for words - Hapax legomena

I was trying to find a term in a document that had a concordance today.  Because I was wrestling with a difficult issue in a book that I'm working on (which is what I was doing digging in the concordance in the first place), I was, to put it charitably, distractible. The concordance offered a link to statistics about the text, including word frequency. Huh. I clicked. (Yes, I know, not on task, but charity begins at home).  Oooh.  Hapax legomena.  Click.

Did I mention that I was dealing with a difficult writing problem?  Down the rabbit hole I went. A hapax legomena is a list of words that occur only once in a work or corpus, coming from the Greek for a single utterance. A great spot to find those weirdly apt words I love.  Like allochthonous. I managed to pull myself back from the brink and though still at a loss for words, tackle the issue in my text.

To find that Scrivener (my writing software) will do a statistical analysis of my text.  Which I proceeded to do. It's a great way to (a) procrastinate (not that I was having much difficulty with that) and (b) to find your typos. Bornze is not the alloy I was looking for.

In the end, I found the words I was looking for, resolved the problem in the least interesting way possible, finished my writing session for the day and had lunch. The End.

For those of you too young to know what a concordance is, it's the pre-digital equivalence of ⌘-f (or if you're not Mac based, Control+f).  Not the same as an index, either.

allochthonous wasn't in the concordance I was looking at, but was in my Nature Chemistry Thesis hapax legomena, created over lunch (it beat reading the news, my usual habit). It's a delightful word, was perfect for the context and easier to say than it looks.   Still, I was surprised that my editor had let it through. Thanks, Stuart!

And yes, there are unique terms for words that appear twice and only twice (and three times and four times...): dis legomenon, tris legomenon, and tetrakis legomenon.  I'm chagrined to admit that "armamentarium" is a tris legomenon in my published corpus.

Hapax legememon can make trouble for lexicographers trying to translate works from ancient languages for which we have only small samples.  They are also at a loss for words, I suppose.  Mental Floss had a short piece on hapax, in which they note a word once translated as "bowel" turned out instead to be "latrine." I could see the connection, but imagine how this changed the text.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A flood of memories

The flood of 2018. Park Science Center. The lowest point in the 
chemistry wing was under 8" of water.
I have taught at least one class in this room almost every year for the last 32 years.  I gave my job interview talk in this space, albeit in a less modern incarnation.

I stood at a standard demonstration table, complete with sink and running water. I used an overhead projector much like the one on the cart in the corner, putting my used transparencies to the side as I worked through my talk (what work did I talk about?  no idea!).

Midway through my talk I heard the sound of water running into the sink.  I looked over to see that I had knocked over the cup of hot chocolate I was drinking in the hopes of defrosting after a walk across campus in a sudden snowstorm for which I was woefully unprepared. All over my stacked of completed transparencies.

I thought at that moment I might have lost any chance at the job.  I'd spent all day reassuring experimentalists that the reason I was a theorist was not "bad hands" — in other words that I wasn't clumsy in the lab. Thankfully everything was draining in the sink and that no one asked to see any of the wet, sticky sheets that had been my carefully prepared talk.

The water has receded, but not the flood of memories it unleashed.

Well before the flood, I wrote a piece for Nature Chemistry which features a brief tale of this classroom: "Talking to Pauling's Ghost"

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The eyes of a handmaid

Like the eyes of a servant
on the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes are on the Lord our God
— Psalm 123:2b-3a

This was Sunday's psalm. Several years ago, when unbeknownst to us all, our pastor was dying, this verse was often in my head. He was having difficulty walking and eventually, standing for any length of time.  When I was serving Mass and he was presiding, my eyes were on him all the time, to be sure he didn't have to take an extra step at the altar, to be sure his cane was near to hand, to be sure he had an arm to get down the steps.  But also sure to not fuss, to simply be there if needed.

When I think about those days, I think about whether I'm bringing that tender attentiveness away from the altar, taking it out the doors, rather than parking it with the processional cross in the narthex. Are my eyes on those around me, ready to be there, but not intruding?  When I volunteer at the shelter, where however temporary a landing spot it is,  I am in someone else's home, can I be there to hold the door in the morning, or tie a shoe so a parent can pack lunches or go to the bathroom? Can I fade into the woodwork otherwise? It takes sharp eyes indeed, ones that I'm still working on.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

My metaphorical lawn

Not my lawn, the view up the hill from my
building on campus.
Today Donald Trump tried to get me (well, really all of us) behind his racist border policies by comparing the country to my front lawn.  What would you do if people were standing on your front lawn?  Thrown them "OUT!" Obviously.

Funny that.  I came home today to find a half dozen men on my front lawn enjoying the thick shade of the enormous oak tree.  One African-American man lay back against the huge oak tree, cradled between two roots, eyes shut. The others sat, mopping their faces with bandanas, water bottles in hand.

I did not shout, "Get off my lawn!"

Had they asked permission to rest there?  No.  But they were in need.  It was 100 degrees on the street, they had been out there since 7 am paving over the roadway where the new water main had been installed, and were waiting while the steamroller smoothed it down.  I couldn't turn down the humidity, but I could grant them this haven from the sun.  I was glad to see them there, in fact. Gladder still at the expression on the face of the man against the tree.

If the president thinks my front lawn is a metaphor for how we should treat people at the border, that works for me.  I'm happy to provide a safe haven for those whose lives are in danger.  So, no Mr. President, you won't find me shouting "Get out!"