Monday, November 26, 2018

Long Hauls

Tray table on my last flight.
QOD: Do cloistered monks get called to jury duty?
I had jury duty today, which meant a rush hour drive to the county seat in Media.  They had 650 jurors on standby, they called 85 of them in.  I was...number 84.  But only about 60 people showed up, more women than men, more my age than younger, not very diverse even for this not so diverse county. Which made me wonder what the overall stats were.

There was a lot of waiting for a trial scheduled to start today. We got oriented. We filled out another form or two. We got an hour break. We came back. We waited for 45 minutes and then got a 2 hour lunch break. At 2:30 they warned us the cafeteria was closing, in case you wanted another snack. There was more waiting. Then we were thanked and sent on our way.

It struck me that this experience was a lot like a long haul flight in a really wide-bodied plane where the court officers were the flight attendants. We were 60 strangers packed into a tight space with limited bathroom access. The orientation videos included evacuation procedures, and a bright message from the people in charge, encouraging us to explore the features of our 747...uh courthouse.  Like flight attendants, the jury staff were attentive to what comforts they could provide, but also like flight attendants, this was not their real job. And we got regular updates from the flight deck - or rather the judge's chambers on the delay.

It was a lot like flying Southwest.  Choose your own seat. Friendly staff doing their best to get you from one end of the day to the other without anyone melting down.  Bonus: I got to watch the Mars landing — which I would have missed if I'd been teaching.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Funneling memories

Last week, I pulled out the cheap green funnels I bought at Ikea to re-fill the olive oil bottle, a bridge between here and Rome, where the apartment held an identical pair and where I watched the woman in the cafe next to the market pull out hers to re-fill a bottle of olive oil. I felt connected to cooks in across times and places, and wondered at the memories these very inexpensive utilitarian items held.

Holiday cooking always ends up using nearly every utensil, bowl, pot and pan in my kitchen. Memories cling to so many of them, nearer the surface than usual.

There are the orange Tupperware measuring cups my mother bought me when I started graduate school. The choice that year was orange or avocado green, and when the kitchen is crowded, I'm grateful for the way the orange cups pop on my dark countertops 

The year Tom and I were married, he bought me a sturdy set of glass bowls, a nested dozen. Not all have survived the ensuing decades, the largest shattered and the smallest vanished, and perhaps there's a metaphor to be found in there, but mostly I'm looking for the right sized bowl for Crash to use for the apples he is slicing.

The torus shaped glass pitcher, bought to celebrate a milestone for Math Man. It had us talking shapes at the dinner table: what else is topologically equivalent to a one-holed torus? A landscape with an underground tunnel? For a moment, the glass seems to flow in the sun, the top rim opening like a blossom and stretching to enclose the table with kids and friends and even the cat. With a tunnel at its core. I want to cling to more than the memories.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A page from the Book of Imaginary Beings

Not a chronophage, but a beetle of unknown
provenance. Still, this is how I imagine them.
My office is infested with chronophages. Creatures that gnaw at my calendar, leaving it, and me, a shell.  It's rather like the mouse that found the remains of the Halloween candy I had stored on the shelf in my office, and ate the one remaining Milky Way bar, leaving behind (a) all the Skittles and (b) a nearly intact wrapper.  I hadn't even realized it was empty until I picked it up. (And what does this tell me about Skittles, if even the mouse eschews them?)

The surest sign of this infestation is that while my to-do list and appointments list grow exponentially longer, time remains unrelentingly inelastic.

I'm quite sure the phages got in through my email. Every time I opened it up, there were more requests for my time. Which will take me some time to find some time for, eating time long before they land on the calendar.  They slip between pages of papers on my desk.  I'm sure I saw one fall out when I picked up that folder of problem sets to grade. Once loose in my office, they rapidly spread to the phone, laying eggs in my voice mail.  A few lurk just outside my door, hitching a ride on my teaching bag should I be so careless as to set it down.

I fear that I might have transported them home, as I scoured the calendar for a 2-hour block to go grocery shopping for the impending holiday.  Not here, dishwasher being delivered — maybe. Not there, evening event.

The plague of chronophages is insidious. None of the requests in my email, or knocks at my door are unreasonable, nor is anyone asking who I would not wish to accommodate.  As they say about traffic on the radio, the problem is volume. Sheer volume.

I've been reading Caspar Hendersen's "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings" -- a modern bestiary, which lends itself to dipping in and out, and will wait patiently until I can return to its pages. Which led to my seeing these barely there imaginary beings in the corners of my office. For the in-class writing exercise last Thursday, I asked my students to describe one of their internal writing companions: the Editor, the Distractor, the Coach, the Cheerleader and the Taskbeing. It makes me wonder who I should queue up to deal with the phages?  Could I send the Distractor? Would it be like matter and antimatter?

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Five Books

Only five books? And the five best books? Last month I did an interview via email with Caspar Henderson (who wrote a marvelous bestiary for the new century: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings) on the best five books I would put on a reading list titled "Chemistry."  It's now up on the site — Five Books.  But the hardest part was not answering the great questions Caspar posed, but figuring out what five books to list. What did I want this list to do? Teach you chemistry? Maybe. Or give you a sense of what I find fascinating and beautiful and compelling about chemistry? Definitely!

I thought about various friends, curious and readers, but who don't have much background in the sciences and math.  What would I pull from my shelves for them to read?  Something that teaches you to decode a bit of the chemistry, a biography - what is the life of a scientist really like.  Something that is compelling, that drags you into a story you can't put down. Something that shows off the beauty of the world at the atomic and molecular level.

Something that teaches you to decode a bit of the chemistry:
Why does asparagus make my wee smell? And 57 other curious food and drink questions by Andy Brunning of Compound Interest. A bold graphical look at the chemistry of what we eat, with lots of quick explanations of weird (but useful) words of science like chromatography. 
What is the life of a scientist really like:
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith.  Of course there had to be Marie Curie. And this unsparing biography of her pulls the curtain away on what it can mean to plunge into research with all your being.
Compelling stories with chemistry at their heart:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Some molecules are thugs, some turn witness for the prosecution. Real crimes, real molecules.  (And her new book on the rise of food safety, The Poison Squad, which is in the stack on my desk, is just as good.) 
The beauty of the atomic and molecular world:
H2O: A biography of water by Phillip Ball Chemistry laid out for the layperson with care and delight. Clouds are not what you think!
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. There's a dark side to the periodic table.
Read the whole essay to find out more about what is fascinating about chemistry (at least to me), what I do as a chemist, and of course, about these five books. Want more book recommendations about chemistry? Want to know what the runners up were? Leave me a note in the comments!

Chemistry not your thing? Go read Caspar's bestiary about the wildly improbable creatures that inhabit the very real world, from sea butterflies to yetis (or at least yeti crabs), it's a wide ranging exploration of the corners of the biological world. To quote a reviewer: "There is something lovely about a book that takes on so many disciplines and tackles them with confidence." There is indeed.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Very right moments and the phone

Vatican City State's phone book
I want to channel the Dowager Duchess of Downton, who views the phone with suspicion. I want to crisply tell the person who called me fifteen times — every 30 minutes — on three different numbers yesterday that they should cease and desist. What was so urgent? Thankfully they left me a voicemail the first time so I would know.

"...this call is to inform you about some legal enforcement actions filed on your social security number. We have got an order to suspend your social at very right moment because we have found many suspicious activities on your social before we go ahead and suspend your number. Kindly call us back on our number which is ..."

Any awkwardness in language is not the fault of Google Voice's transcription, I note. I did listen to the message, which was in a synthesized male voice. This is a scam of course, "socials" don't get suspended, at very right moments or not.  They called, I blocked, they called me at a different number, I blocked again.

But it made me think about how few phone calls I get these days that are not scams, political calls or cold sales calls for one thing or another. Given the choice to give up voice or text, I'd give up the voice functionality of my phone in a heartbeat. Math Man calls more often than he texts and a colleague calls from time to time, but other than that, I have returned to the era of asynchronous written communication.  Delivered through the offices of the elves of the interwebs rather than the Dowager's minions, but nonetheless, passed from one (virtual) hand to another, I have control of my interruptions. The phone assumes I'm free to drop whatever I am doing to answer it, that I am interruptible. It's rarely a very right moment!