Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A short Roman archeological expedition

Termini Station at midmorning

I got an early train into Rome on Monday, headed to the physics library at Sapienza to look at a copy of the proceedings from the first conference on the periodic table, held in 1969 in Rome (and Vatican City) and Turin. I was hoping to find a photo of the conference attendees, or barring that a list of participants, but was destined to be disappointed.

Smaller than Bryn Mawr geology van, but a sign that I was
in the science zone.
Sapienza is about a 10 minute walk from Termini Station in Rome, so an easy trip. I had no trouble finding the physics buildings, I just followed the physicists. I can spot them anywhere (I think). The stacks are closed, but the student at the desk was delighted that I'd brought all the information he needed to pull it for me. I was surprised to find the book was for the most unopened, that is it had come with the folded pages uncut. The reader was supposed to cut them with the paper knife that surely lay on the little side table next to the comfortable leather wing chair. Unsupplied with a paper knife (and trying to imagine the reaction of the desk staff to my taking out such a knife and slicing into the book given that I was scolded for trying to scan with my phone a single paper from the volume), I was glad the one paper I really wanted, along with the lists of contributors and table of contents, had been opened.

I was interested to discover that this meeting on the periodic table was attended mostly by physicists, or at least the contributors to the proceedings were physicists, and eminent physicists at that: Emilio Segré, John Wheeler, spectroscopist Charlotte Moore from the National Bureau of Standards (who discovered technetium (element 43) in nature, after it had been produced artificially) and Georgy Flerov (for whom flerovium (element 114) would be named).

One of Fermi's early accelerators.
The best tidbit that I won't use in the talk is from Segré's paper, where he starts imagining that there might be worlds made of anti-matter in some remote corner of the universe, where anti-chemists would be doing anti-chemistry. But of course, that anti-chemistry would be anticlimactic, or at least uninteresting, as it would be the same as as the chemistry here. Somehow positing the existence of alien civilizations doesn't strike me an uninteresting (even if their chemistry mirrors ours)!

I arrived back to chaos at Termini. A fire had been deliberately set at a main junction north of the city and every long distance train was delayed 3 hours or outright cancelled. The place was filled with anxious travelers and long lines. Thankfully the train to Albano was running on time, and I walked the quarter mile out to the platform and an hour later was sitting at my desk in the Specola.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The ancient and the inaccessible: the moon and the periodic table

Pope Paul VI looks at the moon through a telescope at the
Vatican Observatory in July 1969. The then director of the
Observatory, Fr. Daniel O'Connell SJ, stands at his side. 
Next week I am off to St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) to give an invited lecture at the 4th International Conference on the Periodic Table — a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev's proposal that the chemical elements could be laid out in a table where elements in each row (now columns) shared many properties. This periodicity of properties led this method of organization to be called a "periodic table."

Pope Paul VI in one of the Vatican Observatory's domes
reading a message to the Apollo 11 astronauts.
The lecture I've been asked to give is based on an essay I wrote for Nature Chemistry earlier this year, "Isotopic Enrichment" (Isotopes are variants on elements. For example, carbon-14 dating tracks the radioactive decay of a heavier than normal variant of a carbon atom.  Most carbon is carbon-12, where the number indicates the mass of a single atom,) The title of this blog post comes from an article ten years ago in Science by Frank Poitrasson on what the distribution of the isotopes of iron can tell us about the history of the earth and the moon. (He describes events so cataclysmic as to be unimaginable. Think two planets colliding and some of the iron on earth vaporizing off into space.) History has a literal weight.

Bob Macke SJ  (left) and Guy Consolmagno SJ (attired for
the occasion) in front of a display of ephemera from Apollo
missions at the Vatican Observatory outside Rome.
When I was 11 or 12, a touring moon rock (I presume from Apollo 11 or 12) was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I was long space obsessed and having devoured Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel, anxious to go traipsing across the surface of the moon myself. (That's also the book where I first learned about isotopes, half-lives and their use as clocks to measure huge stretches of time.  The same potassium you find in a banana contains an isotopic "clock" — potassium-40 — that ticks off time on the billion year time scale, back to the birth of the universe.) So I was anxious to see this off-world connection.

A lunar sample collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan
and Harrison Schmitt, sealed in acrylic. I was |<- -="" this="">| close!
There was a field trip to the museum. I rode the yellow school bus in from the tiny Illinois town I lived in. I stashed my lunch in its wrinkled brown bag along with the rest of my groups' lunches to be picked up at our set time. Then I made a mad dash to the moon rock display. There was already a long line, which inched forward. Finally I was close enough to see the case — a Star Trek-esque dias, from which a light glowed in the dim room.  People passed the case, oohing and aahing. At last I was there. To discover there was nothing I could see. Even standing on my tiptoes, all I could see was the very top of the glass dome over the sample. The moon was as inaccessible to me as ever.

When I came to Bryn Mawr, I was excited to discover that one of  my new colleagues, Weecha Crawford, had been one of the first geologists to study the lunar specimens, which had to be handled as if they were precious jewels (which they are). But still, I had yet to see a moon rock.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Bob Macke, the Jesuit brother who is the curator of meteorites for the Vatican Observatory, assembled the observatory's collection of Apollo ephemera for us to enjoy at the morning coffee. One piece of which is a moon rock from Apollo 17, along with a small Vatican City State flag that went to the moon and returned! (Samples and country flags from that mission were given to each sovereign state at the time, including the Holy See.)

At last, I have been as close to (a piece of) the moon as I will get. Like St. Thomas, I didn't need to touch it, to know it was real. Unlike Thomas, I didn't even need to have seen to have believed.  Happy anniversary to Apollo 11!

Read about the goodwill moon rocks here.
A wonderful piece by Bob Macke SJ about what it is like to do the scientific research that continues on the lunar specimens is here, "Moon Rocks and Me".
There is a front page story at the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano by my colleague, the director of the Specola, Guy Consolmagno: Pallida luce dei nostri sogni (it's in Italian, but click to translate and read the memories of one of the Jesuits who was in the gardens the night Pope Paul VI came to watch the moon landing and read a message to the astronauts. More about that night is at the Vatican Observatory's Sacred Space blog.)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Vignettes via Vignetta

There are saints on every corner here.
The weather in the Alban Hills has been pleasant (unlike the East Coast), so I've enjoyed walking around the town — as it seems others are doing as well. There is the clutch of small children who have been filling a seemingly endless supply of water balloon at the fountain at the end of the street. They have been out there every day since I arrived. They offered to deluge me one afternoon, when I appeared hot and sweaty from my in-lieu-of-riposo walk.  I opted for the regular shower.

There was the lady walking down the side walk, lab goggles on her face. The man walking a duo of dachshunds. They left a perfect emoji shaped pile of poop on the street (I'm always watching where I'm walking), then tried to harass the large cat that polices the warehouse across the street. She outweighed the pair of them, and was having none of their nonsense. She hissed once and regally walked away.  Still, I wonder if the eviscerated mouse she left on the street later is a warning to them.  And then there was the scene from the early morning bus I took to catch a train into the city: an elderly man on his balcony, stark naked, except for a towel around his neck.

And yes, I've walked to Arricia.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Plugged in

I showed up at the Vatican Observatory yesterday, wrung out and exhausted by jet lag and more. I'd spent part of a night sleeping on a plane between the US and Rome. The next night my sleep was broken by a fierce 3 am thunderstorm, the thunder echoing oddly in Lake Albano's crater. But last night I'd been awakened in the middle of the night by a text from a colleague's husband: She was dying. Please let my colleagues know.

It was still waking hours in the US, so I got up and sent emails and texts to those who would want to know. I crept back to bed about four in the morning, dragging myself out of bed four hours later, still bleary, but determined to make 10 am coffee at the Specola where I could plug in to electrons and wi-fi and restorative collegial conversation.

By late afternoon I was desperate for a nap, un riposo, but more desperate to pray. I went up to the small chapel with the tabernacle by mosaicist Marko Rupnik SJ to pray in the hour my colleague was being taken off life support 4400 miles and six time zones away.  A Jesuit chapel seemed the right spot to sit prayerfully present to the dying, to be pulled back into the meditations of the third week of the Exercises. Somewhere in the midst of this, I noticed an electrical outlet at the very bottom of the nearly floor to ceiling tabernacle. Not in the wall next to it, but in the base of the tabernacle itself.

What on earth was an outlet doing in this work of art? My mind wandered not to the pragmatic, but to the metaphorical. I could pray anywhere — at my desk, in the apartment, on a walk in the gardens, in any of the three churches within a five minute walk or the cathedral basilica across the piazza —but had been pulled here, to this tiny chapel where I could draw close to Christ crucified, Christ in truth. I wanted to be plugged in to Christ.

These days we look for outlets to pull electrons from for our phones, to bring them back to life. Do we equally have eyes for the places where we can recharge our spiritual life?

A day later, I realize that it is likely that when the tabernacle was installed, there was an outlet located in the wall that was rerouted to the base. Though why not to the wall next to it? There must be a reason.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Lunar landings

Front page of NY Times for July 21, 1969. 
I listened to WHYY's The Pulse's piece on the Apollo moon landing this morning while I tidied the kitchen and made my tea. Interspersed throughout the program were people's memories of that moment 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong's scratchy announcement reached earth, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Someone recalled the flags her mother had bought for her and her brother to plant in cinnamon bun "moons." What do I recall of those days? I can remember the characteristic earthy smell of the air conditioner in our midwest basement where our black and white TV was kept in a corner and see the vinyl cushions we sprawled on to watch. The rough green concrete walls with the small windows cut into them, framing the TV where I watched every launches from Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy I could. I can recall the tension when countdowns were put on hold — "T-minus 30 and holding" — and those agonizing seconds before contact was re-established with Apollo 13 during reentry. Once a space nerd, always a space nerd.

I suspect I come by this honestly, my mother read science fiction as avidly as I did, and when I was clearing out a box of her keepsakes a few years after she died, one of things I found was this carefully preserved copy of the New York Times announcing the moon landing tucked in with my baby shoes and her own baby book. I'm guessing either her brother or father sent it to her, both worked in the city (and this is a city edition).

Thursday, July 11, 2019

All art is ephemeral, Mom

Not precisely a pancake. A crepe from an earlier day's breakfast.
Crash and I were getting ready to leave my brother The Reverend's house early in one morning last month and he was making us pancakes. Crash snagged one, picked up the maple syrup and carefully drew a face on his pancake with it.  He took a moment to appreciate the cute nose he'd made, then picked up his fork and used it to spread the syrup in an even layer over the flapjack — obliterating his artwork.

He looked up at my sharp intake of breath and remarked, "All art is ephemeral, Mom," and calmly returned to eating his breakfast.