Monday, August 31, 2020

Not the Disney Scene You are Imagining

A few weeks ago I was back in my office briefly to pick up some books. It was the first time I'd been to my office since the pandemic pivot of the spring. But my office hadn't been unoccupied while I was at home. The mice had been there. Not a mouse. Mice. And unlike Snow White's helpful woodland creatures they weren't dashing around cleaning my office. They nested in papers and partied on my desk. There was glitter everywhere. Well, not actual glitter, but the remains of the wrappers of a handful of forgotten chocolate kisses, clearly the draw for the big event. They left the champagne alone. 

In the end there were a lot of papers that it was now very easy to decide to if they could be tossed (perhaps the creatures were helpful in cleaning my office after all? #darkDisney). I've taken a hundred or so books off the shelves to clear behind them. Thankfully the mice seem to have generally eschewed the books for the stacks of papers.  The office has been vacuumed and surfaces cleared and cleaned. Traps have been set, though the miscreants seemed to have moved on. Now I just need to put the books back to check off one unofficial sabbatical project: clean my office. 

OK TBH, I also need to clean out a cabinet. But then, I really can check the project off the list! Also, mad props to whoever left a photo of a mouse holding a chocolate kiss on my door. A spot of humor in an otherwise awful situation.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Firkins, Butts and Barrels


My brother The Reverend (not to be confused with my brothers Geek Guru, The Artiste or The Wookie) posted a meme about 'medieval units' for measuring wine on Facebook last week. (The punchline calculated how much a butt-load of wine would be:126 gallons, which is surely a butt-ton of almost anything, though only half a tun). 

In a weird coincidence, the illustration included the firkin (a mere 8 gallons) which I had just written about in an essay on the names of units. I had found it in a 1955 book, Conversion Factors and Tables, which spent 500 pages listing units of measurement currently in use and various conversion factors. I'd gone through the whole thing looking for interesting unit names. (Yes, a very David Foster Wallace thing to do,  I'm aware.)  Firkin, if you must know, and you really must, is a quarter of a barrel and comes from the Dutch vierkin for a fourth.

Other weird unit names:

  • Barleycorn: 1/3 of an inch, or if you prefer SI units, 0.84668 cm
  • Pottles: There are 16 gills in a pottle, or two quarts. To be "pottle deep" is to be drunk, which makes perfect sense, though I wouldn't have to be all that deep into a pottle to feel the effects. Oddly this is also a unit of land area; the OED speculates that perhaps it's' the amount of land that would produce a pottle of grain. 
  • Perch: A fish length? While US Fisheries says a perch is 19.1 cm, a perch is 36 13/ average perch long, it's also a rod, or 16.5 feet. Perch the measurement and perch the fish are etymologially unrelated. The former comes from the Latin for measuring rod, pertica, the latter is from the Greek, πέρκη or speckled, which presumably perch are.
  • Bougie decimales: Not that bougie this bougie is a wax candle, from the Bougie (Arabic), a town in Algeria (Bijiyah)which carried on a trade in wax. It's a unit of illumination, equal to one candle.
  • Frigorie: It’s just another name for a calorie, but presumably for situations where you are dealing with falling temperatures. It has not caught on.
  • Microns of mercury: Not a weird unit at all, but I enjoyed the alliteration, and the faintly royal scent of it all. "May I introduce her highness, the Micron of Mercury?"
  • Scruples: Not the spiritual sort, these have actual mass, a bit over 2 grams per scruple. Derived from the Latin for small pebble.
And don't forget the hobbit - a unit of volume equal to 4 pecks, which is 8 quarts of pickled peppers or anything else you want to pick a peck of.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Summer has meant reading books for as long as I can remember. Clearing out family papers from my desk last week I found this photo of me at age 5 looking longingly at the bookmobile. My sister is in the pram and my brother is also balancing on his trike. My mother is undoubtedly behind the camera (and probably pregnant with another brother).

I remember the bookmobile as being crammed with shelves. I can still hear the crinkle of the cellophane protective covers as my mother browsed the books. I suspect this photo was taken in September, I'm pretty sure I had that dress in kindergarten. 

There was no library in this small town in the middle of dairy country, so this is how new books made their way to us. 

By the time I was in fourth grade we had a library, set up in a house that also served as the police department and the municipal offices. I was already a science fiction addict (watching all those NASA launches fueled my desire to travel to the stars, at least in my imagination). The tiny library, roughly the size of my current living and dining room, seemed huge and such a luxury compared to the bookmobile. I would pedal my bike there, check out a book or maybe even two, ride home, devour it and repeat.

Now there are probably more books in my house than there were in that little library (and never mind what is in my office and my lab). And the little town has grown, and has a good sized library. One thing hasn't changed, my joy in devouring a good book.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Reading List: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - or Not

As I'm slowly doing some writing about writing, I've been pulling books on the craft from my shelves. I rediscovered How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider on my shelves in part because it turns out to be written by the mother of a colleague (which I hadn't realized when I bought the book, though on re-reading, I should have known!) Schneider's own poetry laces through the pages of this luminous book, and I cherish her fearless and tender takes on the challenges of writing about things that have entangled themselves in our souls. Perhaps my favorite is the section on tradition and writing, where she reflects on not surrendering her voice —"the unique Ozark twang, the flavor, the very originality of my voice." I hear in her poem, "Mama," a familiar litany of words, "Kerosene, gasoline, Maybelline, Vaseline..." I'm transported back to my paternal grandmother's house, where I too watched the lightning bugs, not the fireflies, dance in the heavy summer air, and wondered at the jars of Vaseline and Pond's on her dresser.

I quoted Sirach at the start of a chemistry essay, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us" [Sirach 44:1], which prompted me to pick up James Agee and Walker Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evan's photographs of these depression era sharecroppers are crystalline. As someone with a predilection for long sentences, I appreciated Agee's ability to have a sentence start on a page, continue through another, full page and finally finish on the third page, without, I think, ever technically running on. The book is often held up as a turning point in non-fiction. Still, I was too put off by the casual racism in the book and a vague sense of shame to be peering into these people's lives even at almost a century's remove to finish it.

I felt utterly seen by Anne Fadiman's essays on reading (Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader). I also take pleasure in cook books speckled with eggs and cocoa, and hang on to beloved books that have been reduced to a loose collection of signatures. (My copy of Meyer and Meyer's Statistical Mechanics is held together with a ribbon.) If you love to read, read this.

Thursday, August 20, 2020


 I've worked as a chemist for more than four decades. Over that time the technology I've used has shifted from punch cards to magnetic tape to solid state storage to the cloud. I once encoded molecular structures using something called a Z-matrix, now I sketch them on a screen. I began using log tables and a slide rule to do calculations, and can now pull up something on my phone to do weird fractional roots while on a walk.1 

But this reference card I made my first semester as a graduate student has been the one constant in all that changing technology. It sat on my desk as a grad student and again when I was a post-doc. It was pinned to the bulletin board behind my desk in my old office. When I moved offices it took up residence in the small bin on my desk.

So I was distressed when I couldn't locate it yesterday. I was back in my office at the college, looking for the card to use to illustrate an essay about units and their names. My office is torn apart, as I was invaded by mice during the pandemic. I had to pull several hundred books off their shelves, and many of these are still stacked on the floor and on my working table. I reached for the bin card! My heart sank. 

I looked all over. Had I inadvertently used it to mark a page in a book while talking to a student? Left it by the chalkboard? Taken it down to the lab? No, no and no. I finally concluded I must have mistakenly tossed it with the mouse infested papers from my desk. I was surprisingly saddened by this loss of the one artifact that threads through my entire career. 

Truth be told, I don't need this card. The values are readily available in many places online and off. I rarely refer to it. After all these years, the conversion factors I use regularly are in my head, I can flip effortlessly between Ångstroms and bohrs and nanometers. And the handy conversion between angles inscribed at the top? I can't recall the last time I used it, since relative coordinates have gone the way of the dodo. But there was an ineffable sense of loss nonetheless.

I headed home, and on a whim, checked the bin on my desk. There was the card, ready to be consulted. When I grabbed the essentials from my office back in March, I had taken this not-really-essential essential. I guess I don't have to retire just yet.


1. Math Man was mulling about his research on our daily walk, trying to work out a 2/3 root in his head, which we did, but then I offered to check it on the phone. Our estimate was just fine!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Assumption: Who longs to see the face of God?

A woman wrapped in the gold of the sun, bedecked with the jewels of the universe.  A woman through whom God shines so fiercely that even infants in the womb can sense the radiance. It is hard not to be bedazzled by the lavish images and extraordinary promises of this feast, by the share in Christ’s glory that is Mary’s and that we pray might be ours one day.

Yet my imagination is caught, not by Revelation’s dragons and diadems, or even the queen draped in gold of Ophir, but by the woman in labor.  I can feel my body recall the times I labored to give birth to my sons. To be in labor is to yearn with your entire being, to be wracked by an ineluctable longing to come face to face with what has been kindled within you.  

So I hear the reading from Revelation and the response that springs from my heart is not the prescribed psalm nor Mary’s Magnificat.  Instead, Psalm 24 insistently asks: who shall climb the mountain of the Lord, who will stand in his holy place? Those who long to see the face of the God of Jacob. 

Mary once labored to bring God’s hidden face to light, so that we now might to yearn with all our being to see the face of the God of Abraham and of Jacob.  Of the God who promises to lift up the lowly, to show us mercy — and to raise us from the dead.  — From Give Us This Day, 15 August 2014

Santa Maria Assunta in Arricia, Italy, just down the road from the Vatican Observatory. Designed by Bernini. Photo above is of main altar, taken on the feast in 2018.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


 I've been slowly going through some of the boxes of papers and photos from my parent's house.  In one of them I found a Voice-O-Graph my grandmother sent my mother while she was in graduate school in New Orleans. These were roughly 1 minute recordings, etched into a 78 rpm record. She made this one on the 86th floor of the Empire State building on a foggy February day. She tells my mother that she's not sure what to say, but loves her and misses her.

I hadn't heard my grandmother's voice in 50 years, a half-century. It was an extraordinary experience. I had been hearing it in my head as I've re-read her notes and cards to me. But it's not the same as the recording.

Yesterday, I video chatted with The Boy as he made dinner in his apartment near Large University and I made dinner in my kitchen. He is the same age my mother was when her mother recorded that message. I could listen to him talk about the algebra proof he'd done. (This is not your mother's algebra class, he was several minutes into the description before I latched onto a term I knew, like a shipwreck victim grasping at a floating crate. Abelian groups, I know what those are!) He could admire my homemade fettucine. My mother and my grandmother would have been amazed at this technology. And, I suspect, eager adopters.

All this flotsam, floating forward through the currents of the last century, tossed about in various moves. Tiny remnants of people I knew and didn't. It's made me wonder what my children and the generation that follows them will think of what I've saved. What fragments of my voice will I leave behind? How will I know what to say?

Sunday, August 09, 2020


St. Monica's tomb
A few years ago I was in Rome for a meeting, and wanted to stop in Sant'Agostino, to light a candle in front of St. Monica's tomb — and to escape the heat for a few minutes. Rome was in the middle of a brutal midsummer heat wave, it had been almost 90°F when I'd left my hotel midmorning and hotter yet by noon. My timing was off, the church had just closed for the mid-afternoon riposo. I wandered over to the shady side of the piazza to check the bulletin board for when it would reopen, and to regroup.

As I peered at the board, I realized there was a young man, shirtless, a sleeping bag wrapped around his middle, his bare legs crossed at the ankle. The reflected light made him almost glow. He looked like Christ, just taken down from the cross, laid on the rough stones. And just like that, he was transfigured.

Christ crucified lay at my feet. I stood there for a very long time, wondering what I could do and then I turned and walked away. 

Photo is of St. Monica's tomb, Sant'Agostino, Roma.

I went back to Sant'Agostino later in the afternoon, lit my candle and prayed with St. Monica, then left euros in the box for the care of the poor. And everytime I go back to that church, I wonder what became of him.