Thursday, January 18, 2018

Talking Catholic Scientists

What do Catholic scientists talk about?  Well, I spent the last several days in Washington DC at the studios of Now You Know Media, recording a dozen conversations about the lives and faith of Catholic Scientists with my boss at the Vatican Observatory, Br. Guy.  I’ve been working on material for this series on the lives of Catholic Scientists since September: “spend an hour working on the Catholic Scientists project” has been a regularly scheduled item on my to-do list, an often welcome respite from grading and administrative tasks.

Since there are literally hundreds of scientists who are Catholic and who made significant contributions to their fields (check out the @catholiclab Twitter stream with daily tweets about Catholic scientits), it was both easy and difficult to come up with a set of interesting people to talk about. And once you realize there is no way you can do justice to the history of science over the last 1000 years even if we spent all 12 episodes on it, you’re free to pick a thread for a setting.

We ended up talking about 40 some odd scientists, who lived over a thousand year period on 5 different continents, all Catholic:

11 women
2 saints (and a “Servant of God”)
2 doctors of the Church
2 popes
11 Jesuits
1 Augustinian
4 mathematicians
9 chemists
8 botanists

Fun question:  There are two Catholic scientists that are honored in virtually every church in the US.  Neither of them are saints. Who are they?

Our big point?  Catholics have been, are, and will continue to be scientists.  Not in spite of the Church, not separate from their faith, but because of their faith.  It’s a delightful and joyful way to seek the face of God, to play not just with creation, but with the Creator — to pray.  And all these scientists are people, just like the rest of us, with their faults and failings as well as their strengths.

The project has been a delight so far, from doing the research and writing the biographical sketches and brief settings we worked from to finding our rhythm during the recording sessions.  The give and take of a conversation takes a different type of preparation than a straight lecture.  And I suspect for both the scientists in this conversation, working without visuals was another sort of challenge.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Living water, live water

How do you like your water?  How about live? A California company is marketing incredibly expensive "live water."  This $70 per gallon water comes from a spring and hasn't been 'killed' by removing the minerals or bacteria in it, one must trust that there are only beneficial bacteria in it.  The science on the site makes my eyes cross, and the Washington Post's Lindsey Bever does a excellent job of sorting through some of the issues. (Full disclosure, I'm quoted in the article.)

But what I found truly stunning was the comment at the end by a high profile Silicon Valley guy about drinking this kind of water, “The pundits will say water is H2O, but I think as you break it down, there's a lot more to it. And I feel very vibrant on its consumption.”

In his encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis devotes an entire section to water, noting how the lack of clean drinking water particularly affects the poor, resulting every day in many deaths and about the commodification of this precious liquid.[29-30]  WHO data shows more than a thousand children under the age of 5 die each day from illness caused by drinking water contaminated with microorganisms. Every day, a thousand little ones, a half million children a year. I doubt their parents are feeling "very vibrant" on the consumption of water that hasn't been treated.  Or that the people still lacking water in Puerto Rico are very happy either.

You want to buy incredibly expensive water, 7000 times as expensive as water from the tap, with a wacky pseudoscientific backstory, fine. But to somehow imply that clean water isn't desirable seems to disparage the very real needs of millions of people in the world for water they can drink, for living water.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Run along and bake cookies...sweetie

In a video piece offering Hillary Clinton some New Year's resolutions, Vanity Fair suggested Hillary Clinton take up some new hobbies in 2018, such as knitting.  Beyond the sort of sexist undertones to taking up knitting, I'm really bothered that most of the digs are aimed at distracting her from running again.  But she has made it quite clear that she will not ever run for office again, why can't we take her at her word?  Does "no" still not mean "no" in 2017?

I'm sympathetic, having recently been told to wander off and bake cookies now that I'd been schooled about God and science.  Like I was some doltish child who had dared to interrupt the adult conversation.

The suggestion that women take up some domestic activity, such as knitting or cookie baking, has long been a proxy for get out of the conversation and leave the field to the (obviously more qualified) men in the room.

Last month I got tangled in a Twitter exchange about God and science.  I was responding because a friend had pointed out a tweet stating that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle proved the existence of God. For obvious reasons he thought I might be the right person to shed some light on this notion.

The characters involved were fabulous: a self-aggrandizing anti-evolutionist with a superficial knowledge of science whose favorite epithet is "sweetie," an ingenuous evangelical woman, someone who invokes Luther as a source but thinks Thomas Aquinas is likely fictional, an atheist or two, and a pantheon of baffled scientists.  C.S. Lewis could have a field day with this crowd.

The conversation was definitely illuminating, though not quite in the way my friend intended.  There was no intellectual engagement as all, the style of debate runs to  don't you know anything about science and flat assertions: you are delusional if you believe in evolution. Because. The scientists are baffled because observations and experiments are dismissed as nonsensical. From this perspective it is not fodder for Lewis or his ilk at all, because there is no content, no actual arguments to lay out.

Best lines...

Ingenuous evangelical: "Are you Christian?"  Yep. [In retrospect, I wonder if she is a bot. I scrolled through the tweets to find lots of odd repeats.]
Scientist:  "Dude, she's a chemist."
Other scientist: "Are you trying to intimidate a Vatican Scientist?" [For the record, not in the least intimidated. Amused, saddened, but not intimidated.]
Onlooker: [in response to a comment I made that the statement of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle provided was a simplified version] But what is it then?  [Someone told him to Google it, but if you don't know some quantum, that's really not going to help.]


I still don't know what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has to do with the theory of evolution, and the responses by the original poster was....hardly illuminating. The first one was "because it means things are uncertain."  Yeah.  The final swipe was this:
"actually it proves the theory of evolution cis [sic] not falsifiable, and the simple claim that ToE is unfalsifiable according to the problem of demarcation, proves it is a pseudo science."

Sunday, December 24, 2017

We could be all flame

From a reflection in Give Us This Day, Christmas 2016.

A light is kindled in the darkness.  A word is spoken. The cold air crackles, the stones stir underfoot, a fire hisses out its breath, coals creaking like wind-racked pines. A woman labors to give birth. 

And so God arrives among us, shivering in the cold, howling with hunger, begging with each breath to be fed and clothed and sheltered.  A voice crying out, aglimmer with a Gospel demanding to be proclaimed.

Gloria, we exclaim, and hunt in vain for angels in the sky. But Isaiah hinted at the shape of the light we seek: Share your food with the hungry, shelter the poor, clothe those in need, then your light will blaze forth like the dawn. 

Three decades later, ablaze on a sun-bright hillside outside Jerusalem, is he remembering that night?  I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you made me welcome.”  When, we asked, the wailing child and spent mother long forgotten.  Whenever you did this for the least among you.”  And we saw his glory.

Can we stop hunting for the cherubim and seraphim long enough to listen to the unending and all-sustaining Word, crying out in need, or for the Light pleading for light, for warmth, for food and shelter? If you wish, said one of the desert mystics, you could be all flame.  If we wish, we could be Isaiah’s blazing dawn.

The Word came to dwell among us, that we might be a word spoken, a voice for those in need, a light to the nations.  Children of God, all flame.


Saturday, December 23, 2017


My desk at its worst.
My study-under-the-eaves has two tables in it.  My computer resides on one and the other, tucked into a gable, is for spreading out and thinking.  Except when it's not. For the last three months I have been dropping stacks of papers and books on it, as one project has moved into the next without respite.  The surface vanished somewhere in late September.

Giving a talk at another institution earlier this fall, I was captivated by the states of various offices.  From starkly empty — nothing on the walls or desk or shelves — to stacks of paper on every surface, the monitor for the computer half on, half off a pile on a small side table. And every permutation in between. These are the #realDesksOfAcademia.

I really don't work well without a clear surface to spread out, and two current projects are in the stage where I really need that space.  And my office at the college (where the desks are indeed clear, and thus where I have been doing that sort of work) is going to be inaccessible for the next several weeks due to construction.

"Clear off the desk." was stuck on my Saturday to-do-list all November, finally morphing into an (aspirational) item on my daily list — "30 minutes on the !@#$& desk" — staring at me each morning, mournfully.

I finally got a breather on Thursday and spent an hour on the desk.  It's progress.  Perhaps next week I will see its surface.