Tuesday, June 20, 2017


The world is busy this morning, perhaps because it is not weighed down by the humidity and the hulking clouds of yesterday. The birds are twittering, a bee is battering desperately at the back screen door, a spider has spun a Snow White-worthy web in my chair on the patio. Sirens are wailing nearby, the wind is waggling in the leaves. Whoosh - a starling just swung past, the cat's ears swiveling like radar to follow its passage.

I want to be two people. One who has all day to read, write and do research and one that putters in her garden. Or maybe three people, one who has time to run errands - to pick up those books and drop off that package.  But I imagine if I cloned myself, we all might want to pick up a book and a cup of tea and sit out here on the patio in the patchy coolness under the tree, drifting between worlds, handing the breviary off one to the next.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Et tu, Brute?

The Washington Post reported today that some of the people upset by Oskar Eustis' and The Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park in NYC feel moved to threaten the production with threats of death and bodily harm, as well as a deluge of angry emails.  Unfortunately many of these souls can not figure out what state the production is in (New York), the name of the theatre company (The Public Theater).  As a result lots of Shakespeare productions are getting angry emails.  Including Crash's production of Macbeth, which is put on by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (plural Crash notes, not singular) some 2000 miles away from New York's Central Park.  Thankfully, they have gotten no death threats and I say that with no sarcasm whatsoever.  I am grateful.

I'm fascinated with the geographical disconnect, that somehow sees the park on the news as your local park, and can't see that what's playing there isn't Julius Caesar. Blind anger. I'm also fascinated that a staging of Julius C with an Obama character in the title role did not raise nearly this sort of ruckus - in fact, it raised no ruckus at all.  Et tu, Brute? 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Powered down

Why, I wonder, is the refrigerator dark when I open the door?

The power is out.  I keep reaching for electrons that aren’t there.  Flip a switch and wonder for a second, why is there no light. The electric blue of the flame under the tea kettle seems magical, a bit over the top, in my dim kitchen. The quiet is so deep I can hear the carpenter bees chewing away at the branch in the garden and the first pings of the tea coming to the boil.  How can the bees be so loud? I had no idea that the tea kettle was signaling me so long before it whistles.  I wonder if it shrieks so because I've ignored its repeated polite reminders, "I am at the boil. Boiling.  Yes, I am boiling nicely, thank you."  

The internet leaks in through my phone, a burp of news here and there.
PECO: Outage in area .... Cause = Equipment problem. Estimated Restoration Time = 06/14 12:00PM. Text STOP to stop all PECO texts.  
Early this morning the expected return of power was 8:20 am.  Now the stated restoration time has move to 12:00 PM.  I translate: "It’s more complicated than we thought, so we’ll say 'noon' because 'We have not the foggiest.' would be unwise."

Thermodynamics.  I’m thinking about rates of energy transfer and isolated systems.  I put my tea in the insulated pot, screwing the lid on tightly, forcing it to hold onto its heat.  I imagine the molecules restlessly shimmying around inside, unable to get comfortable.  Most mornings I pop the 2nd cup into the microwave to stir up the molecules again when it gets cold, prodding them awake with photons, but today there is no rest for the weary.

I switch off the wifi on my laptop, not wanting to spend electrons for what I cannot have. Toast. No. Oven. Nope. Plans for the laundry. Derailed.

I open the refrigerator door. Why, I wonder, is it dark?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Memento mori

The hyacinth is in bloom, the heads already blushing blue. I hadn’t noticed it, perhaps because I hadn’t expected it. It had hardly recovered from the ravages of the winter before last when I had thought it lost.  I mourned it anew this spring when February’s warmth gave way to icy March winds and a damp, dark, chill May.

Weeks ago I brushed my hand along the bare sticks of the hyacinth behind the church, wondering aloud if it, too, was wrecked by these winter vagaries.  Wondering silently what a friend, gone to God after a ravaging spring, would think of these wild swings.  He would say it is chance to taste loss, to know what will be asked of us in those last years, or hours of our life.  He would say there is always hope, even when we don’t notice it, or expect it.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Contemplating sliding scales

I have an essay out in this month's Nature Chemistry —"It figures" — about how the computational tools we use shape what we teach and not necessarily in good ways.  It's framed around slide rules, an obsolete analog computer that used to be as much a marker for nerd as a plastic pocket protector.  Science and engineering students wore them like light sabers on their belts.

They've faded from popular imagination, most of my students have never heard the term, or if they have, don't really know what they look like.  The last slide rule slid out the door of Keuffel & Esser in 1975 (they sent their engraving equipment to the Smithsonian).  A few years ago ThinkGeek sold replicas. You can still find the classics, used and even unopened packages ready to sell to engineers and scientists.  The Oughtred Society has a online museum, as well.

Writing this article reminded me of the aesthetic pleasures of non-electronic geeky things. Like my stereoviewer for looking at stereopics of molecules.  It's like the difference between chopping my onions with the deliciously sharp knife I brought back for The Egg from Japan and tossing them into the food processor.  Perhaps slide rules are like rosaries, a way to mindfulness and contemplation for scientists?

It reminds me a bit of this poem by the Muslim mystic Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī, though for her it was potatoes, not onions.

Don't know how to use a slide rule?  It's fun, it's geeky. No need to buy one to play, check out this simulator and these instructions (written to respond to Crash's questions) at Nature Chemistry!

You can read the article here:  http://rdcu.be/sY5Q