Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Periodic Lent - Chlorine

Today, the Second Sunday of Lent, we hear the gospel about the Transfiguration, which uses an interesting term...
And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white. [Mark 9:2]
One translation (perhaps of the parallel in another gospel) says something like "whiter than any bleach could achieve" - yes, a "fuller" is one who bleaches fabric. One of our modern bleaches is often termed "chlorine" - though this is a common expression, and not chemical. It is not the element, but it contains chlorine, as it is a solution of sodium hypochlorite, NaClO. The element chlorine is a yellow-green gas, very poisonous and reactive.

We need not even reach under the sink to find a chemical containing chlorine - right here on our tables and stoves we can find common table salt, which is sodium chloride, NaCl. It should come as a perennial surprise to us that this useful and important substance is a strange yoking of two terrible and powerful reactive enemies - we shall discuss salt later in our series, but indeed we might find it here a suggestion or symbol of the mystery of the hypostatic union, unveiled for a moment on the mountain top.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Periodic Lent - Silver

Today let us consider the metal called "silver" which has been known throughout human history since it is bright and shiny - the metal itself can be found in the native state. It is mentioned many times in the Bible, and it has a very particular role in the Passion:
Then went one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, to the chief priests. And said to them: What will you give me, and I will deliver him unto you? But they appointed him thirty pieces of silver. [Mt 26:14-15]
Besides its use in coinage and jewelery, it is important because of its high conductivity but especially because certain compounds are sensitive to light. These perform an amazing change from white to black upon exposure to light, which enables them to be used as the basis for photographic film - the black is actually metallic silver in a colloidal form. The chemical reaction is irreversible - but let us recall, as Judas refused to recall, that the blackness of sin is not irreversible:
Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. [Ps 50:9]

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Periodic Lent - Chromium

I had intended to post again last week, but things got in the way, so here we are. Today let us consider Chromium, a wonderful metal named for the Greek word for "color". Most people think of chromium from its use as the silver-bright mirror metal in the ornamental parts of cars and motorcycles, but I chose it as the element to suggest the agony in the garden of Gethsemani, since that name means "olive-press": the famous compound chromic oxide, Cr2O3, is used as a green pigment and is rather olive in tone. It "is used as a pigment when chemical and heat resistance are required. It is also used as a ceramic color, for coloring cement, for green granules in asphalt roofing, for camouflage plaints and in the production of chromium metal and Al-Cr master alloys." [The Encyclopedia of Chemical Elements 151. I used this text elsewhere in this posting.]

One of the many fascinating facts about this element is that it was discovered by a Catholic, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin (1763-1829). See here for more about him.

The name "chromium" is aptly chosen, since its compounds can come in many colors. Generally, the chromous salts, Cr++, are blue, whereas the chromic salts, Cr+++, are green or blue or violet. The element also forms anions of great importance: the chromates, CrO4--, are yellow (though the insoluble silver chromate is red); the dichromates, Cr2O7--, are orange-red or red.

The metal itself is hard and blue-white, and crystallizes in the cubic system. It is used in a variety of applications, including coating, plating, and a number of alloys.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Periodic Lent - Potassium

For Lent of 2010, I hope to consider twenty of the chemical elements, posting every other day a brief consideration of that element and its place in the spirituality of Lent, the Passion, and the Gospels.

Today being Ash Wednesday, let us consider Potassium, the reactive silvery metal which is one of the alkali metals. Why? Let us see...
Potash, or potassium carbonate, had been produced by leaching wood ashes and was well known, being commonly used for soap making. The preparation of potassium carbonate or "potash" by leaching and concentrating wood ashes was the subject of the first United States patent, issued to Samuel Hopkins. ... Beginning in the early years of colonization of the American continent large areas of woods were burned to secure the ashes, which contained potassium carbonate. By leaching with water, the potassium carbonate was removed, and concentrated to the lye solution by boiling. Potassium carbonate was an important export from the United States and Canada beginning in 1635 and continuing through 1865.
[The Encyclopedia of the Chemical Elements 552]
It therefore comes as no surprise to hear the Psalm recited today which prays:
Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. [Ps 50:4]
Potassium hydroxide is a strongly corrosive substance; it can erode flesh - handle with care.

Potassium is an important element in life; along with Nitrogen and Phosporus it is one of the three "dimensions" of fertilizers. Along with its very similar brother Sodium it is used to accomplish the signalling of nerves - today as we begin Lent, let us praise our Lord for giving us this splendid element, let us pray to be ennervated to cleanse ourselves, even as with lye, from all evil, and that we may be nourished as plants are fertilized with potassium: to live and to grow, and to bear much fruit.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cover Art for The Tree of Virtues

As we gear up for Quadragesima, the great 40 day anticipation of Easter, there are a number of loose ends awaiting knots. (That seems to be happening a lot more frequently these days!)

We are also preparing for the tenth anniversary of Subsidiarity - that is, March 2, 2000, which is the day when our famous spot transport system for cable television went live, and proceeded to run 24/7 for over five years - that's the one based on those papal encyclicals and their Catholic Social Teaching. And you thought that papal encyclicals weren't relevant to today's technology! Or, perhaps I should say, and you thought today's technology was somehow unaware of divine inspiration! Hee hee. Yes, someday you'll be able to read more about it... but for now we simply prepare. There are some issues being raised about that topic over on the ACS blogg, which is a grand thing, very interesting and stimulating. If you play baseball, you like playing catch - and if you like writing software, you like talking about how you've done it, and how you might do more, and maybe even write stories about writing software... And that's how it works! Chesterton isn't the only one who uses the semicolon; do you know why? Hee hee!

But of course there's more to software than Subsidiarity, just as there's more to the Papacy than technology - but remember it wasn't me who gave the Pope that title of Pontifex Maximus = "Greatest Bridge-Builder"!!! Ah... but there's also more to my business just now, and I would like to show you just a little of what has been happening.

Now, as it turns out, I must be very careful with any announcements I make these days about stories. I have rather painted myself into a topological corner, you see - things happen, and I have to be much more circumspect. You would not want your stories spoiled by the author's foolish blabbing about exciting parts, would you? Of course not! So I have had to edit the picture, just slightly, to avoid giving you a hint about something. What picture? This one:

This is a portion of the cover art for the sequel to The Three Relics, called "The Tree of Virtues", the next portion of the larger saga which is under development... (I will tell you its name one of these days, but not just now.)

Now, most likely you will immediately recognize two people here. On the left, the great, the mighty and world-famous jazz trombonist, Bo Reynolds. On the right, the man whom some call "The Hermite of the 21st century", the brilliant Doctor Erich Weitzmann: mathematician, theorist, philosopher.

Both of these great men happened to be at Collins University on the same day in November of 2008 - and so a strange and marvellous opportunity was provided... For as you can see, one of our young friends, Chuck Weller, a junior in high school, who by an incredible piece of luck, is jamming with Bo!

The other young man is Chuck's classmate Steve Brown, known to those who have read The Horrors in the Attic (part III of The Three Relics) or any of the "Kathedral Kids" stories.

You may be wondering what that odd little round thing in the lower left is. It is NOT a CD player. It is an intensely beefed up edition of the old "Simon Says" memory game from some years ago, built by a man named Paul LeTrobe at the request of Robert Felsen - a name which may cause a slight tingling to those who have been following the saga.

Note: Dr. Thursday's stories are on sale at all bookstores of Quayment, but if you don't live close enough to get there, you can always see if Loome has a used copy.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Struggling to Write Poetry

To Meredith of For Keats' Sake, in Grad School

(Made by Dr. Thursday February 3, 2010. I hope this helps. I've been too busy for poems for too long, and it felt good to prescribe such a remedy. --Dr. T.)

"I have no idea where they came from, but I remember those startling inner weathers; the haze of meter that crept around things and turned the moon into a drum and the wine glass into an organ pipe; those urgent voices. I was spoiled, I guess; and if this “inspiration” was so important, why was it wasted on juvenilia? Sounds suspiciously like adolescent vapors to me. Except that I remember feeling it for the first time when I was nine, and it followed me faithfully through my first year at college. Now it’s over. Instead of being driven to scribbling by eerie, Apollonian compulsion, I am sitting down and saying, “Now I will write a sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet. About… something.” I have been going on like this for two or three years now, and even though I get little zaps of muse every once in a great while, it’s hard to make myself care. I think it’s telling me to shake things up and do things differently; and I’m confident now that it will show me something new once I’ve slogged away on my own for awhile."
--Meredith, Jan 31, 2010

"He did no work lately; sometimes sat and stared at a blank sheet of paper as if he had no ideas."
"Or as if he had too many," said Gabriel Gale.
-- GKC "The Purple Jewel" in The Poet and the Lunatics

One of the first problems to be faced at Niagara was how to get a wire over the gorge and its violent river. Ellet solved that nicely by offering five dollars to the first American boy to fly a kite over to the Canadian side. The prize was won by young Homer Walsh, who would tell the story for the rest of his days.
[John McCullough, The Great Bridge 76]

"Your guardian angel whispers a line to you, then challenges you to finish it."
-- a dear friend, Dr. Ruth Stickney, on how poetry is written (personal communication)

"keep poetry as a moment of peace"
-- Sheila of Enchiridion, Sept 10 2007

A poet, fruitless, chilled in winter's blight,
Her footless, rhymeless words in deepest freeze:
Her pen in hand a sonnet she would write -
A hockey goalie wearing alpine skiis,
Defenceless from the pucks that sting like bees.
But soon Sol shall spring from her austral den
The verbal glaciers melt in Paschal breeze -
The world will still be there beyond your pen.

A poet, lampless, lost in starless night,
She cannot see the verses for the trees;
Lost on that Logos way, lost not her sight,
From Dante's beasts on ev'ry side she flees,
To live, to write - in ordered, just decrees.
Your road you'll see soon, like that crossing hen,
For dawn was made to light nights such as these!
The world will still be there beyond your pen.

A poet, pathless, weighed down from her flight
Falls down in wordless prayer upon her knees:
A chasm bridged by Walsh's feeble kite,
A light-speed net unplagued by user fees,
Frail sail, yet crossing interstellar seas:
Per quem omnia: stones, beasts, stars and men,
The Spirit whispers, now her heart agrees...
The world will still be there beyond your pen.

Oh Meredith, drink wine or nibble cheese!
That rhyming time of peace shall come again;
In God's good time He will unlock your keys;
The world will still be there beyond your pen.