Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

I tried to read Infinite Jest but got bogged down about 2% in (which is still longer than some books). Still, I enjoyed David Foster Wallace's digressive, honest, and compassionate voice. Then his famous commencement address blew me away, and George Sanders' Tenth of December kept getting compared to Wallace, so I gave Brief Interviews with Hideous Men a try. It's full of short -- some very short -- stories and most of them are, as advertised, brief and in the voice of hideous males, although usually that adjective only becomes obvious gradually. If anything, the feel is that of a horror story, and although Wallace is about as good as King in creating warmth in the face of very dark subjects, the warmth here is always ambivalent and contradictory. The men are hideous but they hide it well. It depressed me a little to be a man and I'm glad it wasn't longer because I don't think I could take much more of the darkness. I have to say that this book probably needs to be balanced by the notes in Infinite Jest, for example, and I don't recommend reading it on its own. But for a dark, disturbing book, it does have a few elements of light. Definitely at the very least incomplete on its own. But Wallace's voice is a literary treasure and it adds up to be worth reading, if a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book Review: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman

The book My Bright Abyss is subtitled Meditation of a Modern Believer, but the believer of the subtitle (Christian Wiman) is a poet who deconstructs and inverts the very word belief. It's not for nothing that someone else called Wiman the "atheist Christian." He's fond of apophatic language (describing God, not by what God is like, but by what God is not like), paradox, and the search for meaning in silence despite a loud, modern world set against anything quiet. But this is not Chesteron's sometimes-too-triumphant paradox, it is a true puzzle that no one knows. What shapes Wiman's whole perspective is a seven-year struggle with a rare cancer and the intense intimacy with pain and struggle that comes with that. Wiman also believes that Christ is God and that God was crucified (he also quotes Jurgen Moltmann on this) -- that God was somehow calling out to Godself when he cried "Why have you forsaken me?"

Overall, this book is billed as modern, and Wiman is thoroughly modern, but his perspective on suffering and the cross feels old, like a medieval saint's reflections, with shades of Kierkegaard. This book is hard going at times, just like life is, but it is dense and rewarding. There are a few head-scratching moments, like when Wiman mistakes Isaiah for Elijah, and I would like to know more about what Wiman thinks about scripture's poetry, the stories we share as Christians, although there are frequent enough allusions to it. I'd like to know more. Hopefully there will be a next book, the Gilead to this book's Housekeeping (to continue the Robinson references). I think sometimes Wiman tilts too far toward the question when there is a partial, through-a-glass-darkly answer to ponder. I occasionally found this book frustrating and slow but in a good way, like a hard poem. Wiman's voice is a unique creation and well worth hearing in the harmony of the believers.

Monday, September 16, 2013

See-Thru Dirt

In Star Trek IV, Scotty famously gives away the chemical formula for transparent aluminum to a 20th-century engineer. The formula for transparent soil is not quite as sexy but it is better because it exists (at least, that engineer's company should be making the transparent aluminum by now, don't you think?). Information here.

Transparent soil can be considered to be even more interesting than a fictional super-hard glass. A menagerie of microorganisms live both on and in roots. Microscopic armies attack roots and kill crops. Now with transparent soil we can watch as it happens, and who knows what we'll see?

Thrifty Idea of the Week

How's this for a thrifty idea? Build big greenhouses next to power plants. Take the carbon dioxide exhaust from a power plant and use it to grow plants you can eat. The natural carbon-fixing biochemistry of the plants turns waste gas into tomatoes. Oh, and someone's already doing it.

Even if you doubt the warming influence of CO2, that doesn't really matter here -- it's about making tomatoes from what would be thrown away even more than what the thrown away stuff would do once it's thrown away.

I don't know how much of a dent this actually makes in rising CO2 levels (probably not much really), and I'm not sure how the workers in the greenhouse are impacted by higher CO2 (it's probably low enough that they are unaffected). But it seems like a good idea overall. Let's close the carbon loop.

Friday, September 13, 2013

When the Scriptures of Science Fail

Sometimes the best part of the book comes out after it's published. Rebecca Skloot's book on Henrietta Lacks led to many fascinating developments after it came out, including a remarkable agreement on her genome publication with Lacks's family, something that would never have been possible without the book. Into the Wild by John Krakauer is now another example. Why did Chris McCandless starve in a bus walking distance from a highway? Krakauer originally had a biochemical explanation for this, but recent evidence has come out that refocuses and implicates a different biochemical cause. Read about it here.

What strikes me about the story now is that McCandless trusted his field guide. He had to. He was right to. It represented centuries of experience. But that field guide did not include the fact that, in a weakened state, eating this one plant would have enough of a neurotoxin to take out the nerves, moving your legs in a slow, weakening erosion of your ability to keep yourself alive. The field guide was flawed. (I'm even leaving out the part about how he could have crossed the river to safety if he had a good enough map ... )

McCandless trusted his book, and his book let him down. This can happen with any book -- all knowledge is incomplete. Scientific summaries of experience may be more reliable but they are still incomplete.

This is true with the Hebrew Scriptures, too. When Israel trusted their rituals and the presence of the temple in Jerusalem, trusting that this would protect the nation from invaders, they were shown to be wrong. (Well, right with Assyria, wrong with Babylon, it's complicated.) Both stories show that books can let you down.

But the story with Israel is more complicated. Israel was ignoring the book as it trusted in the building. Particularly brushed under the rug were passages in the Torah against idolatry and worship with the heart. Prophets pointed this out; false prophets reassured that it was OK ("The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord"). Then judgement came, and the unique place on earth where the Lord of the cosmos was worshipped was leveled. Even now, that feels wrong, unfair, disproportionate. The sheer cry of lament in Lamentations shows just how horrible it was. My heart takes Israel's side in this, probably as a defensive maneuver for my own coverups.

Yet, in the face of a cataclysm, embers survived, waiting for breath to glow again. The Jewish faith survived the destruction of the temple, rising from the ashes. And then the second temple was destroyed -- and Israel survived, and Christianity rose as well. The second destruction led to two religions where before there had been one. Who could predict that?

Faith is not faith that nothing bad will ever happen. Faith is faith that when the bad things happen that God remains faithful. Even when death happens, times thousands.

I don't know how it all adds up. There are always false prophets and idols in every person's own mind. There are times of adundance and times of abundance. A time to be born and a time to die.

When you're going out by yourself, a science field guide is the only community you have. It, like any community, can let you down, and may be more likely to let you down than a living, breathing community, as messed up as that community may be.

In the middle of all this "letting down" -- books letting us down, friends letting us down, ourselves letting us down every hour -- faith says, despite what it looks like right now, I know God holds us in his hand. It's a simple point, but it's a point I hear in the story of McCandless as it's now told. Rest in peace, Chris.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Summer Making Proteins

This summer I supervised a student project in which a student made four new versions of the protein we study, and then we tested them for binding to learn about the molecular basis of transplantation immunology. The data is coming in now and it looks good. This is just one of a dozen projects that went on over the summer in the chemistry/biology area, and they all got together for presentations and an end-of-summer BBQ.

Here's pictures and titles to give you an idea of the scope of what went on. Water bears! Next-generation sequencing! Metal-organic frameworks for hydrogen storage! Our students will have a lot to say when people ask what they did over summer vacation. Nice job, everyone.

Hearing New Puns by Using an Old Accent

By reconstructing ancient accents, professors have found that Shakespeare is a lot punnier than we knew. The old accent sounds like Scottish or Welsh to me, and my favorite result is what happens when "proved" and "loved" actually rhyme (about 2/3 through I think):

The Tardis in the Van Gogh

A great episode of Doctor Who involved time traveling to solve the mystery of a rampaging alien with none other than Vincent Van Gogh. But what made it truly great was that all that stuff was wrapped up 3/4 of the way through the episode. The last act involved the Doctor and Amy taking Vincent .... well, I won't ruin it, but it was low-key and absolutely beautiful (and it even involved Bill Nighy). At the end of the episode you can see how Vincent worked the Doctor and Amy into one of his paintings, at the beginning there was a sighting of the alien in another Van Gogh, and then later in the series, Van Gogh paints an exploding Tardis. Three Van Goghs and three involvements of the Doctor. In fiction. Right?

That's all very nice, but it (sort of) happened in real life. Recently an old Van Gogh landscape was found that was previously deemed a fake, but it looks like it's truly a Van Gogh. And in the back left of this newly discovered Van Gogh is ... a blue box?!

You know that newfound Van Gogh painting has the TARDIS in it, right?

Close enough for impressionism. Strange but true. Source of info here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Everything You Need to Know about Radiation

When I was in tenth-grade US history, the teacher allowed us to take one sheet of paper along for the test as a crib sheet. Anything could be hand-written on that sheet of paper. I was the sort who'd cram in basically all possible text onto every inch of space so that from a distance it looked like one big blue ink-spot covering both sides of the paper. (I didn't notice at the time that in the process of creating the crib sheet I learned everything twice, so I rarely used it on the test!) If I had those same parameters for physics tests on radiation, it would have looked something like the picture below, but it wouldn't have been half as nice. Also, the fundamental physics is the same so all the information is as relevant today as it used to be when the chart was made. Enjoy! (Here is where I found it and a link to a bigger version.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The LEGO Laboratory

Who needs 3D printing in the lab? Just use LEGOs. See these two instruments from the Brothers Brick website:

1.) The working LEGO compound microscope
LEGO Microscope MkII - Hero

2.) The working LEGO balance
Scientific Scales

What's next? The working LEGO GC-MS? (It could work at low temps, right?)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Living from the Diaphragm

In church, I love it when the translation is wrong.

In a sense, the translation is always wrong. When reading the New Testament, we're always fitting English words over the Greek, and sometimes they fit snugly, while other times they don't fit at all, hanging off in one place, pinching in another, truncating and even obscuring the best parts.

Just today this showed up in Romans 12:3. Romans 12:1-2 is one of the most well-read verses, and justly so. Romans 12:3 is different because it's practical and straightforward, and it can also be deflected and moved past a little too easily if you're not careful.

Romans 12:3 reads "Don't be uperphronein but rather be sōphronein," which is translated something like "Don't be high-minded but be sober-minded." That works, but it sounds a little bumper-stickery, maybe too moralistic. Don't drink and drive, you know. If you didn't come to church drunk then you can pat yourself on the back and move on. You'd be missing the heart of the verse.

If words were garments, then one of these fits well while the other doesn't. Uperphronein as "high-minded" fits pretty well -- you can even see the "Uper" that relates to our "hyper" or "uber-" prefix. But the "so" in sophronein is not really about sobering up, it's more about being sane and being safe. It's about being balanced and connected with reality rather than disconnected. The person who has unplugged from the lying distant voices online, the one connected to local reality, seasons, rhythms, and relationships is the one who is "sophronein." "Safe" is also a nice angle on this word. I want my students to be "safe-minded" in lab, so we take care and work deliberately.

Also, the "phronein" has multiple layers of meaning. It's about how you see yourself, so "-minded" works, but it's also about much more. It's about the center of things, where your heart is, and how you have trained yourself to see, how you self-control ot regulate yourself. It comes from the root "phren", which means the regulator of all other things. We get the word "diaphragm" from it, and this is where it really makes sense for me.

Soon after I joined choir (and married the accompanist), I learned that I wasn't singing right. I may have had emotion and volume but it was not regulated. I wasn't singing from the diaphragm. I had to learn to stand stright, shoulders back, breathe deep, and most of all, keep the right things tense and the right things loose.

The diaphragm supports all the other things going on -- it is the core and the discipline regulating all other singing. Every time we sing the first thing we do is take 5-10 minutes to sing warm-ups, nonsensical sounds that are designed to get the diaphragm toned up and regulating the way it should. It is boring, it is work, it is hard, and some days are better than others, but it comes from a true place, which is the constant need to hold the diaphragm right as you're singing. Your heart may in the right place, but if your diaphragm isn't, you won't sound right.

Paul is saying here that we need to live warmed-up, and need to maintain self-control in all things, including especially our self-assessment of "how am I doing today." We'll mess up, sometimes even when we warmed up right, sometimes in a place where everyone can see, sometimes where only God can see. The danger is not in the messing up but in thinking too highly of ourselves so that we don't give ourselves the chance to mess up.

Live loud and balanced, from the diaphragm.

All that is contained in a contrast between two Greek words, and it's well-nigh impossible to capture in English so succinctly. So there are tools online to help you unpack (I like the Biblos Interlinear Greek Bible, as someone who doesn't really know Greek at all!). These tools help me hear more layers of what there is to hear and help bridge the gap between the 21st-century English and the 1st-century Greek. Inbetween are textures of meaning. It adds another dimension to reading, and it allows the ancient words to speak more clearly.