On being an impure woman

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Vultures: those vile, wonderful custodians of the earth…

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart recently explained why she did not try to escape her captors despite having some opportunities to do so, and her testimony is shocking. She claims that after being raped, she remembered her teacher comparing a woman who has sex before marriage to a “chewed-up piece of gum,” and this caused her terrible guilt. Smart felt that a 14-year-old Christian girl who was no longer a virgin was not worth rescuing. Though Smart’s teachers and religious parents probably had the best of intentions, it’s worth noting that they were not preaching abstinence as a practice – they were preaching the archaic, pernicious, metaphysical concept of “purity” as a measure of worth. This is the same concept that Islamic extremists exploit when they recruit female suicide bombers using rape. Purity is a barbaric idea from a time when a family had to guard a girl’s virginity for financial reasons. And like Elizabeth Smart, I learned it in school.

Sex-wise, I have one thing to say to the young: there is no purity. There is only “I choose to have sex ’round now” and “I choose not to have sex ’round now.” I consider myself an impure woman. I hated my abstinence-only sex education class so much I jumped up and yelled at the teacher. But there were more than 30 girls in that class with me, and statistically speaking, I may be the last “virgin” standing. Women are people, not paints, extracts, or pharmaceuticals.

But the idea that a person can be pure goes beyond sex. One may consider oneself racially pure, although the geneticists will laugh at that. One may obsess over the purity of one’s diet, or the cleanliness of one’s home. And what is extremism but the desire for purity of thought? You can see why I am alarmed and repelled by anyone who tries to tell me I should be pure. Tell me I should be good, conscientious, brave, scrupulous, and reasonable, but never tell me I should be pure.

I am NOT pure. I tell morbid jokes, I’ve written erotica (that you will never, ever see), I have violent thoughts about people I dislike, I think True Blood is awesome, I love meat and chocolate, and, to the horror of my friends who have good taste in music, I have danced to Kreashawn’s “Gucci Gucci.” Vices all, but my friends have pointed out that some of my virtues are highly eccentric, and thus also impure.

As Primo Levi points out in The Periodic Table, life, and possibly the universe itself, cannot function without impurities: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” This is a scientific fact. Without entropy physics collapses; without genetic mutations biology collapses. Everyone knows about how an oyster needs grit to make a pearl. And those creepy, revolting vultures in the Audubon print? Ecosystems falter without them, as the Indians learned when they accidentally decimated their vulture population with pesticides.

Nerds vs. Breaking Bad

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I love chemistry.

My late grandfather was a chemist who worked in dyes at a local mill. He was apparently some kind of impoverished prodigy, and the Dow corporation once tried to recruit him (he turned them down for reasons unknown.) And far back in the mists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both sides of my family produced a few other chemists and engineers. We don’t know where their money went, but they existed. So chemistry is in my blood. Well, it’s in everyone’s blood, but you know what I mean.

I enjoyed chemistry in high school. My teacher was a boring old man everyone hated, but that didn’t stop me from poring over my textbook every night. I even started to use Lewis electron dot structures as a form of emotional expression; “I am in an octet today,” I would say when I was feeling withdrawn. I should have signed up for AP chemistry, but the rich kids in the AP classes were snobby and mean and surprisingly stupid, and I had taken college prep algebra instead of honors algebra, and so on. My lack of formal education did not stop me from buying a periodic table poster and developing a deep obsession with Primo Levi, however.

Now I’ve picked up the thread using online resources, and when I finally get my butt back in school I plan to study chemistry. I’m nuts about it. It makes me happy. Yesterday I wrote a song about the spin quantum numbers, based on “This Magic Moment”:

This magnetic moment
So different and so new
Was like any other
Until I spun you

And then it happened
New quanta we surmised
I saw that you had spin too
By the double emission spectra lines

Wolfgang Pauli just knew (Pauli just knew)
What an electron could do (electron could do)
He could do everything (do everything)
To make Mendeleev sing

This magnetic moment
Will keep the orbitals aligned
Maybe forever
Depending on space and tiiiiime

Someone told me this song means I’ve hit Peak Nerd. They are wrong. Bohemian Gravity is Peak Nerd, and I only wish I’d done something like that.

Unfortunately for nerds, the unethical applications of chemistry are having a bit of a cultural and historical moment.

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645 evils/mol

Breaking Bad, AMC’s beloved series about a cancer-afflicted chemistry teacher who becomes head of a meth-dealing empire, comes to an end tonight. It’s all anyone’s been talking about. I must say that I admire this show’s style and its determination to get the chemistry right (see related articles), but a big part of me can’t wait for the final curtain to fall. Other chemistry-lovers see Breaking Bad as thought-provoking entertainment, and can easily laugh off the facetious assertions lobbed by their non-nerd friends. A white lower-income East Tennesseean may be forgiven for laughing a little less. When the head of my public housing development dropped by my apartment for a brief inspection, I considered hiding my science homework. “You’re cooking!” is not a joke where I live – it’s an allegation.

This must have been what physics nerds felt like in the 1950s, when Albert Einstein died and the mutant ants from Them! replaced him in the national consciousness. Conversations about the shady side of science are important, so very important, and yet for nerds they can grate. When media depictions of science become frightful enough, the line between “Caution, nerds, don’t let yourselves become power-hungry greed-monsters” and “All nerds are power-hungry greed-monsters” can become blurred. I hate them blurred lines.

I can’t help but be reminded of Primo Levi, my favorite writer and in many ways the anti-Walter White. Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian-Jewish chemist who got involved with anti-Nazi activities in the Italian Alps, and was sent to Auschwitz as a result. The tale of his survival is tied up in chemistry – he had fever dreams about carbon atoms that briefly and crucially reminded him that life was worth clinging to; a comparatively cushy job as a slave in an IG Farben chemistry lab kept him from starving to death, and also provided him the bizarre experience of meeting German chemists who were working in Auschwitz. And of course the threat of being gassed, as his girlfriend and comrades had been, hung over him ever hour of every day. When he returned to Italy and began working in the paint and varnish industry, he found that his sense of morality was fine-tuned, almost painfully exquisite, as a result of his suffering.

Just as the scientific character leaked into his writings on the Holocaust (Cynthia Ozick referred to him as “a Darwin of the death camps”; she meant this as a dig but Levi would consider it a compliment), the Holocaust leaked into his writings about science. When The Periodic Table is not busy being brilliant and amazingly fucking beautiful, it often concerns itself with what it means to be a good chemist in a world of gas chambers and meth – though he does not mention the latter. What to do when reason is a tool of fascism but also, oddly, its antidote?

Chemistry…let to the heart of Matter, and Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to fascism, was our enemy…After being force-fed in liceo the truths revealed by Fascist Doctrine, all revealed, unproven truths either bored me stiff or aroused my suspicion.

In Other People’s Trades, he concluded that knowledge is a form of redemption, an imperfect redemption but one that could cover a multitude of sins.

The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return of barbarism.

This is my view as well. Yesterday I was outside reading The Greatest Show on Earth when a young boy approached me and started chatting with me about science. He was a little professor who knew things about whales and insects that I, 21 years old and counting, did not know, though I was able to make up for it by sharing my knowledge of birds and minerals. He also got a perfect score on the math section of the T-CAPS despite going to a dismal inner-city school. His goal is to become an engineer who works with vehicles and renewable energy. This is my portrait of redemption: two geeks from the projects trade nature facts and become friends, illustrating what Breaking Bad gets wrong. In Breaking Bad, education makes you a great meth dealer. In life, it keeps “meth dealer” off the list of career options.

An awkward shiksa’s encounters with Holocaust literature

Too painful to read more than once a year.

This book is too painful to read more than once a year. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I love Holocaust literature. It seems a little weird, to declare one’s love for something so unenjoyable, but there you go. I’d say it’s a combination of the thoroughly fascinating history (I read nonfiction about both World Wars as well), the high literary quality of many works I’ve found, and certain personal factors which I shall explore here. Note that this is not a strictly informative post. Strictly informative posts may be forthcoming, however.

Continue reading

Once Were Warblers

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It’s Thursday, May 16, and I feel like I’m backsliding into nothingness, into a bog of scatterbrained depression where I fear I may spend the rest of my life. Because of my disorganization I managed to miss the second half of my midterm in MITx biology, putting me in danger of not earning a certificate of completion. Who cares about a certificate of completion? I don’t know. It may be spiritual. Any faltering in an online course, especially if it’s my own fault, seems to me proof that I don’t deserve a second chance and will never amount to anything.

When Primo Levi (one of my favorite writers) was in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take an oral chemistry exam so he could work in a factory and get better rations. After being kept waiting on his feet for ten hours, he was taken into a room with a calm, banal German officer who could easily have condemned him to die. And he, nervous, literally starving, out-of-practice, exhausted, embarrassed of his appearance, and working outside his native language, passed that exam. In chemistry. Which is hard. This is the sort of anecdote that is either inspiring or unbearable depending on one’s situation. Right now it makes me feel like a nematode.

My solace, as is often the case, has avian sources. This past Sunday I went up into the Cumberland Mountains with my family to look for nesting birds. It was a clear, sunny day, surely one of the last cool days of an unusually cool spring, and wildflowers were in bloom all across the forest floor. The leaves on the trees at that altitude were not yet completely unfurled; they glowed light green in the sun. I confess that I separated myself from my family so that I could absorb this bit of Appalachian quietude into my own skin, accompanied by my own thoughts. I heard Northern Parulas buzzing in the treetops, but I could not get a look at them – which is normal, because they are tiny and prefer to stay hidden in the canopy.

After I had absorbed enough Appalachian quietude, I intercepted my search party on the gravel mining trail. My timing was lucky. We ran into a cell of neotropical migrant birds, including a black-and-white warbler (like the one in the photo), a rose-breasted grosbeak, a hooded warbler, a blue-winged warbler, and some Eastern wood-pewees. Our most impressive find in birder’s terms was a blue-headed vireo yelping from the branches of a tuliptree. It was my first blue-headed vireo: life bird #139. Stephen has already blogged the vireo.

There is no failure in birding, except perhaps in the most competitive circles. Finding all the warblers made ours a fruitful outing indeed, yet even if we’d come up empty we could have still wandered among the wild rhododendrons and called it a victorious nature walk. How ironic that bearing close witness to the trials, travails, and little chirping results of evolution is the one thing that frees me from the idea that everything is about fighting and judging and winning and clawing one’s way to the increasingly unattainable American dream and being hard on oneself because that’s what winners do. It’s not that birds are an excuse to be lazy so much as an excuse not to collapse into suicidal depressions over mistakes and obstacles. To both the prophets of old and the secularized geeks of the 21st century, they are a constant reminder that the petty, psychotic social world of human beings is not all that exists in the universe.