About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

The Nobility and Inanity of Work

I’ve recently been formulating a renewed underpinning of my work as a scientist: namely love. When I was in college I had rooted it in truth and the early Christian notion that Christ is the truth; and so somehow, mysteriously the work of uncovering scientific truth, was, for me, about coming closer to Christ.

But in my late college years, and after, my epistemological confidence was eroded; I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe some classes by Fred Aquino or Paul Morris, maybe reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, maybe just losing my first faith. In any case my impression of my nearness to truth shifted by a few miles. And especially in the realm of scientific knowledge, that distance has remained for me. It’s not that science is so often wrong, but that it is so limited. The assumptions under a particular scientific theory are always hidden from view until many decades or centuries later when, say, observations become precise enough the theory itself starts to break down. Take as an example the assumption that the earth was at the center of the universe, or that light must have been mediated by some substance call it ether, or that space was euclidean, or that the universe was stationary. I think these broken assumptions from the history of science severely dampened my drive to do it. My doubt killed my scientific motive.

Now a deeply-rooted motive is not necessary for me to keep moving in some particular choice of work. Thus I returned to study physics at the age of 25 simply because I knew I liked teaching science, and I liked the academic environment. Nevertheless, my mind is always searching for a deeply-rooted motive. And slowly it has begun to settle on a theological notion with kinship to truth, love. They are kin, but they are not on the same plane. Love lies down, down, down at the very bottom of everything. Love, I am coming to believe, is the fundamental principle of reality. What does this mean, fundamental principle? Oh, well, that I don’t know. I don’t know what these words mean exactly. Something like the defining characteristic of God, or the thing that makes all things go, or the reason the world is, or some such thing.

And love, I think, begins with the meeting of two persons. Not one person and one object, but two living, choosing, free personalities. Man and woman, friend and friend, man and God, God and creation, mother and child, man and beast, and then the ones that are a little off my map, man and wilderness, man and tree, man and river, tree and river. I certainly don’t know, but I like to speculate in a medieval sort of way that all creation is permeated with personality.

So love, I think, begins with the meeting of two persons. And then it is sealed in a covenant between them, some sort of promise to bend oneself toward the other’s good, no matter what the other does or does not do.

And then love, I think, is tested and deepened with knowledge, knowledge of the other. And this knowledge, of that other creature over there, is a limited sort of knowledge since it is knowledge of a wild and free person, not of static object. And it is a subjective sort of knowledge since it is housed in the hazy mind of another wild and free person. But it is also an essentially objective knowledge, because there really is a creature there. There’s a real being and a truth about who that being is. The good and the bad.

And finally love, I think, is actually exercised by releasing control, by giving up ones power over the other. The actual act of love toward which everything else is building, is a divine act of letting be. It’s the act of God toward the early Jewish nation as they took up worship of multiple gods, or set up a king over themselves, or massacred and subjected other tribes and called it holy. It’s the act of Christ toward the world as he took off the mantle of godhood and bound himself inside a body in Palestine at a particular instant in history. It’s the act of a father who sees his son make dangerous or erratic choices and lets him do it, lets the young man be. It’s the act of a mother who receives dart after dart of a son’s anger or shame and takes them into her flesh without flinging them back. It’s the act of a lover who sees her beloved’s sin and ugliness and still comes to him. It’s the act of a self-loather who looks boldly at the mistakes and wastes of his soul and says, ‘come home; you are my own self; I will learn to love you.’ It’s the act of the sustainer of the world letting each creature in each new generation choose and explore.

All of these acts of love require knowledge and right judgment, which is terrifying when its me being known, me being judged. As those who love me begin to know me more wholly more and more unpleasant odors leake out around my edges. More and more resons to reject me show up. But the true lover’s response to knowledge of the beloved is: ‘Nevertheless I will always love you.’

And that can be a motive for scientific work, knowledge of God’s good earth, so that I may love it, and set up a little man cave in it, and revel in it, and let it be. And not just me but everyone whose knowledge of the universe is helped along a little, nudged toward the truth by my work.

Okay, so now the inane part. That’s heavy. And truthfully I carry it around in my mind only on the rare morning that I’m thinking very hard about why in hell I’m doing what I’m doing. So what’s the motive for my work when I’m not thinking so hard? Many things, some good some bad: money, food, pants, acclaim, responsibility, to be near certain people, or just to make it through another day. One motive that startled and pleased me last week was the inane pleasure of solving puzzles.

About ten of us were sitting in Sukanta Bose’s general relativity lecture. He was laying the mathematical groundwork for the theory and had decided to explain some difficult tensor manipulations through examples. The examples ended up rather more difficult than he had thought. He got stumped on a few. And when this very smart lecturer got stumped every single sleepy-eyed physics nerd in the class simultaneously took a shot of cocaine and started mapping out his or her solution on whatever was at hand. We were all trying to be the first to get there. I saw a friend chewing his pencil furiously. It was a wonder to step back and watch my own pleasure in the puzzle, and that of my colleagues and of Dr. Bose. It was what drove us in that moment. Our motive to do physics, to learn this difficult mathematics, wasn’t some sweeping philosophy but a silly little pleasure in puzzles. We solved the problems and Bose moved on. But I paused and jotted down on the back of one of my pages: “The nobility vs. the inanity of work: physicists playing with problems.” Then I added: “what does inanity mean? google it.”

Later I thought maybe this is common to us all. Is it? Does the careful lawyer working for the purpose of justice also get a kick out of the minutiae of judicial history and the precision of language? Does the artist working in the service of love or courage or truth also delight in a particular combination of colors or in the way her pencil feels just so? Does the counselor working to secure shattered lives, working in the service of love, does she also forget her emotional fatigue because of the complexity and interest of a human story? Does the mother who works to bring vulnerable children to strength and peace, who gives of herself for the future of the world, also take a silly pleasure in her child’s whimsies or in the new discipline structure she has invented? Does the farmer who works for my daily bread and husbands the good land wake up excited for work some days simply because he knows and loves the intricacies of his tractor?

If so, isn’t it a wonderful gift that these inane pleasures drive us to work, to make things, to survive together? Thinkers and philosophers may formulate meaningful narratives which uncover work’s purposes, and I may reflect on these purposes at the start of my day, and I may thank God and be the larger for it. But then the bell chimes and I lean into my work and I am small again, a little creature in a big world, solving a set of happy little puzzles, chewing my pencil.


Film Diptych: Our Daily Bread & Babette’s Feast

Sometimes two good films are made even richer held side to side. Here’s a film diptych about food.

Watch Our Daily Bread first. It’s a German documentary without any words or music. The film makers got access to several of the big agricultural businesses in Europe and simply filmed them doing what we pay them to do (grow food, process that food). Have you ever seen the Discovery Channel show How it’s Made? I think it’s hypnotizing. Our Daily Bread is a little like that. But shot by an artist.

Frankly the film is haunting and horrifying. It’s also beautiful. When I squinted my eyes every frame was beautiful, the colors and the lines and movement. In fact there are a lot of scenes dominated with lines, long straight lines.

I was startled by how mechanical the food industry has become. I mean I knew it was highly mechanized, but this is so very sanitized and efficient! There are no smoke smudges or drops of sweat or caterpillars. There are just long straight lines. And many strained, scowling faces of workers. In order to not develop a horrified superiority complex throughout the film remind yourself that these are your factories, my factories.

Then watch Babette’s Feast, a really fun little light-hearted comedy about a strict puritan village somewhere in Scandinavia.

The purist of the puritans, two sisters, take in a french widow, displaced by war or some tragedy. Turns out Babette (that’s the Frenchwoman’s name) is a master artist of french cuisine. Babette, to the confusion and discomfort of the sisters, decides to prepare a single amazing feast in honor of the sisters’ dead father. This is truly uncomfortable for the sisters and all of their disciples because their father preached strongly against sensuality in favor of strict simplicity.

Watching the preparation of that feast, in a 19th Century kitchen with a wood stove and cast iron crockery, is a delight. Here watch a little:

This is bare knuckled cooking. There are lots of smoke smudges and sweaty bonnets and feathers. At the end, the strained faces of the puritans maybe just maybe bend a little into shy smiles.

[ODB images from http://www.ourdailybread.at%5D

Good Music: Mennonite Bluegrass

Just bumped into The Steel Wheels two days ago at the Oak Grove Bluegrass Festival in Verona, Virginia. That was the first time I’d heard of them. I’m on vacation back east, and my dad and I spent Saturday at a local bluegrass festival.

Let me let these guys speak for themselves. A song about the political game:

Have you ever been to a show when the crowd is feeding off the band and the band off the crowd and spontaneous applause erupts in the middle of songs? There are smiles on the stage and eye contact. And the same in the crowd. That’s what The Steel Wheels’ performance at the Oak Grove Festival was like. They performed twice, afternoon and evening, and at both shows we stood up and clapped wildly at the end till they came back. All four musicians were excellent with their instruments. Each of the 3 high stringed instruments took the lead at different times, sometimes competing in the classic bluegrass fashion. All four of their voices were great. They sang several songs in acapella.

Hands down the best part about watching these guys perform was their warmth and engagement with each other. It was obvious they respected and enjoyed one another. Several of them have Mennonite backgrounds, lending them the name The Steel Wheels, I think referring to the carriage wheels of old-order Mennonites.

After the show I got a couple cds. One had a bike on it, and the liner notes hinted at an annual bike tour/musical tour. I looked them up and sure enough, they ride their bikes to 10 shows a year.

What I Learned on the Trail

I stumbled onto a fresh pile of deer droppings: shiny black, oblong. Two beetles were probing about in the mound, looking for who knows what. The larger of the two was furiously spreading the pile of droppings out, toppling the high balanced pellets and rolling them a few inches to the perimeter. The tiny one seemed to be at a loss as to what her role was. She was dancing from one side to the other doing little to help her companion. It seemed he was sorting through the collection, trying to find the best dropping to suit his mysterious and sordid purposes.

Suddenly she was off. The little beetle was rapidly pushing one of the pellets off the pile and along the ground. It was a quick decision, without deliberation, as if a moment of clarity had burst upon her, “ah yes, this one.” She showed astounding strength, rolling the massive boulder along the hilly terrain strewn with building-sized detritus. In five minutes she had covered a distance of two meters. Her work was deliberate, purposeful. A straight line to somewhere. At about two meters from the pile she worked her way leftward toward the thicker woods. At its border she attempted several paths, failing at each to move the precious mass across this stick or under that wad of grass blades.

Finally she left her booty and appeared to search in widening circles. She disappeared underground, and again I was struck by her tremendous strength. The leaves and twigs, like slabs of concrete reinforced with organic rebar, pulsed and shifted above her wherever she chose to walk. Like a hard-shelled mole she made her way through unmarked tunnels, or perhaps she made them as I watched the ground rock and rise. She suddenly surfaced, five inches from where she had submerged. Immediately she busied herself to bring the deer dropping to her new underground lair. It took her some time, trying this angle, then that, to get the now dust-dulled pellet underground. Then they were gone. Only the occasional rise and fall of the leafy ground cover showed her presence.

I returned to the mound of sticky bright droppings to find six more beetles shuffling and bumping into one another, searching tirelessly for the perfect pellet.

My Hometown: The Lentil Festival

When someone asks me where I’m from I answer “Staunton, Virginia”. I usually say it easily, casually. But really I’m not sure. I’m also from Seaford, Delaware, and Abilene, TX, and Colorado Springs, CO. And increasingly, now, I’m from Pullman, Washington. When I go to VA to visit family I tell friends, “I’m going home”. And when I’m with my family getting ready to return to Pullman I say, “I’m going home.” Is that a good thing? Does it broaden me? I don’t know. It’s disorienting.

But it’s also a blast. I like exploring. There’s something sweet about my first year in a new city. It’s a little lonely, but it’s fun. I try everything. Being alone gives me a fresh perspective on the goings-on around me. I especially like exploring new markets and festivals alone. Families are hanging out, kids are getting their faces painted, couples are walking arm-over-shoulder, and dogs are looking around at faces, panting, happy. My second week in Pullman (3 summers ago) I went to the Lentil Festival alone. This year I’ll go with some friends.

The city of Pullman holds the National Lentil Festival every year right before the academic season. The days are hot as hell, but getting shorter, and in stormy weather you can already sense Fall creeping up. The wheat and legume fields are turning yellow, with north-facing hills still slightly green. The town of 10,000 triples in population over a week as 20,000 undergrads move in for the school year. So the Lentil Festival is more than a celebration of the lowly lentil bean. It’s the first sign that the quiet, lazy days of summer are over and a new season of work has begun.

On Friday streets are barricaded off and booths are set up beside the library. Tase T. Lentil mills around the crowd, waving, swaying, silent, much like a lentil. If you’re under 3 feet tall you might go up to him and hug him. He’s that sort of lentil.

But don’t go into hysterics; save that for Sponge Bob.

Some local club always makes a giant pot of lentil chili. A man stands on a step-ladder above 200 gallons of the stuff and stirs it with a canoe paddle.

Frankly, there’s nothing appetizing about it. But you find yourself in line anyway, and a volunteer slops a ladle into your styrofoam bowl, and you spoon it in, and walk around with lentils on your beard or your shirt.

Later local bands take turns on stage. You can hang out in the beer garden. Paradise Creek and Palouse Falls Breweries bring out their best. For some reason the area is roped off. I think people like to drink in boxing rings.

On Saturday morning there is a parade. The town crowns a king and queen of the Festival.

But I never see them in the weeks following. The duties are likely burdensome.

You can put on short shorts and run or stumble for 5 kilometers after the parade.

Or you can put on tight shorts and ride your bicycle for 100 kilometers from Pullman to Palouse to Colfax and back. There are lots of hills in between.

One year I wore corduroy shorts and rode my fixed gear to show off. At 50 kilometers I thought I was going to die. If you’re lucky, you won’t die. If you’re even luckier, out on some country road, you may get to see a crop-duster up close. They fly so close to the ground! When they spray desiccant in your direction hold your breath.

One of the best parts of the Lentil Festival is the poster. Every year the festival committee chooses a local artist to make it. Many of them have been lovely. All around town you can see them as memorabilia from previous years’ festivals.

If you happen to be in Pullman in late August, spend some time at the Lentil Festival. Alone or with friends, it’ll be good. It’ll be orienting. I’ll be there.

(I stole the pics from lentilfest.com.)

Most Frequented Film: The Last of the Mohicans

One of our own, Juliette, has posed a very first “Corner Booth Question of the Week”. This one is inspired by the critics at CriticWire: what film or films do you keep coming back to? That is which films get better each time you watch them? Or which film have you watched more than any other? Or…look, it’s a simple question, answer it as such.

The Last of the Mohicans. I love the opening scene. Two men are running through overgrown eastern woods, literally chasing a white-tailed deer. You see them from the side, they’re running full tilt through dark green foliage. One of them stops, breathes hard, steadies his rifle, swings it around toward the camera and fires. The deer falls on a knoll. The rifleman is a white man and his companion is a young Indian. They race up to the deer, and kneel and thank him for his life.

Then a really good story begins to unfold. French and Indian War. Homesteads in flames. Colonial powers surging through the wilds. Indians displaced, massacred, and massacring, employed as mercenaries. Virtue shows up here and there, but men are doing evil on all sides. And in the middle of it two lovely daughters of an English officer, and their English escort (who is in love with the eldest, Cora) are kidnapped by Magua. It becomes clear that Magua is working for no one. He is a powerful Huron with a simmering rage against the English. Hawkeye, the white man in the first scene, and his Mohican father and brother, Chingachgook and Uncas, go after Magua to rescue the three English.

Also the music is really beautiful. I have the soundtrack and listen to it regularly.

I first saw this with my dad when I was in middle school. It was one of those weekends Mom and Sis were away, and Dad took the opportunity to pass one of his favorite movies on to me. He told me that Daniel Day-Lewis had prepared for the role by living in the woods for several months, teaching himself primitive skills like hunting with a muzzle-loader, sewing his clothes from animal pelts he had cured, making fires with a flint. I didn’t bother to verify any of those facts, and they may have expanded a bit in the retelling (like all good Day-Lewis anecdotes: “Did you know he actually killed a man to prepare for —“). But this struck a ringing harmonic in my adolescent heart. I happened at the time to be very taken with survival skills and stories. I had made my own survival kit, complete with bandaids, a bottle of alcohol, a whistle, and a mirror with a hole in the middle (for God knows what purpose). My best buddy, Tommy Tourje, was trapping illegally on his own property, and he would tell me how to skin a squirrel or rabbit. The woods around the house I grew up in look very similar to those in which the Last of the Mohicans was filmed, and that, almost as much as the story and the grand music, brings me back to the film almost once a year.

Waldo Canyon Fire

I have always wondered at wildfires. I’ve thought that I would like to share some dry forest with a wildfire and not know which way it was going next. I’ve thought I would like to feel the press of its heat, like a hand at my back as I ran from it uphill. I’ve never been very close to one, and such musings should be tempered by that fact.

But isn’t there something terrifying and majestic in all that raging destruction? Isn’t there some weird peace that settles over you when you ponder that helicopters and chemical retardant and earth movers can’t control a fire. In a time of Nature’s Submission to Man, isn’t it a wonder and a terrible wonder when Man is caught off guard, on his knees before Nature?

How does it happen, where does it come from? Lightning strikes a dry bristlecone. Maybe the sun ignites a pile of leaves. Smoke whisps. A snapping sound becomes perceptible. The wind rises and flames begin to reach from this shrub to that then up into the tops of the trees. Night falls and we rest from our city building to look out over the hills. And we see Hell crawling toward us.

Last week Colorado Springs was devastated by the Waldo Canyon Fire. It is still burning, but is largely contained. Two people died. More than 10% of the population were evacuated. Hundreds of houses were consumed. Many thousands of acres above the city and to the west were touched with flame. When I saw pictures of the neighborhoods burning and the hillside lit up I was moved by the power of it. I was overwhelmed when I saw neighborhoods I recognized, and I thought of beloved mountain retreats and caretakers I know up on the slopes of Pikes Peak. I emailed a handful of friends and old coworkers who were affected but safe. I imagined the loved ones of the two dead people going to the sites of their deaths, searching for bones, for relics. I read today about this weekend’s town meetings during which families where told their homes no longer existed; they could do nothing but huddle, weep. I imagined the hands of the mothers holding her children’s faces, and the arms of the fathers pulling them to his chest. I imagine now the late night discussions between mother and father of what to do next, where to begin tomorrow. I think their faces must glow with courage.

There is majesty and horror in a wildfire, in all of Nature’s movements. But there is something uniquely beautiful in the life that flourishes in its deathwake: first sweet morels, then sage, then a hopping bird, then sapplings, then strong columns of young trees.

Here are some lines by John Blase, a writer I like from Colorado Springs. His family’s home was put on evacuation watch while they were out of town:

“What is the shame for human beings to weep at the passage of time and to feel it in the disappearance of the objects of our past? These emotions give us all literature and music and art. They give us our humanity.” ~ Bill Holm

The neighborhood, our neighborhood, was in pre-evacuation status.
The list, our list, had to be made. So from fifteen hundred miles away
we put our heads together, she and I, and typed consonants riddled
with vowels that represented the things of earth we hold most dear.

The neighbors have a set of keys to the house, our house, so with hearts
that grew beyond their usual largesse they ungrinchingly stepped from
room to room to check it twice, the list that is –
*entire shelf of photo albums plus large framed picture of the kids
*leash and harness for the beagle (don’t forget beagle)
*stack of bills and car keys
*her laptop computer
*three specific stuffed animals in kids’ rooms
*my cowboy boots

If the fire kept breathing we believed, she and I, that we could take
those seven seeds and replant a life, our life. But as other souvenirs of
our brief season flashed across our smoky minds we ached at the
thought of her father’s Greek fishing hat and the turquoise ring I
bought as a child in Santa Fe and the silver Christmas star that hangs
year-round in our kitchen window, the one etched with the word,
our word: H-O-P-E.

Poem from The Beautiful Due. Picture from the Denver Post.