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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 25—March 29, 2012


A Movie Review

Things have been so busy lately, it’s hard to find the time to think, let alone to sit down and write.  So, it's time to turn to pleasant diversions.

I saw an unusually good movie this past weekend.  It was a film from 1943, called “The Song of Bernadette”, starring Jennifer Jones.  I don’t know how many people remember her, but she was a very popular actress between the ‘40’s and the ‘60’s, appearing in films such as “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”, “Ruby Gentry” (with Charlton Heston), “Since You Went Away” (with Claudette Colbert, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Walker, and an older Shirley Temple), and “Duel in the Sun” (with Gregory Peck). 

“The Song of Bernadette” is the story of a simple peasant girl in Lourdes, France, who is left behind by her sister and friend while gathering wood (because she had asthma and couldn’t cross a small stream without potentially getting ill) by the Massabielle caves.  Bernadette senses a strange stirring in the air, goes over to the cave to investigate, and sees a vision of a beautiful lady (the Virgin Mary).  She tells her sister (swearing her to secrecy), but of course the sister tells, and the story is soon all over town.  The various people in town interpret what Bernadette says according to their own needs and fears—the town government fears a religious revival and want to declare her insane, and the church is afraid this is a religious fraud, and does not want to get caught up in it.  The beautiful lady tells Bernadette to return to the cave 17 additional times, and with each successive visit, the movie focuses on Bernadette’s interactions with her family, the townspeople, the government, the church, and the threats and questioning she is subjected to.  It also focuses on how each of the doubters deals with their own faith, as more and more evidence accumulates that Bernadette’s story isn’t made up. 

We tend to think of now as being a particularly cynical time, and perhaps it is.  What the movie showed (among other things) is how cynical the times were in the 1940’s (and in her time in the 1850’s), and how people really haven’t changed—the same political nonsense, the jealousy, the irrational fear, the willingness to believe that someone with an inconvenient truth is insane.  We’re also set up to expect the happy ending, and I guess this movie had one of a sort, but it wasn’t the sort I was expecting.  I know I’m being vague here, but you really need to see this movie for yourselves.

“The Song of Bernadette” won four Oscars, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones who is transcendent in this, her first starring role, and was nominated for eight other Oscars.  A great movie, well worth watching.  I liked it so much, I ordered DVD’s of all the other movies mentioned above, so it will be an ongoing Jennifer Jones film festival at the Szafran’s for the next few weeks.


Chemistry Memories

As mentioned several times in earlier Blabs, I’m teaching Inorganic Chemistry this term.  Right now, we’re covering physical techniques, namely x-ray diffraction; visible, infrared, Raman, and several other types of spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance.  I like this topic, because it ties a lot of the theoretical ideas discussed earlier in the class to something practical—these techniques allow one to identify unknown materials, and to determine the structures of compounds.  I did a big bunch of this type of work in graduate school.

Covering these topics reminds me about the rapid pace of chance in Chemistry.  When I got my first teaching job, I was working alongside a colleague who was 30 years plus older than me, who had gotten his Ph.D. in the 1940’s.  His research consisted, in part, of running and analyzing the infrared spectra of several organic compounds, which was not a trivial thing in the 1940’s.  Time’s hand had moved on, and by the time I started teaching, running an infrared spectrum took less than 5 minutes.   When I pointed this out to him, he smiled and said: “Relax Zvi.  This will happen to you someday.”  Running an infrared spectrum on a modern instrument now takes less than 5 seconds.

My own research work consisted of running, analyzing, and simulating nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectra for some interesting inorganic molecules.   I was using “state-of-the-art” equipment at the University of South Carolina, and I was the departmental speed champ at being able to switch from one NMR nucleus to another—I could rebuild the probe and do the various tuning and resetting necessary in about an hour, which was really fast.  Today, one can accomplish the same thing by pushing a single button on a modern NMR instrument, so my colleague was right—it happened to me, as it happens to us all.  Experiments I did that were on the very edge of what was possible are now routine.

The biggest change has come on the computing side.  I wrote computer programs to simulate the NMR results and if the program required more than 8K (not 8 Meg or 8 Gig—I’m saying 8 K) of memory, it was so large that it could only execute overnight on the most powerful computer in the state.  Today, a child’s toy has thousands of times more computing power and could execute the program in seconds. 

Believe it or not, I think I was the first person at USC to prepare a thesis using word processing, which caused some consternation when the thesis lady asked how I had managed to have my pages both left- and right-justified.  She made me redo them too, removing the right justification, before she would accept the thesis.  This was yet another illustration (as if one were needed) that while everything else changes, the one constant is adherence to petty rules that serve no purpose relative to anything. 


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest was in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, dealing with various Irish topics.  While lots of people got four correct, a tip of the Tam O’Shanter goes to Carl Snook (Social and International Studies), the only person to get all five right.  The correct answers are:

  1. According to legend, St. Patrick drove them out of Ireland.  Snakes
  2. The first in the world was held in 1762 in New York City, not in Ireland. The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
  3. You kiss it to get the gift of gab. The Blarney Stone.
  4. Complete the following Irish blessing:  “May you be an hour in Heaven…” Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  5. An example is: “Three candles that illumine every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.”  It’s an example of an Irish Triad.


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

This week’s challenge focuses on questions all having to do with nothing.  As usual, no looking up the answers, and the first with the most wins.

  1. Popular TV show about nothing.
  2. Sinead O’Connor had a big hit with this song.
  3. You tell it in court.
  4. Hayward, Gershwin, and Gershwin wrote it, and Frank Sinatra sang it.
  5. Lament from Robert Frost.