Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Story of Love and the Riemann Integral

One of the most common questions in my medical school interviews was, "You majored in math?  Why math?"

I liked this question, because it kept the interviewers from asking more pointed questions like, "Why haven't you done more shadowing/volunteering/traveling?!?",  "Why did you get a B in History?!?", and questions of that ilk.

I also liked it because it was easy to answer: "They say to major in something you like and are good at.  For me, that's math.  I enjoy it, and one of the nice parts of being premed is that you can major in whatever you want."

That's true, and it's short enough for an interview.

But the deeper answer is something like this.

I have loved math for a very long time, often entranced by its beauty.  But when I was in high school, I watched a few surgeries.  Something about that experience just clicked, and suddenly, I was premed.

But I wasn't completely sure I was ready to give up my first love.  Calculus has such an elegant, simple beauty.  Throughout the first two years or so, I occasionally wondered if I was making the wrong decision.

That's really why I majored in math: it was a diagnostic, and a safeguard.  If I still loved math after three years or so, I could still be well on my way to graduate school, research, and professorship.

This continued off-and-on until my junior year, when I took Math 409 Honors with the amazing Dr. Harold Boas.  Math 409 is Advanced Calculus I, and at my school, it is a legendary class.  You begin with questions like, "Are there more real numbers than natural numbers?  How many more are there?  How do we know?"
(The answers: Yes!  Infinitely many more.  Cantor's Diagonalisation Argument.)
From there, you keep moving upwards and define more and more, and eventually we derived the notion of a limit, and then a derivative, from first principles.  From there, we moved on to the beautiful, elegant creature that is a Riemann integral.

Here, the professor took a few minutes to tell us a little about Riemann.

Bernhard Riemann was a mathematical prodigy even as a child.  Through his career, he defined the Riemann integral and proposed the famous, unsolved Riemann hypothesis.
He wrote On the hypotheses which underlie geometry, one of the most important works ever on geometry.  This work had major implications for Einstein's theories, and the implications of Riemann's work are still being investigated today.  In addition to this, Riemann made major contributions to analysis, calculus, and differential geometry.
Then Dr. Boas told us how Bernhard Riemann died at age 39 of tuberculosis.

That was the moment when I knew that I wanted to be a physician more than anything else in the world.

That's the story of how I majored in math because I love it, and left it behind because I love something else more.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Goodbye, Gloria

On Sunday, I let every second of the beautiful Haas Gloria sink into my soul; it's the last Gloria until after Lent.
The Gloria has special meaning to me, because I remember it from the first Mass I ever went to, with my dear friend Jamie.
I was utterly confused, and hoping in the corner of my heart that I wasn't committing some blasphemy by attending a Catholic Mass.  I really hoped God wasn't angry that I was making the sign of the cross.  I was a bit afraid to ask Mary to pray for me and my sins to God.
Even the name bewildered me.  Like Scott Hahn did, I wondered.  Mass?  Mass what? Mass rally?  Mass movement? Mass protest?  

No, silly Sarah.  Mass.  Like Ite missa est.

But then the Gloria began.  The first piano chords seemed to make my heart smile, with their simple, demanding beauty.
And finally, words I could sing without reservation:
Glory to God in the highest!  Sing Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!

Something about it seemed so right, right and fitting in a way I'd never felt before.  No song I had ever sung seemed so right as this simple, beautiful, heartfelt line: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!

I did not become Catholic that day.  But that was the beginning.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday, the day before the Friday Jesus died.  Lent is 40 days long, because the Sundays aren't included in the count; every Sunday is a celebration, whereas Lent is a time of humility, repentance, and austerity.

Included in Lent are several days of fasting and abstinence. Fasting means restricting food intake.  It's canonically defined as one normal meal, with two small snacks, though you're welcome to do more if you like.  Abstinence means not eating meat.  The Latin word used is carne, which only refers to land-animal meat.  This is why Catholics often eat fish on Fridays during Lent. (Allowing fish did not come from a pope with a vested interest in the Italian fish business.  Seriously, where do people get these things?)
I learned in RCIA on Sunday that since I'm a vegetarian anyway, I don't need to do anything special for the "abstinence" part, though I can do something else if I want to.  To do so would be in the spirit of Lent.  To start eating fish on Fridays during Lent would not be in the spirit of Lent.

Even the Mass changes.  The Gloria isn't sung, like during Advent.  The Alleluia, and any use of the word, is stricken from the Mass completely during Lent. Alleluia is a festive word, meaning "Praise Yahweh".  Repentance, fasting, abstinence, and alms-giving, the pillars of Lent, don't fit with "festive".  Humility and austerity, the hallmarks of Lent, don't fit with the joyous nature of the Alleluia.

I already miss it, which is, of course, the point.

The altar is no longer adorned with flowers and greenery.  Instead, bare branches or empty pottery are often used.  Lent is a time of longing, reminiscent of a desert.

Maybe I'm not supposed to do this, but... I've already found myself imagining what the first Gloria on Easter will sound like.  Similarly, I almost hear the Alleluia, and I'll probably hear it in my head before the Gospel reading every Sunday between now and then.

Lent, with its repentance and examination of conscience, approaches quickly.  But it's not here just yet:

Glory to God in the highest!  Sing Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!
Lord God, heavenly king, Almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory!
Glory to God in the highest!  Sing Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world!  Have mercy on us.  You are seated at the right hand of the Father!  Receive our prayer!
Glory to God in the highest!  Sing Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,
For you alone are the Holy One.  You alone are the Lord, the most high Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father! 
Glory to God in the highest!  Sing Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!

Goodbye, Gloria!

Thanks be to God

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sarah has a New Favorite Book

I just finished reading The Confessions of St. Augustine.  It's a Modern English translation, so it's not difficult to follow at all.

Wow.  "I am swallowed by this ocean, yet not crushed."

Confessions is not a list of sins.  It's a love song.  It is a long, narrated love song of the soul, in the form of an extended monologue of Augustine to God. Augustine describes his soul's journey to God from his unfaithful youth to his conversion, and his prose blows me away.

O Lord our God, under the shadow of Your wings let us hope in Your custody. 
Carry us when we are little. Bear us when our hair is white and we cry out in infirmity. 
When You grasp us, the grip is firm.  When we try to sustain ourselves, the grasp is feeble. 
The only good we can know rests in You. When we turn from the good, You push us aside until we return. 
Oh, Lord, turn us, lest we be overturned. 
Be the good in us that is not corrupted. You are our incorruptible good. 
In You we do not fear that there will be no home to return to if we wander off.  While we are away, You preserve our mansion with a patience that stretches into eternity.

(from Time Loses No Time)

You are as You were before all happened that we can call "before". 
You are, and are God. 
You are, and are Lord of all You created. 
You abide, fixed forever. 
You are.  
The first cause of all things that will not abide.
All things changeable flow from the spring of Your unchanging Being. In You live the eternal reasons of all the time-bound things that cannot reason in themselves. 
So speak to me, Lord.  I stand before You a beggar. Speak pitying words to me, for I am Your pitiable one. Tell me: Were there times of me that died even before my infancy?  Who was the 'me' who lived in my mother's womb? ...
Was I anywhere?
Was I anyone? ... 
Do You laugh at me for even asking this?  Do You tell me instead acknowledge and praise the 'You' that I do know?
I do acknowledge You, Lord of heaven and earth.  I do praise You for assembling the pieces of my being and for the infancy I do not remember.

(from Infancy)

But we, O Lord, are Your little flock. Possess us as Yours. 
Stretch Your wings over us and let us fly under them. 
Be our glory. 
May we be Your love? 
May Your words be our reverence?
 (from The Book of Memory)

Every line fills me with such a sense of such numinous beauty that I read it all breathlessly.  My favorite book before this was Contact, by Carl Sagan.  I love Contact because it so clearly describes the utterly reverent beauty of life and the mystery of what it means to seek God.  It came at a pivotal moment in my life, when I first began to love science and nature.  For the first time, I could look intently at the world around me and hear bits of glory, like a song I can just barely hear before it fades again.*

Confessions comes at another pivotal moment in my life, when I reach tentatively for God with a radical hope I've never before known.  It's also the first book I've ever finished and immediately begun again.

* Yes, that was a blatant plug for Battlestar Galactica.  So say we all.

Thanks be to God.