Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…

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Quark open marriage

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

Sidney Coleman poker game, 2007
Wikipedia is not a blog. Fortunately, this blog of mine IS a blog, and it’s my blog, and I made it. So I can say what I want.

I just posted some (likely soon-to-be-deleted) comments to a talk page in Wikipedia, praising a 2011 book by Oxford’s Frank Close, The Infinity Puzzle. His book just arrived at our doorstep today–mail can be slow here!

I heard through the grapevine that the book had a lively chapter about 2004’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Frank Wilczek (my husband, so forgive me for putting him first), his thesis advisor David Gross, and the grad student of a dear friend of ours (Sidney Coleman) named David Politzer. Frank Close bases his account on interviews with all three of the laureates in question. Not surprisingly, there are some contradictions among the different accounts, about who said what to whom in 1973.

I don’t remember much about “asymptotic freedom” in 1973, but I do remember the excitement of first seeing Sidney Coleman that springtime in 1973, wearing a green velveteen suit in Princeton’s upmarket streets. Or Sidney’s suit might have been purple, I know he had both. My young soon-to-be-husband Frank Wilczek pointed him out to me as one of the grand sights of universal great science, and I was glad to be impressed by this eccentric genius. Here are some more memories, from my (most likely soon to be deleted) comments:

In the summer of 1973, after the initial papers all had been published, Sidney Coleman (thesis advisor to David Politzer) lectured as usual at the Erice Summer School. Frank Wilczek, who had turned 22 in May 1973, and who had married me on July 3, 1973, left for Erice on July 4, 1973, where he served as the “secretary” for Sidney’s lectures. Frank won the prize that summer as “best student,” so his airfare and all fees were paid for. When I learned this, I said, “If we had known this would happen, we could have afforded for me to go to Erice with you.” Frank said, “Betsy, if you had been there, I would never have won that prize.” He is probably right! I imagine the lecture notes from that particular summer school would also be a useful resource on the history of this topic.
“Asymptotic freedom,” as a description of quark interactions, is a term coined by Sidney Coleman. Sidney had a bigger vocabulary than any 5 normal people of your common acquaintance, but in later years he jokingly said to Frank, “I did you a bad turn when I suggested that name.” What would have been better, I wonder, in an era of god particles and theories of everything? Left as an exercise to the reader.

Wikipedia lists “asymptotic freedom” as an article of medium importance. With such an incomprehensible and boring name, it is lucky to get to “medium”! What if it had been named “Theory of Everything”? I am sure that in 1973, nobody yet had claimed that descriptor. Or “Theory of Negativity” (since the beta function has negative sign)? That could surely have sparked some op-eds and sage disagreement from non-science pundits.

Even those names are inadequate now, when so much of science has become marketing (as can also be said for politics and even university practice.) Today, any science theory needs a name that combines relevance with edgy assertive “please quote me on this.”

Maybe, “quark open marriage”? You heard it here first.

p.s. Frank is asleep now, so don’t blame him for my indiscretions.

p.p.s. We both miss our friend Sidney Coleman, who died before Frank Close’s book was published. Sidney’s widow Diana Coleman remains a dear friend, and an energetic organizer of Sidney-memorial poker games. Diana is working with Sidney’s former student David Kaiser on a book of Sidney’s letters, which I am sure will be wonderful!

→ No CommentsTags: Frank Wilczek · Nobel · Science

What if the mystery is not letting me be?

March 10th, 2016 · Comments Off on What if the mystery is not letting me be?


“Let the Mystery Be” sang Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, including David Byrne. (Only after coming to love this performance did I discover that Iris Dement wrote and performed it, a performance that many prefer to the one I learned to love.)

Digression: I remember Arthur Wightman‘s speech at his 80th birthday party. He boasted that he had expanded beyond Ohio origins so that now he could say, in 25 languages, “Where is the toilet?” After demonstrating that phrase from Arabic to Zulu, he told us his least favorite thing about being 80: “My behind looks like something that somebody sat on, for 80 years.”

My behind is nowhere near Arthur’s, I’m happy to say. But the end of my 7th decade introduces strange new effects, almost as disturbing.

For example, I don’t remember, in earlier decades, feeling such strong connection (for example, while cooking dinner) to generations of women who did the same thing. I do remember, painfully, hearing in my mind the harsh criticisms of women to other women, echoing as an antiphony to my own decisions. But I don’t remember, ever before, this sense of hard-working women extending a silent endorsement of my own not-so-hard-working choices.

Many religions share a promise of eternal life after your death. My new experience seems like the opposite, an infinite track of family, all behind me, nodding in some taciturn satisfaction that I extend their other-loving choices. Or perhaps, that the best of me extends the best of them, and that the less-than-best of me is not their concern.

Research shows that people get happier as they get older. Isn’t that a good thing? But I wish I understood more about what is happening, right now, in my lengthening life, to my own happiness.

Comments Off on What if the mystery is not letting me be?Tags: My Back Pages · Wide wonderful world

Remembering Leda Carpenter (1877–1954)

November 23rd, 2015 · Comments Off on Remembering Leda Carpenter (1877–1954)

We spent every childhood summer with my “aunts,” who were in fact no relation to any of us. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet were the surviving two of three unmarried career women who had adopted my mother when she was just 18 months old. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet spent most of each year in New York City (36 Gramercy Park,) but they returned every summer to the house where Aunt Martha (and later my mother) grew up.

Leda Carpenter (we children called her “Matante” with no clue that was not her name but Canadian-French for “my aunt”) was another summer constant for Devine children. Matante spent her days in the kitchen, although she too had her own bedroom upstairs, in the back of the house. Matante did all the cooking, day after day after day — fresh doughnuts for breakfast and sturdy thick soups at lunch time. Dinners were of course what everyone ate for dinner in my childhood memory… a big slab of meat with potatoes (baked, mashed, or roasted) plus a small pile of some kind of vegetable engulfed by yellow pools of melting butter.

Aunt Harriet and Aunt Martha were sweet ladies of leisure, always ready to read a story or play chess or Mah Jongg with children (children ALWAYS would win.) Matante was not sweet, she was tart. Although happy to see us when we visited her kitchen, she kept the most interesting things there off-limits to children’s fingers. I remember she had a big jar full of chocolate chips that I really wanted to get my hands on. Naively, I asked her how she would know if somebody just happened to eat some when she was not looking.

She fixed me with her fierce bright eyes and said, “I count them, every morning, and every night!” This was all the persuasion I needed to leave them alone!

Leda was in fact my mother’s real aunt. Leda was the reason the leisurely wealthy ladies adopted my mother, brought her up in comfort, and sent her to Smith College when she was old enough. But Leda came from a much darker childhood than my mother knew. On Leda’s 12th birthday, her school attendance ended, because a child 12 years old could get a job in the textile mill, 12 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Of Leda’s earning, her mother let her keep two nickels a week, one for the collection plate at Sunday Mass, and the other to save up for buying presents at Christmas. Daily lunch was one slice of bread, and if Leda was very, very lucky, there might even be a piece of salt pork spread over her bread.

I was reminded of Leda today, when I went looking through all my old recipe collections for a scalloped oyster dish that my mother especially liked. Please don’t be too shocked by the recipe that follows! It is not exactly health food, but it is delicious.

Leda Carpenter’s scalloped oyster casserole

Preheat oven to 350, grease casserole dish

1/2 pint of shucked oysters
1/2 cup of milk or cream
1 cup coarse cracker crumbs (saltines or oyster crackers)
1/4 c butter
1/8 tsp salt

Drain oysters into milk. Melt butter and mix with crumbs.

Put a thin layer of crumbs into casserole dish. Add layers of oysters, crumbs, oysters, and crumbs, so top layer is buttered crumbs.

Pour salted milk mixture over everything. Bake 35 minutes.

Scalloped oysters were a popular 19th century dish (Abraham Lincoln loved them.) Apparently they are also a popular holiday food in the southern US. But this particular recipe makes a very small casserole. I remember that my mother would sometimes make this as a treat when I visited her. A party recipe would need to be quite a few times as large. I am guessing that my mother’s memory of this recipe was also of a small special treat that Matante would make just for the two of them, in the long winter months when the elegant aunts were all away in New York City. But I really don’t know.

Memories remind us how many people we knew that now we would like, when it is much too late, to have known a lot better. Memories remind us, “Pay attention today. All our yesterdays vanish so much too fast.”

Comments Off on Remembering Leda Carpenter (1877–1954)Tags: Heroes and funny folks · Life, the universe, and everything · My Back Pages · Sister Age · Wide wonderful world

The Winged Victory of Samothrace

November 9th, 2015 · Comments Off on The Winged Victory of Samothrace

Who knew, who imagined that there would be new news about the winged victory of Samothrace—but there is, from the Louvre:

Samothrace via the Louvre:
This monumental statue of the winged goddess of victory (also known as the Nike of Samothrace), standing in the prow of a ship set on a low plinth, was offered to the great gods of Samothrace following a naval victory…The fourth conservation treatment, which has just been completed, has revealed the splendid colors of the marble and provided new insight into the way the statue was conceived and presented.

So, even a beautiful sculpture from BCE can still make news.

Comments Off on The Winged Victory of SamothraceTags: My Back Pages · Sister Age · Wide wonderful world

“I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”

June 30th, 2015 · Comments Off on “I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”

When I was a little girl, a sentence like this would have made no sense to anyone in my family. We all knew exactly where we were going to be, just about every day–waking up in our own bedrooms in our own house with our own family all around us.

My sister and brothers and I also knew, just about any day in the future, what we would be doing. Each day moved through a series of stylized programs almost as predictable as (later on in my childhood) a TV schedule. Getting up. Getting clean. Getting dressed. Getting breakfast (mostly bacon plus eggs in various shapes.) A lot of this “getting” by children and my father was the result of “giving” and “doing” by my mother, something we never thought about then, when it was happening.

Today, Frank and I live in such a different world. We’re not little children, or parents of little children, so our lives are full of enormously varied choices, many quite appealing. Our friendship groups link us to time zones around the world, so Skype meetings get scheduled via with friends in China online at 11 p.m., friends in Boston online at 11 a.m., while here in Sweden we’re in the middle at 5 p.m.

We just spent a month living in a hotel in Sweden, where having a private meal by ourselves requires more work than just going out to a restaurant. Our summer is going to be similarly peculiar, because Frank has a new book coming out July 14 (A Beautiful Question, wonderful book if I say so myself.)

The quote that gave me a title from this blogpost is from a friend who is similarly location-challenged… but who DOES know where he will be on July 9, viz. “On July 9, I’ll be stuck in JFK airport for 5 hours, so that would be a good time for a Skype conversation.” How astounded my childhood self would have been by such dislocations!

Our grown-up rootlessness, our freedom to travel and adventure, is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet because our freedom comes not only from financial and personal privilege, but also from a sense that whenever Frank and I are somewhere together, we’re safe inside “family.” (This wouldn’t work, of course, if we weren’t confident that a few weeks will bring us back into connection with actual family back home.)

It is bitter because for us both, the “home” where we set our roots back in our childhoods… those homes are gone. The jolly family dinners that seemed so eternal as they repeated year after year… the houses of grandparents, aunts, uncles, multiple feisty cousins, almost as familiar as our own childhood bedrooms… if we could even find those houses now, strangers live there.

So, I also don’t know where I’ll be on July 11. Sometimes, I’m not even really sure where I am right this very moment.

Comments Off on “I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”Tags: everythingismiscellaneous · Go go go · Life, the universe, and everything · My Back Pages · Sweden · Travel · Wide wonderful world

Ground control to Major Tom

April 26th, 2015 · Comments Off on Ground control to Major Tom


This 1969 David Bowie song has always brought tears to my eyes. And so (for the same reason) does Elton John’s song Rocket Man.

Both these songs remind me of my brother Mark Devine (who died in 1998) — Mark never quite found a place on Earth that welcomed his big heart and maybe-too-bouncy spirit. Very, very early his imagination took off for some outer-space world of his own — only my mother’s hard work kept him still earth-connected as long as he stayed among us. It was not very long.

Mark, I have not forgotten you. So much that is best in me is what was best in you. So much that is worst in me is exactly what made you so angry with yourself so much too often.

Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you. Mine certainly is.

Comments Off on Ground control to Major TomTags: Heroes and funny folks · My Back Pages · Sister Age

When to the sessions…

March 30th, 2015 · Comments Off on When to the sessions…

PaintingFu
William Shakespeare knew a good idea when he saw it:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past
I sigh the cost of many a thing I sought
But nonetheless recall… I had a blast!

Oh whoops, I seem to have strayed from Shakespeare into my own thoughts.

Just very recently home from a visit to China, which was amazing. Now very jet-lagged but with so many smiles at my memories.

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Scientific diaspora

February 18th, 2015 · Comments Off on Scientific diaspora

Exiles in 1732, from Wikimedia Commons

Exiles in 1732, from Wikimedia Commons

The US in the 1930s and 40s inherited the educational wealth of exiled German scientists. In the 1970s and 80s, we inherited the scientific wealth of a disintegrating Soviet Union.

Now the US is headed toward the losing side of this equation.

Once we valued education and research. Now US funding for both gets worse with every passing year. Young scientists are hit hardest. Research and teaching jobs in the US are going away.

Frank and I were recently in China, where by contrast the government eagerly invests in universities and academic research. It hasn’t happened yet, but I think countries like China (and Sweden, etc.) are on the brink of inheriting the educational wealth of the United States as young people who want to do science become economic exiles.

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Landscape vs. skyscape: selective appreciation

January 27th, 2015 · Comments Off on Landscape vs. skyscape: selective appreciation

Arizona sunset
Our windows face east, so the best view we get of sunset is the reflection of colorful sky in the high-rise student apartment building not far from us.

I am not a big fan of modern architecture, but I am getting to love the many reflections of sky in the windows of University House.

One the other hand, enjoying a beautiful view may require the ability to ignore less beautiful parts of the view.

Or perhaps I could try to begin to admire the sight of vast acres of parking lot, low-rise cheap buildings, and macadam streets. That would also work.

Comments Off on Landscape vs. skyscape: selective appreciationTags: Travel · Wide wonderful world

Hotel fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the microwave popcorn away

January 18th, 2015 · Comments Off on Hotel fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the microwave popcorn away

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was a time when @frankwilczek was on sabbatical, so that the Marriott Residence Inn of Tempe AZ became our temporary home.

We spent fun time with our children in the Marriott Residence Inn of Austin, TX, over Christmas break. Contrary to what your image may be of Texas, this was a smaller location with smaller rooms and a much less useful kitchen (no actual oven, and double beds rather than queen size.) Still the presence of children makes up for a lot, and the nearby-ness of Austin’s amazing Drafthouse Ritz Cinema makes up for almost as much.

But I digress. The point of this blogpost is that the delicious hotel-provided free microwave popcorn here needs to cook for about 5 or 10 seconds less than the Popcorn setting on the admirable hotel-provided microwave oven. So that tonight, we ended up setting off our smoke alarm, which is very very loud. And which predictably caused the nice people at the front desk to call the Tempe fire department.

If you should experience this exciting event, here is my advice. Drench the smoking bag of popcorn under your faucet asap. This stops it from making new billows of black popcorn smoke.

Call the front desk (or send someone down there) to alert Tempe’s Fire Department that nothing is currently on fire in your hotel room. Turn on the fan of the microwave. Prop open the door to the hallway with one chair or even two. Open some windows. And the hideously noisy alarm will stop making noise.

Then you can smile quite complacently and write a blogpost…

I almost left out the best part! When I went downstairs to the front desk with my dripping, formerly smoking bag of popcorn, the very sweet people behind the desk (besides calling the Tempe Fire Department, etc.) asked me, “Would you like another bag of popcorn?”

I love you, Tempe Downtown Marriott Residence Inn!

Comments Off on Hotel fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the microwave popcorn awayTags: Frank Wilczek · funny · Pilgrimages · Wide wonderful world