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"Michelle Francl is the guide the world needs... with her help, we can find the mystery in the quantum structure of a burning atom, the human meaning of dirty dishes, or the poetic history of dust on a desk..." - Dr. Kimberly Belcher, Prof. of Liturgical Studies, Notre Dame University

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A Chemist's Cup of Tea

Until quite recently I hadn’t thought about Wilhelmina Green in years. I first met her over a pot of my favourite tea while reading The Chemical News in the Othmer Library in Philadelphia. This was, of course, a meeting very much in the metaphorical sense because you certainly can’t have a cup of tea at your carrel in the Othmer Library and because Wilhelmina’s white porcelain pot of tea rested within the pages of her 1885 paper, ‘On the infusion of tea’.


What do 21st century chemists know about making tea? Quite a lot it turns out. In 1946, George Orwell wrote a short essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, offering eleven opinionated points on the making of tea. I offer you but seven points, perhaps equally opinionated, but with supporting references from the scientific literature. No disinformation here.

Reheat at will. I confess. I reheat cold tea in the microwave. Because I agree with Dunya Mikhail in her poem ‘The Iraqi Nights’, tea grown cold is worse than death. So I suffer the scum that develops on the top and the odd cloudiness that develops. The scum, I learned, is composed of organics and calcium and magnesium carbonates, altogether too reminiscent of hard water rings in the bathtub to spend much time contemplating. The turgid clouding is called creaming, which Green also noted in passing in her paper. It is the result of the precipitation of low solubility compounds upon cooling; using distilled water and adding a chelating agent can help reduce it. So definitely insist on lemon for the citrate — or centrifuge out the solids.

See the full article in the March 2020 issue of Nature Chemistry to read my exploration of chemists' relationship with that other necessary caffeinated beverage.

Tear Open the Heavens


O, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for.

- Isa 63:19b,64:2

I cannot think of Advent without thinking of Alfred Delp, SJ, who in 1944 spent the Advent and Christmas seasons in prison. Delp’s writings, letters and reflections on Advent, were smuggled out from prison on scraps of paper by two friends. In one letter, he wrote that he thought it would be a beautiful Christmas. How, you might wonder? Delp was handcuffed night and day and confined to a small cell, facing a death sentence. There would be no moving liturgies, no exquisite manger scenes. But with all the ornaments and romantic imagery stripped away, Delp said he could see clearly the shaking reality of what Christmas promised: God in the flesh, God taking a stand with us against the unimaginable darkness. Christmas, offered Delp, is the chance to celebrate the mystery of the great howling hunger of humankind for God — if we are willing to give over our complacency and pretensions.

In Advent’s dark and cold days I am, I confess, often drawn to meditate on the gentle mysteries of a babe wrapped and warm, puffy sheep in the fields and angels in the sky trailing glory. Wondrous stars. Enigmatic strangers from the East. Gold and rare spices. It is the proper and cherished stuff of Christmas pageants. Yet this isn’t quite what the People of God asked for through Isaiah, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begs Isaiah, “be what we don’t dare hope for.”

Dare we join with Isaiah and cry out to the heavens this Advent, imploring God to do for us what we cannot bring ourselves to hope for? Might the hungry be fed, might the migrant find safe harbor, might God visit peace on the nations? Shine forth from your cherubim throne, O Lord. Rouse your power and rend the heavens. -- From Waiting in Joyful Hope, 2020