Monday, May 18, 2009

Gateway Thoughts on Science

I can remember reading science books when I was in elementary school and thinking that the more science a person knew the more answers that you could give to interesting questions. What I noticed was that it was not the Trivial Pursuit questions that interested me (although I got the biggest pay back from teachers for just knowing stuff that blew them away). The questions that I liked knowing the answers for were things like why clouds are flat on the bottom and why is space black if it is filled with light.

That said it, is the stereotype circus science that seems to always be the "gateway thought" (sort of like marijuana being thought of as the gateway drug (when in my opinion it is alcohol (or caffeine))). It is important however for us in Science to remember that there has to be something that grabs children and makes them re-think becoming a fireman as a career. In chemistry it is the inevitable "Magic Show" (shudder) with faux wizards, bangs and flashes that seem to get that first response. In a horrible way it would be like a model for Christianity where you would use televangelists to do children outreach. In fact, I do a school outreach presentation entitled "Not a Magic Show" where I do the regular stuff but underpinning it all is a grade appropriate explanation for what the students are seeing. I even have a logo.

But still ...

I think XKCD caught a shadow of this idea in their most recent strip (as a disclaimer I will note that XKCD is an "adult" webcomic that explores modern life from a engineering / science perspective and veers sometimes into NSFW).

Click on image to embiggen

I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes the complete mis-understanding of what Science actually is may be our best way of promoting it to children. But then again that is a model that works for religion, politics and relationships. Does all of life have to be the Dance of the Seven Veils?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Stupid It Burns

This image was drawn by Ahren Paulson and picked up by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy . This image deserves more circulation in the science / chemistry blogosphere and its own acronym ... TSIB (The Stupid It Burns). This would have helped Kyle at The Chem Blog in his discussions on the pseudoscience techno-babble surrounding "organic salt".

Speaking of TSIB I find it ironic that one of the most common sources of TSIB is the advertizing section of Popular Science. As just a quick example we have the good people who have this ad...and they provide this helpful table ... TSIB people, TSIB.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I Can See Clearly Now the Snow Has Gone ...

The storm largely passed in the night and I was able to swamp my way into Liberal University and this is the view out the Liberal Lab Window this morning. Pretty, but getting pretty old. There is enough heat to the ground and the Sun now that this should all be a passing bad memory within a couple of days.

For me this is the last week of classes. I have been getting frantic emails from the students, especially the marginal ones, asking Me (!) what lab reports they haven't submitted and what the late penalties would be for late work. This is my own fault since my late penalties bottom out at 45% and that means anything submitted late retains some value until the end of semester. And some of them need the marks.

I also have some students that have gotten some quack MD to back date medical excuses for when the students were sick earlier in the semester. This means that I will either have to set the labs that they missed for them this week or come up with an equivalent replacement. Two weeks, one fortnight, 13 sleeps and the madness will be over.

Then I have to get ready for my Science Camp for Homeschooled High School students in early May. Win!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Greetings of the Day

Hello everyone, we had 30 cm snow last night and have 20 cm more coming today. At least we had a week of warmer weather to cut down on the accumulated snow and ice. The old farmers said that a spring snow was "the poor man's fertilizer". But still, it is hard to celebrate the day when you have to shovel your driveway.

This is what Liberal House looks like today.

Anyway, life goes on so as a shout out to Homebrew I give you the ... ETHER BUNNY!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

So now we will know ...

We are all pretty much aware of the the study relating airplane contrail clouds to global warming and the way that the study was advanced by the clear skies following the 9-11 attacks and the grounding of all aircraft over the continental United States (LINK). It was a dreadful cost to reveal the truth about a link that would not have been revealed in any other way. Of course there are those that dispute the correlation (LINK).

A recent column in the Globe and Mail got me thinking in the same direction (LINK). In the column it was pointed out that the world econopalypse was going to accomplish what no manner of evangelical environmental preaching had failed to do. With the collapse of the world economy the entire world will reduce, re-use and recycle out of necessity. The generation of green house gases linked to industrial activity will also be dramatically reduced.

My question is if we are going to be able to use this dreadful window of opportunity to both measure and test the accuracy of our climate models. I have been looking to see if anyone is thinking this way but am not seeing it. Of course, it all depends on how deep and long this financial crisis lasts but more than any other factor it will cause the world to do exactly what Gore and the environmental catastrophists have been saying we need to do. I can only hope that we will never have this chance again.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Labin Fever

The temperature refuses to go above 5 oC for weeks, last week it was 10 cm of dry blowing snow that sandblasted your face as you trudged to work into the bracing wind. This week it is 30 cm of wet, bone chilling snow that forms a gelatinous crust over everything.

You look away from the window.

3:35 pm
3:35 pm?
3:35 pm!

You have set-up a long term study in the fumehood and everyday at 3:35 pm the temperature suddenly decreases. What? Why? This winter is suddenly going on too long, far far too long, dangerously long. The voices ... the voices whisper ... "It must be the Biologists". Well of course it's the Biologists. Ever since I joined this circus wagon the Biologists have been my bane, my foil and my friends. It's just, just that they are all so ... predictable. But what would the Biologists do at 3:35 pm to my experiment? It's not like they would wander into the lab and fiddle with my knobs. Would they?

Have to fight the Labin Fever. You know it's not paranoia if everyone REALLY is out to get you. Suddenly the eyes narrow and the knuckles whiten as they tighten on Fisher the temperature probe. The fumehoods ... I share a fumehood fan with the Biology lab and everyday at 3:30 they have a lab ... AND THEY TURN OFF THEIR FUMEHOODs 'CAUSE THEY'RE NOISY!

I give into the Labin Fever. This winter will never end, there is no bottom, there is no side but I do know an orifice in the Biology lab that Fisher will fit into quite nicely, quite nicely indeed.

I just have to wait until 3:35 pm.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Goin' Zombie

Everybody here is bitter. The students are bitter, the faculty are bitter, the instructors are bitter and the staff are bitter.
Now it is possible that the weather has something to do with it. Two days ago we had more than 10 cm of snow in a storm that closed the schools but not the university. No, we have a large residence population, so our classes can go ahead no matter what the conditions. This was the view out the lab windows ...

So the cruise ship Bitterness is still looking for a harbour. I had to sit in on a meeting with a dysfunctional Biology department late last week where one of the things that needed to be resolved was the stealth Biochemistry prerequisite to almost all the upper level Biology courses. It turns out that the Biology department was founded by two faculty that were confirmed molecular reductionists. So now that we have Biologists that have a more organismal philosophy they want to avoid the heavy lifting of Biochemistry. What was amazing was a) watching the two sides talk past each other for two hours b) the escalating rhetoric and c) the clumsy politics. It was absolutely classic faculty communication "What I said was pure genius so if you don't agree with me then I must repeat what I just said ... but louder". Sometimes I hate being Head.

My History of Science course went zombie on me. The lecture was on the transition between Newtonian Mechanics and the Quantum Universe. About half way through the lecture the class lost all symptoms of interest. Oh, I have drained the joy of learning out of a class before like some kind of academic vampire but this was something different. Usually there is at least one student in all my classes, driven by the monomaniacal pursuit of marks, that will at least feign interest because they know when the class descends to apathy the merely competent student suddenly shines. No, the whole class started looking into the middle distance and became totally unresponsive. I tried to adjust by breaking the class out for a discussion and a it fell flat and they never came back intellectually. This long grinding winter has to end before the center falls.

And then there is the staff. We are in the long straight run towards the end of semester. The staff have got to step up to their A game and it is just not happening. Our Administration, in their wisdom, decided that in the middle of a financial crisis we need to go on a building campaign and have deflected the attention of our development personnel towards an all-encompassing Capital Campaign and we in the faculty have been told that the cornerstone of the campaign is the ability of the campaign staff to say that the faculty were the first to step up with significant donations as evidence that we believe. Oh yes, I had them reach out and touch me last Friday. We will need to raise the first million dollars just to pay for the fund raising campaign. And yet, helpful suggestions from the faculty to enhance efficiency are met with near hostile indifference.

Oh yes, I am ready for this to end. On the research end of things I just got three crystal structures back from the crystallographer but the graduate student that did the initial synthetic work has moved on from his post-doc and disappeared into the chaos that is Mainland China without a forwarding address or contact info. So what do I do? Hold off publication until he surfaces? Proceed to publish only the structures without the synthetic details and with only an acknowledgement of the student's work? If I can't get his signature on the author list I can't publish his work. Oh well, three more weeks of classes ... just three more weeks of classes. If the students can go zombie then so can I.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Sentimental Scientist

The geniuses that designed our building optimized teaching and office space but literally designed the building without any storage space. While we have become quite adept at finding and using microstorage "hide in plain sight" spaces it just seems that the labs especially are an avalanche waiting to happen.

So, I have been on one of my periodic purges (no irony intended). And at the bottom and back of a desk drawer we use as a spectrometer table for the teaching IR I found this collection of objects:

What we have here is the high school chemistry text that I used in grade 11 and 12. The safety glasses that I wore through graduate school and the last CNDO/2 program that I ran with punched cards (it was an optimization of the torsion angle in the dithionite dianion).

Sentimental fool that I am I have kept these incidental objects, the flotsam and jetsam of a life in science, for decades for no other reason than the tactile joy and nostalgia they bring to me. They went back into the drawer but really, am I alone in doing this? Should I just grow up and move on? Does anyone else have an irrational scientific memory drawer? What is in it?

Have a good week people, play safe.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Too Much Information

For reasons that you do not want to fully think about I happen to have recently developed a deep personal understanding of the words "colon" and "colonoscopy". By themselves they are a simply a punctuation mark and a spectrometer for punctuation marks. In the lives of middle aged men though they are the chill words that whisper "You know that whole dignity thing you have been working on since you became a professor? ... it's all over now".

Now, colonoscopy examinations are the cornerstone of preventative medicine for bowel cancer and it seems that women (who seem to be more reconciled the loss of dignity that the medical establishment demands) are just fine with the procedure. There have, however been some pretty spectacular accounts of men who have had colonoscopies in the popular press.

This is Dave Barry's account of a colonoscopy procedure (Danger, do not read this while eating or drinking unless someone familiar with the Heimlich maneuver is present)(LINK)

This is Peter King's account of preparing for a colonoscopy (LINK)

It is the preparation that prompts this posting gentle readers. In the good old days they treated you like a vet would treat a horse and made you slam down a glass of trisodium phosphate to empty the system. Yes, that is the same trisodium phosphate that you can buy by the kilo at the hardware store as TSP to remove wallpaper. It seems that this treatment was particularly effective but rather harsh on the lower bowel and dramatically lowered your electrolytes to a dangerous level if you were ill. So now they have these mixes that they give you. The one I am now familiar with is GoLytely.
Now the good people that make Golytely have a webpage (LINK) that declares that Golytely "Was the first bowel prep not contraindicated for cardiac and renal patients ". So, with that confidence you whip up a four litre batch of this stuff. Now, 4 L of anything is a lot to drink but it tastes as Dave Barry says "like a mixture of goat spit and urinal cleanser, with just a hint of lemon". What you are drinking has to empty the bowel without wrecking your electrolyte levels so the ingredients are interesting (at least they are if you are stuck in the bathroom with nothing to read for six hours).

Polyethylene glycol (LINK) (this is the primary active ingredient)
sodium sulfate (LINK) (this is also known as Glauber's Salt and is also an active ingredient)
Sodium bicarbonate, Sodium chloride and Potassium chloride are all present for electrolyte balance.

In any event I now have an excellent solution assignment for my first year students. What are the molarities, mole fractions and mass percentages of the different electrolytes in the prepared four litre solution of Golytely?

Just remember friends, do not golytely into that good night.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chemical Optical Illusions

I was reading through a back issue of Chemical and Engineering News (LINK) and saw this ad. Now, the ad has a number of problems that reveal (a) that Chem. Eng. News does not proofread the ads and (b) the good people at B&C Pharmaceutical R&D Co., Ltd. have much better English language skills than I have Mandarin language skills.

On the other hand I always thought that structural chemistry was a kind of universal language. Which means that I was kinda surprised that this adamantane was drawn with the usual perspective that suggests the three dimensional structure but with an odd selection of bond interruption that causes an chemical optical illusion. If you focus on the top part of the molecule everything is fine but trying to make sense of the lower cyclohexane moiety makes my eyes cross.

Or I could be wrong and they really are making what appears to be Dewar adamantane.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Reflections

Ten Reasons why having a snowblower is better than having teenage children when the driveway needs to be cleaned.

10. Snowblowers don’t complain.
9. A snowblower will not shovel out your driveway like a prisoner of war and then run off to happily shovel the neighbours driveway.
8. Snowblowers don’t think that shoveling the driveway once means that it doesn’t need to do it again for the whole winter.
7. Waking up a snowblower means changing a lever on the side of the blower to “START”, you ever tried to wake up a teenager?
6. A snowblower will not clean your driveway and then ask for money.
5. A snowblower will not start a Facebook group “Why My Owner Sucks”
4. A snowblower will not wander the neighbourhood dragging back leaf blowers and lawnmowers for you to feed.
3. When you are done with a snowblower you can legally throw it away.
2. If your snowblower breaks there are people out there who can fix your snowblower for $20 an hour.
1. A fixed snowblower stays fixed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tainted Blood

In the early 1980's NATO had a program to encourage scientists to work in the research labs of other NATO countries. All that was necessary was that two research groups agree on a project of "strategic importance" to NATO and agree on who the exchange scholars would be. Our group co-operated with a group in the chemistry department of Durham University (In Durham Town (recently (and disturbingly) in the news). Wouldn't you know we got the grant, I got married and headed for England.

Now, we loved our time in Durham. It seemed every street had a convenience store, a pub and a candy shop. We developed an unhealthy love of Thornton's toffee and prawn flavoured crisps (there were root beer flavoured ones as well). Every night we went for hour long walks that were always rewarding. All in all it was a precious combination of honeymoon, adventure and research. The setting was fantastic and the research done in those four months in fact laid the foundation for the research discoveries that would form my thesis three years later. The last two months however I was on my own and my cooking skills were rudimentary at best.

I can well remember rummaging through the tins of prepared meals. I remember one especially that was labelled "Irish Stew with Meat" the list of possible meats in the tin was a bit more than what you would see in Canada and included horse and rabbit. There were other tins of stew that contained something called "Super rabbit" (whatever that was). I figured "when in Rome" heated it up and ate it like a soldier.

The reason why any of this is at all relevant is because the Canadian Blood Services came to our university today. Here in Canada blood is donated and distributed to anyone that needs it. The system has its problems but all in all it works for us. A few years back my family doctor suggested that I start taking a blood pressure medication as a preventative measure since my blood pressure was "high normal" and heart disease runs in my family. That was fine with me but it meant that I could no longer donate blood. It turns out however that since then they have changed their policy and can use blood products containing my medication.

So I wander on down to the mobile clinic and started the procedure, got interviewed three times (with an obsessive interest in my recent sexual history) filled out three forms with redundant information. I finally was eyeballed and interviewed by a nurse, who noticed that I had checked "yes" when the form asked if I had ever lived in England. Suddenly, there was a flurriment and skufflement and a hushed conference behind a screen and I was informed that the Canadian Blood Services did NOT want MY blood because I may be harbouring bovine spongiform encephalopathy prion. Indeed, they did not seem so keen to even be in the same small space with me any more and I was informed that I should leave by the employees exit.

It all explains so much. The loss of my hair and memory, having to pee in the middle of the night and the fact that when I cross the blueline and make a hard cut to the left I fall down (much to the hilarity of the defense). So it is only a matter of time ... I blame it all on the "Irish Stew with Meat".

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.