Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Graphic Essay on Professor - Student Relations

I know you have all read this on PhD but I still think this graphic essay shows alotof depth and I intend to use it when students attempt to "friend" me on Facebook ...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Chemical Workers Song

A local band called "Great Big Sea" has a song about industrial chemistry worker relations. I taught on Newfoundland for five years and sometime I will have to tell you tales of the Long Harbour Phosphorus Plant ... it always makes me think of this song.


And its go boys go
They'll time your every breath
And every day in this place your two days near to death
But you go

Well a process man am I and I'm tellin' you no lie
I work and breathe among the fumes that tread across the sky
There's thunder all around me and there's poison in the air
There's a lousy smell that smacks of hell and dust all in me hair


Well I've worked among the spitters and I breathe the oily smoke
I've shovelled up the gypsum and it neigh 'on makes you choke
I've stood knee deep cyanide, got sick with a caustic burn
Been working rough, I've seen enough, to make your stomach turn


There's overtime and bonus opportunities galore
The young men like their money and they all come back for more
But soon your knocking on and you look older than you should
For every bob made on the job, you pay with flesh and blood


Well a process man am I and I'm telling you no lie
I work and breathe among the fumes that tread across the sky
There's thunder all around me and there's poison in the air
There's a lousy smell that smacks of hell and dust all in me hair

[Chorus 2x]

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Little Love for my American Cousins

I understand that you are all engaged in an economy saving frenzy that will max out all your credit cards so as you tuck into your turkey leftovers consider this seasonal note ...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Neverending Argument

We are having a re-evaluation here at Liberal Arts U. about safety apparel. I am reminded of a discussion I had with a British professor who had come to Canada just after the Second World War as part of the large contingent of second tier academics that came to teach the North American boomers. In a comment to me he said (referring to Canadians) “We first had to talk them out of the trees and teach them to wear clothes before we could teach them chemistry”. Lovely sentiment that, Rule Britannia!

Anyway, I cannot convince the Biologists that wearing safety clothing is like wearing a car seatbelt … 99% of the time it is an unnecessary inconvenience and 1% of the time it is the only guarantee that there will be a next generation of Liberal Arts Biologists. And the cavalier way they handle chemicals like acrylamide and ethidium bromide makes me despair. I have persuaded them to wear disposable gloves most of the time (but I think CSI convinced them more than I ever did that someone could look hot, do science and wear gloves).

In any event the current argument is over goggles and I am seriously thinking of making a pragmatic retreat on this one. The uber-safe, clamped to the skin, scuba goggles just will not fly with the Biologists and we have agreed that we will not make the students purchase separate safety gear for the different Science labs so it looks like we are heading towards a lightweight, polycarbonate clear vision safety goggle that does not touch skin around the perimeter.

The convincing argument that the Biologists gave me was that if we went for the safe goggles the students (actual meaning: the Biology professors) would not ever wear them but if we go for the second option there is a good chance that they at least would wear them propped up on their foreheads or dangling on lanyards. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

This Is Not My Lab

This is an image from the recent National Geographic (I would link to it but I cannot find the image in the online version of the magazine). It is described as a chemistry lab in a Detroit school that was abandoned to vandals after a fire in the school.

I don't know if Detroit vandals are more polite than the vandals around here but there is far to much intact glassware in the picture. In fact, who walks away from this amount of functional equipment? There are alot of useful items still in useful condition left in this abandoned lab. Give me an hour to clean it up and I could teach most of first year chemistry with chemicals from the grocery store and the equipment that I see.

In any event I found the image striking.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Well Rounded Chemist

The movie "Wit" starring Emma Thompson is an extraordinary narrative of the journey that an English professor takes from diagnosis of cancer to her death. It reveals deep insights into both the medical and academic professions. I happen to have seen it again this weekend and was struck by a small scene early in the movie. The portion of note happens at the 3:00 - 4:00 minute mark from this clip ...

What strikes me about this is the idea that a scientist is admired for taking optional advanced humanities courses where you rarely see humanities students in introductory science courses and only if they are filling a science requirement for their degree. You would never expect to see a humanities student in an advanced science course.

Indeed, as an undergraduate in Honours Chemistry, I opted to take an advanced course in Shakespeare simply because I was interested, on top of my required courses. I would argue that the liberal arts ideal is typically fully realized only in Science students that are allowed to explore their interest in non-Science subjects. The sheer fact that humanities students do not have the language of Science means that they cannot simply show up in advanced courses and get anywhere and in this way they typically fail to meet the ideal of a well rounded academic worldview. I have worked with any number of scientists that could speak with deep personal knowledge on their favorite philosopher, musician or artist but have rarely spoken with an academic from the humanities that had anything more than a superficial knowledge of Einstein or Hawking let alone Hoffmann.

For this reason our community will fail to educate the one sector of society that most needs insight into what we do. Unless we seek to find ways of bringing senior undergraduate humanities students into our advanced courses we cannot expect them to understand science policy issues when they enter society, business or politics. I think this is something we have to think about. I mean how many of our universities pay lip service to the humanities science credit by creating science courses for humanities students called "Science and Society"?

We cannot complain that society does not understand us when we have the instrument of that communication in our hands generation after generation and fail to exploit the opportunity.

It's what I am thinking about. The first thing that I think I am going to do it try to start a movement to change the policy in my University that allows humanities students to complete their Science requirement with one course of Intro Stats. I am going to push for it to be a Natural Science and if possible a lab course. Or, maybe I will just sleep on it.

"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
" Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Chemistry Version of these Videos Must be Made

Monday, October 11, 2010

See If We Can get Thomas To Do this on Video

Saw this, learned something and was reminded of our dropped pestle test to see if our S4N4 was pure enough to use. Of course there are much more impressive and less educational videos of nitroglycerine on Youtube but the Brits always do a good job of this sort of thing. It's a shame TK left the UK.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cleavage Reactions

This was a new one for me. I have been teaching for 22 years now and I have a simple, no-fail rule that I have always used for all students coming to the lab... "No exposed skin below the neck except your hands". So this morning a young woman that is in one of my chemistry classes walks up to me and asks "Is this neck line too low for the lab?".

Now, I realise that I am a fat, middle aged authority figure but I am still a functional male and on the face of it I was being asked to look at the bust line of a young woman and assess it. I am somewhat proud of the fact that my eyes did not do a lazy meander around the cleavage of the young woman but I kept my eyes on hers and made up a new rule on the spot (#).

If something falls from above you will it hit clothing or skin?
If it is skin them you need to cover up.

(Just don't ask how something "falls from above" in the chemistry lab)

She smiled and pranced off (it was then that I noticed that she had on knee high leather boots with stiletto heels ... who thinks when they get ready for chemistry lab that stripper boots are appropriate?).

OK, maybe I have gotten so old now that I think that all my students are my daughter and should dress Amish but how far out of line am I? In the name of safety can I require all my students to wear the equivalent of a burqa? Am I turning into a Fundamentalist Chemist or do I need to put the liberal back into liberal arts and sciences?

To be fair I have had significant conversations over the past few years with the guys about exposed butt cleavage ... "If I drop a quarter down there will you play a song?". I have always assumed that the lab coat covered a multitude of sins but only if you button them all the way up and who am I to say what they wear under the lab coat? Anyway, I can only hope for the days in the near future when I can talk about the other kind of cleavage.

(#) In the name of complete disclosure I must admit that the view was very tanned and revealing but I only looked a little bit. What? OK, so how am I *NOT* supposed to notice?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Summer That Changed Everything

This will be remembered as the summer that the Universe changed. I mean really this must have been what it was like to live in the first half of the 20th century when all the fundamental laws, constants and particles were being sorted out prompting Kelvin to say, somewhat famously that experimental science would no longer be involved in discovery but changing the numbers in the fourth decimal point of known values (for an entertaining spin on this read Horgan's "End of Science").

Why do I say that? Well, there is this attitude that we have in Science, especially Physical Science that we sort of have all the important stuff nailed down and we tend to communicate that as our first message to our students.

I started out in chemistry until I discovered that they were obsessed with something they called “The Right Answer” so I switched to psychology where you basically write whatever you want, and chances are you get a B.
Jon Stewart "The Daily Show".

Then a summer like this one comes along. Earlier this summer they discovered that our values for the size of the proton were wrong ... by more than five deviations. What? How is that even possible? And this a fundamental value that is one of the corner stones of physical science. So just what are the differences?

Holy improbable Batman, how could we have balanced our equations with this kind of error?

Now, on the other hand, just yesterday a startling observation was published. We all teach kinetics to first year students and they only lift their faces from their drool puddles when we digress and tell them that nuclear decay is a first order process and you can radio date objects by determining isotopic ratios AND ASSUMING THAT RADIOACTIVE DECAY IS CONSTANT. Yeah, like we couldn't get that wrong could we ... well until someone actually checked at least. It would appear ... well, let's let the professionals say what they mean:

"On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare." [link]

"Everyone thought it must be due to experimental mistakes, because we're all brought up to believe that decay rates are constant," Sturrock said. [Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics ][link]

"It doesn't make sense according to conventional ideas," Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, "What we're suggesting is that something that doesn't really interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed." [Ephraim Fischbach, a physics professor at Purdue and Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins] [link]

So in three months two fundamental laws and a fundamental principle that we teach first year chemistry students has changed dramatically. Makes you think doesn't it? I can hear textbooks being re-written already. But at least we are living in a time of discovery.

Quote that has nothing to do with this post but it made me laugh ... and I needed to laugh.

"It is rare to find learned men who are clean, do not stink and have a sense of humour."
Montesquieu (1689—1755) about Leibniz (1646—1716)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Research Incest - It's a Game the Whole Research Group can Enjoy

Research ethics, you want to talk about ethics?

It seems that people recently have been concerned about the omnipresent PI and how a supervisor is responsible for things that occur when they have their back turned. The whole “the PI has responsibilities for everything that occurs in their lab” issue got me to thinking about a friend of mine.

My friend was (and is) one of the best set of hands in Main Group synthetic chemistry. He had just started as an independent researcher and spent all of his available funds on two graduate students and a post-doc. Things were going very, very well for about six months. Then, one day in the late fall, my friend walked into the lab to discover his post-doc and one of his graduate students, on the floor, on top of a pile of lab coats recreating the more disturbing parts of “Monsters Ball”.

The post-doc and graduate student were married … just not to each other.

I just hope they used a safety shield.

He called them both in the next day to have a chat about the proper use of lab coats. Suffice it to say within the week he had lost both the post-doc and the grad student, leaving him with a relatively weak Masters student to start his research career. In a lesser person this would have crippled a researcher but not this guy. Did I mention he was the best hands in synthetic Main Group chemistry? What he did was move out of his office and into the lab. He taught his courses, worked at the bench, trained his remaining grad student and wrote papers and grants in the evening. It was quite possibly one of the most heroic efforts I have ever witnessed.

And it worked.

Given the tone of the recent discussion on the role of the PI one has to wonder if my friend had any business addressing the issue at all. There are all kinds of sloppy behaviors leading to all kinds of explosions that can wreck a career.

When we discussed the whole situation at a conference my friend said that he really had no moral objections to what they were doing but he felt that he was not in control of his research group.

So what about it? We have all experienced the “Love Amongst the Beakers Syndrome”. I mean really, long hours, limited socialization and no one really gets your obsession except your chemical family. Reseach incest … is it another PI responsibility?

Of course the mid-life crisis / PI – French post-doc adulterous affair is so common to be banal but that is different aspect of the same phenomenon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

If Hemingway were a Chemist ...

So, from the shadows of self imposed exile the sleeping chembloggers of the early 2000's awaken and realize that the intertubes are dangerously low on chem research gossip, Nobel prize in Biology speculations and inter vs intra chemistry department politics (with cathartic posts made and then unmade). Even Homebrew has lifted his head from his desk and contributed if only to say "meh".

The chembloggers all seem to recently have had a weird nerdgasm about energetic materials, even the redoubtable Gandalf of the chemblogosphere, Lowe the Grey, greatest of all chembloggersTM, has made mention about a specific researcher.

Friends, I got my first job as a summer research assistant because a graduate student sheared the ends of his fingers off when a 10 mg sample of tellurium azide exploded inside a metal can reaction vessel. They needed "fresh fingers". We changed to large volume, glass reaction vessels so that the lower bursting pressure of glass would fail at lower energies and bagged the X-ray structure of that sucker. We routinely made and worked with gram quantities of pure S4N4 the true "left hand of Satan". To prepare it for chemistry we had to grind crystals of the stuff into a powder (if it wasn't kinda "crackly" it wasn't pure enough).

There is a reason why some reagents and some chemical reactions have not been reported yet. When it comes to some binary and trinary combinations of elements the path to the chemistry textbooks is very ... Darwinian. And let's face it boys and girls, the true measure of success in chemistry is not measured in prizes. True impact is when your research makes them change the content of the second year sub-discipline textbooks. If the teaching community believes that your research has to be mentioned to second year chemistry students then you have made an impact. Anything else just says that you have enough friends to throw a party.

When Thomas Klapotke joined our lab he was making piano stool metal carbonyl complexes in beakers on the benchtop. We taught him how to make and handle energetic materials. In fact, he watched over our shoulders while we did it. He was amazing to work with. He would work a full day in the lab and then put in at least a six hour shift on his own research (which I helped him with from time to time). That way, when he finished his post-doc with us he had three papers under his own name, on his own research, ready to submit. But don't think that he was all work. He arrived in North America and looked at the local cars then decided that he would have his own car shipped from Germany rather than ride was was available here. I remember reading the German on the side of his tires "these winter tires are not recommended for speeds above 180 km/hr."

Now to be fair to our little branch of Main Group Chemistry, the prevailing attitude towards lab accidents had a Hemingway / Nietzsche flair to them. I mean when you are working with explosives and elemental fluorine confidence mixed with fatalism is the only worldview that allows you to slip on your codpiece in the morning and face your supervisor.

Our conferences were always dodgy when it came to first time, face to face meetings. Handshakes were fumbled because of missing fingers (you ever shake the hand of someone missing a thumb?). I remember a conference in Banff where a bunch of Old School Main Group Chemists re-enacted the scene from "Jaws" where they compared scars from chemical explosions. The winner would have to be a chemist from Germany who must have had the skin flayed his arm and the scar tissue went on, and on, and on ...

Therefore it was not astonishing that a few years after he left us Thomas sent us a letter with some enclosed photos. I will let his wry comment close this post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to the Future

In celebration of the return of ChemBark and Propter Doc I must pop up this tiny offering on my series on chemistry used to sell things. I see Future Shop in Canada is trying to convince people to buy flat screen TVs with images of chemistry.

It is a bit confused, but internally correct. There are two balanced chemical reactions listed one of the reaction of nitric acid with copper and the second appears to be an acid with carbonic acid. There is a dilution calculation and a freezing point depression calculation, a correct statement of the molar mass of hexachloroethane and parts of a larger organic molecule. As far as I can see the individual bits are correct.

Chemistry doesn't need to be cool when it functions iconically as something within the practical world of the general population that is "useful" but also advanced and capable of creating a better future. In reality that is all that advertising really sells ... a better future if you buy what we are selling. Chemistry doesn't need to be understood when it delivers a meta-narrative of progress.

I see that when they needed something to symbolize the quality of the image and technology they did not go to biology (too low and muddy) or physics (too arid and mathematical).
Chemistry sells. Now if we could just get a commemorative posting from HomeBrew we could rock out like it was 2005 all over again.

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.