Saturday, December 17, 2011

Home Labs: Responsible Curiousity

I doubt anyone still has this blog on their readers but I haven't heard much about this story (LINK via Boing Boing). I must say that the guy seemed to have a well organized home laboratory. What he was doing with it seems to be anyone's guess. The picture above is from the police file.

The chemicals that make the article include:
potassium permanganate
potassium nitrate
ammonium nitrate
iron oxide
zinc oxide
copper sulfate
hydrogen peroxide
aluminum powder
sulfamic acid
potassium silicate
sodium bicarbonate
wax shavings
PVC shavings
methyl hydrate
hydrochloric acid

"In his furnace room, he had an electrochemical setup where he seemed to be turning potassium chloride into potassium chlorate"
The only reason that I have emerged a bit from my hole is that this is an issue for me. A former student of mine became a popular local science show leader and over the years developed a home lab of alarming and surprising dimensions. All was well until he died suddenly in a motorcycle accident and left his rather non-scientifically inclined wife to deal with his home lab. We are still sorting through the details but suffice it to say that he was a high school teacher when the local schools were closing down science store rooms and a significant portion of chemicals deemed to dangerous for school ended up in his basement.
So, how do we balance the interests of the non-professional amateur scientist with the practical safety issues related to the use and disposal of the products of reactions that can be done with chemicals from the hardware store?

I do not have any quick answers other than a hope that municiple hazardous waste disposal centers are open to well labelled small (and not so small)amounts of chemicals or a young widow is going to lose a significant portion of her life insurance benefits taking care of what her amateur scientist husband left her.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Colour Coded Phosphorus

I see the element Phosphorus has had the star treatment by being highlighted in a Science blog of the Guardian newspaper (GrrlScientist). Just like a star however it would appear that the image has been airbrushed a bit.

This is what you see if you go to the website today:

This is what you see if you look in the Google cache for the original post on June 3:

To my eyes the original version seems much more authoritative, interesting and educational.

Manufacturing Peak Silver

For a number of completely sentimental reasons I carry a 1961 Canadian silver dollar attached to my key chain. I have had it for some time and it is smaller than a hubcap but bigger than a walnut and makes for a conspicuous anchor for my keys.

I don't know if anyone other than Th'Gaussling would have noticed recently but the price of silver has jumped dramatically for sometime and is today worth US $35 / oz. Which means that the coin that I carry around has more than $ 20 worth of scrap silver in it. Much more than the $ 5 it was worth as a collection piece.

Interestingly this means that the scrap metal price far exceed the collection value for the coin and it turns out that right now coin collectors all over North America are scrapping their precious coin collections or at least trying to figure out when silver will peak (in my opinion it has already so the dilettantes should cash in their chips now). Silver madness is a complex thing but it has happened before when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the world silver market and silver hit $ 50 / oz. Some coin collectors have observed that the scrapping of silver coins in the 1970s dramatically increased the value of silver coins by increasing their rarity. All I know is that the discovery of the odd piece of silver in pocket change was the foundation of many a small child's coin collection when I grew up and I never see silver in my change now ... ever.

Anyway, I noticed that has a conversion calculator for silver coins to get people to turn in their coins for the scrap value. The thing that prompted me out of my blogger hole (I am in the middle of organizing a conference and this is a soul saving digression, I could care less if anyone is reading my nearly dead blog, this is a necessary distraction from colleagues that promise big and then disappear) is the graph that accompanies the calculator. This is today's:

Wow, that is a dramatic increase in the value of silver I need to hustle my poke of hoarded silver coins down to the refinery now to get my cash before this silver bubble pops ... but wait a minute there is something odd about the x axis ...
So in a classic example from "How to Lie with Statistics" they have given a non-linear axis to dramatically accentuate the change in the price of silver. What is kind of sad is that this subterfuge is not necessary the change is pretty dramatic but someone decided that it wasn't dramatic enough. Huh. Anyway, I'm a gonna keep my key fob right where it is 'cause at heart I'm just a big old soft romantic. No really I hope everyone melts their coins so that when the dust clear those of us that kept our coins are left with coins that have a higher collection value. Nothing personal, just business.

Anyway, as I freak out over this conference I may be nosing around my old blog just to think about something different. See ya.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

If Paperwork = Marking this is Me

'Tis the marking season here at Liberal Arts U. I purposely went out of my way this semester to make it a "soft landing" for my students with all the majour assignments due two weeks ago. But somehow it just always happens that I have a pile of orphan / late lab reports, term papers and lab portfolios to mark, each one pretty much squeezed out of some orifice of my students with no time on the clock and therefore each one looks, reads and smells like a first draft. When they are marked and returned I can look forward to the line of students at my door all with the message "I know my mark in your course sucks because I didn't do any work during the semester *but I care now*(1) ... what can I do to improve my mark?". It would be a great service to me if you could provide me with some completely impolite, unacceptable responses to the question.

(1) *but I care now* is an expression that I have begun to hear from students and I think they are confused by what I mention earlier in the semester where I will say "Show me once that you have mastery of the content of the course and I can/will adjust the values of the tests and exams to reflect that you understood the course material". Somehow they are translating that as "Show me once that you care". Meh, back to marking.

This made me laugh and remember when they renamed a number of fish here on the East Coast because city people wouldn't eat Cusk, Pout and Suckerfish. They also renamed rapeseed to canola for the same reason.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Periodic table of Fictional Materials

This is very clever and related to a previous post. Alexandra de Groot has created an interactive periodic table of fictional materials grouped by the medium in which the material is reported. I see Administratium made the list of joke elements but the old jokes about the elements Woman (Wo) and Man (Mn) don't seem to be in the table. I am also pretty sure however that Unobtanium (Element # 71 Unb) is mentioned as the ore that drives the mining operation in "Avatar" as well. In any event, this is an epic amount of work and a cool online resource.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Law of Diminishing Expectations

This is an interesting article (it is currently behind a paywall but will come out in a week or so). There seems to be a sub-text here that a generation ago a number of PhD grads had to "settle" for a lower tier university just to have a teaching job. It would appear that those that made such a deep sacrifice of hopes and expectations discovered the joys of teaching undergraduates and the bitterness of failure has been washed clean by the chamomile bath of mediocrity (mediocrity = re-definition of success). I doubt that the PUIs are entirely populated by faculty that dropped off the conveyor belt with newly minted PhDs and hopes to teach undergraduates. On the other hand I do know that many of us in our graduate work and post-docs looked at the research intensive life and said "You know what ... I'd rather spend my life (and in reality the same amount of time and commitment to work) helping people face to face then spending day after day in frantic scramble to stay current, submit and maintain grants and publish largely derivative work." I have to admit that I am unaware of any decent study that looks at the expectation and intentions of faculty in chemistry PUIs. It would be worth a look.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Action Elements Periodic Table

I don't know about you but when I have a mountain of marking to do I often irrationally find trivial things to focus on that I would normally ignore. I was taking a break one night and looked at the family DVD selection ("... hmmm Transformers ... nah, I don't think I want to watch that") and then flipped through the hundreds of channels up in the numbers that I usually ignore ("... Oh, Transformers that looks good."). So I was watching the movie and noticed that the cable channel (Rogers Communcation, The Action Network) is using icons of chemistry to sell their programming.

From Apr 3, 2011
You can see one icon on the left where they use the icon of the periodic table to organize the elements of action movies. What is facscinating is the care that someone on their design team used to organise the elements and use them consistently in their advertizing ...

Each element has a symbol and an atomic number that correspends to the attached table.

Their elements can only be partically sorted out from the small bit that I saw during one movie. The symbols are someone straightforward but other are more cryptic (Bz = Testosterone?).I could not find a systematic treatment on their webpage and I oddly haven't seen anyone comment online on this odd use of our icons. This is their element list as far as I can determine:

Element/ Symbol/ Name
2/ Ka
3/ Ex
4/ Vi/ Violentium
5/ Hk/ Hunkium
6/ B/
7/ Bu/
8/ N/ Ninjane
9/ Sx/ Sexcetylene
10/ V/
11/ Hr/
12/ Cc/
13/ Wa/
14/ In/ Infernium
15/ Ad/
16/ Ht/
17/ So/
18/ G/
19/ Te/
20/ J/
21/ H/
22/ D2/
23/ Ff/
24/ Cr/ Chromium
25/ Ev/
26/ Sn/ Sniperite
27/ P/ Punchium
28/ K/ Kickium
29/ Bm/ Bombtane
30/ D
31/ Rr/ Rocktane
32/ C/ Corpse
33/ R
34/ S*/ Swearite
35/ F
36/ Ro/ Robotane
37/ M/ Monsterane
38/ Hg/ Hangrenadium
39/ Jp
40/ E
41/ Nk/ Nudium
42/ Zb
43/ Fa
44/ Je
45/ Wp/ Warpium
46/ Lz
47/ Ai/ Air
48/ Bz/ Testosterone
49/ Bb/ Bruise
50/ O
51/ I/ Insultane

This was not what I should have done with my last hour. Oh well ... Back to marking.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

So What Are You Going to Do When You Graduate?

This article was pointed out to me and it seemed to see a bigger picture than some recent thoughts about higher education. I found this statement profound in some way:

"Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not."

This would suggest that the academic thermodynamics are endoknowic. There is a work term but no change in knowledge suggesting that the system (the student) can only get hotter with the process. I suspected that was true for some students at the bachelors level but was surprized that it extended to the PhD.

What I found weird is that this was written in The Economist ... go figure.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Term Paper / Formal Reports ... 'Tis the Season

In my lab courses the formal reports typically include a review of the literature in the introduction and an expectation that the results and discussion will include a contextual analysis based on either the selected literature in the "Suggested reading" or the results of their own literature searches. In the humanities courses that I teach I have given up trying to teach senior students how to write without plagiarizing internet sources so I have them do "naked essays" where I frogmarch them into a room with computers that have been disconnected from the internet, give them annotated bibliographies that they have prepared beforehand and tell them to write their terms papers in the next three hours. High stress, but I get essays that I know are the students own work.

That said, this link popped up on my reader today and I quite like it. I would quote from it but for some ironic reason I cannot lift the text out of the webpage ...

That brings up the annual problem of scientific quotes and referencing. For the most part, in my sub-discipline actual quotes are kinda rare. The expectation is that the writer will paraphrase the source and reference it to a general source citation listed as an endnote. It is assumed that the reader, if motivated, will read the source and find the relevant section themselves without specific guidance. The humanities students, however are forced the specifically cite each quote as page footnotes that really clutter up the page.

In any event, I liked the cut of this articles jib, I found it timely in this semester pause before the onslaught of papers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Do Not Try This At Home

I read this article in Time today. Chemistry is replete with accounts of chemists that used themselves as the first test subject for the properties of the compounds that they isolated. I was just at a lecture by a natural products chemist that worked with a pillar of drug discovery who tested which tree frogs to examine by licking them (shades of a famous Simpsons episode).

That said, I think if you asked synthetic chemists about it most would admit, that at least inadvertently, they had ingested a number of unknown compounds. In my case there was a whole class of heterocyclic compounds with a distinctive odour (my wife called it "that wet dog smell"). My group and I made an significant number of new derivatives and truth be told many of them had a significant volatility. High enough in fact that we must have breathed in a significant compound load by inhalation. We all admitted at a group barbeque that after a week or so of working on these heterocycles that both our urine and stool carried the distinctive odour. I reassured my group by telling them that this was proof that the compounds were passing through us unchanged. Unchallenged, as all supervisor assertions must be.

I doubt I am alone but I have at least anectdotally heard from other chemists more concerns about breathing solvent fumes than compound inhalation. The day is coming when we will have to wear full Hazmat suits to add vinegar to baking soda or to even make molecular models of caffeine. All it will take is one lawsuit.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We are at the Semester Transition State

It has been a long hard winter here at Liberal Arts U. We have over a meter and a half of snow standing in the fields and the piles are as high as they have ever been. We ended February yesterday with 20 cm of new snow. Our problem is that we have not had warmer periods during the winter to melt away the older snow. Under the snow we have there still remains the snows of November and man has it accumulated. This is the view out the lab window.

I have had a weak class that I have had to carry through the Intro Chem Mountains. truth be told they have been dropping. This generation of students will not stay and fail, they drop once they see their learning deficit.

That said this little bit of poetry came to me in the middle of tutorial last week ...

Just gonna stand here and watch you learn
That's alright, 'cause I want your mind to turn
Just gonna stand here and see you try
That's alright, 'cause one day you'll get it right
One day you'll get it right.

Winter will end, the semester after March break is an academic Nantucket sleigh ride but the end is in sight. We have made it to March and the stream on our property that we study for environmental studies is open. Time to get the snowshoes and probeware out.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chemistry in Cartoons: Boom

This is an odd coincidence. Two comics on the same day with a chemistry theme. It so happens that the e-comic "Indexed" is a favorite of mine for pretty much the same reasons I like "Sheldon". It has the added factor of often including Venn diagrams one of my favorite mathematical tools from elementary school (that and geometry sets, I love me some geometry sets, I will buy sets even when I don't need them "for the lab").

In terms of the content of the cartoon, I guess it comes down to the word "dissimilar". There are few elements that spontaneously explode on contact with another element. Even hydrogen and oxygen need to be initiated. While I was a fluorine chemist in my youth and we made our AsF5 by the reaction of As and F2 I can't say that they would have "exploded". I bet elemental Cs would give a bit of a woof if you exposed it to F2 so maybe she has a point.

I only came in contact with elemental Cs when I interviewed for a post-doc with James Dye at Michigan State. He was leading a very well funded research group in the area of alkalides and electrides. I remember a graduate student passing my a vial with 100g of Cs in it and hovering while I chatted with the supervisor as if his life depended on me giving him back the vial. Good times.

Anyway the comic reminds me a favorite quote:

"The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction both are transformed." Karl Jung

Chemistry in Cartoons: Hair

I have to admit that I am a big fan of the e-comic "Sheldon". It is a smart, funny and gentle comic. I see that today's strip has a lab component in it. I could care less about the consumption of kale but I am interested in what the creator of the strip (Dave Kellet) thinks is proper lab attire. I like the lab coat and the proper lab goggles but I see that they are using hairnets.

I have to admit that I really only use hairnets as a threat in my teaching labs. I have the general rule that if hair falls on the shoulders or goes past the line of the eyes when leaning forward then the hair has to be held up and back. Students are told that if they violate this basic safety rule that they will have to wear the "hairnet of shame". It really only has to happen once or twice and everyone gets the idea.

I taught at a university where the undergraduate population had a significant fundamentalist Pentecostal component. The young women would often have long straight hair that would fall to the middle of their backs. We taught the students in groups of 90 and it would be a common sight in the corridor before labs for dozens of young women to be carefully piling and arranging their hair so that it would be safely contained. Watching them was a strangely sensual experience. That said, even our best efforts could not keep the hair out of the experiments and it was common to find hair tens of centimeters long in the sinks, equipment, lab notebooks and products of the students. In fact it was a common thing to find these extraordinarily long hairs in tests and exams as well.

I guess we should have made them wear hairnets but I can honestly say that in the five years that I taught there the idea never came up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chemical Stereotypes

We are just not winning hearts and minds in chemistry. Take a look at the copy for this article in last weekend's Globe and Mail.

"If you were scarred by high-school science class, why not turn what were emblems of chemistry-lab tedium into shows of geek chic"

Oh yeah, 2011 the International Year of Chemistry that will make us more popular with the general public. Where is our discipline's Einstein, Goodall or Feynman?


I do not know if anyone is still listening, things here at Liberal Arts U have been "challenging" and blogging is the first to go over the side when the balloon is sinking.

In any event, this needs to be read and promoted by any and all scientists that teach in liberal arts universities. Rarely have I read something so true from a university president.

“The most terrifying problem in American university education is the profound lack of scientific literacy for the people we give diplomas to who are not scientists or engineers. The hidden Achilles’ heel is that while we’ve found ways to educate scientists in the humanities, the reverse has never really happened. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to do anything about it.” Leon Botstein, President, Bard College

Go to this Link for details.

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.