Liberal Arts Chemistry

Thursday, March 7, 2013


So this is what the 100th post looks like. I started this blog so that I could participate in the chemblog culture that flourished back in the early days. I wanted to be anonymous for a number of reasons mostly having to do with my students. Anonymity on the web is of course a delusion (or illusion) as many of the anonymous chembloggers found out. If anything, the anonymity was a paper wall kept intact by an honour system more than anything else.

I made the trek back to my alma mater today and came across my first research lab. 

It was 1982 and the departmental Synthetic Main Group research group had suffered a string of unfortunate explosions the most recent one had mangled the fingertips of the senior graduate student and they needed "a pair of hands" to continue the work. I was the undergraduate student with the highest marks in inorganic chemistry and was offered the job. They had a small lab filled with debris and my first job was to clean it out. That first day I was told to wash out a rack of dirty 1 liter flasks left by a post-doc. I remember one flask went into the sink of hot soapy water and started to hiss and I immediately ducked below the edge of the sink just before a resounding boom that brought the entire floor to the door.

It turned out I had an aptitude for the work and six years later I would have my PhD.

My PhD supervisor is in the process of shutting down. A lifetime of paper, equipment and chemicals must be processed, disposed, stored or given away. I thought I would be more nostalgic than I was even when I looked through the doorway of my old lab and saw back thirty years. I did not even take the chance to pick up a souvenir.

I guess I am in a mood to let things go. Live well.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How To Make Little Chemists

The webartist Gavin Aung Than draws the remarkable illustrated quote website "Zen Pencils" and today's selection was a quote from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (link and link)(who admittedly has a fawning geek and nerd fanbase that has probably made him a little overexposed).

That said, Hadfield and the artist Than have combined to make a poster that should be in every classroom and beside every child's study desk (forget children, I'm putting it by my desk). When I first read it I was transported to the space under the basement stairs where the family let me set up my "lab" when I got my first chemistry set at the age of twelve.

My parents were survivors of the Depression, both orphaned by circumstance and forced to leave school into lives of grinding servitude and so they did not really understand my motivation or obsession. But they encouraged me and glory of glories they left me alone to discover the wonder of the set piece labs "from the book" but also the "off the book" labs that mostly made bad smells and nasty mixtures. Once in a while, however, something would work and I would ask "I wonder what that was?" which was followed by "where would I go to find out?". Now I know and the journey has fed my family, mowed my lawn and paid my bills and for that I am grateful to a family that gave me space to learn.

As I have said in the past "curiosity, nurtured by love, leads to the extraordinary"

The full artwork is well worth your time to have a look (link to artwork).

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Truth About Big Pharma

A normal Friday serving of brilliance from XKCD

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

So Why Exactly Do We Encourage Students to Study Chemistry?

I have posted on this before but I stumbled across a Dustinland comic that pretty much captured my message ... and my hope for the students I teach.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Time for Chemistry to Get Religion

"When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things" Mark 6:34

Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” Acts 8: 30-31

And then there is this on the CNN Main Page today:

I have posted on this topic before from a different perspective but In the Pipeline raised the issue today by asking "If you had to build out the chemistry hallway at the museum, then, what would you fill it with? Suggestions welcome" and it has been taken up by others in the chemblogosphere (read comments). The issue seems to be that museum chemistry exhibits indicate that chemistry is seen as old and static. If I understand the nature of the comments it would appear that museums would be forced to create exhibits that a) require consumables and maintenance and b) are dangerous and generate hazardous waste that would have to be dealt with in order to create chemistry museum exhibits that are memorable and chemical. Yes, that is it exactly chemistry is all about: explosions and toxic waste, why don't we just live up to the stereotypes?

I think we all know that the very aspects of chemistry that drew us to it as a discipline are not museum friendly. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try but we need to be grounded in real world practicality.

No, we in chemistry need to get religion. The kind of religion that permeates our lives and cause people to ask why we are different. The kind of religion where it is the responsibility to all of the members to be totally convinced that spreading the good news of chemistry is crucial to our development as a society. We need to be willing to adopt the attitude in the two bible passages above. To find teachable moments everywhere and be unfailingly positive in our message that chemistry unveils a separate and vital truth.

There was a time when it was actually like this and the example to us all was Michael Faraday and his public lectures. If we really think that the subtle truths of chemistry can be communicated by static posters then you have never been to an ACS poster session (cattle in a feedlot are treated better and have more space). If you think that making spectacular science "safe" by putting a layer of safety glass between the observer and the experiment is the way to go then history has been a poor teacher. To paraphrase Jurassic Park "entropy finds a way". No not safety glass, we need to be between the observer and experiment. We all need to be shepherds and explainers.

PS for the record if we are going to create chemical museum exhibits with consumables and maintenance details then one would have to consider the Miller-Urey Experiment as the most accessible "God Chemistry" for all it's flaws.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Musing: Reductionist and Incremental is not Winning

I love the comic "Calvin and Hobbes" indeed, I was one of the collectors when the comic came out in its first run and I grieved when Watterson closed the comic down in one of the most classy ways that something as beloved as C&H could possibly be ended.

That said, the comic industry berift of new ideas continue the comic series as a zobie re-run, but Calvin and Hobbes re-runs are better than most new comics so I keep an eye on it. This was todays comic:

And this is the relevant detail:

Our science is incremental and reductionist and our symbol is the mole. That is kind of apt for the way society views us ... and dangerous. We have lost the hearts and minds of the population when chemical is synonymous with disaster. We need a cultural icon to replace Pauling, a popular science spokesman akin to Sagan and we need to have a dramatic, clearly chemical, Khunian revolution on the order of solving the Origin of Life. 

And we need them now.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

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.