Friday, August 3, 2007

Research and Ghosts

So ... it's been a long time. I was pushed into a sabbatical, worked out an agreement with the family and a regional university that has me working in a nearby city, bought a broken down Kia Rio and got it working, developed an association/collaboration with a research group and started cooking up chemicals.

Research at the bench is what it always has been. Sometimes it is a visceral delight as the reagents combine into something new. More often than not the process involves taking pure, expensive starting materials and turning them into sewerage but that's the way love goes. Sometimes it is a grind to get through routine housekeeping necessary to keep a lab working. Sometimes bench research erodes the soul with countless small stumbling blocks that can stop a research program in its tracks. I have known them all in the last month or so.

The car has worked well. The driving has been fine since the trip from home to here is in my opinion a great little drive. The weather has been "tourist weather" (hot and sunny). So I leave the unplanned, garish squat of a community by an unloved river where I live and drive to an urbane and quiet small city with a wide beautiful river where I used to live. Why did I ever leave here?


The research has gone pretty much as I expected. Slow, and at times frustrating. I was fortunate to stumble into a discovery that will allow me to look at some chemistry relevant to some aspects of battery chemistry. I am currently up to my eyeballs in various forms of oils that refuse to form solids let alone crystals. But it's the colour changes that jazz up my day. I have discovered a chemical reaction between two white compounds that have been known for decades and one of which is an industrial reagent. Not only that, the reaction features the combination of two white crystalline solids with a secret solvent and I get the brightest most interesting colours and colour changes (so far ... Blue, green, yellow (lots of bright yellows), orange and red). If I can determine what the chemical species are that are responsible for the colour changes I may just get into the inorganic textbooks after all. It looks like I will be spending the balance of my sabbatical doing ESR and Raman and hopefully X-ray crystallography. Why did I ever leave here?


We had a water main break in the the basement of the Chemistry building two days ago. The water filled a room so that it was about a meter deep and the doors into the room could not be opened (genius designer had them all swing INTO the room). Not only that the only access to a shut-off valve was behind a wall in the room filled with water. Needless to say the lower floor (which includes the chemical storeroom) was inundated and they had to turn off the electricity to the whole building. We suddenly discovered that the fumehoods have an important role in making it possible to breathe the air and we all bolted for the nearest exit like a bad Mexican burrito.That meant that yesterday I ended up in the Engineering Library doing some long delayed literature work. After a long day of somewhat fruitful reading I headed out of the library and wandered around looking for a bathroom.


In a random corner of a random corridor I ran into this picture ...

And this picture had this small detail ...

Kevin was a friend, a good friend. We went to school together, we worked together and we enjoyed each others company. He was bright and devoted to sports. We were both raised in a rural community where feelings were mostly repressed but I knew him as a sensitive and curious brother. We sort of drifted apart in University I went into science and he went into engineering but it was a measure of his ability that in a program where the "four year degree" took everyone five years to complete ... he still finished in four. I remember meeting him in the hallway of the Chemistry building the year he graduated ... we walked by each other and simultaneously turned and realized who the other person was. For fifteen minutes it was like old times ... but time had moved on and Kevin was anxious for work so he had decided to go into the Armed Forces. We talked about wives and babies and then the tide took us apart.

About a year later we heard that Kevin and some other students were down in a hole in British Columbia learning how to wire explosives. One of those "can't-ever-happen" accidents happened and some people died including Kevin. I went to his funeral where a doddering old pastor who didn't know him said some stuff that had no meaning to a young wife and daughter. We all cried at the outright wrongness of his early death. And then our lives moved on.

So here I am in this random corner of a random building crying again. That is why I left this place ... there are too many ghosts that can bubble up from my past and rob the precious moment of the present from me while I remember old wounds, words or loves. I have gotta go home and kiss my family and commit to living in the precious gift of the present. As long as I live, I will carry the memory of that last conversation. It is precious to me and, in reality, symbolized all the friends left behind while I was off chasing electrons. Rest in peace brother ... you are not forgotten.

A link to an appropriate piece of music for my mood.

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.