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.


Ψ*Ψ said...

I have endless respect and admiration for people who do that flavor of chemistry (especially those who keep all their fingers).
I'm not even CLOSE to that field, but I like to read Klapötke papers just for the pure entertainment value.

Chemgeek said...

So, LAC, how many fingers do you have?

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Let's just say that I can still count to 21. On the other hand the first time that I called my wife from work started with the phrase "First of all I want you to know that I am alright". I had an explosion and fire that evacuated four buildings on campus and I had been under two safety showers ebfore they dragged me out past the assembled department. I was a fun group to work in. In the 80's the ACS came out with a laboratory risk assessment form and the only things we didn't have in the lab were infectious deseases and radioactivity. But then again there was that isotopically enriched selenium that we trade bartered across the border from Russia to Finland during the Cold War that we never mentioned to the government but that is a different story.

Chemjobber said...

This is a great post. Thanks for sharing (and visiting CJ!)

Kaleberg said...

This reminds me of stories of early X-ray conferences where they couldn't figure out what to serve at the testimonial dinners because so many researchers had lost fingers. I assume it has gotten somewhat safer than in the glory days.

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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.