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.