Monday, July 30, 2012

Keep Calm and Chemistry On

Today's Dilbert made me think of Derek Lowe and Chemjobber's recent reflections on Big Pharma. Not funny, not funny at all. A salute from a quiet academic backwater to the chemical industry survivors out there in the industrial version of the "The Perfect Storm" (who have to decide if they are going to ride out the storm even if it means riding the boat to the bottom because their captain has gone Ahab).

"Bad is never good until worse happens." 
Danish Proverb

Chemistry: The Most Recognizable Science

OK, I take back everything that I said before. Chemistry has to be a "true" science because it is the only science that is instantly recognizable *as* science. Let's face it, most academic mathematicians and physicists can be mistaken for members of the custodial staff while biologists and geologists can be mistaken as hippie survivalists. If you want to convey the image of science with limited artistic time chemistry is where you go. For example in today's episode of the webcomic Bug this panel shows up:

Lab coats, safety glasses, test tubes, e-flasks and phenanthrene are all most definitely icons of chemistry that are shorthand to popular culture for "Science". So there you have it, chemistry is not a science because it uniquely addresses a fundamental question of existence ... it is a science because our culture needs us. Huh.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is Chemistry Actually A Science?

It turns out that if it weren't for people searching for chemistry cartoons, incest or posts about cleavage about half the visits to this blog would disappear. So I gotta say "Welcome!" to those of you that like cartoons and boobies, this little blog would have closed down long ago without you.

Anyway, one  of the webcomics that I monitor is "Scenes from the Multiverse" for its science themed cartoons and the recent discovery of energy fluctuations that may be evidence of a trace from the Higg's boson showed up in the webcomic. It made me laugh and then I decided that it might be a nice little smirk to include in my atomic structure lecture for intro chem.

It would be a little addition that I could make when I introduce sub-atomic structure and the differences between fermions, bosons and those small irritating Mexican hairless dogs.

It did however get me to thinking about what defines a science as a discrete intellectual and philosophical entity.

It would appear that everyone is jumping on the "Science is a Continuum" / "Abolish the Departments" mentality but the one department that always seems to get "merged" is the chemistry department. Why is that? One could argue that this would be proof that Chemistry is indeed the Central Science. One could also argue that it is proof that Chemistry is in fact a Franken-science made from the margins and pieces of other true Sciences.

Indeed, one chemblogger who has successfully "gone pro" is the author of "The Curious Wavefunction" who in his maiden post on the Scientific American site addressed this issue. I would not want to put words in his mouth so will simply quote what he said:

"The overall aim is to point out the central place that chemistry has in our world and to demonstrate that it is very much the human science."

This resonates nicely with the thesis of an introductory chemistry text, "Chemistry: Human Activity, Chemical Reactivity" (that I have used the past couple of years) by Peter Mahaffey of Kings University College in Alberta, Canada. It is however, not one that I think fits the reality that we live in.

For the most part, we are somewhat defined by the company that we keep and one could argue that Chemistry is the Industrial Science, Physics is the Military Science and Biology is the Human Science. If we want to promote our science we can emphasize what happens at our margins but it would seem most responsible to me to focus (if not obsess) about what we do that actually pays the bills, keeps the lights on and buys the kibble. And for Chemistry that would be our intimate, and at times, frightening link with Industry.

But that still doesn't answer the question if Chemistry is a distinct or discrete science. As I thought about this I was reminded of a blog post by Chembark. I would argue that what allows a science to be distinct from the other sciences is the nature of the "God Question" that the science can uniquely address and answer. Does the science have at its core, key principles that allow it to address or know things that only God would know? Does the Science allow us to answer the snake in the Garden by saying "We are not "like God" we are Gods"?

Oppenheimer caught this when at Trinity he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita

"Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds".

That, I think, would be an adequate philosophical place to start the discussion on whether or not Chemistry is a distinct science and as Chembark indicates for Chemistry that would be the Origin of Life. Oddly enough, our philosophical distinctiveness rests in an obscure and neglected backwater of our science that we would apparently like to hand over to the Biologists and the half-breed Biochemists so they can get even more Chemistry Nobel prizes.

Meanwhile, the Physicists have put their "God Question" at the forefront of their science and committed almost all their time and treasure to it. What will we learn from that?

50 Days to First Lecture, gotta go do something small, derivative and publishable. Keep Calm and Chemistry On.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Selling With Chemistry: Dentyne Gum

Well, it seems I am on a thing about updating previous posts. In previous posts here and here I had noticed the use of chemistry and the icons of chemistry to sell things. I observed that certain icons such as the periodic table, test tubes and Erlenmeyer flask have a high positive penetration in the minds of the general population.

So the advertizing companies are at it again with element symbols and the periodic table:

List of Elements

Fr    Friendly
Fd    Friendly
It    Intellectual
St    Stylish
Ri   Mr. Right
Rn    Mr. Right Now
Rb    Rebellious
Tr    Trouble
Be    Blue Eyes
Co    Confident
Wi   Wild
Ir    Irrisistible
Ht   Hottie

At the end there seems to be some semblance of a period table structure and it would appear that Wild and Hottie bear a group relationship but the structure is variable suggesting that they are in fact attempting to show molecular bonding interactions.

I also see that they have two symbols for Friendly (Fr and Fd) which suggests an isotopic relationship between the two. I would assume that Fr is reserved for short lived friendships while Fd is for long termed friendships.

All in all it seems to align with my assertion that the benign chemical icons can be used in pop culture without alarming people. So why the universal negative response to the word "Chemical" and the sinister popular image of complex chemical glassware?

I am supposed to be doing a structural analysis on a new crystal structure but am finding my mind is easily wandering. Three posts on a nearly moribund chemblog in one week is clearly an alarming symptom of work avoidance.Time for a vacation.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Selling With Science : Inappropriate Laboratory Behaviour

Again in the spirit of updating a previous post on a related topic this video was brought to my attention for its blatant abuse of laboratory safety rules (again with the stiletto heels in the laboratory). The protagonist in this educational video is Heather who works in a lab called "Mad Hair" and she obviously does not keep up with the recent blog postings on the incompatipility of lab solvents and electronic devices (LINK from LINK) because around 0:25 she is clearly manipulating organic solvents on the same bench as her colleagues computers. As well, given her fantasical bangs it is clear that she should re-read my previous post on hairnets. Just who is the safety officer for this "Mad Hair" lab anyway?

The use of lab coats to accentuate rather than cover was not something I had considered possible before. In the words of the immortal G.I. Joe "Now you know ... and knowing is half the battle."

(PS: to be fair, as a graduate student working in synthetic Main Group chemistry using Fluorine and anhydrous HF as solvents this would be a fair approximation of our impression of the lax safety rules in the biochemistry research lab below ours.)

My Precious Metals

I was born in 1961 and in the late 60’s my father noted to me that the coins in Canada were changing from silver to nickel and that I might want to set aside any silver coins that came into my hands because “they might be worth something someday”. And so at the tender age of 7 I started my coin collection and for the next 40 years I simply filtered the silver coins out of my pocket change. The last time that one popped up in my change was five years ago and it was a very abused 1968 Canadian dime (50% silver). We all know how marriages work and so considering how tight money was for us through my graduate, post-doc and tenure-track years it was amazing to me that my coin collection survived. True, I did end up selling the folding money collection but the coins just sort of flew under the radar. Until recently.

So a “family expense” came up involving my brother and in a tense bargaining session that included the statement “he’s your brother, if he needs money it can’t come from our savings” I realized that perhaps it was time to liquidate my circulated silver.

Now in a previous post I mentioned that the value of silver has increased to the point where unless the coin is a true rarity or in mint condition the highest value of a circulated silver coin is its melt value. So, for example, a simple, circulated 1965 Canadian dime now has a “melt value” of $ 1.71 which is a 17x increase in the value of the coin that I filtered from my pocket change. Dad was right.

I needed some money so I gathered up my scrap silver coins and headed down to the local coin collector shop. Once the coins were counted and assessed it turns out not a single one of my scrounged silver coins had a value over melt and as far as I know they are currently being melted into bullion ingots. As I said in my previous post that, can only make the surviving coins more valuable.  It was an odd feeling letting go of something that I had collected over 40 years of my life and reminded me of that line from “The Lord of the Rings” about how if someone cannot let go of something when they are in need then they are slaves indeed.

Coin collecting shops are interesting places and they really do not like extensive written records of transactions that leave a taxable paper trail so generally your best deal is some kind of barter. I knew how much cash I needed and once I had that there was still some significant silver left. So do I keep it or trade it?

Now, I have never had the gold bug, I collected the silver because it was in my pocket change. I once had a first year chemistry student attempt to bribe me with a gold coin (“I brought this for you” was what he said as he slipped it on my desk at an appointment to discuss his failing grades and I had to remind him to take it when he left). That is the closest that I ever was to owning a gold coin.

So I have about $ 1000 of silver left and I look down and ask what I could trade for my silver in terms of gold. I figured, why not? At least the volume would be less. That is how I ended up with a couple of five gram Johnson-Matthey gold ingots and two quarter ounce Austrian gold coins. It was astonishing to see the pile of silver and its equivalent in gold. I mean, I have had toe-nail clippings bigger than the 5 g ingots (don’t ask). What is crazy is how owning this small hoard of gold has made me obsessive (perhaps not Gaussling obsessive but getting there) about the value of silver and gold. Note the value profiles for silver and gold. I have highlighted the day that I made the transaction. It was a good day to sell silver but a horrible day to buy gold. Go figure.


Anyway, I realized that I had an opportunity to expand my first intro chemistry lab. The first lab is mostly safety and lab policy related but we do density measurements to get their notebooks set up, generate data and show how to do combat statistics. As part of the lab I have some heavy gauge wire samples of copper, aluminum, silver, lead and platinum (leftovers from a misbegotten youth spent with the electrochemists) which we mass and then determine their volume by water displacement in 2 mL graduated pipettes (no, I do not let17 years olds wander off with the platinum, they do the precious metal measurements on the demonstration bench under my unblinking eye). It works great, the students get a kick out of handling precious metals and gold would be an interesting addition so at the suggestion of the coin dealer I went to a jewelry store where he knew they made their own jewelry from gold.

So, I get buzzed into the jewelry store and I have to beat my way past the excessively pretty and polished women at the jewelry counters and make my way to the back corner where there sits … a pure, unvarnished stereotype right down to the hairy, man cleavage with heavy gold chain. I am explaining my request to this guy and he dismisses me saying that they don’t sell gold and that they are constantly pestered by people who want to make their own gold jewelry. It is then that I open my daytimer to show them my university business card and he sees the gold coins and ingots. Suddenly, I have two stereotypes in front of me offering me cash for what I have. Now that I have their attention I explain to them that I would like to trade one of the quarter ounce gold coins for an equivalent mass of heavy gauge, pure gold wire. As a straight out exchange they get the coin purity premium in exchange for their time. This requires the advice of “Pop-Pop” (which, as an interpretation of what happens next, must be their grandfather who actually works the gold). So now I have three stereotypes talking to me (one in heavily accented English) and when they finally realize what I am asking it becomes a love-in. Pop-pop is pleased to have something unusual and educational to do and does not want to melt the coin but does not have pure gold in wire form so goes back into the walk-in safe and brings out a zip-lock sandwich bag filled with gold shot which he assures me is fine gold. I say that what I would like is a 10 cm length of pure gold wire with a diameter of 2 mm. We talk back and forth and it is clear that all three of them want to buy my little hoard of gold but eventually Pop-pop heads back to the workshop with his sandwich bag of gold shot. Meanwhile, the stereotype with the hairiest chest and the heaviest gold chain talks to me about their bottle of diiodomethane that they use to separate the diamonds from the cubic zirconia ("when we get a mixed lot in") until the return of Pop-pop who has melted the shot and drawn out a length of octagonal wire. He cuts off 10 cm and we check the mass, it is close enough and I leave them a coin and walk off with the gold wire as a straight up exchange. Everyone is happy and smiling except the very pretty and polished women at the jewelry counters (must be a union thing).

I realize that the value of the coin is that it is an official stamped coin and there is no question of its purity but the gold in the wire is going to be a real hassle to ever attempt to liquidate. I don’t care. The wire worked perfectly and the density hit pure gold on the button and I had an amazing meeting with Pop-pop and his family.

As a final note in this overly long, little to do with chemistry, summer excuse for not doing work post. I found it interesting that if you go to the Sigma-Aldrich website you see things like this:

Umm, 3 grams of gold for $ 739? The price of gold today is $ 1616 / oz giving $ 57 / gram. Now I understand that the fine people at Sigma-Aldrich have to make a profit to pay for their amazing and ubiquitous catalog and their fine customer service but I would suggest that a 430% markup is excessive even for them.   I did much better with Pop-pop and The Stereotypes.

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.