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

Friday, February 8, 2013

You Show Me Yours and I'll Show You Mine

In keeping with my liberal arts and sciences tendencies I keep an eye on the "3 Quarks Daily" blog and this post today will probably consume my weekend. In the post a reference is made to a science posting by Alan Boyle of the MSNBC "Cosmic Log" who in turn passes on this great little video by Henry Reich.


What is brilliant about this is the sharing of daily science feeds that people follow. I must admit that there are some links that appear in the video and the subsequent linkage chain (check the comments all the way through the links above) that I was unaware off and will now have to obsessively plumb for interest and teaching references.

It is always an astonishing thing to suddenly realize a) that you have been swimming in the kiddy end of the science internet pool and b) life is too short to allow a person to swim the in the deep end of the science internet pool and still do productive work. It is to my great shame that I will sit down after class to eat my lunch and catch up on the internet only to look up a couple of hours later and wonder how on earth I ended up on a webpage describing the recipes for the Napoleonic Army during its retreat from Russia.

I pretty much keep a distant eye on the internet with Google Reader (I know, I know but you pretty much have to dance with the girl you brought to the party unless you have the time to meet a whole new girl and learn new dance steps and who has time for that?). That said, I have thought for a while that the small amount of the internet that I do keep an eye on was consuming too much of my time and now this. To my eyes, as I look at the blog rolls, the chemical and science internet that I follow is pretty much a sub-set of what other people follow. I wonder if I were to do the desert island thing and only be allowed ten internet links to follow what I would select. Perhaps Snowmageddon will afford me some time for reflection. I have to hurry home before they close the roads. Stay safe people.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Do You Want Fries with that BSc?

It would seem that the concerns on the job market for chemists and the migration of jobs traditionally held by the comfortable technocrats that made up the bulk of the ACS is not discipline specific.

I like Garrison Keillor and I like this response to his cutting remarks about unemployed graduates. Cognitive dissonance has always been the wayward child of delusion.

"According to one major study produced by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the median income for English majors with a bachelor’s but no additional degree is $48,000. This figure is just slightly lower than that for bachelor’s degree holders in biology ($50,000), and slightly higher than for those in molecular biology or physiology (both $45,000). It’s the same for students who received their bachelor’s in public policy or criminology (both $48,000), slightly lower than for those who received their bachelor’s in criminal justice and fire protection ($50,000) and slightly higher than for those who received it in psychology ($45,000)."

In the spirit of Ricoeur I say:

In the light of all that I know I choose to believe that my discipline is not only a benefit to society and a salve to my curiosity but also a viable career path for the generation that will follow me. They will find a way and society will need us, keep calm and chemistry on.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday Meditation: A Voice Not Replaced

Carl Sagan has simply not been replaced by our scientific community. We continue to mine his words and thoughts which are quickly becoming dated for their scientific content and yet when he spoke about the meaning and purpose of science his words are timeless. Zen Pencils is a web comic of particularly good artwork coupled to selected quotes and the artist has chosen Carl Sagan again for his medication "A Pale Blue Dot". The artist has also taken some pains to provide links to audio and video of the quote and previous artistic interpretations. It is all worthy of a Monday meditation.

I must note that the "Saints and Sinners" panel has only three scientists (that I see at least). I think that lets us off easy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal Protective Equipment

I am Canadian. My family moved from the US during the time of the American revolution and has farmed it's small patch of Canada for over 200 years. I grew up in a hunting family within a community steeped in a hunting culture where it was expected that if you killed something it was for food or money, trophies were for city people. It was all long guns though. For my 16th birthday I got my own 20 gauge shot gun and for my 18th birthday I got my own rifle. I have had any number of near accidents with guns handled by either the young (watch where you point a loaded gun!) or idiots (watch where you point a loaded gun you idiot!). Indeed, one of the great traumas to happen to my family was a hunting accident that resulted in a death.

In an earlier lifetime I supervised a research group and when I wasn't writing papers I was writing grant applications. One of the grants that I was awarded was with a company in New Jersey that required me to travel down to the mothership once a year to justify my past funding and beg for more. It was altogether the most enjoyable part of the my career as a research academic. The company probably treated me like any other employee but to a tenure-track academic it seemed like I was handled like royalty.

One year, by coincidence, I was attending a conference in Philadelphia which was very close to the mothership and I sent a message to my company handler that I was nearby and would be happy to give a preliminary update. The company was very pleased and my handler offered to drive to Philadelphia to meet me in person. The night before we met I had walked to a nearby restaurant and took a shortcut off the main streets that resulted in my coming in contact with some very aggressive street people. I would not say that I was mugged but my personal space was violated and my contributions seemed less than voluntary.

Anyway, it was getting dark again when my company handler Louis showed and said that since the company was paying the bill why don't we grab a quick meal at a nearby restaurant? I said sure and we headed to the restaurant as the dark descended. I tried to keep Louis on the main streets but he headed straight down the darkened side street in a confident stroll. Same street people, completely different attitude, one guy asked "please?" and Louis gave him a fistful of pocket change like a nobleman passing out charity.

When we got to the restaurant, I marveled at Louis's confident street smarts and the difference in the attitude of the street people. Louis smiled and revealed that his confidence was largely due to the fact that he was carrying three handguns, one in his armpit, one on the small of his back and one in an ankle holster. He noted to me that it was his opinion that the street people knew he was carrying as well. Later that night Louis gave me a lesson on how to tell American from Italian handguns by the way the trigger moved.

I asked Louis if he wore guns to work and his eyes got a bit mysterious and the conversation moved on. I have to assume that large American chemical companies have a handgun in the workplace policy and that American universities must have a no handgun on campus policy but I am also surprised that handgun related incidents at research group meetings are not more common. Rage happens and access to handguns could not in anyway make dealing with a group member in a rage any easier.

My American cousins remain in my prayers. Take care, make good decisions.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Group Work

The reality of teaching a chemistry laboratory is that for reasons of economy and sound pedagogical principles, group work, in smaller and larger groups, is fairly common. Part of my job in assessing student work is often noting in my records if a student in a group is a leader, follower or floater. What I had not perceived was a probably sub-conscious selection process that distributed the "super students" among the groups with the weakest students in the hopes that their example would inspire. A false hope. Indeed, just this last semester I had a "super student" come to me and ask to work alone not in a group because "no matter what group you put me in my mark will be lower than if I worked alone". I explained the pedagogical theory and that it was a required component of the course that would be factored into her subjective evaluation. Honestly, she narrowed her eyes and in white-lipped fury told me that she thought I was being unreasonable. She was my first super-student-home-schooled-mark-lawyer. Why do I feel this is just the beginning of a new demographic?

Just 16 years to retirement I am at my career Wednesday.

Anyway, Betty is a cool little comic that occasionally has some material relevent to education and last week the series was on group work. There is some truth here.

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.