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).

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.