Sunday, January 30, 2011

Conversations with Henry: She Was A Piece Of Work

[continued from back here]

Henry: Jake didn't really discover kinetic isotope effects -- he just explained them first. Plus I think he had some help.

Me: From whom?

Henry: Maria Mayer. Boy she was piece of work. Smart as a whip. She was the poster girl for how badly science used to treat women.

Me: Really?

Henry: Yes. She won the Nobel Prize eventually. Not in Chemistry though, but Physics. She developed the shell structure model of atomic nuclei. She ended up down by you you know.

Me: You mean UCSD?

Henry: Yep. But she started out in Germany -- as Maria Goeppert. She was friends with all the big time physicists back then. You should look her up. Interesting story. But if you're interested in isotope effects, why don't you just write Jake -- he's a nice guy.  

Me: Thanks, I will. Can I mention you?

Henry: Please do and give him my regards.

I look at my cards and frown. I discard two and ask for two more.

[story continued here]

Paperboy Memories

[the following is based on a comment I left over a Trooper York's blog a few weeks ago]

I've been working since age 12:

I had a morning paper route circa 1972-75, until I was old enough for a regular job. I had part-time jobs all the way through high school and college and even when I went on vacation to Italy in 1979.

Back then, I'd rise every morning at 5:30 AM rain or snow to bring people the Wisconsin State Journal. I took over the route from my older brother who in turn got the route from a friend. That's the way those things were passed around back then--sort of like Packer's season tickets.

Afternoon routes were the most coveted among boys then because...well...because you didn't have to get up every morning at 5:30 AM rain or snow and bring people the morning news -- you could do it after school instead. Of course that meant you couldn't go out for football or any other sports but hey: some boys played and some had to work. But having a morning route, I was able to have it all: work, study (lol) and go out for football. But my football career didn't get past Junior Varsity.

One of my better paperboy memories are the special treats I used to get from customers like the one I mentioned here. Another memory is of the young girl I had a huge crush on and whose family was on my route. Back then we had to go around and collect money due for the paper. I never went to her house because I felt embarrassed about being her paperboy. Her family got a free paper for maybe a year or so.

Most of all I remember the political times back then. I watched the demise of the Nixon Administration little by little and delivered that news every day. I still remember the black-inked headline moments:




until finally...


Those were rougher times for civil politics.

My son is now the same age I was when I started working. And he's starting to want things the way I did. Freedom and economic independence.  There aren't many jobs now like I had for 12 year olds. Grown-ups in cars deliver newspapers now. He needs a lucky break like I got when I was twelve. I think I've got this figured out too.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Letters Home: I Got 9 Months Left

January 25, 1953
Vilseck, West Germany

Dear Mom Dad and All,

I haven't been doing too much lately. We are in Vilseck for 2 weeks. It's a tank training center.[1] Now that I am a jeep driver I suppose I will just be driving. We are in almost the same place where we was stranded last November. It's colder and there is more snow here than there is in Hanau. The coldest I've seen so far this year was 14 below but mostly it's been 30 and above freezing.
I got a Christmas card from Elma and Frank. I got the Democrat from you the other day. [2] I bet B. is still looking for her watch. I still haven't got the darn thing mailed. Any day now. I haven't got a letter from R. for quite a while. What has he been doing? Who is he going with now? I suppose he is thinking about coming to the Army sometime this spring. I got 9 months left. It's been 7 months since I been home. It don't seem that long does it? July 5 was when I was there last. We are supposed to get a shot for flu. But haven't yet. I got a letter from M. Friday. She said her and m. both had bad colds.[3] I had one but got rid of it.
Has the car been starting this winter? I am going to try to send more money next month. I'll need a lot when I get out. Ha! Ha! I might want to buy a Model A.
Bye for now,

Love, V.
[1] Vilseck has a long long history as a military town in Germany. Link

[2] The Richland Democrat, his hometown newspaper. Back in those days newspapers had no compunction about which political party they were for. This was fine because the other side had their voice too.

[3] "M" and "m" are his oldest sister and his baby niece respectively.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Van der Krogt's piece on aluminum is so fascinating, and so thorough regarding the discovery and naming of the 13th element that I suggest people go there for those aspects. Coincidentally, Friedrich Wöhler was involved in aluminum's discovery.

Aluminum, once considered a precious metal, is the third most abundant element on earth, after silicon and oxygen. Aluminum was so dear at one time that the Washington Monument was capped with pyramidal shaped cast of it. link  It's still up there. Aluminum was only precious because it was so hard to make in quantity in a pure form. The invention of the electric dynamo by Siemens dropped the price a thousand-fold.

Aluminum reacts spontaneously with oxygen and yet, never completely. Aluminum exemplifies a metallic property called passivation. Passivation occurs when a metal coats itself with a thin layer of its own oxide, thus protecting its inner mass from attack. It's a bit like sacrificing your skin to your enemy in self defence. This property only works if the oxide layer has the same physical density as the underlying inner metal. Anodized aluminum is a related technique of passivation and decorative colors may be introduced. Iron rusts so easily because the initially formed layer of rust shrinks and cracks the surface, exposing more fresh metal underneath and so on and so forth.

Political passivation entails coating oneself with a thin skin of your enemy's element.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

50 Years Of MyTunes: 1980

Spiele Ohne Grenzen ~ Peter Gabriel released Games Without Frontiers in German, French and of course English. The title song became a minor hit in the States. I saw him in a small theater in Madison around this time.

Crazy Rhythms  The Feelies were New Jersey legends. They became favorites of mine a few years later. They had a cameo in Jonathan Demme's 1986 film Something Wild as the house band at the high school reunion. Watch the scene here. A young Ray Liotta looks very menacing near the end of the clip when the lights go down and they play Loveless Love (and he looks menacing before he had all that work done).

Remain In Light  The Talking Heads featured the song Once In A Lifetime. The song was also in heavy rotation a year later on MTV. This album and the MTV exposure gave them enough momentum to rise to the top with their subsequent album.

Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables  The Dead Kennedys offended most people's good taste. Their lyrics amused me. What's astonishing in retrospect is how contrarian ring-leader "Jello Biafra" (real name Eric Boucher) was. He tweaked then Jerry Brown with California Über Alles and later Tipper Gore, all the while retaining liberal activist credentials!

Back in Black  AC/DC's singer Bon Scott does what Led Zeppelin's John Bonham did (or vice versus as Bon Scott actually died first). Neither band ever fully recovered and nor did my fandom.

Notable Singles

Love Will Tear Us Apart ~ Joy Division  A haunting song. If you don't know their story, see the movie Control (2007).  After Ian Curtis's death, the band re-emerged as New Order.

Whip It and Freedom Of Choice ~ Devo sings "Freedom of choice is what you've got; freedom from choice, is what you want," a vast understatement of free will. Devo also had some interesting videos in the early days of MTV.

He Stopped Loving Her Today  by George Jones.  I can so relate.

Toni Basil ~ Hey Mickey! You go, girl!

I Will Follow  U2's debut single. I missed a chance to see U2 in a small club in Madison. I can still see the name on the marquee. I followed their efforts beginning with October (released the following year) through War before losing interest.

Los Angeles by X. They along with other bands like The Germs seeded the nascent Los Angeles punk scene. Penelope Spheeris made an excellent documentary about the L.A. punk scene called Decline of Western Civilization and X is featured. Well worth a rent. Ray Manzarek produced the album.

Ace of Spades by Motörhead. If you've never seen Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilisation II, rent it to hear Lemmy take about the early days. That scene and the one of Ozzy Osborne frying eggs are worth the rental.

Private Idaho The B-52s

People Who Died by The Jim Carroll Band. A sad, sad ode.

Jack LaLanne (1914-2011) R.I.P.

I remember watching this guy with my mom on TV before I was old enough for kindergarten in the mid-1960's.

Here he connects alcohol and sugar addiction, something I find physiologically interesting because of the chemical similarities between ethanol and polyols like sugars.

R.I.P. Jack!!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Buh-Bye NOxious Waste

Nitrogen oxides are everywhere. There are "good" ones and "bad" ones and they're all slightly different. A collection of pretty pictures is here: link  Nitrogen oxides include laughing gas (good), nitrate and nitrite salts in foods (controversial), and nitrate plant fertilizers (good). Nitrogen oxides are even important in sex (good) because the molecule NO (nitric oxide) is key in sexual arousal.* Some nitrogen oxides do more harm than good: nitrogen oxides in clouds help form acid rain and the color of "brown cloud" comes from NO2. But worst of all, nitrogen oxides come out the tail pipes of more efficient diesel vehicles. I wrote about that back here.

The reason there are so many different nitrogen oxides is because nitrogen and oxygen are Periodic Table neighbors, and being so close together, each covets its neighbor's electrons when excited. But only when provoked. Air does not react with itself under normal circumstances. But give things some radiation, a spark, or a diesel motor, and O2 and N2 do the nasty together--they recombine:
          N2 + O2  --->  2NOx

There's an "x" subscript there because NO can react further to make NO2 and other nitrogen oxides. "NOx" is so noxious that the State of California forbade the sale of new diesel vehicles beginning in 2004 (I got one of the last VW Golf models in 2003). Daimler-Benz wanted to get those sales back (leave it to the Germans to invent all the new cool diesel technology) and Daimler's BlueTec technology returns NOx emissions whence they came--back to nitrogen and water:

         4NO + 4NH3 + O2  --->  4N2 + 6H2

That equation is mass-balanced by the way, unlike-ahem, what one finds in the Internets (FTFY). The chemistry looks like complex gas-phase chemistry but actually a metal surface mediates the rearrangements (thankfully not another precious metal catalyst). In practice, NOx abatement injects ammonia into the exhaust stream upstream of the catalyst. Ammonia is the best "blue" additive in theory, but urea, which is more easily transported and handled, can also be used in Daimler's AdBlue technology. From what I've read and heard, the technology works as well but is very expensive. So what else is new. Owners are required to periodically charge up with fresh aqueous urea, which led one owner to ask whether he couldn't just "piss in a tank instead"  hahah.

A good primer on how the technology works can be found here or GIY (Google it yourself)

*Has anyone noted the irony of "NO" (nitric oxide) being a key factor in male sexual arousal?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Conversations with Henry: I knew him you know

Henry: I saw your post about isotopes. I knew the guy who discovered kinetic isotope effects.

Me: You did?

Henry: Yes. Jacob Bigeleisen. We roomed together during graduate school at Berkeley. He wasn't famous then of course. That came later. He went to Columbia afterwards. That was early in the war, when the Manhattan Project was still in Manhattan.

Me: Wow! Tell me more about it!

[Henry shuffles the deck and deals us both five new cards]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vitalism Lives!

[I was discussing vitalism back here and this sort of a continuation]

There is one non obvious way in which synthetically produced molecules may differ from naturally occurring ones: they may differ ever so slightly in how and how many neutrons are sprinkled amongst their constituent atoms.

Consider carbon first because carbon is the central atom of life. The majority of carbon exists as carbon-12, but there are also carbon-13 as well a carbon-14 isotopes to consider. Let's forget carbon-14 for the moment and focus just on carbon-12 and carbon-13. The heavier isotope makes up only about one percent of total carbon. But that one percent translates to thousands of trillions of carbon-13 atoms when we're talking about something like a spoonful of sugar where one mole has 12 x 1023 number of atoms.  In other words, there is a measurable quantity of sugar in that spoonful having one (or more) extra neutrons (a carbon-13 atom) than an "identical" neighbor.

The useful part of this neutron (isotopic) labeling is that, depending on the complexity of the molecule, the label can occur at distinct carbons. To illustrate, consider the lowly propane molecule. Most will be CH3CH2CH3 but there will be a smaller fraction of propanes having an extra neutron at one end, viz., *CH3CH2CH3 and also a fraction of propanes having an extra neutron in the middle, viz., CH3*CH2CH3, where the asterisk stands for a carbon-13 which differs from "normal" carbon by having one more neutron.

OK, so what? The upshot is that for most molecules, especially for ones more complex than propane, the relative amounts of label "at the end vs. in the middle" will depend on how that particular batch of molecules was made (and of course whether the method of making them is isotope sensitive). The reason for the latter is beyond the scope I can cover here and deals with kinetic isotope effects. The non-statistical distribution of isotopes is smaller than one might at first believe because kinetic isotope effects are small themselves. But suffice it to say that commercial companies have sprung up in recent years to analyze such batches of molecules. The technique has proven useful for distinguishing the source and origin of otherwise identical chemical entities. Wine producers, for example, have discovered that their appellation d’origine contrôlée products can be distinguished from fake products in this way. Also, drug manufactures can detect counterfeit (infringed) products and methods of making them in this way. Though I haven't seen it yet, drug manufacturers could deliberately "mark" their products by including a small but detectable amount of isotopic enrichment.

Isotopic labeling is an old trick in the chemical arts and so is the metaphorical term isotopic signature.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking the Piss out of Vitalism

Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882)

The notion that matter from living beings essentially differs from matter derived from non-living sources used to be called vitalism. Vestiges still remain. Historically, the terms "organic" and "inorganic" delineated the chemistry of life from the chemistry of inanimate matter. Over time, "organic chemistry" morphed into the generic chemistry of carbon and, within that genus, biochemistry came to mean the chemistry of living things. This left "inorganic chemistry" to cover the chemistries of every other element. That is more or less the state of things today. Biologists have encroached on biochemistry with molecular biology, bringing along their cellular frame of reference.

We credit Friedrich Wöhler, a 19th century German chemist, with undoing the notion of vitalism in chemistry. He synthesized urea, which had only ever been isolated from urine. The whole story is beautifully retold here. As part of an Internet wager, I tracked down the original letter from Wöhler to his erstwhile mentor, Professor Jakob Berzelius; I partially translated it from German:
Berlin, February 22, 1828
Dear Professor!
Although I surely hope that my letter of January 22nd and the post-script from February 2nd have arrived, I live every day, or rather every hour with the anxious hope to get a letter from you. I wanted to wait to write again but I cannot, so to say, "hold my chemical water" and must say that I can make urea without the use of kidneys or even an animal, whether it be human or canine. Ammonium cyanate is urea. [1]
Wöhler went on to describe how natural urea from urine, Pisse-Harnstoff, was the same as artificial urea.  He then ended with a possible "out" for the adherents to vitalism:
This artificial formation of urea--can it be an example of forming an organic substance from inorganic materials? It is remarkable that cyanic acid (and ammonia) are originally produced from an organic substance, and a natural philosopher would say that both come from an animal carbon, and from the resulting formed cyanic compounds, the organic has not yet disappeared, and therefore an organic body is produced yet again. 
Your Wöhler.

How Wöhler took the piss out of vitalism (so to speak) is a nice example of what T. H. Huxley meant when he later wrote:
The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.
I got into a friendly wager over on Twitter after I discovered that both Wöhler and Huxley were credited with that pithy saying.

I tweeted: Who wrote "The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."?

"T.H. Huxley" responded StarlessTwit

Not so fast I responded: "That's what the Internets would have you believe but there is this."  The link goes to a Wiki link crediting Wöhler with the saying.

I wagered that Wöhler had said it originally and that Huxley had been miscredited: link

That's when amba, the fact checker, weighed in, citing original source: "sorry to disappoint"

I can't finding anything close to what Huxley said in the original letters between Wöhler and Berzelius.  Wiki is wrong on this count.

Never bet against amba.


[1] Wöhler treated cyanic acid, HOCN, with aqueous ammonia and generated ammonium cyanate, NH4CNO. Ammonium cyanate is unstable and spontaneously rearranges to the more stable urea in situ:

Friday, January 14, 2011

50 Years Of MyTunes: 1979

Putting this together I was struck by how familiar some of the linked videos are. This is because I remember most of them from the upcoming MTV era.

The Wall ~ Pink Floyd. This was a much improved concept album after their heavy-handed Animals. I didn't realize how "Roger Waters" the whole concept was at first. Maybe I wasn't paying close attention. Now things read to me like Waters became a control freak after this point and the band never fully recovered.

London Calling ~ The Clash. Rather than write anything new, I'll just link to this two thumbs up comment by Michael Haz (which includes video links).

Stop Your Sobbing and Brass in Pocket ~ Pretenders. I admire Chrissie Hynde. She played hard in what was still a man's world and she did it as an American abroad. That took something special. Their version of Stop Your Sobbing was true to the original version by The Kinks and she caught the eyes and ears of Ray Davies (among other parts of him :). I never saw the original Pretenders but I did get to see their second incarnation a few years latter in Akron OH, of all places.

Wave ~ Patti Smith Group. She and her original group hit the highest mark of their careers together--and she retired after a disastrous concert which I described hereFrederick, her touching paean to Fred "Sonic" Smith -- future husband and father of her kids, was lyrically gorgeous. Dancing Barefoot, with its evocative lapsed Catholicism, was just as memorable.

Damn the Torpedoes ~ Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cornered the market on male teenage angst--at least my share. Even The Losers.

Fear Of Music  ~ The Talking Heads. "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco..."

Low Budget ~ The Kinks.  Even the Kinks cashed in on the disco craze. Ray Davies hammed it up on wry with his reference to "Stayin' Alive" in Superman LOL!

Armed Forces ~ Elvis Costello. His best work IMHO. The best known song (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding was written by Nick Lowe.

Slow Train Coming  ~ Bob Dylan became more unpopular than Jesus in San Francisco when he released this to his flock. Really, the same people who dissed him then and continue to hide their copies of this (if they ever even owned one) are the same people who despise Sarah Palin. Get over yourselves already! I'm embedding a cover version of "I Believe In You" by Cat Power which is astonishingly good and deserves to become the definitive version of Dylan's song:

Rust Never Sleeps ~ Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Neil Young reinvented himself yet again and the man is still a legend today.

Notable Singles from 1979

Video Killed the Radio Star ~ The Buggles. This band had the distinction of being the very first music video aired (cabled?) by MTV when they debuted 2 years later in 1981. But the song actually predated MTV and they weren't referring to MTV at all at the time.

What I Like About You ~ The Romantics. Lurved it for some reason.

Broken English ~ Marianne Faithfull. Now here's a woman scorned with a broken voice. She really hit the skids. Reading about her in Life by Keith Richards made me want to read her side of the story of what happened between her and Mick Jagger.

Sara ~ Fleetwood Mac. I already considered this heart rending song, but not in a good way, back here.

Heart of Glass ~ Blondie rocked!

I Wanna Be Sedated ~ The Ramones

The Doors enjoyed a brief resurgence in sales due to the use of their music in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Where Manhood Perished Not

I recently re-watched the movie Titanic and recalled what a great film it is with a great melange of messages. I wanted my kids to see it too because they hadn't. I still even mist up at the ending.

In earlier times people could make overt reference to chauvinism without scorn and derision. That drawing is taken from my trusty book The Sinking Of The Titanic And Other Great Sea Disasters (1912) by Logan Marshall. I believe the book is past copyright protection. This is the third post I've extracted from that book. The others are here. The centenary of the event is approaching in just over a year and I will be reaching for the book again.

Letters Home: Maybe before I am 21. Time will tell

January 14, 1953

Dear Folks,

It sure has been cold over here lately. I am on the road quite a bit now that I got a jeep. I went a total of 63 miles yesterday, and I didn't go anywhere. It's hard to drive over here. The roads are narrow and have a lot of traffic. There is more Bicycles on the road than Cars.
That jacket you sent I sold already for $12.00. I only paid $8.00 at Louisville for it. I suppose B. is looking for the watch. I still haven't got it sent. Too lazy to pack it I guess. I'll get it sent soon though.
I didn't know Donna G. was married. What's this world coming to? The teenagers sure aren't any good anymore.
Has the new Oldsmobile come out yet? Maybe you can send me a picture and price of the 88. I would like to get one when I get out but I'm afraid of the price. How has the Mercury been starting this winter?
We are having some big Inspections lately, but I am always gone somewhere and I don't have to stand them. I got K.P. Friday.
Every month guys in the 141 are leaving for home. Usually about 60 days before discharge.
If nothing happens I should be home in August. Maybe before I am 21. Time will tell.
I got all those hankies you sent. Each letter had 6 cents due on it. I don't know who paid that. I used them too. I just got over a bad cold. It was the change of weather I guess.
Would you have anyplace to put a 400 day clock if I sent one. Almost everyone has sent one home before Christmas.
There sure have been a lot of plane crashes in the states so we hear.[1]
How is Stud and Duke getting along in school? [2]  I suppose they will be wanting me to get them a car when I get home.
Well I guess I will have to sign off for this time.


[1] I checked what records I could easily find online and found nothing unusually frequent about 1952-53. He may be talking about the small shoulder on the right of the big wartime spike in this graph.
More likely, he had been thinking about flying back to the states or had friends who had flown and he began paying attention to such news.

[2] His nicknames for his two younger brothers, then aged 13 and 14.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Return to Florence

My Patti Smith Group concert ticket from their last performance in 1979

My best musical memory of 1979 was seeing the original Patti Smith Group play what turned out to be their last concert ever. Of course nobody knew that at the time. I didn't know for years after that it was their last concert. But after that show Smith went into semi-retirement, married Fred Smith and moved to Detroit to raise a family. And I was fortunately there that night.

The concert was in Florence and was just part of a glorious 1979 trip to Italy that summer. I could and should blog that whole summer experience because it was so defining and yet eye-opening for me. So much discovery. I came back and felt a little like il Marco Pollo, telling my Midwestern friends and family about good Italian coffee (which you could only get in fine restaurants in Madison then) and the food--OMG the food!  I even learned to love black olives.

The concert was, as the Italians might say, un disastro. The band's actual play list is recorded here and sounds vaguely familiar. There's a cache of photos here. Of course I look for myself in them. From my vantage point, a bit off to the right (stage left) and elevated in the stands just a bit, things look just as I remember them except that they're colored by my memories.

It's the chaos that happened at the end that I remember best. The crowd had been allowed right up to the stage's edge, which apparently was a mistake. But her real "mistake" was to raise an American flag during a penultimate song. The crowd went pazzo and took the stage. Patti Smith corroborates here. Unruly men surrounded her and cut her off from the other band members. Frightened and fearless, Smith improvised. She tried to humor them, playing them a piano rendition of You Light Up My Life. It became a real stand off and fortunately no real violence ensued. I felt helpless--as both a fan and as an American. She was surrounded by ostensibly adoring fans and yet she looked and acted like a hostage. That little concert stage scene foreshadowed the world stage because two months later Iranian students stormed our embassy in Tehran. It's all a bit surreal in retrospect.

I'll add another piece of material to the mix besides my concert ticket stub (above): a photo of a concert poster before the show:

Had people known what they had seen then they would have been tearing those posters off the walls after the show as souvenirs. I used to have a poster from the event--not the flimsy plaster-posters like in that photo but a gorgeous lithographed one, done on nice card stock with blue ink. A shopkeeper gave it to me before the show that day and I carried it to the show. When I search the photos from that historic concert, I'm always looking for my 19-year old self carrying that rolled-up poster. Sadly, I lost that poster somewhere along the long, long pathway from there to here but at least I still have the memories and thank God for that.

[Added: I augmented my memories with what I actually wrote at the time here]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Magnesium Is Where The Photons Hit The Protons

According to van der Krogt, magnesium was so-named because:
The names magnesia alba and magnesia nigra are derived from Magnesia, Μαγνησια, a prefecture in Thessaly (Greece), with the capital Volos). Manganese and magnesium were abundant in oxide and carbonate ores in this region, and they therefore became referred to as Μαγνητις λιθος, or stones from Magnesia. The region also contained large amounts of iron oxides (magnetite, or lodestone, for example) so that the ores were magnetized. That explains why magnesium as well as magnet (and magnetism) are derived from Magnesia, while magnesium is not magnetic. link
Magnesium is essential to both plants and animals. Green plants are a great dietary source of the element. A magnesium ion sits right at the heart of each chlorophyll molecule in chloroplasts, part of the molecular machinery responsible for photosynthesis:

The drawing is a cartoon -- there are really several different forms of chlorophyll, each differing at its periphery.

Chlorophyll is an example of a metal porphyrin complex. A geometric array of linked rings (a porphyrin) surrounds a magnesium ion core. Another common metal porphyrin complex is the iron-centric hemoglobin food in blood; another related complex is cobalt-centric cobalamin or (vitamin B12) in the liver. Such metallo-centric molecules are also ubiquitous in synthetic organometallic chemistry, especially among catalysts.

As an aside, the notion that "Cartesian" is an artificial construct imposed upon nature is clearly not supported here. These molecules show a sort of rectilinear coordinate system: four nitrogens define the four cardinal directions. Such molecular geometry is a consequence of the underlying electronic structure which we take for granted.

Chlorophyll uses visible light photons to convert water into protons and electrons (whence my title) with oxygen as a waste product. The oxygen we breathe (approximately 20% of air) comes solely from bacteria, algae, and plants. The electrons and protons harvested by chlorophyll are subsequently used to reduce carbon dioxide into sugars, completing one half of global respiration.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gun Culture

The bullet points are flying out there, but none of them are hitting their targets. I get it from both sides.

I'm pro-gun in the Palin sense. I grew up around guns. My father owned guns, and my grandfathers owned guns. Guns were used for hunting and for a sense of personal security, though the latter feeling is rather imperfectly formed because I've never defended myself with one.  I even own a gun (a .22 rifle) which my brother looks after back in Wisconsin. When my son was of a certain age, I joined a shooting range here in California so that I could teach him about guns and above all how to respect them.

I don't keep a gun at home because my wife abhors them. She was raised by Europeans in America: upright liberal Dutch with vestigial Calvinism. What possible reason could a law-abiding citizen have for a gun? Call the gendarme. Without the frontier experience, a culture of guns has no utility for such people. The Swiss have a tradition of personal weaponry but even within Europe the Swiss are seen as outliers.  Be tolerant of gun culture and personal armaments.  It won't kill you.

Some may argue that the fight is about threats, and that life imitates art. But there's something more sinister at work here and both sides know that.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

50 Years Of MyTunes: 1978

Outlandos d'Amour by The Police. A coworker at a sandwich shop I worked at then in college told me about these guys. Debut album. Sting. This one has the song Roxanne.

Dire Straits ~ Dire Straits. This was a great debut album all the way through. It includes their hit Sultans of Swing, but my favorite was always Down to the Waterline.

Some Girls ~ The Rolling Stones. The Stones finally came close enough for me to see them in Chicago. It was outdoors in summer at Soldier Field. Link I remember the girl I took because she was my first love. She dumped me hard the next fall after she went away to UW-Whitewater.

The Cars.  Eponymous debut album. Great stadium rock. The link goes to my two favorite cuts: Moving In Stereo and All Mixed Up.

Easter by the Patti Smith Group includes the commercially successful the Because The Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Though the song has his cadence and feel, I think she does a better version of song than he ever did.

Van Halen. Another eponymous debut album. Like so many others, they started earnest enough and then choked a bit on their own hubris. My older brother told me about these guys and I had a chance to see them play at Madison's now defunct Shuffle Inn. Van Halen at the Shuffle Inn! (a bar with a stage and a few hundred other people). I blew it big time.  The van Halen brothers's immigration story reminds me of my wife's.


Le Freak ~ Chic

Rock Lobster ~ The B-52's guitar sound was quite retro, but the band was anything but. I had no idea that they inspired John Lennon to record Double Fantasy.

Surrender ~ Cheap Trick from their album Heaven Tonight. Cheap Trick's schtick was getting old fast but this PSA was "catchy."

Boogie Oogie Oogie ~ A Taste of Honey

Follow You, Follow Me by Genesis. The band charted after Peter Gabriel left. They both flourished.

Life's Been Good ~ Joe Walsh reflects on life as a member of The Iggles.

Take Me To the River by Talking Heads from their second album More Songs about Buildings and Food. The original version made my 1974 review. link

Radio Radio ~ Elvis Costello defends the Sex Pistols.

The Gambler ~ Kenny Rogers drops back in to see what condition his condition is in. The Gambler, video edition: link.

Four Strong Winds by Neil Young from his album Comes A Time. I missed a chance to see Neil Young around this time at a small Madison venue called The Church Key because I was under 18. I love this song and the feeling it evokes. Young's version is a cover of another Canadian singer/songwriter, Ian Tyson. I read somewhere once that Neil Young loved this song as a teen in Canada and he used to play it over and over on the jukebox while playing pinball.

Non-Alignment Pact by Pere Ubu. More ahead-of-its-time music from David Thomas.

 I Need To Know ~ Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Great commercial teenage angst.

Romeo Is Bleeding by Tom Waits from his album Blue Valentine. Nobody growls and hisses like Tom Waits. Was it just the smokes?

Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys by Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson from their album Waylon & Willie. This may have been the moment when I stopped shunning Country Music.

In Pursuit of the Woman in the Feathered Hat ~ Weather Report. I fell in love with this song/album (Mr. Gone) around this time. I can't find the studio version to link to. I'll always associate this song with Florence, Italy because somebody kept playing it on their boom box at the train station the night I saw Patti Smith play her "last" show there.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Flogging Phlogiston

Oxygen burned two great ideas in chemistry. Not literally, but understanding oxygen and oxidation undid two great ideas. One was called Valence Bond theory and I considered its undoing back here. VB theory is still useful and is taught in middle and high school chemistry curricula. The other great idea was called Phlogiston theory. Of course the Chinese had their own take on oxygen which you can read about here: link

The word "phlogiston" came from the ancient Greek word φλογιστόν ("burning up") and was promulgated by German scientists beginning in the 17th century. The notion had probably been around much longer because the idea was a very intuitive one. Phlogiston theory taught the existence of an element called phlogiston, a substance without color, odor, taste, or mass. Phlogiston was liberated when something burned or slowly rusted. Think of what you feel in front of an open flame. Not really so far-fetched, the notion was close to our modern notion of energy consumption, in so far as we suppose substances like fuels have "energy content." We speak of hydrocarbon's energy content in BTUs as if it were something we could distill and put in a bottle.

Phlogiston was a German notion and was undone by men like Antoine Lavoisier who showed that metals increased their mass when they burn or rust, inconsistent with something being lost or given up. Unfortunately, Lavoisier lost his head in the French Revolution for his royalist sympathies.  A dead cat bounce for Phlogiston occurred around the turn of the 19th century, just after water electrolysis was discovered.

Alessandro Volta's Pile 
When William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle inserted the two wires from their voltaic pile together into a vessel of water, they also galvanized the entire scientific world, creating a sensation as great as any scientific discovery ever made. In Nicholson's words:
It was with no little surprise that we found the hydrogen extricated at the contact with one wire, while the oxigen [sic] fixed itself in combination with the other wire at a distance of almost two inches.
What actually happened depended on the type of metal wire used: when they used copper, hydrogen gas evolved at one wire while the other wire became "fixed with oxygen" meaning it turned to copper oxide (greenish blue). But with platinum or gold wires, hydrogen gas evolved cleanly at one wire while oxygen gas evolved cleanly at the other electrode. The great puzzle was not that the two different gases were produced, but rather that they were produced at different electrodes. It seemed to everyone that if the gases both came from the decomposition of water they should both appear at the same place.

Now the notion that hydrogen and oxygen were distinct elements was not universally accepted. It was not settled science. One of the doubters was a German named Johann Ritter. Ritter was no slouch.*  He repeated the Nicholson and Carlisle experiments and concluded that it was impossible for the gases to be produced from the decomposition of water since there was no way that a gas could travel through one wire, through the pile, and out through the other wire. The truth, Ritter argued, was that:
Water is an element
In Ritter's view, "oxygen" was just water plus positive electricity and "hydrogen" was just water plus negative electricity. He nearly set science back 2000 years. That water was an element and electricity was like phlogiston was ancient thinking. Great minds, including Michael Faraday, puzzled over water electrolysis for years. Bear in mind that in the early 1800's nobody had yet thought that water could ionize into H+ and OH-. The proton (and the electron) had not yet been discovered. But the Germans ultimately lost the argument.

We now understand that water is consumed at both electrodes and electrons flow into one electrode and out the other:

At one electrode we have:  2H2O   +   2e-   ---->    H2(g)   +    2OH-
At the other electrode:        2H2O    -   4e-   ---->    O2(g)   +    4H 

I remember this stuff by recalling the origin of the word "oxygen" which means "acid-forming." The electrode which forms oxygen also forms acid. Of course the H+ and the OH- swam the two inches back towards each other in Nicholson's experiment and remade neutral water, and completed the circuit.

*Ritter was no slouch:
"William Herschel discovered infrared radiation because thermometers, which had recently been developed in Europe, showed a higher temperature just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum of sunlight. The German chemist Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810), after hearing about Herschel’s discovery from 1800, identified another “invisible” radiation which we now know as ultraviolet (UV) in 1801. He experimented with silver chloride since blue light was known to cause a greater reaction to it than did red light, and he found that the area just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum showed the most intense reaction of all." reference

Conversations with Henry: Show Your Cards

[continued from here]

I discard two cards and pick up two more.

Me: What a shitty hand.

Henry: You gotta play what you're dealt.  Maybe we should play for money next time?

(I lay down my cards):

Me: I got iron, cobalt, and nickel!

Henry: Hmm! Not bad. A straight too. Too bad about the others. Maybe we should play hydrogen is wild next time.

(Henry lays down his cards):

Me: Shit Henry, that's a fullhouse: three noble metals and two noble gases!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mad As A Hatter

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones that are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.~ Jack Kerouac

I once met someone who went mad. He was a professor at a small state university. He was one of those guys who had been been well-schooled back east but, finding no place at the table there, headed west and carved himself a niche at lesser place.

His niche was electrochemistry-the science of what happens at metal electrodes in contact with chemical solutions. He used a special type of electrode called a hanging mercury drop electrode which, as the name suggests, was a hanging droplet of mercury which comprised the electrode. The beauty of the method was that the mercury droplet was the actual working electrode immersed in solution. The droplet, being metallic, was in electrical contact a capillary of mercury in contact with a reservoir of fresh mercury. An applied voltage made cool things happen at the interface: ions line-up in layers, mimicking what happens in things as mundane as milk colloids and in nerve cells. Other electrodes tend to gunk up quickly but the beauty of the hanging drop method was that the electrode could be clipped off and a fresh one rapidly "grown" from the reservoir. This allowed very precise and ingenious time-dependent experiments, faster than a person could analyze. His wife was a computer programmer (she was also a professor, but in the Electrical Engineering department) and her programming skills came in handy. Together they were the first to develop such computer-controlled experiments in 1960's.

His wife passed away in the early 1980's and he was one of those guys who lost interest in life afterwards. They had no kids (that I knew of) and had put all their love and legacies into their students and papers instead. By the time I met him he was erratic, irritable and quite likely mad. We blamed mercury. After he died (he flipped his car on a rural highway, leaving everything to his cat) his lab was cleaned out. There was mercury everywhere, in every crack and crevasse. You couldn't open a drawer without little balls of the stuff rolling and bouncing around inside. So yeah I think the guy was as mad as a hatter.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Letters Home: April In Paris

Jan 4, 1953

Dear Mom,

It seems like a long time since I wrote so I guess I had better drop you a line tonight.
We had our first real snow the other day. It looks like it is going to stay for a while. I got a chance to go Paris in the spring.  All it would cost me for the trip is to drive part way. I would have to take leave of about 10 days because its 500 miles from here.
If I take a leave I might not get home as quick because I will have 28 days coming before discharge.
That Christmas card came little late but I got it. It sure was big.
I got the wrist watch but now I have to get a wooden box to send it in.
Some of the guys that get out of the Army next month left for New York today.  They sure were happy. I hope I can get home by the time I am 21.
I got a box of candy from M. Friday.* It sure was good. I wanted to send some thank you cards to the Church and V.F.W. for the boxes, but I couldn't find any at the P.X.
I found a picture of a house I like but look at the price. I suppose because it's close to D.C.
Bye for now,

* M is his oldest sister, my aunt.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

50 Years Of MyTunes: 1977

Never Mind The Bollocks ~ The Sex Pistols.  I still recall a heated debate in a high school English class around this time. A younger and ostensibly gifted student derided the whole punk rock movement. Here's kinda what all the fuss was about: "God Save The Queen"

Let There Be Rock ~ AC/DC.  They're a good listen but I could never get over the schoolboy get-up but hey that's just me. Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be still crunches nicely: link.

Rumours ~ Fleetwood Mac. Just now noticed the British spelling. Everybody and their uncle loved the 'Mac. My best friend's prom date even patterned her dress after Stevie Nicks' on the album cover. Some of it holds up well in my opinion but I let my subsequent opinions about Stevie Nicks get in the way I guess. Ditto for The Eagles.

Cheap Trick and In Color ~ Cheap Trick cut their teeth playing the Cheddar Circuit of clubs in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. They hit the big time with these two albums.

Hard Again ~ Muddy Waters. Johnny Winter did for Muddy Waters what the Rolling Stones couldn't actually do: he got in there and helped the man instead of just living off him. Listen for yourself: Mannish Boy.

Terrapin Station ~ Grateful Dead. Love it. Still. I know many Dead Fans can't stand the "Godchaux era", but screw 'em. PigPen was long gone by then though

George Thorogood ~ He's always been on my radar but I was never a hardcore fan which is odd. Maybe because I never saw him play live?  I just now realized reading his wiki bio that he was originally from Wilmington, Delaware.

Animals ~ Pink Floyd. When I think of Pink Floyd around this time, I think of some of the reasons punk rock took hold: as an expression against some of the bloated excess success of the time. I was disappointed in this album after Wish You Were Here.

Aja ~ Steely Dan. This was an interesting album for its time and a bit cross-over in the sense that a few great jazz musicians made cameo appearances here.

Even In The Quietest Moments ~ Supertramp. I wrote about a song from this album here.


Watching The Detectives ~ Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Barracuda ~ Heart. The Wilson sisters tried to strike lust in young men's hearts but they mostly failed. They rolled through Madison around this time. The song's guitar and especially drums on Barracuda are utterly derivative of Led Zeppelin's Achilles' Last Stand.

Stayin' Alive ~ The Bee Gees. OK, the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever was the biggest seller of that year.  The Bee Gees died for somebody's sins but not mine.

News Of The World ~ Queen. I was bored with Queen by this time. Still love all their stuff up to and including Night At The Opera.

Paradise By the Dashboard Light ~ Meat Loaf.  OK I included this here because I know that Michael Haz likes this song.

Lust For Life ~ Iggy Pop stage dives into the punk world.

Psycho Killer ~ Talking Heads.  Qu'est que c'est? Just remember that Pere Ubu were already doing this. Tina Weymouth rocks on bass (the best since Carol Kaye) and probably inspired a generation of others including Kim Deal and Kim Gordon.

Margaritaville ~ Jimmy Buffett  Had to include it here too. For my F-I-L.

Not to be forgotten:

Black Betty ~ Ram Jam

Like a Hurricane ~ Neil Young

Hot Legs ~ Rod Stewart

Lay Down Sally ~ Eric Clapton