Monday, May 30, 2011

Blessed Are The Wealth Makers

Wallace Hume Carothers (1896-1937)

DuPont made a fortune selling things like gunpowder and nitrocellulose to warring governments (mainly to our own) up through and including the First World War. During the roaring 1920s (and flush with cash before the crash) they decided to pursue pure research into material science and established a new division at their fledgling Experimental Station located near Wilmington, Delaware.

The company hired a young PhD chemist named Wallace Carothers to start up a new group. Carothers was fascinated by long chain macromolecules ubiquitous in nature but which had only recently been recognized as "polymers." With the exception of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic,* other synthetic polymers were unheard of, let alone commercially successful.

DuPont's research gamble paid off and Carothers and his group brought the company enormous success, first with the serendipitous discovery of neoprene, the first synthetic rubber, and then with nylon. Neoprene and nylon were tangible wealth creation: making things of value from what were, at the time, essentially waste products.

Nylon was Carothers' baby. Not only did he invent a synthetic replacement for silk, he purposefully developed a new method of making polymers called step-growth polymerization. He used the same durable type of linkages used by proteins (amide bonds), mimicking nature. Nylon was the first synthetic fabric and was commercialized around 1938, just in time to replace Asian silk which, along with natural rubber, went missing during the Second World War.

We have a lot to thank Carothers for but he didn't stick around. He checked out early, killing himself in 1937.
* I have two items made from Bakelite: One is a late 1940's era Viewmaster device and the other is my father's old Kit-Cat clock which I described here. Both of these items have the characteristic fragility and tendency to chip common to Bakelite.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

War Letters of German and English Soldiers

Link to original
Poppy-covered fields in Flanders evoke Britain's Remembrance Day on November 11, but the original inspiring poem was written in May, closer to our American Memorial Day.

I recently discovered two new books to nurture my obsession with soldiers' letters: War Letters Of Fallen Englishmen, originally compiled by Laurence Housman and published in 1930, and German Students' War Letters, originally compiled by Phillipp Witkop and published, in German, in 1928. Both books were recently republished by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The two books are remarkably close.  Jay M. Winter, Yale historian, wrote introductions for both volumes.  Here he captures what they both were about:
The entries in the book resemble gravestones, in a general way. There is the name, and instead of military rank, there is his academic affiliation. Then follows the date and place of his birth and his death. So far the parallel with a grave site [is] similar to that used in other similar ventures, for instance, Laurence Housman's War Letters of Fallen Englishmen. Housman's identification also includes the service arm and rank, which Witkop's book avoids. Still, the similarity to a cemetery stone is clear.
What both editions add, of course, is a letter or several letters. This practice helps establish the individuality of the soldier who died; without such special individuation, he would fade into an army of the dead and therefore into oblivion. Thus these books offer two services to bereaved families. For those whose sons or husbands or brothers had no known grave, these pages provide a kind of surrogate resting place his remains never had. And second, the text of the letters does more than just list his name, date of birth, and date of death. It is a kind of portrait, like those found in East European cemeteries. The letters construct a snapshot of the mind of the fallen soldier. The prose comes to stand for the man himself, his nobility, his beliefs, his aspirations. It was as if he wrote his own epitaph.

Here is an example, chosen at random from German Students' War Letters:
EDUARD BRUHN, Student of Theology, Kiel
Born October 18th, 1890, at Schlamersdorf.
Killed September 17th, 1915, in Russia

September 17th, 1915. 
Dear Parents,---
I am lying on the battle-field badly wounded. Whether I recover is in God's hands. If I die, do not weep. I am going blissfully home. A hearty greeting to you all once more. May God soon send you peace and grant me a blessed home-coming. Jesus is with me, so it is easy to die. In heartfelt love, 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Letters Home: "I haven't written for at least 3 weeks"

I last updated this series over a month ago. My late father wrote letters home to his family while serving in the US Army between 1951-53. They're all arranged in reverse chronological order from the "present" all the way back to boot camp: Link

His writing pace slowed from almost bi-weekly to about once a month and he wrote just eight more times before returning home in September, 1953. One day, augmented by photos, I hope to republish them all together. Meanwhile, I intend to keep posting them here on their originally posted calendar anniversary, time-shifted by exactly 58 years. Happy early Father's Day, pop.

Part of the lapse was his own--here he admits not having written in more three weeks. The young man who was to become my dad was growing apart from his home too. I wish there were more glimpses into what his life was like then and not just for selfish reasons because I am a part of him. His letters are, quite frankly, unremarkable--exactly what people said about the 1950's--especially the mid-1950's. He is a '50's "everyman" and now just a part of cultural memory.

Of course much was going on. He was stationed near the Fulda Gap which was like a Maginot Line between Allied and Soviet forces. East Germany was seething at this time: riots and the subsequent brutal repression culminated on June 17, 1953 in Berlin, just a few weeks away from the time of this letter. Up to a hundred or more people were killed outright (no one really knows) & over a hundred more were later executed and thousands disappeared. But he apparently did not notice, or else he had no real knowledge of events at that time. But the danger was real enough.

May 25, 1953
Hanau West Germany 

Dear Mom, Dad and all,

I haven't written for at least 3 weeks. I was waiting for a letter from you. I finally got one today.

We sure are having hot weather, around 90 every day. Last week we went out on the rifle range. I had to haul ammo in my jeep. I got to fire the sub-machine gun for reward. After everyone had finished, I got to help get rid of what was left over. I was shooting at tin cans and most anything I wanted to. [1]

Day after tomorrow I have to go in the field for a week. They are having some maneuvers north of here and 2 jeeps and 2 officers are going. I will be driving one. They have to umpire the maneuvers. [2]

Do you remember what I was doing 3 years ago tonight? Graduating from H.S. It seems like it's been that long too. [3]

I haven't been swimming yet but I took some pictures out at a lake yesterday.

I haven't been going to church very regular. Maybe I will after I get back. I like to sleep Sun. morning too well. Some weekends I have to drive someone. Still driving about 1000 miles a month. Last Fri. I had to take a AWOL to Frankfurt to the guard house. He had been to France.

Bye bye for now,

[1] He probably fired an M3 grease gun, the standard Army submachine gun at the time.

[2] Heavy armor maneuvers involving his outfit, the 141st Tank Battalion in the 3rd Armored Division, US Army.

[3] Military conscription was a kind of "poor man's college" at the time. The original G.I. Bill had recently been augmented. link

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meet the Priest who invented Flubber

Remember the storyline from Walt Disney's The Absent Minded Professor(1961)?  Fred MacMurray played a small Midwestern college chemistry professor who invented a miraculous substance which he named Flubber. He saved the football team and got the girl in the end. I think I found the real-life embodiment-well, forget the getting the girl part and focus on the chemistry and small midwestern university parts.

Reverend Julius Nieuwland (1878-1936)

I ran across the name Julius Nieuwland recently. Nieuwland was a priest and professor at Notre Dame University. As part of his Ph.D research, Nieuwland discovered Lewisite which was produced in tonnage quantitites by the U.S. during World War I as a poison gas.  Nieuwland had nothing to do with this application and distanced himself from the molecule (it's named for an enthusiastic supporter of gas warfare, named Lewis). Later, as a professor of organic chemistry at Notre Dame, Nieuwland successfully polymerized acetylene into divinylacetylene, laying the groundwork for the discovery of neoprene by Du Pont.

One of Nieuwland's more famous students was Knute Rockne, which even explains the football part of the otherwise bizarre Flubber story.

Conversations with Henry

Henry:  I once gave an exam by passing out a blank Periodic Table and asked students to fill in the blanks from memory:

Me: Yikes! Did anybody pass?

Henry: A few. But everyone got vanadium right!

Vanadium Adds Color

Vanadium is the first element of color. The previous element, titanium, is actually the essence of butt-white: Titanium dioxide, TiO2 is commonly used in white paint and also as a sunscreen. Of all the other previous elements, only chlorine is a pretty lime green. I suppose that sulfur counts as yellow and boron counts as brown, and certain allotropes of carbon counts as black--but only as solids. By "element of color" I mean that vanadium is the first of many elements that form pretty colored water solutions:
Oxidation states of vanadium, from left +2 (lilac), +3 (green), +4 (blue) and +5 (yellow).

There's a reason why vanadium does this, but I'm going to hold off a simplified explanation until I get to chromium (nominally the best example).

Vanadium's discovery is a bit sad in that its true discoverer, a fellow named del Rio, was talked out of his discovery by a Frenchman. Our old friend Friedrich Wöhler showed up and straightened things out, but not before the Swedish name stuck. The whole naming history is here.

Vanadium has an oxidation state of +5 in the oxide VO5.  VO5 has nothing to do with the shampoo VO5, but I thought that the first photo bore such a striking likeness to the second one that I put it here just to confuse things.

In the Periodic Table, vanadium belongs to Group 5. Chemistry students recognize the convenient mnemonic for vanadium (V is five in Roman numerals). 

Most of the world's mined vanadium goes into steel where it alloyed with iron to improve its strength. Vanadium also has some very interesting biological properties and may even be a micro nutrient essential to humans (it is essential to rats and chickens). It also appears to have promise in high-tech batteries.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Titanium Gets All Touchy-Feely with Carbon

A titanium chloride catalyst holds one end of the growing polymer chain. The same titanium atom simultaneously binds another incoming ethylene and stabilizes the contortions leading to the insertion of the next link into the growing chain. Titanium does this by polarizing ethylene's electrons while stabilizing a migration:

Original is here

Polarization, followed by attack, followed by depolarization...polarization, followed by attack, followed by depolarization...polarization, followed by attack, followed by depolarization... link

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Home On The Range

I rejoined a local shooting range. They have dozens of different pistols and rifles to use and try out. They also sell guns, but I'm not interested in that right now. This is a father/son thing and my boy really likes doing it. I explained my attitude about guns back here. I'm interested in the history of many things and I've decided to familiarize myself with many "classic" weapons available at the range. 

An arbitrary starting point is the M1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. This weapon, invented by John Browning, was used continuously by US Armed Forces between 1911 and 1985. Most people recognize its classic lines: Link

Iron Sights doesn't have any original M1911s for use (they do have a couple for sale).  The American company Kimber America makes a whole bunch of 1911 style 45's and I picked Stainless Pro Raptor II. Here's a photo of the one we shot:

Kimber Stainless Pro Raptor II .45 cal
The Raptor II is pretty comfortable to shoot. There isn't a lot of recoil for a .45 caliber. I don't like it as well as the Kimber Gold Match II, which they used to have but no longer stock.

Ethylene, Daughter of Ethyl

Factoid for the day:
In the mid-19th century, the suffix -ene (an Ancient Greek root added to the end of female names meaning "daughter of") was widely used to refer to a molecule or part thereof that contained one fewer hydrogen atoms than the molecule being modified. Thus, ethylene (C2H4) was the "daughter of ethyl" (C2H5). The name ethylene was used in this sense as early as 1852. Wiki link
I could blog all day about ethylene, but that factoid was something I didn't know until today. Ethyl has lots of sisters too like Propyl, Butyl (one of the But-sisters), and Pentyl, etc.

Ethylene is ready for her close-up now:

Climate Models Go Cold

Photo is from "The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters" by Logan Marshall (1912). Enlarge to read the faint caption "Theory" written on the ship. 
Scientist David Evans wrote a brief piece in the Financial Post called Climate Models Go Cold.*  He writes as a scientist formerly on the "gravy train,' making his point-of-view all the more credible. Evans understands all the data-even the ones not being talked about.

I'm reminded of the T.H. Huxley quote:
The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Some time ago, I left the following comment on the Althouse blog.  Those comments now seem to have disappeared down a memory-hole, but I still stand by what I said then:
chickenlittle said...

Nobelist Steven Chu, head of the DOE and Obama's top science guru, is all on board the CO2 is evil train. Link.

There is clearly an enormous investment in brainpower behind the notion that CO2 causes warming.

Here is how I distill the problem(s) confronting us:

(1) How, if incorrect about CO2, could the scientific consensus be so wrong?
  (a) Is the notion CO2 causes warming now too big to fail?
  (b) Can the credibility of American (and world) science recover if wrong?

(2) If they are right about CO2 causing warming, what would it take to convince the American people that they are correct?
  (a) Clearly something has gone wrong with the PR-people are not convinced.
  (b) The present administration appears to say: fuck 'em- they (the people) don't believe us? we're gonna force them. The possible techniques available to enforce compliance are downright un-American.

(3) What really bothers me as a sceptic of the CO2 causes warming is that if the Copenhagen treaty is ratified and enforced, and warming does not occur, credit will be taken regardless of the true cause. To me this is a heads I win tails you lose proposition for the CO2 causes warming folks. But more insidiously, it is the exact mechanism by which Science could ascend to the status of a quasi-religion: give the people "miracle, mystery and authority" and they will follow.

Sorry in advance for the longish post.

10/22/09 8:07 PM
*Thanks to @SissyWillis for retweeting the link to Evan's article on Twitter.

Karl Ziegler: "Consequences and Development of an Invention"

Karl Ziegler, German chemist (1898-1973)

Karl Ziegler, then director of the Max-Planck-Institute-for Coal Research, describing what he and co-workers discovered ten years prior to winning the 1963 Nobel Prize in Chemistry:
The catalyst is prepared simply by simultaneously pouring, with exclusion of air, two liquid materials into about two liters of a gasoline-like hydrocarbon, after which ethylene is introduced, while stirring. The gas is absorbed quickly; within an hour one can easily introduce 300-400 liters of ethylene into the two liters of liquid. At the same time, a solid substance precipitates, and can scarcely be stirred anymore. If the brown catalyst* is then destroyed, by the addition of some alcohol and by the introduction of air, the precipitate becomes snow-white and can be filtered off. In its final state it will accumulate in amounts of 300-500 g, as a dry, white powder.
~Karl Ziegler "Consequences and development of an invention"
*The two co-catalysts were titanium and aluminum chlorides

Polyethylene had been known earlier. A British company, ICI, held patents for what they called "polythene" (hmm, maybe related to the Beatles' "plasticene"?), but ICI's polyethylene was different animal than Ziegler's polyethylene. The difference is at the atomic level. Though both plastics were polymers of ethylene, the older, inferior product was highly branched:
Ziegler's new process for making polyethylene essentially made perfectly linear chains of polymer with very little branching. The bulk properties of the two were markedly different. The density differences are akin to what one expects from trying to pack together a bunch of branches versus bunches of straight sticks.

Ziegler and his Institute became independently wealthy as the plastic age began in earnest.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Titan Macht Kohlenstoff

Titanium is the carbon of transition metals. The Germans realized this early on. Look again at this "carbo-centric" Periodic Table of the Elements from 1926:

Follow the color code (carbon is black) down and to the left. The association runs right through titanium and zirconium, down to hafnium and thorium. To the right, the rhymes-with-carbon pathway runs down through germanium, tin, and lead; I'll get to the latter later after having some fun with the first row transition metals.

Titanium has probably touched more carbon atoms than any other metallic element. And there are two words for this Benjamin--just two words I want to say to you. Are you listening Benjamin?


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Treat The Wealth Well

At the heart of Energy Secretary Chu's newly released Strategic Plan 2011 is a Native American saying:

Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, but loaned to you by your children.*

I think the budget guys have a similar philosophy:

Treat the wealth well. It was not given to you by your parents, but loaned to you by your children.
*The quote may be found at page 2 of the linked pdf file.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

During the First World War, Imperial Germany was cut off from its sources of fixed nitrogen (mainly Chilean saltpeter and bat guano which it needed to make gunpowder). The ingenious Fritz Haber invented the direct conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia using hydrogen gas. Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this feat, despite Germany having lost the war and despite Haber's wartime culpability in making things like chlorine and phosgene gases for trench warfare (out of fairness, note that Nobel Laureate Victor Grignard headed up the French contingent of poison-gas warriors). The commercial Haber-Bosch process literally enabled the subsequent worldwide population bloom known as the Green Revolution, though it was reduced to practice by the likes of Norman Borlaug. The Haber-Bosch process is still used today, highly refined, but essentially unchanged. A "Holy Grail" of modern catalytic chemistry is to invent new catalysts that work at normal pressures and temperatures.

During the Second World War, coal-rich Nazi Germany was cut off from commercial sources of crude oil, which it needed to wage highly mechanized warfare. The ingenious Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch had invented and developed the conversion of coal to liquid hydrocarbons in the 1920's. Their technology was scaled up and used to augment military and domestic liquid fuel supplies. Fischer and Tropsch did not win a Nobel Prize for this feat, perhaps because Fischer died in 1947 (Tropsch had died in 1935). The commercial Fischer-Tropsch process is still practiced worldwide, and could play a greater role for our coal-rich nation, but not under the present Administration, which prefers alternatives.

Among the alternatives is the photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide to a reduced product such as carbon monoxide. link This technology, coupled with existing "syn-gas" technology for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen (derived from water) to hydrocarbons, is another "Holy Grail."  These research efforts have a way of ramping up as the relative price of crude oil increases and remains high. We may be entering such a phase.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Horsing around in Del Mar

This is the 3rd year our family has gone to this event. My daughter rides at a local stable which is dominated by teenaged girls. I'm always amazed when I see the professionals ride because at that level, the sport is equally split, men and women.

Congratulations to Chris Pratt for winning the $100,000 Grand Prix of Del Mar in California last night!

UPDATE: The event was actually horses and riders jumping link. I should have taken some of my own photos and I haven't been able to find any from Saturday night.

There were a couple of exciting moments: One horse went right up to the highest hurdle and "refused" it. The rider turned the horse around and tried again. This time the horse refused again but momentum threw the rider right over the fence. It was as if the horse said "You do it". Fortunately nobody got hurt.

Happy Mother's Day

From last year: Link

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Time For Cocktails: The Vesper

"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet." 
"Oui, monsieur."
"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.* Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.
Bond laughed. 'When I',' he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."
—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953)
*Kina Lillet used to contain quinine, a muscle relaxant. Kinda like how Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine, and 7-Up contained lithium citrate.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Time For Cocktails: Darcy's Dirty Titotini

I asked Darcy for her "Titotini" recipe:
"Oh,'s just ice cold Tito's and olive juice to taste! Jalapeno stuffed olives. I'll check quantities tonight!"
More please.

Transitioning To Real Metals

Look again at the "long form" of the Periodic Table:

click to enlarge
I've already blogged through three layers of the so-called main group elements, which are the two bluish colored blocks of elements bookending the reddish elements "inside." With reference to the very top left, calcium has the coordinates 4 down and 2 across. To get to the next element to the right, we have to jump the gap across the red rare earth metals and the underlying (and notorious) actinides to the first pink element, scandium.

Scandium is the first of the so-called transition metals, named from the Latin, transire = to go across or to cross over. The metaphor is that we're "crossing over" on our way back to the right-hand block of main group elements. Destination: krypton.

That's about all I want to say about scandium. But guess where it was discovered?  Yep. And by somebody named Lars even. Link

This is Calcium's Finest Hour

AGW is not just about burning hydrocarbons, making CO2, and pumping it up the atmosphere. Natural mechanisms exist for getting CO2 out of the atmosphere and back into the lithosphere. Trees, which tie the earth and sky, do this quite well. But more important is the formation of calcium carbonate, CaCO3.

When rocks weather, calcium is released into lakes and rivers. This happens slowly at sea shores but also in mountains and calcium eventually makes its way to the sea. There is a pre-existing supply in the oceans: Calcium is the third most abundant metal in sea water, behind sodium and magnesium.

Sea creatures make sea shells and coral from dissolved calcium. In addition, phytoplankton take up CO2 as well before being consumed. Part of the global carbon cycle involves the perpetual rain of dead sea creatures to the sea floor where the carbon is eventually consumed by tectonic subduction. These processes offset CO2 released by humans. The question is, how fast:
The natural pH of the ocean is determined by a need to balance the deposition and burial of CaCO3 on the sea floor against the influx of Ca2+ and CO23− into the ocean from dissolving rocks on land, called weathering. These processes stabilize the pH of the ocean, by a mechanism called CaCO3 compensation...The point of bringing it up again is to note that if the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere changes more slowly than this, as it always has throughout the Vostok record, the pH of the ocean will be relatively unaffected because CaCO3 compensation can keep up. The [present] fossil fuel acidification is much faster than natural changes, and so the acid spike will be more intense than the earth has seen in at least 800,000 years. link
Never was so much owed by so many to so little.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Time For Cocktails: Conversations With Henry

Me: Remember that time you took me to the faculty club?

Henry: Yeah?

Me: What were you drinking? I didn't really like cocktails then.

Henry: Martini. Extra dry

Me: Gin or vodka?

Henry: That's like asking me: English or Western?

Me: I'll never forget when you said 'look, over there! -- that's Milton Friedman!'

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

50 Years Of MyTunes: A $20 Reward...

...for the verified identity of this song. I want to buy it from iTunes or the like. I wouldn't be offering money if I knew what it was.

I'm working on a blog post about instrumental surf, and I want to include this. Here's what I know about it.  I recorded the song on WORT listener sponsored radio in about 1986 or 1987 in Madison, Wisconsin. I subsequently lost the original play list, and now have it only on a compilation. I think I mislabeled it as Link Ray.

Update: Jason made the right call: It's Sandy Nelson's And Then There Were Drums from 1962.

Update 2: Sandy Nelson sounds like an old-fashioned Gene Krupa schooled drummer.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Real Deal SEAL

Just in case nobody noticed (because those kinds of guys usually don't toot their own horn), frequent commenter LL is a former Navy SEAL. link  Now he writes real books and a couple of blogs too, one of which, Virtual Mirage, I like to frequent.

I doff my hat to you guys for a job well done.

Conversations with Henry: That man was a genius

Henry: Linus Pauling had an answer for that little orbital problem you mentioned here.

Me: Pauling had answer for everything. The greatest chemist ever.

Henry: He was an interesting guy. You knew he was up here with me for a while? He had a falling out with Cal Tech.  I remember he used to come to seminars and always sat in the first row. He was well past retirement age then. Anyways, he tended to nod off when the lights went down during talks. Especially if the speaker showed too many dahls of slides.

Me: What are dahls?

Henry: A dahl is a unit of boring slides. Named after a famous crystallographer who used to put people to sleep at his talks. A "dahl" is approximately 10 boring slides. You do remember what slides are?

Me: Yeah. They were considered an improvement on overheads.

Henry: Linus Pauling was first and foremost a crystallographer. One time (I remember this clearly) he woke up when the lights went back up and asked the speaker a devastating question about a structure -- I mean the man could demolish arguments in his sleep. It was like he threw an intellectual dart at the speaker and hit him right in the forehead.

Me: Heh, I heard people used to say that about you too...

[Henry smiles]