Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let's Cover The Moon With Yogurt!..., let's cover the moon with Quark!

no, let's go find Quarks!

no, let's find the Higgs boson, the Holy Grail!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pizza Wars: Costco

The contender: Costco

: New York

In your mouth: The sauce and the pepperoni are pretty good but the crust is pretty gross. I like crispier, Maillard-reacted pizza crusts. After the first soft bite there's a sensation that the pie was undercooked, or cooked improperly because the cheese was nicely browned in the right places. The sauce is adequate and the cheese not bland.

The next day: Worse.

Overall: A soggy dough supports something with potential. Kids, who tend to like insipid things, love it!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Thanks Again, Carol!

Carol Herman wrote in the comments here:

I guess chemists mistake the fact that you can line elements up in a row ... with the same sort of detail you could do with human beings.

I don't see it as a mistake--just being very analytical with the world. No more harm than taking the letters of a sentence and reordering them. For example, the letters of "SEE SPOT RUN" become E2NOPRS2TU

The converse of analysis in chemistry is synthesis, but reverse engineering "E2NOPRS2TU" back into SEE SPOT RUN requires creativity, insight (and the use of spaces).

A novel's story is defined by a very long sequence of characters set down neatly on a series of pages. A chemist could chop that novel up into a "formula" having just 24 unique characters. Each novel would have a unique formula.

Humans are analytically defined by their DNA, which also is a sequence of encoded information, like a series of characters in a book. But humans are much, much more than just their sequence of base pairs, don't you think?

Ironically, it is a very "Jurassic" question.

Added: Jason, in the comments, pointed out that I neglected the "T" in my formula, so I fixed it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Djerassic Perk

Here's a long shot of a guess. I don't think the Norwegians will award a Peace Prize this year. Still reeling from the horrible Utoya massacre, they may just put it on hold this year to honor the silenced dead. It might be a fitting gesture.

Of course the Swedes award the science prizes. One name I've always been surprised to see passed over in Chemistry (as if I'm a judge of such things) is Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the first oral contraceptive for women back in 1951. He had a long career at Stanford University (he's since retired).  He's also long been interested in the arts and even writes fiction. Djerassi didn't accomplish the Pill on his own, but many of the important others are now dead and thus ineligible. My casual read of Wikipedia suggests that George Rosenkranz could be a co-contender.

Djerassi foresaw the Pill's huge social impact, anticipating a far greater social impact on men than on women. He apparently also "foresaw the so-called 'feminization of men,' along with changes in laws and social values in favor of women in society as a whole." link

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Like To Think That I Remember...

...hearing this the night it was spoken:
It would take more time than anybody has around the daily news shops to think of the right thing to say about Disney.
He was an original. Not just an American original, but an original. Period.  He was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced. And judging by the way it’s behaving, in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies, and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him. He probably did more to heal - or at least soothe - troubled human spirits than all the psychiatrists in the world. There can’t be many adults in the allegedly civilized parts of the globe who did not inhabit Disney’s mind and imagination for at least for a few hours and feel better for the visitation.
It may be true, as somebody said, that while there is no highbrow in a lowbrow, there is some lowbrow in every highbrow. But what Disney seemed to know was that while there is very little grown-up in every child, there is a lot of child in every grown-up. To a child, this weary world is brand-new, gift wrapped. Disney tried to keep it that way for adults.
By the conventional wisdom, mighty mice, flying elephants, Snow White and Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy and Doc - all these were fantasy, escapism from reality.  It’s a question of whether they are any less real, any more fantastic than intercontinental missiles, poisoned air, defoliated forests, and scrap iron on the moon. This is the age of fantasy, however you look at it, but Disney’s fantasy wasn’t lethal.
People are saying we will never see his like again.

Eric Sevareid of CBS Evening News, eulogizing Walt Disney on Christmas, 1966.

My All Time Favorite...

...ride at Disneyland: The Mark Twain:

A Tale of Two Picket Fences

Wallace Carothers, American chemist and inventor extraordinaire, had a brief teaching and research appointment at Harvard before leaving to make history at DuPont.  I wrote about him here.  Carothers' mentor at Harvard was Professor E. P. Kohler, a veteran teacher by the time Carothers got there in 1926.  A contemporary of Carothers remembers Kohler:
But after I met him [Kohler]..we sat around listening, waiting for the words of wisdom. He was a bachelor, and he had an old New England house down in some town south of Boston. He had a picket fence around his house, and he talked at great length about what a great thing it was to paint a picket fence. He got enormous joy and satisfaction out of this, and I thought it was awfully stupid. Finally he said, 'The reason this is so wonderful: it's the only thing that I do that has a beginning, has an end, and at anytime I know exactly where I stand.' Twenty years later it finally dawned on me that I'd heard some words of wisdom.' Kohler, now 62, was in his sixteenth year at Harvard when James Conant and Roger Adams presented to Kohler--'the King' he was called--the convincing case for Wallace Carothers as a new Harvard instructor. 
Enough for One Lifetime by Matthew E. Hermes.
Carothers lasted just three semesters before leaving Harvard for DuPont in 1927.  The rest is history. I bring up the story because Professor Kohler's peculiar (and real-life) attitude about fence painting contrasts so starkly with that of the fictional Tom Sawyer, forever captured by Mark Twain:
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.
Of course the guileful Tom goes on to convince his friends to paint the fence for him, and that of course is part of his charm.

What sort of character do we reward in workers and leaders today?  Which traits do we admire in ourselves when faced with such a task?

Conversations with Henry: I'm Your Hapten

[This post is a continuation-in-part of the previous post]

Henry: What Wilkinson first gave the world now goes by a name. It's called hapticity.

Me: I know what hapticity is, but I didn't realize the word was Cotton's idea.

Henry: Yep.  Cotton was Geoff Wilkinson's first student.

Me: Did you know him?

Henry: Of course! Both of them.


Henry:  I suppose the notion was there all along, sort of half-baked.

Me: What was?

Henry: Hapticity-the notion that a metal could latch onto several carbons simultaneously.  I mean, there was Zeise's salt, known since the 1820's, yet nobody knew its structure. That sure changed quickly.  Then along came Dewar and Chatt, your heroes, to explain it all! [Henry laughs]

Me:  They're not my heroes! Well maybe Dewar was.

Henry: And then there was Reihlen's iron butadiene complex. That was like an open-faced sandwich! [Henry laughs again]. Geoff knew all his work too--even though the war hid some of it. It still does.

Me: You make it all sound so obvious!

Henry:  No, Geoff just proved Pasteur's old dictum that chance favors the prepared mind.


Iron has so much history that I may have to make a little hash tag label for it like I did for carbon with bloghetti carbonara. There is just too much for one blog post.

In my last year in college at Madison, I took a graduate level course (Chem 714) called Organometallic Chemistry of the Transition Elements. I may have been the only undergraduate in the course. One of the reading assignments was called "The Iron Sandwich. A Recollection Of The First Four Months" by Geoffrey Wilkinson (Journal of Organometallic Chemistry 1975, 100, 273-278).

Wilkinson narrates the story of how he deduced the correct structure of ferrocene, shortly after its incorrect structure was first published. The work was seminal and led (in part) to his sharing the 1973 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with E. O. Fischer of Munich.

Here he sets the stage (annoying footnotes are mine):
In early September of 1951, I arrived at 12 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Mass., as a new Assistant Professor in the Harvard Chemistry Department. I owed my appointment largely to my nuclear background. Harvard had originally intended to appoint a tenure member in nuclear chemistry, a plan which did not materialize, and had settled for myself and an Instructor, Dick Diamond, a newly graduated Ph.D. from Seaborg's laboratory in Berkeley. I was given a laboratory in the Mallinkrodt Laboratory, and went to work collecting chemicals and apparatus and built myself a small vacuum line.*
* By vacuum line, Wilkinson means a glass tube contraption having numerous valves and fittings designed to allow working in the absence of air. Organometallic chemistry included many interesting chemical species which reacted with atmospheric oxygen- see for example the contemporaneous catalysts Ziegler was exploring an ocean away.

Wilkinson went on to describe adjusting to Harvard faculty life in a chatty way before focusing on his eureka moment:
So the story for me actually began on Friday, I think 30th January, 1952. I normally went into the Departmental Library lateish on Friday afternoons, and as usual I picked up Nature, in which I found the celebrated note by Kealy and Pauson.*  On seeing the structure...I can remember immediately saying to myself  "Jesus Christ it can't be that!"

*T.J. Kealy and P.L. Pauson, Nature, 168 (1951) p. 1039.
Wilkinson intuited that the published structure was wrong because it was inconsistent with any other existing iron compound. The published structure (above) implied that a central iron latched onto just one carbon of each five-sided carbon ring (cyclopentadienyl). In a flash of insight, Wilkinson immediately sketched what was later redrafted for publication as:
He proposed the two hourglass-shaped structures differing only in how the five-sided rings (the bread slices of the iron sandwich) aligned with each other. He quickly went on to show that other sandwich structures existed for other metals, discovering a new genus of compounds now generically called metallocenes.

One irony in this story is that Harvard failed to offer Wilkinson tenure after he did this prize-worthy work, despite the widespread acclaim it engendered during his time there.  Harvard either didn't recognize the importance of his work or, as I suspect, he made some academic enemies there.

I recently found myself at an informal meeting of chemists and a story regarding Harvard Chemistry came up: "Yeah, Harvard--they never tenure anybody" a friend said.  After sixty years, they haven't shaken that reputation. To many, Harvard broke the code of not rewarding merit.

Wilkinson's subsequent career certainly didn't suffer.  He went on to chair the Department at Imperial College in London. He wrote an outstanding textbook used by generations of chemists. He discovered "Wilkinson's catalyst" (something that became near and dear to me).

The tenure story gets better when Harvard's Robert Burns Woodward is considered. Woodward is a co-author on the original ferrocene paper with Wilkinson but did not share that prize with Wilkinson. Woodward, perhaps the greatest American organic chemist ever, had previously won a Nobel Prize alone and probably would have shared another--had he lived--but not this one. Wilkinson thought that Woodward had had the same flash of insight as he. But did he? You can read the story for yourself here,* retold by Professor Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University.  Hoffmann knew Woodward. They shared a Nobel Prize together. But that's another story worthy of bloghetti carbonara.
*Warning: Hoffmann invokes Rashomon, and quite aptly I think.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Letters Home: Vous sortez du secteur français

July 26, 1953

Dear Mom, Dad and all,

I got back from Baumholder Friday. It was wet and muddy there. I had to sleep in my jeep because the ground was too wet to sleep on at night. The officers we had with us were umpires for the 2nd Armor Div. They would judge them on their simulated attacks on hills and city's. I guess they didn't do no good because they didn't get much score. Enough of that.
Sounds like you got a good deal, I was surprised they allowed 600 for the merc. One thing, you forgot to tell me the color. [1]
I don't know what I want to do about a car when I get back. Dad needs a good car for driving back and forth to work.
That Muller boy that came in the army with me lost his stripes. He told his tank commander off. And said something about being a short timer.
We are supposed to leave here no later than Sept. 24. I think it will be about the 15th. [2] I hope anyway.
Bye for now,
Love, V.
[1] I'm pretty certain it would have been a 40's era Mercury.
[2] My father's time in Europe, and in the Army, ended with his honorable discharge that Fall.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Letters Home: Vous sortez du secteur américain

July 18, 1953
Dear Mom, Dad and all,
I finally found time to answer your letter. I am over in the French Zone driving for an officer. [1] Some other outfit over here is having maneuvers and they are umpires.[2]
I got Marylou's letter answered finally too. Bonnie sent a letter but I haven't answered it yet. [3] It was a bad trip over here. It rained all the way and when it rains the roads are as slick as ice. Cobblestone roads.
I am sending some pictures along this time. That one of me standing by the bear was taken at a carnival.
This is Sat night and I am just laying around doing nothing.
Did you get that card I sent. I know this is a short letter but there is just nothing happening. Bye for now.
Love, V.

[1] After the Second World War, the French were understandably vindictive, just as they had been after the First World War. Many, Charles de Gaulle included, were perfectly willing to recreate a Weimar Germany or see Germany vanquished altogether. The draconian Monnet Plan would surely have weakened the nascent Western German economy. The Dutch, also eager to seek reparations from the Germans, proposed their own version called the Bakker-Shut Plan.

The US, meanwhile, had its own plan called the Morgenthau Plan, proposed by FDR's Treasury Secretary (see his signature under the blue seal in the photo below). Designed to neutralize any German resurgence, the Morgenthau Plan was harshly criticized and ultimately rejected.  Herbert Hoover, still active in politics, wrote in March 1947:
There is the illusion that the New Germany left after the annexations can be reduced to a 'pastoral state'. It cannot be done unless we exterminate or move 25,000,000 people out of it.
To our credit, the US eventually rejected all these retributive schemes because they all risked letting a weakened Germany move further to the Soviet sphere. The "Stalin Plan" was already in force in the Eastern sector.

Our Marshall Plan trumped them all.  Interestingly, an evolved version of the Monnet Plan eventually became the seed of the EEU, which eventually became the EU.

Click to enlarge. US Silver Certificate, series 1935
[2] These were tank maneuvers.
[3] His older and younger sisters.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Manganese Is Neither Transgendered Nor Racist

The words manganese and magnesium are related. Their entwined roots stem back to a place called Magnesia in ancient Greece where they were both found in abundance. Some speculate that Spartan swords were exceptionally hard because of manganese content in their iron. Manganese's word history is parsed here and van der Krogt has his take here.

Manganese has been used since antiquity both to color and to decolorize glass. The Venetians perfected "glassmaker's soap," making high art with it.  Glass always contains iron in trace amounts and this imparts a greenish "coke bottle" tinge. The addition of manganese to the molten glass produces a reddish-brown tinge which equalizes the absorption across the visible spectrum and gives so-called colorless glass. More reading on colored glass can be found here.

Manganese also demarcates an important trend in the Periodic Table. Moving from left to right across the first transition metal series, i.e., Sc -> Ti -> V -> Cr -> Mn, each element adds one more positive charge to its core (and one surrounding electron). Yet those electrons can be stripped by oxygen. A tipping point is reached between manganese and iron. Manganese is the last metal in that series to exhaustively lose all of its valence electrons to oxygen. Thus the manganese atom in permanganate MnO4-, is fully oxidized back to having an argon core. But moving just one element further to the right (to iron) is just enough change in electronegativity that iron retains two valence electrons: there is a ferrate but no perferrate.

Ironically, despite its reputation for rusting, iron retains an inner core of two valence electrons, even when completely surrounded by rapacious oxygen. Iron is one step closer to the noble metals.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Merry Little Minuet

The Kingston Trio recorded this song in 1959. I still can't decide if the lyrics were prescient or are just timeless. We owe the songwriting to Sheldon Harnick, who went on to more serious work on Broadway. Many people erroneously attributed it to Harnick's contemporary, Tom Lehrer, perhaps because he penned it using similar acerbic wit. 

Judging from some comments on the YouTube video, we shouldn't laugh at some of this stuff but the audience clearly enjoyed it at the time (not a laugh track but recorded live in a small club). I've enjoyed this song since I can remember because my parents were Kingston Trio fans and they had all their vinyl LPs when I was growing up.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Color Of Steel

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
iron and coke
and chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown

-Billy Joel*

I wrote a bit about American iron and coke back here, but what is chromium steel?  The Germans, who first mass produced it, called it Edelstahl (noble steel)  We're more humble less deferential and just call it stainless steel. A thin layer of shiny chromium oxide protects the underlying chromium/iron alloy. Scratch the metal and another tiny layer of protective chromium oxide forms.
Stainless steel detail from the Chrysler Building.
Actually, the term "stainless steel" is generic and countless species exist. But they all share iron and chromium. Some stainless alloys further include nickel, molybdenum, vanadium, etc., but this post is about chromium, that most colorful of the transition metals.

Van der Krogt writes about the element's discovery and obvious naming:
In 1797 Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin...[was] determined to find the correct composition of crocoite. He boiled pulverized crocoite with two parts potash obtaining a yellow solution. The solution formed a beautiful red precipitate with a mercury salt, and a yellow precipitate with lead. Adding tin muratic turned the solution green. In 1798 he precipitated lead with muratic acid, dried the green solid, then cooked it for half an hour in a charcoal crucible with charcoal dust. Upon cooling he discovered a network or gray, metallic needles weighing one third of the original...Vauquelin named the new element Chromium, because of the many colours of its compounds. The name derives from the Greek χρωμα [chrōma] = colour.
Chromium also gives color to sapphires, rubies and emeralds.

Chrome bumpers, once ubiquitous, were sucked dry by EPA fellatrices.

*Only one line really bothers me in that Billy Joel pop song: "But they've taken all the coal from the ground." This is emphatically not true.  US steel production is limited by cheap iron ore, not coal supplies. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal.

Pigments of My Imagination

I got sidetracked by vacation and few other things and lost my way regarding the chemical elements. The following inorganic pigments are mostly familiar.

Red is for red and white lead in striped lighthouses and also miniature manuscripts. The red color comes from lead tetroxide and the stark white comes from lead carbonate. Both pigments are impervious to the elements which is precisely why Michael Faraday chose them to coat Britain's lighthouses.
Red is also for Barn Red. Farmers in Europe started this tradition by adding ground up rust to the linseed oil they used to protect their barns and sheds (the iron inhibits mold).

Orange is for terracotta roof tiles: The color comes mainly from iron oxides.

Yellow is for yellow school buses.  Originally the pigment came from lead chromate (the color comes from the chromate, not the lead). It too was impervious to the elements. Lead chromate is no longer used to paint buses, but the traditional color stuck with us.

Green is for emeralds. Beryl and emerald are essentially the same material, viz., Be3Al2Si6O18. The only difference is that emerald also contains about 2% chromium, the source of its green color. Chromium also makes rubies red, and sapphires blue.  How does the same element do that?

Blue is for the Prussian Blue. I wrote about this back here. Gun bluing, a form of metal passivation, is another iron coating in disguise. Blue is also for cobalt blue.  As the saying goes: if it's blue, it's cobalt (II).

Indigo is for itself. Its color is challenged by some as a separate distinct color: link The most vivid indigo colors I ever saw were solvated electrons trapped as either sodium electride or as sodium benzophenone. What do electrons really look like? link

Violet is for purple permanganate, KMnO4 which is actually pinkish purple but I couldn't think of a better example. Can you?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Letters Home: Greetings From Marktredwitz

A postcard my father sent home during his Army service in Germany 1951-53 (click on the tag "Letters Home" for the whole series):
Click to enlarge. Clockwise from top left: [1] Schlageterstrasse, [2] Kreuzstrasse, [3] Krankenhaus, [4] Schillerstrasse. Note the name Marktredwitz is in the old Fraktur script lettering. The Nazis had a love-hate relationship with that style and ultimately sought to limit its use.

The reverse reads:

July 12, 1953
Hi Mom,
I am spending the weekend in Marktredwitz. I have been swimming twice. I am staying at my girlfriends house. They live in a small rented apartment. I will sign off for now.
Love V.


[1] Schlageterstrasse was named after Albert Leo Schlageter who was heralded by the Third Reich. Many German streets were renamed Schlageterstrasse or Albert-Leo-Schlageterstrasse during the NS times. After the war, many were subsequently renamed. By 1953, de-nazification had not yet reached the smaller towns.

[2] Kreuzstrasse, which means, I believe, simply Crossroad.

[3] Krankenhaus, literally the "Sick House", or the hospital.

[4] Schillerstrasse was named after Friedrich Schiller, the great German poet and philosopher.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


What's a "poop" deck? How did it get its name? asked Carol Herman in a comment back here.

Etymology has long been a hobby of mine so I looked up the origin of the term in the trusty online OED of Etymology:
"stern deck of a ship," c.1400, from M.Fr. poupe "stern of a ship," from It. poppa, from L. puppis "poop, stern," of uncertain origin. Poop deck attested by 1779. link

I found this word origin quite unsatisfying if not incomplete. I recalled a discussion once with my Dutch father-in-law. We were chatting about ships and he translated poop deck as something that resonated with poop deck but which I promptly forgot.

*looks up term*

The Dutch term for "poop deck" is kak dek. Now isn't that strange--the Dutch slang term for feces is kak* which seems to suggest that the "poop" in poop deck should have a more vulgar origin than let on by the OED.

* cf. the origin of the term "poppycock" 1865, probably from Du. dialect pappekak, from M.Du. pappe "soft dung" (see pap) + kak "dung," from L. cacare "to excrete." link

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Photo Trivia

I took this photo onboard a famous naval vessel in Hawaii because it reminded me of an earlier quasi-famous photo of two key players in the Pacific war. Can you name the place and famous event?

I will link the original photo that inspired my photo later.

[ADDED] This is the photo matchup I was trying for:
The B/W photo was taken on board the USS Missouri the day Japan surrendered. Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. (foreground right) died of a heart attack a couple days later.