Monday, May 31, 2010

Mountainside, CA 92060

I hope everybody had a wonderful first holiday weekend of the summer. We visited Palomar Mountain State Park, camping overnight. We used to go there more often when the kids were little and when my wife wasn't so busy becoming supernurse.  We have the art of tent camping down to a science and we can set up and take down very quickly.

Palomar Mountain, which we affectionately call Mountainside, is a special place in southern California.  Too distant from both San Diego and Los Angeles to be convenient for them, we have it to ourselves.  Palomar Mountain is a real community, comprising 5th and 6th generation homesteaders, bikers, ex-hippies in exile, egghead scientists (associated with Caltech's iconic 200 inch Hale telescope and Observatory), and an ever so-slowly creeping influx of retiring boomers. The town comes alive on weekends in the summer months, and curiously, also in the winter months after frequent snowstorms when the gawkers drive up 5,000 ft to experience snow.

"Mountainside" is about 45 miles east and a mile up from Oceanside. In the 1930's, San Diego County built a road to Palomar Observatory which was then called the "Highway to the Stars." The highway was marked with the following road sign:

Over the years, the road signs became so popular with thieves that they were all stolen.  Today the road is known and marked as County S-6.  The best part is 7 miles of winding road with an ascent of a few thousand feet. There are turnouts with breathtaking views all the way to the Pacific on clear days. This time of year, there tends to be haze. It's a popular (and dangerous) route with the bikers in the summer.  There's a popular watering hole at the summit (the mountain is also famous for its spring water).

[added] More iconic imagery:

If This Tree Fell In A Forest...

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?

When that tree fell in the forest at Palomar Mountain State Park I don't care if no one heard it--I believe it fell because its carcass is so big!

Lesson Learned

(Adapted from conversation around the campfire last night). As we're all staring into the fire, suddenly a part of the log flares up:

Me:   Did you see that?  Where does that energy come from?

Son:   Hydrogen?

Me:    You think there's hydrogen inside the log?

Son:    No

Me:    What's in the log that burns?

Son:    Wood

Me:     Where does the wood come from?

Son:    The tree makes it

Me:     Where does the tree get energy?

Daughter:  From the sun!

Me:     Yes!

Son:     But isn't the sun hydrogen?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lewis Structures: What Is Essential Is Invisible

After physicists discovered and defined the basic properties of the naked electron, the next big question was how to describe and understand them in the context of atoms and molecules, thus encroaching the natural domain of chemistry.

G.N. Lewis invented Lewis structures as a way to describe and understand how electrons surround atoms and also how they hold molecules together.  He did this in a non-mathematical, pictorial way in the early 20th century before the birth and subsequent ascent of quantum mechanics. Lewis depicted atoms and their electrons as cubes which could be joined at their edges, vertices, and faces:

The physicists regarded Lewis's theory as laughably crude, particularly the notion that electrons were fixed at certain positions. Lewis in turn was critical of the physicists' idea that electrons were completely fluid, as for example, in J. J. Thomson's plum-pudding model of the atom, because it seemed incapable of explaining the definitive shapes of molecules, for example, the tetrahedral geometry of carbon in countless organic compounds.

By the mid 1920's Lewis had dropped his 3D cubic portrayal of electronic structure; what survives today is rather like a flat 2D projection of those cubes onto a plane.  Lewis would have drawn hydrogen cyanide (the molecule that may have killed him) as:

"What is essential is invisible to the eye"

The lasting importance of Lewis's theory is that it provided chemists with a way (albeit simplified) of visualizing the electronic structures of atoms and molecules. That is perhaps why it endures.

The Discovery of the Electron

"The electron has conquered physics, and many adore the new idol rather blindly" 
Henri Poincaré (1907)

After the discovery of the electron and the measurements of its mass and charge (a combination of Thomson's and Millikan's truly ingenious experiments), the next big question was how to describe and understand electrons in atoms and molecules.

Bring on the dream team:

There is a bigger version of the photo with the names of the scientists listed beneath here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Late But Not Too Late

Laplace had said that from a complete and detailed knowledge of the universe the future could be predicted, but [Heisenberg's] uncertainty principle shows that it is impossible to have such a detailed knowledge. The whole deterministic hypothesis therefore collapses; human free will can no longer be denied.
~Keith J. Laidler The World of Physical Chemistry Oxford University Press: 1981

I believe that I knew each "piece" of that reasoning separately but never came to that simple conclusion. How could I have missed something that obvious? Or have I just forgotten it?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Maxwell's Demon

The Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell introduced a useful little helper later dubbed Maxwell's Demon. Maxwell's demon could open and shut little windows for individual molecules and Maxwell used it to enable some thought experiments which violated the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I need a nuclear equivalent to Maxwell's molecular demon: something that can go in and transmute elements into those one higher or lower in atomic number while leaving things like the electronic configuration alone. What I really want to do is to mentally change carbon atoms into boron atoms or carbon atoms into nitrogen atoms, or nitrogen atoms into oxygen atoms, all just to make a couple pedantic points:

Carbon - (1 proton, 1 neutron, & 1 electron)  = Boron


Carbon + (1 proton, 1 neutron, & 1 electron) = Nitrogen


Nitrogen + (1 proton, 1 neutron, & 1 electron) = Oxygen

The new little demon can transmute dinitrogen into carbon monoxide, dinitrogen into dioxygen, and ethane into amino borane:

N2 --->  CO

N2 --->  O2

CH3CH3 --->   BH3NH3

San Francesco e il Lebbroso

This is a continuation-in-part of this earlier post.  The story, entitled "St. Francis and the Leper" is from Chapter XXV of The Little Flowers of St. Francis and dates from the 13th century; the story is one of supreme compassion and humility, traits which the Franciscans strive to keep alive even today. You can read something of its historical importance here.

In this story, St. Francis of Assisi reaches out to a leper; lepers at that time were considered the dregs of humanity.  In St. Francis's view he was no less a human being. Characteristically, after witnessing a miracle by his own hand, St. Francis fled the scene to avoid the vainglory in the original sense of the term.
San Francesco e il Lebbroso
In un ospedale presso a quello dove dimore San Francesco, i frati servono i lebbrosi ed infermi; nel quale è un lebbroso si impaziente e perverso, che ognuno lo crede invasato dal demonio, e nessuno lo può o lo vuole servire.
San Francesco viene a questo lebbroso perverso e lo saluta dicendo: «Iddio ti pace, fratello mio carissimo
Risponde il lebbroso rimbrottando:  «E che pace posso io avere da Dio che mi ha fatto tutto marcio
E San Francesco dice: «Figliuolo, abbi pazienza,  poichè le infermità dei corpi ci sono date da Dio in questo mondo per salute dell’anima, ed esse sono di grande merito, quando sono portate pazientemente
Risponde l'infermo: «E come posso io portare pazientemente la pena continua che mi tormenta il e la notte?  E non solamente io sono tormentato dall’infermità mia ma peggio mi fanno i frati che non mi servono come debbono
Allora San Francesco, conoscendo per rivelazione che questo lebbroso è posseduto dal maligno spirito, va e prega Iddio devotamente per lui.  Ritorna a lui e dice così: «Figliuolo, io ti volgio servire io, poichè tu non ti contenti degli altri
E l'infermo dice: «Mi piace, ma che puoi tu fare più che gli altri
Risponde San Francesco: «Ciò che tu vorrai io farò
Dice il lebbroso: «Io voglio che tu mi lavi tutto quanto, poichè io puzzo fortemente, ch’io medesimo non mi posso patire
Allora San Francesco fa subito scaldare l’acqua con molte erbe odorifere, poi spoglia il lebbroso e comincia a lavarlo co le sue mani; e per divino miracolo, dove San Francesco tocca con le sue sante mani, sparisce la lebbra e rimane la carne perfettamente sanata.  E come si comincia a sanare la carne, così comincia a sanare l’anima; onde il lebbroso vedendosi cominciare a guarire, comincia ad avere grande compunzione e pentimento dei suoi peccati e a piangere amarissimamente; così,  mentre il corpo si sana di fuori della lebbra, l’anima si sana dentro del peccato per contrizione e per le lagrime.  Ed essendo compiutamente sanato, il lebbroso si riconosce in colpa e dice piangendo ad alta voce: «Guai a me, ch’io sono degno dell’inferno, per le villanie e ingiurie ch’io ho fatte e dette ai frati, e per l’impazienza e bestemmie ch’io ho avute contro a DioOnde per quindici di persevera in amaro pianto dei suoi peccati, e in chiedere misericordia a Dio. E San Francesco, vedendo così manifesto miracolo, che Iddio ha operato per le sue mani, ringrazia Iddio e parte di , andando in paesi assai lontani, poichè per umilità vuole fuggire ogni gloria mondana, e in tutte le sue operazioni solo cerca la gloria di Dio e non la propria.

A laude do Cristo benedetto.
St. Francis And The Leper

At a hospital near where St. Francis dwelled, the friars served the lepers and the sick, among whom is a leper so crazy and so perverse that everyone believes he is possessed by the devil, and no one can or wants to care for him.

St. Francis comes to this leper and greets him saying:  "God give you peace, my dearest brother."
Reproached, the leper answers: "What peace can I have from God who made me so rotten?"

And St. Francis says: "My son, be patient, as the infirmities of the body are given by God in this world for the salvation of the soul; they are of great merit, when taken patiently."

The patient responds: "How can I be patient when continuous pain torments me day and night? And not only my pain, the friars make it worse for me because they do not serve me as friars ought to do."

Then St. Francis, knowing by divine revelation that the leper is possessed by an evil spirit, goes to pray devoutly to God for him. He returns to him and says: "My son, I want to serve you myself, because you are not happy with the others."

And the leper says: "I like that, that but what can you do more than the others do?"

St. Francis answered: "I will do what you wish."

The leper says: "I want you to wash me all over, because I stink so badly that I cannot bear it."

So St. Francis immediately goes to heat water, using many aromatic herbs.  Then he undresses the leper and begins to wash him with his own hands, and by divine miracle, wherever St. Francis touches him with his holy hands, the leprosy disappears and the flesh is perfectly healed. And as the flesh begins to heal, so his soul begins to heal.  And the leper seeing this, begins to have great contrition and repentance for his sins and to weep bitterly, so while his body outwardly cleanses itself of leprosy, inside the soul cleanses itself of sin via contrition and tears. And being fully cured, the leper recognizes his own guilt and says, crying aloud: "Woe unto me, for I am worthy of hell for insults and injuries which I have done and said to the friars, and for the impatience and blasphemies that I've had against God."  For a fortnight he perseveres in bitter tears for his sins, asking mercy of God.

St. Francis, seeing so manifest a miracle that God had worked through his hands, thanks God and departs from there, journeying to far away countries; because of humility he wants to escape all worldly glory, and for all his works seeks only the glory of God and not his own.

Christ be praised. Amen

Letters Home: "Does the clock run all right?" Yes it Does!

Nearly a month passed between my father's last letter home and the one here which is dated May 18, 1952. Apparently what used to be a weekly habit had now more or less become a once-a-month letter home. What happened? I think two things: first, he began telephoning home.  Phoning interstate was still considered unusual in the early 1950's (especially in the Midwest) and it was relatively expensive. Wisconsin Bell was then part of the monopoly AT&T which owned everything: the lines, the switchboards, even the phones themselves.

A second factor was that he was home on leave for part of the time in April and May of 1952. When he returned to camp he found it easier to just phone home instead of writing. That situation changed when he finally left for Europe and this will become evident in upcoming posts in this series.  Trans-Atlantic telephoning was still prohibitively costly and so his letters became more frequent again.

May 18, 1952
Fort Campbell

Dear Mom and Dad and All,

I got the money OK.
Sure glad to hear Jr. made it home. How many days does he get off?
We get a 3 day pass next weekend but I doubt if I can make it home. I might try because some of the other guys will pay to ride to Chicago. Does the clock run all right? [1]
It rained awful hard last night. We had an Army Day parade today. [2]
The camp was full of visitors. It looked like rain all day.
I got K.P. tomorrow, so it won’t stop my 3 day pass. I’m due for guard sometime this week.
I owe R. a letter so will send him one tomorrow night.  Has Cub came back yet? [3] He might be up in the north end of town.
If Jr. wants his money you can give it to him. $290 I guess. I must have about $350 in the bank. Maybe I can save some more when I get overseas.
I can’t think of much to write about this time.

Bye for now

[1] I am fairly certain that he is referring to a Kit-Cat Klock that he bought somewhere down in Kentucky or Tennessee and brought home to Wisconsin on leave.  At least, that's the story I heard.

That same clock hung for many years in my grandmother's kitchen after my dad gave it to her.  Many years later it stopped working and my dad took it back, ostensibly to fix it.  But there it sat for several years in my parent's basement. Around 1995 or so, shortly after my father passed away, I appropriated it and had a new motor put in, at a cost of more than the clock is probably worth. The clock itself is only of sentimental value, but it runs great now. 

Unlike the newer ones, the clock body seems to be made out of a brittle black plastic. I don't think that it's Bakelite which has that sickly brownish look and which doesn't smooth or polish well. I suspect that it's made of relatively rigid polystyrene. Common soft plastics were still relatively uncommon in the early 1950s, mainly because their raw materials and production methods were still expensive.  This all changed when Karl Ziegler and co-workers discovered what became known as Ziegler-Natta olefin polymerization (coincidentally around 1952).

Another interesting feature of this clock is that the eyes glow in the dark--something which I never realized until just a few years ago during a nighttime power outage. I still haven't figured out how that worked in those days and whether the eyes are painted with a luminescent radioactive paint.

[2] Armed Forces Day.

[3] The family dog had run away.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

My mother was born in small unincorporated township in Richland County, Wisconsin. Some of her ancestors were good Anglo-Saxon peasant stock, farmers mostly, and some were property holders. There’s a famous geographical feature named after my grandmother's family north of Madison.

Born in 1937, she wasn't a depression child and yet wasn't a boomer.  She had older siblings: two sisters and a brother. I heard stories of others who died tragically: an older sister near her age who accidentally burned to death; two others died in infancy. For quite a time my mother was the youngest in a poor but relatively happy family. But something happened.

I never knew what my grandfather did for a living-itinerant may best describe him. He was a talented gunsmith is all I knew. He left or was kicked-out by my grandmother when my mother was young. The family moved to the small town of Richland Center. She has memories of him meeting her after school and of him carrying her piggyback and giving her treats, and of her mother then taking away those treats.  A reconciliation was attempted around the time that my mother must have been 7 or 8 and two more siblings--twins (a boy and a girl) resulted, but the marriage ultimately failed.

My mom was raised by a single mother in the 1940's and 50's in the days before being a single mother was commonplace.  She babysat her younger siblings while my grandmother worked nights in a restaurant, eventually working herself to any early death. My mother claims that she raised herself, watched over occasionally by older siblings and by a neighbor woman, who was also either divorced or widowed. These women, my grandmother and the neighbor, were key to developing her character. But the misfortunes of others played a role too. As an adolescent, she watched her eldest sister marry, have kids, and then descend into single motherhood by the fault of an abusive and alcoholic husband. She became determined to escape the cycle.

She was fairly good-looking and met my father while still in high school. They dated for a year or two and then married a month after she graduated from high school. She had my brother and me and raised us and then returned to school when I was 8, getting an AA degree in dental assisting (just like Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower my dad teased her). She eventually ditched the dental assisting.

She outlived my father who died in 1995. She was utterly miserable for a few years but then, five years later, met a wonderful man who became my stepfather.  He's been a wonderful companion for her and he's a millionaire (on paper). My wife says that my mom will now live forever.

Here she is front and center with some diving friends when she was 28 or so. The photo was taken by my dad.  That's me and my older brother looking on (was my head really that big?).  The photo was taken at Devil's Lake circa 1964.

I'm eternally grateful to her for raising me. She made all those untold sacrifices that many women did in her era as a homemaker before the term became somehow pejorative. Of my two parents, she alone was the one who encouraged me to go on to school after high school and she made sure that my father was on board too (he preferred that we boys learn a trade).  She had seen the lasting damages that wrong choices had on individuals and families and was determined not to pass these things on whether by nature or by nurture.

Happy Mother's Day Mom!