Saturday, March 31, 2012

Portrait of an Enzyme

Enzymes "herd" molecules and accelerate reactions. They affect change, but do not themselves change. They exist in minuscule amounts, doing their work on more abundant molecules called substrates, building up new molecules or demolishing old ones, leaving behind smaller molecular fragments for further digestion. Enzymes cannot make the impossible happen--they just make the possible happen faster.

Enzymes bring together pieces and stabilize any awkwardness of the encounter.

Let me unpack that sentence. "Bring together pieces" means that enzymes gather pieces using available molecular forces--usually just simple repulsion and attraction--to orient molecules in space.

"Repulsion" usually means hydrophobia, but may also be simple blocking effects. "Steric" is a term of art relating to the latter effect. "Steric hindrance" means that my standing somewhere blocks you from standing in the same place--it's a repulsive effect. Enzymes use repulsive effects to restrict degrees of freedom to reduce the randomness of molecular encounters.

"Attraction" is more familiar. Enzymes deploy acids and bases within their active sites to spatially arrange substrates--they may use a base (negative) to attract and hold an acid (positive) on a substrate. Hydrogen bonding works similarly and is like a shared common interest.

"Stabilizing any awkwardness of the encounter" is the real key to understanding enzymes. This was Linus Pauling's idea. Enzymes don't just bring together and stabilize substrates--if they did just that their insides would soon clog up with unreacted substrates. They have to stabilize the awkward encounter--not just a roomful of substrates looking at each other.

Here's a visual of what I'm trying to say, taken from organic chemistry. Imagine that the enzyme's role is to surround and stabilize each of the following chemical species, but especially the one circled in red:


Stabilizing whatever's in the red circle brings down the height of the blue hump. That's acceleration.

Enzymes lure substrates together, polarizing and fostering attack. Polarize, attack, depolarize
‡ See for example, link

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I Must Be Bohred II

There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.  ~Niels Bohr

I suspect the same holds true for elephants and blind men:

More snappy Bohrdom here

The Frightening News First Heard In German...

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn. Leitner, who was born Jewish, had fled Berlin that July 1938. She first spread the news of fission to the rest of the physics community.
Splitting the atom in 1938 was something wholly different than what had gone on with radiation since its discovery in 1896. To my mind, the news must have been like expanding the notion of arithmetic from simple addition and subtraction to suddenly include the concept of division. It really blew people's minds at the time. Soddy had explained how elements incrementally transmuted downwards in atomic number (subtraction) by shedding alpha particles and how they transmuted upwards (addition) in number by losing beta particles, but nobody was looking for this:*

In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann bombarded uranium with neutrons and fished out the products. Neutrons were all the rage after their discovery in 1932 and physicists wanted to know what they did to all types of matter. Enrico Fermi had started this sort of work in Italy, but had been interrupted. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out what was going on. Hahn and Straßmann had expected to observe slightly lighter atoms like radium, actinium, and thorium; instead they observed the much lighter elements barium, lanthanum, and cerium:
Als Chemiker müssen wir aus den kurz dargelegten Versuchen das obengebrachte Schema eigentlich umbenennen und statt Ra, Ac, Th die Symbole Ba, La und Ce einsetzen. Als der Physik in gewisser Weise nahestehende Kernchemiker können wir uns zu diesem, allen bisherigen Erfahrungen der Kernphysik widersprechenden Sprung noch nicht entschließen. Es könnte doch noch vielleicht eine Reihe seltsamer Zufälle unsere Ergebnisse vorgetäuscht haben.
As chemists, we must rename [our] scheme and insert the symbols Ba, La, Ce in place of Ra, Ac, Th. As nuclear chemists closely associated with physics, we cannot yet convince ourselves to make this leap, which contradicts all previous experience in nuclear physics. A series of strange coincidences could still prove our results false.
This was the first published account of nuclear fission. Smart people realized that the exact chemical products required that more neutrons were coming out than were going in--this was soon verified and led physicists to realize that Leo Szilárd's chain reaction was now feasable. The news spread like fallout. And because it came from 1938 Berlin, the entire rest of the physics community panicked...and then they organized.**

Read more about the discovery of fission here.

*A German chemist, Ida Noddack, had suggested as early as 1934 that "it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element"---but no one took her seriously.  link

**Another frightening fact was that the Austrians had cut off everyone else's supply of uranium from the original Czech mine--the same place Marie Curie had obtained her original samples in 1896.

Neutrons Made It Possible

Neutrons are everywhere, in everything, hiding in plain sight. Historically, they had to be imagined before they were detected because they were so hard to find. Rutherford had thought special "neutral pairs" of protons and electrons were inside atomic nuclei in order to explain why atomic weights varied and also to explain isotopes. To him, an alpha particle had four protons and two electrons instead of two protons and two neutrons and no electrons.

Certainly bearing a charge--being polarized--had made the earlier detection of electrons and protons easier because electromagnetic fields could deflect them. Their flight paths could be swayed. They could be attracted or repelled. Their charges gave them away and allowed them to be counted because they ionized things. Not so neutrons. Even today, neutrons are detected only indirectly via their effects on other signalling atoms.

At first, neutron radiation was confused with a more powerful type of gamma ray because it passed right through matter and with such ease--outdoing even gamma rays. But the new radiation did weird things to hydrogen-containing molecules like paraffin. And, they didn't do something that gamma rays did: they didn't spring electrons from metals like X-rays (the photoelectric effect). But the clincher was proving that the radiation had heft...mass. James Chadwick did that and won the Physics Nobel Prize the very next year.*

If neutrons have no polarity, no "handle," to steer them or deflect them, how are they channeled?  Mainly by projecting them through tunnels of neutron absorbing materials. Those that make it through have directional velocity. It sounds crude, but that's all there is.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), there used to be an underground experimental station which resembled a spoked wheel. At the center, the hub, was a block of tungsten (I was told--of course I couldn't see it).  A proton beam impinged this target from above, creating a spallation of neutrons. Numerous tunnels led outwards from the hub like spokes on wheel. The tunnels were surrounded by paraffin and borax--materials with good neutron capture cross-sections. Each tunnel created a beam of neutrons terminated out at a "rim" of connected experimental stations.
*The defining experiments are briefly described here.
Chadwick wrote in 1940 (after reviewing progress on the atomic bomb):
[I] realised that a nuclear bomb was not only possible, it was inevitable. I had to then take sleeping pills. It was the only remedy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Titanic Centennial: the American and British Inquiries

I found this website which may send me into a reading frenzy: link

Gotta love the internet!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Goodbye, Columbium

Christopher Columbus has lost prestige in the New World. First came the historical disputes regarding his claim to priority. But perhaps the most ignominious insult was being downgraded from the Periodic Table.

Finally there's an interesting naming story:
Charles Hatchett's important scientific work was done in the period 1796 to 1806. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1797, which is a measure of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow scientists. In 1801 he described in a paper his analysis of a mineral called columbite, named after the location where it had been found in North America. This mineral sample from Massachusetts had lain in the British Museum since 1753. He described the mineral as ".. a heavy black stone with golden streaks ... from Mr. Winthrop": John Winthrop was the first Governor of Connecticut, the source of the mineral. Hatchett showed that the mineral contained a new element and he called it columbium and the mineral columbite, after its place of origin. This year (2001) marks the bicentenary of his discovery. Link
We called Element 41 "columbium" (Cb) for over 150 years until the Euros took it away from us. Van der Krogt:
Element #41 was therefore long known as Niobium as well as Columbium. To end this confusion, at the 15th Conference of the Union of Chemistry in Amsterdam in 1949 the name Niobium was chosen for element #41 and a year later this name was accepted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, despite the chronological precedence of the name Columbium. The latter name is still sometimes used in US industry.
Evidence suggests that the Europeans railroaded US out of the name Columbium just to have it for themselves :)

The green color comes from niobium oxide
Niobium is mostly used in steel alloys and for high tech applications. Niobium's use in catalysis plotted versus time looks like a hockey stick: Link  Brazil leads in its production, so in that sense at least, columbium is still New World.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Zirconium Rhymes With Titanium

Zirconium has a long, illustrious history in jewelery. The element's name derives from an ancient word for the gemstone, zircon.  The element is more commonly found in cubic zirconia, which--thanks to the Soviet method for making it using the so-called skull process--is cheap and plentiful.

Zirconium rhymes with titanium. Often, such transition-metal family members mimic each other. Zirconium, like titanium, is a valuable catalyst for making plastics. I know--yawn. But catalysis is an intellectually interesting aspect of chemistry--one which has "real-life" analogy--much like status quo and change.

Catalysts are classified as "heterogeneous" or "homogeneous" depending on whether they mix freely with hoi polloi substrates. "Heterogeneous" means that the catalyst stays in a different phase than whatever it's working on--e.g., a catalytic converter working on gas phase exhaust. Homogeneous catalysts swim in a liquid phase like everything else around it--in a single phase.

First generation Ziegler-Natta catalysts were heterogeneous. Catalysis happened at the edges or face of a chunk or pellet.  Obviously, a lot of unused catalyst lies buried inside- and is wasted. Homogeneous catalysts are known for their "atom efficiency"-- a concept that becomes more important for rarer platinum group metals.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

French Wit And Wisdom

Years ago while living in Cleveland, I signed up for a "correspondence course" to teach myself French. In the pre-internet days, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered a number of such courses.  They sent me assignments which I completed and sent back through the mail.  I haven't done this sort of thing recently, but back then at least I had the feeling of connecting with a real person.

The French course had two textbooks, both written by a UW-Madison professor, Joseph Palmeri. There was a grammar book with exercises and there was a companion reader entitled French Wit And Wisdom:

The book is a real treasure. You can see how well worn mine is. It's clearly Palmeri's labor of love and reflects a lifelong harvest of pithy French wit on all of life's salient topics.

Here's the table of contents:
Click to enlarge
The book is bilingual, having the original French on the left-hand side (along with author and citation) and Palmeri's translation on the right. This is a sample page set concerning work and happiness:

The book is available on Amazon. Check out the review by his grandson: link

Titanic Centennial: at the real Café Parisien

The "Real" Café Parisien

S'il vous plaît, commentaire en français.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Titanic Centennial: Stranger Than Fiction?

From the preface to Walter Lord's A Night To Remember:
In 1898, a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with the rich and complacent and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything, and in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared that year, published by the firm of M F. Mansfield. 
Fourteen years later, a British shipping company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkably like the one in Robertson's novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson's was 70,000 tons. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet.  Both vessels were were triple screw and could make 24-5 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But, then, this didn't seem to matter because both were labelled 'unsinkable.'
Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic. This is the story of her last night. 
Robertson's uncanny story is linked here. Futility was republished in 1912 as the Wreck of the Titan. Interestingly, Robertson also "invented" the periscope, and predicted a Japanese sneak attack on the US. He died of apparent suicide in 1915.

Crystalline Rot

When Marie Curie coined the term "radioactivity," a competing term--hyperphosphorescence--was thankfully never adopted. Hyperphosphorescence, while descriptively accurate--lacks simplicity.  Metamictization is another concept that needs a simpler term.

Crystals are highly ordered structures. The word "metamictization" refers to internal destruction, usually caused by radioactive uranium or thorium inclusions--their radiation destroys the crystal's integrity in a sort of rotting from within. "Stone cancer" might seem appropriate, but remember that cancer is unchecked growth.

"Crystalline rot" might work as a simpler term than metamictization because it conveys the notion of havoc wreaked from within--like an organized nation's structure.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Trooper York!

My gift to Trooper York

From Old World Wisconsin, a book published in 1944 which chronicles the ethnic influences within Wisconsin:
The Irish are good story tellers (shanachies), and few other nationalities can approach them for quick repartee. This may account for the success achieved by Irish attorneys as jury advocates. Simple incidents in life and apposite figures of speech embellish conversations. But the deferential manner of statement accounts for much of the enthralling attention the Irish command. 
An imaginativeness in thought inclines the Irish to satirize people with characteristic names:
'A nickname fitting better than the name their mother gave'
One fellow suspected of stealing fowls was facetiously called 'Turkey Jim'; the engineer on a threshing rig who seldom washed for meals was 'blackie'; three Irishmen with the same surname were distinguished as 'Big Mike', 'Little Mike', and 'Black Mike', Jerry O'Leary, who lived on the stony ridge, became 'Hog-back Jerry'; Peter Goggins, the saloon keeper, was called 'Whiskey Goggins'; two Norwegians because of their distinctive occupations and physical characteristics were 'Skunk Foot Ole' and 'Big Foot Ole'; the diminutive man who officiously served mass when the altar boys were absent was 'Priestine' Murphy; the paunchy bartender was 'Bullfrog Joe'; the cross old codger laborer was 'Sealion Burke,' and every lad with red hair acquired 'Red' as an added surname. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Titanic Centennial: Rigel, the Canine Hero

I have no clue whether this is true or not. It makes a good story though. From "The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters," p. 125:
Not the least among the heroes of the Titanic disaster was Rigel, a big black Newfoundland dog, belonging to the first officer, who went down with the ship.* But for Rigel, the fourth boat picked up might have been run down by the Carpathia. For three hours he swam in the icy water where the Titanic went down, evidently looking for his master, and was instrumental in guiding the boatload of survivors to the gangway of the Carpathia.

Jonas Briggs, a seaman aboard the Carpathia, now has Rigel and told the story of the dog's heroism. The Carpathia was moving slowly about, looking for boats, rafts or anything which might be afloat. Exhausted with their efforts, as well as from lack of food and exposure to the cutting wind, and terrorstriken, the men and women in the fourth boat had drifted under the Carpathia's starboard bow. They were dangerously close to the steamship, but too weak to shout a warning load enough to reach the bridge.

The boat might not have been seen were it not for the sharp barking of Rigel, who was swimming ahead of the craft, and valiantly announcing his position. The barks attracted the attention of Captain Rostron, and he went to the starboard end of the bridge to see where they came from and saw the boat. He immediately ordered the engines stopped, and the boat came alongside the starboard gangway.

Care was taken to get Rigel aboard, but he appeared little affected by his long trip through the ice-cold water. He stood by the rail and barked until Captain Rostron called Briggs and had him take the dog below.
*First Officer William Murdoch, who was in command of the bridge when Titanic struck the iceberg. He commited suicide in front of several witnesses before the ship went down, but that has been disputed.

Titanic Centennial: Animal Stories

link to original
Here's one story "The Sinking Of The Titanic And Great Sea Disasters" got wrong. From p. 137:
Five women saved their pet dogs, carrying them in their arms. Another woman saved a little pig, which she said was her mascot. Though her husband is an Englishman and she lives in England she is an American and was on her way to visit her folks here. How she cared for the pig aboard ship I do not know, but she carried it up the side of the ship in a big bag. I did not mind the dogs so much, but it seemed to me to be too much when a pig was saved and human beings went to death. 
The pig was not a living pig but a wind-up toy. Its owner was young woman named Edith Rosenbaum. Her story is here.

According to the Encyclopedia Titanica:
In her latter years she lived in a hotel in London where she became increasingly eccentric and disagreeable. Her final years were spent threatening lawsuits against everyone who committed what she perceived as transgressions against her, from hotel maids to those who delivered food to her. She lived in filthy surroundings in her hotel and rarely allowed hotel maintenance/janitorial employees to do any cleaning. Upon her death a maid commented to a London reporter that "Old Edy was the contrariest old hag what ever crossed my path."
She died in London on 4th April, 1975 at the age of 98, never having married and leaving only a couple of scattered cousins as survivors.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Putting the "Up" in 7-Up

Slenderizing..lithiated...dispels hangovers...takes the 'ouch' out of grouch...

Lithium put the "up" in old 7up

Remember these?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Y R U Called Yttrium?

I am largely ignorant of yttrium's benefit to mankind. Element No. 39 sits near the parched southwest corner of the Periodic Table, not unlike the American southwest before the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Directly below yttrium in the chart are two pinkish blanks which are place holders for the lanthanides and actinides, two distinct families of elements I'll get to eventually. Yttrium behaves much like the lanthanides below it, another example of periodic rhyming. Yttrium presents in nature only as a trivalent cation, Y3+, as an oxide. Trivalent cations are hellacious electrophiles, meaning that they latch onto—and mostly won't let go of—electron lone pairs. Water is the most common and abundant nucleophile--hence my remark that yttrium sits next to a parched corner of the table--I mean its electronically deficiency. Yet I've heard that such cations, properly supported and kept away from water, react with the C-H bonds of aliphatic hydrocarbons.

Yttrium supposedly has an interesting name (yawn). At least five other elements were named after the same mine in Ytterby, Sweden. Van der Krogt has the story here.

Old color TV screens and computer monitors (CRT) used yttrium to create the red-colored pixels. CRTs are the kind of monitors that shoot beta rays at your face. They really are old school (dependable) technology. Good thing there's usually some thick leaded glass there to stop the beta rays and most of the X-rays.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Titanic Centennial: Did Chivalry Go Down With The Titanic?

Just three days after the Titanic tragedy, Dr. Henry van Dyke, professor of English at Princeton University, penned a newspaper editorial which became the introduction to Logan Marshall's "The Sinking of the Titanic and Other Sea Disasters."  I've chosen a selection for discussion. The entire text is here. Whether you agree or not, here it is:
But there is more than this harvest of debts, and lessons, and sorrows, in the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. There is a great ideal. It is clearly outlined and set before the mind and heart of the modern world, to approve and follow, or to despise and reject.

It is, 'Women and children first!'

Whatever happened on that dreadful April night among the arctic ice, certainly that was the order given by the brave and steadfast captain; certainly that was the law obeyed by the men on the doomed ship. But why? There is no statute or enactment of any nation to enforce such an order. There is no trace of such to be found in the history of ancient civilizations. There is no authority for it among the heathen races to-day. On a Chinese ship, if we may believe the report of an official representative, the rule would have been 'Men first, children next, and women last.'

There is certainly no argument against this barbaric rule on physical or material grounds. On average, a man is stronger than a woman, he has a longer prospect of life than a woman, he is worth more than a woman. There is no reason in all the range of physical and economic science, no reason in all the philosophy of the Superman, why he should give his place in the life-boat to a woman.

Where, then does this rule which prevailed in the sinking Titanic come from? It comes from God, through the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is the ideal of self-sacrifice. It is the rule that 'the strong ought to bear the infirmities of those who are weak.' It is the devine revelation which is summed up in the words: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'
It needs a tragic catastrophe like the wreck of the Titanic to bring out the absolute contradiction between this ideal and all the counsels of materialism and selfish expediency.

There is no statute or enactment of any nation to enforce such an order. There is no trace of such to be found in the history of ancient civilizations.

There is the story of Damon and Pythias as told by Aristoxenus in which Damon offers to be put to death for the crime of Pythias. This seems to antedate John 15:13.

There is no authority for it among the heathen races to-day. On a Chinese ship, if we may believe the report of an official representative, the rule would have been 'Men first, children next, and women last.'

This could be seen as inflammatory, but the heinous practice of sex-selective abortion (de facto not de jure) supports van Dyke's rhetoric.

There is certainly no argument against this barbaric rule on physical or material grounds. On average, a man is stronger than a woman, he is worth more than a woman, he has a longer prospect of life than a woman, he is worth more than a woman. There is no reason in all the range of physical and economic science, no reason in all the philosophy of the Superman, why he should give his place in the life-boat to a woman.

Van Dyke is clearly referring to Nietzsche with his Superman reference.

Where, then does this rule which prevailed in the sinking Titanic come from? It comes from God, through the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Old Testament has the flood story in which a pair of each species is saved. But notice that the entire range of species was saved--the boat of salvation was not loaded with women and Noah's children--just his family.

The origin of "Women and children first" has its own Wikipedia entry: link The concept is linked to that of male disposability which is an interesting idea. Arguably, in an evolutionary sense at least, a population threatened with extinction can more quickly repopulate with fewer men and a surplus of women.

It is the ideal of self-sacrifice. It is the rule that 'the strong ought to bear the infirmities of those who are weak.'

Could this notion have any bearing on the modern interpretation of healthcare reform?

It is the devine revelation which is summed up in the words: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'

John 15:13. I am reminded of the Mike Monsoor story, as portrayed in "Act Of Valor."

It needs a tragic catastrophe like the wreck of the Titanic to bring out the absolute contradiction between this ideal and all the counsels of materialism and selfish expediency.

"Don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists"

The transmutation of elements was an ancient, discredited notion promulgated by alchemy (alchemy is to chemistry what astrology is to astronomy). Alchemists sought to turn base metals like lead into gold. They failed or were quacks and charlatans. And yet transmutation has always occurred naturally and has been practiced since 1917.

Natural transmutation was first discovered when Frederick Soddy, along with Ernest Rutherford, proved that radioactive thorium converted to radium in 1901. At the moment of realization, Soddy later recalled shouting out: "Rutherford, this is transmutation!" Rutherford snapped back, "For Christ's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists."

Transmutation became a fait accompli. But it was one thing to discover that atoms could naturally and spontaneously lose little pieces like an alpha particle or a beta particle or even a gamma ray. It was quite another thing to discover that atoms could add little pieces too.

In 1917, Rutherford projected alpha particles from radium decay through air and discovered a new type of radiation which proved to be hydrogen nuclei (Rutherford named these particles protons). Further experiments showed the protons were coming from the nitrogen component of air, and he deduced that the reaction was a transmutation of nitrogen into oxygen:

14N + α → 17O + proton

This was also the first demonstrative proof of artificial transmutation and the proton's existence.  All that was needed now was the neutron which led to division and multiplication.

Penetrative Insight

[continued in part from here]

Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie didn't understand the new type of rays they discovered--they just knew it was different. Unlike X-rays, the radiant energy could not be switched on and off (this is what Marie Curie meant by her term "radioactivity"-- something actively giving off rays).

The first clue to understanding radiation came from observing what it took to stop it. Like Roentgen did with X-rays before him, Rutherford also did in a systematic way. He discovered that opaque paper stopped some rays--and these he called alpha rays. A second more powerful ray escaped from behind paper sheathing but was stopped by thin metal foil or glass--these he called beta rays. A third class could be wrapped in many layers of different material and still the radiation leaked through--he called these gamma rays.  A student named Geiger invented the eponymous "Geiger counter" which enabled a facile detection and quantification of these studies.

Only later did he and others figure out that alpha rays were actually alpha particles and that beta rays were really electrons and that gamma rays were like x-rays but more powerful. The juxtaposition of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation gives a nice depiction of radiation being both particle and wave in nature:

Cleaning-up radioactivity

[I wanted to go full steam ahead with more Titanic posts but a couple unfinished posts on radioactivity (last month's mania) are clogging the pipeline]

Clive Cussler wrote a cold war thriller I read called Raise the Titanic. In his story, a unique element call "byzantium" is thought to be locked in a safe on board. The mineral is needed for a new weapon and sets off a clandestine race to get at it. The ship is refloated (nobody believed Jack Thayer's story that she had broken in two). There is also a Geraldo moment when the safe is opened which James Cameron must have copied decades later in his 1997 opus Titanic. I already noted how the story of fictional Rose Dawson was inspired by the real life Sheila Mitchell

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Titanic Centennial: Did A Steering Error Really Sink Titanic?

I'd heard of this controversy before and I even mentioned it back in the Maggie Brown post.

This article raises very intriguing questions.  And remember, the helmsman, Robert Hichens, behaved very bizarrely in the lifeboat afterwards. He couldn't take his hands off the tiller.

Titanic Centennial: Favorite Things

BJM said:
I'm looking forward the History Channel's new piece on Titanic...the first complete mapping of the entire debris field and wreck site.
What is it about this event that grabs so many of us?
Mar 9, 2012 09:34 PM
Here's what she's talking about:

The first comprehensive map of the Titanic wreck site has been created as researchers pieced together some 130,000 photos taken by underwater robots in the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Read more

More about the Discovery show: Link 
I think the Titanic story fascinates us because, like The Onion famously understated: "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg:" link

And speaking of the Titanic debris field, this is my current favorite coffee cup:

Click to enlarge

I bought that cup years ago at a Titanic artifact exhibition then touring the country. It is a replica of a third class coffee or tea mug and bears the White Star Line logo. Supposedly it's modelled on a real one found on the ocean floor in the debris field. It's short and squat but holds almost as much as a regular coffee cup. Perfect for a double espresso. The cup is available here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Titanic Centennial: "He was One of God's Greatest Noblemen"

Major Archibald Butt (1865-1912)
Two different eyewitnesses attested to Major Archibald Butt's bravery that night. From The Sinking of the Titanic and other Sea Disasters:
The following story of his bravery was told by Mrs. Henry B. Harris, wife of a theatrical manager:
'The world should rise in praise of Major Butt. That man's conduct will remain in my memory forever. The American army is honored by him and the way he taught some of the other men how to behave when women and children were suffering that awful mental fear of death. Major Butt was near me and I noticed everything that he did.
When the order to man the boats came, the captain whispered something to Major Butt. The two of them had become friends. The major immediately became as one in supreme command. You would have thought he was at a White House reception. A dozen or more women became hysterical all at once, as something connected with a life-boat went wrong. Major Butt stepped over to them and said: 'Really, you must not act like that; we are all going to see you through this thing.' He helped the sailors rearrange the rope or chain that had gone wrong and lifted some of the women in with a touch of gallantry. Not only was there a complete lack of any fear in his manner, but there was the action of an aristocrat.
When the time came he was a man to be feared. In one of the earlier boats fifty women, it seemed, were about to lowered, when a man, suddenly panic-stricken, ran to the stern of it. Major Butt shot one arm out, caught him by the back of the neck and jerked him backward like a pillow. His head cracked against a rail and he was stunned.
'Sorry,' said Major Butt, 'women will be attended to first or I'll break every damned bone in your body.'
The boats were lowered one by one, and as I stood by, my husband said to me, 'Thank God, for Archie Butt.' Perhaps Major Butt heard it, for he turned his face towards us for a second and smiled. Just at that moment, a young man was arguing to get into a life-boat, and Major Butt had a hold of the lad by the arm, like a big brother, and was telling him to keep his head and be a man.
Major Butt helped those poor frightened steerage people so wonderfully, so tenderly and yet with such cool and manly firmness that he prevented the loss of many lives from panic. He was a soldier to the last. He was one of God's greatest noblemen, and I think I can say he was an example of bravery even to men on the ship.
Miss Marie Young, who was a music instructor to President Roosevelt's children and had known Major Butt during the occupancy of the White House, told this story of his heroism:
Archie himself put me into a boat, wrapped blankets about me and tucked me in as carefully as if we were starting on a motor ride. He, himself, entered the boat with me, performing the little courtesies as calmly and with as smiling a face as if death were far away, instead of being but a few moments removed from him.

When he had carefully wrapped me up he stepped upon the gunwale of the boat, and lifting his hat, smiled down at me. 'Good-bye, Miss Young,' he said. 'Good luck to you, and don't forget to remember me to the folks back home.' Then he stepped back and waved his hand to me as the boat was lowered. I think I was the last woman he had a chance to help, for the boat went down shortly after we cleared the suction zone.
I cannot fathom why Butt's gallantry has been whitewashed from Titanic history. Was it just his unfortunate name?

Sometime between 1912 and the publication of Walter Lord's A Night To Remember in 1955, Major Butt's actions were inexplicably downgraded to casual bystander.  He doesn't even appear in Cameron's Titanic. Lord, doyen of Titanic historians, had interviewed dozens of living Titanic survivors for his book, but I wonder if Marie Young or Mrs Harris were among them. 

I can suggest three other possible reasons:
  • Butt had been over-dramatized in earlier accounts and Walter Lord wanted to attenuate that. Lord also downplayed the words and heroism of Benjamin Guggenheim, who will be in a future post.
  • Butt was a southerner and the nephew of a Confederate general (Lord was an early civil rights activist).
  • Butt was a bachelor and was travelling with the artist  Francis David Millet, who had scandalously lived abroad with another man. Lord himself was a lifelong bachelor and probably should have been more sympathetic.
Despite his diminished stature among Titanic historians, Butt's memory lives.  According to the Wiki:
During his time serving with two presidents, Butt wrote almost daily letters to his sister-in-law Clara, of Augusta, Georgia. These letters are prized by modern historians as a key source of information on the more private events of these two presidencies, as well as invaluable insights into the respective characters of Roosevelt and Taft.

Titanic Centennial: The Unsinkable Maggie Brown

Margaret "Molly" Brown (1867-1932)
Margaret Brown (nobody actually called her Molly) played herself that night on board Titanic's lifeboat No. 6. The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters recorded her story, but left out some interesting details. One reason I think this book is important is that it was rushed to print in 1912 before the sensation grew cold. Some facts in the book have been challenged--others have been altered during the subsequent 100 years. Here is Maggie Brown's story from the book, with my footnotes added from facts gleaned from the Wikipedia link above:

The boat in which Mrs. J.J. Brown, of Denver, Col., was saved contained only three men in all, and only one rowed. He was a half-frozen seaman who was tumbled into the boat at the last minute.[1] The women wrapped him in blankets and set him at an oar to start his blood. The second man was too old to be of any use.[2] The third was a coward.[3]
Strange to say, there was room in this boat for ten other people. Ten brave men would have received the warmest welcome of their lives if they had been there. The coward, being a quartermaster and the assigned head of the boat, sat in the stern and steered. He was terrified, and the women had to fight against his pessimism while they tugged at the oars.
The women sat two at each oar. One held the oar in place, the other did the pulling. Mrs. Brown coached them and cheered them on. She told them that the exercise would keep the chill out of their veins, and she spoke hopefully of the likelihood that some vessel would answer the wireless calls. Over the frightful danger of the situation the spirit of this woman soared.

And the coward sat in his stern seat, terrified, his tongue loosened with fright. He assured them there was no chance in the world. He had fourteen years' experience, and he knew. First, they would have to row one and a half miles at least to get out of the sphere of suction, if they did not want to go down. They would be lost, and nobody would ever find them.
'Oh, we shall be picked up sooner or later,' said some of the braver ones. 'No,' said the man, there was no bread in the boat, no water; they would starve--all that big boatload wandering the high seas with nothing to eat, perhaps for days.
'Don't,' cried Mrs. Brown. 'Keep that to yourself, if you feel that way. For the sake of these women and children, be a man. We have a smooth sea and a fighting chance. Be a man.'

But the coward only knew that there was no compass and no chart aboard. They sighted what they thought was a fishing smack on the horizon, showing dimming in the early dawn.[4] The man at the rudder steered toward it, and the women bent to their oars again. They covered several miles in this way--but the smack faded into the distance. They could not see it any longer. And the coward said everything was over.

They rowed back nine weary miles. Then the coward thought they must stop rowing, and lie in the trough of the waves until the Carpathia should appear.[5] The women tried it for a few moments, and then felt the cold creeping into their bodies. Though exhausted from the hard physical labor they thought work was better than freezing.

'Row again!' commanded Mrs. Brown.
'No, no, don't,' said the coward.
'We shall freeze,' cried several of the women together. 'We must row. We have rowed all this time. We must keep on or freeze.'

When the coward still demurred, they told him plainly and once for all that if he persisted in wanting them to stop rowing, they were going to throw him overboard and be done with him for good. Something about the look in the eye of that Mississippi-bred oarswoman,[6] who seemed such a force among her fellows, told him that he had better capitulate. And he did.
[1] Fredrick Fleet, then aged 24. Fleet was the lookout in the crow's nest who first spotted the iceberg and alerted the bridge. Depressed the rest of his life, Fleet committed suicide at age 78, distraught over the death of his wife.
[2] Arthur Peuchen then aged 52. Forever afterwards branded a coward, Peuchen died in 1929 after losing his fortune in the stock market.
[3] Quartermaster Robert Hichens, then aged 29. Hichens was manning the helm of the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. Hichens denied all of Brown's cowardice claims (but never sued) as well as later allegations that he had mistakenly exacerbated the collision at the helm. He died in 1940, aged 58.

Both Fleet (lookout) and Hichens (helmsman) are portrayed in this snippet of James Cameron's (1997) Titanic:


[4] This could have been the SS Californian which was only 10 miles distant from the wreck site. There were no small fishing boats that far out at sea.

[5] This must have been hindsight. Neither Mrs Brown nor Hichens would have likely been aware of the rescuing vessel's name until the next morning.

[6] Brown was a native Missourian, not a Mississippian.

Here is more information on Maggie Brown: link

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Titanic Centennial: Fire and Ice


[More from the book "The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters," edited by Logan Marshall and first published in 1912. Click on the "Titanic" tag for other selections from this book.]
The Fire in the Coal Bunkers
Unknown to the passengers, the Titanic was on fire from the day she sailed from Southampton. Her officers and crew knew it, for they had fought the fire for days.
This story, told for the first time by the survivors of the crew, was only one of the many thrilling tales of the fateful first voyage. 
'The Titanic sailed from Southampton on Wednesday, April 10th, at noon,' said J. Dilley, fireman on the Titanic. 'I was assigned to the Titanic from the Oceanic, where I had served as a fireman. From the day we sailed the Titanic was on fire, and my sole duty, together with eleven other men, had been to fight that fire. We had made no headway against it.' 
'Of course,' he went on, 'the passengers knew nothing of the fire. Do you think we'd have let them know about it? No, sir.' 
The fire started in bunker No. 6. There were hundreds of tons of coal stored there. The coal on top of the bunker was wet, as all the coal should have been, but down at the bottom of the bunker the coal had been permitted to get dry.
The dry coal at the bottom of the pile took fire, and smoldered for days. The wet coal on top kept the flames from coming through, but down in the bottom of the bunkers the flames were raging.
Two men from each watch of stokers were tolled off, to fight that fire. The stokers worked four hours at a time, so twelve of us were fighting flames from the day we put out of Southampton until we hit the iceberg.
No, we didn't get that fire out, and among the stokers there was talk that we'd have to empty the big coal bunkers after we'd put our passengers off in New York, and then call on the fire-boats there to help us put out the fire.
The stokers were alarmed over it, but the officers told us to keep our mouths shut--they didn't want to alarm  the passengers.
The coal fire on board Titanic fueled speculation of its contribution to her sinking: link
Apparently, such coal fires were common on board steamships and hastened the switch to diesel fuel.

Entropy Machinations

Entropy* is a difficult concept to grasp. It's like the silent chaos created when ice melts to water. The crystalline phase disappears; internally, frustrated solid-phase lattice vibrations silently convert into liquid liquid-phase translations and rotations; degrees of freedom are conserved but increase their measure. Proton transfer becomes possible. And yet nothing has changed chemically because ice is still water except in degree. Entropy increased. Disorder ensued.

Entropy can also decrease--enzymes do this unto entropy all the time as does anything which expends energy ordering things around. This video animates making order out of chaos--decreasing entropy: the red and green blocks sort themselves and separate. The ordering happens because the red blocks differ slightly from the green blocks and fit together better.

1868, from Ger. Entropie "measure of the disorder of a system," coined 1865 (on analogy of Energie) by German physicist Rudolph Clausius (1822-1888) from Gk. entropia "a turning toward," from en "in" (see en- (2)) + trope "a turning" (see trope). Related: Entropic.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Titanic Centennial: The Coward

[New series: a month of selections from "The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters," edited by Logan Marshall and first published in 1912. Click on the "Titanic" tag for other selections from the book.]

The Coward 
Somewhere in the shadow of the appalling Titanic disaster slinks--still living by the inexplicable grace of God--a cur in human shape, to-day the most despicable human being in all the world.
In that grim midnight hour, already great in history, he found himself hemmed in by the band of heroes whose watchword and countersign rang out across the deep--"Women and children first!"
What did he do? He scuttled to the stateroom deck, put on a woman's skirt, a woman's hat and a woman's veil, and picked his crafty way back among the brave and chivalric men who guarded the rail of the doomed ship, he filched a seat in one of the life-boats and saved his skin.
His name is on the list of branded rescued men who were neither picked up from the sea when the ship went down nor were in the boats under orders to help get them safe away. His identity is not yet known,* though it will be in good time. So foul an act as that will out like murder.
The eyes of strong men who have read and re-read this crowded record of golden deeds, who read and re-read that deathless roll of honor of the dead, are still wet with tears of pity and of pride. This man still lives. Surely he was born and saved to set for man a new standard by which to measure infamy and shame. 
Snopes debunks the charges against the suspects, one-by-one here

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Radiant Transfer

Photo taken tonight at the Oceanside Harbor beach at sunset:

OK, it's not the best quality, but it has all the classical elements: earth, wind, fire, and water.

The juxtaposition of the campfire and the sun reminded me of a conversation I had with my kids two years ago: link

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?

"A single twig breaks easily but a bundle of twigs is strong"

That saying is attributed to Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, in the movie "Act of Valor."

I first heard the equivalent of that idea in the David Lynch movie “The Straight Story." Richard Farnsworth says (while demonstrating with sticks):
When my kids were young I played a game with them. I'd give each of them a stick. One for each of 'em, and I'd tell them to break it. They'd do that easy. Then I'd tell them to make one bundle of all the sticks and try to break that. And course they couldn't. I used to say that was family, that bundle.
I tried to extend that familial idea to hydrogen bonds: here

The US "mercury" dimea stunningly gorgeous coin design from the 1930s and 40shad a bundle of sticks on the reverse side:

1936 Mercury Dime designed by Adolph Weinman

The bundle was called a fascia after the old Latin term. I guess the notion of fascia had to be banished from  politics.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Portrait of an Autist

Click to enlarge

Ball Point Pen and Coloured Pencil on 8 1/2" x 11" white copier paper