Thursday, November 19, 2009

oh, chirality!

You can scroll back to an entry from January 2009 to find the article I wrote on chirality. For those who are in my class this year, and who weren't last, this could be interesting.

For those of you who have been in the fan club for a while, go ahead and disregard this note.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

let go of the side of the pool

Thanks to my undergraduate advisor Cathy for noticing this link at Scientific American. Don't fear your mistakes! Share them with others and use them to focus your mind and attention. There are indications that you will learn better (and I promise I won't judge you for making an error in front of me).

As the ever-wise Zelda says, you can't swim until you let go of the side of the pool.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Circium Pitcheri

Many many many many years ago (it was the 90s) I spent about 1.5 years' worth of Thursday mornings in the lab at Chicago Botanic Garden, working with Kayri Havens genetically typing a number of rare plants including the Pitcher's Thistle. We usually talked about our samples using their Latin names. In this case it was Circium pitcheri.

What a great blast from the past to see them in the New York Times! As I was digging into the article I was thinking, "oh my gosh I think this is work done by people I know!" then "oh my gosh I think I know that project!" then "oh my gosh I think this is a plant I have worked on myself!"

Working with the scientists at ChiBot taught me that there is a lot more in museums, beyond displays for the public to look at. I gained a deep and persistent appreciation for plants, for their ability to adapt to specific environments and expand their territories.

I also learned that my lab skills allowed me to make contributions in areas far outside my specific field of expertise. After all, what business did I have in their lab? Was I a plant expert? Nope. But life is like this: sometimes we imagine we have less to offer than we really do have. Speaking up is the first step to being in on some great stuff.

Is the periodic table the same around the world?

I was asked this question last week. I answered incorrectly. I stand corrected. I said yes, thinking only about how the element symbols and arrangement are universal. But the names are different in different languages, even though many are derived from latin so come out very similar in different languages. But to get a taste for the variety out there, check out these different variations, many of which are produced by the same people:

In Spanish

In French

In German

In Dutch (because I have a special place in my heart for the Dutch)

In Arabic

In Swahili

In Russian, the language of Mendeleev

It is somewhat surprising that the languages that use different alphabets would use our alphabet characters for their elemental symbols. Can you imagine learning element symbols with an alphabet different than your own? It sure would seem more cryptic.

While some element names are very different (check out Sulfur, for instance), others seem quite universal (the Noble Gases). I wonder why? Perhaps those elements that have been discovered and named more recently, since communication across the world has become easy, have internationally-agreed upon names. Hydrogen appears to have its name translated literally in German and wasserstof. Funny!

To top it off (if you're still reading) there is always the Periodic Table of Comic Books. I know it's not a language, but it's funny and creative so I'm including it here anyhow.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I spent a lot of after-school time watching Hogan's Heroes as I was growing up. Sargeant Schultz was always good for a laugh, and I can remember his references to "heavy vasser" and a red bucket that was labelled so. Many years later I learned that heavy water was of some concern during the war, as the Germans appeared to be experimenting with it as a moderator for nuclear reactions. To the allies, this indicated an interest in developing nuclear weapons. Heavy water is water containing deuterium (D) the isotope of hydrogen that contains a neutron and hence that has an atomic mass of 2 rather than one. So heavy water weighs 20 amu/molecule, or 20 grams per mole: a modest 10% more than regular water.

Disrupting the development included a really dramatic destruction of a supply of heavy water, which was all produced during that time in Norway. The PBS series Nova has described both the sinking of a ferry carrying the stuff on "Hitler's Sunken Secret," as well as an attack on the plant that manufactured the stuff in the first place. The plant made use of a series of multiple distillations, if I recall correctly, to enrich samples of water, which naturally contains a small amount of D2O.

Gilbert Lewis
(of Lewis structure fame) was the first person to isolate D2O, incidentally.

Heavy water is actually a little more dense than regular water, since deuterium weighs a little more than hydrogen. But the effect is fairly modest and wouldn't be noticeable if you were carrying a little flask of the stuff.