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Of the 1332 posts I have polluted cyberspace with, the most frequently visited is a post on the topic of neutron lethargy written in May of 2008. The post is titled Neutron Lethargy- This Weeks Obscure Dimensionless Quantity. My intent was to write about some of the obscure yet interesting factoids and concepts that I run into in my daily travails.
I’ve been drawn to nuclear topics since junior high school. Sometime in 8th grade I began to to build several scientific projects as described in the Scientific American column The Amateur Scientist written by C.L. Stong. Stong published a collection of articles in a book titled The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, 1960, Simon and Shuster. This book was (is) a treasure trove of information on how to assemble equipment for scientific investigation.
In jr high I spent some time trying to assemble an “Atom Smasher” (p 344). It was an evacuated glass tube with filament electron source a meter away from the positively charged target. The target was a 3 x 1/4 inch disk of aluminum with many perforations over which aluminum foil would serve to seal in the vacuum. The aluminum foil was to serve as a window through which electrons could collide with a sample on the exterior. Sadly the project eventually ended due to the lack of access to a McLeod gauge, bulk mercury, and a diffusion pump. The required Van de Graff generator was available for a few hundred dollars. The failure was perhaps fortuitous because even if I had managed to assemble the thing, I might have been exposed to x-rays during the accelerator’s operation.
Turning my attention to more feasible projects I did manage to do some biology experiments. The most interesting was growing protozoans from an infusion of grass and soil in standing water. After several days the water would turn cloudy and fetid. Using a decent Christmas microscope we were able to view a magical world of microorganisms scooting around in their herky-jerky manner. It was mesmerizing.
A glove box project afforded a place for growing microorganisms with petri dishes purchased at a hobby shop. I was able to grow mold and some blend of bacteria on Jello in the petri dishes, but the microscope didn’t have the resolution for bacteria. Since I had no interest in pathogens, the glove box was not really needed. But it looked cool.
By 10th grade I did manage to successfully build the cloud chamber project (p 307). Unfortunately I only witnessed stray cosmic rays and background radiation. As it turned out, the polonium 210 alpha source loaned to me by a physics teacher had long since decayed to inactivity. Building the chamber was a tremendous learning experience made possible through the use of the metal shop at school. It was of sheet metal construction with a dry ice and methanol coolant chamber built in. The actual chamber was made from the bottom quarter of a Folgers coffee can cut and fitted with a glass viewing port and Plexiglass illumination ports. As I recall, the most problematic aspect of the construction was finding an adhesive that would not detach at dry ice temperature.
An electromagnet was built in an attempt to bend the path of the particles by a magnetic field, but was wholly inadequate for the job. Learned another lesson there too.
The book by Stong was something that lit up my curiosity and put a fire in the belly to explore. This was the beginning of what turned out to be life-long career in science. Strangely, the total lack of interest by the adults around me only strengthened my resolve to build and learn.
The blog post by Terran Lane of the University of New Mexico provides a good example of the frustrations in academics today. Much of this is well plowed soil. I link to it because I think he is spot on about more than a few things.
The availability of external funding for the last 30 years has equipped American colleges and universities with a great deal of equipment and facilities. The availability of funding for grad students and post-docs has energized a vast educational complex that has come to depend on external grant money to maintain built up infrastructure. Naturally when an institution expands in good times, it finds itself top heavy in overhead when the good times end.
Ambitious people step forward when presented with the opportunity to grow programs and institutions when times are cash rich. But when the cash influx begins to taper off, these same people find themselves in the position of having to decomission or dismantle parts of the very organization they helped to build. It is hard for people in any circumstance to feel like they are moving forward when they have to make do with less.
One response to restricted university resources is to increase competition for teaching positions and tenure. Candidates with the best potential for winning grants are highly prized in any candidate search. The result of this is that professors today are burdened by administrative expectations in the hunt for resources in order to maintain close to what they already have.
Friends at PUI institutions are also feeling the heat, possibly due in part to the rise in undergraduate research programs that took off in the 1980’s. Undergraduate research in chemistry, at least, has grown into an expectation rather than a plus. This brought the buzz saw of the grant machine into the grassy quads of many quiet institutions.
Certainly no untenured prof is going to throttle down their scholarly activity for the greater good of science funding. Faculty will continue to struggle with this as long as grants are a major metric in rank and tenure.
Which brings me to my final point. Scientific knowledge as national treasure. I am sifting through Chemical Abstracts Service data bases searching for something nearly every day. This resource of ours, scholarly and pragmatic knowledge, is one of the crown jewels of human civilization. It is the collective contribution of people and institutions going into the distant past and across the curved surface of our world. We should cherish it for what it is- an archive of achievement, a repository of knowledge for application to future challenges, and a representation of the best of what we are capable of.
The notion that academia is the apex of the life intellectual has never been entirely true. You do not have to be in industry for very long before it becomes quite clear that there are a great many smart and creative people outside of academia. People who become professors are people who are in love with the very idea of the university and of higher education. We must find a way to allow research active faculty to throttle down the grant cycle just a bit so they may throw their energies into serving their institutions in the traditional manner. By service to their students, to scholarship, and to the advance of civilization.
That said, it seems embarrassingly obvious to say that our academic institutions are a critical part of our civilization past, present, and future. But today our institutions are in peril of substantial decay if left to antagonistic legislators and fulminating demagogues bent on terminating programs in the name of social reconstruction.
We know how to operate our university/research complex. Absent some of the mania in the horse race for grants, perhaps we can offer a bit more student contact with professors. A BA/BS degree must be understood to mean that a graduate has absorbed knowledge, sharpened reasoning ability, accrued some judgement, and has developed a professional demeanor that can only come from the personal interaction between people. We should expect from our institutions that a professor is a professor, not a shift supervisor.
Recently I had the good fortune to get to meet for a consultation with a young and talented chemistry professor (Prof X) from a state university elsewhere in the US. Prof X has an outstanding pedigree and reached tenure rather rapidly at a young age. This young prof has won a very large number of awards already and I think could well rise to the level of a Trost or a Bergman in time.
Not long ago this prof was approached by one of the top chemical companies in the world to collaborate on some applied research. What is interesting about this is that the company has begun to explore outsourcing basic research in the labs of promising academic researchers. I am not aware that this company has done this to such an extent previously. They do have an impressive corporate research center of their own and the gigabucks to set up shop wherever they want. Why would they want to collaborate like this?
R&D has a component of risk to it. Goals may not be met or may be much more expensive that anticipated. Over the long term there may be a tangible payoff, but over the short term, it is just overhead.
The boards and officers of public corporations have a fiduciary obligation to maximize the return on investment of their shareholders. They are not chartered to spread their wealth to public institutions. They have a responsibility to minimize their tax liability while maximizing their profitability. Maximizing profit means increasing volume and margins. Increasing margins means getting the best prices at the lowest operating expense possible.
Corporate research is a form of overhead expense. Yes, you can look at it as an investment of resources for the production of profitable goods and services of the future. This is what organic growth is about. But that is not the only way to plan for future growth. Very often it is faster and easier to buy patent portfolios or whole corporations in order to achieve a more prompt growth and increase in market share.
The thing to realize is that this is not a pollenization exercise. The company is not looking to just fertilize research here and there and hope for advances in the field. They are a sort of research squatter that is setting up camp in existing national R&D infrastructure in order to produce return on investment. Academic faculty, students, post-docs, and university infractructure become contract workers who perform R&D for hire.
In this scheme, research groups become isolated in the intellectual environment of the university by the demands of secrecy agreements. Even within groups, there is a silo effect in that a student working on a commercial product or process must be isolated from the group to contain IP from inadvertant disclosure. The matter of inventorship is a serious matter that can get very sticky in a group situation. Confidential notebooks, reports, and theses will be required. Surrender of IP ownership, long term silence on ones thesis work, and probably secret defense of their thesis will have to occur as well.
While a big cash infusion to Prof X may seem to be a good thing for the professor’s group, let’s consider other practical problems that will develop. The professor will have to allocate labor and time to the needs of the benefactor. The professor will not be able to publish the results of this work, nor will the university website be a place to display such research. In academia, ones progress is measured by the volume and quality of publications. In a real sense, the collaboration will result in work that will be invisible on the professors vitae.
Then there is the matter of IP contamination. If Prof X inadvertantly uses proprietary chemistry for the professor’s own publishable scholarly work, the professor may be subject to civil liability. Indeed, the prof may have to avoid a large swath of chemistry that was previously their own area.
This privatization of the academic research environment is a model contrary to what has been a very successful national R&D complex for generations. Just have a look in Chemical Abstracts. It is full of patent information, to be sure, but it is full of technology and knowledge that is in the public domain. Chemical Abstracts is a catalog and bibliography that organizes our national treasure. Our existing government-university R&D complex has been a very productive system overall and every one of us benefits from it in ways most do not perceive. We should be careful with it.
I’ve had this notion (a conceit, really) that as someone from industry, I should reach out to my colleagues in academia in order to bring some awareness of how chemistry is conducted out in the world. After many, many conversations, an accumulating pile of work in ACS activities, and a few visits to schools, what I’ve found is not what I expected. I expected a bit more curiosity about how commerce works and perhaps what life is like in a chemical plant. I really thought that my academic associates might be intrigued by the wonders of the global chemical manufacturing complex and product process development.
What I’m finding is more along the lines of polite disinterest. I’ve sensed this all along, but I’d been trying to sustain the hope that if only I could use the right words, I might elicit some interest in how manufacturing works; that I could strike some kind of spark. But what I’ve found is just how insular the magisterium of academia really is. The walls of the fortress are very thick. We have our curricula firmly in place on the three pillars of chemstry- theory, synthesis, and analysis. In truth, textbooks often set the structure of courses. A four year ACS certified curriculum cannot spare any room for alternative models like applied science. I certainly cannot begrudge folks for structuring around that reality.
It could easily be argued that the other magisteria of industry and government are the same way. Well, except for one niggling detail. Academia supplies educated people to the other great domains comprising society. We seem to be left with the standard academic image of what a chemical scientist should look like going deeply into the next 50 years. Professors are scholars and they produce what they best understand- more scholars in their own image. This is only natural. I’ve done a bit of it myself.
Here is my sweeping claim (imagine the air overhead roiled with waving hands)- on a numbers basis, most chemists aren’t that interested in synthesis as they come out of a BA/BS program. That is my conclusion based on interviewing fresh graduates. I’ve interviewed BA/BS chemists who have had undergraduate research experience in nanomaterials and AFM, but could not draw a reaction showing the formation of ethyl acetate. As a former organic prof, I find that particularly alarming. This is one of the main keepsakes from a year of sophomore organic chemistry. The good news is that the errant graduate can usually be coached into remembering the chemistry.
To a large extent, industry is concerned with making stuff. So perhaps it is only natural that most academic chemists (in my sample set) aren’t that keen on anything greater than a superficial view of the manufacturing world. I understand this and acknowledge reality. But it is a shame that institutional inertia is so large in magnitude in this and all endeavors. Chemical industry really needs young innovators who are willing to start up manufacturing in North America. We could screen such folks and steer them to MIT, but that is lame. Why let MIT have all the fun and the royalties? We need startups with cutting edge technology, but we also need companies who are able to make fine chemical items of commerce. Have you tried to find a brominator in the USA lately?
The gap between academia and industry is mainly cultural. But it is a big gap, it may not be surmountable, and I’m not sure that the parties want to mix. I’ll keep trying.
I know public school teachers very well. There is much talk about the kind of job public school teachers are doing these days. Much of the discussion is very negative. A lot of people seem to think that American public school education is in some kind of decline. Conservatives in particular seem to have a good deal of criticism to direct at public school teachers.
While I suspect that this grumbling on the right has more to do with vengeful, angry little boys who have grown to be vengeful, angry men, I’ll set this hypothesis on the shelf for some more aging.
In Coloado we have an annual test battery for public school students called the CSAP’s. It was an initiative set forth by conservative legislators who have a very negative view of public education in general and of teachers unions in particular. The CSAP’s start tomorrow in fact. My 9th grade kid will spend the next week taking them.
It is funny. No matter how tight the legislation is, people will always find a way to game the system. I know of one principal who was selected to open a brand new elementary school nearby. While at his previous elementary school in a poor neighborhood, he had access to the students CSAP scores. Prior to his departure he contacted the parents of the top 70 or so students and invited them to come to his new school in a more affluent neighborhood. Nearly all of them did, leaving the previous school in the lurch. Test scores plummeted at his previous school last year because of this. The parents of the recruited students had a good many volunteers among them. The level of volunteerism dropped substantially as well, adding to the workload in a school already depleted of hourly teachers aids.
Yes, the aforementioned principal seems guilty of some kind of malfeasance or corruption. He’s gaming the system. But he fell out of the sky into a system begging for gamesmanship. He did it to pave his way into a superintendant slot someday and I’ve no doubt that he’ll get it.
The great fallacy of this issue in the public forum is that it is up to teachers alone to keep kids on track. Having been married to a special education teacher I can say that there are a great many parents producing kids that are improperly wired, emotionally disturbed, sociopathic, and/or neglected or abused. Many kids go to school hungry and go home to high stress environments where there is rampant drug abuse, alcohol, and family violence.
It is not uncommon for some elementary students to be the only family members who can speak English. Parents in such homes are not able to help with home work. They are not able to communicate with the schools owing to cultural aversion to such contact or because they are undocumented.
I believe that our culture has changed considerably since my age cohort was in public school. College was a distant aspiration for many of us. College was not needed to work in the trades. We could get on-the-job training or attend some kind of trade school. Or, join the military. These were the options. We had been to the moon, tamed the atom, and built massive industrial capacity for manufacturing an ever growing array of widgets and medicines. Arguably, something was working well if industrial output is the measure.
But over time, with greater affluence in the US and abroad, the technology gap between the US and other nations began to shrink. Other cultures were developing their own magic dust and secret sauce. The advantages of the US system began to diminish relative to other cultures. But the one thing that didn’t change is the bell curve. As a population we still produce offspring who populate the bell curve of abilities and interests.
I suspect that we have begun to intepret the “below 50th percentile” population in the various bell curves in a most disturbing way. Could it be that we are interpreting the very existance of the low academic achieving population as some sort of educational or societal failure? Are we expecting modern education to skew the curve toward the high end against the natural spread of abilities and aptitudes in our culture? Is the notion of excellence skewed towards academic achievement rather than the myriad other activities that make a productive life? Is high academic achievement the only acceptable result of education of our population?
Not everyone needs to be a scientist or an engineer or astronaut. We need to continue to identify youth who have such interests and aptitudes and carefully cultivate them toward such opportunities. But we also must pay attention to those who have more ground based aspirations and abilities and value them just as highly. It is like a food web.
The notion that we should engineer our schools to produce more super achievers is faulty and unfair to the 99 % who won’t become scientists or astronauts. Even if we could multiply the population of scientists, engineers, and astronauts, the economy cannot accomodate them. Such professions are near the apex of the career pyramid.
I have come to believe that US culture has failed a large number of its youth. Just look at the rates of incarceration in the USA. A culture truly concerned about the wellbeing of its individuals wouldn’t have a few million of them in jail. Could it be that the conditions in which we imprison citizens reflects what we truly think about individuals? I think the current malaise in public school education manifested as high dropout rates and low achievement and the epidemic of convicted felons may be connected as part of a larger failing of our society.
Make magazine is one of my very favorite publications. It’s made for hillbilly engineers and aspirants like myself. Their Maker Shed Store offers kits as well as plans for making all sorts of cool gadgets. Check out this Berliner Gramophone kit and this vacuum tube radio kit.
Kit building and garage engineering are important activites for aspiring young scientists. We senior scientist types should be on the ready to mentor local high school students in their bid to learn about technology from the ground upwards.
Electronic experience is invaluable to all experimentalists- physicists, chemists, geologists, biologists, etc- and is a subject of lifelong utility. Many students do not have peer groups or family members who can help them get into this subject.
As a junior high school kid, I worked on TV sets (tube electronics) and acquired some electrical and mechanical ability in doing so. I actually fixed a few problems, surprisingly. A family friend had a TV repair shop (remember those?) and as a result I had a steady supply of TV chassis to take apart for my collection of parts like potentiometers and variable capacitors.
Like most kids rippin’ stuff apart and eyeing the construction methods I gained valuable electrical insights and personal experience with electrical current. Like the time I discharged a picture tube through my hand while trying to remove a flyback transformer from my grandparents color TV. It was great lesson in capacitance and isolated static charge. As my grandparents sat on the Davenport and watched, they heard a sudden and involuntary grunting noise burst from my mouth as I hurled myself from a squatting position by the opened console TV set and backwards across the room. I probably absorbed more joules of energy from landing on my backside than the joules absorbed by my hand. Luckily I was not burned. The next day I learned how to properly discharge the aquadag in the picture tube.
It is nothing at all like tangling with an vicious animal who might stand there after the altercation spent and panting, wondering in its little badger brain how to tear an even bigger chunk out of your leg. A discharged electrical appliance bears the same silent affect before as afterwards. It’s wicked electrons are inanimate and unparticular in their singular drive to find ground. An unexpected jolt from a device is much like a magical experience. It comes from nowhere and everywhere and is over in the blink of an eye. Afterwards you stand there in shock and awe of the effect of even modest amounts of energy.
The impulse to do science is also the impulse to find boundary conditions of phenomena. Where are the edges? How does it switch on or off? You have to be willing to leave some skin in the game to find out about things.
So it happens that my kid is in 8th grade and is studying chemistry for the first time in earnest. As luck would have it, the kid’s teacher is of Haitian extraction and is on some kind of leave of absence either due to illness or possibly because 3 family members perished in the quake. I don’t know. This fellow seems to be a good teacher.
His replacement, however, is not very good. In fact, his replacement is … awful.
For the first time, I had a serious discussion with a principal about a teacher’s performance. The principal is apparently aware of the substitutes classroom foibles and sins of omission. The principal’s own son is a student in that class and so he has a personal interest in the matter.
So, after some time with the kid at the whiteboard in our basement last night, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten how utterly strange atomic theory and the chemical phenomena that derive from it really are. It is all quite abstract and maybe even a little weird.
The curriculum gives some emphasis to understanding the concept of pH. Alright. But this requires some ideas about logarithms and exponents. Then there is the matter of chemical equilibrium. While kids are wrestling with the math, you are also trying to tell them that only a very small number of water molecules actually come apart into ions. But the kids need to be comfortable with the notion of ions and charge.
But, what makes hydrogen ion different from hydroxide ion, really? And why does hydroxide ion have the negative charge? How is it that acids corrode iron to form H2, but hydroxide does not? What does it mean to be an acid? What does it mean to be a base?
You can try to use structural models of sulfuric acid rather than line formulae like H2SO4 to appeal to the idea that these are little things with attachments that do things. One could argue that it is a bit more concrete that way- little structures with parts that are detachable. But as soon as you start drawing structures, you run into a rats nest of intermeshed concepts relating to bonds and lone pairs. Then there is the bloody octet rule, covalency, and orbitals!!!
For crying out loud!! How does anybody learn this stuff?? The learner has to absorb 20 abstract concepts almost simultaneously to begin to “get” chemistry. Even worse, if a chemist/parent teaches the kid about a concept, almost certainly it will not mesh with curriculum, leading to confusion and tears for the teacher and the student.
I taught orgo to college sophomores, but evidently 8th grade chemistry eludes me. I’m just too dense to grasp the level of abstraction they will accept. Oh! To have an hour with Piaget!
A friend is a tenured prof at a local university and teaches the 9 AM organic section. My friend lamented the consumer behavior of students in O-Chem and mentioned getting slaughtered on some internet ratings site. Tenure is not an issue for this prof, but student evaluations are still a big deal.
The question my friend has trouble with is this jewel- “Is this going to be on the test”? This arouses considerable frustration and ill humor. Some profs have no taste for this cat & mouse stuff and will be upfront with what is on the exam. Others are more elusive and Darwinistic. One wonders if these lone standard bearers could have excelled on their own exams when they were in school.
We discussed the possibility of suitable replies that are courteous but firm. There is no need or benefit to a smackdown for insolence. Basically, students need to recognize the main themes of the chapters and answer reasonable questions therefrom. The key is to do the problems. That has always been the key to orgo.
Some have been scornful about “teaching from the book” and supplement their curriculum with content that suits their fancy. I think this is fine for certain upper level coursework. Where this strategy fails is when students need to comprehend the pillars of chemistry for later and more advanced concepts. Then other content becomes a kind of distracting indulgence. Chemistry is vertical.
The problem is that the academic expectations may ratchet up a few notches in college. Students who may be accustomed to getting good grades without too much sweat are often mortally threatened by the prospects of getting less than an A. But this is just a part of the total growth experience and a good prof will be sensitive to this frailty. The trick is to help these students find their own path and go for it.