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The water tank heater sat submerged and frozen in place as Gramps and I crunched our way towards it in the snow. It was a circular wooden tank, grey with age and made of moss-bearded, vertical staves held in place with a rusty iron ring. It sat in the fence line, part in the barnyard and part out. The fence traced across the farmyard to a gothic red barn which sat in stony silence on the hillside. In the inky dark before sunrise a dozen angus cattle snuffled, visible shadow-like against the snow packed ground in the low moonlight.

Gramps carried a gunnysack of corn cobs and a bucket of coal. I carried a newspaper and a metal oil can sloshing with kerosene. Gramps dumped the cobs in the tank furnace, splashed some kerosene on the cobs, then covered them with coal. Taking the newspaper he rolled it into a tube, struck a match and lit one end. As the paper flared I could see his cold and weathered face. His hat with ear flaps sat low and snug over an unshaven face, his nose dripping from the cold. Gramp’s well worn overcoat was zipped tightly over his striped coveralls with pantlegs tucked inside zippered rubber overshoes. He dropped the burning paper onto the fuel mix and closed the lid.

We made our way from the tank to the barn where we dropped hay from the upper level hay mound, down the chute to ground level. The cattle, now faintly lit in the bluish morning twilight were eagerly snuffling through the parted leaves of baled hay. Making sure to gather up the twine lest the cattle eat it and sicken, we left the stillness of a barn stacked with a summer season of hay bales and made for the house.

As we crunched past the water tank, now visible under the yawning orange sky, the sooty smokestack of the tank heater belched acrid coal smoke while the light of red embers escaped through pinholes etched by the fire of 30 winters toil. Soon there would be water for the cattle to sip.

Walking a few paces behind my grandfather I looked at him in admiration. Doing chores in the frigid morning darkness seven days a week takes dedication. Did I have such stamina, I wondered? After 45 winters I’m still not sure.

Larry J. Westrum


Here are three items on my wish list for the future. There are more but this is enough for today.

  • The nomination of Donald Trump as Republican candidate for president in 2016. This political intestinal disease needs to run its course. Hell, let him win in 2016. Why? Given that a win means the electoral system has spoken, the GOP will have to reconcile this unforeseen event to the rest of the electorate and to the Citizen’s United beneficiaries who were accordingly disappointed. Perhaps there will be leadership purges at both the RNC and DNC. Even more fantastical would be a rethinking of what the parties stand for. But … nah. It won’t happen.
  • Fewer movies about Nazis. It is a tired and tiresome meme. Move on.
  • I’d like to see the Rupert Murdoch empire taken to task over their FCC broadcast licenses. Recalling that the public airwaves are just that, I’d like to hear them explain how his use of broadcast spectrum really merits the public trust. The same goes for other news outlets and cable providers. But before Murdoch croaks, I’d like to see him squirm.

<< cue theme song>>


Today I found myself peering at the lovely lavender glow of opaque argon plasma through the viewing screen of a gleaming new instrument. The light-emitting 8000 K plasma sits apparently still alongside the conical metal skimmer. Somewhere a Dewar was quietly releasing a stream of argon into a steel tube that was bent in crisp military angles into and through walls and across the busy spaces above the suspended ceiling. Another cylinder quietly blows a faint draught of helium into the collision cell. A chiller courses cooled water through the zones heated by the quiet but savage plasma. Inside a turbo pump labors to rush the sparse gases out of the mass analyzer and into the inlet of the rough pump and up the exhaust stack.

Up on the roof, the heavy and invisible argon spills along the cobbles of roofing stones until it rolls off the roof onto the ground where the rabbits scamper and prairie dogs yap. The helium atoms begin their random walk into space. The argon shuffles anonymously into the breeze and becomes part of the weather.

All of the delicate arrangements; all of the contrivances and computer controls in place to tune and play this 21st century marvel. And a wonderment it is. The ICPMS obliterates solutes into a plasma state and then taps a miniscule stream of the heavy incandescent argon breath that trickles into the vacuous electronic salsa dance hall of the quadrapole.  All the heat and rhythm for the sake of screening and counting atomic ions. What a exotic artifact of anthropology it is. And it all began in a rift zone in Africa millions of years ago.

My working life has been extremely stressful for as long as I can remember. A mirthess steampunk factory of angst and unworkable puzzles against a backdrop of uncollegial passive-aggression. But like most sciency mid-career people, I wear golden handcuffs that hold me back from making a clean break.  After years of manning the bilge pumps to keep the place working at maximum capacity, people get tired and inflexible. Minor infractions of protocol project to large images of disrespect and imagined malfeasances that burn into the internal viewing screen of our minds.

I write this blog in part as a means of passing along things I’ve gleaned over time from circumstances and people.  Today I have peers who are VP’s of research at some major corporations. Because of the sort of place I chose to align with, my progress will not keep up with these friends. This is the result of the deal I made with the devil years ago. That deal was the result of chosing a location over an organization. The folly of this is now only too apparent and must serve as an example to be passed along.

It is ever so important to be choosy about with whom you sign on and even more important, who you choose to spend your best years with. It is easily possible to commit to corporate beings who demand 110 %, but fail to reciprocate the dedication.  Power is in the ability to commit resources. In the business world all manner of things, brilliant or outrageous, are justified by the intonement of the words “business is business”. In the minds of many, this mantra justifies all.

I’m always amazed at how easy it is to don the corporate armor and strut around like a peacock.  I did a bit of it myself for a short period after I became a sales manager. But after a month reality threw a bucket of cold water on that fantasy when I realized that power is truly in the hands of people who sign the checks. It always has been. Sales people are a particular breed selected from the herd at large for their goal oriented drive and constant urge to prove themselves. 

The chemical business is conservative and socially constipated for the most part. It is nothing like the Silicon Valley paradigm where production is presented as a form of play time.  I’m sure it really isn’t, but it is a great recruitment meme. 

In business, there are wagon drivers and there are scouts. I’ve come to realize that I am a scout. I love riding into the brush looking for a path. Others are better adapted at coaxing the oxen to pull the wagons. 

Business isn’t quite the meritocracy that it is often projected to be. Business demands the adoption of certain kinds of behaviors around the alpha dogs.  People land in positions of leadership for all kinds of reasons and sometimes under the most unlikely circumstances.  Helpful attributes include singlemindedness, focus on the bare essentials of moneymaking, an engaging personality, and a knack for landing on your feet. Aggressive behavior and a bit of psychopathic ambition are helpful.

The fact of power is the act of power.  People early in their careers should strive to understand how power is accumulated and used. Even if you are disinclined to swing the stick around, it helps to understand 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.

After much thought I have decided to come clean on the matter of the supposed inherent goodness of growing up rural. I was born to Iowa corn and hog farmers in the late 1950’s.  This business of supposing that growing up on a farm magically confers a kind of wholesomeness is based on some faulty assumptions:  1) Farms are wholesome environments untread upon by people corrupted by the incessant Bacchanalian orgy of wanton excess found in the city. This is plainly wrong. Farms and farmers are just isolated. Modern conveniences get to farms later because of the isolation. Farmers are exposed to pathogens and insecticides in the course of their work. They often get mangled in unspeakable ways by their equipment. Farmers would party like brain-damaged test monkeys with everyone else if it wasn’t such a long ride into town.

Misperception 2) Growing up on a farm brings one into better harmony with nature.  This is wrong as well.  Farming is about the conquest of nature. Farmers know alot about nature, but take it from me, people who plow the ground, churn in soil amendments, and neutron bomb the insect population are not nature lovers. They are nature conquerors.  Farming is about return on investment. Just watch Ag PhD if you don’t believe me. Hey, I watch this show- it’s pretty interesting.

Misperception 3) Growing up on a farm is peaceful and soothes the soul. Well, it seems outwardly peaceful. This is true. And that can soothe the soul. But consider that the prolonged lack of intellectual stimulation has a dulling and isolating effect that prevents people from finding a whole spread of achievement that is possible in the modern world.

Misperception 4) rural life is good because people know each other. You know the guy who owns the CO-OP and the family who sells the home grown eggs. Folks pull together when times are tough.  Well, maybe. The Gaussian distribution of saints and knuckleheads applies everywhere. In a rural community you just know the saints and knuckleheads who farm. Farms have produced Ed Gein and Dwight Eisenhower. Less pathologically, people in rural communities are just as frequently unhappy with their lives as those in the city.  It’s faulty thinking to conclude that the farming or rural life imbues some special merit to a person.  As always, your life story is about what you put into it. I would offer that rural life is less than good because people know each other.

The notion that a politician with a rural history, or one displaying an outward appearance, is invested with a more nuanced sensibility than some city slicker is also faulty thinking.  You can manipulate people with the “aw shucks, ma’am” act as effectively as with the tools of a cosmopolitan confidence man.  In fact, the country boy approach may be more persuasive.

A distant memory comes to mind about my mother this Mother’s Day. We were sitting high in the south stands of the Dayton Speedway in Dayton, Iowa.  It was ~1962. The speedway was a modestly sized oval dirt track. My aunts were screaming “C’mon Ruthie! Faster!”  I was five and mildly apprehensive about the whole thing.  It was all so very loud.

Down on the track was a snarling pack of cars driving too closely and at speeds plainly too fast for the size of the oval. They were all trying to get ahead of one another. The cars in the lead had caught up with the cars in back so it was hard to see who was winning. They just kept grinding away around that loop.

Alarmingly, my mother was on that track driving a stock car. Our cousin, Dick, had provided the car. He was a Dodge dealer in our home town nearby and had the resources to dabble in stock car racing. This variety of racing was called a “Powder Puff Derby”. Mom was driving a robins egg blue Chevy with the pink letters PU2 painted on the doors. Mom normally drove at two speeds- fast and stop. She had the need for speed and racing was a natural impulse for her.

Later in the day we drove home with a trophy. It wasn’t first place, but it was a trophy.  Mom was energized by the whole experience but quite exhausted. When we got home we did what people often did on a late summer afternoon- we cut open a watermelon out in the yard and stood there in the shade slurping the juicy melon out of the rind and spitting the seeds long distance under the swaying branches of an elm tree in the summer breeze. 

If I concentrate I can still hear the clatter of the hogs lifting and dropping the metal lids of the feeder in the hog house and the earthy, organic smells of the farm. It was a long time ago in a very different world.


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