Monday, April 30, 2007

Highly paid professionals

The student newspaper created a little flurry of discontent among the faculty by publishing the salaries of the most highly paid employees in the college. Forty out of the fifty top earners are the poor underpaid faculty. I mention it here only because three of the top ten are chemistry instructors (half our department). Alas, I am not one of the chosen three. The publication of this (already public) information caused the usual slightly defensive flurry of correspondence justifying the incomes. We are highly paid professionals; lawyers and doctors wouldn't be examined like this; we really work longer hours than people realize etc. Alas, all this will not change the general perception that a college professor, or any kind of teaching gig, is really one of the cushiest numbers a person can land on. The defense of the salary scale is based on the generally accepted premise that one should earn progressively more for each year of experience. No other factors enter into consideration: no numbers have to be made; no performance standards have to be met or are applied. One might tentatively float the question as to whether a professor of twenty years on the job is worth twice a newbie? Once one has crossed onto the Holy Grail track of the E train, it is merely a question of kicking back and letting the years accumulate. Yes, of course many faculty members remain highly dedicated and productive and contribute far and wide as the years progress; but do they all? And there is no distinction in terms of the numbers. Lawyers tend to earn money by winning cases. Those that lose cases don't earn as well. It would be very interesting to entertain the notion of performance incentives in education. As long as there are teachers' unions, it will never happen.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Professor of the Dark Arts meets the Dark Lord

I am of the intelligence that I am known in some parts as the Professor of the Dark Arts, largely, I think, because of my English heritage. Of course any comparisons with Alan Rickman, regardless of motivation are gratefully received by the SSCP. Thus it seemed appropriate to join the throngs in the annual pilgrimage to Munster, Indiana for Dark Lord day. I suspect that many are as yet unfamiliar with this festival, it is a little less widely known than Easter, or Cinco de Mayo even, but for lovers of stout it is perhaps far more important. It is after all the one and only day of the year when Three Floyds Brewing releases its dark, rich imperial stout called Dark Lord. Dulcie and I have become big cheerleaders for this "local" brewery since its Alpha King is served in our local, the Fox and Firkin in downtown Glen Ellyn. Endless sophomoric plays on words with firkin abound in the menu of course (a firkin is a small barrel). The Alpha King's strong hoppy character and fruity complexity easily knocks off the English imports such as my beloved Fullers Smith and Turner; and coming from an Englishman that is some high praise. The Dark Lord has apparently achieved something of a cult status, as much for its quality (alleged) as its extreme lack of availability - the Romanee-Conti of the beer world.

Making the journey of some fifty miles from the western suburbs to northern Indiana is to travel back in time about 40 years. Dulcie and I mused as to the sociological types that would be attracted to the Dark Lord. I suspected deeply that they would be the kinds of folks who would have attended Magic Card tournaments before they got old enough to drink. I was not wrong. Three Floyds lives in a nondescript patch of industrial estate. It is not unknown to locals of whom we were forced to ask for directions as Mapquest tricked us on its of more important directions. The lines of cars parked beside patches of grass in vacant lots betrayed our destination: this mecca of beer under a large water tower beside a railroad yard.

Clearly we had arrived long after the fun had begun. What had begun as a road trip in search of beer transformed instead into a study in anthropology. Dulcie observed that it was a bit like the 60's clashing with the 90's. It was something of a love-in over beer with the majority of the participants being members of the goth-inspired black teeshirt and pierced set. I even believe that a comparison with Woodstock was offered by one of the punters. It has been quite a while since I have been in the company of so many seriously paralytically drunk people. Tables were forests of (mostly empty) dark brown bottles of various exotically labelled brews. It was, as one celebrant observed as he offered us some of the dark treacly nectar from his "growler" (which was very good), the biggest impromptu beer tasting in the country. Being the only ones sober (and over 25) we felt a little out of place. Alas all the Dark Lord was already sold out and we did not even get a sniff of the fabled sticky thick coffee and chocolate laced liquid to allow a determination as to whether all the fuss was truly merited. I think though for most that aspect was really unimportant. The decoratively labelled bottles could have been filled with used motor oil. All around us were the precious six packs (the limit per person) lying carelessly on the ground with their owners slumped comatose in their chairs. I wonder how many bottles (not inexpensive at $15 each - very good wines can be had for much less) were separated from their drunken owners as afternoon wore on into night. I also wonder what if anything most of the celebrants did for a living in order to afford this hobby. In the old days, young people worked traditional jobs. It's hard to imagine this particular crew, replete with their wild tattoos, rings and pins emerging from all points and grotesque clothing styles, working at anything. Probably they all live at home with their parents and play WOW 24-7. I suppose I should be damned for judging by appearances but it is hard not to. We did meet one nice fanatical, if fairly normal looking, fellow from Cincinatti who had driven several hours to arrive at the crack of dawn. He had clearly planned it for weeks and had carefully programmed his consumption to maintain a reasonable level of sobriety. Proudly he produced a nearly full growler from his cooler to share. Apparently later that night the Hampton Inn was where the after party was taking place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I suppose it is almost inevitable to wonder, at least briefly, what I might have done if shots started ringing out down the corridors of the BIC as they did in Norris Hall last week. Would I have followed the example of Liviu Librescu and held the door against the oncoming murderer while the students leaped to safety? Hopefully I will never get to answer the question since I am not sure that I really like the answer I might find. It seems somehow terribly ironic that a chap that survived the Holocaust should be laid low by such a random act, and on such a day.

Incidentally, who could fail to note the astonishing art imitating life (for most of the time we are familiar with life imitating art) plot of The Sopranos last Sunday with Uncle Junior and his deranged protege?

Inevitably the gun nutters respond with unfailing logic that this all would not have happened if the students were armed to the teeth. In the ideal NRA world no doubt incoming freshmen would receive a small automatic weapon in addition to the obligatory i-pod. Extending the logic, expensive security measures at high schools could be done away with provided all the students carried a gun. In a conversation with my father (in England) the topic came up. He, like the rest of the largely civilized world, simply cannot comprehend the culture of weaponry that the U.S. indulges in. The apologists point to its enshrinement in the Constitution, as if to say that is the final word. I am no student of the Constitution, but last time I checked, the gun thing was in an amendment. Needless to say, not a single politician of note, particularly those engaged in the eternal, unending flog for presidential glory will take a stand for the obvious. My father asked if things would ever change. I replied that, so far as I could tell, they never would.

Certain things set America apart. An obsession with weapons is just one of them. A subculture of fermentation is another. Dulcie and I attended a meeting of some local winemakers last Friday, brimming with expectation about what we would learn about the craft as we prepare to launch Chateau Aylwin. What portended to be an evening of viticultural education turned out to be one of anthropological amusement. What fools we were to believe that amateur "wine-makers" actually like wine or even know what it tastes like. I was on the alert immediately when I was offered something from a large jam jar that bore a disturbing similarity to something I had passed into the water closet earlier in the day. "Pear" I was told with emphasis by the slightly glassy-eyed red-faced man clutching a giant glass of some other suspicious looking beverage. I proceeded to survey the offerings with their homemade labels. I was relieved that I had not gone for something more impressive than the Juan Gil we had brought to share; but at the same time I was annoyed that even that was way too good for these folks. Monastrel? Is that a grape? Questions like that. It went from bad to worse. Discussion about what to order to eat ranged between Chinese and pizza; neither one being the ideal accompaniment to most wines. My mistake of course, because the "wines" on offer were not wines in any traditional sense. Later, (we stayed for as long as we could bear just to luxuriate in the nuttiness - where do they all come from?) large polythene buckets were produced along with a giant bag of frozen strawberries and a huge can of cling peaches. Some of the leaders of this motley crew fiddled with bags of sugar, little bottles of this and that, and pH probes (I don't suppose for a moment that any of them could define pH) and densitometers while the rest watched in a semi-drunken awe.

I had an epiphany that night. These people who like to make "wine" are not motivated by any attraction to rendering their own version of the most noble of beverages, but rather by a perverse desire to ferment things - seemingly anything. There is also the base desire to get drunk cheaply. For a hundred dollars I was told, I could get thirty bottles of wine. Why, I ask, would I wish to take the trouble to make thirty bottles of something that would best be thrown down the toilet when for the same money I can simply go to TJ's? Worse, I had mentioned the event to one of my students, who happens to make real wine from real grapes, and he actually appeared with a rose from the latest vintage. Fortunately he took it all in good humour.

Once though was quite enough with those Corkers.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Aylwin Abroad

This weekend has seen the SSCP off to the valley of his dreams for a well-deserved holiday – I mean workshop. Where there is research to be done in the name of education, particularly if there is money involved, I am not slow to answer the call. The publishers seem to be united in their efforts these days to get us techno-challenged academics to adopt some form of on-line homework system. Prentice Hall has its MasteringGeneralChem; McGraw Hill has its Aris; and here comes Thomson (P-less in this case) with its little OWL. Neither spotted nor endangered so far as I could tell. Whoever conjured up that acronym deserves to spend their remaining days tethered to a screen of raw html code. I am not immune to the knowledge that publishers live to make a buck, and I certainly share their modest ambitions in that regard. However, the skeptical chemist, as Robert Boyle would say, should surely harbour some reservation when the publisher is extolling the benefits to the students of these things, particularly when they stand to profit at about $25 a head. This skeptical chemist is nothing if not completely dedicated to enhancing his darling students’ lives and if that meant spending a weekend in the ascetic confines of a Sofitel Hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area the sacrifice was willingly paid.

Part of the sacrifice entailed the SSCP arising untimely from his bed at 3:45. Many of the customary early morning rituals were waived in order to join the snaking columns of humanity shuffling in Auschwitz-like incomprehension through the “security” at ORD. As I was undergoing reassembly in the post-security zone, a broadcast cheerfully reminded us, as it must constantly remind us for otherwise would we not have revolted as one against the whole stupidity and colossal wastefulness of it, that the alert level was “orange.” Whatever that means, I have no idea; but of course it is all done to maintain the culture of fear that justifies our war on (of) terror. I have yet to discern any noticeable effect of the color du jour on one’s treatment at the hands of the TSA.

But let us not get weighed down by gloomy thoughts. My airborne chariot bore me swiftly to SF International Airport, where the cold and gloom of Chicago was immediately cast aside by yet another perfect Californian day of warm sunshine. Things just seem to be different out there. It appeared that Stanford University had gone to the trouble of putting on a regatta to entertain us, which seemed like an awful lot of trouble for just a few old chemistry professors. Nonetheless, our hotel was quite pullulating with lusty young men and women, undoubtedly terrifyingly fit, nautically attired in jackets with crossed oars and so on, and sporting themselves in boats in a strip of water adjacent to the hotel. I strained my eye to catch a glimpse of the COD crew but alas, there did not seem to be one. It all seemed a very far cry from those Pimms-soaked days in Oxford during Eights Week, the creaking wooden college boat houses replaced by concrete office blocks on a man-made strip of water a stone’s throw from the highway in the shadow of the (many) Oracle towers. Boatloads of parents were also in attendance. One entered the elevator as I was descending and greeted me. Desperate to make conversation I enquired as to whether she was one of the boating fraternity. Looking somewhat indignant, she responded that, no she was with the rowing. I didn’t say anything.

Our hosts were more than generous, the thinking being I suppose that online homework systems look a lot better after a lot of drink. As such, I was able to enjoy an evening at a well-appointed, though somewhat noisy and sterile, winebar in San Francisco. I had not visited the city in many years, and it seems to have evolved into a gigantic outdoor mall and condominium emporium. All very nice, but largely devoid of character.

My return journey found me seated next to a cleric in full regalia. I was treated to the rather incongruous sight of this gentleman studiously interrogating his Blackberry. The text appeared to be in Latin. Il Pape texting from the Vatican I mused.

Accelerator Day

I bet you didn't know that today, April 21, has been proclaimed by the Governor of Illinois as Particle Accelerator Day. As the woman in the media office at Argonne (home of one of the celebrated accelerators) said, why would you, no one cares. Sad but true I suppose. In fact, the Advanced Photon Source (APS) website does not even betray any intelligence as to this storied event; one must visit the Argonne homepage to find mention of it.

Why do I bring it up at all? My honors chemistry class has been visiting Argonne regularly all year to do some experiments with people in the Division of Educational Programs as a way to spice up the otherwise rather humdrum ritual of the laboratory experience. We have also visited the APS every year to show the impressionable students the kinds of work they might end up doing down the road, if they were indeed to pursue a scientific career. It just so happened that our planned tour of the APS fell upon the day before Particle Accelerator Day. Somebody decided that a big deal should be made of our visit; it is even mentioned on the Argonne website. So we are whisked into a room, and at some point the APS Director himself appeared, someone bemused, with a look as if to say, "who are these people and why am I here when I have really important things to do?" I am sure he did not remember, but some twenty years ago we were present at the wedding of a mutual friend. Tales I might have told... A photo-op is arranged around a gigantic 6-circle goniometer and we all make like we are learning at the foot of the master. Wonderful hilarity.

I have been going to the APS for several years now and I have to admit the wow factor has not diminished that much. The fact it works at all is a minor miracle. The kinds of experiments that are now performed routinely, and the sorts of insights into the working of both living and non-living systems that are gained as a result are really fairly amazing. Sadly though, the vast majority cares far more deeply about the next whacking on Idol than it does about the workings of fast moving particles.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

It's all Greek to me

I don't understand how people can manage to work a full-time job and fill up servers located in some far-flung spot in the PNW (source of cheap electricity) with their insightful musings, or just plain drivel, on all things important and unimportant. It is certainly proving a challenge to me, as I haven't had an insightful thought for days. There is my adventure to the Bay Area to relate, but Dulcie thinks the whole thing is rather self-indulgent - which of course it is. But so what.

The time for summer registration is upon us and, as usual, the number of students wishing to register far exceeds the number of classes offered. I am thus the recipient of streams of e-mails and phone calls lobbying for a place. They vary in tone, style and strategy quite markedly, from the formal straightforward request to the long, emotional desperate cry for help to the ingratiating ("I've heard your a great professor...", "I just love your website...") to the downright moronic. One particular example that I wish to share in full represents to me the sorry pass that modern communication has brought us to. I reproduce this exactly as I received it from a hopeful student:

i wana take your class but on the schedule it says you and mrs.XXX. so i wana whose going to teach. is she only there for the labs or are u only doing labs. let me knw plz. thanks"

So, I have to wonder, does this fellow seriously expect me to respond in a favorable manner? I have been addressed more respectfully by would be muggers. I replied politely that, in order to receive a response, the enquiry should be crafted with whole words, proper punctuation and grammar, and with the appropriate salutation. Needless to say, I have not heard since.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The science that won't die

Phone calls to the department desperately seeking Aylwin Forbes have subsided for the time being. Being really something of a neophyte when it comes to the Internet, despite my life-long career in the research and development of new technology, little did I suspect that, when I began my ever-so-slightly self-indulgent online diary (blog I suppose the term is in this cyber age), the typing of a couple of words like cold and fusion in juxtaposition would awaken responses around the globe. It is slightly redolent of that story in chaos theory about the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil creating a hurricane in New Orleans or some such. I have learned that there are things called “alerts” which you can use to track down any item that is published containing those terms of interest.

What began as a bit of a whimsical reminisce prompted by the Tribune article on Pons and Fleischmann (PundF) has led to an extensive dialog with some folks more than active in the CF field. Will I have to about face again now I am confronted with new intelligence? The SSCP always likes tell students that a characteristic of the scientist is the ability to modify his thinking based on new evidence. In reality, this is often much easier to say than do. I like to use the example of Dalton, the collector of rainwater and fabricator of atomic theories, and the problem of the formula of water. Nowadays the issue of molecular formula is utterly trivial since we are in possession of our table of atomic weights. Before the atomic world was clarified, before the atomic weights were amassed, the compositions of substances could only be speculated upon. There was the rather telling evidence that elements seemed to combine in fixed weight ratios; but that alone could not inform as to the atom ratios of each element involved. Dalton adhered to the doctrine of simplicity which was prominent at the time. It was known that water contained both hydrogen and oxygen. Dalton proposed there was one atom of each element in the molecule. Gay Lussac’s experiments with gas volumes clearly discredited this view. According to form, the scientist would modify his thinking and accept that, if anything, the experimental evidence was strongly suggestive of a hydrogen:oxygen ratio of 2. Dalton did not. Instead he attacked the credibility of the experiments. His influence was such that Avogadro's important contributions to the matter were largely ignored for forty years.

The scientific community likes to think it has grown up since then and those sorts of things no longer happen. That is largely true, but perhaps not universally so. Scientific organizations and scientific publications can wield great power and often in a monolithic fashion. Just observe how the vaunted National Science Foundation lurches from one big thing to another. Scientists out of step with this knowledge-seeking ocean liner will get water logged. After the initial fiasco, the words cold and fusion could not be uttered in polite scientific society. Those that did would be dismissed as frauds or nutters, just as I did indeed dismiss them. That reaction at that time was probably reasonably justified. Nonetheless, as I am beginning to learn after my long hiatus, within this small community that has refused to slip gently into its good night, something seems to be keeping them going; and in many cases it is neither fame nor fortune, but simply curiosity and unquenchable belief. Is there really something with all the heat and everything else so painstakingly measured? Plans even for commercialization brew, D2Fusion not withstanding. Regaining acceptance into the scientific community though is difficult and will be slow. Latter day Daltons largely rule the roost. I guess I have some more reading to do.

Tale of two races

On the same day that the front page was awash with the Don Imus “Ho” business, a few column inches buried inside the sports section reported clinically that all charges against the Duke Lacrosse players had been dropped. Now it appears that the raspy titan of morning radio is done for, having met his match at the hands of Al Sharpton, that self-proclaimed guardian of public morals. If I had known prior to his gaffe, I might have advised the Don to perhaps check out his own locks in the mirror before denigrating those of others. It could have saved him his job. When I lived in Jersey more than twenty years ago, treading the same neighborhoods as my beloved Sopranos now do for an all too brief season, I used to be a regular listener. His longevity is perhaps remarkable in more ways than one. Now, in one ill-considered moment, though really how much more ill-considered than all the previous ones is open to question, it is seemingly all over – for a time at least. Perhaps the old fool got his just desserts, but I will only feel convinced that justice, swiftly served as it was, is not simply the result of a cowardly corporate accommodation of the self-serving, self-aggrandizing, publicity seeking, ego-maniacal, opportunistic likes of Mr. Sharpton and his ilk, if all the recording “artists” in the “hip-hop” trade that have profited mightily by the much worse, oh and how much worse, denigration of young women are simultaneously dumped by their recording labels. I am no expert in the music business, but I would not be surprised to learn that CBS had profited from their “art” too. It won’t happen of course.

Meanwhile the Duke students and their families are left quietly to count the cost of a lie exploited by racial motivations. How quickly the PC faculty at Duke moved to condemn them in the early days of the saga. Few are quicker than faculty members to sense the “morally” correct side of an issue to adopt to bolster their sense of academic integrity. Little did it seem to matter there was no evidence. When it did appear, the all-revealing DNA belonged to (several) other people, but to none of the accused. In my innocent way I wonder what manner of dancing involves the acquisition of so much different DNA. It would appear to have to extend beyond what I have seen on Dancing with the Stars. But I have led a sheltered life and am in any case not much of a dancer.

Now the lie is exposed, will we hear from Sharptons of this world expressing sorrow that innocent lives were irrevocably wounded by a racially motivated hoax? I am doubtful. Interestingly, I think it was when I lived in Jersey that this Mr. Sharpton first came to prominence in another racially motivated hoax which involved the fabrication of a story about a vile racial attack on a teenage black girl. When it all unfolded, I was confident we would not hear from the odious reverend again. That he has succeeded in achieving such prominence speaks volumes about the unquenchable spirit of the raving egomaniac and also the short memory of the rest of us. I think the black community would be better served by more credible leaders.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


The Savvy Cyber Professor's double life was amusingly exposed when interested readers attempted to contact me by phone. My department vigorously denied the existence of any Aylwin Forbes on faculty and insisted that he must be a fraud. Perhaps he really is a fraud in some other context but not in this one. It's just that his cyber identity and real-life identity were confused. Fortunately the caller persisted and the problem resolved. To be honest, I had never anticipated anybody really being sufficiently motivated to follow up on any of my spoutings. Not having been born with a silver computer in my mouth, the incredible reach and power of the whole internet thing is something I still find a little astonishing. To think it was just a few years ago when I first introduced the web into the classroom discussion, I would begin by showing students how to type www.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


What am I doing? With several chapters of a new chemistry text to review (in return for ready money) and the rising of our Lord to celebrate, instead I find myself reading through back numbers of New Energy Times, learning more about the origins of D2Fusion. Respondents to my original posting pointed my way to vast repositories of CF information and literature, much of which, truth to tell, I was unaware of. There has thrived a small and dedicated CF subculture, which occasionally bubbles into prominence at scientific meetings and elsewhere. There is a belief that, behind all the frauds and the excess, there is a real process occurring. So having abandoned it once a long time ago, why now should I return? After all, it only really matters to those who have invested so much themselves; but yet, beyond the resolution of any scientific questions, there is a certain fascination at the human level. The story illustrates well what Marie Curie had written, that science is more than just a machine, but it is a human enterprise.

One of the central figures, perhaps the only central figure if one reads between the lines, in the D2Fusion scene is Russ George. Incidentally, a review of the website shows that it appears essential to sport a gray beard to be a member of the "scientific team" at this mysterious company. He has been described by others as a "man of vision" and very persuasive. His own bio on the website is a minor masterpiece of nuancing of the language. Undoubtedly, vision and persuasion are essential qualities for anyone engaged in the promotion of new technology. There is much more to the development of a successful product than the design of experiments, accumulation and interpretation of data. I have met many excellent scientists very skilled in those arts, but to them that often represents the limit of their ambition. I am reminded that John Dalton had an almost obsessive attachment to the measurement of rainfall in his Manchester home. What the motivation for this slavish devotion to data gathering was is unclear, for nothing came of it; but fortunately as far as his place in history he had a few moments of greater vision to craft an atomic theory which constituted a major mile post in the developing view of what matter was made from.

Several massive inconsistencies between the statements on the D2Fusion website and what may be regarded as reality have been catalogued by the writers of New Energy Times; and the foreboding disclaimer that "A number of statements in this press release may be considered to be forward-looking statements..." should be written in bold and 24 size font.

Vision and persuasion are required to sell the promise of a new technology, and it is very often the case that the money to be made in this game comes from the sale of the promise rather than the sale of actual goods and services. The same vision that can paint a glorious future can also become a dangerous deception if unchecked by any sense of realism. A common factor among super visionaries is an absolutely unfailing self-belief and a refusal to accept the possibility of being wrong.

I encountered it myself in my early days at Amoco. In those days, amorphous silicon was enjoying its moment in the sun. Amorphous materials had for many years been really rather dismissed as serious contenders in electronic applications, but in the early eighties there was interest in solar cells and transistors. My then supervisor was one of those visionaries and, for him, the amorphous silicon game was just too conventional. No, amorphous carbon was going to be the next photoreceptor. Imagine, xerox drums coated with diamond hard photoreceptors would never wear out. Nor would they be toxic. It mattered little that there was no history of photoconduction in carbon films; it mattered less that the "diamond" films were actually much closer to graphite and could not be regarded as carbon analogues of silicon. Nonetheless, the search for photoconductivity was on. We found it, but largely only by virtue of the enormous dark resistivity of the films, and by our own creativity in developing a method for measuring impossibly small currents. The claim of impending kilowatt output from D2Fusion, while the reality is output of milliwatts, is in the same ballpark of performance discrepancy as our amorphous "photoreceptors."

It remains an enduring source of regret that, while being a slave to the overbearing optimism and self-delusion of our visionary leader and the search for the amorphous carbon photoreceptor, we did not pursue the synthesis of real diamond films, which had been my initial suggestion, and could have been done with a slight modification to the apparatus. A good friend of mine in the group who escaped the insanity later enjoyed great success with that field some years later with De Beers. I cannot say that I am not a little envious.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Burst Bubbles

The Internet is a remarkable thing. Nothing like beginning a piece with a truly profound insight. In the education world I inhabit these days, the Internet is still viewed with deep suspicion - an enemy of true learning and not to be trusted, a ready source for plagiarism - and I suppose there is some merit in that; but how much is it outweighed by the incredible reach of its resources and its ability to communicate. Even now, there is still something of a wow factor for me in what you can do with it.

For one thing, I was shocked to receive correspondence from a gentleman who had been alerted by my reference to D2Fusion. I really don't know how those sorts of things work. His comments about one of the main protagonists in D2Fusion prompted me to dig deeper into that company. So I visited their website, available here for your interest:

It all seems so entirely convincing: a polished looking production with a team boasting several impressive (on the surface) resumes. But maybe scratch below the surface. My correspondent noted that one of the team had spent some time behind bars for financial irregularities in Canada but no mention is made on the website of that. One almost gets the impression from reading the thing that cold-fusion powered vehicles are just around the corner. There is made mention of a year end review where different teams gathered "to report on recent breakthroughs in the quantification of their solid state fusion effects, synchronize experiment replication schedules, and coordinate engineering plans for 2007."

Come on. Are we really expected to believe that? I wonder who they are trying to convince more, us or them. We are talking here of a scientific fantasy so discredited, that it was buried without ceremony some 18 years ago. If the proposed technology involved "bubble fusion" I could perhaps understand. After all, that version of cold fusion has only been around for a few years and it perhaps at least had some (albeit tenuous) physical basis, though I cannot claim to have really mastered it. The "inventor" (I use the term advisedly) Rusi Taleyarkhan led the research team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and after claiming victory he was lured to Purdue University. It all seems to have unravelled disastrously amidst an unseemly mess of finger pointing and accusations and counter accusations and rather inept investigations by the university and so on - all chronicled in quite some detail in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. The same university appears to be locked in a nasty spat over patents with one of its former faculty members on a completely separate issue. Science gets so messy when money or fame enters the frame.

In a nutshell, much as with the other fusion, reproducibility is an issue; much as with the other fusion, the inventor is defensive and uncooperative; much as in the other fusion, there is suspect evidence - in this case something to do with isotopes of californium being responsible for the neutrons measured. I find it remarkable that, given the lessons of CF-1 (I suppose we must number them now) that CF-2 made it so far. But at this stage, it seems that the bubble has definitely burst.

And there seems to be a curiously over-bearing interest of the US Navy in all this, with some of its scientists (at SPAWARS) seeming to corroborate the results of CF-1 and CF-2. I can't decide what their particular angle is on all this.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The new pollutant

I was going to do a follow-up on the cold fusion thing (more to follow though on that one, particularly after something I read in Chronicle of Higher Ed), but the Supreme Court decision on carbon dioxide struck me as very interesting and perhaps represents a turning point in this country's response to GW (the warming variety rather than the current occupant). One of our experiments touches on carbon dioxide (CO2) among other exhaust gases, and I have always commented when students have referred to it as a "pollutant." Until now the EPA does not number it among the gases to be regulated, for when the Clean Air Act came into being over 30 years ago, the whole business of GW was in its infancy. In fact, a certain environmental activist by the name of Paul Erlich made money flogging a book that made dire predictions about global cooling and the approaching catastrophe. Little wonder that many are skeptical about the doomsday pronouncements of the environmentalists. It is perhaps a semantic thing but it is difficult to describe CO2 as a pollutant. After all, traditional pollutants are chemicals that have no positive value at any level in the environment. CO2, on the other hand, is a vital link in the chain of life; it is a reactant in photosynthesis; the greenhouse effect is essential for maintenance of life on earth. GW is a manifestation of the extreme sensitivity of the greenhouse effect: too little and we would have life on Mars (or rather no life); too much and there would be Venus; earth is just right - but just a few ppm more and it becomes less hospitable.

There again, is GW necessarily all bad? The anticipated catastrophe of the aforementioned global cooling presumed that there were no positives that might offset the negatives. Now with GW, the same scene is playing out: all the outcomes will be bad, so we are told passionately, almost hysterically. Does this imply that the global conditions prevailing in about 1970 were absolutely optimum for the planet and that climatic change in either direction was undesirable? This strikes me as highly unlikely; what was so special about 1970 that indicates that climatic conditions were perfect? I don't wish to imply that we should not be earnestly seeking ways to reduce our carbon footprints in order to confront the looming consequences of fossil fuel consumption, but I suggest that the case could be made more effectively and more persuasively if the protagonists were more balanced and dispassionate.

While updating my notes on acid rain I had occasion to review the EPA's latest report on air quality and the effect that the Clean Air Act has had on airborne pollutants. While there is a tendency to view the environment from an unremittingly gloomy perspective, I suggest that the trends in air pollution represent a considerable triumph for environmental legislation. From the summary I read that since 1970, aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants have been cut 48 percent. During that same time, U.S. gross domestic product increased 164 percent, energy consumption increased 42 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 155 percent. In other words, air quality has improved dramatically despite the large increase in the sources of those pollutants. More of course could be done, but I think it significant that acid rain is no longer center stage in our theatre of environmental concerns.

I suppose we shall have to wait and see exactly how the EPA responds to this decision by the Court. It undoubtedly represents the biggest challenge yet.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The other ACS

I have been a member of two ACS in my time; in one the C referred to the other C word, which most of us probably live in perpetual fear of (no not chemistry, although that is true for some); in the other the C does stand for chemistry. It was to a meeting of the latter ACS that I devoted some hours over the past week.

Last Sunday I made my first appearance, and it represented my first trip to McCormick Place in all of the years I have lived here. I did the cheapskate thing and parked on the street not far from the building, which was remarkably easy to do of a Sunday. I could not help but noticing as I meandered along the Cermak road towards the sprawling hulk of the convention center the not inconsiderable number of those traffic wardens with their orange jackets and batons that endeavour, in a generally haphazard fashion, to direct traffic. It was the more noticeable because there was no traffic to direct; the place was practically deserted. Since almost every chemist was from out of town, there were no cars. I was treated to the sight of one lackey reclining on a deck chair in front of a rather suspicious looking shed with a makeshift sign saying "Parking," into which his brethren were desultorily attempting to attract vehicles with their batons. I am sure once inside the car would be dispatched into a thousand used parts and quickly disseminated among the car dealers on the south side. It was like a scene from The Sopranos. Dulcie had once asked of me, "What is the difference between Mayor Daley and Tony Soprano?" The short answer, beyond the obvious one that unfortunately the former is real, is none.

The ACS is a major society and its meetings are large gatherings; but inside the preposterous expanse of McCormick the attendees seem to dissipate like so many gas molecules in outer space. I eventually located my targeted symposium and joined the motley collection of maybe a dozen other listeners. Now, why did I bother I began to ask myself. A symposium on the use of blogs, wikis, podcasts and all sorts seemed to be attracting a larger, and younger, audience.

All the sessions appeared to adjourn simultaneously for luncheon, which resulted in intersecting lines about 50 meters long for either Connie's or McDonald's. One is a prisoner once inside. Yet one bright spark suggested Chinatown, and I had my car to hand, and so we kissed them all goodbye and set off in search of adventure and strange animals prepared in peculiar ways. We were a diverse group, two chaps from Chicago (not so diverse perhaps), a German now in Youngstown State and a young woman all the way from San Diego. The thing about Chinatown in Chicago is that, if you blink, you miss it. Beyond that, there is the question of parking. Then there is the question of choosing...Tom opined that an authentic place would have ducks hanging in the window, so that became the selection method. During our exploration of the cuisine of the Orient, we discovered that, despite our varied backgrounds we all seemed to have intersected somewhere previously or at least touched on some history of the other: the last trip to Germany I visited Remscheid, which the German's ancestors had built large chunks of; my favourite restaurant in La Jolla was well known to the San Diegoan.

Lunch extended well into the afternoon sessions such that I almost didn't bother returning at all, but then some sense of duty persuaded me. I did hear a very good talk about the role of chemistry in the liberal arts education, which made me glad I returned.

On the Monday I attended a very nice reception at the SMART Museum on the campus of University of Chicago hosted by one of the major publishers. What, you may ask, was the humble SSCP doing there? Well, he was cashing in on all the hours spent working on little bits of other peoples' books. Niva Tro was there, exhausted after a long week promoting his new general chemistry book; Bruce Bursten was there too, sort of, because he had the look about him of a man who was thinking there was probably something more important he should be doing. He alone seemed to merit the constant attention of a young (and attractive) member of the publisher's staff. We were also entertained with a very nice presentation on the role of microscopy in the art world (appropriate for the location) given by someone from McCrone (in nearby Westmont).

Wednesday saw my time to present. I had to curtail my morning class and hightail down in time to load the presentation prior to the session beginning. It all went smoothly. Not unsurprisingly, all the effort and the time spent was rewarded by an audience of about eight. I was later comforted to find a session on nanotechnology in a comparatively vast room attracted an even smaller audience of maybe five. Perhaps all the chemists are lost somewhere in the vast depths of McCormick Place. I took in one more nanotechnology session, which was much better attended, and the talks were quite interesting. The highlight was the discovery that one of the talks addressed work that I was directly involved with almost thirty years ago. The use of lithium intercalation into various transition metals oxides was the focus of my group in Oxford and later when I visited Exxon in 1979. There on the screen I was seeing the kinds of voltage/composition curve in LixV2O5 that we had constructed back in those days. Here, the work involved doing the same thing on "nano" crystals of these materials. Absolute vindication of my old supervisor's pet saying that there was nothing ever new in chemistry. I had to take a few minutes at the end to talk with the presenter about it, and we had a good chat for a few minutes.