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.


Mary said...

WTF? There are an awful lot of acronyms that the unschooled might not understand. Which just makes them feel even more stupid.

sam said...

Ah, to the untrained, unschooled eye, Dr. Jarman may appear to scribe in a schizophrenc word salad, but in all actuality it's more like "Jar-speak"