Friday, March 30, 2007

Total C-F

To say I was surprised when I unfurled the Tribune this morning to accompany my breakfast comestibles is something of an understatement. For there, on the front page of the business section, was a rather grainy picture of Pons and Fleischmann, prime villains of the Cold Fusion fiasco of some 18 years standing. What, I thought, not CF rediscovered? Perhaps a quiet day on the news front because there was little justification for the extent of coverage; it merely stated that there was a session on the topic, sparsely attended it noted, at the recent American Chemical Society meeting (the SSCP's report still to follow on that little shindig). That there was a session at all on this tired old fraud was something of a surprise to me, but I suppose the society has to sell a few registrations - the spirit of open mindedness and so on.

While munching on my GOLEAN (but hopefully not lightly) I reflected upon those events back in the day. I was working at Amoco (now BP) in Naperville then and, being an energy company, there was naturally considerable interest in the topic; after all, it would look really bad if something as potentially important, no matter how improbable, as cold fusion was to pass by un-noticed. So, I became a member of a watchdog team to monitor "progress." The Tribune article said that PundF (there is almost a German sense about him) were given a standing O by the ACS (I did not remember that); but I do remember the physics community putting them to the sword with almost ungracious enthusiasm. Whether that says something about the difference between the culture of chemistry and physics or not I can't say. Maybe if PundF were physicists it might have been different.

We tried to maintain an open mind and evaluate the observations on their merits, no matter how unlikely it all seemed. I think part of the reason why several were prepared to go further and hail them as heroes was that it was only a few years since the epoch-making discovery of high-temperature superconductors, which were very real (although to this day significant commercial applications have eluded them), had demolished the conventional wisdom that the era of sensational breakthroughs had long passed. High Tc had turned the science world upside down with its dramatic revision of what was possible in superconductivity; so people were likely more susceptible to believe the extraordinary was possible in fusion.

The huge difference between the two discoveries was that, as is the case with any new announcement, when others flocked in to join the party, the results with CF could not be reproduced, whereas those with high Tc were all too easy to reproduce (in fact, as an aside, I gave a demo of high Tc at Plainfield High School). I remember we were visited by a "theoretical physicist," actually from a real university in Michigan if memory serves, who offered to sell us an exclusive right to his theory which explained it all for only about $70,000. We didn't bite. To imagine such con artists travelling the country trying to take corporations for a ride. There were reports of tritium from a lab in Texas A&M (if I recall) where the professor was the famous J.O'M. Bockris. To me this seemed the most reasonable and solid evidence so far; for how else to explain the presence of a new isotope, except through the action of a nuclear process? Shortly all became clear: the lab was being visited by funding agencies, and then the reports of spiking the experiments circulated. From that moment on I washed my hands of the whole business. I felt personally humiliated by those crooks in Texas.

The things that some people will do for a grant. I am sure it happens more frequently than is reported. Fortunately though, for the integrity of science and the maintenance of a reliable and practical way for its funding and dissemination of information, the instances of fraud are an extremely small portion of the whole. Years later, in another context entirely, I met an official of the University of Utah (the unfortunate birthplace of CF) who recounted the appalling embarrassment of the whole thing - at least in his eyes - for some in the university were all too eager to cash in on the new found fame. Perhaps PundF were to some extent unwitting victims, though there actions subsequent do not seem to bear that out.

Even now, as I wanted to check PundF's original location, I find the Internet full of CF sites and reports of new discoveries as if the whole thing is really still happening. There is talk of F (sans P now) joining a company called D2Fusion as a senior scientific advisor, with a goal of commercializing some new technology based on fusion. What fools or miscreants can be funding this nonsense? Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the imperative to treat the Internet with the utmost of suspicion when searching for information. Is there something in the deuterated water that hooks these people? Now if D2Fusion were to make me an offer...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The anti-community college

Somewhat out of character for my COD (as opposed to myCOD) career to date, this past week has been conference season. The SSCP has exhausted himself flogging to all points (well Joliet Junior College and McCormick Place) to meet with fellow practioners of the chemical arts. Some rather unprepossessing sandwiches and extensively boiled cups of coffee were had along the way; but at the same time I was also able to take advantage of the largesse of one of the larger publishers at a couple of shindigs (of course they would not alter my position on any future book adoptions you understand). As I was hammering down I-55 for what seemed like an eternity in search of the illusive JJC, I was given to reflecting upon the generally soul-less nature of most community colleges I have visited. For one thing, they are often in the least communal of places; JJC is no exception, being somewhere in the vast unpopulated acreage between Joliet and Plainfield, nestling among a regional airport and a cemetry. They often share a complete absence of local resources to nourish the thousands of students that presumably do get hungry, want coffee, need entertainment. At JJC, Jimmy John's seemed to be about it. As for a beverage, forget it. One would think that a few enterprising restaurants could make a fortune in this community.

Then there are the buildings: they are often large, echoing and sterile. JJC is no exception; the buildings are vast; I felt as if I was navigating the terminals at ORD as I strode manfully to obtain the meeting's location. It was about half a mile between the refreshments and the lecture theatre. Of course, at COD we have the formidably horrendous IC (or BIC - poor Mr. Berg) to hold up as an example of anti-architecture.

Parkland Community College near Champaign is one exception that I have visited - the buildings have a sense of intimacy and warmth. Waubonsee, by virtue of its small size, is also friendly, but its location in the wilderness of Rte 47 leaves it wanting severely in that department.

At least at COD we can flog down to Danada for some entertainments, gastronomic or otherwise, so perhaps I do protest too much. I do much wonder though about how seriously the college wishes to create a sense of community for its student population. There is a radio station and an arts center, neither of which shows any particular interest in embracing the student population. Really, WDCB is a college radio station in name only. It's programming is entirely irrelevant to the college life; I can't imagine that the student population is captivated by the endless hours of jazz that pour forth during the daylight hours. No students appear to participate in its shows. The MAC at least has student productions, but the commercial shows are all very much targeted towards the older community - unless one counts Natalie McMaster or Richard Thompson as popstars. Even Benedictine has bands on its campus. I don't entirely understand it.

More later on the SSCPs outings to Chicago...

Monday, March 26, 2007

There is hope for COD chemists

In one of those moments of synchronicity that the likes of Werner Kriegelstein would find highly significant, shortly after reading the article in the Tribune about alternative career paths for disillusioned chemists, I received a note from a former student who is now at Loyola. A brief glance at the note revealed the dreaded letters MCAT, and my initial thought was sadly influenced by that article; the untimely end of another fine career I supposed, another pole dancer to add to the list. But, no, in fact this student revealed happily that she had murdered the MCAT and found that her COD career had prepared her better than the majority of her mates for success in chemistry. It's something we like to think is the case, but have very little quantitative information to substantiate it. The more I learn about university life over here, the more I question the value of spending those first two years in those large prestigious universities when the same can be had, and perhaps better, at a humble community college. What I find particularly aggravating is the disdain with which some of the faculty members at these universities treat our members. "Bottom feeders" I have heard applied. If any of these faculty members from these "elite" universities firmly believe their courses are superior to mine, I will gladly compare notes and alter them to match. But I somehow think that won't be necessary.

A year ago I spent a rather cold Sunday on spring break (I was particularly peeved at the timing because there were no cheap flights and the security line at ORD at 5 AM was absurdly long) jetting down to Atlanta to interview with an author of an upcoming GOB chemistry book. They were looking for a co-author for the G part. Well, I auditioned for the part, but in the end was not selected. They liked the work but considered it too high level. Since I had basically converted my lecture materials from the 1211 class into the chapters, my students should take note that they are receiving a higher level course than is considered for a large production text book. So much for bottom feeders.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Career pathways not generally recommended by advisors

The Spring Break allows us generally hard working faculty a few extra moments to catch up on what's happening in the world. I don't often venture far into the Tempo section of the Tribune but today my eye fell upon an article about ex-"Girls Gone Wild." Clearly important stuff, I read further. The first ex concerned a certain Tracey who had graduated magna cum laude with a chemistry degree. Not often one reads about chemistry in the same context as wild girls, but all to the good so I thought. Highly motivated she pursued her ambition to enter medical school but repeatedly fell at the MCAT hurdle. Now, not exactly following the script that we professional educators (or parents) advocate (you know, never give up, keep on trying till you succeed - the sort of MJ myth that sold a million inspirational books to young boys (I bought one for mine)), she promptly gave the whole thing up and became an "exotic dancer." Life was never better apparently, fawned over (her words) as she was by rich men and celebrities, awash in money. Years later, as a suburban housewife, she professes absolutely no regrets.

There is a moral in the story, but I have yet to unravel it completely. One response would be to eliminate the MCAT, but that is probably not it. As educators far and wide wail, moan and gnash their teeth, and beat their breasts and lament about the decline of interest in the sciences amongst the nation's youth, and write proposals for elaborate projects for millions of dollar to be funded by the National Science Foundation to recapture that lost interest, Tracey is scarcely a good role model.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Early thoughts of a novice blogger

Well, I just took a look at what I had composed previously, and there it was, looking all professional like and elegant in its custom template. I am feeling content. I think I could almost change the world with this new found power. I'm sure that is what all the other 10,000,000 bloggers out there are all thinking.

I have often wondered why the walls in public toilets are now much cleaner than they used to be. Where did all that humerous and thoughtful graffiti go? Did all the intellectuals stop going to the lavatory en masse? No, they are all blogging instead.

My readers will have to be patient with my while I adapt to this new world. And over the next few postings I will enlighten you all as to the nature of the rather suggestive title. Gordon Ramsey fans though might get the point quicker. It's about chemistry...

The first day

In the space of a few minutes and key strokes I have undergone a transformation. A few moments ago I was one of those lost people, holdovers from the land before the internet, who had no voice. Now I have entered a whole new glittering world of possibility: I created a Blog. To be honest, unlike St Paul on the Damascus Road, I do not yet feel changed. In fact, even as I write my first stumbling thoughts, I am not even sure that they will be seen by anyone but me. I wonder, how does it all work? It is largely a mystery to me. In fact, I will stop now and take a look to see what my readers (?) will see.