In a few days I’ll sit under the big white tent and watch a few hundred Reed seniors walk across the platform and accept their diplomas. It will be a proud, happy moment for the graduate, their family, and all of us at Reed. Then, hours later they will drive away from campus, heading off into a new life. Maybe a job, more school, or just testing the waters for what to do next.
All of this takes me back to my own college graduation in 1976. It was a sunny day in Pasadena and even as I accepted my diploma I was already thinking ahead to Madison, Wisconsin, my future destination. I wasn’t really interested in a ‘summer vacation’ (I had come down with a case of senioritis in the final quarter of my senior year so that had felt like vacation enough) and I was eager to get into a real research lab and start on my life’s work: being a professional organic chemist.
While I’m on the topic of science animations (see Animation Students take on Science), here’s another one that certainly deserves a larger audience. (And maybe should have attracted a little more notice at last Sunday’s Oscar ceremony?)
What is a Scientific Theory?
The video tackles the distinction between scientific theorizing and water-cooler speculation right from the start with, “You might say that you have a theory about alien spaceships or who ate the last piece of cake, but a scientist would not call these theories.” One key difference: scientific theories rest on facts. But there’s more.
Like the animations that I posted yesterday, this one came about as a 2012 class assignment. The class was offered jointly by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and the video was written, animated, and assembled, by two Brown undergrads: Jessica Brodsky and Alexis Shusterman (disclosure: my daughter).
The Commercial Animation students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts may have thought that their science days were over, but their professor, John Serpentelli, had other ideas. Last year he asked his class to create animated movies that would bring archival materials from the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s collection back to life. Here are the results:
The Times reported today that Pete Seeger died in Manhattan yesterday. He was 94. That means he was already 70 when I arrived at Reed.
My older brother was the first one to share Seeger’s name with me and it was also through him that I first heard Seeger’s music: One summer, while my brother was in college, a friend asked him to store a box of LPs for the break. One of those LPs was an early 60’s recording of Seeger singing at Carnegie Hall concert on behalf of some social cause (freedom riders most likely, but perhaps labor or Vietnam war). I played that album 40 times or more that summer and I could sing every song by heart. It never occurred to me that I was probably ruining the LP by playing it so often and my brother never complained.
Peter Atkins (Oxford) is legendary among chemists for his prolific writings (almost 60 books and still writing) and his gift for presenting difficult material in new, accessible, and highly readable ways. Reading his descriptions of an elementary topic can make me feel like I am understanding it for the first time. In his latest book, What is Chemistry? (Oxford, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-19-968398-7), he tackles the arrangement of electron “clouds” inside the atom in this way:
“I need to make more precise the nature and structure of those clouds, for they are not just regions of swirling mist … Electrons surround the nucleus in layers, rather like real clouds lying above each other, but encircling the entire atom. The concept of an electron being a ‘cloud’ needs a quick word of explanation. The cloud is really a cloud of probability: where it is dense, the electron is likely to be found; where it is sparse, the electron is unlikely to be found.”
He also deals with a common misunderstanding:
“It is often said that atoms are mostly empty space. That simply isn’t true. The cloudlike distributions of electrons fill the whole of space around the tiny fly-in-a-stadium-sized nucleus. Admittedly the cloud is very thin in parts; but it is there and all-pervasive.”
I guess you could say that an atom is filled with ‘probability’.
My longtime Portland friend and Fulbright scholar, Geoff Hiller, has a talent for taking pictures. He has traveled the world, most recently in Asia, collecting scenes from temples, mosques, weddings, open air markets, art schools, you name it. Now he’s turning to Kickstarter to launch a very special book: Burma in Transition.
This is something very special to see and share with others. And, if you can do it, support.
Today’s issue of C&E News, the weekly magazine of the American Chemical Society, is a special one. Celebrating 90 years of publication, the issue contains 9 down-to-earth articles describing How Chemistry Changed The World: 9 for 90. The lead-off article on G.N. Lewis and the chemical bond has to be my favorite, but right behind it are the Trying to Explain a Bond slide show, Chemistry By the Numbers (computational chemistry and It’s Not Easy Being Green (environmental chemistry).
Last week’s C&ENews (Sept 2, 2013) reports on a new video/book project, “A Chemical Imbalance,” sponsored by professor Polly L. Arnold at the University of Edinburgh. The project which profiles a history of discrimination in chemistry at the university can be viewed online. Prof. Arnold, who was awarded the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin award in 2012, says, “The video will make you laugh, and then you’ll be embarrassed by it.”
While the battle for gender parity at the University of Edinburgh has been fought for over a century, current signs suggest that parity is nearly at hand. Half of Edinburgh’s named professorships are held by women, and one-third of senior faculty members are women.
It’s back-to-school time again and that means it is time to check out the Sierra Club’s annual list of green colleges (“Do Green Schools Matter?” and “Complete Rankings: America’s Coolest Schools”, Sierra, Sept/Oct 2013).
Sadly, the list doesn’t include Reed, but some schools from the Pacific NW performed well, including Oregon State U (#11), U Washington (#12), Evergreen State College (#17), Southern Oregon U (#26) and Portland State U (#31).
A number of familiar liberal arts colleges also cracked the Top 100: Lewis & Clark (#19), Pomona (#30), Middlebury (#41), Wellesley (#50), Macalester (#57), Carleton (#60), U. Puget Sound (#75), Wesleyan (#83), Bard (#86), Hampshire (#89), Mills (#90), Colby (#95), and Kenyon (#97).
Neils Bohr Archive/Copenhagen
The ‘Bohr atom’, or more properly, Neils Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom, was announced to the world 100 years ago. A hydrogen atom contains only one proton and one electron, but its internal structure was a mystery to scientists. Why didn’t the negatively charged electron ‘fall into’ the positively charge nucleus? Why did excited hydrogen atoms emit radiation of specific colors (wavelengths) and not others? Neils Bohr explained it all. And while his model was replaced in the mid-20’s by Schrodinger’s wave formulation, many of his discoveries have stuck around as basic concepts in science:
- the idea of ‘stationary states’ in which atoms (or molecules) can exist in a state of defined energy and then undergo a transition to a state of higher (or lower) energy
- ΔE = hν, the connection between changes in energy state and radiation frequency
- R, the ‘Rydberg constant’, = 2π2me4/h3
To read a bit more about Bohr’s discovery, check out “100 Years of Atomic Theory” by David C. Clary (Science, 19 July 2013, p. 244, DOI: 10.1126/science.1240200). There’s also an author interview (podcast).