The True Source of Chemical Bonds

Move over G.N. Lewis. Forget electron sharing, bonding orbitals, and ionic attraction. xkcd has finally deduced the secret of chemical bonding. (And guess what? I see some unexpected connections between C and U chemistry!)

Typographic Chemistry, xkcd #1442

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Eric Mazur on Assessment

Eric Mazur is well known in science teaching circles for the innovative teaching approaches that he has popularized. He pays close attention to student behavior and data on student performance, and he also thinks deeply about what is going on in our classrooms. Most importantly, he isn’t afraid to try new things and advocate for them. So when he says something is wrong with the way we assess student work, one should listen. Or better yet, watch and listen because his 2013 lecture* “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning,” can be found on YouTube.

*Presented on Oct 29, 2013 as the Dudley Herschbach Teacher/Student Lecture

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Environmental Summit echoes one year later

The Dalai Lama Environmental Summit was held in Portland in May 2013. Many thousands attended. Maitripa College, the first Tibetan Buddhist college in the Pacific NW, has released a free 11 minute video highlighting some of the speakers, ideas, and feelings from that day. I hope some of this continues to echo one year later.

See the video. It will make you smile.

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Do what we must: Divest !!!

Reed’s plans to divest all fossil fuel holdings from its endowment were announced today by commencement speaker, Igor Vamos ’93. In the midst of his speech, which focused largely on the challenges of climate change, he told today’s graduates that their job is to “do what they must” to address these challenges rather than just “do what they love” (a reference to a phrase used by Steve Jobs at a Stanford commencement address). Vamos then added that Reed College Pres. John Kroger had informed him over breakfast of Reed’s decision to join 11 other colleges and universities and divest from fossil fuel companies.

This statement, along with much of the speech, was greeted with wild and enthusiastic applause. Let’s hope that the President and the Board of Trustees were listening.


May 22nd update: link to the Oregonian’s coverage of the Vamos prank.

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Prof. Cynthia McClure, 1953-2014

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.

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And the Oscar goes to…

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).

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Animation students take on science

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:

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This Machine Surrounds Hate

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.

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What is an Atom?

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’.

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Burma in Transition: A Photographic Essay

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.

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