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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90 Years of Chemistry in C&E News

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).

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“A Chemical Imbalance”

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.

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Sierra Club report: are colleges going green?

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).

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100 Years of the Bohr Atom

Neils Bohr

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).

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Still smiling …

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, visited Portland’s Memorial Coliseum last month at the invitation of Maitripa College. So amazing … either he has the ability to single-handedly raise the spirits of 11,000 strangers, or we project that ability on to him so strongly that when he appears, our spirits rise effortlessly.

Dalai_Lama_small_2013I failed to pick up a white scarf (red arrow, click on photo to enlarge). Still, white scarf or not, my wife and I felt the blessings of his generosity, compassion, and good humor just the same. (The full photo of the audience, courtesy of the Oregonian, can be seen here.)

Maitripa College has posted videos of all five appearances of HHDL online here.

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Become a Reed senior: own a bit of science

Is science something you learn or is it something you do?

Reed students seem to spend an unusual amount of time on both. They spend hundreds of hours curled up with books and assignments, and they also spend hundreds of hours doing science, especially in their senior year when they embark on a year-long thesis project.

A recent article identifies five special characteristics of doing science that might help explain why so many Reedies become working scientists. The research, which was published in CBE – Life Science Education (2012, 11, 378, doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-04-0043), was summarized in the 8 Mar 2013 issue of Science (Editor’s Choice, p. 1127):

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Halfway around the world … in Islamabad

My buddy, Geoffrey Hiller, travels the world taking photos. He’s currently on assignment in Islamabad, Pakistan. Take a look at his travel blog, Inside Pakistan, for an amazing view of another world.

A scene from a recent campaign rally

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