Sunday, August 27, 2006

Melbourne, part 1

So, I'm about 3 days through a week and a half of back to back conferences in Melbourne. I don't have many coherent thoughts so far, so here are just a few disjointed items:

-The cab ride from the airport to the Agilent headquarters cost just as much as the plane ticket to Melbourne, and took twice as long as the flight.

-Science is big. Confined to my lab and my areas of expertise, it is easy to forget just how much totally different stuff is out there, and that it is all just as complex and pedantic as what I do (if not more so).

-Astronomers don't know shit about planets. If you want to identify a planet, ask a planetary scientist.

-Friday night, Rhys played his entire rack to stretch an eight letter word between two triple word scores, for a whopping 194 pointer (that's scrabble, if you haven't figured that out yet).

-Hanging Rock is an excellent picnic site.

The Agilent conference and the Sunday worship at the MCG were both spectacular in very different ways, and each deserve a full-length blog of their own.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Houston, we have a poster

I finished my poster. It ain’t pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. My boss was actually suggesting that I sex it up a bit, add some pictures, trim some text, etc. This would be a good idea, for most posters. But not this one. It is a subject that 99% of people just won’t care about no matter how many pretty pictures you have. Alkali background reduction in routine laser ICPMS analysis is not a catchy title. There is no data on the poster- all 360-odd measurements are of backgrounds- so it isn’t the sort of thing that a clever field picture will reel people into. However, anyone who can’t do their research because of these backgrounds will get sucked right in. I did this project because the backgrounds were kicking my butt, and hampering the research progress of one of our PhD students. It is one of those things where, if you do have this problem, you’ll crawl over broken glass, withstand blinding radiation, and read a square meter of 6 point font in order to get a handle on it. So that is exactly what I will make those people do. Now excuse me, but I need to break a few more bottles.

Monday, August 21, 2006


According to my site-logs, two of my colleagues have spent a substantial portion of this evening reading this blog. To their credit, they didn’t hit the site until well after 5:00pm. They don’t seem to have left any comments, but just in case, I have added a disclaimer, to the right. The only thing I know for sure is that I’d better finish this conference poster- I certainly don’t have time to peruse the blogosphere three days before a conference. After all, the search requests that have lead just about all the "real world" (Where "real" is considered to be equivalent to "geologists who use laser ablation") have been about the subject of this poster. So enquiring minds want to know...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Poster Apprehension


I’ve overcome my 600% yield (standardization error) and the fact that the last 6 months of data came on 180 printout sheets with no electronic copies to assemble all the data for my poster. My data point has multiplied into four 90 point series. So now all I need to do is put the poster together. And this terrifies me.

The last time I had to do a poster, the process involved color negatives, scissors, and glue. This will be my first poster in the digital age. And I have no idea how to be swish, or colorful, or eye-catching. I’m terrified of putting together a bland, rickety-looking, hard-to-read-from-five-meter old man poster. I understand my subject matter, but the presentation technology is exceedingly intimidating.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

My Very Endearing Mother Certainly Just Shot Up Near Prison Cell 2003

If the IAU has their way, then this title is the menomic that school children will be learning to memorize the planets of the solar system. All twelve of them. Starting with Mercury and ending with 2003 UB313. Further planets, possibly as many as 50, would then be able to apply for planetary status via a committee.

That sucks. Even worse, it strikes me as an anti-Plutoist scheme. A while ago, they suggested that Pluto be demoted, in much the same way as Ceres was in the early 19th century. After that cryophobic definition was met with public outcry, they changed their tune, and this is most likely their fall-back position: use a definition so loose that every quasi-spherical lump of ice this side of Alpha Centauri qualifies.

I suspect they will use the natural resistance to the possibility of 50 planets to come back with, “Well, we could use a tighter definition, but Pluto won’t qualify.”

This, of course, is hogwash.

First, consider the inclusion of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. Charon is only 8.5 times smaller than Pluto, making it the largest relative moon to its planet. In second place is the Earth-Moon system, with an 81.3 times mass difference. Given that the committee has not suggested removing moon status from the Moon, their double planet cutoff point must lie somewhere between these two numbers.

This is obviously a shameless attempt to further delegitimize Pluto. After all, if Charon is a planet, then everything else with a radius more than 605 km might also claim that title. Then we have 50, 100, or more planets, mostly very dim and very far away. The obvious solution is to leave Charon a moon, and say that only the largest body in an orbital system qualifies as a planet.

2003 UB313 claims planet status on the argument that it is larger than Pluto. Since it is almost twice as far out, nothing is currently known about its orbital interaction with other bodies, its moons, its atmosphere, or even its final name. This just goes to show that the anti-Plutonists are the sorts of guys who believe that size is the only thing that matters, and that activity, process, and detail are irrelevant.

Ceres is a more interesting candidate. It was originally called a planet when discovered in 1801. However, it was later demoted after the discoveries of other asteroids during the mid-ninteenth century. Recently, however, interest has re-emerged, as a result of some geophysical modeling, which suggests that it may be a differentiated body, containing a liquid water ocean between an icy crust and a rocky core.

If this is the case, then Ceres may be tied with Europa as the second most promising body in the solar system on which to find life. And no, the first is not Mars. If you don’t know what the best planet to find life on is, then you really, Really, REALLY need to spend less time in front of your computer, and more interacting with the world around you.

If Ceres does end up having active internal- or even surface- processes, then it may merit a return to the big leagues. After all, imagine if it did host the only non-terrestrial life in the solar system. How would the Ceres microbes feel when getting taunted by our own? “You’re only an asteroid germ.” Fortunately, Ceres is due to be visited by the uncancelled Dawn spacecraft in 2015, the same year that Pluto Express flies by that planetary system.

Unfortunately, the IAU absurdity doesn’t end with the dirty dozen planetary suggestion. The union has additionally suggested that all large trans-Neptunian bodies be called “plutons.” Presumably, this would make the Kupier Belt a “Batholith.” Imagine the confusion that would result if it was determined that Pluto had a granitic core.

But the ignorance of the space cadets who proposed a term already used in planetary science is a side issue to the subject of Pluto, and all the Pluto wannabes in the cold space beyond.

If I had the power of planetary definition, I would suggest that, to be a planet, a body must have a surface younger than the late heavy bombardment, and possibly an atmosphere. Pluto would qualify on both counts, but Mercury would fail this test. Of course, Mercury has been devoid of planetary processes for 3.8 billion years, so even if it is a planet, it is so boring that after the Mariner 10 flyby, it was abandoned for 35 years, and more than half of the surface remains unmapped today. Pluto, Ceres, and Vesta have been mapped with the Hubble Telescope, but Mercury just isn’t worth the risk. In terms of planetary chemical evolution, nothing has happened on Mercury that hasn’t also been observed on the asteroid Vesta, and our own Moon seems to have had a more interesting history.

However, due to historical precedent, I think a more forgiving definition of planets should be devised. In the interest of science, this definition should encourage exploration and expansion of human knowledge, instead of merely provoking committee bickering and cryophobia. It should be possible to craft a definition that allows future planets, if they are sufficiently special, but is not so restrictive that Pluto and Mercury get dumped.

So, my suggestion for a planet is this:
1. It should be round today- so formerly round bodies that cooled, became brittle, and broke up don’t count.
2. It should be chemically differentiated. Thus, in addition to being round, it should have had the unmixable components gravitationally separated.
3. It can’t be orbiting a larger body (because then it is a moon).

The eight large planets obviously qualify. Pluto probably does, based on the density and the presence of an atmosphere and frost (which indicates at least partial differentiation). As for Ceres and 2003 UB313? Well, that’s the beauty of this definition. If a second-grader asks if they are really planets, instead of boring him with committee recommendations and pedantic debate points, we give him a scientific answer: “We don’t know yet; we need to send a spacecraft there in order to find out.” Our planetary system deserves nothing less.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Phase Diagram of Terror

From Cosmic Variance, via Dr. Free-Ride. I think the point is that if we pumped all commercial aircraft down to high vacuum, and cooled the cabin to absolute zero, we wouldn't have to worry about liquids. Or terrorists.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A blog for Jul

Since she expressed interest, here is one of my most popular organochemical synthesis protocols:

Chocolate Chip Cookie synthesis (SI version)

1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup white sugar
250g butter
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp NaHCO3 (bicarb, or baking soda)
1/3 tsp NaCl (adjust to flavour)
3 cups white flour
250 g dark chocolate chip or bar.

Mix butter and sugars. Whisk in eggs, vanilla.

Mix bicarb soda, salt, and flour. Mix flour into dough.

Mix chips/chunks of bar into batter by hand.

Spoon or place cookies on ungreased baking sheet.

Bake at 180 C for 10 minutes, or until slightly browned.

This is the simplified metric version of my family recipe. It has been field tested on four continents, in two different languages. A metric cup is 250ml. A metric teaspoon is 5 ml.

This recipe assumes light or golden brown sugar. Brown/white sugar ratio can be adjusted to suit local brown sugar strength. Brown sugar can be synthesized from molasses/golden syrup and white sugar, if no local supplier is available.

The salt content of butter varies from place to place, so the amount of salt to be added should be adjusted to taste.

Duck eggs have been used instead of chicken eggs, but they do not result in any significant improvement. The egg is not an SI unit, but a naturally quantized fundamental particle. It cannot be fissioned without creating a mess.

Some people prefer a broken up bar of dark chocolate over chips.

If baking in an oven with an exposed bottom heating element, place an unused baking tray on a lower rack to prevent radiant heating of the baking tray, which can burn the bottom of the cookies. These cookies have been successfully cooked in the temperature range 150-190C, although cooking times obviously vary. Care is advised if cooking on a wood fired oven, or any oven with large temperature gradients.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fatal nocturnal liaison

I saw an owl while riding home Thursday night. I heard a flutter on the bike path ahead of me, so I grabbed for the brakes. Looking up, I saw, suspended in the air in front of my bicycle, a dead white rat, dangling from a grey-brown blur. Despite its lack of vitality, the bloody rat corpse bobbed and weaved through the air in front of me, before slowly rising into a nearby willow tree on the shore of the lake. I stopped the bike, watched the white blur of the rat in the moonlight until it came to a stop in the upper branches, then shone my cycling light into the tree where the rat had come to rest. Staring back at me with big golden eyes was an owl, which had coalesced from the blur that I had previously spotted. Very cool.

The owl was very owl-colored and owl looking, about the size of a sulphur-crested cockatoo (with a bigger-looking head, of course), or maybe half the size of the American great horned owl. It made no calls or hoots, and I quickly turned my light away so as not to damage its night vision. Having spotted the owl, I was content to continue on my way, as I figured that further interaction would keep the owl from its dinner, and I did not want to be rude.

Being in an excitable state of mind as a result of the Bunsen Burner triumph, I started wondering about the provenance of the white dinner rat. A few months back, at a biologist’s dinner party, I talked to a guy from the medical school who genetically engineered white mice for medical experiments. One of the things he complained about was the density of paperwork surrounding the tracking and disposal of his charges, compared with, say, the mousetraps- or the cat- at home. It’s absurd,” he said, “These mice are so inbred that they could never survive in the wild.” Had I just witnessed a confirmation of this hypothesis?

In nature, white rats are not common, for reasons of natural selection such as the one that I observed. So perhaps this rat was a laboratory escapee. The medical school was only a kilometer away, and perhaps the genetic engineering created a rat capable of tunneling under, or swimming across Sullies Creek.

If so, then perhaps this owl would be subjected to inter-species genetic transfer, and become a super-raptor. Perhaps next week, I would see it shooting rats with laser beams from its eyes. Perhaps the week after it would be glowing green in the darkness, and a fortnight after that it would have immunity to rat poison, DDT, and other high foodchain toxins.

Then I realized that it was mice, not rats that they engineered, so none of that was possible. Thus, the rat I saw was probably either snake-food that thought it had escaped its fate, or some urban hipster’s fru-fru pet. Either way, I hope the bird enjoyed its dinner.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Getting to the point

I now have a data point to put on my poster I’m doing for the conference at the end of the month. Correction. That should be a “datum” point, because there is only one. Datum. Singular. Some people like to use a datum point to make all sorts of extravagant extrapolations about life, the universe, the Hadean, and all sorts of other underconstrained systems. I prefer a more conservative approach. So what I’m thinking, for this poster, is just that. I will have the title, at the top. Then my name (Dr. Lemming), and my institution. No references, no introduction, no annoying blocks of text that nobody ever reads. Just a huge, meter by meter white space, with a single point in the middle. I’ll add the appropriate axes, properly labeled, of course, but because it is just one measurement, there isn’t really any way that I can include statistical errors. So it will just be a single point, suspended in a sea of meaningless white, devoid of context.

Interpretation is what universities hire academics to produce. I’m a techo. I just measure the datum.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Memeory Lane 2

Although the existence of any such superior race has been generally rejected, the idea was revived by Hitler for political purposes, and became part of the anti-Semitic doctrine of the Nazis. Aryanism n. belief in an ‘Aryan Race’ and esp. in the theory of its racial and cultural superiority. Aryanization n. the act of Aryanizing, the fact of being Aryanized.

The meme (courtesy of Jul):

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don’t you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.
6. Tag zero people.

The book was The new shorter Oxford English dictionary, volume 1.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Burn Bunsen Burn

Burn Bunsen Burn

I did real chemistry today. Not wire twisting, not ion counting, not pansy-faced computer modeling. Real, labcoat chemistry. It was nothing intricate, or complicated. All I actually did was thermally decompose some hydrates and nitrates. But the manner in which I performed this task is what makes me a bona-fide chemist. When I executed this decomposition, I did it using a pair of tongs, a crucible, and a Bunsen burner.

The Bunsen burner is the defining apparatus of chemistry. I don’t care if you can fold polypeptides into protein bowties. I don’t care if you can measure parts per squillion in refractory oxides. I don’t even care if you can synthesize a living dachshund from first principles, using only a plaster cast, a bag of fertilizer, and a bottle of ten-year-old scotch. If you don’t use a Bunsen burner to perform these tasks, it isn’t real chemistry.

Now, watching ammonium nitrate boil and bubble and decompose over the Bunsen burner* may not seem like the most exciting task in the world, but it was actually a pretty big deal for me. This particular decomposition was the final step in three weeks of aqueous chemistry, and the first sample, the analytical blank that the professor performed for us peons as a method demonstration, ended up coming out a dud.

The other techo and I, who basically tried to copy the professor’s protocol as best we could, were obviously a bit nervous. So nervous, in fact, that I started weighing everything. Even the intermediate steps, which were totally meaningless. But my crucible boiled and bubbled, the steam turned from white to brown, and eventually, at the end of the day, we had a 101% yield. A second weigh gave us 103%. And it continued to rise (the product was a wee bit hydroscopic). So compared to the 57% from the failed run, it was a glorious number to behold.

I finished the stabilization and homogenization this evening, and started preparing the final product for analysis; with a little luck, I’ll be getting data by 9 tomorrow morning. With the Goldschmidt conference only three weeks away, I really do need to start collecting some data. It seemed to be a good idea at the time, but now I’m thinking that submitting a placeholder abstract might have been a wee bit riskier than I had originally anticipated. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

* If Tim McVeigh had used a Bunsen burner and crucible to decompose his ammonium nitrate instead of mixing it with racecar fuel, then he, and 167 other people, would still be alive today.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Memeory lane

Two memes in a week? Either I’m getting lazy, or I’ve been put on the spot. But since Dr. Shellie asked nicely, here it is; you folks will have to wait ‘till the end of the week before I start actually talking about analytical science again.
1. One book that changed your life?
The complete works of William Shakespeare
2. One book you have read more than once?
“Green Eggs and Ham.”
3. One book you would want on a desert island?
Are there other blokes on this island with me? If so, “Lord of the Flies.”
4. One book that made you laugh?
“Over the edge: Death in the Grand Canyon”
5. One book that made you cry?
My Ph.D. thesis.
6. One book you wish had been written?
A version of Gilgamesh with the text of the broken tablets.
7. One book you wish had never been written?
“State of Fear:” It made me lose respect for a sci-fi author I used to like.
8. One book you are currently reading?
“Moby Dick”- I’ve been reading for over a year now, one paragraph at a time, in between exposures in the SEM lab.
9. One book you have been meaning to read?
“The Origin of Species.” This used to be my SEM book, before I put it down for “Moby Dick”.
10. I don’t like to put specific people on the spot, so I’ll pass on this question.

Have horn, will toot.

I have been asked to be an occasional contributor for the brain parade website, so from time to time my irreverent remarks will appear to contrast their somber statements. The first one is here.