Articles by: maz

ACS Day 2: March 22nd

An interesting day at the 239th ACS National Meeting and Exposition in San Francisco: The most popular booth at the expo, Open Access publishers, and Going meatless NOT the way to save the planet.

Aside from talks and meetings, the huge vendor exposition also takes place through Wednesday in Moscone South’s large Halls B&C.

As you can see, hundreds of vendors and many more hundreds of attendees showed up. An interesting and, after a quick headcount and comparison, the most popular booth at the Expo was Rod Griffin’s Australian Boulder Opal…jewelry display:

It just goes to show…even chemists can’t resist shiny things.

Also showing up were a few Open Access journals, such as Chemistry Central. These are free, online, peer-reviewed publications. A while back I wrote a pro vs. con on open-access journals here. Feel free to check it out and let me know what you think. Some “selling” points of Chemistry Central are:

  • free online access
  • peer review
  • authors retain copyright to their work
  • rapid publication

On the science side, an interesting report presented at the meeting concluded that decreasing the consumption of meat and dairy products won’t have a major effect in combating global warming. Unfortunately the misconception that the world “going meatless” will significantly reduce greenhouse gas production is becoming more popular. Initiatives like “Meatless Monday“, while we can respect their goal of improving our personal health, incorrectly believes that cutting back meat consumption will “improve the health of our planet”. There is even a European campaign called “Less Meat = Less Heat” that was launched late last year (although TreeHugger thought of that catch phrase first).

Now people who have read the 2006 UN report on climate change, which claimed that the livestock sector is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (measured in CO2 equivalents) than the transportation sector, will call foul on Frank Mitloehner, Ph. D. UC Davis; the air quality expert that presented the scientific rebuttal on Monday. He faulted the methodology of the UN report and contended that the numbers for the livestock sector were calculated differently from transportation. The calculated livestock emissions included gases produced by growing animal feed, animals’ digestive emissions, and processing meat and milk into foods. The transportation analysis factored in only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving and not all other transport life-cycle related factors. [ACS Press Release March 22, 12p.m.]

Mitloehner says that instead of focusing our efforts on cutting back meat consumption, developed countries should focus on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries where growing populations need more nutritious food and archaic farming practices produce more greenhouse gases.

There were a couple of other things. Cold Fusion quacks were out in force with their new book. Also, the Sci Mix was a blast, even if I didn’t get any drink tickets (and unlike Mitch, didn’t go begging). I found a lovely example of recycling in chemistry that I’ll blog about later.

By March 24, 2010 4 comments Uncategorized

Online Textbooks: ChemWiki Part 1

I remember buying my first O-chem books back when I was attending DVC (Diablo Valley College), a not-so-little community college here in the Bay Area. At first I checked the bookstore and lost my lunch when I saw the price of the new books. The text was $215, the lab manual was another $70, and the solutions manual was $100. Unfortunately, a new edition had been released that year, so even though the professor said that we could use older editions, many of the problem sets wouldn’t match up, so we’d have to get the problems from our classmates. In the end, the cheapest and most convenient route was to go online and buy the international editions. Even after extending the method to all my other classes, I still paid almost $500 for books that semester. Now I attended DVC before California went belly-up, so my classes were still a great bargain at $18 a unit. Since I usually took ~19 units, my total tuition cost was around $350 a semester. The cost of the books were actually greater than my cost of tuition. The sad thing is, this wasn’t an unusual case. Luckily this wasn’t too much of a hardship for me; I had a job on campus and money saved up. However, I knew a lot of students for whom the beginning of the semester meant not eating lunch in order to save up gas money.

Now students have probably been complaining about textbooks since time immemorial. Aristotle probably complained that his scribe made spelling mistakes in his copy of The Republic. Most of the time our bellyaching is justified. Not only do textbooks cost a lot, but there is often a gross amount of errors in them. Everyone knows that the first time you find a caption or answer wrong, it makes the rest of the book suspect. Also, these errors give the publishers a reason to release a next edition…that never seems to fix even half of the errors. However, they do switch around problem numbers, add a few pages of new content, and possibly even rearrange chapters. So now the professors lesson and homework plan, that goes by chapter numbers, page numbers, and problem numbers, is moot. And the student is effectively forced to buy the new edition (price “adjusted for inflation”) or suffer some inconveniences. Most choose to simply buy the new edition since tracking down the old one can be difficult and you have to be quick. Also, sometimes bookstores won’t buy back the old edition so if you had it, and an edition switch occurred before you finished your course track, you are up the creek.

Some of these issues can be addressed with online textbooks. The idea of supplementing physical texts with online modules has been around and implemented by publishers for many years. However, I’ve yet to see a good entirely online chemistry textbook. The advantages of online texts are of many: accessible anywhere you get 3G or Wi-Fi and have your mobile device, interactive learning capabilities, easy distribution, instant update/revision, and low cost publishing (server fees). Of course this won’t necessarily result the publisher make more money, but at 4 billion (yea, you read that correctly, billion) dollars a year, the industry doesn’t really need much help.

The student, however, does. We need these online textbooks, not just to save our wallet, but also to help prevent being stuck with an expensive and lousy text for a year that does a poor job of explaining the material. That expensive O-Chem book I bought really was terrible and it forced my professor to do a lot of extra work in teaching us not to follow the book’s direction of simply memorizing 500 reactions, but to see the patterns and the underlying physical explanations. In the end, we learned from his powerpoints and I paid $215 for a glorified reference book.

Well, some people are pioneering an effort to create an “Open Access Textbook”. In a perfect example of “chem 2.0”, UC Davis Professor Delmar Larsen is the project director of the ChemWiki, a truly free online textbook written by everyone, for everyone. In an absolutely Herculean effort, the developers and Larsen (Mary Obrien, Ron Rusay, Brent Krueger, Michelle McCombs) are trying to create a free and complete, as in covering all branches, chemistry textbook using a community of students, faculty, and outside experts from around the world. Of course they aren’t there yet, and there is still a long way to go but hey, their text literally gets better everyday.

Now I know you probably have a lot of questions: what about correctness and plagiarism? Could such a thing ever be considered an Authority? What do the publishers say? Does anyone actually use the thing? Well, it just so happened that a couple of weeks ago, I was at Davis for the Borge fellowship visitation and I had a chance to talk with professor Larsen who agreed to answer some of these questions for me. In a couple of days, I’ll post the interview here. For now, I suggest you go and check out and browse not just through the core, but the wikitexts and community as well.

Silly Find from the Internets

Not much today. I saw this earlier and remembered having one of these moments back in G-chem that made me want to break the stupid buret. Actually, that happened on the last day of the semester, during checkout, after I washed it and was walking to the stockroom to return it. I forgot how long the damn thing was, and as I was walked out of the lab the door closed on it, cleaving it in two.

Why was this necessary for us learn in lab? Would have been much more useful to teach us how to make an electronic one instead.

By December 15, 2009 5 comments Uncategorized

Antimatter generator…in the clouds?

Antimatter detected using a track etch detector.

Antimatter detected using a track etch detector.

In a very surprising series of measurements made by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, gamma events matching the signature of energetic positron decay were found just before, during, and after a pair of lightning storms.

For those not familiar, the Fermi telescope allows astronomers to study black holes, pulsars, the subatomic particles emitted by them, and very, very high energy particles far beyond what we are currently capable of producing on earth. Also, positrons are anti-electrons, a form of antimatter. They are also known as the emitted particle from Beta “+” decay, where a proton is hit by the magic wand force, and turned into a neutron, positron, and neutrino.

Now antimatter has never been seen in lightning storms before, although I do wonder how hard they looked. I mean, watch even just a normal patch of sky for long enough (although I really mean loooooonnnggg), and you’ll see lower energy gamma flashes from annihilation of positrons emitted from Oxygen-15, Nitrogen-13, Carbon-11, and maybe a couple of others. However, what the Fermi scope saw is interesting because the energetic decays imply that the electric field associated with the storm switched directions for some reason. See, normally they see gamma rays from decelerating electrons moving toward the detector, (Bremsstrahlung Radiation) however this time they saw radiation from the positrons. Now since positrons have the opposite charge of an electron, they move in the opposite direction in a given electric field orientation. So where electrons were braking, positrons would have been accelerating. Since they saw positron braking radiation, the orientation of the field must have been flipped from usual. Pretty nifty.

Why is this happening? Well, obviously it has something to do with 2012. Damn those Mayans…they’re always right.

Link to Science News article:

*EDIT: that was fast. Someone asked what the picture in the top left was. Looking from bottom up: A photon (unseen line starting from around the yellow dot to the branching point above it) colliding with a particle generating matter and antimatter particles which fly off into two spirals. The much less energetic photon is later converted to an electron and positron visible as two diverging tracks later on. The extra track I didn’t talk about, which runs up and off to the right, is from the particle that collided with the first photon. So in sum, you are looking at the birth of matter from energy.

*EDIT 2: The above picture is from Stephen Hawking’s Universe Episode 3, Cosmic Alchemy. You can watch the part here. Pretty pictures start around minute 3:20.

By November 8, 2009 2 comments Uncategorized