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In the Land of the Blind… October 10, 2009

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Headline News!!

Middle-aged man suffers middle-aged malady.

...the one eyed man is king.

...the one eyed man is king.

Why is this news?

More to the point, why is this the leading news story on a range of news services?  Much as there was some half-hearted sensationalist waffle, it was quite comedic to see a medical expert (I forget the exact discipline) being “grilled”.  How dangerous is it? “Er, not really”. Is it contagious? “Er…no”  Does it have an impact on the way Mr Brown can run the country? “Eh? Are you serious?”  So why is this the top news story on the national broadcaster?  Is it because:

a) the public and meeja don’t understand enough about anything vaguely scientific anymore

b) we are obsessed by personality and David “Dave” Cameron is too young to have this sort of ailment

c) Manchester United had a week off and therefore it was a slow news day.

d) there is something more Machiavellian afoot and NewLabour will use this as a cover to allow the Prime Minister to stand down in a more dignified manner (call me a cynic if you will)?

If it is the latter, this country is clearly dumber in terms of scientific comprehension than first feared.  This is not a news story.

Is Gordon Brown’s right eye more important than Lance Corporal James Hill‘s life?

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Photocatalysis: Buy my snake oil September 30, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Energy, Green Chemistry, Photocatalysis.
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Was at a one-day meeting the other day.  There were couple of companies trying to sell themselves and their products. Photocatalysis was mentioned a couple of times in despatches.

Photocatalysis, for those that do not know, is a way of using light (usually sunlight) to drive a “useful” chemical reaction. In the case below, this could be splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, but it might also involve turning organic chemicals into water and carbon dioxide.

I should say that it is telling that I see this figure appear quite often but I do not know who was the originator of the image.

Normally the photocatalyst is a semiconductor and the vast, vast majority of scientific articles published use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to do this.  The popularity of titanium dioxide is partly historical (Fujishima and Honda discovered the phenomenon using titanium dioxide[1]) but mostly due to titanium dioxide’s efficiency at converting light that has enough energy to a chemical product.

And therein lies an important drawback: the light must have enough energy to overcome barriers in the semiconductor.  For titanium dioxide, this means the light has to be particularly high in energy – it can only use ultraviolet light.  Given that this is only around 4% of natural sunlight, this is a problem if photocatalysis is to be a useful process.  This is especially the case for indoor applications where room lights tend to have negligible ultraviolet light.

Photocatalysis Book

There are, it would appear, companies out there that claim to be able to do everything through photocatalysis.  They can:

  • destroy nasty pollutants in water
  • make glass, concrete, roads, buildings that clean themselves
  • kill bacteria such as “E. coli, MRSA, swine flu, bird flu”
  • destoy spores and turn them into carbon dioxide (!)

Some of the claims are fanciful, to say the least, but there are some basis in these claims.  Destruction of organic pollutants has been known for a while and substantially researched.  Self-cleaning glasses are known (see St Pancras station for an example of their use).  Anti-bacterial propoerties are again reported in the scientific literature although the jury is out – I don’t believe anyone fully understands the possible mechanism and I have certainly NEVER seen any reports of photocatalysis being used to combat the bacteria du jour, swine flu or bird flu.  You might, if you were being charitable, sugest that these claims may have been the result of someone not fully understanding the background science.

Maybe.

However, what triggers my abject cynicism is that one company went as far to say that their photocatalysts worked in both outside applications AND indoors.  When asked how the performance compared, indoor and out, I was very surprised to hear them openly admit that they hadn’t actually tested it.  So how could they make these claims?  “Er…”

This narks me.  This narks me a lot. Not only does it border on fraudulent, it does give the whole area an air of “buy my snake oil”.  For those who are trying to do good, honest work in this area, it pollutes the pool of potential investors and cheapens what could be a useful area of renewables research.

Of course, preying on people’s fears (“Kills MRSA and Swine Flu dead”) is one thing, but would they use the same bombast if they were a pharmaceutical company and had people’s lives hanging on their results?

ResearchBlogging.org [1] Fujishima A, & Honda K (1972). Electrochemical photolysis of water at a semiconductor electrode. Nature, 238 (5358), 37-8 PMID: 12635268

French blogs, pt II September 27, 2009

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Just found one (whilst looking for something else).

Parlez-vous Chimie.

Can’t be the only one, can it?

Software & a lack of understanding thereof September 20, 2009

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I have a theory.  Granted, this theory has only had a comparatively short period of evidence gathering to find supporting information, but it is a theory nonetheless.

When I was going through the education system (have I ever really left), the mantra was that we were much more computer literate than all of the professoriate and lecturing staff.  Anywhere else I have been, the mantra has been the same: the students are more IT savvy than the staff.  Even now I have colleagues that learn from our students.  This is worrying given how clueless many of our students are in matters of IT.

Let me be quite clear.  It is not their fault, nor is it a criticism of our students’ intellects or abilities.  Yes “da yoof” are more connected, more technologically fluid (but not fluent) than ever before.  However, faced with a minor problem that isn’t on the menu bar of a MS program, “da yoof” are lost.  I get exactly the same questions from panicking and utterly frustrated students that I get from my mother-in-law (and given that she still uses a dial-up, this might give you an idea of the level).

So, here is the theory.  Looking back, I suspect computer literacy probably peaked with the generation that was overly familiar with Windows 2000/ME (not, I stress, that I am suggesting that these were the ideal OS!).  After around that time, operating systems started becoming more user-friendly inasmuch that they would do a lot more things automatically and intuitively for the “average” user (NDLR: the lowest common denominator).  Couple this with the ubiquity of PCs, and MS in particular, and general understanding of the structure and function of software dropped.  The theory goes that understanding and ability to use software (or anything) is inversely proportional to the slickness and popularity of the software and operating system (which means that bloodyVista is a ray of hope for the improvement of user understanding!).

Some examples of what I mean.

1) When did the “My documents” function arrive?  Every year I teach a basic statistics course which involves the heavy use of computer-based workshops.  Despite the fact that the students love the statistics, every week I encounter the same problems.  Student X says that they have a problem – they cannot find the file that they saved their work in last week.

JC “Where did you save it?”

SX “Dunno. It was in My Documents last week.”

JC “Which My Documents?”

SX “?”

JC “My documents on the hard drive or My Documents on the network drive?”

SX “The what?”

JC “OK, have you tried searching for the file?”

Suffice to say, the answer is usually “no” as they hadn’t even realised that the “find” or “search” function existed… So, if something doesn’t automatically appear when you want it, it is clearly a problem of the computer, or so it would appear many people think.

2) Post-graduate student Y tries new software for operating a bit of kit.  Said software saves everything automatically by default and in a proprietary binary that I couldn’t care less about.  This is a good thing as you have all the instrument parameters, all the data, all the conditions, etc. in one compact file.  But this isn’t good enough for student Y: you can’t open up the data in Excel.  This is considered to be a “bad thing” and all hope is lost and there is darkness upon the face of the earth.  “This is useless, I can’t open my data in Excel.” I decided that a response of “RTFM” may not be the most constructive and after a small amount of fiddling (i.e., three clicks) we were able to get the data as ASCII that will happily open up in any spreadsheet that our IT department permit us to use (go figure the length of that list).  But this requires a conscious decision and effort on the part of the operator, even if it is just three clicks.  Therefore it was suggested that the software was “hardly the most user friendly”.

Lets pause for a minute.  Are we regressing?  Should all new software only save data in ASCII human-readable text?  Shall we take this to its logical conclusion and ask that our software only accepts input files that are text-only?  No GUIs please?  This is ironic given that I know the carnage that causes – I teach the use of computational chemistry programs (although admittedly I should use something other than vi).  While we are at it, should we not go back to UNIX and DOS??

The problems, I can handle.  I am more worried about the inability, or lack of confidence, to fiddle around and find possible solutions.  I suspect this year I shall mostly be teaching from XKCD:

French Blogs August 19, 2009

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Sauf Enfants du Servette, evidemment, est-ce qu’il y a quelqu’un qui peux me racomander un blog français? Un blog scientifique, sportif, la vie academique, n’import quoi…

Anyone got any recommendations for French blogs.  Preference for science but intrigued what is out there.  Happy to hear of any suggestions…

Pauling and Polymaths August 14, 2009

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I’ve been away for a while and have not been thinking at all about chemistry or academia…and for good reason (not that I am telling you lot why).  Not long back at work and I have a surprising mountain of goodies that have appeared amongst the perpetual detritus of admin nonentities.  One of these has turned up via Peter Muray-Rust’s fine blog.

Thank you Peter for bringing the Pauling blog to light.  Linus Pauling remains one of those fascinating, monumental characters.  His contribution to chemistry one of the most significant and fundamental of the modern era.  Yet it is not just his chemistry that raises him above the crowd, as highlighted in the blog.  The day I tripped across the Pauling blog had an article about his involvement in disarmament and his peace activism, in this case, the Hiroshima Appeal.

Linus not just influenced chemistry but was active across a range of disciplines – and important in them too.  I can see me working more references to Pauling and his work into my teaching.  Does his profile need to be raised?  Do “the youth” need to be educated in this way?

Quite probably.

Two years ago, whilst teaching molecular spectroscopy and the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, I went off on one about another character of similar stature; J Robert Oppenheimer.  It would appear that out of 25 adults studying for a science degree, none had heard of Oppenheimer.  More worryingly, none had heard of the Manhattan Project.  It only sunk in to some of them when I gave the vague clue of “Come on, you must have heard of it – a couple of loud pops in the East around 60 years ago?”

Now, I don’t consider myself to be that old but does nobody try to put faces to equations?  Are these names really so meaningless to the current crop of students?  Should this actually be the case?  It seems a shame that the rich history of the likes of Pauling and Oppenheimer, of the likes of Richard Feynman, here in the U.K., of the likes of Bertrand Russell is not known.  All had fascinating, colourful lives – Oppenheimer’s role in the course of history particularly so.  All made fundamental contributions to many different fields (especially, I might argue, Russell). Who, I wonder is making the same contributions, to more than just a particular branch of science today?

The Engineers of Terror July 8, 2009

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Plodding through the backlog of paper copies (oh, the horror!) of the New Scientist, turned up a delightful quote in an editorial under the heading of “Seeking out the engineers of terror“. This summarised an article entitled “Can university subjects reveal terrorists in the making?

Answer: Yes it can.

It would appear that engineers are significantly more likely to be jihadists than chemists.

Infidel! The Divine Power will strike you harder than a solution to the Navier-Stokes equations.

Infidel! The Divine Power will strike you harder than a solution to the Navier-Stokes equations.

Not that the engineers at our place are particularly lacking in social skills but I found the following quote from the editorial particularly resonant:

The researchers suggest that this link may be to do with personality, and say there is some evidence that engineers are more likely to be intolerant of ambiguity, believe society can be made to work like clockwork, and to dislike democracy because it involves compromise.

Ouch…but they obviously know our engineers.

Zotero & Reference Management Software July 5, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Opensource, Scientific Literature.
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This is more of a reminder to myself to actually try this out in anger.

Spotted a post about Zotero over at Chemistry Blog. A reference management system that can be a one-stop download of a pdf AND adds the reference to a management programme. AND it works with Word and Open Office.

I will be playing with this later (assuming I remember). Looks lovely – hopefully it will live up to expectations.

I especially like the idea that it essentially organizes all of my pdfs too. I have a decent sized library but remembering which pdf corresponds to which reference is another matter.

Science Online, London August 2009 July 4, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Blogs, Communication of science.
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Having recently stumbled across Science Online London, I am now looking forward to the conference at the Royal Institution on the 22nd August later this summer.  Very timely as far as I am concerned – it will give me the chance to have a looksee to see what else is available.  Navigating the blogosphere is still a little chaotic for me and if anyone has any recommendation on new (new to me at least) blogs on online tools for teaching, I’d be very, very interested.

Luca Turin & the Vibrational Theory of Scents June 22, 2009

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Fascinating stuff.  Has anyone actually come close to explaining how scents are picked up yet?