Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane
Nov21

Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News. Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers. At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times. The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine. The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall. When it was brought to Payne de Chavez by a dealer at Antiquarian Equities, the weathervane was covered with black paint. She analyzed several tiny samples from the weathervane and determined the many layers coating the underlying copper sheet metal and wire. The dealer who brought it to Payne de Chavez wanted to remove the modern paint to expose the corrosion, previous repairs, and the historic refinishing layers. Payne de Chavez discovered that the weathervane had undergone three “finishing campaigns.” The finishing campaigns were separated from one another by thin dirt layers. When the object was originally constructed, it was coated with a white ground layer, two oil layers, and gold leaf. Later refinishing campaigns included a yellow paint layer, an off-white paint layer, and the modern black paint. The dirt layers indicate weathering and are a good clue that the weathervane really dates back to the 19th century. “It’s hard to fake an actual dirt layer, because the particles are very fine,” Payne de Chavez says. “If someone were painting many layers trying to fake aging, they might not think about the dirt layer. It’s just one more indicator that the piece aged naturally.” Once she figured out that the underlying...

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Art conservation in an unexpected place
Nov14

Art conservation in an unexpected place

Guest post from Celia Arnaud, a senior editor with C&EN Today and tomorrow, I’m in Somerset, N.J., home of the Garden State Exhibition Center and the Eastern Analytical Symposium. Not a place that you’d expect to read about on a blog about conservation science. What people might not realize is that EAS hosts New York Conservation Foundation’s Conservation Science Annual, a symposium–as the name might suggest–on the science of art and cultural heritage conservation. If the conference that Sarah attended in Lisbon in September is the largest art conservation conference, then this is surely one of the smallest. The symposium has been a fixture of the EAS conference program since 1994, but I attended my first one in 2006, when I got the chance to report one of my favorite stories, a look at how electrochemical and spectroscopic methods are being used to save shipwrecks. In my years of attending the symposium, I’ve found that no matter how interesting the talks the audience tends to be me, the speakers, and maybe a handful of other folks. This year’s lineup is a bit scattershot, with everything grouped together under the general heading of “Analysis for Cultural Heritage.” Rather than try to shoehorn very different talks into one post, I’m going to share in separate posts over the next few weeks the ones that pique my...

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Talking With A New Nobel Laureate
Oct15

Talking With A New Nobel Laureate

Last Wednesday morning, I was on my way to Purdue University to attend the US-China Analytical Chemistry Workshop. Imagine my surprise when I heard the news that Purdue professor Ei-ichi Negishi was one of three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I was able to spend about an hour with him Thursday afternoon, after some of the initial frenzy of being a newly minted Nobelist had subsided. Here are just a few snippets of our conversation. In the first clip, he explains why he chose to concentrate on organozinc reagents. (It may become obvious, but “this thing” that he refers to is a periodic table that he had on his desk.) In the second clip, he explains why he didn’t pursue organoboron coupling, even though he showed an example of it in his early palladium-coupling work. In the third clip, he talks about palladium coupling’s main historical rival, the Grignard reaction. In the final clip, he talks about why he named his house, which he designed, Palladium. (It’s not for the reason you might...

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Revisiting The Premed Curriculum
Nov02

Revisiting The Premed Curriculum

In today’s issue of C&EN, I have  a story about a report called “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Association of American Medical Colleges. The report lays out the basic science that premed students should learn at the undergraduate level.  Rather than mandating that aspiring physicians take specific college courses, the report proposes that premeds learn a specific set of competencies, opening the door to more flexibility in the undergraduate curriculum. Last year, Jules Dienstag, a member of the HHMI/AAMC committee and the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School, wrote a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine in which which he asked whether students really need a full year of organic chemistry. That question sparked responses at such outlets as the Wall Street Journal’s health blog, Wired,  The Chem Blog,  Chemiotics II, and here at C&ENtral Science. Although this summer’s report doesn’t say that students should take a class specifically called organic chemistry, it does require them to learn organic chemistry. The report gives educators the freedom to be more innovative in their approach to undergraduate science education. For the story, I talked to Gregory Petsko, a member of the committee that wrote the report and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Brandeis University.  He had a radical suggestion for teaching the introductory-level chemistry classes (including organic): “I’d divide the students into groups of 50 and assign each group to a single chemistry faculty member for two years. For two years, that faculty member would teach those 50 students general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry,” he says. The faculty member would have free rein to organize the course any way he or she saw fit, as long as the necessary information was included at some point. At the end of the two-year cycle, the professor would have a year off. Petsko acknowledges, however, that such an approach would require too many faculty resources to be affordable. Here’s my question to you, taking a page from Petsko: If resources (financial, people, etc.) were not an issue, how would you teach general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry in a way that was appropriate for all students–premeds and future lab rats...

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Room To Spare
Aug18

Room To Spare

When I’m at a meeting, I sometimes wonder how the organizers assigned rooms to the various sessions. Such thoughts especially strike me when there’s a disparity between room size and attendance, such as a ballroom with a sparse crowd. A few people scattered about a large room emphasizes poor attendance.  A smaller but full room is preferable to a cavernous but practically empty room. Did the session organizers think they were going to attract a huge crowd, or were they the victims of random room assignments? I’m sure we’ve all attended sessions in rooms that were the wrong size. A related issue…have you ever been in a session where it was basically you and the speakers? Perhaps you’ve even been one of those speakers. How did it make you feel to have such a small audience? As a reporter, I’m not sure how to interpret sparse attendance, especially at a meeting like the ACS national meeting where so many sessions and divisions compete for eyeballs. Does it mean that the research being reported just isn’t that interesting? Or is it just unlucky timing, an inconvenient...

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