Repurposing acronyms
Nov05

Repurposing acronyms

  You can’t read a few syllables into many scientific papers without running into an acronym, but in the Plasma Laboratory at the Department of Geology at the University of Maryland in College Park, you can’t even get through the door without encountering one, in this case a familiar one that the lab has repurposed. I was there for a reporting trip earlier this week. I found plenty of evidence of isotopes inside, but not of pain, which of course could have been hidden to my eye. Inside the lab you find, among other things, a couple of inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometers that are handy for such jobs as determining the elemental and isotopic compositions of meteorites. You are invited to forward your own pictures of lab door humor, or attempts at such humor, to me...

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Perambulating In An Elemental Garden
Oct19

Perambulating In An Elemental Garden

It was cold and rainy on Saturday night, but that didn’t prevent a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd from gathering at the Greater Reston Arts Center  in Virginia to celebrate a remarkable and rare sculptural installation in which chemistry and art merge. The installation depicts the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements with reverence. And it invites those who experience the art to find a reverent connection to an icon of science that all too often becomes associated only with bad grades and incomprehensible classes. C&EN profiled the artist, Rebecca Kamen, and the show in the October 5 issue, but the reception for the installation, on October 17, demonstrated how effective and unique an artistic approach can be to communicating science, even the science of chemistry. Attendees walked among the elemental “flowers,” arranged in the spiral geometry associated with the Fibonacci Series, discussed the meaning of elements, listened to Kamen recount how the work came to her, and experienced—if only for a moment—chemistry’s pantry of elements like they never had before. The installation, Divining Nature: an elemental garden, remains up through November 17, but is likely to find further life in other venues and contexts as the International Year of Chemistry–2011 approaches. Images: Ivan Amato...

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Cough Fantastique
Oct12

Cough Fantastique

Cough Plumes Made Visible (courtesy of Gary Settles) Now that proper containment of your coughing and sneezing has become an even more urgent duty in the name of public health (into the crook of the elbow and not in my general direction please!), the unique views that fluid dynamics researcher Gary Settles has on what forcefully comes out of human facial apertures could prove especially valuable. Think of the wavy, fluidic appearance of the gas coming out of a truck’s exhaust pipe or the mirage-like shimmer of the air above hot pavement, and you are getting into the physics behind one of Settle’s techniques: schlieren optical analysis, whose roots go back to the 17th century microscopy pioneer Robert Hooke and whose name derives from the German word for streaks. Although the schlieren optical technique Settles deploys is usually more apropos for physics and engineering studies, it also has the potential to reveal chemical phenomena such as chemical plumes from concealed weapons (if they are volatile enough), he tells C&EN. “To understand chemical trace sensing you need to see how the air is moving, usually by way of thermal plumes,” Settles says. “This naturally brings together fields such as analytical chemistry, fluid dynamics, and optics.” Tracing expelled air from coughing isn’t exactly chemistry, but in these pandemically-minded days, it sure is timely. Using a one-meter government surplus telescope mirror that he purchased for $3000 in 1981 (new today they go for at least $80,000), Settles took a look at how medical masks affect the way a human cough—the carrier of minuscule infectious agents such as H1NI viruses and the ones that cause tuberculosis, chickenpox and measles—infiltrates the nearby airspace. The physics key to their schlieren optics study, Settles and his colleagues at Penn State and the National University of Singapore, write in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface (doi: 10.1098/rsif.2009.0295.focus), is that “it renders visible the optical phase gradients owing to real-time changes in air temperature.” Shown above is a set of images comparing the trajectories of normally invisible plumes coughs from a cougher without a mask, wearing a standard surgical mask, or wearing a higher-end version known as the N95 mask that has a tighter fit. The conclusions the researchers make from their images, including video records, have both intuitive and nonintuitive components. With no mask, a cough plume rushes outward at a downer angle of roughly 30º, producing a turbulent jet that does a good job of distributing whatever pathogenic payload the cougher might have to offer. The standard mask is best at thwarting the forward motion, but its loose fit means that the roughly 2 liters...

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What's In Your Fridge?
Sep30

What's In Your Fridge?

Refrigerators tell you a lot about their owners. They also tell you a lot about a laboratory in which the appliances reside. That’s why I always love seeing what’s inside the fridge, or freezer, when I visit a laboratory for a story I am writing. My last raid on a scientist’s freezer was last month during a visit to Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia for an article that will appear in the October 12 issue of C&EN. During the visit, I had the pleasure, albeit a seriously malodorous one, of peering inside a freezer in the laboratory of George Preti, who studies the nature of human odor. One of his goals is to eke medically valuable information from people’s personal perfumes. The picture I took of Preti’s fridge reminded me of another fridge photo opp that I grabbed a few years ago, that one in the lab of the late chemical ecologist and amphibian toxin researcher John Daly of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/84/8426sci1.html). And now I invite you to send me your own photos of the contents of your laboratory fridges and freezers. Please send them my way (i_amato@acs.org) with a description of what’s inside and the scientific pursuits that those contents support. I’m betting I can eke a story out of what comes into my...

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Molecular Models Underfoot
Sep10

Molecular Models Underfoot

I rolled into Washington D.C.’s Union Station on an Amtrak train at around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, after a full day of reporting in Philadelphia for a story that will appear in a future issue of C&EN. Waiting to transfer to the local Metro for a ride to my neighborhood in Silver Spring, MD, I looked down at a tiled platform that I had seen hundreds of times. With graphene chemistry so ascendant these days, when this platform comes into view, I can’t help but think of it as graphene writ large. Now I will be on the lookout for other renditions of molecular structures inadvertently there in our constructed...

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