Is There Chemistry In Witchcraft?
Apr08

Is There Chemistry In Witchcraft?

New Orleans has a deep spiritual history of witchcraft, voodoo, and other occult religions. Go into any souvenir shop, and you will see voodoo dolls for everything from improving your health to getting out of a bad relationship. I was walking down Royal Street in the French Quarter yesterday when I stumbled upon an occult shop called Starling. I was lured inside by the dilapidated-looking exterior of the shop and, upon poking my head in, the sight of hundreds of dusty bottles lined up against the wall, nearly to the ceiling. The bottles were labeled with curious names such as Dragon’s Blood and Devil’s Shoestring. I asked the shop owner what the bottles are used for. He told me that they are spiritual tools to practice various occult religions. Most of the products are derived from natural sources. Dragon’s Blood, for example, is a resin from the Dragon Tree, which is native to southeast Asia and Africa. The sap is bright red, and when it flows, the tree looks like it's bleeding. By burning Dragon’s Blood in an incense, you’re offering fire, mars, strength, protection, and you amplify the power of spells, the shop owner told me. I admit, I’ve stumbled into very unfamiliar—and somewhat uncomfortable—territory, and I don’t even want to attempt to explain the chemistry behind these things. Does anyone want to take a shot at...

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Welcome Back New Orleans?
Apr07

Welcome Back New Orleans?

Dear readers of C&EN, Yes, the weather is beautiful, the Hornets are in first place, and the annual week of debauchery known as Mardi Gras has returned to the French Quarter. But make no mistake, all is not well in New Orleans. Two Halloweens ago, I came to the Crescent City and volunteered in the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina. The work--throwing out ruined children’s toys, tearing down family photos with a crowbar, or reading FEMA markings on the front door of someone’s home—was hard to stomach. But helping was something I simply felt I had to do. Just writing about the experience brings back the choking smell and taste of the inside of damaged houses to the back of my throat. Unfortunately, three years after the storm, not much has changed. Yesterday, I took a tour of the city with Isaiah Warner of LSU, his lovely wife Della, and Father Charles Andrus of Corpus Christi Church in the 7th Ward. As we traversed the damaged streets, I was able to return to places I saw—and worked in—before: Gentilly, Old Gentilly, Lakeview, the Upper 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward, and Ponchitrain Park. Swathes of land are sitting untended in these areas; it seems as if you are miles away from civilization rather than in a city. It looks all too familiar. Aside from the building of the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th, progress has dragged its feet like a Jazz Funeral in these areas. Few people have returned, and many homes lay in the same state of decay they were left in following the storm. Sadly, there’s not much reason to think these still-damaged parts of the city will be revived. Southern University at New Orleans, for example, remains mostly shuttered, while across the highway, University of New Orleans students have returned to campus. Just as astonishing is what I witnessed along the London Street Canal. Near the breech of this particular levee, no more than 10 feet away stood houses—some redone, some in their dilapidated poststorm state, and some works in progress. Children bounded on the street in the shadow of a wall rebuilt to do what it didn’t before: protect nearby citizens. I must say they are braver than I am. There were a few minor, though positive signs. The refurbishing of Fats Domino’s house in the lower 9th Ward is heartwarming. This time, I did see more people than National Guard members in this part of town, which is also encouraging. And grass is again growing uninhibited around the foundations of swept-away homes in the Lower 9th Ward. High-traffic tourist areas such as the...

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Blogging Beckman And Bracher
Apr07

Blogging Beckman And Bracher

This morning, I paid a brief visit to a Presidential Event--Celebrating Ten Years of Beckman Scholars in Chemistry. My mission? To bring you a summary of the talk given by Paul Bracher, ChemBark blogger extraordinaire. (Incidentally, I checked the link for ChemBark today, and the site's looking a little wonky, like it's an old-school html page. I'm not sure whether it's just my computer or what.) So, what's the Beckman Scholar program, you ask? The Beckman Foundation provides scholarships, mentoring, and research experiences to a select group of undergrads. Paul says that not every undergraduate college can participate; schools have to demonstrate that they have resources for and dedication to undergraduate research before the program will allow them to take on Beckman Scholars. A fantastic hodgepodge of speakers was lined up for this symposium, including ACS President Bruce Bursten, Prof. Harry Gray, and a few Beckman Scholars, including Paul, who talked about some research related to the origins of life. Slide 1: A picture of Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam, with a cartoon potassium ion bridging their fingers. I'll get to why that was there later. Also, Paul is using a green laser pointer. Paul leads off by saying that origin of life is a fundamental problem with plenty of interesting angles, and chemists have the ability to really delve into all of them in new and creative ways. Then he gets to the meat of the talk. Every cell is rich in potassium ions on the inside and sodium ions on the outside. Those ion distributions underlie nerve impulses and plenty of other critical body functions. Paul is thinking about how this phenomenon might have come about during Earth's infancy billions of years ago, and he's made some interesting observations with solutions of water containing potassium ions. Apparently, if you let a solution containing any of several different potassium salts (EDITED- thanks selenized!) sit out in the lab, or on the countertop, or even on a rock somewhere, the water never fully evaporates. The solution reaches a point where it picks up as much moisture from the atmosphere as evaporates away, so you get a droplet that doesn't change size. Paul set up some of these solutions (in what looked to me in his pictures like a red plastic eppendorf tube rack) and showed that they can perform some chemical tricks. They can absorb molecules from the atmosphere, which can then undergo reactions to make more complex molecules, including compounds that look mighty close to amino acids. Paul was quick to caution that he hasn't figured out how life came to be. But the experiments present an opportunity to think...

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Chemistry And The Interweb
Apr07

Chemistry And The Interweb

The fabulous world of “the Internets” is coming to chemistry education. Some might argue it is already here. The father-and-daughter comedy team (and chemistry professors) Harry and Laura Pence are, as I type this, leading a session on how social networking can and is being used to teach chemistry. I sat in on part of the morning talks and was intrigued by the healthy crowd the session drew; there seemed to be a lot of professors in the audience trying to figure out how to harness this Web stuff. A little case study of using Facebook as a discussion tool was presented, with some interesting results. An Iowa State professor created a closed Facebook study group for an intro organic lab and managed to attract about half the students. My question is this: Does professorial involvement in Facebook make it inherently uncool, subsequently rendering the site obsolete? Some other interesting tidbits came out of the presentation from Mitch Garcia, of Chemical Forums and Chemistry Blog fame. The UC Berkeley grad student unveiled the stats for Chemical Forums: 21 new users log on each day and more than 6,400 people are registered on the site, which has had 2.1 million unique visitors since its inception. Not bad. Perhaps the chemical space in the lab will be most effective when it is student...

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Getting To Know Tom Lane
Apr07

Getting To Know Tom Lane

“Tom, mind if I do a quick experiment with you?” I asked ACS President-Elect Tom Lane after the Women in Industry Breakfast this morning. He was curious. “Mind if I follow you to your next event and see how many people stop you along the way to chat or say hi?” “Sure,” Tom said, in his typical good-natured way. This is perfect, I thought. We were going the 3/4 mile or so from the Marriott on Canal St. to the convention center, and if my theory holds, he’ll get stopped a half dozen or so times. “How many times do you usually get stopped?” I asked. Tom admitted that he gets stopped quite a bit, especially outside. “Does it annoy you to get stopped so often?” I asked. “Not at all,” he responded. “I like talking to people, and business is all about personal interactions.” During our 15-minute walk, I learned a few things about Tom. 1) He occasionally get mistaken for a police officer. 2) He wears a bow tie to remind him of his mother, who passed away around Christmas. He grew up poor, and his mother would make bow ties out of scrap fabrics for him and his five brothers so they would look good on special occasions. She would also make things for his only sister. 3) He learned to tie a bow tie on YouTube. 4) The red bow tie he’s wearing today … he tied himself. 5) He’s a hardcore photographer, just like me. In fact, he’s even more hardcore than I am because he uses a large-format film camera, develops his own film in his "large" basement darkroom, and displays his photos at local museums. 6) He was inspired to take up photography by his mother, who was a delivery room nurse. She would use her twin-lens camera to take photos of every baby that left the hospital, and she would develop the film herself. It was her way to combine her passion for photography with work. 7) You can see some of Tom’s photos on his Facebook page. He just put up a photo of him and his gigantic camera. By the time we got to the convention center, I realized that nobody had stopped us along the way. I’m glad they didn’t because I feel like I know Tom a lot better now than I did before I stopped him this morning. Thanks,...

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Top 5 For Monday
Apr07

Top 5 For Monday

A few things we’re excited to see and do today… 1. Assessing the environmental impact of Hurricane Katrina. (8:20--11:40am, Convention Center, Room 213) 2. Teaching chemistry outside the classroom. (8:30--11:45am, Hilton New Orleans, Jasperwood) 3. What can be done about the looming energy crisis? (1:30--4:50pm, La Louisiane, Ballroom C). 4. Sci-Mix goes virtual: using Second Life to teach organic chemistry. (8--10pm, Convention Center, Hall A) 5. Hello, beignets? They’re not just for breakfast anymore. (Café du Monde, 1039 Decatur...

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