Grounded At ACS?
Apr07

Grounded At ACS?

I met Stephen Taylor on the shuttle bus ride to the convention center yesterday. He's a chemistry grad student at the University of Cincinnati working on sensors for small organic molecules, and he gave a talk on Sunday in the Inorganic Division. Stephen had the misfortune to book his plane ticket to the ACS meeting on Skybus Airlines, one of three airlines that shut down this week. The airline ceased all operations as of Saturday, April 5th, and Taylor told me he received an e-mail on Friday letting him know that he no longer had a flight to New Orleans. How'd he end up getting to the convention center in time for his talk? "When you're a poor grad student, you take what you can get," Taylor said. In this case, that meant taking his car from Cincinnati, Ohio all the way to New Orleans on Saturday. Frankly, I'm impressed that he was able to muster up a genuine smile for my camera. Good attitude, Stephen. Sound off, gentle readers: Did you have to miss the ACS meeting because of these airline shutdowns? Do you have a crazy meeting road trip story? We'd love to hear...

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An Educational Detour
Apr07

An Educational Detour

I was in a cab yesterday en route to the Convention Center when, on impulse, I asked the cab driver to take me on a detour through one of the FEMA trailer lots. I just had to see the impact of Hurricane Katrina for myself, even if it was only a glimpse, because walking through the French Quarter, you can’t tell that anything happened here. My cab driver, whose name is Sam, had his own story to tell. His four-bedroom home was flooded with 10 feet of water, and two-and-a-half years later he is still living in the FEMA trailer parked in front of his house. He says he is one of the luckier ones because people whose homes were completely destroyed are living in FEMA trailers parked in giant parking lots. Sam is almost finished repairing his house and plans to move back in about month. Then his wife and children, who have been living in Jerusalem since the storm, will also come home. As we drove by the FEMA trailer lot, I snapped a few photos. I felt guilty. Despite the detour, I still made it to my next event on time. And along the way, I learned a little bit more about this generous...

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Big Al's Tribute
Apr07

Big Al's Tribute

Feb. 20, 2007, is a date that some inorganic chemists might say will live forever in infamy. That was the day when F. Albert Cotton, an inorganic chemistry professor at Texas A&M University, passed away. Cotton was, simply put, the most influential inorganic chemist to ever have lived. I qualify that accolade by noting my professors and every other inorganic chemist I have ever come across have said the same thing. And I say it while remembering how I spent the better part of my undergraduate and graduate training toting around, reading, memorizing, and referencing Cotton’s seminal textbook, “Advanced Inorganic Chemistry,” which he coauthored with his own professor, Geoffrey Wilkinson at Harvard University. The inorganic community was shaken after Cotton died, not only because we lost an icon but also because the circumstances of his death were unusual. Although 76, Cotton was a man still full of vigor. I remember the last time I saw him. It was the ACS spring national meeting in Atlanta in 2006, and he was giving a talk using an overhead projector. Professor Cotton may have been the last person to ever give a talk at an ACS meeting that way. Cotton reportedly suffered a severe injury in a fall at his home, and he passed away some four months later. Some say he might have been murdered, but a police investigation could only conclude that his death was “suspicious.” That’s all water under the bridge now. Once they were over the initial shock, the natural instinct of Cotton’s current and former students, postdocs, and colleagues from a career that spanned 50 years was to hold the biggest and most exciting ACS symposium possible in his honor. That symposium is taking place this week in New Orleans. It includes 47 talks in seven sessions held over four days, with the speaker list being a veritable who’s who of inorganic chemists. Before the first session began, the lecture hall was aflutter with a kind of activity not usually seen before a 9 AM start on a Sunday morning at an ACS meeting. A couple dozen inorganic chemistry elder statesmen were standing about the podium, meeting and greeting one another—good friends, chemistry rivals—all buzzing about what was old and what is new. Some of the younger members of the crowd, eager for the talks to begin, sat deep in their chairs toward the rear of the lecture hall. Several of them had their noses in the March 17 issue of C&EN, flipping through the meeting program. Others stared down into coffee cups, perhaps looking for a little wisdom after a late night down on Bourbon St....

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Gator In A Pill
Apr06

Gator In A Pill

Walk into any souvenir shop here in New Orleans, and you’re likely to find Alligator in a Can. Researchers at local universities hope that one day you can then head over to the local pharmacy to pick up Alligator in a Pill. Gators, being the aggressive reptiles that they are, tend to get an awful lot of gashes out in the swamp. Yet their adaptive immune system allows them to quickly produce proteins to combat nasty infections they may pick up. Mark Merchant, a biochemist at McNeese State University, and Kermit Murray and Lancia Darville, from Louisiana State University, are trying to sift through the proteins found in alligator blood to see if any of them could make useful antibiotics. Merchant is something like the Steve Irwin of the sciences; he’s the one responsible for plunging a syringe into the alligators’ necks to extract a blood sample. Most of the samples come from gators on his farm in Lake Charles, La., but his colleagues say he’s been known to hop on a boat in the middle of the night to wrestle a gator in the...

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Is Corona For Posers?
Apr06

Is Corona For Posers?

This afternoon’s session sponsored by the Younger Chemists Committee about the chemistry of alcohol (the second in a series the organizers like to think of as "Insert your vice here") was standing-room only. It seems a lot of chemists are doing some experimentation outside the lab: When asked, roughly 10% of the audience said they brewed their own beer. Before going through a rather comprehensive look at chemistry of the beer-brewing process, Ferris State University professor and homebrewer Mark Thomson told the audience, “I don’t think there’s any bad commercial beer out there. There are just some I wouldn’t choose to drink, even if you choose to buy them for me.” I’m guessing one such beer might be Corona, which UNC-Chapel Hill professor Malcolm Forbes called out in his talk about skunky beer. Forbes’s specialty is photochemistry, and he’s used electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy to study the mechanics of how and why beer gets that sulfurous smell. I won’t go into the gritty details, but one interesting tidbit I came away with was that the “lightstruck flavor” (i.e. that skunky taste caused when UV light shines through your bottle for too long) is caused by 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol. Ironically, this compound has nothing to do with what makes actual skunks stinky. Rather, it's something found in cat urine. “When you hear somebody complain, ‘The beer in this place tastes like cat piss,’ they’re not that far off,” Forbes said. Another tidbit? Why is it that everyone puts a lime in their Corona? Apparently Corona, despite its clear glass bottle, doesn’t contain any of the “advanced hop products” some companies use to slow down the radical formation that leads to a bad beer. The company’s got a good marketing scheme going on; that lime is a pretty essential flavor mask. For any doubters, Forbes recommends opening up a bottle and taking a...

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Hidden In Plain Sight, Again
Apr06

Hidden In Plain Sight, Again

You never have to go far to find signs of chemistry. Here are three signs of the chemical enterprise that turned up in very different situations. On Friday, at one of those official society events that take place before the hordes of members show up, some lunch planner had found sugar packets with the chemical formula for sucrose, table sugar, printed on one side.   The following morning, while checking out some of the art galleries in the warehouse district, I walked into the Ariodante Gallery on Julia Street. Featured there was the artist Abe Gleason’s “Electrolyte” series. In each piece, he combines found pieces of glass, iron plumbing and other fixtures, and light. The name of the series may merely play homonymously on the chemical term, but it indicates that this chemical terminology is part of the collective conscious. Finally, upon returning to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, a freight train had stopped along the tracks that literally are on the border of the hotel building. I couldn’t tell what substances were in the chemical tank cars, but the chemical hazard symbols on the side of the tank indicated that some kind of flammable liquid is inside. The flames on the symbol have self-evident meaning; the 3 on the hazard symbol indicates it’s a liquid that’s flammable. So for those who worry that chemistry’s place in our lives is too hidden, too unseen, I recommend just looking...

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