June 28, 2008

I believe I can see the future
Cause I repeat the same routine
I think I used to have a purpose
But then again
That might have been a dream
I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
I just do what I’ve been told
I really don’t want them to come around

Oh, no

Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same

I can feel their eyes are watching
In case I lose myself again
Sometimes I think I’m happy here
Sometimes, yet I still pretend
I can’t remember how this got started
But I can tell you exactly how it will end

I’m writing on a little piece of paper
I’m hoping someday you might find
Well I’ll hide it behind something
They won’t look behind
I’m still inside here
A little bit comes bleeding through
I wish this could have been any other way
But I just don’t know, I don’t know what else I can do

Every Day Is Exactly the Same by Nine Inch Nails

This song was in the movie Wanted (which you should go see… because it’s AMAZING!). Good for those days when you want to feel down… ;)


I found out last night that two of my previous blog posts, well, didn’t post. Which is kind of urking me… because I don’t want to rewrite them (if I recall them correctly, they were both at least relatively decent). And yet I feel like they’re both topics that deserve a space on this blog. So, uh, yeah. I’m going to rewrite them. And I’m going to stop using the blogging client that I’ve been using (damn you ecto!!!). Because it keeps throwing away my posts.

Anyway, the posts I’m talking about will be here and here. I hope you enjoy them. Who knows, maybe they’ll be better the second time through!

PS – And I won’t be doing those posts until I figure out how to get rid of all this unsightly line-spacing WordPress puts between lines. I want paragraphs! And I want to know why paragraphs aren’t in vogue anymore?!

Why is Mercury a Metal?

June 26, 2008

I’ve been working with a mercury pressure gauge these past few weeks, which has lead to the inevitable question: why is mercury, of all the metals, a liquid at room temperature? Instead of passing the buck or shrugging my shoulders, I decided to find out. It should be noted that this topic has been covered before and in better detail here and here.

The simple (and surprising answer) is that it’s all about relativity. As you may know, relativity tells us that as the velocity of an object increases, the mass increases by

Clearly, for small velocities, the mass increase will be insubstantial. That’s why you don’t notice such changes in the real world: if you go out for a run, you don’t expect your mass to increase (that would totally be negate the point!). But for very fast things, this relativistic effect can be substantial.

Atoms are such ‘fast things.’ The average radial velocity of a 1s electron for a given atom is

Where Z is the atomic number (basically, the number of protons). So, if you get out your handy dandy periodic table and look up mercury, you’ll see that it has an atomic number of 80. Plug that into the above equation and you end up traveling at 58.4% the speed of light. That’s pretty fast, and you’ll start to notice some effects. Such as the fact that the relativistic mass of the electron is 1.27 times larger than the rest mass. Now take Bohr’s equation for the radius of a hydrogen atom (which is analogous to finding radius of the 1s orbital of any atom)

The only part we’re concerned with here is the me, the mass of the electron. As you can see, because the mass is in the denominator, increasing the mass will decrease the radius. So you have a substantial contraction of the 1s orbital. Because all the s orbitals must be orthogonal (you’ll have to take quantum chem to learn the reasoning behind that one), the 2s, 3s, …, 6s orbitals also contract. So, the bonding orbital of Hg, the 6s orbital, is much smaller than would be classically expected, and therefore less available for bonding. Add to that the fact that the orbital is completely filled, and Hg doesn’t have much of a reason to be making bonds at all. Therefore, the major forces holding the Hg together are van der Waals forces (the result of the dynamic polarization of atoms and the concurrent electric attraction). These forces are exceedingly weak. Weak force yields weak bonds yields lower heat of fusion yields liquid mercury.

Who would have thought that such a simple question could yield such deep science? I know I wouldn’t have.


What a day. Today was ‘career day’ at our little REU world. Except the only careers represented were professorship and oil company-ing. Wow, what a plethora of options we PhD chemists have!

Even though the careers were few, actually talking with the chemists was kind of cool. The one ‘huh?’ moment for me was when I asked the question, “During grad school, did you ever become bored with your research and if so, what did you do to make it exciting again?” That received a blank stare from all involved. If not outright outrage from a great deal of the panelists. It’s like I’d said something that you’re not even allowed to THINK: that, possibly, the research could get dull.

I don’t know if this means that they really, honestly have found something that they absolutely love. If so, more power to them. Maybe it’s just not in my personality type to work on a single isolated problem for 5 years. Or maybe I just haven’t found that problem that I could focus on for 5 years straight.

Though one thing does seem sure for me: I don’t think ‘chemistry’ is my thing. The way their eyes lit up when they talked about synthesizing some new compound, or determining it’s structure, etc. I just don’t see it. I guess I’d rather think about a compound than actually go out and make it. In science, as in life, I’d much rather be a spectator than an active participant.

Overall, the career day was an eye-opening experience. It really made me think long and hard about what sort of career I might want in science. Which I guess was the point in the end.

Now I just have to hope I can become something other than an academic or an oil chemist. Here’s to hopin’! 

Editor’s Note: Of the two posts that I lost, this one I miss the most. I can’t seem to recapture what I was thinking at the time that I initially wrote it… But below you’ll find my closest approximation.

This REU has had me thinking a lot about what I really want to do in terms of academics (which is kind of the point). And more and more, the program is pushing me away from chemistry and towards mathematics / computational science / physics.

What does this mean? It means that I’ve decided to switch over to the dark side and pick up the math major again. I’m not quite ready to drop the chemistry major (though the thought has crossed my mind to switch over to a chemistry minor in order to pick up more comp sci / physics classes), and I justify this by considering chemistry as a useful background in the physical sciences and an invaluable introduction to laboratory science (even if I eventually want to avoid the lab like the plague).

Which brings up the above question: am I ‘smart enough’ for math? I know that I could easily get through remainder of my chemistry major with little fuss. The classes haven’t required all that much work (except the two semesters of organic, which required ‘putting in the time’ to memorize a lot of ‘stuff’). I’ve already had quantum chem, which is supposedly as hard as the chemistry comes. And it wasn’t really that bad (again, because it’s basically just applied calculus, and as such something I really enjoyed). That’s a pleasant thought: getting my undergraduate degree with little to no work.

But then comes the thoughts of the math major. That will take work. I haven’t had to put in the effort in the calculus courses, but I have in the proof-based ones (largely discrete). Of all my undergraduate course load thus far, it’s been the math classes that have stretched my abilities the most. And I know that the harder courses are still yet to come (I’m mainly dreading Real Analysis [think of the epsilon stuff from Calc I and II, and then make an entire course out of it…] and Abstract Algebra [I don’t really know, but I’ve heard both good and bad things on this one]). I know for a fact I’ll have to work at Real Analysis, because I don’t really find the material all that applicable to what I want to do (which is funny, because it’s apparently considered ‘applied math.’ Who knew?). Though maybe the course just has a reputation of being hard… I’ll know after I’ve had it.

And then comes the POST undergraduate experience. What do you do with a math degree? You become a professor, a high school teacher, a quant, or you work for the government. I’ll admit that the quant job sounds kind of cool (using math to make money, eh?), but I don’t think I could pull that off for too long. Of course, there’s the ‘third way,’ which is to go into applied mathematics and focus on something like mathematical physics or chemistry. Which is what I’ll probably end up doing. But it’s just kind of strange to go through all that work (more work than for a chemistry degree) and end up with a degree that’s less valuable (as a BS, MS, or PhD chemist, one can easily get a job working for the pharmaceutical companies and make big bucks in the process). It seems counter-intuitive.

But I enjoy the math. And any part of physics or chemistry that I’ve enjoyed has been because of the math. So the math I shall pursue, even if I end up broke and on the street. In which case, I’m going to rely on my engineering friends with their much more practical degrees to help me out. :)

Well, I think that more or less capture the idea of the original post. Something’s been lost, but such is life.

– from xkcd

See, there IS a pyramid in the sciences. Now, whether it’s about snobbery or importance, who knows. But it sure makes for some interesting conversations.

June 11, 2008

He thinks he is just three moves from implementing his game plan. His weakness in this game, and in life, is that he is never prepared for how others will act. They are predetermined but too complex to solve or predict, and there are rules that he is just no good at applying.


“And if we are just executing programs, who did the programming?”

“Natural selection. Astronomical and chemical forces produced the brain to mutate. We understand mathematics because we are created by forces that obey mathematics. That is why we can discover numbers and their relations, not because we percieve another reality […] but because it is a part of our programming.”

– from A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

Just read this neat article about behavioral economics and that dreaded dinner check at the end of a meal. The basic advice is to have one person pay everyone’s bill per meal, and then alternate that person. The logic is that any amount of paying the bill leads to some experience of ‘pain’ (nobody really likes parting with their money), but that pain isn’t really dose dependent: paying 10 dollars and 30 dollars are lead to something like a 20% increase in pain, not a 400%.

Interesting idea. And it certainly would clear up all the confusion when everyone tries to figure out how much to put in each time.

I’ll have to remember this the next time I go out to eat with my friends.

Though, I’ll be honest, I don’t see this flying well. “Dave, really, do you have to be SO contrarian.” But but but, the economists agree. :P

June 10, 2008

I am here in the middle of an unfinished story. I used to believe that one day I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and the restlessness would end. But that will never happen. Even now, I am moving toward a train. My heart is thumping. My lungs are working. There is a man, a woman, a bench, the glasses, the smooth hair, an umbrella. We are all caught in the stream of a complicated legacy. — a proof of the limits of human reason, a proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we were down here on this crowded, lonely planet, a declaration that we mattered, we living clumps of ash, that each of us was once somebody, that we strove for what we could never have, that we could admit as much. That was us — funny and lousy and great all at once.

– from A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Jenna Levin

Some people say they don’t like the idea of factory farming, tall buildings … but it’s not so bad if it’s next door. You can see it; it’s a glass building, like the Apple store on Fifth Avenue. And if you really want to see the advantage, look at the opposite direction. Now we can let trees grow back on the farms. The water gets pure, the air gets cleaner.

– from Vertical Farming: Apple Store Meets Greenhouse Meets Skyscraper

A very ‘engineer-y’ idea. I like it. I like it allot.

Of course, this is assuming the farms are for fruits and vegetables. :)