If you don't know, Breaking Bad was the story of a middle-aged high-school chemistry teacher who supplemented his salary by synthesizing recreational drugs. This quest for more money was instigated by a diagnosis of cancer and a desire to provide for his family after he died.
Breaking Bad premiered when I was teaching high school chemistry in northern California. I taught two, sometimes three, sections of AP plus enough non-AP chemistry sections to sum to five.
Walter White was not Weeds’ Nancy Botwin. Walt’s icy-blue product was ninety-two percent pure meth. The exact number kept changing, but it didn’t matter. Walt's product was a hit. He upstaged all the amateurs who were following recipes downloaded from the internet, and soon his competitors wanted him either dead, or better yet, doing a cook for them.
Walt wasn’t a boring geek with a pen-filled pocket protector. He was a man with a plan and he was comfortable operating well outside the legal limits. Walt's creativity (meth lab disguised as a termite tent company, as an example) coupled with his fearlessness showed that chemistry teachers could be as bad-ass and as interesting as all those lawyers and cops and doctors that are the focus of most television dramas. Of course, Walt’s life largely circled around his lawyer and the DEA, and the occasional collateral damage required a doctor.
As much as I enjoyed Walter's story, I had less luck bringing him into the classroom. Walt was not the best role model. But occasionally I'd find some useful science application. The most memorable was in the first season, an application of the corrosive power of hydrofluoric acid. Walt used HF to destroy evidence of a murder. But HF is difficult to contain. In the show, the HF ate through the body, as expected, but it also ate the bathtub containing the body, and then the floor beneath the bathtub, and then the floor below, all the way down to the foundation. An exaggeration for sure, but it sure looked cool.
Nobel Prize week (http://www.nobelprize.org/) releases inspiring stories of human achievement. These are the prizes that caught my eye this year.
The Physics prize went to the scientists credited with proposing the Higgs Boson. Theorized in 1964 and confirmed in 2013, the Higgs particle helps explain why some things have mass. Fascinating stuff, but a little too abstract for this sometimes chemist.
The literature prize went to Canadian writer Alice Munro. Nice to see short stories get their due.
The chemistry prize caught most of my attention. Martin Karplus (co-author of my physical chemistry textbook), Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel shared the award for developing computer simulations of chemical reactions. While the typical chemical reaction occurs very quickly, it depends on many factors such as molecular orientation, temperature, surrounding chemicals, and the amounts of chemicals present. And as the chemicals grow in size -- think pharmaceuticals, enzymes, and other biomolecules -- the complexity of the modelling challenge grows. Being able to successfully simulate a reaction confirms scientists' understanding of reaction models and enables chemists to run simulations of reactions that are difficult to perform. This is a groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for a rapid growth in our knowledge of chemistry.
A little whimsy and silliness complement the study of science.
Today, March 14, is π (Pi) day, which honors the number 3.14159... and appeals to the science teacher in me.
Pi day is similar to Mole Day, October 23, which also celebrates a famous number. In Chemistry, the mole, 6.022 x 10 to the 23rd, is a measure of the number of atoms that are in 12 grams of carbon-12. While that doesn't sound like a number one might need so often, I mean how many times do you need to know the number of atoms in pure carbon-12 (hey, you, carbon-14, outta there!), trust me, it is very useful. Atoms are so small that we need a way to talk about a useful number of them, and Chemists use a mole of atoms as their unit of measure.
I celebrate Mole day when I teach chemistry though Mole day usally doesn't align with with my curriculum sequence as October is early for regular Chem, late for AP.
Ok, enough science silliness. Last Monday, on the metro between Vina del Maar and Valparaiso, I heard a great four-piece band playing for donations. I wish I'd got their name. SoI want to listen to Chilean music today. I am listening to Nicolas Jaar, though he is more techno than Chilean.
I'm unpacking and going through the remnants of my just-completed trip. I've loaded my photos onto the computer - 2,867 - requiring about 113 Gb of storage. It'll take me awhile to organize them. They are currently in one directory, but I'll break them out into sub directories before loading them into Lightroom.
I've also started a new page on my website which will be the landing page for my trip blog and photos. I'll roll this out, along with some blog code revisions, as I process and post my travel photos. I'm curious if I've got any good shots, what with using a new camera. I usually take equipment I know well so I'm curious if I've made any glaring mistakes or omitted any settings.
The photo processing step is necessary as I shoot in raw mode; raw gives more processing flexibility though it costs more in terms of file size and time. In either case, jpgs need to be shrunk for posting to the web.
Before last week, our knowledge of the universe started at one second after the Big Bang. A newly reported observation moves it to one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after.
The observed gravitational waves (space ripples) are predicted by the inflation model. Inflation refers to an extremely early universe dominated by a form of energy unknown to us. This form of energy expanded very very rapidly, then became what we refer to as ordinary radiation and matter. This hot, dense, smooth early universe fits the well-known Big Bang model.
An interesting feature of the inflation model is that there is no reason not to have many individual inflations - an infinite number of them, most likely - each producing a separate universe, or a multiverse.
For more, read Sean Carroll's piece linked above. And if the idea of a multiverse seems unnatural, remember we don't decide what is natural. As Carroll says, "Ultimately it’s nature, not us, that decides what’s natural."
I don't like the recent additions to the periodic table. It's not that I have anything against the new elements, it's what they've collectively done to the appearance of the table.
Before, the table had a ragged lower right edge which hinted at more elements yet to be discovered. The picture below is an example of this periodic table. It is one I used in my chemistry classroom. The jagged edge says there are three more elements needed to complete the row and it hints that maybe there are more beyond. This table represents not only what we know but what we expect to discover, based on our knowledge of the composition and periodic behaviour of the elements.
Now, with the last row filled in, the table looks done, it is all figured out, and it looks like a set of boring rectangles. Of course, we can't ignore the new elements but I'm saddened that the new table has lost a bit of the the information density of the older table.
The announcement that gravitational waves have been detected is a bright science fiction-y story in a sea of crappy news.
The story from LIGO, short for the laser interferometer gravitational observatory, is all extremes, either invisibly small, like waves we cannot see that penetrate everything unperturbed, or ginormous, the "sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away" . And the story features exotic characters like black hoes and ripples in the "fabric of space and time" .
These gravitational waves were detected by a new analytical instrument that was designed to measure something that had never been measured. The instrument, whose sensitivity is mind-blowing , monitors three things that are the same distance apart, looking for an occasional ripple in space time that would make one segment of the route just a teeny tiny bit different, and just for a moment. And this tiny difference is in the order of 10-19m.
Performing the gravitational wave experiments also involved big numbers. The paper announcing the discovery has hundreds of authors and the National Science Foundation spent $1.1b over forty years on this research, which sounds big until you compare it to the US military budget which in 2015 was almost 600-times this amount.
I'm listening to Miles Davis' Générique. C'est merveilleux.
 Science News .
 NYTimes which features a really nice video.
 Vibration reduction at LIGO.
A brilliant journey through space has come to an end. NASA's Cassini spacecraft spent the past twenty years successfully carrying out its mission to explore Saturn and its moons.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and it took seven years to reach Saturn. Along the way it flew by Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. Upon arrival Cassini took to orbiting Saturn where it sent back stunning photographs of the planet and its moons.
Sad to say, yesterday was Cassini's last day but what a trip it was, and what a testament to the skills of the scientists and engineers at NASA and elsewhere who participated in the endeavor. Whenever I feel despondent about mankind I'll remind myself of accomplishments such as this.
I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit. Stephen Hawking
It's π day. The physicist Stephen Hawking is dead.
When first diagnosed with the dreadful Lou Gehrig's disease he wasn't expected to live very long. But live he did, and to the respectable age of 76.