Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Theology, Rheology and some freaky strange search results

Dan Lowry (@DrFriction) tweeted last night "Whenever life seems devoid of meaning or humor, just do a web search on 'theological properties'" (referring to the fact that spellcheckers typically attempt to change "rheological" into "theological"). So I did just that.

Wow. Wow. Wow. Look at this screenshot:
The spellcheckers are winning far more often than I would have ever imagined.

But a little bit of digging suggests that there may be a far more sinister plot, one of revisionist history. I clicked on the first link and found this:
while at the bottom of the page there was this:
So what gives? Was the title later fixed? (That doesn't seem possible as it looks like an image capture, but I'm no expert in these areas.)

But weirder yet is what I found at the fourth hit:
Clearly an image of an original document, with a correct title. But that is not the weird part. It's when I searched the rest of the document for "theol" with the crtl-F key. Every single return (31 total) pointed to a word correctly spelled as rheol...For instance:

What is going on? I know and expect that Google would return a search for most people "rheology" (no quotes) as "theology", but for a word finder in a .pdf document to do that?

Again, I am swimming in the deep end. Any insight that someone could offer would be most helpful as there things here that are disturbing. I know my google search results are not neutral and haven't been for years, but for the text search in a pdf to be like that is not good.

Previous Years

August 24, 2011 - Review: "Social Marketing to the Business Customer"

August 24, 2010 - The Deborah and Weissenberg Numbers

August 24, 2009 - BASF as a hostile takeover target?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


The number of elements that are capable of forming a polymer just by themselves and without the assistance of other elements is very small. A large part of this is due to most of the periodic table being made of metals, elements that not capable of forming polymers (at least as far as we currently understand). Throw out the noble gases and you only have a very tiny wedge of the table for consideration, consisting of the metalloids, the nonmetals and the halogens - a total of 16 out of the 92 naturally occurring elements.

Boron, carbon, silicon and germanium are all known to form covalent network solids, which I would consider to be polymers (although others certainly would be entitled to disagree). Sulfur can polymerize under high pressure, but that is it. 5 elements.

Now a new report (Open Access) has found that iodine can polymerize. Not as polyiodine, but as polyiodide (the anion). Oligomeric forms of iodide are already known. I mentioned I3- (triiodide) many times in my general chemistry class last year (it's a good one for drawing a Lewis structure) and higher iodides such as I5- and I7- are known to exist, but now comes proof of In-.

The unusual aspect of the polymer is that it doesn't exist by itself, but instead is supported by a pyrroloperylene crystal structure, with the entire iodide-pyrroloperylene complex being crystalline as well. That crystallinity is what made it possible to clearly identify the polymeric nature of the iodide. (Ferreting out the structure of an amorphous polymer is a whole new level of hurt.)

While the iodide-pyrroloperylene complex is of interest to the researchers because of its electrical conductivity, they also realize that polyiodide may finally crack a chemical mystery that is nearly 200 years old: the nature of iodine in the blue solution that form when iodine is added to starch (an elementary school favorite). Polyiodide has been suggested as a possible form, but without any proof (the iodine-starch complex is amorphous...), it was just a suggestion. This new research doesn't prove that the of iodine in a starch complex is polyiodide, but it does provide support for what could only be previously considered as just a hypothesis.

And it gives us a 6th polymeric element.

Previous Years

August 23, 2013 - Analysis of Silly Putty Swallowing a Magnet

August 23, 2011 - Plastics are Forever Jewelry

August 23, 2011 - How the Indian Supreme Court Indirectly Impacted PET Film Makers

Friday, August 19, 2016

The plastics revolution: we already had it

A news feature article in this week's Nature entitled "The plastics revolution: how chemists are pushing polymers to new limits" is more of the same old, same old. And it doesn't help that it's from the same old researchers contributing to this nonsense.

The same old researchers being Lodge and Hillmeyer of Minnesota and the Center for Sustainable Polymers in particular, (They seem to be everywhere these days, even on the local news a few weeks back). And the same old hype is that we are about to enter a fantastic new future where bio-sourced polymers will magically appear and be so much better than the polymers we have now.

As I've discussed many times in the past, the future of polymers is already here. Polyethylene? It's currently derived from petroleum, but it is already established that it can be made from bio-based feedstocks such as corn, beets and sugar cane. Ferment the sugars to ethanol and then dehydrate it (remove H2O) and you have ethylene. That ethylene can then be a true, drop-in replacement for the petroleum-sourced ethylene to make polyethylene (PE).

This process will overwhelmingly crush any other options for making a bio-based polymer that is functionally equivalent to PE because it takes advantage of the existing capital equipment. To make the (mythical) alternative polymer, new capital investments will have to be made and there will be plenty of risks with that path.

And so it goes with the other Big 6 polymers (polypropylene, polystyrene, vinyl and polyester). Processes are being developed to create biobased versions of the petroleum-based monomers so that existing equipment can be used to polymerize them. Yet somehow researchers keep thinking that they can create some miraculous new polymer to displace them. Sure, right, good luck with that.

The plastics revolution is not in the future, it was in the past when plastics began to become an essential part of modern life. Changing to alternative feedstocks will undoubtedly create new polymers, but those polymers will only be successful when they fulfill the requirements of a new product, not the requirements of an existing product. And that is not a revolutionary thought. Not at all.

Previous Years

August 19, 2014 - The Death Ray returns to my backyard

August 19, 2013 - Defects in Crystalline Polymers - Part 1

August 19, 2010 - Updating Your Resume

August 19, 2009 - What I did for my summer vacation

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Trash Talking Translational Research

A new editorial (open access and less than a page long) in ACS Chemical Neuroscience takes a few swings at all the emphasis being placed on translational research and proposes that more of it should go back into basic research, particularly in synthetic chemistry. And of course, there are testimonials from famous synthetic chemists to support this view (surprising, huh?) The editorial is being praised around the internet (Ash Jogalekar, Chemjobber and Tehshik Yoon, and I'm sure there are more to follow.)

I don't agree, or perhaps more accurately, I think that the value of translational and applied research are greatly overlooked. Not because of their focus on a defined endpoint, but because of the unpredictable results that can arise from it. In some cases, the results are basic science. Consider these examples:
  • Louis Pasteur was trying to determine what caused wine to turn to vinegar, and ended up creating the field of microbiology.
  • While attempting to reduce noise in a communication signal, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the residual heat of the Big Bang.
  • Roy Plunkett was working was trying to improve the coolant gases used in refrigerators and discovered Teflon
  • Viagra was originally developed to help with angina pectoris (chest pains). It didn't do so well at that, but the researchers discovered an unexpected side effect.
Research is research is research, basic, applied or translational. It can (and should) lead to unexpected results. The old clichés are "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research" and "Chance favors the prepared mind". True clichés, but completely spot on in this case. Put them two together and good things will happen, including the discovery of fundamental science, intentional or not.

Previous Years

August 18, 2014 - 9 Activities that BOTH Academic Researchers and Industrial Researchers Perform

August 18, 2011 - Names for Biobased Polymers

August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010 - The Wall Street Journal and "Glass Transition"

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is there a retraction ahead for the microplastics and fish larvae research?

Retraction Watch is reporting that a recent article in Science regarding microplastic pollution is undergoing a thorough re-examination. The article claims (in part) that the particles reduce hatching rates and are preferably eaten by hatchlings over their normal food.

I was immediately critical of the whole publication as were others. It'd be nice to think that my comments played a role in this investigation, but if they did, they would be just a small part of the picture. There are other fish to fry here. Eyewitnesses of the testing have reported
"...there is a significant mismatch between what is described in the paper and how the experiments were actually performed. Examples include:
• The exposure times of eggs and larvae reported in the paper are longer than the actual duration of the experiment at the Ar research station in Gotland, Sweden.
• The actual number of replicate tanks and fish is lower than what is stated in the paper.
• Aquaria maintenance and monitoring were not conducted as described in the paper"
Yikes! If verified, it looks like this paper is head for Davey Jones' Locker.

Previous Years

August 18, 2013 - If the Ocean Could Hire an Ad Agency...

August 18, 2012 - The Omics of Polymers

August 18, 2011 - The Ultimate Time Drain

August 18, 2010 - On the Loss of the Usenet

August 18, 2010 - Just Wondering

Monday, August 15, 2016

Behold the lowly syllabus...

One of the unexpected surprises of starting a teaching career is the syllabus. I don't remember much detail about how they were when I was in school some 30+ years ago, although I know that they would have office hours, exam dates, how grades were determined (% from quizzes, % from homework...) and that is about it. Maybe there was more, but that would have been all that I cared about - and I can't imagine it being different for other students both then and now.

Unfortunately, administrators have a different outlook. The lowly syllabus has now become a document of great significance, almost a legal document, with more and more burdens placed on it. "Course objectives" are now a major concern for accreditation and attempting to change them requires approval from above. "Competencies" must be present as well. Policy statements about academic honesty, disabilities, attendance, harassment and more are required. What should be a simple 1 - 2 page handout becomes a 10-page (or more) monstrosity. The schoolwide policies are repeated verbatim on every syllabus for every class and so I am not surprised in the least that students don't put the effort into reading it. (Or they read it and forget it.)

And it's only going to get worse - we've already been given a heads-up for changes coming next semester.

I would love to split the syllabus into two parts, but that's too large a Gordonian knot for me to slice.

Previous Years

August 15, 2013 - Another Monomer I Won't Work With

August 15, 2012 - Helmet Gels to Reduce Head Injuries in Sports

August 15, 2011 - An Issue on Nomenclature