Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Design, Good Design and Plastic Chairs

I didn't even know that these chairs had a name, but in addition they also have a fansite with pictures of the chairs in odd, interesting and intriguing spots around the world. They're something I've always taken for granted, but that is often the case with design.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

CO2 Polymer in the New York Times

The New York Times had a nice piece yesterday on the CO2/epoxide copolymers that Coates has been working on a Cornell. Not a whole lot of technical discussion, although the author makes the point that CO2 is pretty far down in the thermodynamic well making it difficult to get much of any reaction out of it. I was glad to see that this article didn't make any of the typical rosy claims on how this technology will be commercialized by 2008, that it will save mankind and mother earth and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

The kicker here is that this is 6-year old news. It was first published in August, 2001 in JACS. The last I knew, Cornell was in the state of New York. A Times reporter should have been able to walk to Cornell and back during the summer of 2002 (since the winters Upstate are way too severe for travel on foot) and still filed this report 5 years ago. So does this mean that polymers have fallen to the realm of a "slow news day" filler?

Editor: "Jimmy, think fast! There's no news on Paris, Britney or Lindsey. We need something to fill the paper. We can't have blank spots on the pages. What have you got?"

Jimmy: "Well, gee, there is this story that's I wrote 6 years ago about making plastics from greenhouse gases. I was going to delete...

Editor: "Don't you dare. It's perfect. Give it too me and then get down to the corner of 6th. I hear that Alex Baldwin is there yelling into his cellphone..."

Friday, June 15, 2007

PVA - Err, is that alcohol or acetate?

Continuing on the theme of confusing polymer names, this week’s subject is “PVA”.


The “PV” is easy: “Polyvinyl-“.  The problem with this TLA (“three-letter acronym”) is that the “A” could be either “alcohol” or “acetate” (or actually both, since copolymers of these two are trivial to prepare.)  It could also stand for “acrylamide”, although that is pretty uncommon, and usually goes by “Am”.  Kind, gentile authors will use “PVAc” for the acetate, but that still is not a common enough that you can assume it will ALWAYS been indicated as such.


PVA is unusual for a "vinyl" polymer in that it is not made by polymerizing "vinyl alcohol".  Vinyl alcohol doesn't exist.  Anytime you do try and make it, it undergoes a keto-enol rearrangement to form acetaldehyde.  (If you didn't know that, don't feel bad.  Linus Pauling forgot about keto-enol rearrangements and consequently was wrong when he published his version of the structure of DNA.  Too bad, as that would have yielded a THIRD Nobel Prize for the guy.  Instead he just had to be happy with 2 Nobel Prizes.)


Anyway, PVA starts off as PVA which then undergoes a reaction to form PVA.  Confused?  Let me restate this.  Polyvinyl alcohol starts off as polyvinyl acetate which then undergoes a (hydrolysis) reaction to form polyvinyl alcohol.  By varying the degrees of hydrolysis, you can end up with either straight polyvinyl alcohol or polyvinyl (acetate-co-alcohol). 

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

De Gennes

Could somebody keep me in the loop? Pierre-G. de Gennes dies way back on May 18th and I'm only finding out about it now.

This was one original guy. If you've read any of his books (Scaling Concepts in Polymer Physics) or articles such a this one on cell entry of DNA through a pore or this one on smelling a rose, then you will be struck by the simplicity AND the power of the arguments. I know of no one else you can make such impact in such a broad range of fields. He was truely an inspiration of what can be done in a different manner than most scientific methods. I always took the time to read anything that had his name on it. He will be missed and I doubt I will ever see another like him.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Death of the Sci.Polymers on the Usenet

Looks like the end of the line for the usenet, or at least sci.polymers. While sci.chem and sci.physic have degraded into festering cesspools of off-topic postings on every conspiracy theory know by any kook who knows a bit of English, sci.polymers is going out with a whimper. Looking at the about posting activity, you can see a large drop in the posts with each passing year, even taking the seasonal variation into account. This last month – May - there were only 22 posts. The last time there were that few posts was October, 1993 when the newsgroup was only 3 months old, and the number of internet users was 10% (?) of what it is today.

Why is this happening? Colleagues have suggested that blogs are the new usenet, but I don’t see an equivalence. The usenet was a unique resource for accessing information from “experts”. Blogs don’t have that mechanism in place. On the other hand, to the extent that the usenet was used as a site for discussion of a topic, blogs that allow feedback can fill that need.

I’ll probably linger around the usenet a little bit more, maybe to see if I can get my current email address up to the # 2 spot on the “All-Time Top Posters, (previous addresses are already at #1 and #9), but it certainly will sadden me to see it go. I very much enjoyed being able to help others as well as learn from the many experts that use to post their as well.