Thursday, September 30, 2010


I had mentioned pyridine just last week in connection to it being part of a new discovered (semi)organic solvent for gold and platinum. Specifically I said
And "pyridine with its pile of dead fish smell is no great shakes either, but again, commonplace for organikers."
But the general public and TV news doesn't see it that way. Yesterday evening, one of the medical school lab buildings at the University of Minnesota was evacuated after a pyridine spill occurred. It was the lead story on at least one of the local TV stations, who were treating it as if it was a chemical warfare attack. Sure, the spill occurred in the hallway (this probably could have been prevent with better lab techniques) and so it entered the general ventilation system which certainly would lead people to evacuate just from the smell, but no one was going to get sick or die except maybe from psychosomatic inducement.

Chemophobia is alive and well.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More Destuction from Windows Reflecting Sunlight

I've written in the past about sunlight reflecting off windows in a concentrated fashion leading to damage on neighboring houses. That however, is small stuff. The MGM Mirage Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas has built more or less their entire building into a concentrating mirror. Look at the picture of the building: and don't tell me you're surprised that there is a problem. According to The Register, employee confirmed: "Yeah, we know. We call it the death ray."
The strange thing to me is that they seem perplexed about the solution.
[The Hotel's spokesman] explained that there's no easy fix for the problem, since the hot spot will shift according to the season... He said: "This is quite literally an astronomical challenge. We are dealing with a moving target."
Predicting the path of the beam can't be too challenging. The analemma was known to the ancients, and the rest is geometry, right?

ANTEC is accepting papers

If you've ever presented a paper at a technical conference, you are no doubt familiar with the feeling of "I just presented a paper, how can they possibley be looking for another one". That is just how I felt yesterday when management approached me about making another ANTEC presentation. Next year's abstracts and the paper are due at the same time - mid November which is a change. Fortunately, I have some stuff that is pretty much ready to go once I "sanitize" it so that the client's ID is pretty much impossible to guess.

Next year's conference is back in Boston. I was there back in 2005 for the ANTEC and it is a lovely part of the city and a lovely time of the year.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blur, perception and Distance

There's a new paper out that studies blur and it's affects on human perception and distance. This is rather important to nearly all engineers and scientists as we often spend time looking at photographs taken from optical and electron microscopes. In both these cases, we really are looking into a new world and don't have many (proper) clues to help us find our way. The scale bars that show distance across the image are nice, but are not enough.

The paper (open access) studies the impact of blur in an image and how we perceive the image. Blur arises because the depth-of-field [1] is not infinite. Depth-of-field increases when looking through small openings and also as distance increases. But with photographic tricks (and of course nowadays some skilled Photoshop work) it is possible to either introduce blur and change perception, or remove blur and change perceptions in the other direction [2].

Here's a couple of pictures from the paper of what appears to be a miniature scene: while the actual scene is this: The paper has a number of pictures of fractured rock surfaces which could well pass for a number of different microscopic pictures that I first mentioned and show the dangers of being mislead by our own eyes.

[1] When focusing on an object, some objects both in front of the central object and behind it will also be in focus, while others at greater distances from the central object are not in focus.

[2] Hollywood could certainly put these techniques to great use and thus avoid the whole "Oh that's just a guy in a Godzilla suit crushing small buildings" thing. My personal favorite is "Titanic". Every time I see that movie it looks like a toy boat floating in a bathtub. James Cameron waited 20 years for technology to advance enough so that he could make Avatar. He should digitally re-edit "Titanic".

Monday, September 27, 2010

And now a Soy-Based Urinal

Polyester resins are very commonly used in vanity and other bathroom countertops, and like other industries, they are looking for "greener" and more "sustainable" technologies. One option is the use of soy oil products as feedstock for the polyester. Such a resin is now being used in a new application in bathrooms and the company that developed the product, Waterless, is "flushed" with pride.

Saran isn't Saran anymore

My first professional job was with the Packaging Films Group of the long departed Hercules Company. While we made polyproplyene films, I quickly learned that the film with the best barrier properties (O2, moisture and aroma) was polyvinylidene chloride, PVDC. Dow developed and sold the film under the "Saran" tradename, although the product has been made and sold by S.C. Johnson for quite a number of years. Knowing of the barrier properties, I immediately starting buying it as my plastic wrap for the kitchen.

Now I find out that somewhere along the line, "Saran" is no longer "Saran", but has been switched over to polyethylene with its inferior barrier properties. I certainly won't be committed to buying it anymore, as I was having a hard time finding it locally - I had to target one big-box retailer to find it. But S.C. Johnson is now happier because they are "chlorine-free". That's great for their PR department but it will certainly result in the loss of endless leftover foods. (Another example of a local optimum not being part of a global optimum.)

I am also curious about how tradename issues are handled in this case. If "Saran" was a trademark for Dow's PVDC, what happens to the tradename when another material - PE, is sold under that name? Wouldn't you lose the tradename?

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Substitute for Aqua Regia

While not of any immediate use to us polymer people, I have some colleagues that use immense quantities of aqua regia and they found this interesting. Aqua regia as you may recall is a 1:3 mix of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid able to dissolve both gold and platinum. But now there's a (semi-) organic option:
[They]serendipitously discovered that gold dissolves when it is left in a mixture of thionyl chloride (SOCl2) and the organic solvent pyridine. Further experiments on the system revealed that other organic solvents and reagents - such as N,N-dimethylformamide (DMF), imidazole, and pyrazine - could achieve similar effects when mixed with thionyl chloride, with the gold recoverable by subsequent calcination.
Thionyl chloride is not exactly the finest chemical to work with, but it is very common in organic labs (I've used it myself to prepare acyl acids needed for to make custom polyamides). And pyridine with its pile of dead fish smell is no great shakes either, but again, commonplace for organikers.

But further, they also found that by adjusting the ratios of the solvents, they could selectively dissolve gold or platinum, a trick not possible with the acids.


Let's face it: petroleum won't be the feedstock for our polymers forever. I'm not saying when a changeover will occur [1] but it certainly will occur. There is only so much oil on the planet and getting it will be only more expensive in the future. At some point, alternative sources for monomers will be economically viable.

Hydrocarbon Processing has a top-notch review article of what is occurring in the biorenewables arena. [2] Fuels continue to be the leading area of development, but it is mentioned that 4 different routes are being developed to create p-xylene - that precursor to terephthalic acid, which is the "T" in PET. PLA is still the leader in bio-based polymers, but options are also being discovered for PE and PVC. The political environment and past failures also discussed. It's worth a look-and-keep.

[1] I tend to think much further in the future than the worst doom-and-gloom scenarios, but making accurate predictions is not my strength. If it were, I would be rich, retired and really tan.

[2] Kind weird, huh? This journal is pretty much 100% devoted to processing and refining petroleum, and even they have an article on bio-based feedstocks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kafka's Last Trial

If you are a fan of Kafka, the NY Times has an article about the legal battles for the last of Kafka's papers. The article is a bit tongue-in-cheek as it makes numerous analogies with "The Trial".
...Ruth’s lawyer and Eva’s three lawyers rounded out the crowd. It’s impressive that the sisters had between them four lawyers, although, to put things in perspective, Josef K. at one point meets a defendant who has six. When he informs K. that he is negotiating with a seventh, K. asks why anyone should need so many lawyers. The defendant grimly replies, “I need them all.”

The Olephin Market is ............. busy (?)

Plastemart is an Indian-based website that has a steady stream of news on the commodity markets. There is a very large number of items today regarding olephins. Just look at these headlines:
So today's lesson in arbitrage is to buy it in Italy and sell it in the Mediterranean (Turkey and Egypt) - or else Mexico.

Mbongeni Buthelezi

Mbongeni Buthelezi is a South African artist who works in an unusual media - recycled plastic. All the works you see here (and plenty more can be googled) are made from bits of plastic that he's picked up when walking around. The pieces are held together after applying heat.

I'm not sure that he'll ever have anything in the MOMA, but the works still show skill and creativity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Watch out all you Grandparents!

From The Chronicle of Higher Education"

New Semester Results in Huge Loss of Life Among Grandmothers

Just days into the fall semester, professors say the excuses for missing class have already begun to flow: food-borne illnesses, fender-benders, roommate squabbles, and registration snafus.

And then there are the grandparents, those poor souls who wander about dead but unaware of it — like Bruce Willis's character in The Sixth Sense — conveniently killed off by college students whose tuition they might even be paying.

One commenter on a Chronicle Forums discussion thread on student excuses suggests sending out warning notices to the old folks: "The midterm exam for [course and number] is scheduled for [date]. This puts your life in danger. We recommend that you get a physical exam before that date and avoid all unnecessary travel until the test is over. Grandmothers are particularly at risk."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Problem with Least Squares Fits

There is a nice paper out about this subject, although it looks at the matter from a rather advanced mathematics viewpoint. If the equation below looks like your idea of a least-squares linear line, then you can certainly read the paper, but I will warn you that more than just the matrices are a challenge; it will flip back and forth between Bayesian and frequentist statistics rapidly.[1]

Also note that it is 38 pages long, has 41 notes that occupy another 16 pages (geesh, I thought I was bad with all the notes) and then just a short page of references - 55 pages total.

Here are some of the highlights that I found to be useful. The paper targets least-squares fit to a linear line, but most of the comments would be applicable to fit other equations as well.

  1. LS fits are make the assumption that the uncertainty is all in the y-values and that the x-values have very little or no uncertainty. This can be the case if x is time, but in other cases, such as when x is temperature, pressure..., that might be worth considering. [2]

  2. If you do a LS fit, the slope and intercept are what most people will latch onto and they will likely ignore the data and its scatter. This is akin to what happens when a distribution is condensed to a mean or median or other single value. If the uncertainty of the average is huge because the data is widely scattered, communicating that is likely more important than communicating the average.

  3. The distribution of the uncertainty in the y-data needs to be Gaussian in order for the LS fit to be proper.
The report has extensive sections on how to deal with outliers [3] and non-Gaussian distributed data if you want to get into those subject further - they are not easily handled.

The first bullet point above is quite important as an LS fit minimized the sum of the distances (squared) between the points and the line with the distance being only in the vertical direction. 200 years ago, those calculations could be long and tedious, but the procedure was quite clear. With computers nowadays, it is possible to minimize the sum of the total distance (squared) between the points and the line with the distance being measured perpendicular to the line taking the x-distance into account as well. This was never discussed in the article and I wish it had been.

[1] That statistics has such controversies at such a fundamental level is something I've always found quite amusing and something that most people aren't even aware of. But then, who wants to air their dirty laundry in public?

[2]Sure you can measure temperature to numerous sig figs, but is your sample really thermally homogeneous? If so, you are lucky. Really lucky. As in, look over the situation again, you are almost certainly wrong. And so then how does the inhomogeneity affect your results?

[3] If you toss an outlier, the quality of the fit improves. If you keep tossing outliers, the quality of the fit keeps improving. You can keep tossing outliers and keep getting better fits until you have just 2 data points left. In this system, there is no penalty for tossing an outlier - in fact you get rewarded.

Polymers in Space - Part II

There was another set of polymer experiments run in space that I am aware of, these dating back to the 1990's. Like the previous post in this subject, the experiments involved polymerisation. My first thought of hearing about the experiments was to question why they were run at all. I certainly could not imagine that gravity could play any impact on a polymerization at all. I was wrong. A couple of NASA engineer wrote a nice summary of the experiments (open access) that quite readable.

Thermal gradients, density gradients and composition gradients can all lead to convection cells in a normal situation, but can pretty much negated while in orbit. [*] While these can all be overcome by effective mixing, their study is still worthwhile. During compolymerization, these gradients (or more correctly, some effects of these gradients) can end up being locked into the final product - with differing ratios of the comonomers being spatially resolved. These differences can be rather important in certain situations.

A commercialized example of this are the contact lenses developed by Paragon Vision Sciences. Differences in comonomer composition will lead to differences in refractive index and can make for some really bad corrective lenses. The work in outer space was able to identify monomers that were insensitive to polymerization while in the gradients.

[*] Some of the same results have been observed for polymerizations occurring either in a drop tower or on planes with parabolic flight profiles.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Polymers in Space - Part 1

Long time readers know how much I hate PR blurb and the coverage of science by the popular press. Add this one to the pile. What is so appalling in this case is the actual science report is pretty interesting [*], while what is reported in the popular press is gut rot.

Here's the science: Researchers from the University of Sydney sent some uncured epoxy up into the stratosphere (40 km up) for three days using balloons. Being uncured and exposed to all the radiation that the atmosphere normally protects us from, the epoxy did what you would it expect to do: it started reacting. The samples reached a solid state, but still needed additional curing to be fully reacted. I suspect that the low temperatures at night (-40 oC) are a reason for incomplete cure. Radiation initiation of a radical polymerization is usually independent of temperature; it’s the remaining steps (chain growth, crosslinking and termination) that are temperature sensitive.

The authors make a suggestion of how this could be applied. A prepreg for a structure could be made here on earth and rolled, folded or otherwise assembled in a smaller size than the final product. It can then be shipped to space uncured, assembled into the final shape and size and then the space radiation will do the curing.

So all that is fine and good. Here’s how the popular press reported it: “Space Makes Polymers Hard” Wow! Isn’t that amazing! While being accurate, it certainly misleads you into thinking that this is newly discovered behavior.

And this line in the blurb is worse “But the University of Sydney group was the first to investigate the effects of the electrons, ions, X-rays and gamma-rays that constantly bombard — and usually damage — structures in space.” Hardly. Pull open the Polymer Handbook and look at Chapter II, Radiation Chemical Yields. You’ll find a summary of published literature of how effective radiation is at changing polymer chemistry.

Since you have the Handbook open, let me point out one other item in that chapter is largely overlooked. The columns of the data show two key values – the amount of scissioning that occurs and the amount of crosslinking that occurs. In many polymers, BOTH occur, although one phenomenon tends to dominate. Looking at chemistry textbooks, you only ever see one option discussed for a given polymer.

[*] It is an amusing report to read in that they included details of the many trials and tribulations associated with launching and recovering the balloons, stuff that is normally left out of the whitewashed reports published in journals.

A Polymer Villanelle

Inspired by Derek Lowe's Put in Another Methyl Group). Not very good...

And then we'll add some nanoclay
The blend will take the heat
And all our problems will go away

Now at first we hope and pray
To make the layers sheet
And then we'll add some nanoclay

And if the XRD leads us astray
Then we will face defeat
And all our problems won't go away

If the feeder won't convey
We'll bang it and repeat
And then we'll add some nanoclay

We add it in all right away
Which is no small feat
And all our problems will go away

Success! We all shout hurray!
Our effort is complete
And then we'll add some nanoclay
And all our problems will go away

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ancient Memories

One of my less memorable classes in my undergraduate education was "Chemical Reactor Design". Despite being taught by the mostly highly esteemed Rutherford Aris, I just don't think I got much out of the class except for one key concept: that the heat generation curve (plotted against temperature) is S shaped, while the heat removal curve is linear. Steady state operation is achieved at the intersection of these two functions, as as you can see in the figure below, this can occur at up to three locations. The middle location is dynamically unstable - any perturbation grows and the reactor will migrate away from that initial point to one of the other steady state points. The end result of all this is that the reactor will have two steady state operating points.

According to another prof who occasionally led the recitation class, this can occur in a candle.

I bring this up because I just saw a report on a computer simulation of a burning candle. I wonder if they saw the two steady states, or was the prof just blowing hot air :) Given the little bit I know about modeling, it could well be that the model was given some initial conditions that are sufficiently close to the end result that the model would never diverge to find a second state. Still, I am curious if the two states of a candle is just an old ChemE tale or reality.

Shaving Polymers

I got a chuckle of out this graphic abstract:
A bit of background: polyphenylene is difficult to synthesize directly. The growing polymer chain quickly become insoluble in anything so alternate routes are needed. [*] The approach in this report is to apparently create the chains by polymerizing a substituted benzene (?) creating a chain which is soluble in the polymerization media. After polymerization is completed, the side arms are removed, in this case by "shaving". I haven't read the article (and probably won't as this is not a field that I am currently interested in) but I somehow doubt that any "shaving", as in something sliding along the chain from one end to another and removing the sidearms individually is occurring.

Still, I like the graphic.

[*] While direct polymerization is preferred, two-step or even three-step synthesis are done on a commercial basis. A great example is polyvinyl alcohol. Vinyl alcohol does not exist (it undergoes a keto-enol rearrangement to form acetaldehyde) so instead it is prepared by the hydrolysis of polyvinyl acetate. The polyvinyl alcohol can be used in this form, or it can further react with an aldehyde (most commonly butyraldehyde) to form polyvinyl butyral which is the film holding together layers of safety glass.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Strange Connection (if it even exists)

The blog "How Cocaine Destroys Lives" (subtitled "True Stories about how Cocaine Destroys Lives") seems to be blog that is accurately devoted to its title.

But there is a recent post there that makes me either question my intelligence (already doing this on a daily/hourly basis when I am awake) or my sobriety (as in maybe this would make sense if I was taking cocaine). The post? "Addicted to Plastics".

Anyone see the connection? Anyone? Anyone?


The Novachem Blog has a review of an article by the venerable Chris Rauwendaal about purging and changeovers. It's certainly worth a look - not only today but also periodically as they do have a steady stream of great posts about purging.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Plastics are loved by "The New Yorker"

It's not a well done tribute, but a tribute nonetheless. Those are kinda hard to find these days.

And no, I don't believe that James Dyson is the first billionaire who fortune was built on plastics. (I wouldn't even say that his fortune is built on plastics, but instead on innovative, engaging design.)

Kudos to BarneyGrubbs for the tip.

Human Skin

Today’s post will be focused on carnal desires (yet still be safe for work). I’m talking about the great desire for artificial skin.

Human skin performs an wide range of tasks: keeping our insides in and the outside out [1], providing us with our senses of touch, heat and cold, providing a base for hair attachment and the list goes on.

Anybody who has ever developed products that interact with skin has always run into one big problem: no artificial equivalent exists. Researchers have been working on developing such a construction, but in all cases they are usually trying to recreate only one or two of the properties of skin. To totally duplicate skin via artificial constructs would be a nightmarish task.

Since an artificial skin doesn’t exist, the only alternative is to use human subjects. This is particularly true when developing pressure-sensitive adhesives. Human skin is a low-surface energy substrate, but you quickly find out that other low-surface energy materials such as polypropylene and polyethylene do not are not a good mimic for skin when testing adhesion (such as in a peel test). The reasons are manifold :
  • skin is more than a stiff surface; it is compliant and deforms under the stress from the adhesive when being removed. All that deformation is recorded implicitly in the peel test data.
  • The condition of human skin varies from person to person, and within each person from body part to body part. Changes also occur over time such as when sweating.
  • Hair coverage is variable and can greatly interfere with adhesion.[2]
In two different employment positions I have volunteered [3] to be subjected to adhesives of my own construct. Usually the back is used for the test surface as it is a large, relatively uniform and relatively flat – so important to maintaining a constant peel angle. While the test generally were fine, there were times that I “gave the skin off my own back” to the project. (Is that the sign of a committed employee or someone who should be committed?)

[1] Clearly there are exceptions to even this simple desire such as when we sweat or absorb drugs and chemicals transdermally
[2] Having a hairy chest may be great for attracting the ladies, but it is the last thing you want when suffering a heart attack and the medics can't get a good EKG reading because the electrodes won't stick to you skin through all the hair.
[3] And this certainly does not mean that I was "volunteered". The Nuremburg Code which was developed after World War II closely regulates human experimentation to ensure that all subjects are voluntary and give informed consent. This clearly prevents managers from going around and asking for volunteers.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Not the basis for blown film, but the bubbles that kids play with and that make life a nightmare for anyone trying to coat an emulsion.

Here's a perspective on bubbles that I never saw before, one that captures the awe in the simplicity and complexity all at once:
"A a remarkable object. It cannot exist in one phase of matter only. It is neither a gas nor a liquid or solid or plasma. It needs at least two phases of matter to come into existence. Here, a bubble in a liquid is considered: a volume of gas and vapour (and at times plasma) surrounded by a liquid. This is the normal case. When the bubble touches a solid, part of the bubble boundary is, of course, constituted by the solid surface. In many cases the bubble attains a spherical shape due to surface tension and floats around in the liquid driven by the various forces that it is susceptible to, notably pressure forces of all kinds from static to dynamic (for instance acoustic), from buoyancy to drag. A bubble seldom comes alone. In the ocean, billions of them appear side by side in breaking waves or are introduced by rain. They thus surely play a role in climate and climate change as they connect the ocean with the atmosphere more strongly than a smooth or even rough surface.
I always thought that the neat thing about bubbles were that their formation from a liquid was philosophically impossible: the smaller the bubble, the greater the internal pressure (it scales with the inverse of the bubble's radius) so to form a bubble from a point would require infinite pressure.

Source: Reports on Progress in Physics 2010 (73) 106501 (Open access with registration for the first 30 days after publication.)


BPA, short for bisphenol A (and yes, bisphenols B and C do exist as well as a plethora of others) is a regular topic in the news. The New York Times had an article last week summarizing some of the work at attempting to determine the safety of the chemical at the levels that people are being exposed to it. The article's title "In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer" should give you an idea of the discussion.

Modern Plastics, September 2010, p. 12 (available online) has two perspectives, one from Dr. David Feldman who first discovered that BPA had estrogen-like interactions on yeasts, and one from Steven Hentges of American Chemical Council.

Dr. Feldman's arguments are not convincing. His central argument is that DES, diethylstilbestrol (shown below) is structurally similar to BPA, and that when DES was used as a drug to prevent miscarriages, 20-30 years later the girls were later found to have an unusually high rate of vaginal cancers.

The structural similarity is easily seen although certainly there are plenty of examples that medicinal chemists can provide of structurally similar chemicals having wildly different properties in the body, but I think an even stronger argument is that the exposure to the DES was so much higher than any exposure to BPA. The dosing levels were in the 5 to 25 mg range, perfectly appropriate for a drug, but not anywhere the exposure levels that people can incidentally pick up from PC bottles. These exposure levels are in the microgram or submicrogram range.

Additionally, Dr. Feldman states that the binding strength at the estrogen receptor site is 1000 to 2000 times less than estradiol, which at least partially explains why DES has to be dosed at such high levels compared to the levels of hormones in the body.

I'm not sure that Dr. Feldman was the best person to provide this perspective on the potential hazards. By his own admission he is no longer an active researcher in the field, having moved on to other areas. And I certainly can understand that he may well have additional support for his position that editorial constraints did not allow space for. I still would recommend the Modern Plastics article however, as there is no shrill fearmongering to be found anywhere in it.

(All pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Interviewed by Chemjobber

The Chemjobber blog has an interview today that I took part in.

I highly recommend the Chemjobber blog in general as all of us at one time or another will be looking for a new job and CJ does a great job of capturing the overall picture as well as some of the finer details.

As for the interview, all the answers are mine, so if you have ad hominem attacks about the intelligence of the answers, my ancestry or the attire of my mother, please direct them here.

Raising the Tg of PLA

Polylactic acid (PLA) has always struggled with a low heat resistance. A popular example of its weakness is that a cup made from it would not be able to hold hot coffee. My fellow blogger "Th' Gaussling" has stated that this is due to the "low" Tg, previously noted in this blog as being about 60 oC [1] and that raising it would help. While there certainly is value in attempting to raise it [2], to correlate the weakness to Tg alone is incorrect. Polypropylene has a significantly lower Tg of about -17 oC and yet is able to handle plenty high temperatures. Why? Because of the crystallinity and its occurrence at such high levels that you can completely overlook that it is above its Tg in most circumstances.

If you are working with a purely amorphous material, yes, Tg is all important, but for semi-crystalline materials, it is only part of the description and it can be a very small part at that.

[1] Let's all play nicey-nice here and not get into any of the well-established arguments about measuring Tg, o.k.?
[2]Here is latest effort but there are others going back at least 5 years.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Who was Jeff?

If I can ever unchain my self from the rheometer, I may have time to make a serious post. In the mean time, my thought over the weekend was this: why did Texaco create a line of chemicals all starting with the name Jeff? The most common ones that I am aware of is Jeffamine, a reactant for creating polyureas, and Jeffsol, alkylene carbonates. There may be others. So why Jeff? Was he the lead chemist? The head of marketing? The father or brother of the spouse of the head of marketing? (Crazier things have been done to please a spouse - see "Elton John plays 100th Anniversary of Harley-Davidson", "Babe Ruth traded to the Yankees" and "Gilligan's Island is cancelled".)

It won't do any good to call Texaco as the chemicals are now part of Huntsman.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

How To Have A Brainstorming Session

We do quite a bit of brainstorming (aka ideation sessions) here at Aspen Research. Here's a couple of the unique steps that we take that really are productive. Maybe people are already doing this, but I've not seen these steps taken in the 4 previous places that I've worked.

  • We don't gather up the "usual suspects" - the experts or people already working in the area - the usual suspects. Bring in total outsiders. Being a small company we can't collect the usual suspects even if we wanted to so we have to go with outsiders meaning physicists, metallurgists, mechanical engineers... By bringing in all sorts of people from outside the immediate field, we gather a truly unique set of ideas that very few other places can match. Great scientists and engineers will be great in whatever they undertake. Going with the usual suspects will always be less productive. Why keep going with the same people? They are ones who got you into this situation in the first place.

  • Don't provide any background information prior to the session. Setting the stage like that is just a great way to taint the well. You're just taking your people and getting them to think along previously conceived lines of thought which is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Both of these steps are not what is typically recommended for a brainstorming session, but I've found them to be quite helpful. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A New Basis for Measuring the Significance of Research

Assessing the value of research is always a tricky effort. One method currently being used is to count the number of times an article has been cited as a reference. This has always fallen short to me but I couldn't explain why. Now I can. The purpose of publishing scientific results is so that others can put those results to use, not just to refer to them in an abstract manner.

So let me propose this: keep counting citations, but only those citations where the previous results were used and/or duplicated and/or were a productive, integral part of the current research. This would pretty much mean ignoring the background citations in the introduction which are "used" only to describe the playing field, but weren't important enough to be duplicated. Maybe some of the citations in the discussions sections too.

My papers from grad school would most likely fall victim to this axe as the results have not been duplicated or used (as far as I am aware) by any other researchers despite being cited probably a dozen times. I can live with that.

Good research is good because it advances the field, because other people use it, because it can be duplicated. So let's align the citation counting with those principles.