Friday, January 31, 2014

"Dangerous Plastics" - And They're NOT What You Think They Are

Chemistry World posted an article this week over some recent efforts in the European Parliament to change legislation regarding plastics. While it had the usual comments on single-use bags, recycling, etc, one comment had my eyebrow raised much higher than I normally think possible:
"Parliament also wants to see ‘the most dangerous plastics’ withdrawn from the market...Dangerous plastics were defined as those ‘most disruptive to human health and the environment, such as micro- and oxo-biodegradable plastics,’ as well as plastics containing heavy metals and other substances that can make recycling more difficult."(emphasis added)
So oxo-biodegradable plastics, the Holy Grail of greens everywhere is now considered a dangerous plastic? And good old polyethylene and other petroleum-based plastics are not? Oh happy day!

I'm pretty stifled to say anything else, but this does sort of remind me of that awful editorial in Nature from a year ago where the authors proposed classifying all plastic waste as hazardous.

Let's just say that I don't expect this legislation to get too far.

Previous Years
January 31, 2013 - Where's John???

January 31, 2013 - New Posts, Few and Far Between

January 31, 2012 - Bunte Salts

January 31, 20011 - Real Time I.V. Measurement? - Nah!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Does "Literally" Really Mean What You Think It Does?

In an online conversation yesterday, there was confusion about what the definition of "literally" is, how people "misuse" the word and the purity of the English language. Twitter is no place for an extended conversation, so I'm taking it here.

While people are generally aware of the literal meaning of "literally" which would be something that actually happened ("The Great Chicago Fire literally destroyed most of the city"), the word can also be used just to emphasize something, even if that something isn't to be taken in a literal sense ("The Minnesota Twins were literally slaughtered by the Yankees last night"). Many people object to this second use - the objections have become so popular that you can buy t-shirts that say "Misuse of literally makes me figuratively insane". XKCD has chipped in, as has The Oatmeal to support this narrow interpretation.

That's all fine and nice, but it is wrong. Dictionaries say so (Merriam-Webster, Free-Online Dictionary and The Cambridge Dictionary Online). Remember that dictionaries are "descriptive", not "prescriptive" - they describe how people use a word and NOT how they should be using it.

While this "new" use of literally seems to be a modern trend, the "figurative" reading has been used by notable authors for quite some time. In "The Great Gatsby", F. Scott Fitzgerald stated "He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room." 50 years or so before that, Louis May Alcott in "Little Women" wrote, "The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions..." and numerous other examples exist too.

"Literally" is an example of an auto-antonym, a word that has two contradictory meanings. There are plenty of other examples in the Wikipedia article. (My personal favorite is "shopping". Back in the '80s, the Pet Shop Boys had a minor hit song called "Shopping". Most people thought it was about buying stuff, but the true meaning was quite the opposite. It was about Margaret Thatcher shopping around different parts of the British government to sell off.) This is no different that particle-wave duality or the Twins Paradox, ideas that mostly scientists are quite comfortable with. Why are there the issues with contradictory meanings embedded in a single word?

Purist may still insist on their strict interpretation, but languages will never stand for that. Languages are living, breathing entities that exist for the purpose of communication. As long as the communication is clear, the language is fine and little else matters. The irony is the word "purist" is hardly an English word. It is of French origin, added to the English language after the Norman invasion and displacing the Old English in use at the time. Further irony is provided by the Tweets that were used to have this discussion. All of them began with the @ sign, such as @jaspevacek (my account on Twitter). "Pure" English would never stand for such usage, and yet it is essential for communication on Twitter. The same is true of the hashtag, #, which has even jumped into spoken English. As I said earlier, languages are not a ritual for purity but a tool for communication. "@", "#", LOL and OMG all let communication occur and therefore are part of a language. That the meanings change over time is inherent in a human language. That's how we've developed the languages that we have today and that people like. We're not speaking Old English or even proto-English, but Modern English. You can't shut off the development mechanism just because you've arrived on the scene and like things the way they are. Things will continue to change. It's all part of the tapestry of time.

Lastly, all of the above only applies to the adverb "literally". The adjective "literal" is still limited to the meaning that most people think of. Only time will tell if it picks up additional meanings.

Previous Years
January 30, 2013 - Clamshell Packaging Takes a Knock

January 30, 2012 - 3-D Printing, Medical Organs and Piracy

January 30, 2009 - Boron Boride

January 30, 2009 - Buckytubes for All!!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What's That About Dow Chemical? Never Mind!

Last week I discussed how an activist investor, Daniel Loeb, was criticizing the business performance of Dow Chemical's plastics segments. And at that point in time, he had a strong argument. Not so today.

Dow Chemical today reported earnings that were up in all segments except feedstocks and energy. The plastics segment in particular, is now carrying their own weight and then some:
"Performance plastics segment adjusted EBITDA [*] was $1.2 billion, up 40% from the same period last year on broad-based pricing gains across all geographies, Dow says. Sales in performance plastics were $3.9 billion, up 5% compared with the same quarter last year. Excluding the impact of divestitures, sales were up 8%, with double-digit gains achieved in Latin America, North America, and Asia Pacific, Dow says. The plastics segment accounted for 57% of adjusted EBITDA in the quarter."(emphasis added)
That's right, 57% of the gross earnings came from the commodity plastics segment! Someone didn't see that coming.

The lesson here is that if you are going to shout your mouth off about how bad a company is, make sure you do it well removed in time from an excellent earnings report. The week before does NOT qualify. On the upside, Mr. Loeb now has strong evidence against any insider trading charges that might ever be made.

[*]EBITDA is Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.

Previous Years

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dynamic Mechanical Analyzers - Male or Female?

Vittorio Saggiomo, author of the Labsolutely blog, yesterday provided a tongue-in-cheek and innuendo-filled post questioning whether certain lab instruments were male or female. An example is this excerpt highlighting the male and female characteristics of the NMR:
He’s usually huge, not only the physical part, but his ego is expanding well behind his metallic shield. Usually traffic cones or yellow tape are used for outline his impressive ego.
He’s mono-thematic, ask him to do a 1H or a 13C and there will be no problem, ask to go for a 31P or a 15N and then he needs to change his mind, reflect a little bit and maybe, and only maybe, he will do it.
Female: She is still huge, but shiny and nice. Can destroy your credit cards in matter of seconds. Sometimes needs a lot of tuning foreplay before starting the measurement. It’s so hot you need liquid nitrogen to cool her down."

Consider that as warning before reading any further the rest of Vittorio's post or my post.

My contribution will be for the preeminent rheological instrument, the dynamic mechanical analyzer (DMA), keeping in mind that there are two types of instruments. Both types operate similarly, with very regular, back-and-forth oscillatory motion. This normally starts at a slow frequency, but then frequency slowly increases over time, increasing, increasing, increasing until BAM! it suddenly stops. After this, the analyst is satisfied - with the data of course.

As I mentioned, there are two types of instruments. The first is a controlled stain instrument. In this case, one of the plates drives the oscillations, while the other plate, which lies in parallel with it, feels the oscillations after they pass through the sample. The reader can draw their own conclusions about what this means regarding male and female characteristics.

The other type of instrument is a controlled-stress instrument in which an upper plate not only drives the oscillations but records the signal as well - no lower plate is needed. This one plate can provide satisfaction all by itself.

So just like the various instruments that Vittorio looked at yesterday, DMA's show both male and female characteristics. You have to make your own decision about your own individual instrument.

Previous Years
January 28, 2011 - Designing a Crematorium

January 28, 2011 - Miscellany

January 28, 2010 - Holy Grail Projects

January 28, 2009 - So that's what it's called...

Friday, January 24, 2014

Different Fields of Science Do Not Have Different Standards of Proof

Back in 2010, a team of researchers claimed to have discovered a life form that could exist without phosphorus, instead using arsenic in such key molecules as DNA, RNA and proteins. The research was published in Science and almost immediately was under intense scrutiny from chemists and biologists. Somewhat surprisingly, physicists and geologists didn't understand what the fuss was about. The work has since then largely been discredited.

Last October, a trio of scientists wrote an article in which they argued that different fields of science have different "proofs". The article is behind a pay-per-view firewall (and I can't access it), but one of the authors has written an open access summary in Chemistry World. In both articles, the scientists argue that this wide dichotomy in acceptance and rejection of the results came about each field having its own standards of "proof". From the Chemistry World article:
"Proof for a chemist requires different data and arguments than proof for a physicist."

Bull cookies.

Science has long known that it can't "prove" anything. It can only disprove something. Einstein was asked about proving his Theory of Relativity and said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." And yet here we have a scientist arguing that you can "prove" something.

What is even worse about the idea of different fields having different standards of proof is what it then implies about peer-review. Such a comment necessarily means that peer-review (pre-publication, post-publication or both) somehow puts a gold star on research, a stamp of approval that it is "proof".

Hog wash.

Much of the public believes that peer-reviewing means that the research and conclusions are true, an idea that many (including me) have been fighting hard to correct. And now we have one of our own reinforcing that very bad idea.

Science is built up from contributions made by teams and individuals. In some cases, the contributions are found out to be wrong, whether it is because they contradict the rest of science or because they cannot be replicated. The wrong contributions are removed and science goes on. In some cases, the corrections come quickly, in other cases it may take decades or even centuries, but science always builds an internally consistent, self-correcting house. And it is one house. There is not a special house for biology and another one for chemistry and a third for physics. One house, one science.

Science will correct itself as it did in this case. But this was because conclusions based on the evidence were contradicted, not because chemists and biologists had different standards of proof. Physicists and geologist can understand what went wrong in the experiments without having to accept new standards of proof. The whole of idea of different standards of proof exists in the courthouse, but not in science.

Previous Years
January 24, 2012 - Confusion over "Vinyl"

January 24, 2011 - How about a Deborah Number for Durability?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dow Chemical Under Attack From Its Own Investors

Dow Chemical is back in the business news after receiving a nasty-gram from one of it's investors, Daniel Loeb of Third Point Management, a hedge fund company. Mr. Loeb is often described as an activist investor who is well known for writing letters which are directed to the public more than to the company's management despite the letter being addressed to the latter. The letters are usually scathing and this one is no exception.
"Dow shares have woefully underperformed over the last decade, generating a return of 46% (including dividends) compared to a 199% return for the S&P 500 Chemicals Index and a 101% return for the S&P 500. Indeed, in April 1999, nearly 15 years ago, an investor could have purchased Dow shares for the same price that they trade at today!"
And not being ignorant of the shale gas revolution (discussed yesterday), the zinger is this:" The company’s weak performance is even more surprising given that the North American shale gas revolution has been a powerful tailwind for Dow’s largest business exposure - petrochemicals."

The letter details how Dow is moving down the petrochemical stream to supposedly higher margin operations, even though the shale gas revolution should have driven them in the opposite direction. And it strongly suggests splitting the company into 2 - Dow Petchem (with the petrochemical operations) and Dow Specialty, with all the specialty chemicals.

I stated above that the letter was really to the public and that was proven true by Wall Street. After the announcement, Dow's stock went up 6.6%. Obviously someone thinks something is going to happen at Dow and it will be good. Hopefully it is good for the long term, as hedge funds can too often focus on short term gains. If your poker hand is 2, 5, 6, 10 & K across three suits, you can shuffle it all you want, or even put two cards in your left hand and three in your right and you still just have king-high. But maybe you can bluff better.

Previous Years

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Don't Expect Cheap Polyethylene Anytime Soon

The plastics industry has now officially entered the shale gas revolution. Plastics News recently wrote that the first ethane molecules from the Marcellus shale formation had finally begun to enter reactors to be cracked to ethylene, with those reactors being owned by Nova Chemicals. The revolution is on!

And from those happy, little, unsaturated molecules, we can now expect prolific polymerizations products from polyethylene pellets to pounce forth, and at such a low cost as to once again re-energize our economy and make us the economic powerhouse of the world. Or at least, that is what we’ve been told.

That is not what we’ve seen however (as I discussed back in September). And that is not what we will see anytime soon either according to consultant Mike Burns’ comments which also happen to be published in Plastics News [*].
” ‘Polyethylene buyers should not expect new lower cost feedstocks [such as those from shale gas] to reduce prices,’ Burns explained. ‘PE pellets are priced at the highest global feedstock, and that has created a price floor for PE.’ “

At least we can take comfort in knowing that all that extra money that we are paying for polyethylene is helping the profits of the companies that make the polyethylene, such as the little ma-and-pa shops, the companies being run out of someone’s garage, or even the ones that the recent immigrant family started. Who am I kidding? Polyethylene is made in extremely large scale in order to reduce the cost as much as possible. You either go in big or you don’t go in at all. Think ExxonMobil, Dow, LyondellBasell, ChevronPhillips and as already noted, Nova. They are the ones that will gain from this price inflexibility, and I hope that they are quite grateful to those of us paying for it.

[*] Please don’t think that I’m taking a shot at Plastics News. I’m not. They do a wonderful job of reporting the news all around the plastics industry. If the news contradicts itself, it’s because the newsmakers are contradicting themselves, not Plastics News.

Previous Years

January 22, 2010: Math According to the Chief Justice

Monday, January 20, 2014

Good Jargon and Bad Jargon

While many people perceive of jargon as undesirable, I find that it often can have value. For instance, when talking about polymer diffusion, the word "reptation" is invaluable. The word is used to describe the 1-dimensional diffusion that a polymer chain typically undergoes. There are a lot of concepts that are all wrapped up in that little word.
What concepts? Well consider a more complete description of how reptation arises: In a molten polymer, any given chain is constrained by neighboring molecules. The net effect is that the polymer can be envisioned as being trapped in a tube such as is seen on the right. Since it would require extreme coordination of the movement of multiple molecules to produce any motion perpendicular to the direction of the chain, the most common direction for diffusion is along the chain. Since this motion resembles the crawling of a reptile, the word "reptation" is used to describe it.

It's a wonderful piece of jargon. It captures a whole range of ideas in one word, it is very clear what it means and doesn't mean, and if you don't know what the word means, it is highly unlikely that you will think you know what it means.

Compare this to these examples of bad jargon, such as "good laboratory practices" or "physical aging" or worst of all - "resin".

Unless you are familiar with the medical device industry, "good laboratory practices" has no special meaning. You probably figure it refers to working safely, writing data in your notebook and other routines that people have tried to teach you about what it means to be a good engineer or scientist. Unfortunately, good laboratory practices has a very significant and well-defined meaning to the US FDA that extends far beyond what most people think. And that's why it's bad jargon - it's too easy for people to think they know what it means only to face serious consequences when they find out otherwise.

Physical aging is another example of bad jargon. This is used to describe the movement of glass polymers. While it is commonly taught that the glass transition prevents the movement of polymers, that is not true. It only prevents the movement of polymers relative to each other. When the whole mass shrinks and pulls together uniformly (at least uniformly on a local basis), that is an example of physical aging. While it's similar to "reptation" in that few people would be able to devise exactly what physical aging means, it isn't a new or remote enough word to set itself off as good jargon does. Now knowing what it is, would you really call it physical aging if asked to devise a word (or two) for it? Wouldn't glassy shrinkage work better? Or how about "decrementum", from the Latin word for shrinkage.

The worst offender however is "resin". First, it can be used to describe the sticky plant secrection (and these resins can be chemically modified and added to polymers as tackifiers or plasticizers, so don't think that this biomaterial has no ties to the polymer industry). But it can also be used to describe a reactive polymer system, such as a thermoset polyester or epoxy. And it can also be used to describe fully polymerized thermoplastics (usually in the pellet form) such a nylon. In other words, it can be anything to everyone. What a horrible word. It's one I would love to get rid of as it is as descriptive as "thingamajig", and a perfect example of bad jargon.

Good jargon communicates while bad jargon obfuscates.

Previous Years

January 20, 2012: Free Access to Polymer Research

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Recycling Plastics for the Do-It-Yourselfer

A few months ago, a Dutch designer Dave Hakkens got a favorable splash over his new equipment for recycling plastics. The equipment is based on what is commercially used in recycling and other polymer processes, but it is stripped down to be easier for people to make at home. Take a look at the video:Processing plastics (or reprocessing plastics in this case) at home has always been rather difficult just because of the temperatures that are needed and also the importance of reaching those temperatures quickly. High-density polyethylenes for instance, need to be heated to about 170 oC or more to really start flowing nicely. This is something that a home oven can hit, but as I just mentioned, it also needs to be applied to the plastic rather quickly. The longer plastics are exposed to high heat in an oxygen atmosphere, the more they will degrade. Degradation leads to a loss of mechanical properties at the plastic cools and also to color changes (usually a rather unlovely shade of yellow). That is why an extruder is used so much. The screw has a large surface area to spread out the polymer allowing for more effective heat transfer.

But outside of that, there is really nothing magical about processing polymers. That this person is able to strip back some of the mystery is helpful for people wishing to have a better understanding of what is involved as well as for those that want to get involved.

Previous Years

January 16, 2013: Does Going Public Kill Innovation?

January 16, 2012: Flying Cupcake Update

January 16, 2009: The Pitch Drop Experiment

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Finally a Commercial Phosphorus Polymer?

Way back in the mid- and late- 80's (the 1980's, not the 1880's in case I need to make that clear), I can remember scanning the table of contents of various polymers journals and seeing research on phosphorus-based polymers. Much of it was from Harry Allock of Penn State, but there were others too. I thought then that they could make for some interesting materials when commercialized, but when I saw that these polymers had, even back then, already been studied for more than 30 years, I realized that maybe all the more they would ever be is an academic curiosity. Which is rather strange when you think about it, as there are plenty of organic polymers that are made from more than just carbon and hydrogen. Oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur are all used extensively (as are fluorine and chlorine), but why phosphorus never made it to the big time has always struck me as odd.

But that might be changing. Plastics Today is reporting of an attempt by FRX Polymers to commercialize a polyphosphonate polymer for use as a flame retardant. There are both homo- and copolymers (carbonate being the comonomer), they resins are clear and they mix well with a variety of polymers. Being non-brominated is a big plus for their use as flame retardants as there is ever increasing pressure to move away from those materials.

Hopefully this product can make it. It would have only taken about 60 years to go from the first discovery of polymers with phosphorus to the first commercialization (at least no one as been bankrolling the venture for all that time), but it might just be worth all the wait.

Update: Thanks to Neil Withers for pointing out my misspelling of the 15th element. It has been corrected. (At least I consistently misspelled it!)

Previous Years

Monday, January 13, 2014

Still Proposing Changes to the Resin Identification Codes

Last June I discussed the proposed changes to the Resin Identification Codes, the 7 numbers that appear on many plastic articles inside a triangle of chasing arrows. At that time the ASTM International committee was proposing changes that I thought were insane. Plastic News is now reporting that saner heads are beginning to rule. But only to some degree.

For instance, they scrapped the idea of moving beyond the 7 numbers already in place. While there are vastly more resins produced and used than just 7, keep in mind that the numbers 1 through 6 were assigned to the "Big 6" resins, ones that make up about 3/4 of all plastics used [1]. Adding more numbers to account for additional resins is letting the tail wag the dog. All the "other" resins are just scrapings off the plate. But furthermore, once you go down that rabbit hole, there is no coming back. The committee discover that in China they have far more than just the 7 numbers and in fact have over 100 numbers! Who is really going to sort through that many codes? Thank goodness the committee is leaving the number of numbers to 7.

But on the other hand, the committee is toying with the addition of "extensions" to the numbers:
"Consideration is now being given to adding extensions to those abbreviations to further identify variations and characteristics of the seven resin groups now identified through the coding system. This could help reclaimers better identify and sort the plastics for recycling...An extension, for example, could identify if a resin has a high melt flow or low melt flow, information that could help recyclers."
While knowing melt flow [2] can be helpful, just looking at the plastic would allow someone with a little bit of processing knowledge or training to know if it is high or low melt flow. Is it a thin film? Low melt flow. Is it a bottle cap? High melt flow. And so on. But even more than that, not all resins are classified by melt flow. PET for instance, is specified by inherent viscosity (I.V.) and there is not a melt flow test standard for PVC. So how will that be addressed?

As it is, many of the currently available recycled resins are already based on a particle article for input, such as PET bottles, which means that they are already being sorted on that basis. It's far easier to look at a pile of plastic trash and pull out the PET bottles. You could easily get grade school kids to be nearly 100% effective (not that I am advocating child labor!). So how is squinting at all the codes and makes sure that only the #1.2 resins were pulled from the #1.3 resins going to help that?

Leave well enough alone. I still think that the committee is tinkering with something that just doesn't need it.

[1] The numbers weren't assigned in any particular order however. HDPE (#2) is a much bigger volume product that PET (#1) is, but that "misordering" doesn't bother me. Since there is no assurance that the volume of the plastics would be the same in the future, keeping them number in order of produced volume would lead to nothing but problems.

[2] Melt flow is a tested property of a material and is the number of grams of molten resin that will flow out of a specified orifice in 10 minutes under a specified amount of pressure. A high melt flow material has low viscosity and vice versa.

Previous Years

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Elemental Mercury in the Body

I always look forward to Thursday since that is when the new table-of-contents for the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) arrives in my inbox. I don't bother with the articles; I just focus on the two "Images in Medicine". Not for the weak-of-heart or those easily grossed out, the images often are of truly horrible looking conditions that doctors from around the world have photographed. X-rays of people exposed to elemental mercury are very common - the density of the Hg atoms gives them great contrast against the soft-tissue background and even the bones. Take a look at this recent x-ray in which a man was exposed to mercury he found in his father's gun cabinet:
I suspect that the person didn't just get the mercury in his lungs by breathing it, as the concluding line of the doctor's comments was "Psychiatric consultation was obtained, and the patient was transferred to an inpatient psychiatric unit".

This isn't the first time that someone with mental illness did something stupid with mercury either. Back in 2000, the NEJM published my all-time favorite picture of the x-ray taken after a nurse had tried to commit suicide by injecting 10 ml of mercury into one of her veins. The mercury all settled in her lungs to beautifully show off the details of the bronchial tubes.
As with the previous patent, chelation therapy was the prescription. But this picture also strongly suggests that elemental mercury isn't nearly as toxic as many people (including chemists) think it is. From the doctor's comments (emphasis added):
"At follow-up at 10 months, she was healthy, with none of the renal, gastrointestinal, or neurologic effects that can result from the oxidation of mercury in the blood and consequent exposure of these organ systems. The abnormalities on the chest radiograph were still apparent. Although these abnormalities are striking, the absence of clinical toxicity in this patient illustrates the differences in the acute and chronic effects of exposure to elemental mercury, inorganic mercury (e.g., mercuric chloride), and organic mercury (e.g., dimethylmercury). Inorganic and organic mercury are much more toxic than elemental mercury; for example, a dose of 400 mg of mercury in the form of dimethylmercury is usually lethal.
10 months later, still with mercury in her longs, she was healthy. As any older chemist who ever played around with mercury from a broken thermometers will tell you, if mercury was so toxic, we'd all have been dead years ago.

While these 2 examples were of someone putting the mercury into their bodies by themselves, the last example that I have is from someone whose own mother lovingly gave the mercury to her son."For 12 weeks, the patient's mother-in-law had provided him with a traditional Indian medicine containing elemental mercury and meals to which approximately 3 Tbs of elemental mercury had been added." Gee, thanks Mom! And the end result? A beautiful radiograph that highlights all the segments of the human colon:
While elemental mercury isn't overly toxic, I still don't want it in my body (or worse yet, I don't want any of my medical conditions ending up in the NEJM!), so for 2014, I hereby resolve to NOT allow elemental mercury into my body. That will be one New Year's Resolution that will be easy to keep (unlike the ones about exercising and losing weight and keep up with the technical literature).

Previous January 7 Posts

Monday, January 06, 2014

How Cold Is It???

If you're in the US, you know that Minnesota (as well as most of the entire country) is getting walloped by a massive blast of POLAR air today; not ARTIC air, bur POLAR air, as it stuff that hasn't seen sunlight since the SolsticeEquinox. (Updated 1/7/2014. It's so cold I can't think straight.) As in colder than a brass toilet seat in the Yukon. You may laugh at that comment, but as I write this on Sunday night (with a delayed posting for Monday morning - more on that in a moment) it is -11oF (-24 oC) here at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, while it is a balmy 30 oF (-2 oC) in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. Yes, it truly is colder here than a brass toilet seat in the Yukon.

Why am I writing this on a Sunday night instead of the usual Monday morning? Because it is so cold that the CEO of the Fortune 100 Company I work for has already shut the whole place down tomorrow, and this is a company that is run by a CEO who isn't from some equatorial country (in all honesty, there is nothing wrong with people from equatorial countries; it's just they might have a bit of intolerance to cold) but one who in fact is from SWEDEN, a country that is far more northern than us here in Minnesota (honestly, Minneapolis-St. Paul is on the same parallel as southern France!).

So how cold is it? It is so cold that
  • roosters were rushing into Kentucky Fried Chicken and begging to use the pressure cooker
  • when I dialed 911, a recorded message said to phone back in the spring
  • pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers' pockets just to keep them warm
  • we pulled everything out of the freezer and huddled inside it to warm up
Thank you very much ladies and germs, I'll be in town all week; be sure to tip your servers....

I'll write something more serious on Tuesday, assuming that Satan hasn't put on ice skates between now and then. And if that happens, well, we've all made our own promises of about what would happen in that eventuality; I just hope you don't have settle that score. I know I don't.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 - The Year of the Pitch Drop Experiments

Pitch drop experiments were a big rage in the rheology world in 2013. Rumors were floating around back late February that this would be the year that not only would the University of Queensland's pitch shed it's 9th drop, but also that it would be finally captured on video for the first time.

We know now that even 2 days into 2014, the 9th drop is still hanging in there as I am writing this column. Sadly, the longtime custodian of the experiment, John Mainstone, passed away late this summer without having ever seen a drop fall.

And then there was the unexpected news back in July that a video camera had caught a drop of pitch falling. The shocking aspect however, was that is was NOT the Queensland experiment that plopped, but a largely unknown experiment at Trinity College in Dublin. Many people were confused about that little detail, and it did, at least for a while, take away some of the excitement about the Queensland experiment, but not for long. Queensland upped the ante by providing a high resolution video feed of their experiment.

And then there were a number of knockoffs of these pitch drop demonstrations, one being a pitch drop experiment for the impatient using Silly Putty, and the other being a contest held in conjunction with the IgNobel Prize ceremony.

I never thought I would see so much interest in rheology by the general public, but I'm elated that it is occurring. Hopefully we can look back on 2013 as a breakout year, rather than the Golden Year of rheology.