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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Hide and seek. [20050630|13:18]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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Walk onto Caltech's campus from the corner of Wilson and San Pasqual. As you head toward the center, the building you're most likely to miss will be the second on your left. Almost completely obscured by trees except from the rear, where it presents an unlabeled blank wall to a driveway, stands the Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics or Noyes, as it's known to its inhabitants.

I have found that the average layperson, asked to name a famous physical chemist or define physical chemistry, is unable to do either. At most, he or she confuses physical for physiological and assumes an implicit collection to medical science. And who can blame them? There are too many subdivisions of chemistry for a person without a bachelor's degree in the sciences to keep them straight. Analytical, bio, organic, inorganic and physical chemistry or, to add to the confusion, chemical physics. To put it as simply as possible, physical chemists employ the fundamental principles and methods of physics to study aspects of chemical reactions. The more bombastic descriptions claim that physical chemistry research provides the foundation for all of the other subdivisions. Some might add that it does this by fitting everything in the universe to y = mx + b. Strangely, not many people seem to find this as hilarious as physical chemists do.

Scientific research that has technological relevance, that fires the imagination and that is successfully championed by a memorable personality will be viewed as valuable to society. The study of chemistry has much of the first, but little of the latter two. It acquires those qualities through its association with the other sciences, particularly biology. It could be argued that the push for interdisciplinary research has affected biology, physics and astronomy, but I don't think it has become as pervasive as it is in chemistry. Read a handful of grant proposals, and it's easy to see that chemists are unable to justify their research without looking to the other sciences for validation. An awareness of the unknown, of how much there is yet to learn in the field and why it is both necessary and appealing, has been diluted at least in part by the proliferation of prefixes. Rather than improving the accuracy of the definition of areas of study within chemistry, they obfuscate and bewilder. Witness, for instance, the recent development of the field known as "biophysical organic chemistry." I think that "biophysical in/organic astrochemistry" might not be much of a leap from that point.

Chemistry is the middle child of the sciences. It lacks the romantic associations of astronomy, the flamboyant geniuses of physics, the obvious utility of biology. In the minds of the public, it is practical and necessary, but the idea of performing chemical research seems redundant. The periodic table is complete, or at least, it lacks only elements with lifetimes on the scale of femtoseconds, which are hardly relevant to the construction of compounds we encounter in our daily lives. Put together the atoms and you make molecules. When the molecules react, they make other molecules. It doesn't sound very exciting. However, the study of chemistry is the attempt to gain control over the process of making molecules, which is an incredibly ambitious and complex endeavor. Some chemists synthesize organic compounds. Some measure and model energetic, dynamic and kinetic quantities of molecules. Some study on short-lived radicals and ions, others, large biomolecules. In order to achieve the enormous task of mastering molecular creation, it must be broken into smaller portions. I maintain that this end provides all the justification that chemists need. If we don't believe it ourselves, then we can't remind everyone else and we risk being lost from view, like Noyes in the trees.
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Comments:
From: dreamalert
2005-06-30 15:24 (UTC)
Society's contemporary assessment of a work's merit is a pretty fickle and shallow standard to judge by. Better Noyes in the trees than Spears on reality TV.

Then again, maybe physical chemistry just needs its own show, like The Naked Chef or American Chopper. Is it possible to titrate with flair?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-06-30 15:53 (UTC)
Society's assessment may be fickle and shallow, but unfortunately, that doesn't make it irrelevant. At least some component of the public has a powerful influence on scientific research, particularly when it comes to the distribution of funding. Getting non-scientists to appreciate the value of scientific research, particularly when its utility is not immediately apparent, is one of the biggest challenges scientists face. It won't help to be dismissive of the task by, for instance, using overly specialized terms to describe the research.
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[User Picture]From: victorine
2005-06-30 20:51 (UTC)
1. I view this more as a comment on how uninformed the general public is.
2. I think a science show would be outstanding, but even you are acknowledging that it would have to have to be sexed up in order to have an audience. And witness the "science" that is presented to us on TV. Mythbusters is about the only example I can think of. Unfortunately, more often than not, their methods of testing are hardly scientific. I give them credit for trying to bring something educational to the table, but I think they need to try a bit harder.
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[User Picture]From: bram
2005-06-30 16:12 (UTC)
Good entry. Even as a scientist, I don't know much about the field of physical chemistry. Would you say that Linus Pauling was a physical chemist?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:03 (UTC)
Yes, I think he's often classified as one.
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From: 24db
2005-06-30 19:23 (UTC)
Hi, just wanted to say your photos are great

andy

http://www.flickr.com/photos/24db/
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:06 (UTC)
Thank you. I enjoyed looking through your flickr album, especially that sepia-toned image of Battersea power station. Also, I see you have an eye for Banksy. ;-)
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From: 24db
2005-07-01 20:47 (UTC)
thanks, strangely enough I added two Banksy photos today :D
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[User Picture]From: leidan
2005-06-30 22:17 (UTC)
I believe I have actually done a little biophysical organic astrochemistry.
It was looking at reaction rates for the formation of molecules that could regarded as precursors to nucleic acids via ion-molecule chmistry (which is a model for the processes that occur in interstellar clouds). If you don't count my research I definitely know people whose work would count.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:08 (UTC)
Thanks for letting me know that the field already exists. I think. ;-)
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From: tdj
2005-07-01 00:18 (UTC)
If you want respect, start calling it "nanochemistry". I predict a %150 increase in grant money within the first year.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:12 (UTC)
It pains me to agree with you, but you're probably right. Perhaps with the exception of appeals to funding agencies, I still think chemists could improve their public image by being unafraid simply to call themselves chemists.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-07-01 00:41 (UTC)
This reminds me of a 20th century composition class at Berklee where the teacher asked each student to name his two favorite 20th century composers. He asked like he was just curious, but it was funny because more than 90 percent of the class couldn't name two 20th century composers.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:14 (UTC)
Hm, I don't think I could off the top of my head. The only one that comes to mind is Philip Glass.

Out of curiosity, who are your favorite 20th century composers?
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-07-01 15:38 (UTC)
Shostakovich is my favorite by far. A Russian that survived his musical and literal criticism of Stalin. He wrote a memoir that was smuggled out of the country and published after his death in the 1970's. His music is amazing with obvious symbolic references to tyranny and oppression. He wrote a symphony while trapped in Leningrad during WWII (the 7th) and another to criticize Soviet oppression (the 5th). A lot of his work was banned by the Soviets and he was always in fear of being disappeared by the KGB, but he kept on writing. The 7th was actually a worldwide anthem for the allies during WWII but it lost any attention during the Cold War.

I can't name a clear second favorite, but I love Scriabin and Mahler and Zappa's symphonic work. Oh and Lukas Foss who I got to meet at Berklee. And right now there is an emerging bunch of electronic composers that I think are going to be getting a lot of attention as the century progresses as 21st century composers.
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[User Picture]From: tanjent
2005-07-01 10:05 (UTC)
A friend of mine pointed me to this entry, and I must say it's quite an excellent piece of work. Thanks for writing, and I'll keep reading.

-tanjent (former chemical engineering major)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 14:19 (UTC)
Since we don't share any mutual friends, I'm wondering how this post got passed around if you don't mind telling me. Thanks for reading. This is the third in a series of posts I have planned, so I hope you enjoy the future installments as well.

Where did you end up going after leaving chemical engineering?
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[User Picture]From: tanjent
2005-07-01 20:23 (UTC)
A friend of mine who writes fanfic anonymously found you through your "pirate hobbits" interest.

I ended up leaving chemical engineering, and college as a whole, to start a career as a video game programmer. That was about nine years ago and it's worked out fairly well for me, though I still miss working with "real" science occasionally.

-tanjent
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From: lafleuve
2005-07-01 16:07 (UTC)
Greetings.

I found you a long time ago when I was looking through bram's memories. He had archived an entry of yours called "Women in Science" I've read your journal off and on ever since and I really like you, but I'm generally shy about adding people to my list.

Now, however, I am in the mood to expand my circle in every medium through which I live my life, so I am asking permission to add you, and to have the befriendment reciprocated. I know your policy about people who don't comment and interact with their LJ friends enough, so I want to explain that if I don't comment much at first, it's because I'm still feeling shy, not because I'm indifferent. I once went silent on LJ for months due to a deep and paralyzing depression, but I still read faithfully. So, know that if you add me, I will always be here with you even if you can't always see or hear me.

I also hope this introduction isn't too intense for you, but that's the kind of mindset I'm living with these days. I hope we can eventually frm a solid LJ friendship.

Peace

Alexandra
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-07-01 18:50 (UTC)
Hello, hello!

I'm probably going to come off as corny, but I have to tell you I'm touched by your comment. It's not too intense, it's honest and brave and kind. It's difficult to convey with this clumsy typing business the feeling of wanting to reach out and attempt to be friends with someone online where you can't see faces and body language. I'll happily add you.
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