This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

CRC Memories

Today, one of my coworkers stopped by my desk and asked to borrow my CRC handbook. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Chemical Rubber Company Handbook of Chemistry and Physics is a rather large book absolutely filled with an astonishing array of chemical and physical facts. I pulled it off my bookshelf and was handing it to him when I noticed the book was all taped up and looked like it had been through hell. I even checked for my name on the inside of the book to verify that it really was my CRC. Noticing my puzzled look, the coworker said, "It fell apart on me the other day so I taped it up.”

I stared back at him and asked, "Dude, were you drunk at the time?"

Okay, so I didn't really say that. I don't use the word "dude" at work and despite some eccentricities this person is a nice guy who has helped me out on several occasions. So I bit my tongue and just handed him the book, but I was pretty pissed, and for several reasons. It wasn't just because he had borrowed my book, damaged it, tried to fix it, and then put it back on my bookshelf without saying a damn thing to me. And it wasn't just because I'm overly protective of books, which I am. I'm anal about careful with books -- I don't damage their spines while reading them and I don’t contaminate their pages with food, drink, or bodily fluids. (Hmmm, probably too much information there). When I finish reading paperbacks it's usually hard to tell they were ever opened. I have a really nice hardbound volume of the "Lord of the Rings" which I never open for fear of ruining it, so I read my paperback versions instead, which after 5 or 6 read-throughs do finally show some use.

No, I was upset with the absolutely pathetic repair job. His attempt to repair my book appeared to have been performed during a fire drill, in the dark, and while wearing asbestos gloves. The tape was all over the place, pointing in random directions, and the ends hadn't been cut neatly. Actually the tape hadn't even been torn neatly, appearing more like it had been, well, gnawed off. At least this guy had used transparent tape. Obviously he hadn't considered that this book might have some sentimental value for me, which it does.

The CRC handbook was almost a status symbol for chemists back in the day. No instructor ever asked you to buy one -- but almost every freshmen majoring in chemistry did. This behemoth was 3.5 inches thick, weighed 6 pounds, and contained almost 2300 pages. The only reason it wasn’t heavier was due to the thin vellum-like pages. Considered a lethal weapon in 17 states, this book was often the first place a chemist would look when faced with a chemical question. It held a massive amount of chemical and physical data, but that data was often arcane, sometimes of dubious quality, and referenced using a Byzantine index system that was almost an art form in itself. This was the book you brought to open-book tests for the sole reason of freaking out your competition. Actually using it during the test was unrealistic, as it might take 15 minutes just to find the fact you needed.

So this book does have a lot of sentimental value to me. I don't think I've actually touched it in years -- it's still faster for me to find something on the net than to grab this book -- but it reminds me of those heady days back in college. You can buy this book on a cdrom, but what would be the point? This book is a symbol of my struggles as both an undergraduate and graduate student and represents my academic success more than any diploma ever could.

Hmmm, perhaps I’ll have it buried with me.


markmier said...

I love my CRC as well. I got mine for Christmas my freshman year of undergrad (I think). I spent the next couple of days thumbing through it, reading the readable parts and looking at all the pretty skeletal structures. Yes, I'm a nerd. And I still have it on my bookshelf in my office, about 10 feet away from me at the moment. It's next to my Perry's, which I just got a month or so ago. I love reference books!

I even actually USED my CRC a year or so ago, to find out the heat capacity (I think) of methanol.

I'm a chemical/environmental engineer, by the way. I love the blog.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Never had to use CRC for anything useful (i.e., not a lab report).

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Oh yeah, this comment takes me back and I agree with most of what you said. I bought my first CRC Handbook in 1979 and my second in 1992. For me they represent a general information source when the internet is down.

All in all, for synthetic work the Aldrich catalogue is a more accessible source of data for common reagents and they are on every bench already.