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).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Personal Chemistry

A week or two ago, Kyle over at the Chem Blog described how chemistry helped him solve the problem of cooking collard greens in a suitable time frame. Apparently he was successful; although I’m not sure cooking (or eating) collard greens could ever really be called a success. Anyway, this reminded me of my undergraduate days, when I marveled at all the chemistry I was learning, sure that I would be using chemistry in non-laboratory settings all the time. I would be MacGyver with chemicals — astonishing friends and enemies alike with my ability to solve problems using my vast stores of chemical knowledge. I began recounting all those problems I had solved chemically and... uh…. well, uh… hmmmm. In all my years of chemistry, I can only recall one time in which I actually used chemistry outside the lab, and that was while I was still a freshman.

During my freshman year, while I was living in the dorm, my roommate brought in a dart board and managed to convince me to hang it on my side of the room. Despite the relatively small size of the room, which meant I was throwing the dart less than 10 feet, I had a distressing tendency to miss the board. It probably had a lot to do with the way I was throwing – overhand. I didn’t learn the proper way of throwing darts until later, when I was under the tutelage of another undergrad, Tom O’Halloran (now a professor at Northwestern), at various pubs around town. Needless to say, I left quite a few puncture marks in wooden areas for which I was quite sure I would have to pay a damage fee. In order to make the holes look less fresh, I brought potassium permanganate from the lab to “age” the wood. Unfortunately, I ended up making the blackening the hole with manganese dioxide. So I got some hydrogen peroxide and removed the MnO2, but bleached the wood white while doing so. To make a long story short, I alternated between the KMnO4 and H2O2 for awhile until the original damage began to look like it had occurred back during the civil war. Not the most auspicious start for my life as a chemist (although I didn’t get charged any damage fees!). Possibly that’s why I haven’t tried using chemistry outside the lab again for all these years. If any or you have a similar story to tell, let me know. It might jog my memory.


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Anonymous said...

I have to say my "vast stores of chemical knowledge" have only been useful explaining things -- like putting salt on an icy sidewalk -- but I can't think of any practical demonstration of chemistry.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this and thought it was relevant: Theodore Grey at Popular Science applied his deep and personal knowledge of chemistry to heat his hot-tub using quick-lime: