Archive for July, 2008

A nod for elemental videos from U Nottingham

My assistant Karen, knowing that I am fond of chemicals (being an engineer in this specialty), sent me the link to The University of Nottingham’s periodic table of videos. If you are a pyromaniac, check out their flick on phosphorus. I learned that an average person processes 70 kilos of phosphorous — an essential element for human life. That makes me wonder if the stories of people spontaneously combusting could be true!

I enjoyed the video on arsenic — an element I worked with on my first job after graduating in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. My supervisor handed me several bottles of varying forms of arsenic and suggested that I dope them into a quantity of shale oil. My mission was to experiment on adding various metals that might tie up the arsenic in the solid ash. This toxic element occurs naturally in shale oil, which, when burned, creates an oxide that sublimates on nearby greenery. For example, the rabbits eating outside the shale-oil power plant might go cotton-tail up after enjoying their salad. I had no idea how to construct a lab-scale combustion chamber so I simply poured some oil into a ceramic ‘canoe’, added a pinch of arsenic, put the canoe into a pyrex cylinder and heated it up with tube furnace. Sometimes the oil would vaporize and explode — shotting the stopper around the lab like a rubber bullet. Thus I took the precaution of standing in the hall, which made some colleagues wonder what I was doing all day.

My supervisor took a one month vacation while I completed this introductory project as a new engineer. He looked surprised to see me upon his return.

One thing I learned about arsenic from the video guy with the crazy hair — research professor Martyn Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham — was that in the Victorian age it was an essential element for the green dye used in wallpaper. Unfortunately, when water seeped into the walls, the mold converted the arsenic to a volatile form that killed a number of homeowners. I’d have thought the arsenic would have killed the mold, but I suppose that would be too convenient.

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The bear necessity for experimenting


Out of the land of the blue-sky waters, my daughter Carrie called me collect last week from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness region in the far north of Minnesota. The group of Girls Scouts led by her and another counselor were forced back to the start of their trek by a bear who took all their food. Evidently this particular creature learned via trial and error experimentation that by pulling on the rope it collect a tasty cache of treats. In any case, it did not scare when Carrie yelled and brandished a rain pancho. When the bear advanced menacingly – growling with teeth bared, the Girl Scouts decided they really did not want their food!

Apparently mid-summer is not as bountiful for bears as the spring or fall (when berries abound). Carrie told me that the bear pulled so hard on the nylon rope that it melted the surface from the friction! A friend of mine who grew up in Duluth told me that a bear in their area got so good at collecting food from campers that it collected up dozens of packs that were eventually discovered in an astonishingly large discard pile out in the woods.

Perhaps this unbearably bad behavior could be extinguished by a dousing like that experienced by the monkeys noted in my blog of July 09, 2006. However, the bear in the picture would probably enjoy the option of a shower over a bath.

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Heads up: A great web site for keeping tabs on workday baseball


My hometown Major League baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, typically play one weekday game every home stand. They do this to entice commuters in the area to knock off early for a
‘meeting’ at the ballpark.

I try to catch every game by some means — in person (I split season tickets with my sister), on the radio or via television. However, these matinee games proved too challenging to track while working — even the radio created too much disruption. However, I recently discovered the internet-based MLB GameCast, which provides live updates and a myriad of stats. It’s accessed via ESPN Scoreboard during any given baseball game. I leave it open for spot checking while I’m doing work on my computer — mainly to catch up via the helpful status report that’s continually updated. However, I get a great charge out of seeing the live updates pitch by pitch. It even shows the directional flight of batted balls!

Whatever loss of time MLB Gamecast creates is more than made up by the stimulation it provides to my afternoon productivity. That’s my hypothesis and I am sticking to it just as tight as my man Joe Mauer does to a baseball when an enemy player barrels into home plate!

PS. Another heads-up: I captured the screenshot via the handy Snipping Tool that came with my Windows Vista. If you use this operating system, look for the utility in your Accessory folder. It may not be there. In that case, go to your Start menu, click Programs and look at the “Turn Windows features on or off” list. Turn on the Tablet PC Optional Components. (The Snipping Tool was originally developed by Microsoft for the Tablet PC.)

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