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Chemists Can Break It Down

After losing out to physicists last year, chemists have stepped it up to win the 2012 Dance Your Ph.D. contest, organized by Science

magazine. More specifically, Peter Liddicoat, a materials scientist at the University of Sydney, in Australia, won with his dance rendition of the chemical nanostructure of aerospace aluminum alloys.

“The dance describes the classic engineering problem of combining lightness and strength and how it could be solved using atom scale microscopy to produce a super-alloy,” explains Liddicoat, who played “The Scientist” in the circus-style silent movie. Dancers embodying lightness and strength transform into a super-alloy–a lightweight aluminum alloy with the strength of heavy steel, whose crystal lattice structure is represented in a group dance number.

“We’ve had an amazing response,” Liddicoat says. “My favorite part of the movie is where I pull out the baby-sized microscope to study a juggling ball–that, and spinning the rainbow umbrella.” See for yourself:

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Happy Mole Day: “A Molar Eclipse Of The Heart”

Today’s the day chemists everywhere revel in their geekiness and celebrate Avogadro’s number, 6.022 x 1023. This morning, the Internetz are atwitter with love for the video you see below: “A Molar Eclipse of the Heart.”

As soon as I saw this delightful clip, I had to know where it came from. Who are these folks who unabashedly love science so much that they spent what I assume was a lengthy period piecing it together?

The answer is the Virtual School. It’s an open education program that, with the help of teachers and other education enthusiasts, puts together understandable, catchy videos about various topics. It’s all in an attempt to “revolutionize global education by creating equal access to the highest quality secondary education for learners around the world—anytime, anywhere, and completely free of charge.” That’s a direct quote from the Virtual School team. I contacted them this morning while I was still buzzing from seeing their tribute to The Mole.

What follows are some of their other answers to my questions, edited only minimally for spelling and grammar.

What is the goal of the Virtual School?

We want to fully cover each subject with engaging learning videos. Passionate specialist teachers and subject matter experts are joining our movement and sharing their expert knowledge. For the topics they feel most passionate about, they record their explanations of important concepts as concise bites of knowledge. Next, the Virtual School’s creative design team enhances these explanations using effective animations to trigger learners’ knowledge construction and retention. These open educational resources really suit 21st-century learners’ interests and are made available free of charge on our YouTube EDU partner channel.

With their vast knowledge base in chemistry, the American Chemical Society’s members would be very welcome contributors. Please email us at  if you’re interested in helping us teach learners around the world! Continue reading →

I’ll Have The Man-Made Lava … On The Rocks

Basaltic lava flow poured from a Syracuse U gas-fired, tilt furnace. Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Karson

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the Lava Project going on at Syracuse University. The earth scientists who help run the program in upstate New York weren’t satisfied with studying lava by traveling to volcanoes in parts unknown. These geologists make their own lava, right on campus, in half-ton quantities by melting down crushed basalt in a high-temperature furnace.

The project began, as I mention in my column, with the goal of creating a lava-flow sculpture—a giant piece of land art depicting what a person might experience in a real lava field. But it’s become much more than that, according to Jeffrey A. Karson, a Syracuse geologist and one of the leaders of the project.

Academics who study lava elsewhere sometimes make their own lava on a very small scale, Karson tells me. We’re talking enough lava to fill a thimble. But lava usually flows in larger quantities than that, AND it sometimes flows to where people live, Karson says. Studying these larger flows will “help us predict how they’re going to flow, and hopefully, how to manage those flows,” he adds.

One project the scientists at Syracuse have been working on is to study how lava interacts with ice. When Iceland’s volcano Grímsvötn erupted in May 2011, it famously spewed ash into the sky and disrupted flights in and out of Europe. But there were also some lava flows that occurred during the eruption, Karson says. Collaborating with Ben Edwards, a geologist at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, the Syracuse team have been pouring their molten lava onto ice beds and trying to reproduce some of the features that formed during that eruption. “We were able to learn quite a lot about the capability of lava to melt ice and snow, as well as the shapes lava flows take when they have interacted with ice and snow,” Karson explains. Continue reading →

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … a Chemical Executive

The Shard: Stands between charity donors and disadvantaged youth. Credit: Courtesy of Phenomenex

Some fund-raisers take the form of a bake sale or a chili cook-off. Such philanthropic endeavors, however, are child’s play to Phenomenex Chief Executive Officer Fasha Mahjoor, who last week took charitable spectacles to dizzying new heights by rappelling down Europe’s tallest building.

The separations technology firm CEO rappelled down from the 87th floor of the Shard in London on Sept. 3 in an effort to raise money for the Outward Bound Trust, which champions outdoor programs that teach underprivileged youth valuable life lessons.

“I’m speechless!” Mahjoor exclaimed just hours after his death-defying act. “I can’t explain what a thrill it was to stand at the pinnacle of the Shard and look down over a thousand feet of vertical glass to the miniature world below with nothing but a harness, a rope, and faith to help me defy gravity.”

Obviously, it’s impressive anytime someone falls down a skyscraper and doesn’t die, but there are still a lot of other things to be impressed about with this story. For starters, Mahjoor was joined in his descent by 19 other philanthropists including the Duke of York, Prince Andrew (who was perhaps inspired to traverse the Shard after watching his mom, Queen Elizabeth II, engage in a similarly extreme activity when she jumped out of a helicopter at this year’s Olympics). In addition, Mahjoor is a complete novice at rappelling. “When Fasha accepted the challenge, he had never worn a harness before in his life,” Phenomenex spokeswoman Kari Carlson Kelly told Newscripts before her boss made his descent. “Minus a short practice run, he is a total rookie!” Continue reading →

Looking Back On Philadelphia (#ACSPhilly)

The American Chemical Society meeting in Philly is now fading into our long-term memories. Chemists accomplished a lot in the City of Brotherly Love: They shared ideas, reported their chemical discoveries, and made new connections. Be sure to check out Monday’s issue of C&EN for stories from the meeting as well as photo highlights. In the meantime, here’s a look back on our time in Philly, told in pictures.

And as we say goodbye to Philly, we look toward next spring’s gathering in New Orleans. The beleaguered region and its residents once again have a cleanup ahead of them, after facing Hurricane Isaac. Our hearts go out to everyone there who is dealing with the consequences of this natural disaster–it reminds us just how fragile life can be.

Keeping Up With The Khemists

This January’s MIT course 5.301 Chemistry Lab Techniques began just like any other. Designed to familiarize freshmen with lab procedures that are commonplace in chemistry labs, the course incentivizes passing with the promise of a spring- or summertime job in an MIT research lab. But this year’s class was in for a surprising twist.

“They called a lab meeting,” says now-sophomore chemistry major Hansol Kang, “and told us they were going to film our entire class.”

And film they did. Advertised as a reality-TV-like Web series, ChemLab Boot Camp follows 14 freshmen as they struggle to successfully carry out experiments, compete to grow the largest single crystal (Kang secretly wonders whether this was thrown in to add “drama” worthy of any Web series), and show the world a glimpse of a month in the life of an MIT chemistry student.

Watch the trailer here:

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Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Two Tesla coils perform “Sweet Home Alabama.” Rock on, electrical engineering students. [Improbable Research]

Squid cells dance to “Insane in the Membrane.” Rock on, neurobiology students. [Discoblog]

And you thought Nintendo’s Power Glove was rad back in the day. Now there’s Stanford’s cooling glove. It’s better than steroids. [Stanford News]

Soft lighting and mood music in a fast-food restaurant make patrons eat 175 calories less than usual, study shows. Newscripts wonders whether it might just be easier NOT to eat the fast food in the first place and … who funds this stuff? [ScienceDaily]

Really old bugs trapped in amber. Just because they’ve been dead for 230 million years doesn’t mean they can’t still give us the creepy crawlies. [CBC News]

MRSA vs. Marmite? [Daily Mail]

Improbable Research would like to know: Which is better, the Heck Reaction or the Hell Reaction? We’re sure that you’ve got opinions, dear readers. [Improbable Research]


C&EN Picks for ACS Philadelphia #ACSPhilly

What’s the latest research on the environmental impacts of fracking? Why is there an ongoing debate about how forensic chemistry is used in courtrooms? Sessions at next week’s ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia will be covering those timely topics. Watch all of our staff’s picks below. If you’ll be in Philadelphia, you can also see these videos in the convention center.