sciencey blog roundup, feb 2007

February 28, 2007 at 5:45 pm | | blogs, wild web

I thought I’d start a (pseudo?)-monthly sciencey blog roundup. Here it is for February:


10 Suggestions for Becoming a More-Pretentious Graduate Student.

February 27, 2007 at 6:57 pm | | grad life, nerd

10 suggestions on becoming a more-pretentious graduate student.

1) Name drop. How are people supposed to know you’re close personal friends with a variety of Nobel laureates unless you tell them? Frequently. Remember, you don’t actually have to be friends with them to claim them as friends – casual acquaintance (meaning you shook their hands once) is enough.  If you are fortunate enough to correspond with one, carry a copy of the correspondence with you to impress your peers.  Feel free to read it/paraphrase it to friends (by friends, I mean colleagues.  If you’re truly a pretentious graduate student, you don’t have friends).  They may seem like they’re ignoring you/leaving the room, but it’s just to hide their envy.

2) Use and sometimes invent big “chemistry” words in unnecessary circumstances, especially if it ends up making absolutely no sense. In order to maximize the aural impact of the communicative spoken word, an intricate lexicon must be implemented. The principal objective of this is to confuse the listener into thinking you are some sort of genius who has quite a grasp on chemistry. Don’t be afraid to be colligative!

3) Do not be satisfied with only one language. Knowing foreign languages will make you seem travelled and cultured. The more languages you know, the more intelligent you seem (and the more women/men you can theoretically impress – bigger pool of candidates). Try to speak at least four.

4) Don’t be afraid to take credit for the work and ideas of others. Even if you didn’t think it up or work on it yourself, your mere existence probably inspired it.

5) Similarly, make sure you get credit for the work you do yourself. If someone is publishing a paper on trapping single-molecules between electrodes using magnetic fields, demand that your work on Fe-Cu protein mimics is cited. If the author can’t see how the two are related, then just remind him that he’s not a good chemist.

6) Belittle the educational background of your peers as often as possible. If you went to an Ivy-league school, refer to state-schools as “community colleges.” If you went to a state school, refer to Ivy-league graduates as “rich snobs” that have had “everything in life handed to them.” If you went to a small liberal arts college, refer to the products of all other colleges as “socially awkward” and “small-minded.”

7) Be involved in politics, but limit your commitment. Feel free to engage in political discourse and debate, but if you are losing don’t admit defeat. Instead, respond that you don’t have time to think about politics, since you’re thinking so much about science. Advise them that if they were “good chemists” and “serious scientists,” they wouldn’t be thinking so much about politics anyway. Treat sports similarly.

8) Don’t be afraid to brown-nose. If an “important” scientist asks you to warm his seat for him, jump at the opportunity. If you have more than one advisor, decide early on which one is more influential in your chosen field, and latch on to him like a tapeworm onto the lining of the small intestine. Other graduate students may ridicule you for your actions, but gently remind them that your connections are securing you an assistant professorship or prestigious postdoctoral fellowship while they will be struggling to find employment at McDonalds when they graduate. Note – you do not actually need an assistant professorship offer or prestigious postdoctoral fellowship to make this claim.

9) Come up with a few witty catchphrases, such as “have fun” or “get to work” and repeat them. Often. Perhaps use one such as “your mom” as a witty comeback to the insults of others. Example:

Person A) I don’t think your data is reasonable. I just don’t think you can have a negative turnover frequency.

Person B) Your mom thought a negative turnover frequency was reasonable last night!

Although people may stop talking to you and/or ridicule you, they are simply jealous of your unconquerable wit.

10) If you feel as though someone in your group isn’t respecting your research, or is starting a project that may be more influential then your project, then by all means don’t tell them. Instead, visit the advisor and say that you no longer wish to collaborate with your group-mate because he is “not a serious scientist” and “a bad chemist.” Then, approach the student and tell him that you talked to his advisor, and that both of you agreed that you no longer need waste “the time and materials” on the student. Alternatively, you can sabotage the student’s work (for instance, take down a critical instrument for maintenance every time the student needs to use it or hoard resources) to avoid conflict.  Remember, only you can safeguard your graduate legacy.

molecular playbook

February 27, 2007 at 8:00 am | | crazy figure contest, literature

I’m reading this interesting paper (DOI: 10.1021/ja067068k) that explores the structural (in)stability of beta-hairpins upon arsenic binding to cysteins. I was enjoying and understanding the paper until I saw this figure:


Huh? Does this look like a football play to anyone else? Is this normal for NOE? Can someone enlighten me?

Rules of the Lab

February 26, 2007 at 9:55 pm | | grad life, nerd

Rules of the Lab:

If an experiment works, something has gone wrong.

When you don’t know what you’re doing, do it neatly.

Experiments must be reproducible: they should fail the same way each time.

First draw your curves, then fit your data.

Always keep a record of your data. It indicates that you have been working.

In case of doubt, make it sound convincing.

Wafting is for the weak.

Collaboration is essential—it allows you to blame someone else.

Always analyze your results before wasting the time to formulate a hypothesis.

No experiment is a complete failure. Publish it as a negative result.

Whatever you do, don’t tell someone that his/her thesis project is a “useful tool.”

Laboratory Safety

February 23, 2007 at 9:25 am | | lab safety, nerd, science and the public

Not even the president bothers with it. Waft, don’t sniff, Mr. President.

open thread

February 21, 2007 at 6:38 pm | | open thread

I’m too busy to post anything right now, so I’ll open it up to you. Please leave random thoughts, experiences, links, news, brainstorms, research hurdles, etc. in the comments!

LN2, the quicker picker upper

February 14, 2007 at 6:03 pm | | everyday science, great finds, lab safety

While working on a mechanical pump, a leak was sprung whereby the entire oil reservoir found its way onto the ground. The beauty of mechanical pump oil is that it’s viscous, coats everything it touches, spreads like a STD in a co-ed dorm, and isn’t particularly easy to absorb. So rather than deforesting the Amazon and taking a bath in the stuff to clean it up, I decided to try a little experiment.

1000mL of liquid nitrogen was obtain from Praxair and used without further purification. To the floor in the lab was quickly added 1000mL of liquid nitrogen. Upon addition, it was observed that the pump oil was vitrified into a glass. Upon evaporation of the residual nitrogen, a plastic scrapper (TAP Plastics) was used to scrape the frozen pump oil into a pile. Approximately 300mL of pump oil was collected and analyzed via optical spectroscopy (it looked yellow).

It’s not quite as versatile as club soda and lemon juice, but it worked.

The author would like to thank the voices in his head, for the stimulating conversations on the subject. Funding: NSF #109.3008.8849

feeling predictable

February 13, 2007 at 1:37 pm | | everyday science, grad life

On my way into lab this morning, I walked into the cafe in the EE building and the server said, “An everything bagel with cream cheese and tea for here?” I suppose I order the same thing when I go in there early in the morning. Then, at lunch, the ladies in the burrito truck knew my order.

Maybe I’m too predictable.

But then, this afternoon, I was with my labmate Nick (a physical/organic chemist—wow!), who was helping me take NMR spectra of some photo-oxidation products. The NMR lab manager walked by, looked at me, and asked, “Sam, what are you doing in an NMR lab?”

Ha! Didn’t expect that, didja?


February 7, 2007 at 11:05 pm | | literature, science community

I’ve written a few posts where I criticize/make fun of papers, and figures, and acronyms. And some people didn’t like it. And some people thought I was snobby. And some people thought I was wrong.

This is my apology post. And I will apologize by making fun of myself. (Easy to do…)

I am a co-author on a recent paper: Long-Wavelength Analogue of PRODAN: Synthesis and Properties of Anthradan, a Fluorophore with a 2,6-Donor-Acceptor Anthracene Structure.” Basically, we made and characterized an anthracene version of a popular fluorophore, 6-propionyl-2-dimethylaminonaphthalene (PRODAN). The point of the paper doesn’t matter so much here, but I have to make fun of our nomenclature: “PRODAN”—or even its word form, prodan—is an acronym of the structure, with the “N” standing for the naphthalene in the structure. So why would “Anthradan” make any sense as a name? Does the “n” in Anthradan still stand for “naphthalene”? Clearly not. A decidedly silly name.

Actually, I had suggested the name “PRODAA” for our new structure, in order to fit with the previous naming scheme. But my advisor reasonably criticized my plan: How do you even pronounce PRODAA?? OK, so my idea was even worse. “Anthradan” won simply on the grounds that it was able to be pronounced.

(OK, so some may see this not as a mea culpa post, but as a veiled attempt at promoting my own research and paper. But, gimme a break: I’m trying to make fun of myself here without pointing out all the real flaws in my research. That would be unfair: I have insider information!)

one-way mirror?

February 2, 2007 at 3:50 pm | | crazy figure contest, stupid technology, wild web

The Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) has developed a reversible mirror (source), which consists of two pieces of glass with a small spacing in between containing a thin film of magnesium-titanium alloy. Allegedly, the film turns transparent when hydrogen is pumped into the spacing; reflective when air/oxygen pumped in. The idea is to use the glass as windows for building and reduce cooling costs (by turning the windows reflective on sunny days). Interesting idea. (But….)


This story was picked up by several blogs/websites (PhysOrg, SciFiTech, Geekologie, UberGizmo), but I was disappointed that no one pointed out an obvious flaw in the above figure: in the “transparent” frame, they’ve added substantial backlighting. Of course the mirror is more transparent when you supply backlighting! The direction of illumination is different between the two frames and thus they aren’t comparable. This is way worse than changing the bin size.

OK, I’m sure the mirror effect is reversible in this system, and that the effect is dramatic. Just too bad that they had to fake the figure!

And BTW, do we really want hydrogen and oxygen pumped thoughout high-rise buildings, contained in fragile glass? It’ll give “raging inferno” a new name!

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