End of the term musings

*Initially this was to be posted at the beginning of the week, but I wasn’t happy with the many iterations that came before it. I’ve scraped it many times and I finally decided to stop stressing over it and just publish it*

The end of the term is always such a strange time for me. The last three or so weeks before finals I get into a routine that involves a lot of frantic studying and worrying about papers and projects. Then the last week (dead week as we like to call it) arrives and I descend into the “OMG i’m not going to pass any of my classes” phase. At the end of finals week, when I should I be feeling some sort of relief, I end up feeling a little lost. I get so used to having my back to the wall, that, when said wall is taken away, I have to figure out how  to stand again. So, instead of feeling some sort of relief, I just wish for something else to stress over.

Thankfully, that only lasts for a few minutes before the post-finals adrenaline rush settles and my sanity returns. Not to mention an overwhelming need to sleep.  And have a few beers.

But there’s also that time to reflect on the things that I could have done better. Let’s take my calculus class for example. Statistically, at PSU, about half of the  Calc one students will need to retake the class. At the beginning of the term I told myself that I would not be in that category. However I struggled with a lot of concepts and inefficiently spent my time grinding through the text instead of simply talking to my instructor. To be honest, I did have an excellent calc tutor (who also happens to be my best friend) whom I didn’t utilize as much as I could have, but that probably would have required her moving in with me. So now I find myself retaking calculus next term. I didn’t fail, but I’m certain that my grade won’t be high enough to count towards my bachelors. Even if I do escape the class with a C, it’ll be in my best interests to retake it. Calculus is far too important for me to just be content with getting by.

My other two classes were a bit of toss up. I found the concepts in the second round of chemistry to be easier to understand than last term, but the tests were brutal enough to make me doubt what I actually knew. Sadly enough, this spring will be the last mandatory chem class I have to take for my degree. In spite of some of the difficulties I’ve had, chemistry has been a lot of fun and, if the time permits, I may take a couple more classes.

Mineralogy was about the same. It started off rather slow with us covering crystallography and the various crystals classes, structures, space groups and how it all plots on a stereonet. It wasn’t the easiest part of the course. Trying to visualize the inversions, mirror faces and the symmetrical aspects was rather challenging because I’m not terribly good at recognizing spatial features. Once we got into the microscope work things got really interesting. You don’t really know a mineral or a rock until you’ve studied its thin section under polarized and cross polarized light. Nothing is cooler than seeing the undulatory extinction pattern in quartz or the zebra like twinning features of plagioclase.  Next term I’ll be taking petrology which seems like it’ll be an extension of mineralogy. There will be lots of microscope work and time spent with thin sections and the hand samples from which they came. Not to mention a daunting amount of memorization of crystal classes, structures and chemical make-ups.

With all that being said, i’m gonna wrap up this post. I wanted to end it with something inspiring or at the very least a proper closing sentence, but I can’t think of anything. So, I’m just going to hit the publish button and call it good.

International Year of Chemistry

A couple years ago, UNESCO, the science and culture education arm of the UN, declared 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy. This year they’re promoting 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry . Personally, I think this is a smart way to combat the blatant ignorance behind the anti-vaccine movement, the global warming denialists and the plethora of psuedoscience and woo that people espouse on a daily basis. The great thing about this is that it highlights chemistry’s contributions to society and how it will help humanity tackle some of our largest problems such as renewable energy and clean drinking water.

So, to help promote this understanding, the IYC released this amusing video to show what a day without chemistry would look like. Afterwards, I highly recommend heading over to their website and finding ways to participate in the celebration. After all we as scientists use chemistry on  a daily basis to explain how our nook of the world behaves and operates. Let’s return some of that love.


Imploding tankers, or when chemistry finally got interesting

I knew the moment that my chemistry professor showed this video in lecture, I had to post it to the blog. From looking at the tanker, you’d expect it to be built well enough to handle some brutal conditions. Instead, the poor thing got crushed like a soda can under someone’s foot. So, what caused such a dramatic end to the tanker? The simple laws of pressure. Basically, as the tanker was drained of its contents the volume decreased which caused an increase in pressure, thereby crushing the tanker (Correction:As the tanker was drained of its contents, the pressure was decreased inside the tanker, while the pressure on the outside remained the same. With the decrease in pressure on the inside, the external pressure was able to crush the tanker. With that being said, they had to be using a pump to vacuum out the contents of the tanker without air being let in. Thanks Jamie!). On a molecular level, it’s a little more complex. The air we breath is made up of molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and very small amounts of other compounds. On their own, these molecules just bounce around and their impact creates pressure. This results in a relatively modest 14.7 pounds of pressure per square inch at the earth’s surface. This is commonly referred to as 1 bar of atmosphere, or atm. To put that into context, our sister planet Venus sits at around 93 bars.

These facts were originally postulated by Robert Boyle and can be summed up in Boyle’s Law: when volume decreases, pressure increases. When the same number of molecules are squished into an area much smaller than before, the excitation increases causing an equal increase in pressure (Further edit: in the case of the tanker, the exact opposite occurred). Had the tanker from the video been properly vented prior to draining, the pressure would have remained the same and the tanker could have been used for other things than scrap metal. But had they done that, we wouldn’t have such an awesome video to show off the power of pressure.