Monthly Archives: August 2009

Back to Romania

After two months of working at Pécsi Tudomanyegyetem in the research group of Prof. Kunsági-Máté Sándor, I go back now to my previous office at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Working here at Pécs has been a stimulating experience as well as a very productive one. We managed to obtain enough data as to prepare a couple of papers, which should be ready for submission in about a month. Several calculations on the hosting properties of a selected series of calixarenes were performed in order to further shed light on their skeletal properties with and without guests. NBO calculations were also carried out to assess the bonding properties within these molecules. Most calculations were carried out at the HF/6-31G(d) level of theory and only some DFT (B3LYP) were performed for comparison only. We expect to further understand the mechanisms by which calixarenes work as molecular recognition agents.

Be this a public recognition of the Hungarian hospitality, specially that of Prof. Kunsagi Sandor.


Chemistry and comic books

Science permeates into the collective mind of a society not only through school but also through the form of popular media such as the TV or in the case of this post comic books.

For a long time now, the group of  John Selegue and James Holler at the University of Kentucky have a website named as the comic book periodic table of chemical elements. In this clickable periodic table we can browse scans of the pages of different comic books in which the corresponding element is mentioned.

Clicking on each element will display some options for different comic books related to it but for every comic book only the page in which the corresponding element is referenced, is shown, therefore one is not able to read the entire comic book. Nevertheless, for the hardcore comic book fan there are, in many cases, insights to what the page displays putting the comic book, as well as the chemistry within it, in context.

Through the use of the physical properties of chemical elements, many comic book writers have created characters that base their identities in such properties. Also in some occasions, the chemical knowledge of a character helps to the story development. In both cases, chemical concepts are being -literally- illustrated and, ultimately imprinted in the collective mind.

In some cases it seem that there was a deliberate attempt to create a character with a storyline that revolved around the properties of the corresponding chemical element. Such is the case of all the “Metal Men” series in which a group of individuals have super powers related to the main characteristics of each’s corresponding metal. In other cases, such as in mainstream comic books like Batman or Superman, the inclusion of chemical knowledge is brought in by the supervillian who is usually a “mad scientist” trying to take over the world. This vision of scientists with power to enslave the human race probably arose from the atomic era as a consequence of rapid weapon development having the Manhattan project as an imediate antecedent.

The use of popular art forms has the benefit of reaching a larger audience and hence it also has the responsability of not distorting scientific facts into pseudo scientific ones.

Once again this post comes from my memories from the chemistry faculty back at UNAM and the classes of Dr. Raymundo Cea-Olivares who introduced it to us.

Explaining Entropy can be a mess…

Another scientific concept that is hard to grasp by laypeople and that to my opinion has been the center of much distortion in the chemistry classroom, is the thermodynamical function Entropy, S.

More often than not, S is said to be a measure of “disorder” and people just take it! If one was to define disorder then one would have to also define order: Is my apartment too entropic? what about my life? Does nature understand order in the same way as we do? How do we understand order inside a living cell where many molecules and organelles are floating around? If indeed S was a measure of disorder then, why is it important to measure it?

Entropy in a nutshell. There have been many attempts to define S in a way young students may understand it, yet tracing parallelisms with ordinary every-day-life concepts is hard and often leads to miss conceptions.  A student of mine once asked: “if entropy is always increasing, how come bodies tend to cool down?” he meant to ask how come the translation motions of a molecular ensamble tended to decrease (and with this achieving “order”.)

Prof. Mayo Martínez-Kahn at UNAM in Mexico wrote a very interesting paper about Entropy in the local journal of the Chemistry School, “Educación Química”. The paper was entitled “The tombs of Entropy” as a reference to the widely known fact that in Boltzmann’s tomb his famous equation relating Entropy to the partition function Q, is engraved. Prof. Martínez then ventures in imagining how would other tombs from people who have made contributions to the concept and notion of S would look like. I remember distinctively the one of Sadi Carnot’s in which his famous thermodynamic cycle was displayed.

Entropy in so many words is a function that describes how many different energy levels are available in a thermodynamic system. The more levels, the higher the entropy. It also describes the spontaneity of a process to occur since in nature a system always tends to undergo changes that increase its entropy along with that of its surroundings.

How come Gibbs’ free energy or Helmholtz don’t cause such confusions? my guess is because nobody has attached an every-day-word to them!

PS. It is still important to make scientific concepts permeate into the general audience. Recently decesead comedian George Carlin mentioned Entropy in the following video…

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