Category Archives: Books

Institute of Chemistry Library flood – UNAM


If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a collective mind is an even more terrible thing. During the past weekend the library at the institute of chemistry suffered a flood caused by a broken pipe just above it, which incidentally happens to be the lab were I used to work as an undergrad student. When it comes to scientific journals, our institute still relies a lot on paper issues for the oldest numbers; we can order them online but it’s just easier to Xerox it at the library if you really need to read that old reference.

This morning the librarians were appalled when noticed not only the huge puddle on the floor but all the books and scientific journals that were dripping water from the shelves. The broken pipe has been fixed and the water on the floor has been mopped. It is now the books the ones that suffer the aftermath of this accident. Not only saving the information was important; wet paper is a great culture media for fungi which in turn could pose a health threat to all users. The administrative staff immediately got to work in recruiting academics and students to help the drying process: “Heal a book!“, they informally called it. Everyone grabbed an item and with the help of industrial blow dryers – the kind we use in chemistry labs to dry wet glassware – and an extraordinary amount of paper towels, each person got to dry the journals page by page.

I got an item that corresponded to the British journal New Scientist, which consisted of about fifteen issues from the year 1980. When I noticed the title in my hand I wanted to switch it. Should we save first those journals with the highest impact factor? or should we work on those that are most relevant to our own research? Should we throw away Chemical Abstracts now that the whole database is online? After all, New Scientist is a magazine which summarizes research that has already been peer reviewed and published; it is journalistic work, not peer reviewed science. But I was afraid to look pedantic so I got to work on drying it.

Kudos to the library staff on organizing in promptu “Heal a book!”

Students as well as the academic and administrative staff drying journals

Each person had their own technique. Some journals had their binding covers still in good shape so they were placed open standing on the floor in front of fans. Some placed paper towels carefully between pages and after a while they would remove them and then use the blow dryer. I thought that if I heated the edges of the paper and thus dried them, capillarity would drive the moisture in the innermost part of each page outwards. Didn’t quite work, at least not in a pragmatic time scale, so I went back to page by page.

I’m glad I did so. That way I was able to find some real pieces of history which could make any scientist nostalgic. For example: I took these photos with my iPod, and if you are by any chance reading this piece on an iPhone, you must find the following  picture about Swedish research endearing.

An ancient iPad or an edgy ‘Etch-a-Sketch‘?

Yes, online doodling games were already a thought back in 1980!

Are you subscribed to this blog? That means you got a notification by e-mail. So what? No big deal! Well, back in 1980 Britain was getting excited over a new form of comunication called the ‘Electronic Mail’ (available only at a couple of post offices). Besides, you wouldn’t have been able to get that message nor read this post on an HP Matrix Machine (you can’t even find a decent link in google about it nowadays!)

But scientists are not all about working, we like games too! So how about purchasing a ‘Hungarian Magic Cube‘ or a ‘Chess Computer‘?

An 80’s sensation!

E-chess

We also love a juicy piece of gossip. For instance, did you know that John Maddox was a controversial editor for Nature back in the 70’s who, as a student, went into chemistry because if he’d gone into physics he could’ve been drafted by the army in WWII to work on radars? Well me neither. But it seems that we should have known who he was, and now we do.

Sir John Maddox

There were many pieces of science news that nearly kept me in the library all night, if not for the fact that I had to drive 50 miles from Mexico City to my place in Toluca, but the one that captured my attention more than any other was the news of a European dream envisioned more than three decades ago; a dream from a group of scientists about looking for answers, like any other group of scientists, answers that are fundamental for the understanding of our universe and the understanding of matter, back when some of the biggest questions hadn’t even been fully posed, this group of visionaries agreed on taking the necessary steps to build an enormous subatomic-particle Supercollider for the European Center for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.

The announcement of grand things to come

Back in 1980 I was already alive but I was only two years old. I could barely talk and had no idea what the word ‘future‘ meant, let alone what I’d become when it reached me. Now, even if I’m not a particle physicist I get excited about the news regarding the finding of the Higgs Boson and even if I’m not an astronomer I also get excited about pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I am a scientist. One out of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions, and this is part of my collective memory, the memory of the work of those who paved the road for us, those giants upon whose shoulders we struggle day by day to stand with dignity and against all odds. But here is the thing: those giants are actually made of dwarfs, millions of them; millions of us. Thousands and thousands of papers written, reviewed and published; papers that collectively gather the scientific experience summed up in rigorous experiments both successful and failed.

Preserving the information in those wet journals is important despite the fact you can get them all online. I hope one day a bored chemistry grad student goes to the library and browses old issues of New Scientist and other journals just for fun; they’ll go for a trip down a collective Memory Lane which will remind them that if they can dream it in the present, they can make it come true in the future.

Advertisements

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and his influence on me…


I was first introduced to Bradbury’s writing in 1989 during my first year in junior high school (here in Mexico that is the 7th grade; I was eleven years old then) by my literature teacher Ángel Molina-Aja at LOGOS School, a progressive institution in southern Mexico City; so now with the departure of the grand master of Science Fiction I can’t help but to think about Ángel and his possible motivations for making us read ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ of all possible books. It is pretty obvious now that his intention was to engage us in literature (prior to ‘Chronicles‘ we read ‘The Hobbit‘) and to make us read something that would in turn make us want to read more and so by reading we would open a world of possibilities to ourselves. His job as a literature teacher wasn’t just to make us learn about literature but to learn how to appreciate it for the values that leaves in our lives, whatever our own inclinations were. As I’ve written before, science fiction is a usual common denominator to us people working in science because we deal with imagining how to bring to life things and ideas that are currently nonexistent. Whether we create new materials with new applications or we come up with wacky mathematical theories that describe the intricacies of the universe, we all have to first set our imaginations free and believe everything is possible. In this way we are sometimes less pragmatical (albeit not necessarily more creative) than lawyers, business people and the like. Education should then be formative, not informative, in order to make an intellectually resourceful population in every area of the human and social development. Here in Mexico the average reading habit is less than 1 book a year per person! and with the upcoming presidential elections and the respective campaigns, it becomes obvious that a poorly read people is a very manipulable one. And the idea of an ignorant population kept in line by the ruling powers through alienating them from literature is the main theme of Bradbury’s other masterpiece ‘Fahrenheit 451‘, in which a fireman is a person who starts fires in order to destroy books (it is widely known by now thanks to this novel that 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which common paper ignites itself). In ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ books are banned because they make people unhappy and unsettled by showing them a world of possibilities that they may or may not achieve, so it is safer to just satisfy people basic needs, which include 24 hours of personalized TV programming on every wall of their homes (sounds familiar?), and by doing so they wont question their leaders or their position in society. They just wont have dreams! That’s the bottom line. The many troubles of my country won’t be solved by people reading Bradbury, but if I was engaged into literature by ‘Chronicles‘, among other books from other authors, and by that engagement I was able to discover the world of science and decide I wanted to become one, then the ripple or domino effect triggered by reading, reached its goal; a goal set by my teachers, to whom I will be always most thankful. I wish I could post a picture of my old copy of ‘Chronicles‘ but I guess it’s back at my parents place all worn out. I have to remember taking a picture of it next time I visit my folks. Here is a picture of my old copy of the Spanish translation to ‘Chronicles‘ all worn out thanks to me and my sister, I guess. Thanks to my dad and his ninja-dropbox-skills for getting this picture for me!

My old copy of “Martian Chronicles” in Spanish bought in 1989. Thanks to my dad for taking this picture and using his ninja dropbox skills 🙂

Bradbury’s work and specially ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ romanticized the idea of space exploration. What a huge coincidence, in a sort of a poetic way, that his departure occurred on the same day as the transit of Venus, a phenomenon that will not occur for another 105 years. I wrote earlier on my facebook page that he did not died, that he only went back to Venus. I was close to not posting it for it might be in bad taste, but then I thought that I don’t know what happens when we die and nobody else in the world does either, so this is as valid as any other hypothesis but only more romantically so.

Rest in peace Mr. Ray Bradbury and may this be a thankful testimony for all those hours of rational entertainment and enlightenment.

“The Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman (ca. 1900)


Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-Walt Whitman-

Science and awe go hand in hand. The more we learn; the more we know, the more in awe we grow. To learn is to discover, and to discover is to be reborn; for the fact of stumbling upon something new refreshes our capacity of being surprised and amazed like when we were little kids. This year is the International Year of Chemistry, so it is a perfect time for telling people who are not scientists to regard science as the human activity of the “awe”. Nowadays, and in some regards, it requires to be a “learn’d scientist” in order to be awed by a new discovery, but every single living scientist on the planet today was once awed, whether by nature or by a passionate teacher in a classroom. So let us remember what it was like to be awed and lets all look at nature with youthful eyes willing to unravel its secrets instead of taking them for granted.

In order to be a learned astronomer one must first gaze at the stars in awe and wonder…

2011, International Year of Chemistry

Wheel? I think knot!


Once again an awful title. This post follows my previous one on graphs and chemistry, and it addresses an old idea which I have shared in the past with many patient people willing to listen to my ramblings.

It is a common conception/place to state that the wheel was the invention that made mankind spring from its more hominid ancestors into the incipient species that would eventually become homo sapiens; that it was the wheel, like no other prehistoric invention or discovery, what made mankind to rise from its primitive stage. I’ve always believed that even if the wheel was fundamental in the development of mankind, man first had to build tools to make wheels out of something; otherwise they would have been just a good theoretical conception.

But even despite the fact that building tools was in itself a pretty damn good start, I strongly believe that mankind’s first groundbreaking invention were knots. For even a wheel was a bit useless until it was tied to something. From my perspective, the invention of the wheel was an event bound to happen since there are many round shaped things in nature: from the sun and the moon to some fruits and our own eyes. Achieving the mental maturity of taking a string (or a resembling equivalent of those days) and tie it, whether around itself or to something, was, in my opinion, the moment in which the opposable thumbs of mankind realized they could transform it’s surroundings. Furthermore, at that stage the mental maturity achieved made it possible for man to remember how to do it over again in a consistent way.

The book ‘2001 – a space odissey’ by A. C. Clarke, describes this process in the first chapter when a group of hominids bumps into the famous monolith. Their leader (i think his name was moonlight), under the spell of this strangely straight and flat thing takes two pieces of grass and ties them together without knowing or understanding what he is doing. I was pleased to read that I was not alone in that thought.

The concept of a knot keeps on amazing me given their variety and the different purposes they serve according to their properties. These were known to ancient sailors who have elevated the task of knot-making to a practical art form. The mathematical background behind them has served to lay one of today’s most fundamental (and controversial) theories about the composition of matter: string theory. Next time when you make the knot of your necktie think about this tedious, obnoxious little habit was based on something groundbreaking that truly makes us stand out from the rest of the species in the animal kingdom.

%d bloggers like this: