Tuesday, 24 February 2009

nano particles

About five years ago, I read the book The Diamond Age. This was my first introduction to the concept of “nanotechnology”, and, I must confess, that I paid it scant attention. There being complicating factors in my life at the time (having just lost my beloved step-father to cancer), I accepted the work of fiction as a distraction from the world around me, letting the wonders of that world exist solely in that world, and not making time to consider to what level, if any, such technology might exist in the real world. Nor did I put any thought into just how small “nano” might be.

Today’s mail brought me the latest issue of Elements Magazine. which focuses upon nanogeoscience, with articles on the history of our understanding of the nano scale and how technology is being applied to study things that small, of the changes in behaviour of minerals and elements at the nano scale (16% of a 10 nm cube’s atoms are near the surface of the cube, which can have profound effects upon the way that cube participates in chemical reactions when compared to a 10 μm or even 10 mm cube), and more.

But how small is a nano particle? “Nano” as a prefix in the metric scale means 10-9, so 1 nm is 1000 times smaller than a micrometer (μm), which is 1000 times smaller than a millimeter (mm), which is a thousand times smaller than a meter (m). The example given in the article to help us understand what this really means was to compare our planet, Earth, to a standard light-bulb. Apparently Earth is about as much larger than a light-bulb as the light-bulb is larger than a single nanometer.

One of my favorite “toys”, I’ve been privileged to play with as part of my PhD research is the electron microprobe, which lets me see some amazing detail in the crystals in my rock samples. With this tool I may analyze the composition of minerals which are (so I thought) quite small—so long as they are at least 10 μm wide I can be reasonably confidant of analyzing that mineral and not the neighbouring ones. Other scientists out there are using different technology to look at things so much smaller than my tiny minerals that the scale bars in some of the photos accompanying the articles are only 20 nm long.

I have heard it said that any technology which is sufficiently advanced appears to be magic to those who do not understand it. When I read that work of fiction all those years ago, I accepted the descriptions of the “nanotechnology” as the “magic” inherent to that world, and thought nothing more about it. Reading the articles today which tie the concepts of nanotechnology with the geosciences and the minerals with which I’m interacting on a daily basis somehow brings it home to me in ways that I wasn’t ready to think about five years ago. You can bet that I shall be paying attention the next time I encounter the concept, be it in fiction, on line, or even in the local newspaper.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The temptations of social networking

I was extremely fortunate to have attended an “open-concept alternative” school for “self-motivated” students from 7th to 12th grades. This was a publicly funded school which drew students from all over the school district who wanted to take active control of their own educations. We students were responsible for selecting our own classes, showing up to them on time without any bells to remind us, and participating in the school government—including serving on committees to interview prospective new students and teachers. Yes, even the students had to pass an interview before being admitted—they needed to understand that not only did we have a greater degree of freedom than the “traditional” schools, we also had much higher levels of responsibility, and anyone seeking to avoid responsibility was encouraged to stay within the traditional system. Because of the unique environment of our school, we had a very high percentage of “weird” kids. Avid readers, D&D players, actors, artists, students who were “gifted” in any number of categories, from science to literature and everything in-between. We came from every neighbourhood and every economic class in the community, and we chose our friends freely amongst them without regard to age, gender or social standing.

I remember one of my teachers telling us during a lecture (he was a psychology teacher) that we should all enjoy and appreciate this phase in our lives, for we would never again have so many and such varied friends. That it is “normal” for adults to settle into their working lives with only a small handful of people they see socially outside of work. I was actually very, very sad when it was time for me to graduate and leave school behind—not only was I concerned about his warning with respect to the potential bleakness of our future social lives, but I truly loved my time there, despite the complications associated with adolescence. However, what that teacher didn’t know was that in just a few short decades after I left high school behind me the Internet would provide everyone with the potential of surrounding themselves with friends and acquaintances on a daily basis, all without leaving the comfort of their own home or office. There is literally something for everyone on line to help us connect with one another. The GeoBlog sphere keeps geologists in many diverse sub-disciplines connected and informed of the latest news. Some of my friends choose a very artistic form of expression on MySpace, others swear by the intimate, coffee shop feel sharing their deepest thoughts on LiveJournal, and I’ve re-discovered the many of the joys of being a High School student again through our little reunion on FaceBook, where the people whose company I so enjoyed when I was young have proven to still be entertaining, witty, thoughtful, and considerate in the casual banter which is exchanged “wall to wall” or in “comments”.

Someone recently commented to me that I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a break from my thesis work to reply to e-mail, as it “doesn’t take very long”. Yes, he is correct; any one reply doesn’t take very long. However, for those of us who move often and make a whole new bunch of friends each time we do, and who wish to keep in regular contact with our old friends, it all adds up. I suspect that were I to let myself, I could spend many more hours a week than I already do, just hanging out with my friends on line. However, it is also important to have a life—one needs to do interesting things away from the computer if one wishes to continue to hold the attention of others via the computer!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The dangers of living with an arachnophobe

I have never minded (living) spiders, and indeed, often find them beautiful. However, due, at least in part, to my neat-freak tendencies, I do not like dead or squished “bugs” of any sort (please don’t show me the front window of an automobile during certain seasons and in certain regions!). My partner, on the other hand does not like spiders, particularly if there is any chance that they might get on him. Since he is uncomfortable being in the same room as a living spider, and I am always concerned that if one stays in the house it might get accidentally squished, our agreement is that if we see a live spider, I get a glass, catch it, slide some paper underneath the glass, carry it outside, and let it go. But if one dies in the house, he has to deal with the “corpse” because I don’t want to see it! The one place this agreement runs into problems is with huntsmen spiders. Being much larger than normal spiders, it is necessary to get a much larger glass to catch them, and I am always afraid that I might accidentally squish some of its legs in the process. Add to that the ones which tend to get into our house are the sort that are a sort of almost translucent orange colour and are so flat that even when alive and well they still look like they’ve been squished, and I’m not as happy dealing with them as I am with the other spiders. They also really like corners and narrow places which are difficult, if not impossible, to get a glass to, and they can move very, very fast, and seem to have a greater awareness of people approaching with a glass than the tiny spiders have. (Bigger brain? Better eyes? Or just anthropomorphising on my part?)
The other day, coming home late one evening, as I pulled into the driveway I noticed a huntsman on the windshield. On the inside. Fortunately, I was alone in the car, so my partner didn’t see it (then). Not having a glass handy, I tried taking the foil-covered window cover (folded), and use it to gently herd the spider towards the open car door. Alas, it fell (or jumped?) off the window and disappeared in the darkness. Hoping that I didn’t accidentally squish it, I went into the house, and hoped that it managed to find its way outside. Alas, it did not. Last night, on our way home from a dance class, as we got into the car and closed the door, I noticed my friend on the steering wheel! So I suggested that my partner get out of the car, which he did with all speed, and I watched the huntsman walk around and around the outside rim of the steering wheel. It did fully three laps during the time it took me to get my door open and find that folded foil-covered window cover. I then set that against the steering wheel so that on the fourth lap the spider walked out onto it, where it suddenly started walking much faster. I only just barely managed to get it outside before it was off the end and away.
I can’t help but wonder about the spider doing laps on the steering wheel. Did it know that it was walking the same path over an over? In nature such shapes don’t come up very often. It would be more likely to walk along a tree branch, which either goes somewhere, or is a dead end. Why did it speed up when it switched to the new surface? Because it was happy to be off that steering wheel, or because it knew I was there and it wanted to get away? And why did I, who have never had a problem with spiders before experience the adrenal surge that accompanies a “flight or fight” situation? Is it just because I knew that he’s frightened of them getting on him, or am I starting to share in his fears? I don’t really need another phobia—being uncomfortable with squished "bugs" is quite enough, thank you!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Excuse me whilst I beam happily

I just found out that my blog made the list of top 50 women in science blogs. I really enjoyed their summary of my blog. I’m already following five of these blogs, and think I’ll be adding a few more to my reader having seen these descriptions. If you are looking for more interesting things to read, this is one good place to start…

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Some musical silliness

I am in the process of teaching myself to play the Hammer Dulcimer. This is complicated by the fact that I’ve never played an instrument before. (To say nothing of how little time I make for that endeavour while also trying to finish writing up my PhD project.) One useful tool in learning to play (and learning to understand/read sheet music) has been the program Noteworthy Composer. With this program I am able to have the computer play me the tune and listen to it whilst it lights up the notes, so I am getting a sense of which notes are which and how they all sound. However, even with that assist, I find that it is easier for me to remember tunes with words in them. The artist who built my instrument is also part of a band which specializes in Medieval Music, and he suggested that if I learn to play the Cantiga de Santa Maria #322 (one of the easier tunes his band plays) I could come play with them. This sounded fun to me, so I have been working on it. Alas, the original words to that song are not only in Latin, but the syllables don’t correspond to the notes on a one-to-one basis (as is true of any number of songs out there!). Therefore, I decided that rather than learning the original version, I’d write my own words to sing to myself as I try to learn the tune. I didn’t need them to be a great work of poetry, but I did want them to have a one-to-one correlation between the syllable count and the number of notes per line. I also wanted the same words to repeat every place the same sequence of notes was used, and to change when there was a difference in what notes appear from one line to the next. The result is no work of musical genius, but, does what I need it to do, and since it is in praise of rocks, I thought I’d share it here. Are there any other geologists out there writing lyrics in praise of their rocks to help them learn tunes?

The lyrics, in case they are hard to read in the sheet music:

Rocks metamorphic, my, aren't they lovely?
See crystals grow when they're subject to folding.
Rocks metamorphic my, aren't they lovely?
Crystals grow with time when they're subject to folding.
Heat and pressure are what makes them grow so lovely.
Exhumation brings them back fast and frozen.
Heat and pressure are what makes them grow so lovely.
Exhumation brings them back cooling quickly.
Rocks metamorphic my, aren't they lovely?
See crystals grow when they're subject to folding.
Rocks metamorphic my, aren't they lovely?
Crystals grow with time when they're subject to folding.
Heat and pressure are what makes them grow so lovely.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

new e-mail list for geologists

I have created an e-mail list specifically for users of the Perple_X program suite, or, indeed for users of any of the other various programs used for calculating and displaying phase diagrams, phase equilibria, and thermodynamic data. Please join if this is of interest to you. If any of you geo bloggers assign your students problems using any of these programs, please encourage them to join the list. It is my hope that having a discussion list with a reasonably high percentage of students present will help make everyone comfortable with posting questions to the list. The creator of the program says that he would like to see the archives of such a list be used as a resource to help everyone who has questions.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

It is amazing the difference a few years can make

Just over three and a half years ago I enrolled in a PhD-by-research project. It had been seven years since completing my Master’s degree. Seven years wherein I was busy doing many things which had nothing whatsoever to do with geology (other than continuing to admire the rocks whenever I was out for a hike, of course). In those seven years I managed to forget a fair bit of information gained in courses as an undergraduate and Master’s student. As a result, when I first started this project I had only the haziest idea of what I would be doing and the science behind it. I recall reading the initial stack of papers my advisor handed me and being fine with the concepts included in the papers which spoke about my field area, but being totally lost on the papers which addressed thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium, crystallization, diffusion, growth modeling, and geothermobarometry. Some of them contained complex looking formulas, others referred to graphs I couldn’t understand (just how does one “project from muscovite” anyway?). Undaunted, I kept reading, I checked out some text books from the library, and read them. Cover to cover. I booked time on expensive equipment and analyzed my samples. I learned to use programs to do the modeling, and discovered that those complex looking formulas don’t refer to calculations I need to make myself, but to calculations that the computer is able to do for me.
Yesterday I stopped into the University Library to photocopy a few articles in journals we receive in Paper (gasp, shock, horror!). Some of these articles have been on my “go copy this” list for months, and while I have notes on the computer as to why I wanted to see most of them, I didn’t bother to consult that list last night when getting ready to read my 1000 words of geologic literature a day, but instead looked at the titles and selected one at random. More than a half an hour later my partner interrupted me to ask if I’d read 1000 words yet so that he could turn off the light and get some sleep. Why, yes, yes I had, long since, but I was so enjoying reading a technical paper that flowed smoothly for me, where I could understand every word, even though it contained aspects of thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium, crystallization, diffusion, growth modeling, and geothermobarometry, that I hadn’t wanted to put it down. Realizing this made me pause. Just when did that transition take place? At what point did this stuff change from being “hard to understand” to “interesting”? I can’t point to a single epiphany wherein I was suddenly able to “speak the language”, and, no doubt, I am not yet fully fluent, yet my comfort levels are here. Reading my 1000 words a day isn’t a “chore” to be done “because it is good for me” it is now, often, as much fun as reading fiction has always been for me, because it is interesting.
Any of you who are just starting out studying a new topic and finding it “difficult” to follow the technical papers, take encouragement from my story. If you stick with it, in time, it will become easy. If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone.