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… or an undergrad:

In a previous post, I mentioned Innocentive (wikipedia), a company that posts industrial science challenges with cash rewards for a solution.  As full disclosure, I have previously had a solution bought by Innocentive, so I am a fan boy. To put it another way, it allows anyone with the skills, degree or no, to sell good ideas for thousands of dollars and maybe do some good in the process.  Not a lot of good probably, but in the industrial chemistry world that’s maybe a better outcome than average.

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Innocentive, for those of you who don’t know, is a company/community where science types can go to get cash awards for solving problems in science.  Innocentive likes to call this the ‘open sourcing of science’ which makes for good PR, but a closer description might be ‘outsourcing the R&D dept.’  As full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the community for several years and have received $10K for my chemistry solutions posted there … I think on balance it’s a great idea executed well.

But the trouble is, they believe their own PR and the write-ups they’ve received in the press (see list below).  Several weeks ago Innocentive created a project to collect ‘emergency response’ ideas to deal with the oil spill.  Not surprisingly, Innocentive received around a thousand and counting proposed solutions.  What they did next is surprising … they dropped all thousand ideas into the lap of BP.  Because more is always better, right?  A quick scenario to consider:

Your car engine is on fire and the only copy of your thesis is stuck inside.

A.  Your best friend comes up, details how to put the fire out and offers to help.

B.  An acquaintance comes up, lists 80 possible ways to put the fire out ( some involving things you don’t have on hand, some of which might not work ) and then asks why you aren’t using one of their ideas.

Innocentive is a great font of ideas, but it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff, to convince companies that the new solutions might work, and to test.  Innocentive’s challenges usually last several weeks, starting from well defined and tractable problems.  After that is a testing phase that last months.  If they were working on a solution for the next oil spill, I’d applaud it as forward thinking.

If they have a working idea, put it out there … say to the media, “We’ve an idea we’ve tested and think is a great solution … but we don’t want to overburden the people out in the field who are trying their best.”  Complaining to the government that the engineers at BP aren’t taking you seriously, and then to the media (see email to Innocentive members) in the middle of a crisis when you know you can’t push a solution out the door fast enough just feels like chasing ambulances for the sake of PR.

I know everyone’s feelings are running hot about the spill, so please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong in the comments.  If people are interested, I’m also thinking about writing a more positive entry on Innocentive showing how it works well for undergrads.

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In the second of what appears to be a series of commentary on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math hearings being held by the US House subcommittee for Science, I’d like to draw your attention to a few points in “Reform in K-12 STEM Education”.

First the funny bits, brought to you today by Dr. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University:

  • “Mathematics is very intimidating.  Every time I go and visit with our Math department … I take Valium before I go over … they scare the hell out of me.” (1:18:43)  … So remember kids, if your PI asks why you’re dropping X before group meeting, tell ’em Dr. Gee said it was cool.  Honestly, I think most group meetings would be improved by a little X.
  • “If you can’t be a lawyer, if you can’t be a doctor … you can always be a teacher.” (1:10:06I kid, I kid.

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Inspired by a conflux of events: a post about demos in Mitch’s chemistry community, followed by a dangerous chemistry demo listed in About.com (below the jump), and ‘Things I won’t work with: FOOF’. I thought I’d mention a series of books near to my heart, full of exciting demos for any precocious high school student with an indulgent teacher or any teachers in the audience.

Bassam Shakhashiri’s Chemical Demonstrations : A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry, along with vols. 2,3,4 are the absolute best demo books out there. Check them out on Google book’s preview, then buy, borrow, or steal them if you do demos.

However, there are provisos I would offer to a high school student.  For example, when using cent pieces for their copper content … don’t.  The newer (1981+) American cent coins have a zinc core.  Just grab some copper wire from a hardware store … it’s quite cheap.

All of this brings us to my point … Bassam includes in the book (never intending it for unsupervised student use) the recipe for nitrogen triiodide.

… stop …

Look down at your hands.  Pick your two least favorite fingers … now imagine them reduced to a chunky mist about 6 inches to the right of your body.  If you make nitrogen triiodide without knowing what the hell you are doing that image will become reality.  Ask one of its discoverers: Pierre Dulong ( who discovered NCl3, thanks for the kind note Ender!).

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For reasons I don’t entirely understand, this post is trending high on Google searches for ‘chemistry fraud’.  I’d actually like to do a follow up on some of these cases, so if you’re interested in seeing that, have other cases you’d like listed, or know any of the participants, please contact me in the comments or at: chemistrystatistics AT gmail DOT com
– verpa , 10/20/2010

After reading about the IUCr scandal with some 70 structures invalidated followed by another one this month for another set, it got me thinking about the chemistry scandals that have come to light in the past few years.  It seems as though the number of massive frauds is increasing … or are they just getting becoming more public?  A quick review of some of the biggies ( only chemistry, mind you ): (more…)

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VMD and NAMD are two closely linked molecular dynamics tools from the UIUC Computational Biophysics Group.  As you can probably guess from the ‘Biophysics’ header, the emphasis for this suite is on large-scale macromolecular clusters such as proteins or even lipid bilayers, meaning CHARMM and force field models are the order of the day.

Despite the emphasis on biochemistry, there is an interesting tutorial on simulating water permeation through carbon nanotubes.  When I stumbled across that tutorial on the same day I saw a post about desalinization using carbon nanotubes, I thought ‘kismet!’.

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After the continuing insanity of Amy Bishop as related by the media, I needed a bit of amusement.  For your … mostly my … enjoyment: ‘Crazy Water’ and ‘Flying Mules’.

Crazy Water:

Popular Science is *still* running an ad for a ‘High Bond Angle Water’ machine, which will restore your water’s puny 104 degree bond angle to a mighty 114 degrees.  With its natural vigor restored, your water will cure you of cancer and put oak in your penis, or so the ads assure me.  I won’t bother saying this is crazy, you already know that, and other people have said it better.  But, no joke, even the Yahoo Answers people all agree this is bat-shit crazy.  When people who are talking about how best to deal with a child’s imaginary gay boyfriend are 100% lined up to say that your idea is insane … it’s time to wonder just how far outside the mainstream you have gotten.

Flying Mules:

The New Yorker has a story this week describing how in 1942 the US Army attempted to have twelve mules deploy by parachute.  Six mules were actually ejected from the plane but did not survive the experience.  One can only assume the other six staged a forced takeover in the confusion and demanded to go someplace sunny with lots of hay … more power to them!

As I understand the US Army, you can’t do anything without checking with someone higher up first.  Certainly nothing involving aircraft, so at least two people had to have thought this had a non-zero chance of success.  Just imagine the mules showing up for paratrooper school … Well, I always tell my recruits that a mule could do this job better than them … what the hell.

Apparently the Brits figured out how to actually do thisthe trick is to not strap a parachute to a mule!

I refuse to believe that story.

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