Monday, August 29, 2016

A Tale by Mail

Long-time readers will no doubt be aware of my running affectation with the "Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams" series of books from ACS; books which, had I not read them in grad school, would probably cause this blog to never exist.

So I have a sneaky hobby: scouring the Internet's used book counter to assemble an entire set. Thus far, I've collected 17 of the 22 from the original 1990-1995 run. As I'm simultaneously trying for thrift, I'm proud to say the most I've paid for one of these books was around $25.

One of the best came in the mail only today - a first-edition, basically mint copy of Djerassi's Steroids Made it Possible. You know, the one with the picture of Nobelist R.B. Woodward going Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! on another esteemed chemist?

Steroids Made it Possible, ACS Books, p. 60

I open the plastic packaging, breathe in the old-book-paper smell.  But wait, there's no library markings. And the book is, what, 26 years old, and is basically undamaged? Curiously, I opened the cover, and realized that Djerassi himself had dedicated it:

To whom, exactly? Why, to Larry Lehmkuhl, the previous president of St. Jude Medical, according to Bloomberg. And is that really Carl's signature? I've compared it against two *for sale* on eBay and at Amazon - $89 euro and $39.85, as of this writing, respectively - it's the real McCoy.

This, of course, raises more questions: Did Lehmkuhl ever read his gift? Was he from a chemistry background? (I can't find much about him through the usual channels).

Did Djerassi mail out copies of his books, en masse, to anyone interested? If so, perhaps other signed treasures are out there, waiting to be found.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

ETC: Vonnegut, Djerassi, and a Mystery Polymer

I've recently finished the 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, by acclaimed science fiction / humor writer Kurt Vonnegut. For those unfamiliar with Vonnegut's work, I enjoy drawing parallels* between him and "chemical provocateur" Carl Djerassi.

These two men share some odd similarities: born within 13 months of one another, each man suffered the Second World War - Djerassi as a refugee; Vonnegut as a POW - and had their personal lives scarred by young, tragic deaths in their families. Nevertheless, both became prolific writers of short stories, novels, and plays, and both lived to be elder statesmen in their chosen careers: Vonnegut to 85, and Djerassi to 91.

I'd even wager that they looked somewhat alike, with their bushy mustaches, well-coiffed hair, stylish clothing and impish eyes:

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut
Credit: Enotes

Chemist and writer Carl Djerassi
Credit: DLD / Stanford

Breakfast of Champions convinced me that Vonnegut may have had more than a passing fancy for chemistry, himself. Consider this hand-drawn rendering of a mystery plastic, ostensibly factory run-off that main character Kilgore Trout has unfortunately found stuck to his feet after wading through a river in Midland City, Michigan:

Credit: Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
Clearly, that's a cyanoacrylate co-polymer - think Superglue - and it seems to be drawn with a dendrimeric A-B-A architecture. I'm guessing that the ethylene glycol spacers (O-CH2-CH2-O) are meant to suggest the foaminess several characters encounter in the novel, that this mystery polymer is "...the stuff f***ing up Sacred Miracle Cave...", an in-book tourist trap overrun by large, odorous brown bubbles.

Incidentally, I love Vonnegut's inference for the continued polymer chain; where we chemists might write n, Vonnegut inserts his time-work "ETC."

Why? I'll let the author explain his philosophy:
"The man who taught me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be Professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.
 And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them - with an abbreviation that means sameness without end.
 The proper ending for and story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation . . .it is in order to acknowledge the continuity of that polymer that I begin so many sentences with 'And' and 'So,' and end so many paragraphs with '...and so on.' 
And so on. 'It's all like an ocean!' cried Dostoevski. I say it's all like cellophane."
Sometimes you encounter (surprisingly accurate) chemistry in places you didn't expect.
So it goes.

*Bonus: Here's Roald Hoffman interviewing both authors in a 1999 piece for American Scientist magazine

Monday, August 1, 2016

Enthusiasm Goes a Long Way

Earlier today, I watched a scientific speaker drive people out of the seminar room.

Was the person combative? Not at all; a well-respected mid-career chemist at a Top-5 school.
Unprepared? Nope; knew the slides backward and forwards.
Bad material? It was the linchpin talk of the session,
Perhaps haughty, egotistical, or rude? Still no - a model in professional conduct.

The talk was just, in a word...boring.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

However exciting the science, you can't capture the audience if the delivery is dull as dishwater. Literally dozens of posts, listicles, humor attempts, even entire blogs (here, here) have been dedicated to the practice of scientific communication. So why don't these suggestions permeate into the wider community? Why do smart people not consider how their message comes across?

I won't go into the particulars of the talk I saw overmuch. Suffice to say that slumped shoulders, wooden expression, monotone delivery, and stiff arms will have your audience reaching for their smartphones in no time. Ditto: wordy slides, insider jargon, and attempts to somehow mash a 50-minute talk into a 30 minute time slot.

One wonders if, after a certain number of conferences, chemists have become inured to terrible talks. Perhaps we should consider installing a "canary" in the lecture hall "coalmine" - a speaking coach or senior faculty member, placed front and center, that can debrief the overall performance after the session, offer pointers, maybe even solicit feedback from the audience.

Optionally, what about Improv? Many fields - business consultants, customer service, construction, education - have benefited from comedy troupes teaching teams to think on their feet. Anyone have something like that occurring at their lab or university?

I'm not arguing that scientific talks be misconstrued as entertainment, yet I feel I could have learned more if I were actively on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear the next assay result or to see the next structure proof.

Anyone else agree?