Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hubris: the everlasting predator

5 days before the assignment is due:

"Wow, this is such an easy assignment. Lots of number crunching, though-- this equation I ended up with has like a million variables. Eh, I'll just calculate it all out later."

Night before the assignment is due:


"So this reaction will take.... 9000 years to finish? Wait, that can't be right."

One hour later:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Post of Many Things

(It's the chemistry that's advanced, not the exam.)

Class average grade: 45/95
My grade: 85/95
My face:
A dream I had last night. Went like this:

Josh: Hey, Aaron! You doing anything today?
Me: Not really. Anything going on with you?
Josh: Nothing too much. A group of us are just going to do a drive-by shooting. You in?
Josh: Why are you freaking out? You don't even have to really hit anything. Blindfire, for all I care. It's not really even that dangerous; the targets probably aren't even armed.
Branden: Come on, man. We'd help you if you were doing a drive-by shooting.
Josh: I thought you were our friend. What the hell, Aaron?

The "other" Ochem exam.
The one I'm TAing for, to be precise. My God, these things take a long time to grade. That said, much fun was had with mocking those hapless students who made what I am going to call "Chemistry Word Salads." The process leading to Chemistry Word Salads goes like this:

1) There's a question on the exam I don't know the answer to.
2) It's an essay question.
3) Maybe if I jam in all of the buzzwords relating to chemistry I can think of, I'll stumble on the right word and get partial credit!
4) "The SN2 resonance structures for the HOMO and LUMO are highly acidic in nature, which means they are prone to giving up electrons in intramolecular reactions. Meanwhile, the oxygen atom travels around the molecule forming what we call "carbocations." These carbocations are highly unstable, and racemize into carboxylic acids due to the resulting steric hindrance of the molecule."
5) Success! Now to hand in the exam.
6) Receive TA response:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

OChem Exam Aftermath!

You know, there's something about exams-- they're horrifying before you've actually arrived to take the thing, but when you're working on it, it feels more-or-less like a homework problem set. Admittedly, one which you're timed on, but there's that same sense of intense satisfaction when you get a difficult problem right-- I remember there was one tricky synthesis problem on the Advanced OChem exam today which I beat my head against until, like a ray of divine light shining down on me, I had a crazy vision of the reaction mechanism as laid down by my spirit animal.* And there's definitely something about OChem exams-- the problems tend to take the form of "Explain why this reaction takes place the way it does," and with that kind of question there's always the temptation to just BS something and hope for partial credit-- give yourself enough time, and you can even half-convince yourself you've got the right answer. But when you actually find the answer, it seems to have a ring of truth about it, because it takes the form of a bunch of obvious statements leading to the then-obvious conclusion-- no convincing necessary. Where you have to watch yourself is when you start writing paragraphs. 'Cuz you can make anything sound plausible if you give yourself a whole page to say it.

That's one infuriating thing about these exams-- all the answers sound so damn obvious after you hear them. Of course the lone pair on the oxygen donates into the sigma antibonding of the carbon-carbon bond, which in turn donates into the sigma-antibonding of our N2 group. Obviously it had to be that way, because the stereochemistry wouldn't work otherwise. Duh. That's why I hate looking up the actual answers when our tests are handed back-- it's just inviting major blows to the ego. Still, I think I did well on this thing! Knock on wood.

*I should mention this test was taken under the influence of near-lethal doses of caffeine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It basically wrote itself

AARON sits at his desk in the Chemistry Study Center. A nearby clock reads 9:00 AM, with a sign nearby reading "Organic Chemistry Office Hours". The room is deserted, and he is dozing in his chair, nursing a cup of coffee. A STUDENT walks in. AARON gasps


A student! In my section!

Wait, where's your rush, where's your hurry
You gave me such a fright-- I thought you was a ghost--
Wait a minute, can't you sit, sit'cha down, SIT.
All I meant was that I haven't seen a student here in weeks.
Did you come here for advice, ma'am?
Please excuse me if me head's a little vague
But you'd think we had the plague
From the way the premeds
Keep avoiding-- just a sec-- (takes a swig of coffee)

Heaven knows I try, ma'am
But there's no one comes in even for exams
Not for resonance or finding moles in grams,
But I guess I hardly blame them--
for this is probably the worst time, for OChem!

I know why nobody cares to come here,
I should know!
I sit here,
Awake? No...
The worst time, for OChem....
Even that 's polite.
This is probably the worst time, for OChem!
You can't doubt me, amirite?

Student: (grimacing) Yeah.


Is this just, revolting?
You have to concede it!
A weeder, so early...
Here drink this-- you'll need it--
The worst time, for OChem...

Thursday, October 14, 2010


So I've been looking into what labs I want to join recently! I've talked to two of the four professors we have to chat with about research, and at the moment I'm really liking this one where my job will be synthesizing plastics with useful properties. Specifically for use as solar cells-- most solar cells these days require lots of expensive silicon, and researchers have already realized they can make solar cells out of plastic much more cheaply.

The only problem being, solar cells made out of plastic right now are woefully inefficient. This professor's research is geared towards making plastics that will do the job better than current ones. SCIENCE! I even got to grill one of her research assistants about the job.

Me: Hey! I was wondering if you could tell me about Luscombe's lab, since I'm thinking about working there.
Peter the Lab Assistant: Oooh.... unfortunately, I don't think she's hiring right now. I mean, unless you're a synthetic chemist who wants to make polymers.
Me: Really!

So that went well. I'm also continuing to enjoy TA work, although I've come to feel sorry for my 8:30 AM group-- they get a woefully unprepared, half-awake TA to answer their various chemical questions. But! Since all my sections have basically the same questions to ask, I can use my experience with the 8:30 AM group to better answer the next students I have come to me with questions. The system works!

That said, sometimes it feels like students assume some kind of psychic TA connection with their professor, illustrated by a slightly surreal exchange I had today with my 1:30 group.

Student: Hey, Aaron! How do we choose between an sp2 and sp3 hybridized resonance structure?
Me: Choose for what? You mean how do you know an atom's hybridization?
Student: I think Professor Boydston said we should choose the one with the most sp2 character, didn't he?
Me: Wait. What are we choosing it for? You mean the most stable one?
Another Student: No, it's just when we get two resonance structures, we need to choose the one with the most S character.
Me: ...
Another Student:
Boydston said that's how we choose, but I don't get how--

...and that's how my entire 1:30 section dropped out of OChem.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

To jump on the memetic bandwagon...

I give you: Prespur Bent, Bee-Druid of the Desert.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hubris strikes again!

During TA training, one thing we were repeatedly reminded to do was to not take responsibility for our students' grades. I thought that message was a bit ridiculous at the time. After all, a student obviously is responsible for understanding the material being taught in the course. How could it be otherwise? How could someone even think otherwise?

Well, I was grading quizzes today, and I was quite glum at discovering that something like 80% of the students got a particular question wrong. This question was about "arrow-pushing", which describes the movement of electrons in a molecule-- something which I (being as I am a grad school chemistry major) took for granted as being obvious. And I caught myself thinking, what if this is all my fault? Surely this could all have been prevented, had I did some more examples on this topic during tutoring. Or what if I said something misleading, that caused this common error among the undergrads? Or what if...

I then reminded myself that I'm only one of the resources students have available to them-- they also have the professor/his lectures, as well as the chemistry book which in theory they should be reading. So really I'm probably less important than I'm giving myself credit for. Excellent!

Aaaaand now back to grading quizzes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

This is why I shouldn't blog at 1:30 in the morning.

The Daret Follies
A Most Entertaining True Historie in Onne Day


Outside the shop Gizmo Gulch. An ISPEX glitters in the window.

Enter DARET, the techpriest.

Hark! An Ispex, newly made,
shining steady in the light--
its careful form of brilliant make,
its monitor so cheerful and so bright!


Good techpriest, I am most impressed
At the wisdom in your tone--
All this could be yours today
a mere two-hundred-ninety (plus tax) thrones!

DARET: Deal! (aside) Sucker.



Enter DARET and company. All are carrying LASGUNS.

Gentlemen, I must urge caution
Let us get some recon 'fore we go!
Our foe's perhaps too crafty, and too strong
We must find out who they are to bring them low!

You speak the truth, but you forget
An ability I've had since dawn--
Behold as my new ISpex Plus
illuminates the passage-way anon!


CALLIDON: Is it supposed to--

DARET: Shut up.


DARET and company walk down a darkened corridor, blood staining their clothing.

By the Emperor, we've come so far
A rocker's life is one I've come to miss!
The money grand, the groupies fine,
And kickass techpriests turning--

A HERETIC leaps out of the shadows, impaling REMSKI with a POWER SPEAR.

Hah! You are surrounded, fools
The agony we'll not prolong!
Behold fellow-cultists, powers great,
perhaps twenty thousand crazy people strong!

Foiled in our designs,
We'll be with the Emperor by the morrow!

(SIX, CALLIDON, and THE LINEAR are killed by lasgun fire. DARET flees, ISPEX in hand. The ISPEX lights up.)

Warning! Acolytes, I must declare
A note before you all continue on--
Her'sy lurks, and shall attack
So please prepare your armaments anon!


Friday, October 1, 2010

Science Analogy Time!

Yesterday I went to this seminar-dealie wherein the faculty presented their research for all of us first-year grad students. A lot of cool stuff, but also there were quite a few lectures where I found my eyes starting to glaze over, my interest in scientific accomplishment becoming eclipsed by thoughts of food and a growing urge to find a restroom. Anyways, I was wondering why it was that some lecturers seemed much more interesting to me than others, and I think it just comes down to my perception of science in general.

So I like to think of all human endeavors and ambitions as taking place on a huge map. Humanity's got a fair bit of territory nowadays-- we've mostly explored the regions of Steam Power and Computation, and we've even made some progress in the fuzzily-defined regions of Applied Psychology and Political Science. Our means of getting from one place to another are tunnels, which we call Theory when they're going down into the earth, and Invention where they're coming back up again.

You can point to basically any newly-discovered region and point to the tunnel (or tunnels) that led there. You might call university professors tunnel-specialists; but to hear some of them talk, it's like they're building tunnels not to get from point A to point B, but because they just like building tunnels. And then they can't hold my interest because instead of saying "we're attempting to build a tunnel to the region of Tumor Removal, and here's how we're doing it", they say "Hey! You guys should totally work on my completely awesome tunnel!" And then they start going on and on about their tunnel, while I'm still trying to figure out where it's supposed to be heading.

Now, I'm not gonna deny it-- some tunnels are entirely awesome. And any of them can be really useful down the line, when what looks like a dead-end turns into the only possible way into a specific region. Just look at how theoretical physics led us to nuclear power. But man, I really wish my professors would give us a concrete destination when they start explaining their research. 'Cuz I like tunnels, but I like them even more when I know where they're going.

It kinda reminds me of my thesis research-- it felt a bit like my profs just sent me down into a random shaft, thrust a pickaxe into my hand, and were all like:

Professors: Hey Aaron, hey Aaron! How would you like to beat the hell out of this rock for a year?
Me: ....why?
Professors: Because you need thesis material. Also, isn't this an awesome tunnel?
Me: Nyo~ron.

EDIT: As I was writing this, I keep having the suspicion that I just assume that a prof doesn't have a practical application in mind if he doesn't talk about it. Which might not be valid. My only worry is that if I ask about direct applications, it'll come out like I'm implying that the research sounds pointless. That said, I have at least found a couple of profs who seem application-oriented, so I'll be in good shape if I can get into one of their labs. Wish me luck!