I See London, but not Francium

Yesterday’s link, which spent some time discussing the discovery of Francium, reminds me of a Francium story that I’ve briefly mentioned before in a story of how we failed to trap Francium, but got the attention of someone else.

And, as I had mentioned, we (well, someone at TRIUMF) got a call from a watchdog station that tries to detect nuclear fallout, wanting to double-check on things. They knew the signature they were reading wasn’t from a bomb, but they knew something was up and guessed our target material: Thorium. When you blast that with energetic protons, you get lots of heavy isotopes.

I ran across a paperfrom some folks at the monitoring facility

The United States and Canada have jointly established an experimental radio-aerosol monitoring station in Vancouver, British Columbia as part of the International Monitoring System for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The purpose of this station is to monitor the atmosphere for the presence of anthropogenic radio-aerosols that could be indicative of nuclear explosion debris. The station has been engineered to achieve detection sensitivities that are approximately three orders of magnitude higher than conventional environmental and emergency preparedness monitors. Due to its ultra-sensitive measurement capability, the station has regularly detected micro quantities of radioisotope emissions from a nearby commercial production facility that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The major isotope, 123I, was identified by spectroscopic analysis and correlated to the facility through source emission data.

TRIUMF would probably not be considered a commercial production facility. Although it’s possible they were making this radioisotope in conjunction with a commercial partner, I’m guessing that it was a medical radioisotope production facility. Same kind of sleuthing for the monitoring station, but a different culprit.

Messin' With Sasquatch

Sasquatch here being wall-plug (mains) electricity

The initial inquiry at work was innocent enough, I think — a colleague asked what the voltage limit of a BNC connector is. Wikipedia (linking back through a vendor’s spec sheet) says 500 V, and one also has to worry about the coaxial cable, which was the discussion until another colleague popped out of an office with “Two-and-a-half kiloVolts”. Complete with a description of the apparatus where that appeared in the experiment.

That led into a discussion of some of the crazy things we had done in the lab when we occasionally (or not so occasionally) didn’t have a strong grasp of what was going on. Two of the items that came up (and I had heard the story before, but it had been a few years) were The Cord of Death™, and Son of the Cord of Death™.

The Cord of Death™ sounds scary enough: it was a standard 3-prong power plug, i.e. with a ground pin (NEMA 5-15) … on both ends. Which is not advisable under almost any conditions. Apparently it was used to power a power strip whose power cord connection was bad and could not be fixed, but the rest of the strip was fine. And since all of the connections are in parallel, if you supply power to any outlet in it, the rest will have the juice. And in a grad school situation, I can see how such a kludge would be done instead of spending money on a new power strip.

The Son of the Cord of Death™ was a power cord, with the ground pin snipped off, and a BNC connector on the far end. I’m sure there are several applications for a connection where you want and AC signal at 60 Hz and around 120V, so why not skip the middle-man and avoid a power supply that’s just going to give you what the mains is supplying (oh, safety. Well, there is that, I suppose…)

All reminiscent of connecting two forks or metal rods onto a power cord to cook a hot dog or make a pickle glow.

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I didn’t have any contributions quite so reckless. I blew several things up in the lab in grad school — I don’t think any of our laser diodes died of old age — but I stayed away from deliberately messing with wall socket electricity as much as possible.

The Horror, The Horror

The nightmare of any and every PhD student writing his or her thesis: My laptop was stolen with all my thesis work on it.

I was so paranoid about the lab catching fire and destroying my thesis that I had it on two computers and had about five backup copies. On floppy disks, which was the style of the times, at least one of which was always at home. If the whole science building imploded, I would have a copy that was at most one day’s worth of writing or set of revisions out of date.

Also, having grown up and done high school and college papers in an era before word processors (ask me about my fun with carbon paper!), I am quite aware how much time I saved being able to write my thesis on a computer.

You've Got a Dead Cricket

The discussion of jargon has reminded me of a story told to me by a colleague. As this is at least a third-hand accounting, I will cast this as fiction, but based on a (probably) true story, and given that I have either forgotten or was never told the names of those involved, their anonymity is protected. (I am sure I have forgotten some details and it undoubtedly contains some embellishment.)

This story involves a teaching assistant working in an advanced lab class involving electronics, helping the students with their lab projects as needed. A student was having some trouble with his circuit and after unsuccessful attempts to diagnose the problem, went to the TA for help.

Student – “I’m stuck. Something isn’t working right.”

TA – “OK, let’s have a look” (TA checks a few things and then finally traces it to the power supply and opens it up and pokes around). “Ah, here’s your problem: you have a dead cricket.”

At this point the student undergoes an attitudinal phase change: “Oh for &@%#’s sake I am SO sick of all this @!$*& jargon! What the hell is a dead cricket? Can’t you just speak some plain English for a change? You physics people make this all too confusing! What do you mean it’s a dead cricket?”

At which point the TA show the student the power supply, and points to the dead bug — a cricket — that was connecting the + and — electrodes inside and was shorting out the power supply. “I mean it’s a dead cricket.”

Watch Out or Someone Will Drop a Textbook on Your Sister

I wasn’t at the Science Online session that, in the Nth retelling, sounded like it might have turned into “the Sharks vs the Jets at the dance” square-off. But Matthew Francis was, and gives his perspective: In defense of jargon and expertise

Carl Zimmer—a writer I greatly respect, even if he does write about parasites, a subject that makes me squirm—began the pile-on by saying that when a Ph.D. scientist wants to explain something, they often start with a question, then drop a textbook on you. (Ironically, Carl is one of the few people I know who actually wrote a textbook.) Some other people evidently took that as permission to speak ill of all professional scientists and experts. One person stated strongly that experts are all bad at science communication, because they use too much jargon.

I do have some strong opinions on this. I’ve posted on this before and I think there’s a danger in asserting some of the extreme positions on the topic. There’s also the problem of properly defining the problem so that the scientists and journalists don’t just talk past each other. Plus the issue of the job of scientists as compared to the job of journalists.

What constitutes jargon? Some is obvious — when acronyms and abbreviations appear, you might just be a redneck using jargon. In my field of atomic physics I will throw around terms like MOT and AOM, or occasionally speak of a BEC. That’s the terminology of the job, and I don’t expect people outside my field to necessarily know what I mean. (in case you are curious, MOT = magneto-optical trap, AOM = Acousto-Optical Modulator and BEC = Bose-Einstein Condensate). I think it’s pretty obvious that not explaining what these terms mean is a barrier to be avoided. I don’t think that’s the problem. If you’re throwing those terms around while attempting to communicate with a lay audience, you’re not winning.

I believe the issue is at a lower level. I think there’s an element of “I know it when I see it” to other terminology, but where to draw the line is a grey area. To use some examples from physics, are momentum or energy jargon? If I speak of the conservation of either, is there a barrier to understanding which is the terminology, or is it a lack of scientific literacy? This is an ongoing debate and I think that the testy exchanges between scientists and journalists will continue of we don’t resolve what we mean. When do basic concepts and their names or descriptions become jargon?

There is also the issue, as I mentioned, of defining what the job is, and I come at this from the perspective of being a scientist. Most scientists are not hired to communicate their work to the public. That’s an acquired skill. If you want to speak to a scientist, you need to learn the language, just as if you want to go to an area that doesn’t communicate in your language, it behooves you to learn that language. That is would be a good idea to train scientists to do a better job of communicating to the public (and I think it is) is a separate issue. But I suspect most scientists would think it a waste of time: We have a Public Information/Affairs Officer for that! coupled with I want to do research. There has to be a general feeling that such effort has value. Scientists have to prioritize their time, so if this is a desired goal, make sure that such communication is valued by the institutions where the scientists work.

If this communication is in the form of a discussion, we get back to the issue of meeting the scientists halfway. When someone with little to no background in a certain subject wants to pop in and be a part of the conversation, it’s a huge waste of time to expect a scientist to fill all of that background in — imagine someone chiming in on a discussion of an atomic physics experiment but has no idea what conservation of angular momentum is, or someone claiming that evolution is wrong because humans don’t have wings. Or this. In situations like that, I feel no hesitation to “drop a textbook” on someone.

To be fair, I don’t know exactly what Carl meant by the phrase, but I also haven’t seen anything that clarifies the issue on his blog. I would love there to be a reasoned discussion on the subject rather than having people reach for their blamethrowers every time this comes up.

Hello Molly

Funneling the sun’s energy

[Molybdenum disulfide] has a crucial characteristic, known as a bandgap, that allows it to be made into solar cells or integrated circuits. But unlike silicon, now used in most solar cells, placing the film under strain in the “solar energy funnel” configuration causes its bandgap to vary across the surface, so that different parts of it respond to different colors of light.

Trivia: Molybdenum disulfide also is used as a vacuum lubricant/anti-seizing agent (its use is critical if you have metal-on-metal contact if the metals are the same); it’s similar in effect to graphite, but has a vary low vapor pressure. There’s also the fun of it being very messy — it’ll be all over you in a flash, like a toddler playing in mud.

Lights! Camera! Action! Mostly Lights, Though

We had a film crew from the History Channel at the Observatory a few days ago, filming a segment for an upcoming special on inventions that changed the world. One of these is the clock, so naturally they wanted to speak to some people who could tell them about clocks. I showed them around the lab and they liked the setting a lot more than any of our operational clocks; they’re all nicely packaged up and quite boring. (One type — the hydrogen maser — is literally a black box, and the fountain physics package looks like a water heater.)

So they filmed a segment in our lab, and since I was there making sure they didn’t touch anything they shouldn’t be touching (they didn’t — they were quite well-behaved), they had me and one of my lab-mates stand in the background, pretending to work at one of the optical tables. We might end up on screen for ten seconds or so in the final cut.

Being geeks meant that we drooled a bit over the equipment that they brought. This is part of their lighting system, a bank of LEDs, which has the advantage over traditional equipment that it draws much less power since LEDs are much more efficient. This means they can run it off of a battery and not have to worry about whether there is an outlet nearby, and it also doesn’t heat up very much.


With the lights at full power it saturates the camera.


Turned down a bit you can see the LEDs a little more clearly.

If I Did It

Several weeks ago we had an office discussion that eventually got around to xkcd and the fascination with ball pits, to pranks involving filling up a cubicle with balls or packing peanuts. The problem with such pranks, it was observed, is that balls are expensive and balls or peanuts take up the same volume ahead of time — storage is an issue. But balloons … they don’t suffer from this problem. You could fill a colleague’s office with balloons.


“That would be cool,” that colleague was heard to utter.


To me, such a statement is an invitation. It would be rude to not fill that person’s office with balloons, should such an opportunity arise, and I fear that someone might do it. So it got me thinking. How would one go about doing such a thing? (Not that I would do such a dastardly thing — I wouldn’t want to expose myself to a wrongful breath suit)

First thing would be to obtain a pump. Double-action, so it fills on both the up- and down-stroke.

When filling the balloons, I would use a balloon clip to speed things up (tying is such a pain) and would find that twisting the neck is important, otherwise the air would tend to quickly leak out.

Then, I would start filling the office. Maybe during lunch hour, or at odd times during the day (and staying late to ensure my real work was done). Get an idea of how many balloons I and any co-conspirators could fill. The progress after one day might look something like this

After four days, it might look something like this


I’ll bet with some help I could use up 200 12″ balloons and 122 (50+72) 17″ balloons, along with a few balloon-animal style balloons (which would be close to useless, since they take up so little volume). With that many, I’d probably notice that there is significant balloon-stink. And I would find the non-stick agent they use (probably cornstarch) to be really annoying after a while.

To be especially devious I might even fill some of the balloons with confetti, so that popping them all would become more of a challenge. I might be tempted to also fill some with helium, but they wouldn’t survive the weekend, so I wouldn’t bother. I’d probably find that about 10% of the balloons would be lost to defect and breakage, and would be amused by the occasional “boom” coming from the office. I’ll bet it would remind me of the episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes the Beer Baron (Homer vs. the 18th Amendment), and his stills kept blowing up.

If I were to do such a thing.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

We were working on a laser system recently (and by we I mean someone in the group other than me, because if it were me, I would say I’ve been working on the laser, all the live long day. But I digress…) The laser system is fiber-coupled, which means it is now umbilically tethered to other equipment, and can’t venture far from its mommy. Which puts it right behind a door, and that puts in danger of being whacked (Honeymooners style rather than Goodfellas style), so we wanted to eliminate traffic through the door. It’s been my experience that simple signs* (like “Keep Out”) are ignored, so I posted a warning on some yellow label tape, and snark ensued.

(click to unleash the full tiger)

(N6 is our IT department, and NMCI is a locally-much-reviled navy/marine computer infrastructure + network that almost everybody tries to avoid using. We hates it.)

*We all have experience with “Wet Paint” or “Danger — Hot” signs, and people touching, just to make sure, or some reverse-psychological compulsion. As a result I’m tempted to put “Do Not Lick” signs on some equipment, because of the inner Homer Simpson some people have will shout, “Oh Yeah? I’ll show you!” and tongue marks will appear. Best to put them on the high-voltage devices.