Friday, August 15, 2008

Book review: Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture

Warning: This book might be dangerous. It has the capacity to make the reader think.

When I was a kid growing up in India, it was some sort of dream of mine to have my own little secret chemistry lab. There were all these stories in books about kids having their secret dens in their basement, where they made fascinating discoveries or invented cool compounds. Except there were two small problems; we didn’t have a basement (or too many extra rooms) and, more importantly, there was no such thing as a “home chemistry set” to be found in any store in India. So it was with absolute wonder that I imagined every smart or curious kid in the US to be working away into the night in his or her own little lab.

Of course, I learnt that it wasn’t really true. But it certainly was true that at least till the eighties many, many kids in the States got a home chemistry set as a Christmas or birthday present sometime in their lives. And many of them had the time of their lives creating colorful solutions, horrible stinks or flashing explosions, even as they learnt the scientific method and gained a love for chemistry. Somehow, this love for “do-it-yourself” science died in the US in more recent times. Perhaps it was because companies became too worried about liability issues that could come from some kid getting injured. Perhaps it was because the state became a big nanny, and people live in constant fear about the next potential chemical weapons attack. Perhaps because of this it became harder to get chemicals. Or perhaps it was because of all these reasons and more. Anyway, the concept of home chemistry kits was slowly lost, and that sadly might have killed the potential scientist in many a kid.

But it looks like there have remained some die hard enthusiasts of home chemistry experiments, and Robert Thomson, the author of the “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture” must be amongst the foremost enthusiasts of those. In writing this book, he has thought through every little detail to help anyone, from a high school student to the adult diehard, in establishing a complete, very effective home chemistry lab.

In a world where everything comes in a nicely over-wrapped package, Thomson doesn’t expect you to rely on any kit. On the contrary, he points out how most of the kits out in the market presently have been dumbed down to ridiculous proportions, and also avoid selling any chemical that could be slightly toxic or dangerous (which pretty much leaves only salt and sugar to sell). The book starts with the very basics; the equipment you need, the space you’ll need, and the source for chemicals, and goes through seventeen comprehensive chapters of chemistry. There are simple chapters on making and separating solutions, chapters covering important chemistry basics like redox reactions or acid-base reactions, chapters on chemical stoichiometry and then electro and photochemistry, qualitative and quantitative analysis and finally even a pure fun chapter on forensic chemistry. In all of these chapters, Thomson has been very meticulous in explaining basic chemistry concepts (using simple definitions and very effective examples), providing details on the equipment, and finally, some excellent experimental details. The first chapter draws you right into the book, as Thomson explains how he became interested in home chemistry. He describes how to convert anything, from a kitchen to a garage, into a suitably safe and convenient chemistry lab. And then he provides plenty of information on obtaining equipment and reagents that are surprisingly extremely cheap. I was very surprised not just at how many chemicals I could get at the local pharmacy or hardware store, but at how pure many of them were. Many of them were an order of magnitude cheaper than the stuff my own lab buys from Fisher and Sigma-Aldrich, but just about as pure. Perhaps I should tell our lab manager to get our stuff from the retail market. Home chemistry can be very effective and very cheap. And he also makes sure to tell you how you can get stuff that is safe, and will not get you into trouble with paranoid agents. Importantly, Thomson tells you how to avoid serious trouble by avoiding any discussion of making stuff that could blow up (which is a little bit of a pity, since some of the most fun science experiments start or end with a pop and some nasty smells sure to amuse kids).

Thomson also is very clear in telling you how easy it is to hurt yourself (or someone else) by not taking the right precautions at home, and then goes on to tell you the precautions you should take for a safe working environment. Home science is a serious pursuit, but while you have to be careful, you can and should have fun doing it. Thomson remembers that throughout the book. I was particularly pleased with his emphasis on good book keeping, and the importance of a record notebook. Without carefully recording experimental detail and results, science quickly deteriorates from reproducibility and substance to entertaining but irreproducible anecdote.

This book is almost a must have for a high school chemistry enthusiast (any AP Chemistry major), but will work just as well for any kid with a love for experiments, or the adult who has time for a hobby and a passion for science. There’s a lot of learning to be had by doing experiments yourself. This is a book that should be whole-heartedly recommended, and is something I hope many high school chemistry teachers will adopt enthusiastically in their classes. It is also my dearest hope that this book reaches India, and at least some school teachers there get their hand on it. It is a book that can actually make you think.

If you are one of those closet home chemists, this is the book for you. Go get it. Meanwhile, I’m off to observe some copper turning turquoise blue due to oxidation.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Postdoc personalities

Life in science isn’t a bed of roses, and being a postdoc is hard enough as it is. So it is important to keep one’s spirit up, particularly during the long phases of hard work without successful (read “publishable”) results. As in any other workplace though, your general contentment level is influenced by the people around you, especially your peers. Postdocs come in all shapes, sizes and characters, but there are a few character types you want to avoid hanging out with (even if you are one of them), in order to remain sane and content. Surprisingly, like most normal people, postdocs too fit into some characteristic groups (including those you want to avoid). So here are some of the classes of postdocs whom I do my best to avoid (and hope never to become).

The arrogant prick: Unfortunately, this class of postdoc isn’t too uncommon.
This class has two subtypes, (a) the “publication snob” and (b) the “research snob”. The publication snob is the person who thinks anything published in journals other than Cell, Science or Nature is worthless, and tells you exactly how worthless it is every time you see them. This is even if you have just published a very nice piece of work in a “lesser” journal, and (s)he knows about it. Yet, worse than journal snobs are research snobs. These people think the only interesting/important/cool/spectacular research in the world is being done in their lab, and more importantly is being done by them. Everyone else is just wasting taxpayer resources and chemicals. The research snob talks to you with a condescending sneer, and feigns politeness when you talk to him/her about your work, pretending to listen, and then shrugging in a knowing manner while asking you what the big deal is. There is only one person worse than a research snob. That person is a journal AND research snob, and, unfortunately, there are plenty of those as well.

The radiator of negativity™: This class of postdoc must be avoided at all costs. If you see one of them, turn and run the other way. If they see you turning and running, pretend you have forgotten something or have to get back to an experiment (use a timer), and still run. Because, if you spend any time conversing with them, they will effortlessly leave you suicidal. These people ooze out negativity, making everything around them miserable even if you’ve been feeling perfectly happy before seeing them. Here’s a hypothetical sample conversation with a radiator of negativity™.

“Hey, what’s up? Things going well? How’s research and the job search?”

“Not really. I’m stuck working on some papers for publication”

“Isn’t that good?”

“No. They aren’t going to be Cell papers, which means they won’t get me a job, which means I’ve wasted the past five years. This area of research has no future.”

Now you get defensive and worried and say “That’s not really true, is it? You can do good work that isn’t published in Cell and still find a job”, and wonder about that postdoc’s area of research (which you think is pretty hot).

“Not really. Even if the work is good, it doesn’t matter. The system sucks, and there aren’t any jobs out there. Anyway, no one here helps you get a job. What’s the use of working for a famous PI if I can’t find a job. But they don’t help you find a job at all.” moans Negativity, thus in one single stroke making you feel your work is useless, hate your chosen job, your research area, your boss, your institution and also filling your mind with dark thoughts for the future. You are convinced that there is no future and you should have become that doctor your parents always wanted you to be. Meanwhile, Mr/Ms. Negativity walks away without the slightest hint that those words have left your mind in a maelstrom.

The irrevocably depressed: This class of postdoc is only a little better than the radiator of negativity. This person has a naturally depressive personality, and is him/herself easily depressed. It hasn’t helped his/her cause that the past 3 years of ceaseless toil have yielded poor rewards. Which means this person is perennially suicidal. A conversation with this person will be something like this:

“Hey, what’s up? How’s work?”

Deep sigh. “It’s tough. This project isn’t going anywhere. But the boss wants this work done right now. But what’s the use of doing this? It’ll get me nowhere. It’s too late for me now. I don’t know what I’ll do. I can never get a job.” Pause. Another deep sigh. “But you’re ok. You are still young.”

You are left feeling absolutely terrible for that person, and then panic sets in as you start worrying about yourself.

The insane workaholic: This class of postdoc is pure intimidation. This postdoc works 16 hour days seven days a week, juggling 6 experiments every day. His/her eyes are bleary, with dark circles around them. You don’t know when (or if) he/she eats or sleeps. Wears the same sweatshirt almost everyday. One day he/she mentions to you that his/her weekend was very relaxing. It was the first weekend in three years that this person had taken off.

And you wonder if that is what’s needed in order to succeed. Is life as a successful scientist really that hard?

There’s plenty of pressure as it is in being a postdoc. There’s no need to be in any of these classes, making every one around you unhappy. Some people hate happy campers, and wonder how some people can remain reasonably happy always, through ups and downs at work. But I love them, and wish more postdocs were like that. A dash of positivity, a little bit of humility, the ability to laugh off mistakes, and finding time to relax. Just give me enough of that and the postdoc life will remain a lot of fun.