Week of 21 May 2007
Update: Saturday, 26 May 2007 09:41 -0400
- Now that we've submitted the manuscript of Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, it's time to go back to work full-time on the Home Chemistry Laboratory Handbook. This one is going to be a lot of fun.
Just to give you an idea of where I'm going with this book, here's the
preliminary table of contents I submitted to O'Reilly with the
proposal. Actually, the "preliminary" part is a standing joke. For more
than ten years, I've been submitting book proposals to O'Reilly. Every
one of them includes a "preliminary" table of contents. That TOC is
never updated to a final version until the book goes into production,
and the final TOC usually differs significantly from the original. So,
in other words, I pretty much write what I want to and let the pieces
fall into place as I go along.
Chemistry Laboratory Handbook
Table of Contents (preliminary –
subject to change)
This book will actually stay pretty close to the preliminary TOC,
although there will no doubt be some changes as I go along. I want the
book to address two distinct markets. First, the hobbyist market
typified by those who subscribe to Make Magazine. There are a lot of
those. I'm convinced that a lot of guys and not a few women would love
to have a mad-scientist-basement-lab setup. Kind of like having a full
woodshop setup, but with chemicals. Second, of course, is the
home-schooling crowd, which by most estimates now totals well over one
million students and is growing fast.
a Home Chemistry Lab
for the Home Chemistry Lab
a Laboratory Notebook
Solids and Liquids
Heat Sources Safely
with Glass Tubing
1: Elements, Mixtures, and Compounds
Allotropic Forms of Sulfur
Iron Sulfide: Combustion without Oxygen
the Formula of a Hydrate (Copper Sulfate)
Elements by the Flame Test
Elements by the Borax Bead Test
Ethanol by Distillation
Copper Sulfate by Recrystallization
an Element from a Compound (reduction of copper from carbonate)
2: Solubility and Solutions
Molar Solutions of Solid Chemicals
Molar Solutions of Liquid Chemicals
Weight-to-Volume (w/v) Solutions
Weight-to-Weight (w/w) Solutions
the Solubility Product Constant of a Compound
3: Colligative Properties of Solutions
Molar Mass by Freezing Point Depression
Molar Mass by Boiling Point Elevation
the Effects of Osmotic Pressure
4: Acid-Base Chemistry
A Single-Displacement Reaction
A Double-Displacement Reaction
6: Chemical Reactions
a Solid from Two Gases and a Liquid: Ammonium Bicarbonate
7: Chemical Kinetics
a Clock Reaction
8: Chemical Equilibrium and Le Chatelier's Principle
9: Gas Chemistry
10: Thermochemistry and Calorimetry
the Specific Heat of a Metal
the Enthalpy Change of a Reaction
Freezer Flask: A Solid-State Endothermic Reaction
11: Reduction-Oxidation (Redox) Reactions
Titration of Chlorine Bleach
Titration of Vitamin C
of Marker Pen Dyes
of Leaves: Comparing Autumn and Spring Leaves
of Colorless Compounds
Concentration of a Compound by Visual Colorimetry
and Cathodic Sites
the Light Sensitivity of a Silver Salt
the Light Sensitivity of an Iron Salt
16: Chemistry of Water
17: Chemistry of Oxygen
Oxygen from Hydrogen Peroxide via Catalysis
18: Chemistry of Halogens
19: Chemistry of Some Nonmetals
20: Chemistry of Some Metals
21: Chemistry of Some Household Compounds
22: Chemistry of Colloids
the Tyndall Effect
23: Synthesis of Coordination Compounds
24: Inorganic Qualitative Analysis
25: Saponification and the Chemistry of Soaps
Potassium Hydroxide from Wood Ash
26: Plastics and Polymers
27: Dyes and Pigments
the First Artificial Pigment: Prussian Blue
28: Sugars and Proteins
29: Organic Synthesis
Methyl Salicylate from Aspirin
30: Forensic Chemistry
Blood with the Kastle-Meyer Test
Fingerprints by Iodine Fuming
Fingerprints by Ninhydrin
Opiates with Marquis Reagent
The largest growth in home schooling is among secular home schoolers.
Home schooling has been big among Christian families since the 1980's,
and continues to grow in that segment. But secular homeschooling is
really booming, and many secular homeschooling families object to using
Christian curricula. Unfortunately, there's a lack of secular
curricula, particularly at the high school level and particularly in
science. As a result, secular homeschooling families usually find
themselves making do with one of the Christian-oriented curricula from
Bob Jones, A Beka, Apologia, or one of the other Christian publishers.
Some secular homeschooling families literally take a marking pen to
these Christian curricula, blacking out the parts that they find
There's no need for that. Chemistry and physics are inherently secular,
despite the efforts of Christian publishers to embellish their science
curricula with the trappings of religion. There's no such thing as
Christian chemistry or Jewish chemistry or atheist chemistry or Mormon
chemistry or Buddhist chemistry. There's just chemistry, period. And
that's how I'll write this book, from a secular viewpoint, but without
hostility toward the beliefs of Christian home schoolers. That
should make the book usable by anyone.
On the subject of fans funding television programming directly, I just received the following:
From: Erik Brown
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 00:35:34
Re: Pay for Programming
In response to your post on
Friday it has already started. The series is called Sanctuary.
Starring Amanda Tapping from the Stargate SG-1 series. They
claim they are the first broadcast caliber on-line Sci-Fi series.
Each webisode is $1.99.
Official Web Site
It is only scheduled for four episodes so far, I guess that is so they can see how it goes.
From: Erik Brown
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 00:42:53
Re: Pay for Programming
Wouldn't you know as soon as I sent the previous email I found another web site with more info.
This shows that there are going
to be 8 initial episodes and the first 4 are going to be free (limited
quality) through that web site and that downloadable standard and HD
versions would be available for a fee through the web site.
The Vivitar DF120 slave flash unit arrived yesterday, and works fine. I
tested it with my little Concord 5345Z point-and-shoot. The slide
switch has four positions labeled "Test/Off", "1", "2", and "3". The
numbered positions are all "on" positions, but differ in how they cause
the flash to trigger. The manual suggests testing the flash by pointing
the camera at it from a meter away and shooting pictures of it. When I
set it in positions "1" or "2", I got a nice picture of the flash unit
itself. When I set it to position "3", I got a picture of the flash
unit with its tube illuminated, so that's the position I'll use with
this camera. The other positions are used with cameras that have a
pre-flash, allowing the DF120 to ignore preliminary flashes and trigger
only when the main flash triggers.
With a pair of fresh AAA alkalines, the unit recharges in 5 to 8
seconds. The ready light is interesting. With every other electronic
flash I've owned, the ready light was either off or on. With this unit,
the ready light starts to glow dimly after a few seconds, and
then brightens noticeably over the following two or three seconds
until it reaches full brightness. I didn't notice any increase in
recharge time after shooting a couple of dozen images with the flash.
The DF120 comes with a suction cup mount. The suction cup has a hollow
hemisphere in the middle, into which a small bolt with a rubber ball
head fits. The bolt threads into a bracket that clamps onto the flash,
making it fully adjustable in altitude and azimuth. Vivitar also
supplies a flat bracket with a pair of standard tripod screws. One of
those screws secures to the tripod socket in the camera and the other
to the slave flash, allowing you to attach the slave flash to one
side of the camera.
With the flash mounted that way, there's only a few inches of
separation between the main flash and the slave flash, so it doesn't
buy you much in terms of accent lighting. What it does buy you is
roughly a doubling of flash output relative to the light output of a
typical point-and-shoot flash, or roughly one full stop. That extends
the usable range of the flash by about 1.4X, so if your on-camera flash
is good out to 14 feet, using the slave extends that range to about 20
A reader posted some good questions over on the messageboard. I decided to answer them here:
I have a few questions about the chemistry lab book.
Will there be a section on how to
avoid buying chemicals that might arouse the interest of the
authorities, such as drug and explosive precursors?
In practical terms, this concern has been greatly overstated. Even in
the now-paranoid US, you can buy nearly any chemical freely without
worrying about ending up on a government list. If you buy a 50-pound
bag of ammonium nitrate at the garden center, for example, no one will
worry about it, and you can remain anonymous by paying cash. On the
other hand, if you buy 20 50-pound bags, someone will probably record
your license number and report it.
The problem the government has is that many of the precursors for drugs
and explosives are essential chemicals with many other uses. For
example, the hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid needed to
synthesize peroxyacetone (the explosive used in the London bombing and
attempted shoe bombing) are commonly available and can be purchased
anonymously at drug stores, hardware stores, and so on. Even if you buy
these common chemicals from a chemical specialty supplier, it's
unlikely you'll end up on a government list unless you're foolish
enough to order large quantities in suspicious combinations.
Even less common chemicals are safe to buy. For example, I ordered 4 ounces (about 115 grams) of iodine crystals from Elemental Scientific.
Iodine can be used in making methamphetamine, so it's on one of the
government lists of restricted chemicals. But there's almost no chance
that Elemental reported me to anyone, because I ordered a lot of other
chemicals at the same time, which makes it pretty obvious that I'm a
hobbyist rather than a meth lab operator. Note that it's perfectly
legal for me to buy and possess these chemicals; it's Elemental that
will get in trouble if it subsequently turns out that they sold
restricted chemicals to someone who used them for illegal purposes. So
suppliers have to be careful more so than individual purchasers.
All of that said, the basic-level experiments will use as far as is
possible common chemicals that are found around the home or are readily
available from local sources. There will be some exceptions, but we're
keeping them as few as possible.
you be assuming that the lab will be set up semi-permanent? Will it be
possible to tear it down in a reasonably short period of time and store
it somewhere if space is at a premium? as it is for me.
Although we have a permanent lab, that won't be required for completing
the lab sessions in the book. It would make it more convenient
certainly, and would minimize set-up/tear-down/clean-up time, but it's
by no means essential. Common sense should tell anyone that there are
better and worse locations for a temporary lab. Keeping poisonous
chemicals in the kitchen, for example, is a really bad idea.
the book assume an existing theoretical knowledge or instruction in
chemistry? At some universities theory and practical are taught and
assessed separately although they are usually co-requisite for each
This book is designed to stand alone, without any assumptions about
previous experience or knowledge. That said, it is also designed to
dovetail with a standard textbook-based middle-school or high-school
chemistry class, so readers will get more out of it if they also have
the background theory.
Lastly, does the US use the SI system, if not, will the book be using it?
All chemists use the SI system, so the book will also use it. However,
we'll also use traditional measurements for some purposes. For example,
as far as possible, we'll try to avoid the necessity for a balance for
basic experiments. So the instructions for a particular experiment may
say to weigh 5.0 grams of a particular compound but give the equivalent
in volumetric measure as being one level teaspoon plus one level 1/8
My friend Paul Jones called last night. He was at Best Buy, looking at
notebook computers. Mary leaves first thing Saturday morning for her
around-the-world run, and it seems that the arrangements the organizers
have made for computer access during the run are pretty rudimentary.
Paul and Mary decided that she needed to take her own notebook
computer. She didn't want to risk her work notebook, so they decided to
buy a low-end notebook for her trip. All Mary really needs is something
to let her browse the web, use email and word processing, back up
images from her digital camera, and so on.
It was too late to order something from NewEgg, so Paul headed for Best
Buy to see what was available locally. Paul was concerned because all
of the low-end notebooks available at Best Buy were bundled with Vista
Home Basic, and wanted to know if we could upgrade Vista to something
better once Mary returned. I told him that I couldn't guarantee
anything, but that I thought it wouldn't be a problem to upgrade the
new notebook to Linux or, as a last resort, even Windows XP. Obviously,
there might be some driver issues, but I told him we could probably get
the system running on Windows XP if not something better.
Paul decided on the least expensive notebook Best Buy offered, a
Toshiba Satellite T2080 for $500. Looking at the specs, I was surprised
by how much notebook was available for how little money. That $500 buys
a dual-core Intel mobile processor, 512 MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive,
a DVD burner, a 15.4" display, and Wi-Fi. That's a bit light on memory,
particularly for a dual-core processor, but I told Paul it should
suffice for what Mary wants to do on the trip, and we can always add
more memory when she gets home.
If there's time, I'll probably check out the system and remove as much
of the crapware as possible before Mary leaves. Or perhaps I'll just
point Paul and Mary to a crapware removal tool.
Mary is happy with her new notebook, but unhappy with Vista. She leaves
for her around-the-world run first thing Saturday morning, so with that
little time remaining it really isn't practical to upgrade her notebook
to Windows XP or Linux, although we considered it. Paul is ordering a 2
GB upgrade kit from Crucial this morning, which he'll install tomorrow,
but other than that Mary will be taking the notebook in its stock
I'll spend some time tomorrow fettling the system--stripping off
crapware, installing Firefox, OpenOffice.org, AV and malware scanners,
and so on. I'll also make sure it's setup properly for Wi-Fi and to
transfer images from her digital camera. Other than that, everything
will have to wait until she returns home in September.
This weekend, Barbara and I will attend the North Carolina Home
Educators conference, which is here in Winston-Salem. I also plan to
spend some time cleaning up and organizing the lab. And, by the end of
the month, I want to have another full chapter complete.
- The United States Constitution is truly dead if this decision stands. Teen Girls Face Hate Crime Charges Over Anti-Gay Flier. The article begins:
pair of 16-year-old girls face hate crime charges after they allegedly
handed out anti-gay fliers targeting a classmate at their northern
Illinois high school."
And here I thought they were covered:
Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a
redress of grievances.
If passing out fliers, no matter how contemptible the position
advocated by those fliers, can now be defined as a criminal act, then
we no longer have a Bill of Rights.
What is with the Chinese? Barbara thinks they're intentionally trying to poison us.
First, they ship contaminated food products
to pet food makers that result in the deaths of thousands of dogs and
cats. Then, last week, it's announced that they're shipping toothpaste
that contains the toxic diethylene glycol. Yesterday, a recall was
announced of Chinese-supplied fish that had been found to contain the
incredibly toxic neurotoxin tetrodotoxin.
Obviously, the Chinese cannot be trusted. Furthermore, there's no real
way to ensure that Chinese products meet US safety standards. Only a
tiny percentage of shipments from China are even cursorily inspected,
let alone tested, when they arrive in the US.
So, I have a modest proposal. How about we ban all imports of Chinese
products, both those that are sourced directly from China and those
from other countries that incorporate anything that is produced in or
originates in China? Not just food products. All products. That would
leave Wal*Mart scrambling, of course. But China produces nothing that
isn't also made in the US or elsewhere, nearly always of much higher
And if the prices are a bit higher, well so what? The little Vivitar
DF120 slave flash I just bought was made in China. It cost $35. I'd
have happily paid $50 for a similar product made in the USA, the UK,
Japan, or one of the other first-world countries.
Things have become completely bass-ackward. We're supposed to buy raw
materials from third-world countries (including, I should note,
petroleum from the Persian Gulf states) at very low prices and ship
them manufactured goods at very high prices. That's the natural order
of things, but it's somehow gotten out of whack. I blame it on the
demise of gunboats.
parents are often criticized, rightly in my opinion, for being
overly-protective of their children. Apparently, some Indian parents
have gone too far the other way, as shown in this video of a baby playing with a presumably-defanged cobra. (This video is very graphic; the cobra strikes several times.)
The Dell Ubuntu systems are now officially available for purchase.
Equivalent configurations with Ubuntu cost about $50 less than with
Vista. The best value for crapware that we have is from Michael Dell
himself, who indirectly suggested that it might be worth about $60 per
system to Dell. The Ubuntu systems Dell sells are crapware-free, which
implies they are probably priced about $60 higher than they would
otherwise be. That puts the "Windows tax" at about $110 per system.
It'll be interesting to see how well these Ubuntu systems sell. My
guess is that they'll sell in pretty limited numbers. They're
mass-market home models, and if Dell intends to sell their business
line systems with Ubuntu pre-installed, I'm not aware of it. Dell's
intended market is clearly the "Aunt Minnie" folks who just want a
reliable, spyware-free, secure system to send and receive email, browse
the web, manage digital photos and camcorder video, and so on. As long
as they don't want to play games, which these systems aren't really
suited for anyway, these folks are better off running Linux. Still, I'd
guess the vast majority will order the systems with Vista instead of
Ubuntu. But given Dell's sales volumes, if even 1% or 2% of buyers
choose the Ubuntu option, that's a lot of systems.
- Mary is off this morning to Lake Placid, where she'll spend several days preparing for her around-the-world run.
She and Paul stopped by after lunch yesterday to drop off her new
Toshiba notebook. I installed the software she'll need to browse the
web, check email, manage her digital camera images, and so on. This
machine has Vista installed, which of course caused all kinds of
problems. Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Irfanview, and AVG antivirus
installed without incident, but the AVG anti-spyware program refused to
run after apparently installing normally. I ended up installing SpyBot
Search & Destroy 1.4, which works fine.
Disc burning software was also a problem. I started by installing
DeepBurner, which apparently installs normally, but doesn't work
properly. I wasn't able to find any free burning software that worked
properly with Vista, so I decided to tell Mary just to use the built-in
I also installed Skype, almost as an afterthought. When I fired up
Skype, it told me there was no microphone present. Oh, well. I was
hoping there was an integrated microphone in the Toshiba notebook, but
apparently there isn't. I fished out the Logitech headset I use on
those infrequent occasions when I need Skype, and added it to the stack
of stuff Mary will be carrying along with her.
Paul had mentioned that the 256 MB memory card in their digital camera
stores about 125 images, which is obviously insufficient for a
three-month trip, so I dug out a 2 GB memory card and added that to the
stack of stuff Mary will be taking along. That should give her room for
close to 1,000 images, assuming that their camera will recognize a card
They stopped by our house after dinner to pick up the notebook and
other stuff. I gave Mary a quick overview of what software I'd
installed and how to use it. I'm sure she'll figure it out as she goes
along, and if she has any problems I'm as close as the nearest Internet
Mary will be blogging about her experiences along the way. As soon as
it's active, I'll post a link to her blog for those of you who'd like
to follow her progress, and perhaps offer her some encouragement. Mary
is an excellent story teller. Here's one of hers that won a
It Promised Us Animals
by Mary Chervenak
The guidebook stated emphatically that the Fawn Pass hike in
Yellowstone was the place to see wildlife. The paragraph describing the
hike was accompanied by a glossy photograph of a lone moose, watching
the sunrise, contemplatively chewing a dripping piece of waterweed. We
were sold. On our last day in Montana, Paul and I rolled out of bed at
4 AM, slung our packs onto our shoulders, and marched into the meadow
just as the sun was rising. Paul, spooked by some gory pictures of a
bear attack posted on the wall of an outfitter in Bozeman, armed
himself with a tiny can of bear spray.
We had water and peanut butter sandwiches. We were gooey with
sunscreen. The day was clear and cool, the sky a delicate shell pink. I
found an expensive pair of sunglasses at the trailhead. Good luck, and
more good luck. Buoyant, I led off the hike, trying to whistle the
theme to “Working Girl”.
The mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we left the parking lot. A
quarter mile into the hike, I regretted my decision to wear shorts. I
had mosquitoes landing all over me and getting stuck in my sunscreen.
They were crawling in my hair, my ears, my underwear. I stopped trying
to whistle and started shaking my legs violently and cursing.
Paul suggested that we pick up the pace. The sun was rising, the air
was warming up, the animals were leaving. And maybe, maybe, we could
outrun the mosquitoes. While moving at a half-trot, Paul bent down to
brush a new crop of stranded mosquitoes off the back of my legs. I
heard something hiss – an odd, unwilderness-like sound, like a
punctured tire suddenly going flat.
I stopped and turned. Paul had a strange expression on his face.
“Hand me your water bottle.” he said. I passed him the
bottle and he squirted its entire contents into his groin. The water
ran down his leg and into his boot.
“I’m fine.” Paul assured me, even though I
hadn’t said anything. I was still trying to figure out the
flat-tire noise. We started to trot again.
We’d gone another quarter mile when Paul suddenly dropped his
pack and sprinted off the trail towards a stream about 300 yards away.
He ripped off his clothes as he ran, and leapt into the stream wearing
only his boots.
After a minute, I was able to gather my wits enough to follow him. Paul
was rolling in about three inches of ice-cold water, flailing like a
walrus on a sandbar. I realized suddenly what the hissing noise had
Paul had released the can of pepper spray into his groin, and then, moments later, had washed the spray into his boot.
I started laughing, helplessly, and I couldn’t stop. Paul
splashed around in the stream for about 20 minutes, emerging from the
water bright pink. His pants, shirt, and socks were saturated with the
oily pepper spray; I rummaged through our two packs in search of dry,
clean clothes. We didn’t have much – the hike was supposed
to be short and photograph-oriented. After a thorough search, I’d
found a purple waterproof anorak, an extra pair of socks decorated with
lace, and a sleeveless blue fleece vest. Paul changed socks, donned the
vest, and then tried to arrange the anorak for maximum coverage. He
ended up opting to let the knotted sleeves hang in front.
Paul collected his pack and, ignoring my hysterics, hurried back to the
trail and headed towards the parking lot. I followed in his wake, still
laughing. The hike was most definitely over.
I had trouble keeping up with Paul -- he was anxious to get off the
trail and back to the car, and I was laughing pretty hard -- so I was
several yards behind him when he burst out of the woods, looking
slightly crazed and mostly naked. I was close enough, though, to see
the reaction of the elderly couple from Virginia as they scanned the
woods with a pair of binoculars.
Both were neatly dressed in pressed khakis. Upon seeing Paul, the man
dropped his binoculars and hustled his wife back into their RV. They
peeled out of the parking lot, leaving a streamer of blue smoke. I sat
down on the trail and howled. Paul, unperturbed, continued on to the
car, undressed completely in the parking lot, and hunted through the
pile of food and dirty clothes in the trunk for a pair of jeans.
The sun was now high in the sky and people were starting to arrive.
Paul seemed to stay naked for a really long time. Cars pulled into the
parking lot, hesitated, considered, and pulled right back out. No one
hiked to Fawn Pass that morning.
Once I finally pulled myself together, we drove to West Yellowstone.
Paul plugged about six dollars worth of quarters into a pay shower
while I bought ice cream. Later that afternoon, we staggered into the
park, where we spent the rest of the day waiting for Old Faithful and
munching squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce