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Week of 24 May 2010


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Monday, 24 May 2010
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10:10 - I got in a little lab time over the weekend. I was able to shoot another video for my YouTube channel, this one on making thin-layer chromatography (TLC) plates.

I first used TLC back in the 60's. Commercial TLC plates were just becoming available then, but they were much too expensive for my budget. So I did what just about everyone else did at the time: I made my own. That seems to be almost a lost art nowadays, at least among home scientists. That's a real shame, because the cost of TLC plates--a buck or two each for plates the size of a microscope slide, and you have to buy them 50 or 100 at a time--means that very few home scientists use TLC.

The small plates I show in the video are useful for analysis. You spot the analyte on the plate and then allow the mobile phase (solvent) to crawl up the plate, dragging the various components of the analyte with it. Because the different compounds have different affinity for the mobile phase versus the stationary phase, they gradually separate as the mobile phase makes it way up the plate, producing lines at various distances from the original spot. By measuring the relative distances that each of the components moves, you can identify the components. Colored compounds can be visualized directly. Colorless compounds can be visualized by various techniques, including UV light and various agents that react with analyte components to produce colored compounds.

Larger plates with thicker coatings are used for preparative chromatography. Once the plate is developed, the portion of the plate coating that contains a particular component can be scraped off the plate and the compound extracted from the inert alumina powder. This is an extremely powerful tool, and one that more home scientists should familiarize themselves with.

Well, perhaps my video will do some good. I've already gotten a nice comment on it from a public high-school teacher in Ohio, who said, "I'm working on my supply orders for school next year and you just saved me a lot of money. Thanks for the great information."



Speaking of home science, Craig Venter and his team opened Pandora's Box last Thursday when they announced they'd created a synthetic life form. Just to be clear, they did not create a living organism from scratch. What they did do--and it will rightly earn them the Nobel Prize--was create an entirely synthetic genome from the small building blocks that make up the DNA of all living things. They then implanted that genome in an existing cell to create a new type of life form. That cell remained viable and capable of reproducing itself.

Until now, every living cell that exists on this planet had descended in an unbroken chain from the earliest and most primitive single-cell organisms that arose unimaginably long ago. Dr. Venter and his team broke that chain. They are the only parents of this new life form.

So what does this have to do with home science? After all, Venter and his team spent 15 years and millions upon millions of dollars accomplishing this feat. But one lesson we've learned is that what is cutting edge science today will be within the realm of home science in a decade. By 2020, if not earlier, home science hobbyists will be creating their own new life forms. Count on it. Some people will object, thinking that the necessary tools will remain out of reach of home scientists. Dream on. Ten years ago, the computer system I'm using to write this post would have been a literal supercomputer. Ten years from now, you'll be able to pick up the equivalent of one of today's supercomputers at Best Buy for $500. And all the other stuff someone needs to create his own life form will be equally available and cheap. There's no going back. Pandora's Box is open.

That scares a lot of people. No doubt most of them are now trying to figure out how to slam the lid on the Box. That's not going to happen. The obvious fear is that hobbyists will accidentally create and release a dangerous life form, or that terrorists will do so intentionally. My gut reaction is that neither is likely, but both are possible.

If it happens, a virus is the likely culprit, mainly because viruses have small genomes that will be easier to manipulate than those of higher organisms. And the thought is certainly frightening. For example, the reasons that ebola virus is largely contained are that it has a short latency and an extremely high burn rate. In other words, people infected with ebola quickly become obviously ill and die before they have a chance to infect many other people. But what about a new artificial virus based on ebola, but with a long latency? One carrier could spread that virus widely, with an exponential and worldwide growth in infections before any symptoms became evident.

But virulent, lethal microorganisms are only a tiny, tiny fraction of all microorganisms, and the likelihood of any hobbyist accidentally creating a super-bug based on one of this is vanishingly small. Terrorists might try, of course, but if we've learned one thing about terrorists it's that they're stupifyingly inept. Their brains are filled with radical religious nonsense, which doesn't leave much room for scientific thought. If they attempt such a feat, they're much more likely to do themselves in than harm any of us.

Trying to slam the lid on Pandora's Box is not just futile, but counterproductive. Instead, we should be making sure that lid is wide open. We should be encouraging the proliferation of the science. Ten years from now, we want to have lots and lots of people who are trained and skilled in the technologies involved. The best defense is a good offense.

And the other benefits will be extraordinary. For example, just imagine a synthetic bacterium that eats sawdust, grass clippings, and other cellulose waste and excretes a mixture of butanol, ethanol, and acetone. (Of course, it would have to be engineered to die quickly in the wild; otherwise, it'd eat the 2X4s in our homes...) As the science advances, creating such special-purpose bacteria will become trivially easy, and we can tell the Islamics to screw off and drink their petroleum.

But we need to start now. We need our best and brightest pursuing careers in science. We need lots more biologists and biochemists and physicists, because it's that intellectual capital that'll keep us on top. And, believe me, on top is where we want to be in this new world.


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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
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08:26 - Today is a regular day in the sense that Barbara is going to work, followed by the gym, and then coming home at the usual time. Unfortunately, we won't have many regular days this week. Barbara cousin is in town for a visit, so she was away Sunday and yesterday until late evening. Sadly, one of her few remaining uncles has just died, so she'll be away for the funeral tomorrow. And for Thursday evening she'd already made arrangements to have dinner with two of her friends, before all of this other stuff happened. So it's Malcolm and me mostly on our own this week.

From Malcolm's point of view, I'm a very poor substitute for Barbara being here. Yesterday, I ran a few errands. When I returned and Malcolm heard the garage door go up, he started his usual insane barking to greet Barbara's return. When I opened the door into the house, he was sitting there awaiting Barbara. When he saw who it was, he said, "Oh, it's just you", and turned around and went up the stairs and back to our bedroom to stretch out on the bed and wait for Barbara. I understand that Border Collies are one-person dogs, but I do wish he wouldn't be quite as clear about his preferences.



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Wednesday, 26 May 2010
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09:26 - One of the valuable lessons of science is that intuition is unreliable. Mary Chervenak touched on this in the video about making copper ore, and I've just encountered the same example over the last few days. Sunday, I started making up 500 mL of a 1.0 molar copper(II) sulfate solution. The molar mass of copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate is 249.68 g/mol, which means I needed 124.84 g for my 500 mL of solution. But the copper(II) sulfate I'm using is only 99% pure, so I actually weighed out (124.84/0.99) = 126.10 g. I transferred that to a labeled storage bottle and added water to bring it up to about 475 mL. (I'll make it up to 500.0 mL in a volumetric flask once the salt dissolves completely.)

So, here it is Wednesday morning, and I'm still not finished making up that solution. Copper(II) sulfate is very soluble in water, about 320 g/L at room temperature. But "very soluble" doesn't translate to "quickly soluble" by any means. I allowed the solution to sit overnight. When I checked it Monday morning, at least half the copper(II) sulfate was still in crystal form at the bottom of the bottle. So I brought it up to my office to baby-sit it. Every hour or so, I'd invert the bottle several times. As of this morning, probably 10 or 15 grams of the salt remains undissolved. This after four days.

Here's where the unreliability of intuition comes in. Most people would assume that a compound that is very soluble in water would dissolve quickly, and the converse. Neither assumption is true. Many heavy-metal salts, for example, are only slightly soluble in water, but dissolve very quickly. So, two things that intuitively appear to be closely related, solubility and dissolution rate, are in fact unrelated. Solubility, the amount of a compound that will dissolve in a specific volume of solvent, is a thermodynamic property. Dissolution rate, the speed at which a compound dissolves, is a kinetic property.


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Thursday, 27 May 2010
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08:29 - Still waiting. When I inverted my copper(II) sulfate solution this morning, there were still a few crystals present, maybe 5 grams or so. On the other hand, I made up 500 mL of 0.1 M potassium iodide yesterday. Potassium iodide is both extremely soluble--at room temperature, about 1.4 grams of KI dissolves in 1 gram of water--and has a high dissolution rate. When I weighed out the crystals and transferred them to a bottle with a couple hundred milliliters of water in it, the crystals actually dissolved before they reached the bottom of the bottle.

Incidentally, the copper(II) sulfate solution is an interesting example of purification by solution. The copper(II) sulfate I'm using is sold in hardware stores as Root Kill, and lists an assay on the bottle of 99% copper(II) sulfate. Nearly all of that 1% in impurities is in the form of insoluble copper(II) oxide, which will settle out on the bottom of the bottle as a fine black sludge. I'll weigh a piece of filter paper, use it to filter the solution, dry the paper, and weigh it. My guess is that the mass gain of the filter paper will be very close to the extra 1.26 gram, leaving me with essentially 100% pure copper(II) sulfate in solution.

I'm still cranking away on the extreme system chapter. We'll be starting builds soon. The only missing components are the cases and power supplies, which should be on their way to us shortly.


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Friday, 28 May 2010
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08:26 - Facebook has announced its preemptive attempt to avoid government regulation by implementing improved privacy controls. The problem is, none of the changes actually do much to improve privacy. That was expected, because the interests of Facebook and its users are diametrically opposed. Users want their privacy maintained. Facebook wants its users to have no privacy, because that's how it makes money. If Facebook were serious about improving user privacy, it would make privacy the default. Instead, it still makes sharing the default.

Basically, it's still the old opt-in versus opt-out problem. If Facebook really wanted to do what was in its users' interests, it would make privacy settings very tight by default, and allow those who wanted to share to opt-in. Instead, it does the converse. I consider Facebook to be in the same sleaziness class as spammers, and I sincerely hope it's headed for a bad fall.


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Saturday, 29 May 2010
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Sunday, 30 May 2010
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.