Thursday, 2 May 2013

08:17 – The morning paper says we have measles in a neighboring county. The apparent source is a Hare Krisha commune. The paper says the Hare Krishnas “discourage” vaccination. Geez. The article also says that, according to the CDC, of every 1,000 children who are infected, one or two will die. That’s actually understating the problem. In recent outbreaks, mortality rates have varied from about 0.1% to more than 1%.

A lot of people who read these figures may find them worrying but not terrifying. After all, a 0.1% to 0.2% mortality rate is bad, but it’s not the black plague. The problem is that measles, like all viruses, tends to mutate. And while the current strain, which probably originated in the first half of the 20th century, has a mortality rate under 1%, historically some measles strains have had mortality rates of 70% or thereabouts. That’s 700 dead people of every 1,000 infected. And no one knows if or when another deadly strain will develop. Avoiding inoculation is playing with fire.

UPS showed up at dinner time yesterday with a bunch of boxes. Our living room is now populated with hundreds of splash goggles, hundreds of lab thermometers, hundreds of disposable scalpels, hundreds of teasing needles, etc. etc. And I just cut another purchase order for hundreds of beakers, graduated cylinders, and other kit components. That’ll be it for a while. I’m starting to run out of storage space for component inventory.

My bottle-top dispenser died the other day. It’s a pretty cool device. It works kind of like those pumps they use in ice cream shops to dispense toppings. There’s a slider that can be set to dispense any volume from 2.5 mL to 30 mL, accurate to 0.1 mL. The pump sits on top of a reservoir bottle. To fill a container, I simply lift the pump body, put a bottle under the dispensing tip, and press down on the pump. Using it, I can fill 350 to 400 bottles an hour, or twice that many if Barbara is capping the bottles as I fill them. It’s definitely not something I want to do without.

As it turned out, the thick glass cylinder inside the pump body had cracked longitudinally. I checked the manual, and found that nowhere did it list the name or contact information for the manufacturer. So I called the wholesaler I’d bought it from. They said they’d send me a replacement cylinder but that they didn’t have any in stock, so it might be a week or so before it shipped. I decided this was something I needed to have a spare for, so while I had them on the phone I gave them a verbal purchase order for another dispenser, this one a 5 to 60 mL unit with a 2,000 mL heavy glass reservoir. That ships today, so I should have it early next week.

The units cost about $200 each, but as I told Barbara last night even if it had turned out that the original unit wasn’t under warranty and couldn’t be repaired, it would still have been worth it. I’d used it to fill a few thousand bottles, at cost of a few cents a bottle. Simply in terms of time saving, that unit had already paid for itself.

11:22 – I just made up two liters of 1.5% methylcellulose, a viscous solution that’s used to slow live protozoa when viewing them under a microscope. Methylcellulose has an interesting property: it’s freely soluble in cold water, but insoluble in hot water.

The first time I ever made up methylcellulose solution, I had that fact firmly in mind, which just goes to show that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I sprinkled the methylcellulose into ice-cold water and ended up with a globby mess. The problem is, the stuff clumps, resulting in little globs with slimy surfaces and dry powder inside the blob. The best way to make up the solution is to sprinkle the methycellulose power gradually and with stirring into very hot water, in which it’s insoluble. You end up with a suspension of the powder, which you then cool in an ice bath. The tiny solid particles in the suspension dissolve as the water cools, and you end up with a nice, even, non-globby solution.

12:00 – This is simply beyond belief. And public schools wonder why they’re losing so many of their best students to homeschooling.

Subject: Fwd: [IP] 16-Year-Old Girl Arrested and Charged With a Felony For Science Project Mistake | Alternet
From: “Dale Dougherty”
Date: Thu, May 2, 2013 11:24 am
To: Online Editors at Make
Robert Bruce Thompson
Brian Jepson


———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Subject: [IP] 16-Year-Old Girl Arrested and Charged With a Felony For
Science Project Mistake | Alternet
To: ip <>

16-Year-Old Girl Arrested and Charged With a Felony For Science Project Mistake

A Florida teen with an exemplary record is facing federal charges after conducting what a classmate calls “a science project gone bad.”

16-year-old Kiera Wilmot is accused of mixing housing chemicals in a small water bottle at Bartow High School, causing the cap to fly off and produce a bit of smoke. The experiment was conducted outdoors, no property was damaged, and no one was injured.

Not long after Wilmot’s experiment, authorities arrested her and charged her with “possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device,” according to WTSP-TV. The school district proceeded to expel Wilmot for handling the “dangerous weapon,” also known as a water bottle. She will have to complete her high school education through an expulsion program.

Friends and staffers, including the school principal, came to Wilmot’s defense, telling media that authorities arrested an upstanding student who meant no harm.

“She is a good kid,” principal Ron Richard told WTSP-TV. “She has never been in trouble before. Ever.”

“She just wanted to see what happened to those chemicals in the bottle,” a classmate added. “Now, look what happened.”

Polk County Schools stands by its decision to expel Wilmot, asserting in a statement, “there are consequences to actions,” and calling Wilmot’s experiment a “serious breach of conduct.”

h/t Reason

12:44 – I may have been mistaken in my first reaction to the story of the girl charged with a felony. I just got off the phone with Carmen Drahl at Chemical and Engineering News. She told me a bit more, although she’s having a hard time getting solid information because, as she said, “everyone has lawyered-up”. But it’s possible that this girl actually committed a terrorist act. Or it may be that she simply had an experiment go wrong without realizing the dangers of what she was doing. Without knowing her motivation, it’s impossible to say whether she had bad intentions.

Carmen informed me that her experiment involved reacting aluminum with drain cleaner, but we don’t know the details. I suspect the “drain cleaner” was sodium hydroxide (lye). If so, the reaction with aluminum produces hydrogen gas. If the reactants are confined in a soda bottle or other container, the pressure of the hydrogen increases until the container bursts, splatting concentrated lye solution over anyone in the vicinity. Getting concentrated lye solution in the eyes will permanently blind someone in literally five seconds flat, and will also cause severe chemical burns to exposed skin.

Our local paper has reported several incidents in the last few years of someone leaving one of these nasty little devices where someone can find it. They look just like a soda bottle partially filled with water, but if you pick one up that causes the lye solution to contact the aluminum foil. Very quickly, the bottle bursts and sprays lye solution over the unfortunate person who picked up the bottle. Most people think these devices are placed by teenagers as a prank. Some prank. These devices have only one purpose: to kill or seriously injure a person or pet who disturbs them. There is no question in my mind that making and placing one of these devices is a terrorist act.

But again, the key question is the girl’s motivation. She may have just done something stupid, with no intent to harm anyone. Teenagers do stupid things. So do adults. But if this girl intended to harm someone with her experiment, expelling her and prosecuting her for committing a terrorist act is appropriate. My guess, not knowing much about the case, is that she had no intent to harm anyone. But we need a lot more information before we can know for sure.

16:56 – After reading more about the situation from several sources, I’m now convinced that this young woman had no intention of hurting anyone. She’s a straight-A honors student, liked by everyone. She’s never been in any trouble before. Both the students and the teachers and administrators say she’s a good person. She appears to be a victim of the mindless “zero-tolerance” policies that are so popular nowadays. Release the girl, I say.

It sounds to me as though she did this on school grounds because she lives in an apartment and didn’t have anywhere safe to work, pursuing her love of science. That’s a failing on the part of the adults around her, but I’m afraid she’ll end up paying the price for their failures. And, apropos of nothing, Barbara just sent me this: