Monday, October 26, 2015

The Dumbest Letter Written By An Old Guy (Who Should Be Smart) That You Will Read Today

Also from this week's C&EN, a potentially huge troll job? in the form of a letter to the editor: 
The cover story “How the Internet Changed Chemistry” (C&EN, Aug. 10/17, page 10) and the lab explosion at the University of California, Berkeley (C&EN, Aug. 24, page 36), may be related phenomena. 
After hiring a college student who had never used a handsaw, I am concerned the current generation of students, while extremely computer-savvy, has been raised in sterile urban or suburban environments, handled chemicals in microscale organic lab, and is missing a lot of practical knowledge of materials that was once taken for granted. 
The UC Berkeley explosion, involving 1 g of a diazonium perchlorate compound, is hard to fathom when the first thing you learn about diazonium salts is that they are generally explosive in the solid state and are handled in solution at low temperatures. The explosive nature of organic perchlorates is legendary, or at least it was when I was in school. No one who had set off cherry bombs as a youngster would consider isolating an entire gram of either class of chemical. 
The recent fatality at UC Los Angeles, mentioned in the article, gave me the same impression. I inferred that the California chemist failed to follow written instructions and then attempted to extinguish a minor tert-butyllithium fire by emptying a beaker of hexanes on herself. 
I think that the remedy for this situation is more time in the library, not more bureaucracy. The photo of the professor and the university “safety executive” working together reminds me of a quip my father once made, that knowledge did not result from the exchange of ignorance. 
G. David Mendenhall
Pomona, N.Y.
I don't have much to say in reply to former Professor Mendenhall's ignorance. Suffice it to say that I know that not all people of his imputed age and maturity are prone to such ignorant generalizations.

Let me correct the falsehoods that Dr. Mendenhall attempts to enter into the record:
  • In the Sheri Sangji case, there were no "written instructions" to her on that day, nor had any member of the Harran laboratory trained her in the use of t-butyllithium in a written format. 
  • I object to the description of possibly up to 60 mL of t-butyllithium being spilled on one's self as a "minor" fire. 
  • There is no evidence that she attempted to extinguish the fire by using the beaker of hexanes. 
I suspect Dr. Mendenhall enjoys getting into pie fights in the pages of C&EN, so maybe this is just an extra egregious first salvo. That being said, libel of the dead is just too far. 

39 comments:

  1. I kind of agree with his point, but it should not be focused on only the millineals. Additionally, if silly biochemists like me who might confuse the properties of a diazonium with an ammonium salt are allowed to go as far as teach Organic Chemistry II (where I quickly drew one diazonium salt on the board before I moved onto amino acids) in a university, this also implicates a problem with the system that allows me to do this as well.

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  2. Pretty amazing. Was Mendenhall with Pomona College? Perhaps he should at least try the trick with hexanes.

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  3. I don't think that a LACK of written instructions or tBuLi training in the Sangji case makes the scenario any better...

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  4. I'm a millineal. I've touched hand saws, power saws, planers plus all the usual stuff you (should) touch in the course of undergrad chemistry. There (still) isn't an app for cutting wood in half, unfortunately, so I do it the old school way.

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  5. Millennials do seem whiny and ill prepared for anything. As a gen Xer, I'm sure the baby boomers didn't think that abt us.....

    GET OFF MY LAWN.

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  6. Doing a little detective work on this new fangled thing called the "internets", I found he was a Prof. at Mich. Technological University for many years (Houghton, MI), then in the 90's opened up some chemical sourcing company called "Northern Sources" in MI and now has a company in Elmsford, NY called "Eastern Sources" which seems to sell some chemicals that are claimed to be made all in-house (95% anyways), but a quick google streetview shows it to be a tiny office in a generic office park...I wonder where his amazing lab is with all of its great safety equipment.

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  7. Well he must be right; he got his degrees in the 1960s.

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    1. Oh, and this is moderately illuminating:

      http://www.mininggazette.com/page/content.detail/id/501930/Michigan-Tech-staff-diversity-questioned.html

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  8. There seem to be an awful lot of older people wondering why kids these days aren't willing to work their butts off for their parents' retirements and their parents' debt in the service of an intellectual and moral tradition they've spent a very long time devaluing. I, for one, can't imagine where the younger generations would have learned such ingratitude. Must just be rogue genes or something.

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  9. Why would CEN even publish this? They are just as bad as the crusty old prof for printing it.

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    1. While we should feel free to disagree with the Dr., I personally oppose censorship of opinions, no matter how ridiculous I find them.

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    2. I should add, that you/we should also feel free to correct the Dr. with presentation of facts and and provide a different point of view or analysis of the situation as CJ has above.

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    3. An editorial decision not to publish an inane letter is in no way "censorship."

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    4. That actually depends. If the idea is to suppress an idea that is found unacceptable or "offensive " to some, it MAY in fact be a form of censorship.
      You can reply to the Mendenhall letter to challenge it, just as you can challenge my POV here.

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    5. They probably get enough letters that, unless it's representative of others on a specific topic, they don't have to publish an inane one. If an author either doesn't know what he's talking about or doesn't care, that seems like a good reason not to publish his letter - there isn't a good reason to propagate half-truths (that you will have to eradicate later) , and someone who isn't willing to be honest or knowledgeable in his letters isn't writing anything that's going to illuminate the readership. In addition, publishing an inane letter might be counterproductive - it might make the author's opinions look foolish.

      Magazines aren't obligated to publish everything they receive. He isn't being censored - there's plenty of places for him to purge misinformed speculation, if he wishes. If he's really annoyed he could come here, or unload on his own blog, or buy a billboard.

      There is less room to do lots of cool things with chemistry than there used to be, and that's probably not good. This might not be the way to make that point, though.

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    6. No one owes Mendenhall a platform to air his ideas.

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    7. I agree with the above, but, I have seen many cases where letter to the editor have been published and editor notes follow which point out pertinent facts. Perhaps the CEN editors should have done that like CJ has done above.

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    8. That would have helped, although if they had lots of letters, it would have been better to choose one that was representative but didn't require correction after the fact.

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    9. Auntie MarkovnikovOctober 30, 2015 at 9:15 AM

      There is another Letter to the Editor in C&ENews published just the week before claiming that nitrogen and oxygen are greenhouse gasses. While it is true that greenhouses contain nitrogen and oxygen, we all know that they are not greenhouse gasses. I understand the censorship issues, but if letters containing blatantly incorrect statements are going to be published they should be accompanied by a response from the Editor - or somebody.
      http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i40/Questioning-Climate-Analysis.html

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    10. The letters to the editor section in this week's C&EN includes the following statement:
      "A letter from G. David Mendenhall included inaccurate statements about a fatal tert-butyllithium fire at the University of California, Los Angeles. Whether Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was ever given an appropriate written procedure for the experiment is unknown. Also, according to a fire department report, Sangji did not try to extinguish the fire with hexanes; rather, the hexanes spilled and also ignited."

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  10. The comments about Sheri Sangji are a bridge too far. He should be ashamed of himself.

    That said, I actually agree with the thrust of his letter if not the details. The generation that grew up with chemistry sets and "the golden book of chemistry experiments" is rightly disappointed with the sterile way that chemistry is taught today.

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    1. I know of someone with a PhD and a permanent disfigurement from playing around with "the little golden book" back in the 60s.

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    2. But they still went on to their PhD! That's the point! It instilled in them a love of science and (I imagine) a genuine sense of curiosity.

      One of the current presidential candidates, Ben Carson, also grew up with a chemistry set. He credits it, at least in part, for his embrace of science and medicine (read his book "Gifted Hands").

      I have a deep appreciation for safety and responsibility, but I believe the pendulum has swung too far in that direction (blasphemy, I know). This has come at the expense of great scientific hobbies that inspired a generation of some of our best minds.

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    3. Not certain, but I think if this person had Doc Brown's DeLorian, they'd go back and keep that appendage.

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    4. Misspelled that, didn't I. DeLorean.

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    5. "I know of someone.." Such stories are never first-hand accounts, interestingly enough. Also, find the particular experiment they were supposedly performing. Using an alcohol lamp? You can see a lot of asides in the pdf below (thanks) of safety warnings but not so many actually dangerous things. Perhaps its reputation is a bit overstated.

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    6. I actually didn't realize The Golden Book was a real thing. Apologies. No, the story, as I heard it, did not involve an alcohol lamp or anything else covered in that particular book. You're right. It isn't my tale to tell, but I think romanticizing an earlier era when people could more easily get their untrained hands on explosives is foolish. Chemistry is taught in a way that is mor "sterile" because we have learned better. It isn't worth getting hurt.

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    7. And just to clarify, the story was told to me first hand by someone who is missing a finger. Because of a botched, ill-conceived chemistry experiment.

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    8. Samosa? Is that you?

      The tendency seems to be, if someone is dead, that no blame can be placed on the person, and instead it goes on supervisors and systems. Nobody seems willing to call out someone for doing stupid things like working with pyrophorics near open beakers of flammable solvents. Maybe you should put flammable things away if any error in your technique could lead to a minor fire? Sure, this could be in a "SOP" but if you cannot think through the consequences of your actions for a hazard on the level of "coffee is hot", maybe you are in the wrong field.

      I am one of those chemists who learned from books and minor accidents at home. No "SOPs". No "2nds for safety" and minimal PPE. Doing things this way led me live in a world of chemistry more based on reality than many of those without such experience. One of my younger students recently expressed the thought that a drop of conc. sulfuric would burn through her hand instantly, and on a previous occasion was using hydrazine on the open bench because "it seemed like ammonia from the MSDS". Most chemists today have "one size fits all" safety training, leaving them overcautious in many areas, and undercautious in others. No useless "SOP" will ever teach one how to work safely without either delusion or carelessness, and the overreliance on them is intellectual laziness.

      The guy being called out on the CandEN post is more right than he is wrong, but he was a bit of a dick assuming she poured hexane on herself on purpose. More likely a bit of fire came from the tBuLi, and she freaked out and spilled it on herself, having not ever seen a tiny fire in a hood before.

      Its expected when undergrad course liability is increasing to the point where concentrated acids, bromine, etc are being removed from the daily repertoire of experiments. Give me a chemist who learned from "Vogel's practical organic chemistry" in the 60s over any chemist educated in the last 10 years.

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    9. "More likely a bit of fire came from the tBuLi, and she freaked out and spilled it on herself, having not ever seen a tiny fire in a hood before."

      Please familiarize yourself with the details of the Sangji case before opining further: http://cen.acs.org/articles/87/i31/Learning-UCLA.html

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    10. Okay, I just thought the book had a reputation that was a little excessive--maybe others confused it with other causes over the years. Sorry to hear about your friend. My parents also had a story about a friend of theirs in school that lost fingers (+?) transporting chemicals across campus 'back in the day'.

      Anyway, home chemistry is unfortunately discouraged for so many reasons now--overprotective parents, litigation, concerns about drug use/manufacture. The Golden Book certainly comes from an earlier and perhaps romanticized day.

      --(Anon 5:36pm)

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    11. "For unknown reasons, the syringe plunger came out of the barrel and the tBuLi was exposed to the atmosphere. Although it wasn’t part of her experiment, an open flask of hexane was also in the hood and Sangji knocked it over. The tBuLi ignited and the solvent caught fire, as did Sangji’s clothes."

      No part is incongruent with what I said

      1) Syringe plunger comes out: a little bit of fire.

      2) Somehow the open beaker of hexane elsewhere in the hood gets spilled.

      Either the letter you are critiquing is correct and she chose to pour it on herself in a failed attempt to put out fire, or the initial syringe fire led to her knocking it over. An ignited beaker of solvent does not just suddenly spill itself.

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    12. I encourage you to read further about the Sangji case before opining again.

      Here's a link to most of the articles at C&EN about the case: http://pubs.acs.org/iapps/wld/cen/results.html?line3=sangji

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    13. I have followed the case and seen those articles.

      Nothing I have seen is incongruent with the above.

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    14. Samosa in a past life, now a professional chemist. I'm sure we floated in the same circles 10 years ago.

      Maybe I am romanticizing that era but I feel that the baby's been thrown out with the bath water. I genuinely enjoy hearing stories of childhood mischief from older coworkers in industry and, more recently, from some of the older profs in my department. They talk about things like disassembling engines, installing V12 engines on pickup trucks, making firecrackers, testing Ohm's Law by shoving things into receptacles...and not one of them regrets doing it. Sure, they all still have 10 fingers on their hands. Even so, think that hands-on curiosity is a wonderful thing, and certainly an asset to any experimental chemist.

      I also think it's wrong to tell enthusiastic, impatient teenagers to wait until they're in college to do cool stuff. There has to be a middle ground between a home science free-for-all and the insipid high school science curriculum.

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    15. Maybe I shouldn't have said Mendenhall should come here. Sorry.

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    16. Eh, I don't think it's Mendenhall.

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  11. The Golden Book of Chemistry is available as a PDF here:

    http://chemistry.about.com/b/2012/10/01/download-the-golden-book-of-chemistry-experiments.htm

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    1. Thanks for the link. I have to admit to chuckling as I savored the "cold war era" feel of the text and pictures. Chemistry: Our partner in democracy!!

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