Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why are Rain Drops Round,
What's the Right one Baby,
What is the Structure of H
2SO4 + HOH ?

Mr. Bonzo walked over to Coffman Union today at about 3 pm. There was an eery quiet although students were doing homework and sitting around outside Coffman strangely subdued. Across Washington Avenue on the mall at BigU the students who normally would have been there on a nice April day were nowhere to be seen. There were numerous police cars with flashing lights and yellow plastic tape could be seen in front of Kolthoff Hall, Smith Hall, and the Library. A copycat bomb scare earlier in the afternoon had required evacuation of many of the buildings on the mall. There were no students outside on the mall because of an email, posted earlier, requesting that they not congregate there.

Mr. Bonzo thought back to the early seventies when he was a rookie TA in the O-chem lab. One afternoon there was an explosion during his lab session and he had to do a forced evacuation. He had to manhandle one particularly uncooperative student in order to accomplish this. For some reason the student refused to leave and wanted to keep working. There had been a bombing of the Math Department at Wisconsin around that time - with loss of life - and so everyone was on edge. At first we thought that a bomb had been set off, but we later learned that the explosion was the result of an accident in one of the labs. Fortunately no one was in the lab at the time this happened.

Also around that time Mr. B. witnessed, from the top of Kolthoff Hall, what was later characterized as a police riot. The Minneapolis cops beat student demonstrators unmercifully, even if they were just lying on the ground trying to protect themselves. Demonstrators had blocked Washington Avenue and the Minnesota equivalent of rednecks were trying to drive through the demonstrators at high speed - not a pretty sight.

So Mr. Bonzo was pretty pensive and wigged on the way to Coffman Memorial Union to see about a hundred and fifty posters describing the research efforts of BigU undergraduates. Now Mr. Bonzo is a science wienie and nothing cheers him up more than the cultural and practical implications of science, particularly chemistry and crystallography. One of Mr. B's students, Derek Straka, presented on his work doing drug docking on the HIV protease and tyrosine kinase inhibitor systems related to cancer. There were numerous other excellent presentations, many of which Mr. B. could barely understand since he is not a biologist. Chemistry, he can understand. He was impressed by analyses of mercury in locations around the state, because of his interest in the possible connection of mercury to autism. Some other interesting work had to do with biodegradable plastics. Good stuff. Finally he had a nice chat with a young lady who was doing computational chemistry on the sulfuric acid water complex. This work actually has a connection to the real world but it reminded Mr. B. that we used to be a lot more tolerant of stuff that was really "neat," even if it didn't have any practical applications. Mr. B. left Coffman feeling a lot better about life and the future having talked to these wonderful, optimistic, bright students.

He also remembered a science fair - at a lot lower level - that he once attended in Tucson when AlexBonzo was an undergrad English major. There were the usual posters on genetic engineering of cows and so forth. But one kid had studied the effect of wind, dirt, and sand, on the shape of raindrops as they fell from different heights. Either the kid had a very smart teacher or (s)he was quite creative. Another kid tried to answer one of Mr. B's favorite questions: What's the right one, baby? He went to the dump and counted Coke and Pepsi cans. In the end a lot of science is not rocket science. It consists of having an idea and doing experiments to confirm or refute that idea. Once you understand the game, you really can't lose. And often if you refute your own idea, you have to come up with a better explanation. Success in doing this is incredibly satisfying if your mind is bent in the Bonzo way.

As Nabokov said in his Lectures on Literature:

After all, there are other thrills in other domains: the thrill of pure science is just as pleasurable as the pleasure of pure art. The main thing is to experience that tingle in any department of thought or emotion.

An oddly peaceful Bonzo after a hard day at BigU

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