Field of Science

Bunsen and quantum mechanics

Today's Google doodle honors the 200th birthday of Robert Bunsen, the inventor (or not?)of the eponymous burner. The doodle is great, click on it and it bubbles and whirs.

"It is known that several substances have the property of producing certain bright lines when brought into the flame. A method of qualitative analysis can be based on these lines, whereby the field of chemical reactions is greatly widened and hitherto inaccessible problems are solved. We limit ourselves here to developing the method for alkali and earth-alkali metals and demonstrating its value by some examples.

The lines show up the more distinctly the higher the temperature and the lower the luminescence of the flame itself. The gas burner described by one of us (Bunsen, these Ann. 100, p. 85) has a flame of very high temperature and little luminescence and is, therefore, particularly suitable for experiments on the bright lines that are characteristic for these substances." Opening to Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen, Annalen der Physik und der Chemie 110 (1860), 161-189.

Bunsen is not a name typically associated with the development of quantum mechanics, yet I might argue he is one of the key figures. The observation of line spectra and the realization that the lines are characteristic of particular elements is a significant step toward the development of quantum mechanics. It's one of the observations that Bohr was trying to explain in his model of the atom. General chemistry texts boast figures of line spectra to demonstrate the point - I showed several in my lecture last week. This apparatus developed by Kirchoff and Bunsen made possible the routine observation of such lines. I have a beautiful brass example in my office.

This paper goes on to note that sodium, even at very low concentrations produces quite bright lines. It reminds me of the many happy hours I spent playing with my mom's gas stove and making flame tests on anything I could scrounge up (most of which contained sodium). Is this the formative experience that impelled me toward quantum mechanics? Who knows! I do still think of sodium and line spectra every time the pasta boils over and the flame on my stove flares that characteristic sodium yellow-orange.

Happy birthday, Bunsen, I might not have a job without you!

There is more on Bunsen beyond the burner at The Sceptical Chymist.

Lab Notes: Walking the walk

Some days you have to be willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. My primary care physician keeps copious, real time notes on her encounters with her patients. She starts every visit with her pad in her lap - writing notes to herself (and best, yet, notes to me on what I need to follow-up on, complete with phone numbers and details) as the visit proceeds. So when she inquired about my immunization status during my physical yesterday, and she asked about tetanus, I thought I recalled getting a booster in 2008. Nothing in her notes on that.

Do we trust my memory or her notes? We'd chatted about my science writing, and given my expressed thoughts about (good) field notes - it was no contest. I have a sore arm, but no regrets.

The book I really want to read about field notes is not yet out (but I've ordered a copy) - Field Notes on Science and Nature edited by Michael Canfield of Notes from the field. The cover is beautiful and the contents look intriguing.

Image is from Wikimedia commons. A 1964 poster boosting boosters.

Writing Science: The End

My quarter long science writing course came to a close last Friday. We test-drove one of the methods sections students wrote early on (how to make the perfect cup of hot chocolate, rather than coffee), ate pastries from the wonderful shop down the street and read from favorite works we'd written or read as part of the course. It was a lovely way to bring things to an end.

The final "writing" prompt
Bring a selection (roughly 200 to 300 words in length) from a piece you wrote that you'd like to read or a piece you read during the course that you'd like to share.

Thanks, too, to everyone who followed along, and especially those who shared, here (in the comments) and there.

I had more on my list of things to read than we could possibly get to -- if anyone would like the full reading list, send me a note and I'd be happy to share.

Final writing assignment
Write an 'In Your Element'-style essay for Nature Chemistry's science writing contest on any one of the following elements — helium, nitrogen, sodium, copper, bromine, indium or plutonium. 700-800 -words. All the details are here. Deadline is August 1, 2011.

Illustration is from Wikimedia commons.

Writing Science: Punch Lines

"When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth." George Bernard Shaw

How seriously should we take science? Is science inherently funny - are those odd spots where truth is hidden? Can science be humorous without being a caricature? Do you have to be a scientist to get the joke? What role might humor play in teaching science? And for that matter, why are words with a hard c sound (like cryogenic) funny?


Brian Malow - superb stand up science comedy
The Big Blog Theory - the science behind the humor on The Big Bang Theory

Periodic table humor.

XKCD a comic strip which carries the warning: "this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)." And apparently unsuitable for high school students, it's blocked as "adult content" where I'm on the web. I'm in the high school nominally supervising the theater tech crew as they construct a set. Don't ask about the decibel level!)

Men of Mystery (subscription only) Taking on the stereotypes of science: why are scientists drawn as guys in white coats with bad hair? M.M Francl, Nature Chemistry, 2, 68-70 (2010).