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Science Day – fighting ignorance is bliss April 22, 2017

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Science, as with many other things that are based on facts (like journalism), is under attack by the right wing in the US. There are many reasons why. Some of it is that the right is less educated than the average. Some is that the right has more evangelical Christians and practicing Catholics than the average and their reliance on faith skews them away from factual-based thinking. Some is that the right’s support of businesses and an unfettered capitalist economy runs afoul of environmental regulations or climate change or the move to renewable energy over fossil fuels.

The Republican party has based a lot of its policies in these philosophies and over time its candidates have been drawn more and more from these less-educated, religiously and politically dogmatic bare-fisted capitalists. Even a cursory look at Donald Trump shos that he strongly reflects those, as do many of his choices for high-level positions – Rick Perry, Betty Devos, Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson. They are proud of being ignorant, boastful that they know better than any experts.

The shortsightedness and tunnel vision is both shocking and dangerous. Science and technology fuel the US economy. The areas the US needs more skills in are the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (including Computing), the STEM areas, that are suffering greatly in the new budgets. These ignoramuses do not understand that their other pet areas of defense and security, fossil fuels, business and commerce all rely on new innovations that has come from the STEM areas. The US has Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and hundreds of other tech companies. Biotechnology, including pharma, are very heavily American in innovation, in new patents. These also result from the STEM areas. Even a supposedly “mature” industrial area like fossil fuels has relied on new catalysts for refining, new exploration techniques and modeling, better coordination both upstream and downstream, new techniques that allow the finding of and use of tar sands and shale oil or shale gas or Fischer-Tropsch liquids. Again, these arise in the STEM areas.

Will the US sciences remain the top in the world? This is very likely. But for every year of this anti-science government, there will be a period of 5 years where China, India, Russia, and the European Community close the gap.

4/20 is the Stupidest Event April 20, 2017

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April 20th have become a celebration in the US by marijuana smokers that highlights their smoking of marijuana. Its apocryphal origins are supposedly based on the time of 4:20 pm, when a group of high-school students gathered after school to smoke marijuana.

There are only a few people who care – hardcore recreational marijuana smokers and the news media who want stories. That marijuana is increasingly acceptable and legal more medicinal and/ or recreational use in several states highlights that this observance is getting dated and that its advocacy, what little there was, is dwarfed by other efforts.

Science can be fun for scientists. April 15, 2017

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In talking to high-school friends online about my career, 2 incidents that highlight the different attitudes of scientists came to mind.

Once, a well-known European colleague was in San Francisco for a conference. He wanted to meet and talk of each of our research programs and exchange ideas and maybe set up a collaboration. I rode the local rapid-transit train, BART, over to downtown San Francisco and walked to his hotel. We decided to pick up sandwiches at a deli across the street and walk to Union Square, where (then) there were many park benches in an oasis of sunshine among the many tall building.

We sat, ate, talked back and forth on our mutual interests in various fields – synthesis, spectroscopy, physical organic chemistry, some related quantum chemistry – for about 2 hours. The latter hour coincided with the noontime lunch hour and the park had filled with office workers on their break. As we were wrapping up, a group of 6 to 8 young women who had been sitting next to our bench walked by. One stopped and said “We did not understand anything of what you were talking about, but it sounded so fascinating.”

Another time was at a conference. I had just synthesized a new compound and done some preliminary work on it. It was a very weird one in many ways. It had a lot of steric strain, where the atoms were too close in space to each other so that repulsive forces cause the bonding framework to bend to reduce that. Normally, this molecule’s class of compounds would do this by a twist in the structure. A theoretically-possible alternative of folding at that point usually required much more energy and did not happen. But for this one structure, the folding was only a miniscule amount higher. So at room temperature there were both structures present in a solution of the comound, interchanging from one to the other and back. This gave the compound some odd properties.

At the conference, between sessions of talks a group of several well-known scientists in the study of the types of compounds gathered over coffee. I described my new compound. The others all replied with “Could you send me some to study…?” the blank being a technique they did. The interplay and discussion was fantastic. We were like a bunch of children with a new toy.




















normally, the type of mole



A curious observation on politics in the US April 15, 2017

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Indian-Americans, either those who directly immigrated from India or their descendants are only about 1% of the US population. Yet, a few years ago there were 2 Indian-American governors (2 out of the 50 states), Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina. That piqued my interest. Both were Republicans in southern states, too.

So over the past 5 years, I have noticed more when an Indian-American is involved in anything political. One is happening now at the University of California at Berkeley. This place is an icon of very liberal view in a very liberal region (the San Francisco Bay Area). There are, of course conservatives at the campus of many tens of thousands of students and faculty. But this week I noticed them more/ Conservative student groups are sponsoring a talk by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter. The leaders of both of the biggest of the sponsoring groups are Indian-Americans.

Does this mean that a majority, if not a preponderance, of Indian-Americans are conservative Republicans? Maybe. The values in Hinduism are conservative by US standards – very traditional family values, male dominated, very aware of caste (although outlawed) and race, and religion. In India, there is a very strong anti-Muslim populance, too.

Career tip: Never Stand Still April 15, 2017

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One of the things few scientists learn in graduate school is that the topic you work in is transient. The field you work in is not static. In getting an advanced degree, a young scientist typically build up expertise in an area. Since this is often the first such one, an identity also grows – that of being that type of scientist.

But science is very dynamic and careers are long. Few scientific topics last as hot areas with good unsolved research opportunities for longer than a decade. Why? They are hot and many scientists get into each hot topic. After a few years, the hot becomes accepted, the norm. Research in that area moves into minor tweaks of the variables or doing something on a slight variation – in a different solvent or under various temperature or some other not-very-groundbreaking differences.

A smart young scientist must forever be looking for opportunities to morph, to slide into related topics, to fill unfilled niches. I did my graduate research in gas chromatography. My first job avoided that topic, but was a slide into the related area of liquid chromatography. A new challenge. During my first 5 years, I added UV-visible and fluorescence spectroscopies because nobody there was doing those and there was a need. During my next 5 years I got into synthetic organic chemistry areas because in order to do the LC, UV, or fluorescence I needed standard compounds or model compounds. Many were not commercially available, but there were literature syntheses. Some of those syntheses had obvious variations that would yield numerous new analogues of those literature-guided products.

Other forays occurred. The end result was decades of new research opportunities, a lot of fun in the lab, numerous collaborations.

My current binge reading – Sri Lanka March 31, 2017

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For pleasure and to take up time during my travels, I read a lot of books. Although I have read a few ebooks, maybe a dozen or two in the past 5 years, I still prefer paper copies. That is familiarity being preferred. My reading tastes are all over the map in both fiction and non-fiction. I go through periods where I prefer one over the other, then within that preference I will get into different genres. So for non-fiction it might be history – world, US, crimes, art history, military history. Each time might have a more dominant theme, like obscure colonial wars as a military history topic. When I had my most recent one of those, it was British wars in South Asi8a and Africa, various colonial wars in the Caribbean, South American wars, wars in the Balkans. For fiction, it is often novels, but I do get into periods favoring short-story collections. Often I prefer books that are either tried-and-true classic literature or books and authors that have won prizes – the Nobel in literature (Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, V. S. Naipal, among others; the Booker prize winners and those books on the short list for it; Pulitzer Prize winners, and the  National Book Award. In this category I might put New York Times bestsellers.

Topics also are a theme. When I read Satanic Verses, just to see what the hubbub was about, I read more Salman Rushdie, then other South Asian authors – Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others.

My current one is focused on books set in or about people from Ceylon/ Sri Lanka. From the British colonial perspective there was A Village in the Jungle by Leonard Wood. Slightly racist, reflecting the attitudes of the British there a century ago. Others were Anil’s Ghost, Cat’s Table, and Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje – most notable for his non-Lanka book The English Patient; Mosquito and Bone China by Roma  Tearne; The Jam Fruit Tree, Colombo, and Yakada Yaka by Carl Muller; The Road from Elephant’s Pass by Nihal de Silva; and Funny Boy by Shyam Selvaderai.

I have read 6 of these 11 so far. The main these is the various eras of troubles between the Sinhalese and Tamils. It reminds me of the theses in India and Bengal (both Indian and Bangladeshi) between Hindus and Sikhs or Hindus and Moslems. It seems that the most major legacy of British rule was lumping together peoples so that in every south Asian nation there is a majority-minority clash.

Why I am liberal March 25, 2017

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My politics are decidedly liberal. Even though I am an American of the upper middle class, I identify much more with the blue-collar stratum of American society in what I want our society to be and do. Why? That was the one my parents were in and in which my brother, sister, and I were raised. We were not poor, but every dollar my parents earned was valuable. (My success was built upon a pillar of their emphasis – You can be anything, do something you like. Get educated and build on that. Each of us three did and moved into the much higher strata.

But I always think about one factor when I think of government policies or how things work in the US. How would this have affected my parents when they were raising us? Not “How will this new law or regulation benefit me now?”. I believe, therefore, that there must be voices for the “little people” who cannot donate big sums to influence things. That government must take their interests seriously. The wealthy in this country have clout. Businesses and their industries have clout. Without organized, effective clout, these people of modest means will be hurt by new laws and policies because those with clout will dominate.

As an example, I can point to the current fighting over healthcare and health insurance. The average person needs some system to help with the huge costs of an emergency or serious disease. Insurance is a help with that, but the insurance industry must bring in more than enough money to cover things. Going without insurance is a foolish gamble, but affording even minimal coverage can be expensive for many. This is where the government can step in to aid he most needy, to limit premiums to an affordable level (the choice should never be “Do I eat or do I have health coverage?” Insurance ought to be available to everyone.

On other issues, I tend to be liberal – war only when very necessary, access to education, a rein on companies( because true free-market capitalism is ruthless and bloody), and so on. On some fiscal matters, I am a libertarian (with a small l as opposed to the Libertarian political party. I believe a person should be able to live and enjoy his or her life as desired, unless it impinges on someone else’s life. Thus, you can be religious, but do not try to force me to obey your faith or laws designed by the beliefs in your faith. If you are for or against something based on your religion, fine. Live your own life that way. But if I do not, stay out of my life..

The most “British” of the former empire? March 24, 2017

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In my travels, I meet many people. Some are from nations that once were British colonies (then dominions and commonwealths and such). A short and selective list of examples that lead into my point: Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. Why? The societies were dominantly shaped by the Anglo population (Yes, that is debatable). Of these, all retain some Britishness, be it engaging in teatime or playing cricket and rugby or saying phrases like bloody.

Canadians, as a whole, are not very British. Only some take tea in the afternoon. They play their own games, especially hockey, and eschew cricket almost completely.

Australians also are only moderately British. They speak the most distant version of the language, although they do use bloody. They play rugby, and a little cricket, but Australian rules football is the main sport. Although they have a Union Jack in their flag, there is much debate over changing it.

South Africans take tea, use bloody and some other British slang, ate rabid about cricket and rugby, take afternoon tea.

New Zealanders win the prize because their language sounds the most British, they do tea, they are rabid about rugby and cricket, they do not wish very much to get rid of their Union Jacked flag.

Others in my thinking: Amongst south Asians, the Sri Lankans are more British than Indians, who are more British than Bangladeshis, who are more British than Pakistanis. Jamaicans are the most British of the independent former colonies in the Caribbean. Outside of South Africa, Kenyans are more British than Nigerians. The others are even less so (Ghanans, Gambians, Sierra Leonians, Tanzanians, Ugandans, et alia in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Arab nations of the former empire, Emiratis are more British than Kuwaitis, Omanis, Qataris.

These are just my very personal views from observations.

Exotic fruits are not that exotic anymore March 21, 2017

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I have written here about the start of a pastime I picked up, the eating of fruits that are not commonly found in the US. It started on a 2-week trip to Qatar, in a small town away from Doha. I was staying at a company’s guest residence, which was more like a nice small hotel in its layout. Food was served at the company’s main building complex, but there were times when this was not so because of repair work and preparations for a big company event. So another instructor of a short course and I walked the 15 minutes to the nearest grocery supermarket to get cooking ingredients (there was a full kitchen in the guest house).

This supermarket had mangosteens, rambutan, chiikoo (sapote). I bought some to try and was hooked on looking for others during my trips. I even found a local market that carries some exotic fruits, the Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley.

But this past few weeks I have seen some in the local supermarkets – Safeway, Lucky’s, and Sprouts. Starfruit, dragonfruit, custard apple, and today I saw whole durian at Sprouts. Big ones, the size of large melons. I have never tried one on any of my trips because I am told that they stink to high heaven (but taste great).

To all Indians, it was about courtesy. March 19, 2017

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Five years ago, I posted a blog here on my experiences flying to and from Dubai on Emirates. The point of the post was that amongst the passengers, many were either people who were Indian-Americans or from India itself and that a certain proportion were not good to fly with. This portion, but not all, were oblivious to me and other fellow passengers by being rude, loud, discourteous, and oblivious or indifferent to that.

This one post has by far been the most active one on this blog, with hundreds of comments. They either adamantly disagree and use charges of racist or cultural ignorance or Indian nationalism as arguments. Conversely there have been numerous posts agreeing and even expanding the grievances. The ones I most connect with are those from cabin-crew members because I see how awfully they can be treated.

The point of this post was to ask why Indians had a larger proportion of these boorish people than other nationalities. Yes, I have been on flights full of mainland Chinese and eastern Europeans. Neither are good co-passengers either, but even they are more courteous and aware that others fly with them. These postings in comment have main good and valid points that many Indians are ignorant of norms in other countries and that more could be done to educate then on awareness before they fly. Others point out that amongst Indians such courtesy is more common and that maybe the mindset needs to be Imore inclusive and expansive when in a group from many nations.

I also must admit to becoming more tolerant, but there are limits. I still do not think ignoring the crew’s instructions for boarding, in-flight actions (fastening seat belts, for example), landing, and deplaning can be ignored.