"Gaseous Metal" sounds like a musical sub-genre

Task of the Day: Learning to do things like a mad scientist. As a specific example: How do I get some of this Big-Chunk-O-Metal to stick onto a flat sample surface?, I asked myself. Well, you just heat the bejeezus out of it. And I do mean the bejeezus. Skin-blisteringly hot isn’t nearly good enough. You heat it up until the metal evaporates (yes, you can get something like iron to evaporate; yes, seeing metal boil is as awesome as it sounds), stick your sample somewhere close, and voila! The gaseous metal atoms stick to your surface and resolidify since it’s cold.

Unfortunate side effect: everything else in the immediate vicinity gets coated in a fine film of, say, aluminum.

And just for kicks: boiling steel


The past few days (and the next few weeks) will be spent prepping for the first of our department’s cumulative exams. It’s one of the 5 requirements for getting our PhDs:

1.) Cumulative Exams
2.) Prospectus Exam (commonly the “Second Year Exam” in lots of programs)
3.) Independent Research Proposal
4.) Thesis and defense
5.) Pretend you know what’s going on

I think most sciencey PhD programs have cumulative exams of some sort or another. Each does them slightly differently, but they all amount to the same thing. That thing being ‘Let’s ask the about anything and everything they’ve ever learned!” The exams here have their own quirks, of course, some more archaic than others.

– There are 10 of them, one every other month. To complete Step 1 above (and by proxy, Step 5), we need to pass either 4 in a row, or 5 total. If that doesn’t happen, we get the official order to pack up our glassware and head home.

– Each one has 6 questions, with one professor each writing 2 questions. You don’t know beforehand which professors are writing them, and they refuse to tell you afterward who did. That doesn’t stop some students from guessing or being able to figure it out. Some of the profs have very distinct styles. So distinct, in fact, one has admitted to imitating the styles of other professors because he thinks students refuse to answer his questions. True story. He gets snarky about it.

– After each, you find out if you pass or fail. Period. No corrections, no answer key, no comments. A lot of profs will even refuse to talk with you about it after the results come back. This is probably the most archaic of the set of rules. It’s also the cause of the most conspiracy theories, ranging from “They’ll fail you if you turn it in too quickly, even if you know all the answers” to “Answer every other question and you’ll pass every time.” I wish I was making those theories up.

And that’s step 1 of your PhD! One of the older students around here calls it The Department Hazing. Understandably, we first years are going through our panic rituals about now. I’ve got a stash of Crunch bars and lucky underpants stashed in my desk. They may or may not be in the same drawer.

2004 was really that long ago?

Task of the day: trying to order a new canister of compressed gas to replace the one that the group last ordered…6 years ago. Apparently in that time span the friendly local gas company the group used to use got bought out by Bigger Badder Gas Company (see, it doesn’t just happen to grocery stores), so they had no idea what we needed.

It also didn’t help that the gas was a little non-standard. Argon or nitrogen or something would have been easy enough to order whether we had the product number or not. Forming gas made from a 5% mixture of hydrogen in nitrogen? Not so much. They had a 10% mixture instead, which would have been great if we wanted to blow the converter box off the side of the machine we were using. Suffice it to say, doing so is not Standard Lab Procedure.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.

I was placed on diplomatic duty today. We were having a repairman come to fix one of our big pieces of equipment, and the advisor designated me as the coordinator and contact guy for the repair. It was pretty exciting, actually. We’ve had this machine for longer than my advisor’s been here, and it’s since fallen out of service. No one currently in the group knows how to run it, so this was to be my first “training” with it since I’ll be the one in charge of it now. The best part, though, was that it was like the repairman was meeting a long lost friend. Anyone doing research will tell you how each and every machine has its own personality. Some go out of their way to thwart you, some have surprising features tucked in every nook and cranny, and some just need a good kick.

The machine we had was a combined glovebox and evaporator, which more or less heats up a metal until some of gets in the air. Then you stick a future piece of electronics in there and the metal in the air condenses on the chunk and tada! You’ve got a new electrical contact! Part of the setup needs a complicated set of vacuum tubes and valves, which are notoriously individualistic. No two vacuum systems are built the same; usually you build them custom. The stage was set for a full-blown nostalgie session

So the guy, who turned out to be the one who was hired to build it in the first place 15 years ago, came in and was enthralled. He remembered every nut and bolt, how he fit this piece into that piece, how the original test results came out. He was dismayed at how dirty we let it get, but hopeful that he could shine it up. It was a bit touching, really, and he was clearly excited to be coming back next week to finish it.