Editing for a new journal? Don’t mind if I do!

Exciting professional news! I just accepted a position as a language editor for the open access journal Smart & Stimuli Responsive Materials. It’s a part time position, largely focused on improving the clarity and readability of submitted papers. Every famous editor has to start as a copy editor, huh?

I do find it a bit curious that I have no aspirations for academic positions after my PhD, yet here I am entrenching myself into academia a bit deeper.  But such is life. It’s a brand new journal, non-traditional in the sense that it’s open access, and rather specialized. So it probably won’t be barnstormed by folks quite yet. But I’m optimistic! And excited to be contributing to the open access scene.


What’s cooler than being cool?

One acceptable answer to the title question comes, of course, from Outkast.  The other comes last week from Simon Braun and Dr. Ulrich Scheider’s group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, who finagled some potassium atoms until they were colder than absolute zero.  I’ll let that sink in.  Colder than what is the coldest temperature possible.

As the Governator once said: Alright everyone, chill!

Your first reaction is probably: ….what.  That doesn’t make any kind of sense.  Isn’t absolute zero the temperature where all atoms and particles just freeze solid?  No more motion, no more energy.  How can you get colder than that?  To answer that, it helps to remember what temperature is, from a physics perspective (instead of maybe a smartphone app perspective).  Temperature is really just a number representing how much energy a system has.  Are the atoms bouncing and flipping out like a Jackie Chan flick?  High temperature.  Are they slow and solid enough to build a snowman out of?  Low temperature.  But usually it’s not that simple.  Even at one specific temperature, say 27.2F (the temperature outside my apartment right now), a small handful of atoms (or particles or molecules) have high energy, while most of them have lower energy.

The atoms in that snowflake definitely aren’t Jackie Chan.

Here’s a useful analogy: the majority of people across the world are lazy.  The Elon Musks and Tina Feys and Ghandis are very rare.  Probably why we find them impressive and inspiring and hilarious.  On a given night, most people would much rather grab some drinks, lounge on the couch, and catch up on Netflix than, say, assemble a massive undertaking to solve the unsolvable inequalities of the world.  Small atoms are the same way.  The vast majority of them are in the lowest energy state – passed out with bowl of cheetos in their cozy electron blankets, if you will.  Then there are a few rare ones that jump up and do a Robin Williams routine.

[[WARNING: There’s going to be an equation at the end of the next paragraph.  I’m warning you ahead of time so no one freaks out.  It’ll be ok.]]

The distributions of those energy states – the number of atoms which are lazy and the number which are amped up – follow a very specific pattern.  Physicists have come up with some pretty handy formulas that describe those numbers very accurately, an area broadly called statistical thermodynamics.  Here’s a general equation (the one I warned you about!) for one of those distributions:

n ∝ exp⁡(-E/(kB*T)) 
The Boltzmann Distribution!

I’ll give you time to get blood flowing back through your fainted grandmothers.  Good?  The details of the equation aren’t important.  But what is important is to notice is that the number of atoms with a certain energy, the symbol n, depends on temperature (plus a bunch of other things) which I highlighted.  Bringing it back full circle, this a way we can unambiguously define temperature.  It’s the quantity that gives a bunch of particles their specific energy.  If you’ve got more high energy Robin Williams-particles, that’s a higher temperature.  A very convenient side effect is that now you’ve also got a number to tell your friends to let them know how blisteringly cold it is in the morning.

Back to Simon Braun and colder-than-absolute-zero potassium.  What he and his group did was get some potassium atoms good and frosty while trapping them in a very high energy configuration.  For this part they got to use all sorts of cool-sounding physics tools like anti-traps and superfluid transitions.  So they now had very cold atoms, trapped in a high-energy phase.  Now the exact details of what happened next are beyond me, but as I can figure it, they could use what they knew about the distribution of energy (a cousin to the equation above) to figure out what statistical “temperature” defines such an arrangement.  And lo and behold: less than absolute zero!

At this point it’s tempting to get a little agitated.  “Hey, that’s just splitting hairs over how you define temperature!”  I know I wanted to at first.  But when you realize that this result comes from what thermodynamics tells us temperature physically is, it opens up some really fascinating questions about how quantum things (the very smallest, seemingly most basic particles you can have) play nice or don’t play nice with the way we understand thermodynamics.

Regardless, someone needs to get Outkast on the phone and tell him to write Hey Ya v2.0.

Where do all the theses go when their parents leave them?

This post about open access grad student theses is a worthwhile read for grad students and bosses: The dissertations that get away (& where they end up, and why).  It makes specific note of the company ProQuest, which does a lot of thesis publishing and has an “open access” option, and the newer FigShare, a cloud-based open access publishing service.

Here’s an interesting bit from a student, who Gail Clement – manager of the Free US Electronic Theses and Disseratations blog – had some correspondence with:

With some hesitation at the cost of $95, I did pay the “Open Access Publishing PLUS” fee upon filing my dissertation, so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that my dissertation does not appear in the ProQuest database.

I know that I’ve often found students’ Masters and PhD thesis to be more helpful in my work than published journal articles.  They tend to be much more thorough about experimental setups, what the relevant background is, and all sorts of other details.  And I know tracking them down can be tough.  When I find one that seems interesting (which itself is not as simple as I’d like), more often than not I need to get the university library to track it down, and the thesis ends up on my desk pretty shortly after.  Who knows what magic they use, but being able to easily find a thesis online instead of just a dusty advisor’s bookshelf would be fantastic.

How do you represent "covalent bond" in sign language?

The New York Times has a fascinating clip about talking science in sign language.

Unfortunately they don’t seem to allow embedding videos, but the clickthrough is worth it.


Combining two of my favorite things: science communication and open science! The effort has been largely spearheaded by the ASL-STEM forum at the University of Washington, which lets users contribute their own signs for various science words.

I really like the idea that having two distinct, new signs (mass vs weight, in the link above) can give deaf students an advantage in situations where the English words have some historical ambiguity. Makes me wonder what other pairs might be out there, and when the deaf scientists will exert their power and take the rest of us by storm.

Touch me, touch me

Benjamin Tee from Zhenan Bao’s group at Stanford recently put out this research article on self-healing electronic “skin”:


Oooh! Ahhh! What might someone use this for? Robots we can torture, obviously! (As illustrated by the fantastic Sci-ence comic blog.) Because I’m working on flexible electronics, my mind goes straight to consumer gadgets too. This sort of material is the sort of thing you bet Apple or Samsung would pay a pretty penny for once they eventually get the roll-up foldable tablet computers into the hands of folks with little kids who would like to pull on them. Or dogs. Not kids pulling dogs, but dogs pulling things, 21st century edition: The Dog Ate My Transparent Rolled Up Data Pad. But not with this baby. Just stick the halves back together, hold for a few seconds, and voila! Good as new, according to the data here. I can see the B-roll on the late night commercials now.

The “skin” part of the work comes from the fact that the material is also pressure sensitive. As a number of folks have pointed out, that could really benefit materials for high tech prostheses too.

Look at these poor robots, with their tough and rigid skin.  So last century.

It’s also worth mentioning that the conductive part of the skin comes from microscopic nickel particles.  Nickel, of course, being the winner of the much under-reported “Allergen of the Year” award in 2008. I can’t see that being an issue for our eventual self-repairing soft-skinned android overlords.

Chemistry of Materials, we have arrived!

The official version of the last paper I wrote about has gone live in Chemistry of Materials!  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/cm302790a

Emissive Conjugated Polymer Networks with Tunable Band-Gaps via Thiol–Ene Click Chemistry

See those LEDs? Made from plastic. Pretty snazzy stuff. 
Wrapping up publication was really quick and painless this time around, which was nice. After getting the reviewer comments back, we had a really easy time turning it back around to the journal. Just goes to show the importance of doing the science right the first time around so the only things the reviewers have to point out are typos and a missed reference or two. Comments went back to Chemistry of Materials without a hitch, we received the galley proofs around a week later for any last minute formatting/typo/blurry picture fixing, and just sent those back at the start of this week. And two days later: we have officially pushed the boundaries of scientific knowledge outward another tiny step.
Lab-wise, I’ve got some other stuff cooking that is producing some really fascinating data, but it’s probably going to be on the backburner for the next month or so. Most of my science focus is on one of the PhD degree requirements here: writing an Original Research Proposal. It’s one of the few Big Official Check Marks you need before they let you call yourself a doctor (along with qualifying exams, thesis and its defense) and essentially amounts to a grant application. It’s chugging along nicely and should be submitted early December, then its back to becoming Science Famous.

Three cheers for RSC!

This is the RSC.  We’re buds now.

Ok, I’m now officially a huge fan of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  I was recently on the receiving end of an interesting email from them offering a sort of free semi-membership since I published an article in one of their journals not too long ago.  Most researchers in America are probably familiar with the RSC only through the journals they publish (Chemical Communications, Chemical Science, and Chemical Society Reviews being the big ones, but there are plenty others).  They are roughly the UK’s equivalent of our American Chemical Society, organizing conferences, publishing journals, etc.

The email offered a free e-membership, which included “access to one of over 70 RSC subject-based groups allowing to engage with fellow chemists globally, …digital monthly access to Chemisty World [the general RSC chemistry publication…kind of like C&E News as far as I can tell], …and being kept informed about specialist events and conferences”.

Color me impressed!  Go RSC!  This is one of those things that every scientific publication should advocate.  Is it a lot?  Not really.  I’m sure I could engage with international chemists by email just fine, and I’d bet good money I could access Chemistry World through the library.  But the impressive part, to me, is pushing more open access, technologically connected science access.  Basically a message of “Contribute to our network, get official access to a bunch of our stuff”.  Which makes every kind of sense is really pretty awesome.

The sad thing is I haven’t heard of any other science organizations doing this sort of thing (speaking only for chemistry and materials science groups, myself).  I don’t know if this is something ACS does as well.  I know I’ve never received a similar email offering semi-membership for publishing in an ACS journal.  But that may be because I’ve already been an ACS member for the duration of my publishing career so far.  I’m really curious now and sent them an email to find out, so we’ll see.

EDIT 5 NOV. 2012: Got a response from ACS.

“At this time, ACS does not have any such benefits for non-ACS members that publish in ACS journals.”  

And there ya go.  Need to get with the times, guys.