Archive for the ‘Arts & Entertainment’ Category

The Funniest Element is Boron

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld is not an expert on chemistry, but he is an expert on comedy. That is why we must take him seriously when he says that boron is the funniest element:

-(Fast forward to 21:53)


That video is a recent interview of Jerry Seinfeld on The Howard Stern Show. For those of you who don’t want to watch it—and the whole interview is really great, by the way—I’ve transcribed the chemistry discussion here:

Seinfeld: What does it take to get a cab driver’s license? I think all you need is a face. This seems to be their big qualification. They put it on the license. No blank heads are allowed to drive cabs. And a name with, like, eight consonants in a row.

Stern: Right.

Seinfeld: Right? And some of the letters in these names, I don’t even know how I would report the guy. His name was Amal, and then the symbol for boron.

Stern: Right. When I hear “the symbol for boron”, that is the joke. I mean, I cannot help but think how brilliant that is.

Seinfeld: Thank you. Why? You like the choice of boron?

Stern: Boron!

Stern: Boron, boron is the right element.

Seinfeld: That’s right.

Stern: It’s funny.

Seinfeld: Yes. A lot of other elements I could’ve picked.

Stern: Right. But you picked boron.

Seinfeld: It’s the funniest one.

Stern: Right. Now, first of all, when you were writing that bit, did you worry that outside of New York or big cities, that maybe people wouldn’t get that joke. Do you worry about who it’s going to universally appeal to?

Seinfeld: If it didn’t work on the road, I would’ve not done it on the road, but it did.

Stern: It did work.

Seinfeld: Because in the end, funny is funny.

Stern: Right, so, maybe a guy from Kansas understands that the symbol for boron is what we see on a cab?

Seinfeld: You know, Howard, when something is funny… You know, I watched Richard Pryor talk about how it feels to be hooked on…on…on…

Stern: On coke, or heroin.

Seinfeld: And I get it.

Stern: Yes.

Seinfeld: I’ve never done it. I don’t even know what those drugs are.

Stern: But yet, that is compelling.

Seinfeld: If the…the guy takes you there. That’s the thing.

Stern: Alright. So, you were in a cab, and is that where you got the thought, where you saw the symbol…

Seinfeld: And I realized, why am I not scared? And even though this is a ridiculously dangerous…I would never drive like this, I have no seat belt on, and I’m not scared.

Stern: And you trust this guy from another fucking land.

Seinfeld: Yeah.

Stern: We’re not even sure he knows how to drive.

Seinfeld: Yeah.

Stern: And so that occurs to you. Do you immediately write it down in a book?

Seinfeld: Now this question, I get all the time.

Stern: Right. And I want to kn…

Seinfeld: Why?

Stern: I’ll tell you why. Because I have thoughts all the time, if I don’t immediately write them down for my radio show, they’re gone. It’s gone.

Seinfeld: Yes. No, I do write things down. But people will ask. People ask me this, and they ask this hundreds of times: Do you have a pad? Do you write it on a…

Stern: Right! What’s the process?!

Seinfeld: Do you write it on a…? You write it! I had a little notebook, and you write it! People make notes all the time for things.

Stern: And did you write down the boron?

Seinfeld: No.

Stern: Where does that come from?

Seinfeld: Sitting with it.

Stern: I see.

Seinfeld: I sit with it.

Stern: Now, what do you mean sitting with it? You go home?

Seinfeld: I think this whole thing, the TV thing, I like the idea of the screen. It’s like TV. I go, that’s funny, I’ll play with that. And then the license, and then there was the “O” with the line through it.

Stern: Right.

Seinfeld: Right? And then I go…I don’t know, and then you think of the joke: you know, it’s a like a symbol from the chart of the elements. So then I thought, ok, which element?

Stern: Right.

Seinfeld: I’m going to use an element as a reference here, and that’ll be funny.

Stern: And boron was your first choice?

Seinfeld: No, it was not.

Stern: What was your first choice?

Seinfeld: My first choice was, ummm, I can’t remember. And then I looked up the chart of the elements, and I thought, “Oh, boron, that’s the funny one.”


So, there you go. I’m not sure what “the symbol for boron” is, since we abbreviate elements using letters without diacritical marks, but I’m guessing Seinfeld is referring to the archaic pictographic symbols for the elements. Here’s a couple of charts of symbols used by John Dalton, and the “‘O’ with a line through it” appears to be nitrogen. I can’t find an old symbol for boron, probably because it was too funny for stuffy chemists in the olden days to take seriously.

While I personally find boron to be amusing, I think that molybdenum is much funnier.

WWWTP? – Tristillation of Tequila

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

I talked about this video on Twitter (via @davidperrey) and others have commented on it, but I just wanted to enter it into the WWWTP archive. It is a doozy:

Tristillation is complete b.s., but they really did present it in a lovely manner.

Hat tip: B.J. for e-mailing the link
Elsewhere: Just Like Cooking

Nocera on BBC Horizons

Monday, June 24th, 2013



Of course, it’d be even nicer with safety glasses.

Also, beautiful new labs. Yum.

Skin Care and Beauty Tips for Chemists

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

ChemBark's Orgo BunnyUpon arriving in California, I became extra concerned about my appearance. That’s just what Angelenos do. I make it a point to dress in the latest fashions and to be “camera-ready” at all times.

It’s a shame that moving to St. Louis is going to hurt my film and modeling career, but these are the sorts of sacrifices that must be made in the name of science. I suppose it is time for a new generation to take over the Hollywood roles typically reserved for chemists. For those of you interested in picking up the baton, here are some helpful tips that might just change your life:

1) Exfoliate. I hate the skin irritation that can be caused by safety glasses. The pink spots that develop where the frame touches your face often dry out and flake. I used not to care about it, but I later tried a variety of prospective remedies and eventually settled on mechanical exfoliation. Basically, you can purchase a microfiber or hemp facial cloth and use it to scrub your dead skin cells away. The material has a hardness less than your healthy skin—is there a Mohs Scale for cosmetics?—such that you can scrub pretty vigorously without cutting yourself. It also makes your skin feel much softer, which I am not at all afraid to admit. I am still all man.

2) Moisturize. You should apply a moisturizer to your face after exfoliating, but I often don’t and don’t notice too much of a difference. Where I did notice a huge difference was with my hands in Boston. During the winter, the air would become very cold and very dry. On my 30-minute walk to lab, my hands would dry out and crack, even with gloves on. When I got to lab, thawed out, and started wearing lab gloves, it was murder. I used to apply liberal amounts of Vaseline Intensive Care lotion during mornings and nights, and that definitely helped the situation. This particular brand was less oily than most, which was nice because I didn’t want my computer to get icky. Unfortunately, while the lotion helped, the winter cracking never went away until the arrival of spring (which is usually sometime in June for Boston). I would eventually discover a total cure for my problem: moving to Los Angeles.

So, for those of you who just skipped to the end of the post, ChemBark’s two skin-care tips are: exfoliate and move to California.

Jean-Luc Picard Failed Orgo

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Yes, you read that title correctly: Jean-Luc Picard, the greatest starship captain of all-time, failed organic chemistry at Starfleet Academy. In his defense, it was probably less to do with intelligence and more to do with being distracted:

I pulled that video clip so I can show it to my students during our opening lecture. It should go well with the “How to Win Orgo” handout.

Update (5/1): Thanks to a tip in the comments from “bad wolf”, I went and pulled a clip from Star Trek: Generations where it is revealed that one of Picard’s ancestors won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It makes his failure in orgo all the more astonishing.

Watching Kary Mullis on TV and In-Person

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

This week, Just Like Cooking has been hosting the Chemistry at the Movies blog carnival. I’m slipping in my contribution just under the wire…

I don’t especially care for the movies, but I’ve been given special dispensation by See Arr Oh to discuss chemistry in television, instead. The West Wing is my second-favorite fictional TV series of all-time (after Star Trek: The Next Generation), and I was excited when an episode in the third season prominently featured the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis.

Here is but one clip of the many times the episode referenced Mullis, who never appeared on camera. The Bartlet White House was hosting a dinner for Nobel Laureates, and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg was stressing about sitting next to Mullis:

I suppose the clip doesn’t make chemists look terribly great. It certainly highlights the difficulties we’ve had interacting with the general public, but I always get a kick out of seeing “real” chemistry and chemists in pop culture. And while Jean-Luc Picard failed organic chemistry, it seems like President Bartlet has some technical skills regarding gen chem.

Kary Mullis is just such an interesting guy. On one hand, you have his absolutely brilliant development of PCR. The technique was revolutionary, yet extraordinarily straightforward—one of those things that other scientists curse themselves over not having thought of first. But Mullis also has a weird side. He believes HIV does not cause AIDS (video), and he claims to have once engaged in conversation with a fluorescent raccoon. The autobiography he submitted to the Nobel Foundation is also very odd. At times, it reads like the narration to Stand By Me:

We tortured the cows. We sliced apples and slipped them onto the electric fence that contained them in the newer parts of the pasture. Cows like apples and they kept trying. We watched the chickens pecking at the black mud around their chicken house. We heard the squeal of young pigs being castrated by my grandfather and the veterinarian, but we weren’t allowed to watch.

When my great-grandmother died she was almost a hundred and we were glad to see her go because every time she would come over to my grandmother’s house, she would try to kiss all of us. She looked almost a hundred and, heartless, cruel, mindless little children that we were, she repulsed us. She grabbed us anyway and kissed us until she was through. They put her body in a metal casket with gauzy curtains and left it in the living room near the grandfather’s clock, which announced the hours with a number of resonant bongs and marked the half-hours with a single chilling tone. Her body was there for three days until the service on Sunday at Mt Zion Baptist Church. We dared each other to go in and look at her. The adults were unaffected and took their regular meals right in the next room. We found it difficult to sleep. The clock seemed more alive than usual.

You’ve got to read the full thing. It is short, which is what makes the above passages so weird. It’s not like I pulled them from a 300-page book. Mullis added an addendum to his autobiography in 1999:

Addendum, August 1999

And then early in the spring of 1997 there was Nancy and my whole heart began to unfold and everything else before seemed like a long dream from which I had awakened at last. Married: Nancy Lier Cosgrove, San Francisco, CA March 21, 1998.

And here’s where I can attest that Mullis is indeed an odd creature. In 1998, I was invited to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the American Academy of Achievement‘s annual banquet. They invite high schoolers who’ve done well in a variety of competitions to attend their annual celebration to induct more ridiculously famous achievers into their ranks. The whole experience was surreal. On the first night, I sat ten feet from Puff Daddy as he talked to the audience about stowing-away on Amtrak trains to get to recording studios when he was starting out. In a different session, I sat between the owner of the company that made Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and George Lucas. Perhaps experiencing sensory overload, I skipped out on a subsequent session to sit on a couch in the lobby of the main lodge that overlooked the Grand Teton Mountains. While minding my own business, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and some other guy walked up, said hello, then sat down on the couch on the other side of the coffee table. Like I said, surreal.

What does all of this have to do with Kary Mullis? Well, he was there too. I had already fallen in love with chemistry as a high schooler, so I knew who Mullis was and I kept my eyes peeled for him and other Nobel laureates. As it turned out, Mullis was not too hard to spot, since he was constantly full-on making out with his new wife. It was unreal…in the hallway, at dinner, in the audience at the sessions. In a room packed with high schoolers, Mullis was the one who stood out for excessive amorous behavior.

I guess inventing PCR entitles you to a bit of PDA?