Saturday, October 31, 2009

happy new year = happy Halloween

My company ends its fiscal year today. I have spent the past few days watching the sales numbers get posted. It is kind of like watching an election on TV. Oh! another 2%! I see this morning we still have not closed out the purchase orders, but I am close enough to quota that it is never no mind at this point. It's been a tough year, and I hustled as best as I knew to bring in the last bucks.

And the last bucks they will be. Monday I start the New Job which has been 3 impatient months in coming since I got the phone call out of the blue in July. Two years ago when my old job went poof! and I scrambled to find work within the company, I was glad enough to get the sales position. I got lots of lovely notes from customers when I sent out goodbyes yesterday; it was very gratifying to have made friends, andI will miss them. I've been bored, I felt like a square peg in a round hole, and then there was the PHBWT (if you read Dilbert). But before me I have a new beginning, an empty (almost) calendar, a cleaned-up and backed-up computer, a new notebook, a couple of exciting projects where I can use my 10 years of expertise at this company, and a fresh start with a different boss. This weekend I shall finish a new suit made with lovely green handwoven wool from my stash, and I shall wear it triumphantly Tuesday to meet with the old boss and the new replacement for the old position. After our meeting I shall go to my new, clean lab bench, unpack my pipettes and try to figure out what the new job really entails. But this weekend is all about optimism, my sewing room, and the world series. Enjoy. I shall.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Musings from reading Science

I went to have the car's oil changed today armed with several back issues. Seems like I spend less time reading the biochemistry articles and more time reading ones related to the environment. So here is the issue. Millions of years ago, plants fixed carbon with photosynthesis, just like they do now, but the plants were buried in swamps and under heat and pressure, turned that carbon into oil, where it remained underground and safely buried away from the atmosphere. A hundred years ago, we started pumping it back out of the ground and burning it, turning back into the CO2 the plants had used. Not only is all that CO2 causing problems by trapping the sun's energy on the surface of the earth, but we have passed the peak of oil production, and what's left is not nearly as easy to find, drill and extract.

There are two workarounds I want to comment about. One is that methods have been developed to extract CO2 from the air and pump it into those empty spaces from which the oil has been taken. This puts pressure on the remaining oil and helps to remove the rest of it. That's just one strategy for carbon capture and sequestration. There are some dozen power plant demonstration projects underway and it will be interesting to see how that goes.

The other workaround is biofuels to replace the petroleum as it grows unattainable. Since I had a couple of biofuel customers recently, I have been reading up. Congress has mandated a 5x increase in ethanol production, which will require 44% of the corn grown in 2007, by 2015. So as the population grows and the climate warms, the US water consumption required for biofuels production will increase by 2/3 - that's water that isn't there, particularly in the western US. In India, e.g., the water table is rapidly dropping due to population pressures and increased crop irrigation. This is seriously not adding up to a sustainable technology.

I'm looking into my crystal ball and sure see a lot more questions than answers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How to feel old, fat, and grizzled in one easy session

I had my eyes checked and dilated yesterday afternoon. They put me on a chair to wait next to a People magazine, summer issue. All the chicks were young enough to be my granddaughters, size 2 or 4, and wore shoes that would put me in the hospital before I got out of the house. I don't normally mind getting older, but it did seem at least a century ago when I might have been seen in public with that much skin exposed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

About one of those new laws the Governator signed last weekend

A new law passed for California to develop standards for sustainable fishing. It will let the state's fisheries to put an ec0-label on seafood from the best-managed fisheries. When Marine Stewardship Council gets involved, the process can be long and drawn out. Maybe now that there have been assessments in the past, the process can be jump-started this time. We need the jobs fisheries provide in this state, but those jobs need to be in fisheries that practice sustainable fishing practices, and Californians need to be encouraged to buy products from those best fisheries. Let's hope this law will make this happen. (Photo of Panulirus interruptus, California Spiny Lobster, pulled from Wikipedia)

Friday, October 9, 2009

A day for remembering

It's another garage story, the kind made famous by HP here is Silicon Valley. When I was a kid in graduate school, Dr. Jennings of UC Davis founded J&W Scientific in his garage, which my company purchased some years later. He's 88 now, bent like a pretzel, and UC Davis had a colloquium yesterday to honor him. A bunch of us from work showed up, and a host of former students, to listen to the reminiscences and hear bits of science that came from his work. There are ever so many people doing science, and working for my company and another one founded with his start-up funds, all resulting from the work of Dr. Jennings. It really is tremendous, how one person can have such an impact.

So after lunch, we all trooped over to tour the Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. Lots of corporate moneys made this big new building possible. It's really nice, wood and art in the lobbies, and 3 floors for food, wine & beer, and engineering, with big open labs, glass and natural light. Maybe one of the kids I met will be the next Dr. J.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Catch a falling star

Part of my job is so incredibly cool. I get to meet people who do the damnedest stuff and are just so totally wrapped up in their work, then I get a peek into a corner of the universe I had not seen before. Today I visited a scientist with NASA who works in Exobiology. Yup, that really is the name of his department. I had to think about that one a bit, exobiology. Lotsa possibilities in that name, huh?

He grinds meteors into powder, extracts the organics with water and compares the structural isomers of the sugar acids. So there is a lot of formaldehyde, a 1-carbon building block, floating around in space. When formaldehydes react and form a 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6-membered carbon chain, and you get some water action thrown in, you get some very interesting left-hand vs right-hand structure stuff going on. Now since all of this meteoric carbon chains are formed by collisional chemistry, there ought to be as much left-handed compounds as right-handed ones, it just depends how things end up after the collision. This is very different than life on earth, where molecules made by organisms are overwhelmingly left-handed, because they are made by left-handed enzymes, not by random collisions. What this scientist is seeing, though, is the short chains ARE pretty much equally left- and right-handed. The 4 carbon chains are about 2:1, the 5 carbon chains are about 10:1 one way. By the time he gets to looking at the 6 carbon chains, they are all alike, no mirror images. Now THAT is unexpected, to say the least.

I get the "exo" part, but I would not have called collisional synthetic reactions "biology". Just reading the posters on the walls, I have to say there is some unique and strange chemistry being studied on that floor. Outta this world, I'm just sayin'.