Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fun Science: Why’s platinum so special?

In science, we tend only to learn about a small subset of the elements that populate our world. This is not unreasonable, since 96% of our bodies are composed of just hydrogen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. But there are over a hundred more elements, and they often influence life outside our bodies in ways we don’t hear about. So in today’s post I will talk about platinum.

Platinum is one of the rarest metals in the Earth’s crust. Only 192 tonnes of it are mined annually, where 2700 tonnes of gold are mined annually. When the economy is doing well, platinum can be twice as expensive as gold. So what’s so valuable about it?

Platinum is used a lot in jewelry. Platinum has the appearance of silver, but it doesn’t oxidize and become tarnished like silver. It’s harder than gold, and its rarity can be appealing.

But it’s the chemical properties of platinum that set it apart. Platinum is a great catalyst. This means that platinum facilitates chemical reactions, but is not consumed as the reaction proceeds. The catalytic converter in your car is a platinum catalyst. The catalytic converter helps eliminate a variety of undesirable compounds such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and incompletely combusted hydrocarbons. Platinum is also a critical part of current hydrogen fuel cells; it splits hydrogen into protons and electrons.

Platinum doesn’t force reactions to occur, but it makes them easier by reducing the energy required. The image below shows the reaction of carbon monoxide (CO) to carbon dioxide (CO2). The chart at the bottom shows the potential energy before, during and after the reaction. Imagine a ball rolling along the red curve (with platinum) and the black curve (without platinum). The ball on the black curve will need more speed to get over the hump. Any given ball is more likely to get over the red hump. Likewise, the presence of platinum lets CO get over the hump to become CO2. Platinum does this for all kinds of reactions.

activation energy

The reaction takes less energy because once a molecule bonds to the surface of platinum, the bonds within the molecule are a little weaker. Molecules like O-O and H-H can split into singletons, something they would never do off the surface. Below I show an example reaction for CO to COon platinum. This diagram is meant to be illustrative, a possible mechanism for the reaction and to show how platinum helps out. In reality these reactions occur very quickly, and careers can be spent figuring out exact reaction mechanisms.

catalysis

 

Platinum is a bit like velcro. Molecules become hooked to the surface, do their reaction, and unstick. If molecules stick and then refuse to unstick, this is called catalyst poisoning, and it’s a big issue in fuel cells. Like velcro, once the hooks are occupied, they can’t do anything else. Platinum is a good catalyst because a lot of things (like hydrocarbons) want to stick to it, but they don’t stick too hard. Other metals either are not attractive enough, or they are too attractive. Platinum is so valuable because, besides being rare, its properties happen to be balanced just right for the reactions we want.

 

Progress and things

Just a quick update today. I made a few changes to the site, and I will make a few more over the next weeks. As I approach 100 posts, I have more content to organize, and more ways to organize it. So now there is a “Fun Science” tab, which lists and categorizes my science posts. Now I’m excited to do some more science posts.

I continue to make great progress on the novel draft (fingers crossed). Yesterday I reached 15,000 words and finished the 10th chapter. I am a fan of short chapters. I first wrote it last summer as a too-long short story. At the time, I intended it to be part of a collection of illustrated short stories. Below is the illustration I had finished for that story.

Happy Friday!

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Fun Science: Crystals Everywhere!

I went on a trip to DC last fall. Almost accidentally I ended up in the Natural History Smithsonian Museum. Wow! Especially worthy is the section on minerals. I assume there are other museums with such displays, but I hadn’t been to one. The Hope diamond is displayed also in the minerals section, but fancy jewels I can’t touch are way less interesting than all the minerals and natural crystals.

I find crystals fascinating because they tell you so much about the microscopic structure of the material. Where else in life can you just look at an object and see what it does down to the nanometer? So naturally the camera came out. Below are a few favorites, and some comments about what we can infer from the pictures.

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Fluorite (CaF2): As you can see, Fluorite has a cubic crystalline structure. Fluorite can come in basically any color. Color can be due to impurities, exposure to radiation, or defects in the crystalline structure. Fluorite was originally so named due to fluorescent properties; fluorite can fluoresce in a variety of colors depending upon the impurities present.

IMG_2139Beryl (Be3Al2(SiO3)6): You might be more familiar with other names for Beryl, such as aquamarine or emerald or morganite. Beryl is naturally clear, but takes on color in the presence of impurities. Emerald, for example, has chromium or vanadium present. Aquamarine coloration results when the Fe2+ oxidation state is present. Fe3+ results in yellow coloration. You can see in the image above that beryl has a hexagonal crystal structure. You can also see that this is one big hexagonal crystal, unlike the population of cubes in the fluorite picture. This tells us a lot about how the crystal grew. If the crystal grew very fast, there would be a number of columns, because crystallization would be faster than the time for the mineral components to diffuse to one specific column. So this crystal grew pretty slowly.

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Wulfenite (PbMoO4): Wulfenite is often found around lead deposits, which makes sense since it contains lead. It has a tetragonal crystal structure, and tends to be yellow or orange or brown in color. You can see that the crystals are much smaller in this picture than the beryl crystal. Clearly these crystals grew quickly from many nucleation sites. The size to which crystals tend to grow is a property of the crystal too; some only form a ton of small crystals, some form a few very large ones. It depends whether it is lower energy to just form another crystal, or if it is lower energy to allow diffusion to an already established crystal. This is related to thermodynamics. Wulfenite seems to favor lots of small crystals. Some wulfenite has a really cool property called piezoelectricity; when there is the right kind of pressure on the crystal, an electric charge accumulates.

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Manganese dioxide (MnO2): This manganese dioxide has grown in a dendritic fashion. It might look like frost or snowflakes, which grow in similar ways. These dendrites are very fractal, a favorite topic of mine. Here diffusion was definitely limited, so crystals grew where the materials were present.

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Chalcedony (SiO2): Chalcedony is a type of silicon dioxide, which is the chemical composition of most sand. Chalcedony is composed of two different silicon dioxide minerals: quartz and moganite. Quartz and moganite have different crystalline structures which grow together at a fine scale in chalcedony, which is probably why it looks far less geometric than the other crystals I’ve shown. Agate is a type of chalcedony.

 

Creatures on Parade

This weekend the art department at the university put on a creature parade. Alum Stan Winston made creatures for Jurassic Park, Avatar, and others. So the art school made some creatures and some sound tracks for those creatures and paraded them around grounds. It made for a nice photo outing. The students were very proud of their creations and seemed to have fun with it. Little kids didn’t know quite what to make of the beasts, but gave them a healthy space for safety.

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Victor Horta: Art Nouveau Architect

I pretty much love anything art nouveau. So whenever I go to European cities, I look to see if they have any art nouveau icons. In Prague there is Mucha, in Berlin there is the Bröhan museum, and in Brussels there is Victor Horta. There is a Horta Museum, as well as a number of buildings he and others designed nearby. A bunch of walking tours (like this one with a nice video) can help you cover the various buildings or get a peek from wherever you currently are via the pictures.

Like many architects of the period, he also designed the furniture, wallpaper, and interior structures like staircases. The museum has great examples of these. Alas no pictures were allowed and there aren’t any fair use pics. But if you’re curious you can google for yourself. Here are some pictures of his lovely buildings:

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Hôtel Tassel in Brussels

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Hôtel Solvay

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Horta museum building

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Horta museum building

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Old England building, designed by Barnabé Guimard, closer to the Grand Place in Brussels. (not Horta, but still very cool. This hosts the instrument museum so you can go inside and enjoy that too.

Staircase from Horta museum

 

Writing: Maintaining Enthusiasm

Last week I started headlong into an attempt to write my first novel. This is not my first time trying to write novel, but another attempt to finish one. I suspect this isn’t an uncommon problem. It seems to be an enormous leap of faith to write something ~80,000 words long. You have to set aside that time, in the first place. And then what if it isn’t good enough, what did you do with all that time? I think in every past attempt I reached about 25k words and said, where exactly am I? This isn’t going to get read and then I will have an 80k time sink in my hands.

I think such worries never leave. But in other areas of my life I have been able to push through worries of failure. It’s that old cliché that lack of trying guarantees failure. Each time I try, I try to do it a little different. This time I wrote it first as a short story. Then I outlined it at a rough level. As I go I outline the next part in more detail. So far it seems to be working for me. I got to figure out who my characters were in the short story. I’ve also been trying to set more realistic writing goals. I used to write as much as possible on a day that felt good. That would leave me tired and sick of writing the next few days. Then when I’d come back, the material would be unfamiliar, and I’d spend time trying to pull myself back into the mindset.

It’s still early, but this time feels better and different. I just reached 8,000 words. The idea that I have 90% or so still remaining is really daunting. Each day will help. And really, what better to do than work to improve?

Some other possibly helpful posts, since what do I know… I keep quitting each time (I thought there used to be a related articles function,  but it isn’t showing itself… so I’ll link them myself):

Happy 16th Anniversary, Vironevaeh!

Sixteen years ago I first started writing about Vironevaeh, the extraterrestrial city that is the namesake for this website. In middle school I was that kid– I told everyone who would listen that I was an alien. I was so bizarre kids didn’t know how to bully me, not that they didn’t try. I happily kept inventing my world.

In high school I started to read the classics of sci-fi (my top 20 scifi books). Before that, I think Vironevaeh was an alter-ego–I had a different identity there, and knew different people. Advanced having of imaginary friends. The classics gave me a different perspective, the perspective of world-building. I’ve been slowly plugging away ever since. There’s a spreadsheet with a thousand years of history, some more densely detailed than others. There’s a list of the 1027 first Vironevaeh. There’s a ton of pointless info, as there is so much pointless info in life. But all of it was a labor of love, through all the years of perplexed looks.

For your delight, some of the works from over the years. It is good to pause at times and review the path. I’ve posted a lot more recent works on this blog; here are some oldies. Drawing for Vironevaeh forced me to push myself. (Many other illustrations are also available in Vironevaeh: Science Fiction Fairy Tales, which is free on the iPad.) Some things are worth the long-haul.

Jainus Aillette Torwin Trarce at beach_marker

My alter-ego, Jainus. From 2004.

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Map of the island of Vironevaeh, from 2004 or before.

building Palace_at_Vironevaeh_Proper

Palace, 2003.

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Clothing from one historical period, 2007.

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One of Jainus’ sisters, 2001.

Torwin Trarce chibi pencil tablet

Jainus and her 11 siblings, 2004.

Kolo Kolo Whit in Color

Kolo, a notorious political traitor, 2004.

wormhole invention

Wormholes!, 2011.

Jait Anda Torwin_psd

One of the first Vironevaehns, 2004.

 

 

A quick Friday post

Today’s post will be brief. As I mentioned Wednesday, I have dived head-first into a novel-writing effort. Since then I have written 3500 words, which is a pretty rip-roaring pace for me. I work in such fits and starts I have to take the inspiration as it comes. We all work differently; above all else we have to find what works for us.

This weekend I’m taking a science fiction class by Edward Lerner. 7 hours, Saturday and Sunday. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say. He worked in the tech industry for many years before becoming a full-time science fiction author.

Next Monday it will be 16 years since I started writing about Vironevaeh. I’ll have to think about something fun to post for that. Happy Friday!

A novel attempt

I finally decided that I will try to write and finish a novel. Of course, I’ve been entertaining such ideas for years, as I suppose a lot of people have. So why do I feel like I can do it now, when I’ve only failed before? You gotta keep trying, but there’s that old Einstein definition for insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I am trying again, but I’m doing things differently, and hopefully this will lead to more success.

1. I first wrote the plot arc as a short story. It was originally meant to be a short story but there were so many things I wanted to touch on that I didn’t have time for, even at 7000 words in length. I know how I want the characters to develop, how they feel about each other, and what their motivations are. I know all kinds of societal details that play into the characters actions and motivations.

2. I’m in a writing group now. I know a bunch of people who might have suggestions on how to do better, or what to do if I hit a wall.

3. I’m approaching the writing differently. In the past I said, whelp, 100,000 words, here I go. Around 25k, I got bored, felt like my work was unfocused, and quit. This time I’m thinking of it as a series of short story ish chapters. I have a bunch of little stories to tell in 2-5k words or so. Per point 1, I already have a rough outline of the overall story. As I go, I’m outlining a few chapters forward with further details– what scenes happen in each chapter and where do they happen. So I have a macroscopic outline of everything and a microscopic outline subject to the flow of events. We’ll see how it goes. I’m planning on writing one chapter a week, with weeks off allowed for alternate projects.

I’ll continue to post my progress. It will be interesting to see what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. Any suggestions are welcome too! But basically, it’s time to just write. Chapter 1, here we go…

Sources of Sci-Fi Inspiration: City Culture of Prague

Setting is a critical element to most stories. It frames the actions of the characters and provides a rich and interesting backdrop. Often the environment motivates the character. As most portraits of people would be less interesting on a white backdrop, most stories of people would less interesting without the setting. New Orleans gives Ignatius a good playground in “A Confederacy of Dunces;” “White Fang” would be reduced hugely without the north, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would be slightly different without the asylum.

As a writer of science fiction, setting is both a problem and one of my favorite things. How do you draw in the culture and idiosyncrasies of a place that doesn’t exist? They have to be imagined, and imagined plausibly, by the writer. All of my favorite science fiction books have strong settings: In “The Left Hand of Darkness“, we learn about the sexual culture of a differently gendered humanoid species. Through their myths and traditions, we get to learn how they eat, how they like their weather, what is taboo, and what is an insult. In “A Canticle for Leibowitz“, we start at a Catholic abbey in post-apocalyptic New Mexico several centuries in the future. In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress“, the setting is a lunar colony that feels bullied by earth. We learn about their principles, their marriages, and their aspirations. They can be a little closer to home, too. In “Holy Fire“, the protagonist travels from future San Francisco to future Munich to future Prague. Some sci-fi stays closer yet to home, but I find that I love crazy settings; thus I prefer Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep” to his “Rainbow’s End“. (For others see my top 20 scifi books post.)

When I write my stories, I don’t want the settings to feel like the Midwestern United States plopped onto Mars or Alpha Centauri. I want them to feel like products of their interstellar, future environments. So I try to understand how settings influence culture currently and historically. I spent a summer in Prague, and in that brief time I tried to learn what I could about the culture. I tried to go where the Czechs go, eat what they ate, and read what they read. My host in town was a retired Czech professor who liked to talk (derisively) about the communist days. I worked half days at a chemistry lab out in suburban Prague. One of my coworkers smoked at her desk only feet from various chemicals and dressed like a 60-year-old teenager. I took frequent walks to Vyšehrad, an ancient fortress in Prague (pictured below).

I most appreciated the Czech sense of humor. As a country often conquered, the country developed a strange sense of absurdism. Under the Petrin Tower in Prague, there is a museum to Jara Cimrman, the best Czech man, who never existed. I can hardly say I understand everything there is to know about Prague and Czech culture, but a few months there certainly showed me a type of people I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully this will aid me in constructing a people we haven’t met before.

Some worthy Czech reading:

Side note: No post this past Friday; I broke my toe and then I had a lot of traveling to do this weekend. Happily, the toe is already much improved, and today it’s 80 F (25 C) out.