Charles in Toronto

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Archive for September 2012

Imagine yourself in a tunnel, on a bicycle.

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Imagine yourself riding through a long narrow tunnel, on a bicycle. You enter the tunnel with the reasonable expectation that you’re going to ride straight out the other side. But then something absolutely bizarre happens. A crosswind starts blowing at you from the right side of the tunnel. You find yourself being uncontrollably shoved towards the wall on the left-hand side. And then the wind shifts, and it starts blowing you towards the left-hand side. And so it continues oscillating back and forth, such you find you’re having trouble maintaining a course straight through, but you manage to just barely miss crashing into the wall and you get through the other end.

Okay, let’s rewind. Imagine you’re riding a HOVERbike. The crosswinds are now coming from above and below as well. And there is a lineup of other people on other hoverbikes too, each trying to navigate through the tunnel. If you’re not fearing for your life right now, you start to notice that the winds are having different effects on different bikes. The really light ones are losing control and crashing into the walls. The bigger, heavy-duty bikes, though, something else is happening. They’re swaying side to side, but every time they get close to a wall, they swing back the other way, and they’re all making it through the tunnel. It actually seems like the tunnel is (rather gruesomely) sorting the bikes by how heavy they are.

Alright, so actually I lied. You’re not on a hoverbike. You’re a molecule, and you have an electric charge. And it’s not the wind: it’s a powerful, rapidly changing electric field that’s pushing you back and forth in a chamber that’s designed to sort those molecules. You’re inside a machine called a mass spectrometer. And I work in a chemistry lab that has three different kinds of mass spectrometers.

A lot of people I know write on blogs and Twitter about the work they do, especially in regards to politics, technology, arts and culture, and social issues. Somehow working in an analytical chemistry lab has never really seemed conducive to doing the same. But most of my social circle agrees that they want public policy decisions to be based on sound science, so why not try and engage people in discussions about what I actually do with my life?

So I’ve decided to make an effort to talk about chemistry in terms that non-scientists can relate to. If you keep reading my posts, you will find out:

  • What analytical chemistry means, and why you should care
  • How mass spectrometry has affected your life in ways you may not realize
  • That science is not all that scary after all, and that you want to know more

I hope you enjoyed this post, and please consult me first before you go riding your hoverbike in long narrow tunnels.

Written by Charles in Toronto

September 29, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Posted in Chemistry

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