Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

A 1960s PhD – Further Recollections

In a previous blog, I discussed some misadventure, but there were other incidents of somewhat higher quality. (There had to be!)  To get to my lab from the main stairs, I had to go through the main lab. This had quite a number of benches, together with a couple of side rooms which seemed to be of more value for light entertainment when bored than anything else. However, when entering the main lab, some previous student, presumably inspired by Dante Alighieri, had ensured that one of the first things a visitor saw was a bun suspended from the ceiling by a wire. This bun was completely devoid of mould or any fungal growth! Enter not herein, for this laboratory is totally unsuitable for life!
One day, when I left my lab and entered the main lab, there to my right was something that I shall never forget. A friend was trying to purify a nitroazetidine by distillation, and was using a microburner on a pear-shaped flask. As I watched, suddenly there was a "pop", the top of the distillation equipment went upwards, and there was the poor victim sitting disconsolately holding the microburner while a light cloud of soot descended on him.
Then there was the fire alarm. A fire in a chemistry lab is a nightmare, although to be honest, I have never seen one, which says something about chemists ability to handle flammable materials. Anyway, the rules were clear. To make it easier to evacuate, those who could used the fire escape external to the building. Eventually, everybody assembled in the quad, and I received a few remarks, for I had come down the fire escape holding a lab bench drawer. In the drawer were all my precious samples and my lab book, and I was the only one who had thought to take that precaution.
Finally, an embarrassing scene. About the end of my second year, the Department introduced multiple choice questions for the first time, and as you might guess, the PhD students couldn't wait to get their hands on one of the papers. "What idiot set this question?" I asked, and looked up, and it was fairly clear the "idiot" was at the far end of the lab! Nevertheless, I stood by it. The question was, you are determining the molecular weight of benzene by the Victor Meyer method. If the benzene is wet, will the result be too high, too low, or about the same? I could justify each answer! Unless the experimentalist is a clod and does not introduce drops of water, the answer is, not much difference because water is essentially insoluble in benzene. If there is a drop of water, and the water stays in the vapour phase, the answer is, too low, but if the water condenses somewhere, the answer is, too high (because there is weight that does not give rise to vapour). I really hate these questions where the student cannot explain why the option was taken.
Slightly off the topic, but many years later I saw one of those Olympiad questions they inflict on students, and the question was, which has the higher boiling point: methyl cyclopropane or cyclobutane? When I saw this question, I thought it unreasonable, because while the former has a small dipole moment, the other has more degrees of vibrational freedom. I mentally picked the cyclobutane, but the answer the students were supposed to give was methyl cyclopropane, because of the dipole moment. The problem is, observation shows that answer is just plain wrong! People who set questions like that ought to be taken out and identified, and made to wear placards saying, "check the literature!"
Posted by Ian Miller on Dec 8, 2012 12:55 AM Europe/London

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