|Tryggvi Emilsson and Timothy Brumleve (20)|
Tryggvi, an Icelander, knew my wife from contra dancing long before I met her, and he also knows my friend Donald of Optica. Timothy Brumleve has a son named Dan, who was once an intern at my company, but is now better known as a finder of security holes in web browsers and such. What's the chance that the two of them would happen to work together at a company that has lots of elements they don't really need anymore?
There's a company in town here that makes the high-purity metal and halogen mixtures used in high-intensity discharge lamps (the kind that are used for street lights, stadiums, etc). Look at that satellite picture of the world at night. Something like 50% of the light you see is from lamps they have supplied the critical ingredients for! (Which makes me think there's an astronomy club somewhere plotting a firebombing of their factory.)
Ed Pegg and I went for a tour of their factory one afternoon, expecting to spend maybe an hour seeing some opaque machinery doing mysterious things. Instead we spent quite a lot longer than that seeing machinery that made a good bit of sense, thanks to the excellent explanations of our hosts. But the real treat was when they took us to an old metal cabinet in a back room and started rummaging through the bottles.
It seems that over the decades they have accumulated a somewhat random assortment of little bottles of elements and compounds. Many of them are by now of questionable purity, and they had little use for them. (I should note that because of the nature of their work, "questionable purity" means if you don't start running out of fingers on one hand when you count the nines, it's questionable.) You can't imagine my delight when asked a question like "could you use any gadolinium?". It's just not the sort of question you get asked on a regular basis. We ended up with about a dozen hard-to-find elements.
On another level, as we were walking around the plant, it started reminding me more and more of my Swiss grandfather's scale business. Mind you, there's virtually no aspect of it that is even a bit similar. They have a kilo-scale fine chemicals facility dominated by glassware and glove boxes, housed in a large warehouse-style building in the flatland of Illinois. My grandfather had a precision mechanical fabrication facility dominated by super-fine Swiss machine tools, housed in an eccentric German Baron's old stone mansion on a hillside overlooking the city of Zurich.
But there was just something about the attitude towards the work that reminded me of the people I'd met at my grandfather's company. When I was a child I once needed a hole drilled through a nail, which seemed to me at the time like an impossible task. But when I asked my uncle, it was done in a minute (using a drill press that could probably have drilled a hole through the wire I wanted to put through the hole in my nail).
When Tryggvi wanted to show us a simple percussion explosive you can make with red phosphorous, he just walked over to one of the ubiquitous fume hoods, mixed it up on an old sheet of paper, and set it off by whacking it with the back end of a wrench.
This is the way of people who are comfortable with their work, and it's the way kids should learn about science, not with sanitized "experiments" involving solutions that turn from red to blue on cue and that would never, ever go bang. But don't hold your breath waiting for the local school board to implement a real-chemistry-taught-by-people-who-actually-understand-it program: Their liability insurance would never allow it, and besides they probably don't much like science anyway.
That's OK, the foreign students are still coming in enough numbers to keep our technological society operational, and maybe we'll even attract enough immigrants to make the social security system viable after us natives are all too old or too stupid to do any useful work.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this contributor credit are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the contributors.
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Text and images Copyright (c) 2010 by Theodore W. Gray.