Wednesday, May 30, 2012

ToeMayToe, ToeMahToe - It's All Ketchup to Me!

By Keith McDowell

Let’s see, should I go straight to the knife and dig away in the bottle like some country bumpkin, or should I turn the bottle over on its lid on the table and await the inevitable effect of gravity? I could display a Type A personality by pounding on the heel of the bottle, or better, a Type B by tilting and gently tapping on the neck while engaging my dinner partner in scintillating conversation, sure to last for several minutes. But then who has ketchup with French cuisine? Julia Child would be appalled.

Fortunately, such acts of feigned sophistication designed to cloak abject frustration may soon become a thing of the past; that is, if we believe the engineers at MIT. Of course, seeing is believing and like most of you over the Memorial Day weekend, I chowed down on my ketchup-coated hot dog and watched with fascination the endlessly repeated video-clip of ketchup sliding effortlessly from the ketchup bottle. Dear God, I thought. It’s the end of an era as I munched away and hummed Paul Simon’s tune Slip Slidin’ Away.

It’s called LiquiGlide. Designed by Dave Smith, an engineer in the MIT laboratory of the
Kripa Varanasi Research Group, LiquiGlide is a revolutionary, super-slippery coating likely to become a disruptive technology and innovation. And even better, it’s FDA approved. Let’s hope it doesn’t slide away into oblivion like the Facebook IPO.

LiquiGlide is by no means the first non-stick coating to be invented. Do you remember Teflon? Teflon was discovered accidentally in 1938 by Roy Plunkett while working at Kinetic Chemicals. Subsequently in 1954, the French engineer Marc Grégoire used Teflon to create a non-stick pan that entered the US market in 1961 as “The Happy Pan” – never “happy” for those husbands who stupidly used a metallic spatula while burning their fried eggs when their wife was away. And have you noticed that we are back to the French and food?

Of course, in the Twenty-first century we’ve moved past simple Teflon-coated pans into the age of stoneware and Orgreenic pans. If the television and Internet commercials are to be believed, you don’t even need to spray them with PAM! Shucks! I like my daily dose of synthetic grease, reputed to be olive oil. What better way to tantalize my taste buds while clogging my arteries.

And for the mountaineers and extreme sports enthusiasts among us, who can forget the flowdown technology from Teflon known as Gore-Tex. Even better, the concept of “non-stick” or low-friction material has entered the world of competitive swimming. Led in many ways by Lance Armstrong and his desire to achieve every ounce of competitive advantage from both low technology – shaving the hair off his body - and high technology – cycling in a wind tunnel, the effects of friction on swimmers has led the swimsuit maker Speedo to invent flex skin and FASTSKIN3 based on the nano-level structure of shark or fish skins. Sadly, the jock-strap version of a Speedo swimsuit really should be outlawed for wear by some men. Where are the sharks when you need them? And, as always, rock and roll lyrics were there first as The Cadillacs crooned:

Well now, they often call me Speedo
‘Cause I don’t believe in wastin’ time.

And for the less fortunate husbands among us whose wives have bionic hearing, able to hear every squeaky wheel and door hinge within a radius of one mile, we have WD-40, yet another innovative product that ranks right there with squeeze-tube graphite.

Humor aside, friction and wear is a major and costly issue for our modern society, whether to get the ketchup out of the bottle, reduce the wear and tear on all forms of machinery, or permit gas-guzzling automobiles to use less fuel as they push through the air and roll on the pavement. It has been reported that “The annual cost of friction and wear-related energy and material losses is estimated to be over $700 billion - - 5% to 7% of the United States’ $14 trillion gross national product.” Banning friction and wear would be a great GOP issue for the coming election … if only Mother Nature would cooperate!

Even the business world has taken note of “Saving Energy by Fighting Friction”. Of course, they were mostly concerned with “cheeks burning for a piddling payoff” after sucking on a straw to drink one’s favorite milkshake. Hmm, wait a minute! What happens if we marry LiquiGlide to straws? Folks, you heard this idea here first from me, but don’t blame the messenger for the ease with which you consume those extra – but tasty – calories.

Yikes! Now I’m hungry. It’s time to finish off those hot dog buns for lunch before they grow stale. Darn, I’ll have to get that !&%#@ ketchup out of the bottle!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Another Day, Another Time

By Keith McDowell

Private Miles P. Morgan of Company G of the Fifth North Carolina Infantry turned right from the Mummasburg Road and entered Forney’s field of fresh Timothy grass in perfect step with his fellow soldiers. From the neighboring hillside, the oblique movement of Iverson’s Brigade presented quite a spectacle to the Southern sharpshooters as nearly 1,400 men from the brigade’s four regiments marched in perfect alignment in sixteen columns, four columns to each regiment with each regiment led by its color bearers. On any other day, the precision of their movement would have brought forth cheers from the onlookers. But it wasn’t just any other day. It was July 1, 1863, and Iverson’s Brigade was marching south toward Gettysburg and battle.

As Private Morgan entered the field, he felt fit as a fiddle after spending several days encamped at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, enjoying plenty of rest and a variety of nourishing meals. The previous day’s march to Heidlersberg had been merely a warm-up for his muscular, but wiry frame. That morning in the pre-dawn hours, a brief rain shower had cooled the air and made for a pleasant morning march toward Gettysburg.

Arriving at Oak Hill approximately a mile north of Gettysburg at noon, the regiment had waited for several hours, as was the fate of soldiers, while the temperature rose into the high eighties and the air turned sultry. The orders to march south were a welcome relief to Miles and his companions as they had grown tied of doing nothing and were happy to be on the move again, even into battle.

As the clock ticked past 3 P.M., Miles Morgan reveled in the smell of the Timothy grass, admired the quality of the farmland under his feet, slightly shifted the musket on his right shoulder, and marched forward with an inborn feeling of pride in his regiment and his fellow soldiers. Suddenly, an entire brigade of Yankees rose in unison from behind a stone wall on the eastern and southern boundaries of Forney’s field and poured a thunderous fusillade into Iverson’s Brigade. It took less than a second for over a thousand Minié balls to strike the marching columns. Private Miles P. Morgan died instantly. In the ensuing hour of combat on the killing field, over 800 Confederates were either killed, wounded, or listed as missing in action. Following the battle, a soldier from an artillery unit reported seeing nearly seventy North Carolinians lying dead and dressed in a perfect row where they had fallen.

Private Miles P. Morgan was my great-great grandfather.

A yeoman farmer from Rowan County, North Carolina, Miles P. Morgan was the grandson of Nathan Morgan, a Revolutionary War soldier who twice fought against Lord Cornwallis as a member of the North Carolina militia. In 1858, Miles married Camilla Stoner, a granddaughter of Michael Stoner and a soldier who fought for three years in the German Regiment of the Continental Army before moving to Rowan County. By any measure, Miles and his extended family were American patriots who helped to create the United States of America. So what forces caused him to march to his death on that July day in a futile attempt to sustain the Confederate States of America and to leave behind a widow and a two-year old son, my great grandfather?

The story of Private Miles P. Morgan and his death was repeated over 600,000 times in families from both the old South and the old North as the American Civil War consumed the male population with brutal savagery and cold efficiency. And forgotten by many, it was a war in which technology and innovations outpaced tactics and the strategies employed for centuries in the wars of Europe. With a range of several hundred yards, the newly invented rifled musket in combination with the Minié ball provided defenders an ability to kill and maim long before an attacking formation of massed soldiers could overrun fortifications, even given the time it took to reload the musket with a ramrod. And a Minié ball could penetrate as many as three bodies before being spent. Bones were shattered and split when hit by a Minié ball leading to amputation as the only viable treatment that could save a life from the ravages of infection.

But it wasn’t just weaponry that affected the outcome of the Civil War. It was the rapid growth of the network of railroad lines, especially in the North, to move and supply troops. It was the invention of the telegraph and the ability to sent messages over long distances quickly. And it was the leading edge of the industrial revolution, manufacturing, and the modern factory worker – all centered and located in the North.

The Civil War was the apotheosis of a polarized America with slavery, states rights, and the plantation aristocracy on one side and abolitionists, unionists, and tariffs on the other, just to name a few of the contributing factors and not forgetting the movement toward women’s rights and the rights of factory workers. Of course, slavery was the dominant issue and was the underlying driving force for many of the other putative issues.

And we must also not forget that the Civil War followed on the heels of the recession or panic of 1857, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 from the Supreme Court, and what many would describe as the dysfunctional Congress of the 1850s where Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina nearly clubbed Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to death in 1856 with his cane for taking offense at something he said. Does all this sound vaguely familiar?

In the second decade of the Twenty-first century, many would argue that we have abortion as the polarizing issue with a seasoning of gay rights to complicate the story. It’s the left versus the right or the liberal versus the conservative, depending on your perspective. And we’ve just experienced a major recession in the midst of a totally dysfunctional Congress – not to mention that we have our first black president. No one has been caned yet, but we’ve certainly been “hermanated” and we’re currently enduring the aftereffects of the decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United on our electoral process.

Have we as a country learned nothing? Are we doomed to repeat history? Are we headed for another catharsis equivalent to the Civil war?

As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I encourage everyone to remember that its original purpose was to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, although Southerners quickly extended it to their own dead. And let us also remember the lessons learned from that tumultuous period as we deal with polarization in our own day and time.

While sadly it has become politically incorrect these days to speak of Confederate soldiers, ancestor or not, I salute my great-great grandfather for his courage as a soldier and honor him on this Memorial Day. But I also repudiate the abomination of slavery and racism that were at the core of the Southern “lost cause.” We only diminish ourselves when we seek to withhold equal rights under law from others or seek to belittle or “cane” those who would disagree with us, or hold a different worldview, or haven’t fared as well as other citizens of our great country. That is the ultimate lesson to be remembered on this Memorial Day.

Shown in the picture is Private Charles Washington Stoner of Company D of the Twenty-third Regiment of NC Infantry, another great-great grandfather, who survived the massacre of Iverson’s Brigade. My step great-great grandfather and second husband of Camilla Stoner Morgan, First Sergeant Daniel Cress Basinger, was wounded in the stomach at Forney’s field, but survived to fight until his capture at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Nathan Morgan, great grandson of the Revolutionary War soldier, was seriously wounded in the hip on Forney’s field, but survived to fight another day and surrender with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tip the Innovators!

By Keith McDowell

You know it’s a slow news day when credit default swaps, leveraging, and the loss of $2 billion by JP Morgan are replaced by the headline: “delayed-choice entanglement swapping (DCES) will determine our past based on our future.” No, DCES is not the latest gimmick on Wall Street to take our money and destroy wealth or a new fad to confuse the already complicated dating-marriage rituals, the prominent issue of gay marriage notwithstanding. DCES is a new phenomenon discovered by physicists as part of the older story of quantum mechanical measurement theory.

The simplified storyline goes something like this: Party Boy sends out invitations to a party to three unconnected people: Alice, Bob, and Victor. Alice and Bob open their invitations at the same time and decide whether or not to go to the party independent of each other. Victor the procrastinator waits until the final moment before picking up the envelope. Will he open it or not and, if so, what will be his decision about going to the party or not? Believe it or not – I hope you are following all these “knotty” choices, in the quantum mechanical world of entangled photons, his delayed choices affect the earlier decisions of Alice and Bob and exactly who shows up at the party … or not. In other words, future events influence the past and affect one’s perception of what is reality. Or as George Strait famously warbled: “The who I was before I was your used to be.”

Confused? You should be! It’s rather like being given the homework assignment in your high school English class to diagram or parse the following Rick Perry quote:

Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of — against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before — he was before the social programs from the standpoint of — he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first …

Flip flopping aside, waitors – garçons for the rich effete among us – have long understood the DCES phenomena. It has to do with “reading” the patron at first glance and entangling one’s level of service and customer satisfaction in anticipation of the size of the gratuity. And just like quantum mechanics, it’s a game of probabilities played by some with exquisite skill. Yikes! Is DCES really just another manifestation of the self-fulfilling prophecy?

And, of course, psychologists have also entered the fray. Leonard Mlodinow in his new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior would have us believe that if we change our perception, we change our reality. It’s amusing to see psychology and physics coming together in common cause, but then Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist by profession. Nonetheless, the concept of “perception becomes reality” is yet another slippery conundrum made whole by modern research. But then one must not discount the U.S. Army jumping the gun with their former slogan: “Be all you can be.”

And what does any of this have to do with innovation or commercializing university research? Who knows, but it’s safe to say that our unconscious mind, entangled or not, will not produce the next Facebook – is it’s stock really worth the IPO-expected asking price or is that just a figment of my imagination soon to become reality?

So what conclusion should we draw from the world of DCES and entangled minds and  the effect of delayed choices on our reality? I say, tip the innovators! They will make the future become what it was before it used to be.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Misadventures of the Mad Scientist

By Keith McDowell

It was a different time, a different age. It was the 1950s and the birth of rock and roll, “ducktail” haircuts, rebels without a cause, beatniks, mutually assured destruction, fallout shelters, ICBMs, Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace,” the International Geophysical Year, the launch of Sputnik, and most important of all, the introduction of the beach bikini as immortalized by the song: Itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini. It was a time of great change and the explosion of the American middle-class culture, steeped in images of cowboy swagger and puerile rebellion, but immersed in a protestant work-ethic and helmed in by religious dogma.

Even better from my perspective, young children received for Christmas their Chemcraft chemistry set made by the Porter Chemical Co. in Hagerstown, Maryland, and began their personal journey into the world of science through chemistry. I still possess the manual “Chemcraft Magic” that gives detailed descriptions on how to conduct a magic show while turning water into wine. And one of my prized possessions is the Bryan Valence Blocks box with all its contents that helped me learn about valency long before my high school chemistry course. What can I say? Some of us are easily entertained.

In addition to my chemistry set, I quickly discovered that local drugstores would sell me large bottles of potassium nitrate (Saltpeter), sulfur, and powdered charcoal having no idea that these are the primary ingredients for gunpowder. It was the heyday of unfettered exploration and the mad young scientist.

And as might be expected, my basement laboratory soon became a scene for many adventures and misadventures as the neighborhood boys, my brother, and I worked hard to create the perfect solid fuel for our homemade rockets, many of which blew up, causing consternation and worries about setting the local field on fire. Somehow, we could never get the right tubing to encase the fuel and our rockets were hopelessly unbalanced aerodynamically - not to mention the time we spent days filing on an aluminum rod to get aluminum powder, only to have a friend ignite it, singe his eyebrows, and nearly blind himself from the flash. We laughed for days about that adventure and the image of him running from the basement.

Of course, producing high quality ethanol from blackberry mash was trivial when one has a nice glass condenser to build a distillation apparatus. I'll never forget the long hike back and forth to the blackberry briar patch on the far side of what is now business 85 in High Point, North Carolina, and the tortuous exercise of extracting the wild berries from the briars without getting too badly scratched. And then there was the endless debate about how to make the mash. We were the children of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road (movie - book) fully versed in the use of moonshine whiskey doped with honey to “clear the pipes” and cure coughs and congestion. But must we add a dead mouse to the mash? The Encyclopedia Britannica was our only source of information which, of course, none of our gang possessed.

I’ve always wondered what the neighborhood thought about our intrepid gang of explorers, especially during that summer when we made a number of “dry ice” bombs. The trick was to put dry ice – not easy to find or purchase – into a canning jar, add water, and close the lid. After a bit, the pressure from the carbon dioxide gas would make the jar into a lethal bomb, ready to blow. We drew straws to see who got to fire the BB gun at the jar from a distance. When hit, the jar would explode with a very loud bang, sending glass shards all over the place.

Such foolish misadventures are now enshrined by the annual Darwin Award for stupidity.
My own contributions to winning the award - not including exploding rockets, dry-ice bombs, and the time I stunk up the house with the smell of rotten eggs during a visit from my father's boss - started as a teenager when I was curious about flash bulbs for cameras and how they worked. Why let’s just hold the bulb and attach it to a battery and see what happens! I’m lucky my fingers did not become permanently attached to the bulb as it flashed, although the burns and the pain were felt for some time.

Not learning my lesson about electricity, I fondly recall an evening in my dorm room with my roommate sitting across from me with his feet propped up on the desk and leaning back in his chair. I was happily engaged in trying to make a home-built radio work and decided I needed to stick the screwdriver into the inner workings without turning off or unplugging the radio. Ah, I will never forget the look of horror on my roommate’s face as the sparks flew and he tumbled over backwards while a major section of the dormitory went dark. I’m sure Wake Forest University to this day is still trying to explain the 1963 blackout of the dorm. And people wonder why I became a theoretical chemist!

Notwithstanding my own peccadilloes and youthful misadventures or those of my many friends and colleagues who grew up in the same era and have their own stories to tell, whatever happened to youthful experimentation and the real discovery process? By contrast with my era, today's children buy their rockets as a kit, join a local rocket club, and launch under very controlled conditions. Modern chemistry sets for children advertise safety as their principal goal. And good luck on buying any chemicals from the local pharmacy! Somehow, it doesn't seem the same. Children seem to know that it is somehow rigged to work and is no longer play. It's too antiseptic! Where is the adventure or the exploration? Gads, in today's world, my teenage misadventures would land me in jail!

And what about our next crop of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, inventors, and innovators? Is the entrepreneurial spirit produced by global competition enough to motivate or produce such people from the unwashed masses? And do we really want "tiger moms” turning children into programmed automatons whose lives are driven by a ruthless schedule or the need to win the local science fair? Or is social networking the newest trick? Wow! Maybe it’s time to once again dust off Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and replay their message to teach your children well.

No one from my generation would suggest that parents put their children at significant risk of winning the Darwin award or that society return to the 1950s. Instead, we need to draw from the lessons learned during that era and the banner crop of creative minds that emerged to produce a new era of experimentation and discovery by our children unfettered by rigid parental control and societal dogma. We must find a way to strike the proper balance that such creative minds require. Hmmm, I wonder what happens if I push this button on my laptop … .

For those who walk to a different drum beat, check out the book by Theodore Gray: Theo Gray’s Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t, Black Dog & Levanthal, New York, 2009.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Watching Paint Dry

By Keith McDowell

The innovation “bucket list” is replete with stories of excitement and adventure as swashbuckling entrepreneurs with hair on fire swing sparkling swords at the regulatory dragon and rescue the failing startup company from the clutches of evil bankruptcy. Innovators and inventors alike dazzle the timid with leaps of intuition and blazing glimpses into the not-so obvious as open innovation springs forth as the latest and greatest weapon for winning over the commercial marketplace.

It’s the twenty-first century innovation race to the top of the global competitive pyramid with all hands called to the deck to fight the good fight. But left in the galley below is a lowly steward toiling away with a brush and bucket of paint hoping against hope to protect the rotting hull of the ship against the ravages of time and knowing full well that the knights of innovation no longer attend to the mundane. Watching paint dry has no appeal to an active creative mind. Or does it? My good friend James Madison Bohannon would take exception to those who would neglect the obvious.

Bo, as he is known to his childhood friends, has spent a lifetime watching paint dry – or better said, observing, collecting data, and testing the viability and efficacy of various paint and finish formulations on every conceivable surface as part of his contribution to the coatings industry. Now retired, Bo is one of the many unsung heroes of innovation who toil away below the decks, out of sight and out of mind, on problems of seemingly little interest to the innovation race.

Sadly, the exploits of such men and women have often been deemed by the intellectual elite as of secondary importance, part of a caste system where the presumptive best and brightest assume positions of prominence in the world’s leading research universities and define what is to be while supposed lesser minds are channeled into positions at industrial R&D laboratories and, yes, community colleges. In some measure, much of the current debate on how to bring the university and industry cultures together to foster innovation hinges on removing such stereotyping. And stereotyping is just what it is – an activity of one-dimensional, lesser minds.

But the times are changing as the putative caste system undergoes stress from the forces of global competition and both the university and industry cultures adapt to the need for community engagement to attack grand challenges in a connected social network. Indeed, we need the full spectrum of all such people with their differing skills and their different agendas if continuing success is to be maintained.

And what about the paint and coatings industry? Have we truly forgotten that some of our most clever inventors and innovators over the centuries were artists searching for a new pigment to bring forth a new vision and representation of reality on their canvass?

I recall well a visit to the Burlington-Northern-Santa-Fe Railroad headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, over a decade ago and participating in a discussion about using nano-paint on railroad car wheels to search for stress fractures in the wheels before they blew apart and caused a train accident. And later, scientists at the Pawtucket Naval Air Station were engaged in a similar effort with nano-paints hoping to find micro-fractures in the skin of naval aircraft subjected to the salty ocean air and the stress of carrier landings. Who says watching paint dry can’t be fun?

Not to be outdone, the automobile industry touts nanopaint as a new way to add luster, depth, and the shifting of color to the appearance of new cars. Warplanes become invisible to radar and new nano-coatings paint a green future. Even the wall paint of old gets a new look. Who would have thought that so much could emerge from watching paint dry! Hmmm, maybe we should all take a few moments to watch the grass grow. Who knows what we might learn and what new inventions await us!