Monday, May 26, 2008

On (potential) bondbreaker from China

An email to the graduate student body was sent out last week, giving us the names of the incoming class of 2008 and the previous institutions they attended (similar to this). There is this person from one of the Singapore universities. She is obviously PRC (I don't think Singaporean Chinese have names spelled like hers, but I could be wrong), and a google-search of her name + university showed that she had topped her undergraduate class recently.

I wonder if she is one of those foreign MOE scholars who broke/is breaking bonds to come to the US for graduate study. I intend to find out when she arrives on campus in the fall.

Now you know why there is so much ill-will and resentment by the Singaporean students towards foreign undergrads in NUS/NTU/SMU when it comes to this topic of foreign MOE scholars (leeching off the goodwill and generosity of the Singaporean tax-paying public).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Happy Vesak Day

It has not been a good year for many Buddhists, with the events in Tibet and Burma. And in the world of materials science, the Lotus Effect has been a hot area of research since Barthlott's publication in 1997. The two images below show the connection between surface roughness and self-cleaning ability.

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Readers might also be interested to know about the petal effect. Surfaces are interesting, no? :)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On how to win a scientific argument against your co-worker

Two professors, one an organic chemist (A) and the other a physical chemist (B), were debating the merits (or workability) of a certain synthesis pathway. Students from both groups were also present in the meeting room. Temperatures started rising when the former accused B of not being an expert in A's area and was attempting to just bullshit his way through.

B shot back: "Have you published in Science for a similar starting material? I have."

What followed was silence in the room.

Classic. A friend (later) commented: "That's just a very unfriendly way to do science."

Imagine a Nobel laureate losing a scientific argument, then s/he says: "Have you won the Nobel Prize?"

N.B. The above methods will not work if you are not as accomplished as your opponent. Then it might be better to shut up (aka the 'Asian' way of showing reverence).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

On technical competency and literacy

I had a good laugh when a fellow grad student in the department sent out the following (in pdf) asking for help in translating Russian. He wanted to know the chemicals listed. There aren't any native Russian speakers in my department, although I know a few in physics. As it turns out, universities (and by extension, colleges) are one of the best places to source for competent technical translators, especially if the said personnel had completed at least a Bachelors degree in their home country.

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...Our work is critical to the scientific community, and yet remains largely invisible and poorly understood.

From individual scientists to multinational corporations, clients routinely need materials translated into many languages for information, publication or patent filings. Machine translation can't handle such complex material except for crude "gisting", often with incomprehensible results in our fields. Poor translation is costly. Errors compromise safety, intellectual property, and image as well as bottom line. Incorrect terminology in translation makes research disappear in keyword searches. Therefore choosing the right translator can ultimately save money and grief.

Being bilingual is no guarantee of written fluency or translation skill, and highly technical material requires highly developed subject area knowledge. If you don't know an alkane from an alkene - let alone understand a reaction scheme or patent abstract - chances are you can't translate it.

Translating Chemistry, CENEAR, 2008, 86 (3), 6

On a side note, I just discovered that German was required for graduation up till the 1970s in many of the chemical and physical sciences' departments around the country because so many important discoveries were published in German. Until WWII, Germany was the center of the chemical world. Already, in my research work, several important references were written in the language. Given that English is the almost universal language of science today, consider the communication problem for scientists of whom English is a foreign language. What if their native tongues is the dominant language for science and engineering? How will we feel trying to publish in their language?

As of now, I can't even write a decent Chinese essay, or a blog entry, let alone describe my experimental work using Chinese.