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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sunflowers, 1888

The case of Van Gogh’s browning sunflowers has been solved and a reduction reaction is being branded as the culprit! Through sharp detective work by a team at Antwerp University in Belgium it was deduced that a reduction of Chromium (IV) to Chromium (III) is responsible for color changes in several of the artist’s most famous works. 

Chrome yellow paint, a toxic substance thought by many to be the cause of the madness that ultimately drove Vincent Van Gogh to cut off his own ear, was the yellow paint of choice for many artists in the late 19th century. Though it has been known for some time that this color pigment darkens upon UV and sunlight exposure, scientists were puzzled at the fact that not all paintings containing the chrome yellow pigment were affected. Few additional clues were known as to the underlying cause of this phenomenon until the Antwerp team published the results of their study in the 15th of February 2011 issue of Analytical Chemistry.

By means of state-of-the-art x-ray analysis the Antwerp team identified the reduction reaction in a sample of chrome yellow that had been artificially aged using UV light. The microscopic x-ray beam not only revealed a nanometer thin coating of Chromium (III) on the pigment, but also suggested that the compound was especially conspicuous in samples that contained Barium and Sulfur. This newfound evidence indicated that white paint was responsible for accelerating the browning process when mixed with the chrome yellow pigment that Van Gogh was so fond of.

It is the hope of the Antwerp team that cracking this historic whodunit case will assist in the effort to return the degraded paintings back to their original state. Sherlock Holmes would surely be pea-green with envy over the bottomless bag of technological tricks available to modern day scientists.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The return to temperate waters places the whales back in the range of their key predator, the Orca. However, adults are well-equipped; the barnacles that line the edges of fins and flukes increase swimming efficiency and also serve as brass knuckles, enhancing their ability to defend themselves, should Orcas attempt to attack.
Caption by Dr. Rachel Cartwright
Photo by John and Dan Cesere
C3 Submerged Photography

Hordes of magnificent creatures have taken over the art gallery at Napa Hall! Caring for Calves: The Art and Science of Understanding Hawaii’s Humpback Whales photography exhibit was unveiled on January 27th featuring breathtaking images of Hawaii’s gentle giants of the sea. The exhibit is just one piece of the Keiki Kohola Project pie, a venture that principal investigator and founder Dr. Rachel Cartwright said is meant to bring “science out of the university and into the real setting.” 

Though the images are awe-inspiring, co-investigator on the project Dr. Blake Gillespie stipulated that, “along with that spoonful of sugar there is some medicine.” Gillespie further explained that the true significance of the project lies not only in the spectacular imagery but also in “the biology of the animals,” and “the management issues that we face as stewards of that population of endangered humpbacks.”

The Keiki Kohola Project is aimed to provide information on the living requirements of mother-calf pairs within nursery waters in the channel between the islands of Maui and Lanai. Cartwright said she expects this exhibit to help “draw from a larger audience,” and “foster an awareness of the issues that face animals in regions like that.”

Students from a variety of disciplines, including Chemistry, have the opportunity to join the team on an annual Spring break research trip to the islands. Gillespie expressed his hopes to “generate really well rounded scientists . . . that are comfortable in a variety of research environments.”

The exhibit will remain in Napa Hall until February 25th; if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s still time! The photos are sincerely incredible.

Friday, February 11, 2011

“One of the principal objects of theoretical research in my department of knowledge is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in its greatest simplicity.” 
-Josiah Willard Gibbs 
I am pleased to introduce The Chem Constant Chemistry Blog, the newest addition to our chemistry department here at California State University Channel Islands (CI). Since this is my first post I will begin by introducing myself. My name is Shelby and I’m a junior level Chemistry student at CI. It is my hope to provide insight into the goings-on in the department as well as an original viewpoint on developments relevant to the field of chemistry outside of the campus walls.

The date of launch for The Chem Constant Chemistry Blog was strategically chosen so that it will forever share a birthday with Josiah Willard Gibbs. Born 172 years ago today, on the 11th of February in 1839, the world-renowned American theoretical chemist, physicist and mathematician served the scientific community with a wealth of significant contributions till his death on the 28th of April in 1903.

Celebrated by many as having one of the greatest science minds of all time, Gibbs is well known as the father of chemical thermodynamics. In his paper On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances he provided much of the theoretical groundwork for the foundation of Physical Chemistry, defined as the study of macroscopic, microscopic, atomic, subatomic and particulate phenomena in chemical systems. In the chemistry department at CSUCI however, he may be better known for making undergraduate chemistry students (including yours truly) tremble in terror at the thought of taking Physical Chemistry, a required core course in the major. But perhaps that’s just looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Inspired by this man, I aim to heed his advice and “find the point of view from which the subject appears in its greatest simplicity.” Feedback from readers is not only valued as a tool to hold me to this standard but also a necessary component to making The Chem Constant Chemistry Blog a success. To honor the mantra that has been repeated to me by so many of my professors, science is a team sport and to succeed you have to be a team player. In this, all are welcome to contribute and join the conversation. Please leave your comments and suggestions.