Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Instrumental Analysis: part 2

A number of comments on my previous post reminded me of one my most boring days as a student.

The gist of what some said was "don't be boring." In other words, a 3 hour lecture in front of a machine noone will use is not going to be the most useful.

Now, for the story: During my Junior year at my undergraduate institution I was enrolled in an Instrumental Analysis class. There were so many times that we were bored to tears.

The old professor was a work of art. Due to some physical injuries that never healed right, he walked like Igor from Frankenstein. He was a nice guy, but not the most dynamic.

One day, we were covering IR. We already had use IR extensively and were proficient at it. So he decided to take us back to the good old days.

Any chemist knows that IR had a glorious period in the history of Chemistry. There was a time when every effort was made to obtain exquisite IR for the main reason that the IR spectra and a melting point of a derivative were essentially the only characterization data available.

Now days, IR has been supplanted by "bigger and better" technology particularly NMR. It has been relegated to a "carbonyl identifier."

The old professor wanted to show us how it was done back in the day. So, he pulled out two salt plates. Looked at them in disgust and declared that they needed to be polished. He produced a wooden box about the size of a 1965 Minneapolis phonebook. He opened the box and with a gleam in his eye, presented his salt plate polishing equipment. I don't remember everything contained in his box, but I do remember two piece of felt of varying softness.

The prof went to town polishing the salt plates. Rubbing specifically in a "figure 8" pattern, he went from one piece of felt to another. I can see him frantically and in a most exuberant manner moving the salt plate as fast as he could as he rubbed in on the felt. This lasted nearly 15 minutes. Meanwhile, we just stood there and watched (i.e. acting like bored undergraduates).

After what seemed like an eternity of him polishing his plates, he was finished and he lifted the perfectly polished up for us to behold. The gleam was brighter than ever in his eyes. He was so proud to give us this old school lesson. He was perhaps reliving his own glory days. He held the plate up at eye level when the plate slipped from his physically deformed fingers, fell to the floor and shattered into a millions pieces.

I remember him uttering a very sad whimper. He said little and sent us home for the day.

We actually felt bad for him, and while the end result was pretty lame, we learned how important IR had been at one time. We gained an appreciation for what pre-NMR chemists had to do.


Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Man, oh man. Great story and well told.

When I took my instrumental analysis course in the early 80's we had a senior faculty member take us down into the basement where he uncovered the IR-5 (which he told us at one time had been the best IR instrument in Canada). He then fired that sucker up, filled the inkwell on the chart recorder pen and tweaked a few gears. We then spent the rest of the afternoon making 10 meter long vibrational-rotational spectra of diatomic gases. Can't do that no more.

mjenks said...

Wow. I shed a small tear for Igor after that. The story was almost as tragic as me dropping the NMR tube filled with every last mg of a particular aldehyde I needed for writing up my thesis, and that story is only more tragic because it happened to me.

My instrumental analysis class was me and the professor. One more I was hungov--particularly sleepy--and I missed class. I heard the phone ringing, but just incorporated it into my dreams. I felt bad for the rest of the semester about that one.

mevans said...

Funny, my research advisor is Canadian and he claims to have bought "the first FT-IR made in Canada" way back in 1982.