Thursday, January 8, 2009

Learning things...twice.

Have you ever learned something twice?

Have you ever learned something, forgot it, and learn about it later only to realize you already knew that?

Sometimes, it can be kind of embarrassing. Especially if you tell something you are convinced is true only to find out you knew better. That happened to me today.

At The Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh posted about an article in the New York Times about radio signals and early stars. He identified a rather curious statement in the article:
Dust grows over time as stars manufacture heavy elements called metals, like carbon, silicon and oxygen, that make up dust and then spit them out into space.
I checked out the article and found the offending sentence and it offended my delicate chemistry teacher sensibilities. Carbon, silicon and oxygen are most decidedly NOT metals, nor are they "heavy elements."

I decided I had finally found my purpose on this planet and decided to send the author an email and personally advance his education. This is what I sent him:
Mr. Overbye,
In a recent article you wrote: "Dust grows over time as stars manufacture heavy elements called metals, like carbon, silicon and oxygen, that make up dust and then spit them out into space." Carbon, silicon and oxygen are most certainly NOT metals nor are they heavy elements.
Best wishes,
Eric Woller, Ph.D.
I added the Ph.D. part to make sure he knew I wasn't messing around. I felt good. I had taught some big shot NYT science correspondent some damn fine chemistry. He was nice enough to reply. This is what he sent me:
Astronomers refer to anything heavier than helium as metals.
Thanks for writing,
Dennis
That was when I slapped my forehead and realized...I knew that. I'm such an idiot.

While one can argue that labeling anything heavier than helium as a metal is silly, that's what astronomers and the like do. I knew that, but it didn't stop me from displaying some degree of ignorance.

So, I learned that little fact...again.

4 comments:

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Nice to see Sauron has found a home in outer space.

When these things are in stars, they're hot enough to be gasses, so why don't astronomers call them "heavy metal gasses"? *shudders*

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Also, you know, I'm sure than an astronomer would be quick to point out the differences between a meteoroid, a meteor and a meteorite if you used one of the terms incorrectly, so why is it that chemists can't point out whenever someone else is too lazy to learn what that zig-zaggy line down the periodic table is?

Chemgeek said...

Damn straight!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. So the NYT writer is both an astronomer and writing the article for an astro-only audience? That seems highly unlikely.

I call molecules like Tryptamine (24 nuclei) 'large' but that doesn't mean I should expect my biochemist friends to agree with me.