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Katie and Tom
The merger of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes is breaking up! That's one of the top stories in the media these days. On the other hand, last month I noted that the French company Saint-Gobain was merging with SAGE Electrochromics in a hundred percent buyout of the latter. I also mentioned that, as a result of consulting for SAGE when it was a startup company with less than a handful of employees, I had stock in SAGE as partial compensation for my efforts. Several weeks ago, I got a communication from J.P. Morgan requesting that I send them the stock certificate, in return for which I would receive monetary compensation. It's been a while since I sent Morgan the stock and as yet no money. With all the recent news about Morgan losing anywhere from 2 to 9 billion dollars in trading gone sour, I'm hoping Saint-Gobain hasn't made a mistake in selecting Morgan to handle the financial details of the merger!
While this merger is significant for me personally, it pales in scope with the forthcoming merger that was the subject of a NASA press release on May 31, 2012. It's been known for a long time that our Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy are headed towards each other, thanks to the gravitational attraction involving both ordinary and dark matter in and around the galaxies. However, it seems that astronomers didn't have a firm enough handle on the speed and angles of approach to say whether the collision was going to be a glancing blow or a head-on smashup.
Well, now the NASA astronomers have used the Hubble telescope to precisely pin down the sideways motions, speeds and positions of the two galaxies. They can now predict that it's going to be a head-on collision. But don't hold your breath. This merger won't happen for 4 billion years! Today, Andromeda is about 2.5 million light-years away from us Milky Way residents and is headed for us at a mere 250 thousand miles an hour. I don't expect any humans to be around to experience the gigantic merger but I can't help wondering what the sky will look like as Andromeda closes in on the Milky Way. Because of the enormous distances between stars it is unlikely that our sun will bump into another star but the NASA people do think our sun and its planets will be thrown into a new orbit in a new galaxy consisting of the merged Andromeda, Milky Way and a smaller galaxy that's being dragged along by Andromeda!
While companies may merge (e.g., SAGE and Saint -Gobain), others may break up. One notable breakup being that of the Bell System, which had a direct impact on those of us working at Bell Labs. Sometimes, parts of companies that break up get back together, as, for example, some of the Baby Bells that formed companies like Verizon and what is the current AT&T. A similar theme caught my attention in an article by Richard Conniff in the June issue of Smithsonian magazine titled "When the Earth Moved". The article begins by pointing out that six seismologists and a civil servant in Italy are facing trial on charges they didn't predict an earthquake a few years ago that killed over 300 people in the city of L'Aquila!
Conniff notes that the prosecutors base their case on science that was the object of ridicule a century ago when a German fellow by the name of Alfred Wegener put forth the notion of continental drift. He proposed that there was once one big landmass which he called Pangaea, noting especially how neatly South America and Africa nestle together so perfectly if you cut them out and place them together (using a map of course). In 1912 he presented his ideas at as meeting in Frankfurt and, after being wounded fighting for the Germans in World War I, he published a book titled "The Origins of Continents and Oceans" in 1915. Partly due to anti-German sentiment following the war, Wegener was reviled and criticized for his idea that continents could break up and drift around the globe.
It wasn't until the 1960s that geologists came around to accept that huge tectonic plates were spreading and subducting across the earth. I was unaware that it is probable that the current assembly of continents will, some day, once again combine to form another Pangaea, only to repeat the cycle. I also hadn't realized that this merger/breakup cycle has happened several times prior to Wegener's Pangaea. Wegener died in 1930 in Greenland, where he perished on a mission to deliver food to two of his weather researchers who were low on supplies due to an error by a subordinate. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see his ideas not only accepted, but carried to such a ridiculous extreme that some scientists are actually on trial for not being able to predict how and when the earth is going to move! Can you imagine the situation if our weather forecasters were held liable for inaccurate weather forecasts? According to a news item in the June 8 issue of Science, the trial of the Italian scientists and engineers is on a break until September and a judge is expected to come up with a verdict by the end of October.
Another case of splitting up and getting back together is playing out at my two old haunts after retirement - Rutgers, where I taught a course and was a visiting scientist, and UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where I was an adjunct associate professor. UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) was originally Rutgers Medical School, which was only a 2-year medical school counting on graduates to finish their medical training elsewhere. In 1970 Rutgers Medical School was combined with the New Jersey Medical School in Newark and the New Jersey Dental School to form a four year medical school. When I retired, I hung my hat in various trailers which were part of UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School but I parked my car in a Rutgers parking lot, where the parking fee was cheaper! Today there's a big controversy going on concerning a plan to reunite Rutgers and UMDNJ, with our Governor Christie in the thick of it.
Let me elaborate on my life in retirement at UMDNJRWJMS and Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ. I've described my initial experience teaching a graduate course at Rutgers and I was soon to find myself joining with Prof. Alvin Salkind and Jack Kelly in teaching a course on batteries at the Army's establishment at Fort Monmouth. I was then asked by the Center for Professional Advancement (CPA) in nearby New Brunswick if I would be the director of a 3-day course on batteries. Al Salkind had been approached previously but turned down the offer. I accepted the challenge and was surprised when Salkind agreed to join me and Jack Kelly in teaching the course. I handled the lithium battery lectures and Kelley and Salkind covered the lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries and fuel cells.
It was in our first course for CPA that I learned about the Sony lithium-ion battery. One of the students in the course had attended a battery meeting in Florida where Sony reported on its new battery. For me, it was a revealing introduction to the fact that these short courses were indeed two-way streets in which I would learn from the students as well as vice versa. The students came from all kinds of companies and backgrounds. For example, we had at least one student from a cosmetics-oriented company, possibly Revlon. She was interested in lady's electric shavers and, of course, had to power her shavers with batteries!
An interesting and sometimes deflating aspect of the CPA courses was the fact that at the end of the courses the students were asked to fill out an evaluation form. The form asked their opinions on such things as the quality of the notes and visual material, their ratings of the content of the course and whether it met their expectations. They were also asked to rate us, the instructors. Invariably, Al Salkind, with lots of professorial experience, battery savvy gained as an executive with a major battery company and a colorful way of lecturing, would win the popularity ratings with Kelly and I more or less sharing second and third place. At times, Salkind could be going on and on about some topic that might not seem to be of any particular importance when he would drop a pearl of battery wisdom that would justify the whole expense of attending the course.
The success of our first battery courses presented in New Jersey led to the decision by CPA to offer the course once a year in Amsterdam, beginning in 1991. CPA allowed us extra days in Amsterdam to get rid of jet lag before giving our course and my wife and I got know Amsterdam and its surroundings quite well. After a while, one became accustomed to the smell of pot in an area near the Rijksmuseum and the (legal) ladies of the evening posed in their windows in skimpy attire, some in the daytime as well. After the courses, we typically hopped on a train and headed for Paris, sometimes extending our stay by including places such as Nice, Monaco, Avignon or Berlin.
In 1999, before the course, my wife and I booked a Baltic cruise from Copenhagen, with stops in Saint Petersburg, Helsinki, Oslo and other Baltic ports. We were about to leave the ship for a tour of Visby when I felt a familiar kind of itching and sensitivity on my back around the waist. Shingles, I thought and, sure enough, the doctor in the infirmary confirmed my diagnosis. It was my third experience with the malady. Fortunately, the ship had the drug acyclovir on board. The drug more or less halts or slows down the progress of the shingles. However, I still had my lectures to give in Amsterdam and it was not the most enjoyable experience! You may have seen a recent TV commercial on shingles with a guy talking about the pain around his neck area and how terrible it was. Thankfully, mine wasn't that bad.
After our tenth, and last battery course in Amsterdam in 2000, we went to Milan. A highlight was visiting La Scala, but the most unforgettable part of our visit in Milan was spending 4 hours (!) in line to see Leonardo da Vinci's Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper). The painting had been reopened to the public the year before after 21 years spent in restoration (see Wikipedia). After Milan we attended the 10th International Meeting on Lithium Batteries in Como, on Lake Como in Italy. For a battery person, the meeting in Como was truly special, aside from the great location. The year 2000 was the 200th anniversary of Alessandro Volta's invention of the voltaic pile, the first practical battery, and Como was Volta's home territory. The organizer of the meeting was Bruno Scrosati, a colorful Italian fellow well known in the battery community. Also assisting in the organizing of the meeting was The Electrochemical Society (ECS). Bruno would soon become the first person outside North America to be elected as president of ECS.
What follows is the absolute truth. As I was writing the above paragraph last weekend, I decided to Google Scrosati and found myself led to an ECS historical Web site, which contained mention of Scrosati. The Web site also stated that the lithium battery meeting was held in 2001. Hey, I was checking my 2000 organizer book and the ECS historical reference was wrong! And who is the historian of ECS? Me!! Well, I emailed Roque Calvo, the executive director of ECS, pointing out the error and was surprised to find my Saturday email was answered by Roque on the next day, Sunday. He thanked me for the correction and said that he had contacted Mary Yess, with whom I had worked closely on a centennial history of ECS published in 2002. I had not done a single thing as historian since that major effort. Calvo and Yess apparently concluded that the historian should be more active and they would be in touch about my possible involvement columns for ECS. Well, that's what I get for not keeping my trap shut!
After that interlude, I returned to finishing the paragraph mentioning Scrosati. But first I decided to catch up with my email and clicked on my email version of the June 18 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. There I found a brief news item by Mitch Jacoby headlined "Long-Life Lithium-Air Battery", which described a new electrolyte that might allow lithium-air batteries to compete with lithium-ion batteries. If successful, Jacoby says that the lithium-air batteries could pack ten times more energy into a battery than in lithium-ion batteries! And who should be one of the researchers involved in this new development? Bruno Scrosati!
Well, it's great to know that there are still some of the old names active. I used to kid Bruno about the fact that I ran into him at virtually every meeting I attended and didn't he ever stay home? I looked up the article and found that Bruno is not only listed at the University of Rome Sapienza but also at Hanyang University in the Republic of Korea. He still gets around! For me one of the joys of being a scientist was the opportunity to meet and interact with people from countries all over the world. And now, thanks to Bruno, I've managed to fill enough space to gracefully exit this column.