Back on stage at the Adult Spelling Bee

Today featured another fun, adrenaline-pumping time at the Bay Shore Church in Long Beach, during which ~35 contestants gathered to try to spell each other into oblivion. The National Adult Spelling Bee awards $500 to the winner and $500 to the charity of their choice. This time I was joined by friends Evan and Sam, which made it even more enjoyable!

Last time I made it to round 18 before failing to spell “latkes”. This year I managed to spell the following correctly:

  • dynamic
  • demographic
  • hypothesis
  • disaffiliate
  • discomfit
  • flaccid
  • myrmidon
  • zydeco
  • jejune
  • nudnik
  • abscissa

At that point, we were down to four spellers left. I misspelled “vizsla” (?!), but the three others remaining also failed to spell their words correctly, so we all survived to the next round. I then promptly misspelled “boustrophedon” (as “boustrephedon”) and the woman after me misspelled “oriflamme” (argh, I knew that one! :) ), so we tied for third place. (Boustrophedon describes a piece that is written right-to-left and left-to-right in alternating lines. Vizsla is some kind of dog breed. Aie!) The two remaining spellers duked it out for a few more rounds until Janice Davis (a returning 2008 champ) won over Nicholas Kuefler (an amazing speller from Georgia). The words by that point were bordering on ludicrous; the organizers were having trouble just pronouncing them. Good job, Janice and Nicholas!

Once again I must comment on the luck factor involved in single-elimination spelling bees. Here are some words, assigned to other spellers, that I would have misspelled if they’d been given to me:

  • emolument: a salary, fee, or profit from employment
  • pullulate: to breed or spread so as to become very common
  • vinaceous: of the color of red wine
  • jodhpurs: trousers for horseback riding
  • neoteny: the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal
  • chiliast: same as “millenarian” (a Christian belief)
  • ecesis: the successful establishment of a plant or animal species in a habitat
  • clerihew: a short comic or nonsensical verse, typically in two rhyming couplets with lines of unequal length and referring to a famous person
  • monadnock: an isolated hill or ridge

How would you do? I know many people reading this are excellent spellers!

So many words to learn. Such a fun event! I’m glad I got a chance to participate again.

Money by the pound

A chance discussion at work raised the question of how much our leaders at Caltech and JPL earn. Some investigation turned up interesting results.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the president of Caltech (Jean-Lou Chameau) was paid a staggering $765,260 in 2009 (most recent numbers). He also serves as a director of MTS Systems Corporation, earning ~$150,000 per year in fees and stock awards. Impressive.

In contrast, the most recent salary reported for Charles Elachi, director of JPL (which is a division of Caltech), was $455,820 in 2006. At that time, the president of Caltech (David Baltimore) was paid $590,000. It is not clear whether Elachi’s salary has grown with the president’s; turnover in Caltech presidents seems higher than that of JPL directors, which could lead to faster salary growth.

Now a point of comparison. The president of the United States is a job with a fixed salary dictated by Congress. My understanding has been that one goal is to never position this job as something one might do for the money — that being perhaps a poor motivation for applying. The reality is a little more complex. Most of us learned in school that the president earns $200,000 per year. This had been in effect since 1969 (a long time for any salary to remain fixed!), but changed in 2001, when the salary was bumped up to $400,000 per year (at the instigation of Bill Clinton, whom it didn’t benefit; George W. Bush was the first to enjoy the increase).

Initially it seems a little strange that the head of Caltech (or JPL) is compensated at a higher level than the president of the country. But again, the president isn’t meant to be the highest earner in the country. And when you dig a little deeper, total presidential compensation tells a different story. In addition to salary, the president of the U.S. receives “a $50,000 expense account, a $100,000 non-taxable travel account, and $19,000 for entertainment.” Further, the president is provided with a home (while in office), meals, transportation, security, etc. After leaving office, the president continues to earn a $191,300 per year pension and also receives a government-provided office with staff and travel funds. Wow!

I present these figures not in any way to snipe at our institutional (and national) leaders, but more as an awed observation of the fact that any individual could be paid so hugely. I know there are other individuals that undoubtedly are paid more (we’ve all heard about crazy CEO salaries and compensation), but it just boggles my mind that anyone could even make use of such a huge sum in any practical fashion. No doubt they have good financial advisors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they contribute large sums to charitable institutions, which can certainly make use of the money. But otherwise — how much can a single individual (or family) realistically spend in getting through life? And once those needs are met, what else is there?

For people with this kind of disposable income, it seems a perfect opportunity to think big. Fund research for diabetes! Make that mission to Mars happen! Invest in technology that can fundamentally change how we interact with, or how we understand, the world (and each other). No one person can solve every problem or investigate every idea. But money can be the lever to swing the massed efforts of others in a productive, world-changing direction. In that way, these seeming excesses of compensation instead can compensate us all.

The penultimate Shuttle flight

The Space Shuttle program is coming to an end. The next flight, STS-134, is currently scheduled for April 29, 2011. The goals of this mission are to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and some communication antennas and other parts to the International Space Station. The flight readiness review will be on April 19, at which point they’ll determine the final launch date for Space Shuttle Endeavor.

Not an astronaut? You can still send your face to space at (no joke) Face in Space. NASA wants to literally UP-LOAD your digital image, along with the Space Shuttle, to the Space Station. Sure, it’d be faster to just send it on the comm link, but hey! This is outreach. So far, 315,048 people have participated. Your face won’t actually go up with STS-134, but instead with STS-135 — the final Shuttle flight. Last chance!

If you’d like the latest news from NASA, consider subscribing to one of the NASA RSS feeds. As we near the end of the Shuttle era, it will be interesting to see what next steps the agency takes.

Counting atoms with moles

As you may have learned in high school chemistry, a mole is 6.022 x 1023 of something (usually something really tiny, like atoms). This seemingly arbitrary value is also known as Avogadro’s number. Why is it named after him, and how did that value come to be chosen?

Avogradro’s full name was Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerret, and he had nothing to do with defining the value for a mole. Instead, he came up with the ideal gas law, which says that two samples of gas that occupy the same volume (with the same temperature and pressure) also contain the same number of molecules. It is most often encountered as pV = nRT. In 1909, 53 years after Avogadro died, Jean Perrin proposed naming the value of a mole after him.

Beyond Avogadro, why use 6.022 x 1023 as the basis for a mole? The history of this decision is an interesting illustration of what happens when a common value must be chosen for convenience, but there is no physical reason to prefer one over another (a similar situation arises for planetary coordinates; latitude has a well defined start point due to the axis of rotation, but longitude has to be given a start point arbitrarily). Originally, and quite logically, chemists used hydrogen (the simplest element, with only one proton) as a basis for computing atomic weights. They set H=1 and computed values for everything else relative to hydrogen. Later others proposed using oxygen as a standard (O=16), since oxygen is so prevalent and combines with so many things, and after decades of debate, in 1961 they finally settled on using carbon (C=12) as the standard. And so the value for a mole was born: the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12 (isotopes matter!). (How do you count them though? See here.)

Why do we care? The mole is useful because of stoichiometry, one of my favorite words ever. If you know that you need 2 hydrogen atoms for every 1 oxygen atom to make water, then you know you need 2 moles of H for every 1 mole of O. A 2:1 ratio based on weight or volume won’t work, but you can convert moles into grams with knowledge about the atomic weight of each. This tells you exactly how much to mix to get the result you want, without wasting anything. Very efficient! (Image from Clear Science.)

Even though it came from just 12 grams of carbon, a mole is a really, really big number. No, really. I love these analogies (from CDLI’s Chemistry 2202 course) that help us understand how big:

How big is a mole?

  • one mole of peas is enough to cover Earth and 250 more planets the same size as Earth one metre deep in green peas
  • a stack of one mole of pennies is tall enough to reach Proxima Centauri (the second closest star to Earth) and back again 7448 times
  • a mole of marbles spread over the Earth would cover it to a depth of 80 km
  • if you own a mole of dollars and you spend a billion dollars a day, then you could spend that amount per day for over a trillion years before you run out of money. (Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years i.e. that’s 0.45% of a trillion years!)

For more molar fun, I highly recommend this mole lesson/activity. And six months from now, you can celebrate Mole Day: October 23, from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m.