Ask the Question 9/2/19

Opinion piece by Richard Bleil

Of late, I’ve spent far too much time watching movies. Call it depression, or loneliness, but that’s how it is. Personally, I enjoy sci-fi, and I’ve watched movie after movie where some vehicle enters the earth’s atmosphere engulfed in flames.

Okay, I get this. Going from essentially no atmosphere to hitting the earth’s, it’s the friction between the vehicle and the air that generates the heat. This makes sense to me. Heck, friction generates heat; we all know this. It’s one way to start a fire if you’re patient enough, If my hands are cold, I’ll rub them together vigorously in the hopes of generating heat to warm them up. And, yes, I’m sure I’m the only person in history to ever do this.

All sarcasm aside, something else I’ve noticed about friction is that it generates considerably less heat if the motion of the friction is slowed. The friction is there; it will always be there, but we can control how much heat is actually generated. So, if we could control the rate of re-entry, as in a controlled vehicle, would it generate as much heat? I mean, it shouldn’t right? A nice slow descent with retro-rockets?

It’s kind of embarrassing. I should know the answer. Here I am, a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, the border between chemistry and physics, and I’m doubting myself. I should know, right? Shouldn’t I know?

But, there is one thing that I do know; I know I can ask.

Sometimes, asking is a monumental task. I’m not sure why; are we embarrassed that we don’t know? Are we in awe of somebody who does? What’s the story?

During a chemistry lab one day, I was discussing MSDS’s, “Material Safety Data Sheets” (whose name has recently changed but it’s basically the same concept). These things have all known hazards of every chemical available for purchase from any source. And I got a little bit goofy. As a Diet Coke addict, I decided to write Coca-Cola and ask them if I could have an MSDS for Diet Coke. I explained it would be used (and distributed) for educational purposes, and I had no nefarious intention of trying to become wealthy. Their answer was very polite, explaining that consumables are exempt from the OSHA requirements for MSDS’s, and because the formula is proprietary, I could kindly take my request and bundle it up into a tight little ball and shove it right up my very own but I did get a very nice Diet Coke tee-shirt out of it. So there’s that.

Today, I wrote NASA. Just to ask the question. Whether or not I should know, there’s something very liberating in admitting that I don’t. So, we’ll see what they say.

Interestingly, I remember a time when a NASA scientist was giving a lecture to the science department of one of my former institutions. The room was filled with biologists, mathematicians, students, the only physicist, and the only chemist (that would be me). He talked about exciting atoms with a red laser, and measuring the frequency of the blue light that it emitted.


I asked him if that was an error. After all, blue light has a higher energy than red, and it is impossible to emit higher energy than what is being input. Apparently, I was the only one in the room with this concern. He smiled knowingly. “I wondered if anybody would catch that,” he said, and proceeded to say that there were actually two excitation energy lasers, and the red was the second.

Ask questions. Not just because you hope to impress a NASA scientist, but because that’s how we learn. How we ALL learn. At a scientific meeting, there was a talk from an organic chemist about how a methyl group is picked up in a reaction. Organic chemistry is my weakest subject, it always has been. I’m certainly not comfortable in it, but as I looked at the reaction, it looked to me like a classic rearrangement known as the “1,2-methyl shift”. Basically, the group to which she was referring probably just shifted over, rather than being picked up by the external group. So I asked. She hadn’t noticed it, and wasn’t really sure. Then somebody else in the audience asked the exact same question. Then another. About half a dozen “experts” had to prove they knew as much as I did by asking the same question that it clearly became uncomfortable for the speaker. This wasn’t my intention; I actually felt bad afterwards. If I hadn’t asked, would these other people have asked? But, if I hadn’t, it’s also possible that she could have published her paper with a hypothesis that wasn’t correct, or at the very least, not correctly discounted as what was happening (yes, there are ways to tell where the methyl group came from).

When a question is asked, everybody learns. The person asking the question, and the person answering. In college, I was visiting with a friend whose father worked for a company that made printers. His dad told me that the company was developing a new printer that worked by literally spitting a tiny stream of ink onto the page (the first ink-jet printer), but, he said, they can’t get the solvent ratio correct. Too much solvent and the ink ran and they didn’t get good quality. Too much solvent and the nozzle clogs. So, I asked a simple question; why not just choose a different solvent. His eyes widened as he looked at me. “There are other solvents?” he asked.

ASK THE QUESTION! You’ll be glad you did. And if NASA or other space programs begin using retrorockets to slow descent and reduce the heat of re-entry…that one is mine!

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