On sunlight, oxygen isotopes, and oil spills

Sunlight exposure alters the composition of oil by photochemical reactions. Note the transformation of anthracene, a compound which does not contain oxygen (“O”), to anthraquinone, which does. For many months now, I have been rereading the same scientific article, working (hopefully) towards a better understanding of it. The article is the story of some detective…

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On aliens, anthropology, and unintended consequences

Note: I have changed the names of my Mexican friends and teachers in this post. Cambié los nombres de mis amigos y maestros mexicanos en este ensayo. In the Spring of 2016, I was living in the city of Mérida, México. In the mornings I woke up at six, which was when the sun rose…

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Flotsam and Jetsam: a PhD student’s love of the ocean

By the time I was thirteen, my grandfather could no longer speak. He laughed sometimes, he gestured to things, he sometimes made noises of displeasure. But he was no longer capable of holding a conversation. The tragedy of dementia is always a tragedy, but our particular tragedy, my grandfather’s and mine, was that he lost…

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Gasoline, Whole Foods apples, and everything else “organic”

What does it mean for a chemical to be organic? This question itself might confuse some readers. Outside of chemistry labs and classrooms, many people think of the word “organic” in the context of describing food that has been grown without synthetic pesticides. Similarly, many people think of synthetic pesticides as being synonymous with the…

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Macondo in the Gulf: When oil goes bananas

Bananas for sale along the roadside. I took this picture near Aracataca, Colombia, Gabriel García Márquez’s hometown and the town which is considered the inspiration for Macondo. On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed eleven people and broke open the BP-owned oil well it had been drawing from in…

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What is chemical fate?

Environmental chemists talk a lot about “chemical fate.” In fact, understanding chemical fate is pretty much the point of the whole field. But what does it mean? Chemical fate describes where a chemical goes when it gets out into the environment and how it might be chemically transformed in the process. Some chemicals have a…

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