Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World 2021-05-03T03:28:27.914Z
Holy Grails of Chemistry 2020-09-30T02:03:07.289Z


Comment by chemslug on What is the best chemistry textbook? · 2021-05-12T02:55:57.884Z · LW · GW

If covalent vs. noncovalent bonds are something you're not familiar with, it sounds like you'd benefit from reading the chapter(s) on chemical bonding (every gen chem textbook should have one). I'd also infer from that that you won't have much of a background in thermodynamics, which rears its head when you try to understand the energy-storing and energy-releasing reactions of metabolism.

Comment by chemslug on What is the best chemistry textbook? · 2021-05-12T00:06:13.465Z · LW · GW

When I was an undergraduate we used Atkins and Jones' Chemical Principles: the Quest for Insight (link is to a slightly older edition because it's not a field whose basic principles have changed much in the last few years).  If memory serves, it was pretty good.  I'd also recommend checking out the MIT OCW site for 5.112 (that course will do a better job of preparing you for organic chemistry than 3.091, which is more materials focused).  

It is certainly possible to start with an organic chemistry textbook as long as you have a good grasp of some fundamentals (what a chemical bond is, ionic vs. covalent bonding, electronegativity, bond dissociation energies, etc.) so if organic is really what you're after, feel free to give that a try.  You can always pause that and go back to the general chemistry textbook if you feel like you're lacking foundation.

If memory serves, the Best Textbooks list has Clayden et al, which is the one that all the UK universities seem to use.  It's a good textbook but if you're looking for an alternative suggestion, I used and liked Wade.  Again, I'll put in a plug for OCW: 5.12 is the intro semester, with 5.13 following on.  

Can I ask what the end goal for studying organic chemistry is?  MCAT prep, learning biochemistry, and preparing to work in a synthesis lab all benefit from somewhat different approaches.

Comment by chemslug on Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World · 2021-05-04T20:39:05.931Z · LW · GW

Wow, that was more vehement than I was expecting.  I remember reading 1984 and Brave New World near one another, and thinking that Brave New World was significantly better.  I guess I wasn't as put off by the pro-traditionalist vibes in BNW as you were, and I remember thinking that the government in 1984 was way too capital-E Evil to be very interesting.  I'd argue that BNW is about the way things can still go wrong even when you get a lot right (ending sickness and poverty), while 1984 just seemed like Stalin's USSR with better surveillance tech.

Comment by chemslug on Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World · 2021-05-04T01:16:07.095Z · LW · GW

I know it's not perfect, but "achieve human potential" sounds like a reasonable moral axiom to start with.  A big "no thank you" to the wireheading for me.

Comment by chemslug on There’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically) · 2021-05-03T23:35:26.328Z · LW · GW

I really enjoyed this post!  Look wistfully at pictures of Welwitschia, indeed!  I got to see some in person a few years ago when we went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, and my wife was very forbearing with my gaping at the unassuming piles of green straps.

If you're interested in learning more about what the plant developmental toolbox looks like and how it's been deployed throughout plant evolution, I'd recommend David Beerling's Making Eden.  It's a pop-science book but pitched at the upper end of that range.  Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life is also fun if you want an intro to the crazy stuff that happens in the fungal kingdom.

Comment by chemslug on Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World · 2021-05-03T22:14:06.050Z · LW · GW

Thanks for the pointer.  There's more there than I remembered.  I originally bounced off that sequence after this post, where EY spends a lot of time worrying about whether there will be enough math puzzles to go around after the singularity.  I remember thinking that his conception of fun was so far from mine that there wasn't much point in continuing.  Maybe I should revisit that conclusion.

Comment by chemslug on Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World · 2021-05-03T21:54:38.489Z · LW · GW

Thanks for your thoughts!  I think you've put your finger on an important difference between how an individual experiences a society and what a society is capable of accomplishing.  It's the stunting in the second category that makes Brave New World a clear dystopia for me.  As for the islands, their influence on the remainder of society is clearly told to be carefully limited and controlled.  I think Huxley's inclusion of the islands as havens for the dissatisfied greatly increases the ambiguity in how the society appears to a modern reader. 

Thanks for the pointer to your blog post.  You've clearly thought a lot about this.  As you predicted, I find your conclusion repugnant and dystopian, but I don't have a knock-down argument against your train of thought.

Comment by chemslug on Holy Grails of Chemistry · 2021-04-10T01:52:58.812Z · LW · GW

I don't have any inside information about what exactly prompted the publication of these pieces, but I don't think it's unusual for practicing scientists to have some idea of what's possible if things go very, very right with their research.  They're often wrong, of course, and important discoveries are often important precisely because of unforeseen ramifications.  The Acc. Chem. Res. papers are just speculations about potentially awesome destinations for existing lines of research.

I think that the resistance to Hamming's line of questioning came about because (a) the criticism was coming from an outsider, and (b) it's kind of a bait-and-switch to ask someone what the most important problem in their field is and then laugh at them when they don't immediately say "the thing I'm working on right now".   I'd be ticked off if someone did that to me, especially if I didn't know them well beforehand.

Comment by chemslug on Thoughts on Mustachianism · 2021-01-10T00:47:13.087Z · LW · GW

Thanks for this post!

To me, the early retirement option has always seemed like it was better suited to people who had unrewarding jobs that paid better than any of the jobs they would like more (for MMM, this was programming).  On the other hand, even if you like your job it's hard to see how having substantial savings in case of layoffs or unforeseen circumstances could be a bad thing (see Richard Meadows' post on this point).  Thus, like you, I've started leaning toward the "retire in your mind" option.  I also find that the parts of my job I like the most require physical infrastructure that is effectively only accessible within institutions, so I favor a path that lets me retain access to that while not worrying about the periodic layoffs endemic to my chosen industry.

I don't think we can learn too much about what people want to do with large amounts of free time from what they have done during Covid.  The pandemic has brought a new set of unpleasant constraints.  Inability to travel or see friends and loved ones without inducing lots of worry and guilt might make you pine for office politics!

Comment by chemslug on The Best Visualizations on Every Subject · 2020-12-26T03:35:33.448Z · LW · GW

For biochemistry, I think the Roche Biochemical Pathways chart is awesome, if a little overwhelming:

I don't recommend using it to learn biochemistry but it's pretty great to see it all laid out in one place like that.

Comment by chemslug on The Best Visualizations on Every Subject · 2020-12-26T03:24:43.550Z · LW · GW

For the field of chemistry, I nominate The Periodic Table of the Elements.  I know it's old but it really does capture a surprising amount of information in a visually pleasing format.

Comment by chemslug on [Linkpost] AlphaFold: a solution to a 50-year-old grand challenge in biology · 2020-12-02T03:31:09.870Z · LW · GW

I disagree with your assessment that structural biology is useless.  Knowing the shape of a protein can be pretty important if you want to perturb the protein's function by, say, finding or creating a small molecule that binds to it.  Crystal structures or cryo-EM structures can shed a lot of light on how a molecule binds to its target, which in turn can suggest further modifications to try and make a tighter binder.  It's not clear to me yet how easy or hard it will be to simulate ligand-protein binding using AlphaFold.  I'd lean toward 'hard' but maybe molecular dynamics simulations would dovetail well with a structure determined by AlphaFold.  

Comment by chemslug on Visualizing the textbook for fun and profit · 2020-09-24T22:06:12.337Z · LW · GW

I'm very glad to see that you're learning organic chemistry!  It's a great subject for the type of exercise you've described, as it's a very visual field of study.  As you mention that visualization is a skill you're working on developing in parallel with your organic chemistry studies, I'd recommend that you get ahold of a molecular model kit.  It may sound silly, but having a physical model of a molecule in front of you can make a big difference in how long it takes to grasp why, for example, SN2 and SN1 reactions give different stereochemical outcomes.  

Organic chemistry can be a playful subject if you approach it with the right mentality (don't believe what the pre-meds tell you, and don't try to memorize your way through the first semester!).  If you're looking for ways to see how it impacts your life, try looking up the chemical structures of over-the-counter medications like aspirin, dietary supplements like vitamin B12 or taurine, or polymers like polyethylene terephthalate.  Relating a structure to basic sensory data (the feel of a plastic bottle in your hand, the aftertaste of aspirin) can help the subject matter feel more relevant.

Please feel free to reach out to me if you have questions about learning organic chemistry!  It's good to see someone posting on LW about a subject I feel qualified to comment on, for once!

Comment by chemslug on Hammertime Day 6: Mantras · 2018-02-06T03:27:51.047Z · LW · GW

"Don't screw future self" is one that has served me well for more than a decade.