I thought about writing a whole post welcoming back my fellow Arkansan, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, but decided that not many folks would sit still for that. It does strike me, though, that the bird was rediscovered not that far from where I went to college.
I didn't have much time to hang out in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge, anyway, even if I'd been so inclined. I was living the life of the virtuous chemistry major, which for one semester led me to have all-afternoon lab sections every single day of the week. There's no doubt that I learned something in them, but not all of it was in the official curriculum.
Take one time in a physical chemistry lab, for example. We were doing something that no one in their right mind does in the real world, a determination of molecular weight by boiling point elevation. That's a relic of the sealing-wax era of chemistry, but it's not quite as much of a waste of time as those qualitative organic tests I was railing about the other week. I still wouldn't keep it in a lab course these days, but the way this one was set up, it did have some value.
We were figuring out the molecular weight of benzoic acid by adding increasing amounts of it to a solution (toluene, I seem to recall) and seeing how much the boiling point increased. We then plotted this out, running it through Raoult's Law to get the answer.
Well, of course, we already knew the molecular weight of benzoic acid. But as we took boiling point after boiling point, in a finicky apparatus that splashed boiling solvent over the lowered bulb of our thermometer, we could tell that something was going wrong. We were getting something way over 200, and benzoic acid weighs 122. Hrm. We checked everything again, but the data all looked pretty good. Way over 200. . .about 244, actually.
Then it hit one of us. "Dimer!" he said suddenly. "Benzoic acid forms a dimer, and that weighs twice as much!" We all slapped our foreheads and grinned. But the guys next door to us had put their minds at rest even before we did.
Not that they had the right answer. In fact, their plot showed the molecular weight of the dissolved benzoic acid at 122, right on the nose. Pretty good curve, too, pointed right at the seemingly-correct-but-impossible answer. How did they get there? By taking so many data points that the freaks and throwaways could be assembled, Frankenstein-style, into a zombie plot that gave the answer that they just knew it had to give. Never mind that the other 90% of the data pointed to twice that number - that can't be right. What do the data points know about right answers, anyway?