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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 12, 2011

Snow and Chance Happeneth To Them All

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Posted by Derek

In case anyone's wondering, the pace of discovery has slowed a bit around these parts today. We've got a whalloping pile of snow out there, verging on about half a meter, and I'm blogging from my fortified position at home. No French onion soup today, although I do have a couple of home-made pizzas in the oven as I speak.

Science should be resuming tomorrow, though, thanks to the snow plows. I find, having grown up in a part of the country where there were none (and where everything just shut down a couple of times per winter), that I'm still impressed at the efforts that go into cleaning the roads. My thinking, though, is that people who grow up under these conditions take road-clearing as some sort of natural process - of course the highways will be clear; they always are. A good look at a local street that's had traffic and a foot of unplowed snow on it for a week would be quite a revelation.

Update: for those who've asked, my company was officially closed today, which I very much appreciated, even though I do take the train in to work. Driving in to work, now that would have have been a real treat. . .

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping


1. Hap on January 12, 2011 2:38 PM writes...

Wow. We got 10cm here. People can't drive competently here anyway, so it wasn't all that different getting home (although slightly slower).

OH in theory should be one of the places with a magical snow-removal ability, but a winter on a side street near OSU removed any such illusions - heavy snow turned to a month's worth of ice and if I'd had a car, it would have left the street sometime in April, probably. I was pleasantly surprised in NJ, though - my parents' cul-de-sac was cleared the day after a 30 cm snowfall.

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2. Paul on January 12, 2011 2:50 PM writes...

In Harvard Square, Cambridge Public Works would plow all of the snow onto the sidewalks such that the intersections were practically impassable. And when the temperature crept up a bit, your feet would be soaked for a week's worth of morning walks into lab.

I'm happy to report that it'll be a toasty 72F in Pasadena today.

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3. Keith Robison on January 12, 2011 3:09 PM writes...

Some of this mania for snow clearing dates back to the notorious Blizzard of '77, which paralyzed the region for many days. Folks who lived around here then (I did not) tell tales of being stuck in or out of the house for days.

According to the book Invisible Frontiers, one of Wally Gilbert's students (Lydia Villa-Komaroff, I think) followed a fire truck into the Biolabs (there was a family connection) so that the race to clone insulin would not be interrupted.

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4. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 3:15 PM writes...

I grew up in Wisconsin so this storm brings back childhood memories of snowdrifts taller than I was. In the 1970s we had some very severe winters, way beyond even the impressive Wisconsin norm; it got so deep they actually had to haul it away in dump trucks because there was no more room for the plows to pile it up along the roads.

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5. Anonymous on January 12, 2011 3:40 PM writes...

I don't understand why you stay at home. I'd get fired if I called my boss and told that "I'm not coming to work, it's raining outside". As for snow, you'll get the best picture from the live webcam of the Music Centre construction site at

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6. Chemjobber on January 12, 2011 3:49 PM writes...

So I don't really know anything about the process. Is it basically monster snowplows driving up and down streets, digging, spraying/dropping salt and/or sand? Anybody know anything about how it works?

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7. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 4:19 PM writes...

@Chemjobber: yep, it's basically as you guessed: huge dump drucks full of salt, with plows or snowblowers in front and something resembling a gigantic fertilzer spreader in back spraying salt. For drifts too deep for a plow, front-end loaders are used.

Here's an example I found with a quick Google search; probably at least a thousand vehicles similar to this one are operating in New England right now:

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8. RM on January 12, 2011 4:32 PM writes...

I think it's because people who grew up where it snowed expect snow clearing to be part of the local government's responsibilities. E.g. When you think about it, it's remarkable that there's someone who just makes your garbage disappear every week, or that there's always water flowing out of the tap whenever you turn it on. Someone who grew up without running water would be impressed by all the pipes/treatment plants/infrastructure that go into water utilities. We just get annoyed at the local government when it doesn't.

Anonymous@5 - I don't know where Derek is, but his local government may have "closed" the city and told everybody who doesn't need to drive to stay of the roads because they're icy/dangerous. If people can telecommute, it's safer for everyone, rather than skidding their SUV sideways through the intersection on their way to work. It's not so much "I'm not coming to work, it's raining outside" as "I'm not coming to work, it's raining so much that the roads are covered in several feet of standing water." (Any Brisbaners in the audience?)

Chemjobber@6 - The main thing is plows, who physically move the snow/slush off to the side of the road. They usually then spread salt, sand, or a salt/sand mix behind them to deal with residual ice. The salt works by freezing point depression, lowering the melting point of a salt-water mix to below ambient, and thus melting the ice because of Le Chatelier's principle. The sand increases traction, and helps even when ambient temperature is really cold and below the freezing point of the salt/water mix.

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9. Handles on January 12, 2011 4:51 PM writes...

Im in Brisbane. Ill try to go back to work this morning, but via the back roads (the motorway is somewhere under a large lake a few blocks from my house). Luckily for everyone the flood peak last night was lower than predicted.

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10. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 5:21 PM writes...

Handles in Brisbane, I hope your home is OK! My life will get back to normal tomorrow, we get snow every winter, but from what I see in the news I gather it will take some time before life in Brisbane gets back to normal -- and for the families of those who have died life will never be the same again.

Anonymous: the authorities ask employers to close and people to stay off the roads not only for the safety of individual drivers but also because traffic makes snow removal much more difficult.

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11. Chemjobber on January 12, 2011 5:24 PM writes...

Thanks, folks!

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12. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 5:27 PM writes...

Salt does have some major downsides, like being corrosive! During the winter I go to the carwash after every storm to remove salt from the undercarriage. Fortunately modern cars have much better undercoating; when I was learning to drive back in the 1970s any car was basically junk after six or seven Wisconsin winters due to corrosion.

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13. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 5:48 PM writes...

Chemjobber, I forgot to mention, in Wisconsin we also had vehicles with whirling brushes that would follow behind the plows and sweep away the last bits of snow (which plows cannot remove) before the remaining snow turned into ice.

Snow removal ain't free, and the cost varies wildly from year to year so a severe winter wreaks havoc on municipal and state budgets. There are financial instruments such as "snow insurance" and "weather futures contracts" that many Northern governments use to hedge this financial risk, basically paying extra in mild winters in order to minimize the fiscal shock of a severe winter.

Failure to do a good job of snow removal can end political careers in Northern cities; this happened to Chicago's Mayor Bilandic and NYC's Mayor Lindsay in the 1970s. Current NYC Major Bloomberg is pulling out all the stops now because he knows that history and wants to prevent criticism of how NYC handled the December storm from doing the same to him.

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14. Dr. Manhattan on January 12, 2011 5:55 PM writes...

"Anonymous@5 - I don't know where Derek is, but his local government may have "closed" the city and told everybody who doesn't need to drive to stay of the roads because they're icy/dangerous."

He's in the Boston area, and so am I. It would be treacherous to drive today, and the Governor asked we keep the roads clear for the snow plows. We got hit with a tremendous ocean storm, known in these parts as a Nor'easter. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I echo Derek's sentiments that the snow clearing expertise & equipment here is phenomenal. But, one of the tricks in rapid snow clearing is to keep people from driving, becoming stranded, and then having to have the plows (which are huge machines) try to navigate around abandoned cars. That is why we were asked not to drive today, along with the fact it would be damn dangerous.

Geez, we made home made Pizza as well...

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15. Hap on January 12, 2011 5:56 PM writes...

...and his chances of being President in 2012, which getting harrassed out of office in NYC would not help.

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16. Hap on January 12, 2011 5:58 PM writes...

...being elected President in 2012. Ack 2.

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17. EB on January 12, 2011 6:39 PM writes...

From what I understand from a co-worker the plows up here (new england) are nothing in comparison to the ones in U.P. Michigan where they grew up. Those things truck along at about 50 MPH (in order to break through 5-6 foot drifts) and will gut a compact car if it is buried on one of said drifts. Though growing up in the south east I've never seen one of these things in action though it sounds pretty phenomenal.

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18. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 8:26 PM writes...

EB: yes, the equipment used in the UP is mighty impressive. Where I grew up in Southern Wisconsin we used mostly standard -- if large -- trucks for plowing, but the Upper Peninsula AVERAGES about 210 inches snow per winter. I went to the UP for skiing and to visit some cousins who lived up there.

Another thing they had in the UP that we didn't have where I grew up: every car had a little electric cord hanging out the front grill for an engine block heater, and every parking lot had outlets for people to plug their cars in. It's pretty common to see 40 below up there. Note to non-US readers: 40 below means the same thing whether it's F or C because -40 is the point where these temperature scales happen to coincide!

My father grew up in Northern Wisconsin, where the coldest temperature he remembers is -54F in the 1930s.

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19. SP on January 12, 2011 8:52 PM writes...

I got to work fine in the same city as Derek using public transportation. Buses had no problems because all the idiots stayed off the road. But I suspect Derek lives out in the burbs.
Biggest snowplow in the world is at the Syracuse airport- plow blade is 4 feet high and 32 feet wide.

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20. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 12, 2011 10:12 PM writes...

Well, this storm has passed, with nearly all of CT getting well over 12 inches of snow and some areas getting over 30 inches (for non-US readers: 30 inches equals about 76 centimeters). Numerous records for single-day snowfall broken. Plows have passed my residence so I should have little difficulty getting to my office Thursday. Since I work on computers, unlike my wet-lab colleagues today was actually quite productive for me thanks to the Internet.

This is the third substantial snowstorm in as many weeks, with more snow possible this weekend and the middle of next week.

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21. RB Woodweird on January 12, 2011 10:58 PM writes...

Yes, the panic and lines at Stop and Shop to get bread and milk are residuals from the big one in 1977.

Which came on the day of the Beanpot and stranded some in the Garden overnight. And some of the strongest snow and wind came during the showing of the traditional LSC porn film - that term it was Deep Throat. The blizzard hit a few days before Wellesley spring term took up, so those with girlfriends who had come to stay in Boston were trapped indoors with them for a week.

Youth is truly wasted on the young.

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22. Orthogon on January 13, 2011 8:51 AM writes...

Atlanta is definitely a part of the country that just shuts down during/after winter weather. Today is the fourth day that the university where I work has been shut down due to icy roads.

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23. K on January 13, 2011 9:31 AM writes...

Orthogon - ~4 inches of snow shut down Heathrow airport in London for nearly 2 days last month.

We definitely win the "can't cope with a flurry of snow" award!

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24. petros on January 13, 2011 10:11 AM writes...

(Spanish owned) BAA refusal to invest in snow ploughs was one of the problems at Heathrow, and it was 4 days.

As a 2 runway airport that operates at 95%+ capacity normally, having only 1 runway open for several days was crazy. Admittedly it was the worst snow fall in the London area in some 30 years.

Much of the UK can't cope with signiifcant snowfall, partly because it tends to be rare, but I heard the same comment 3 years ago in DC when it snowed. 1 inch caused problems there!

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25. Overland on January 13, 2011 10:49 AM writes...

Down here in Georgia, it has been snowing about once a year for the last 5 years or so. Each time it snows about an inch, and each time it paralyzes everything. It isn't cost-effective for local governments here to own snow-handling equipment, so everything just shuts down.

It is interesting that as a kid in Georgia, it only snowed three or four times before I was 18 years old. Now it is a yearly occurence. I blame it on El Nino/Nina and the solar cycle.

And maybe Al Gore.

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26. snowed too on January 13, 2011 11:04 AM writes...

Why are do many people wasting their time on this dribble?

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27. Anonymous on January 13, 2011 12:16 PM writes...

When I lived in the south along the I20 corridor, we would get an ice storm every few years. The standing joke was when there was a snow drill, people would take their car out and drive into a ditch. That's why they tell people to stay home when there is that much snow.

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28. Overland on January 13, 2011 8:54 PM writes...

Dear #26 snowed too:

You remarks sounding like automated spam generalizer. Learning grammar likening correctly prevents language by yourself from sounding like computerized spam. The end thank you.

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29. RIPete on January 13, 2011 11:41 PM writes...

My corner of RI got about 10 inches, with the worst of the storm just prior to the morning commute time. Worked from home and got a lot done- our company closed too.
I am from the Midwest and New England does tend to get hysterical about any snow, but this storm, [and a few others in the past 8 years] was the real deal.
The late 70s/early 80s had its share of nasty winters while I was in grad school. In Madison you can still by a postcard of the town in a snow fog at -37oF (as well as the Flamingos on Bascom Hill from a rare sighting in 1979 :-) ).

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30. Anonymouse on January 18, 2011 10:55 PM writes...

Having experienced snow in upstate NY and MA there is quite a contrast. In upstate NY, it seems that snow from virtually any storm is usually cleared in time for the morning commute, whereas in MA is seems the authorities wait hoping the heat generated by traffic running over the snow to melt it.

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