Today’s thought: TOUCHDOWN

After just over two years, my beloved and sainted father’s laboratory can finally be claimed to be “up and running.” No, everything isn’t “done,” (is it ever?), nor is every piece of equipment even in the lab. Despite that, our very first major breakthrough came this afternoon just before 1700 (Central time): after lots of sweat, blood, tears, and swearing, we have produced vanadium dioxide that optically switches!

Yes, yes, I know. More explanation is needed. For those of you who just read the first paragraph or two, just know that it’s time to spike the ball and do the dance:


Nope, this lab hasn’t been to the end zone before, so we don’t have to act like it (just this time).

For the rest of you… read on.

You should remember that one of the goals that my beloved and sainted father (glory be unto his name) has for his laboratory is to create thin films of transition metal oxides. “Transition” metals are these:


… so transition metal oxides are (you guessed it) just oxides of those metals. Making thin films of these is kind of a trick, and I’ll save that for another time. We look at these materials because they have interesting optical and electrical properties. When we combine these metal oxides with noble metal substructures (noble metals are ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, silver, osmium, iridium, platinum, gold, mercury, rhenium, and copper), REALLY exciting things happen. The material that is the thin film and the substructure together is what we call a metamaterial.

In any case, our first oxide was one of the oxides of vanadium – vanadium dioxide (VO2). VO2 was discovered in 1959 by Morin (Phys. Rev. Lett. vol. 3, pp. 34ff), and is a material that undergoes a solid-solid phase transition. Most phase transitions that people talk about are solid to liquid (e.g., ice to water) or liquid to vapor (e.g., water to steam), and have a phase diagram that looks like this:


For VO2, the phase diagram is more complicated, but the key is that instead of changing phases like water does, the solid-solid phase transition involves a very subtle restructuring of the crystalline structure of the VO2. Since we’re going from a less-ordered state (at room temperature) to a more-ordered state (above ~68 degrees C), the crystal structure changes like this:

As a result, the material changes from a semiconductor to a metal, and from transparent to opaque — and it does so reversibly … on femtosecond time scales.

“Reversible” is easily understood — the crystal can switch between one state and another again and again and never wear out. The change takes ~tens of femtoseconds. A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second — about as long as it takes light to go from one end of a virus to the other, or about as long as it takes me to snake mommy’s underwear from the laundry room and run into my little Pekingese cave…

So, it’s easy. Take a film of this stuff and look through it; add enough energy and when you look again, it’s dark. In fact, that’s kind of the “test” experiment, and it looks like this:

The “probe” laser (dotted line) is always on, providing a constant beam for us to interrogate. The “pump” laser (dashed line) provides just enough energy to change the VO2 from the “off” (semiconducting, clear) state to the “on” (metallic, opaque) state. The optical chopper does just that — it takes our constant laser beam and “chops” it by blocking it using thin metal fins at given frequencies. If the experiment works, then whatever frequency you’ve dialed into the chopper will appear in the detector.

Note that the detector CANNOT see the laser light coming from the pump! The detector is physically shielded from that beam (by geometry), and is further protected by the “long-wave pass filter” that only lets light with wavelengths greater than 1500 nm pass through (i.e., the filter blocks whatever pump light might make it that far). The only way for the detector to see that frequency is for the material itself to be changing at that frequency — the results of which are transmitted by the “probe” beam. When it works, it looks like this:


This is data from our oscilloscope connected to our detector. The very clear sinusoid pattern it the VO2 changing (at a frequency close to 100 Hz in this image) phases back and forth.

At some point, I’m sure my beloved and sainted father will want me to write more about how we made the film, etc., etc., but tonight is for celebration.



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Today’s Thoughts: Heat, microwave plasmas, and some help from above

Today is the 30th of December, so we are well into the depths of winter, so you might wonder why I would write about something like “heat.” Well, read on and find out…

My beloved and sainted father (glory be unto his name) has been struggling with a sample holder for quite some time now. “Version 1” of the beast required only a bit of adjustment before it worked, but it is a sample holder (and that’s it). It turns out that the sample holder my beloved father needs must also do double-duty as a sample heater as well.

From the “vacuum science” post in October, we discussed that keeping your vacuum system clean is a key part of getting to low pressures. Heating things up in the midst of your system (not during the bake-out process) is NOT a good way to keep things clean. As things heat up, “stuff” (alcohols, water, and then hydrocarbons) boil off of the surface as the thing being heated reaches the boiling point of these materials. The longer you heat something, the more contamination gets into your system. This makes the creation of a sample holder/heater nontrivial.

Now enter “Version 2” — a completely re-designed holder/heater that really was a work of art. The metal was all a special steel alloy that could take lots of heating and cooling in oxidizing atmospheres (like the ones we’ll require) without losing its key properties. The “core” of the heater was a piece of boron nitride — a remarkable material that is a good thermal conductor while also being an electrical insulator. This turns out to be important, because in a vacuum, there isn’t anything (or really much of anything) to “transmit” your heat. That means that the most effective heaters work by conduction (versus radiation or convection); take a look at this:


My beloved father wrapped the boron nitride with kanthal wire (a wire that is designed to have current run through it with the goal of generating heat). If the boron nitride wasn’t an electrical insulator, when the heater was turned on, the entire system would have 20 Amps running through it — not the safest configuration!

Everything was assembled, and initial tests started. And ended. As the kanthal heated up, it expanded off of the boron nitride and ended up doing nothing. The solution is easy then, right? Find a material that will hold the kanthal on the boron nitride. This new material needs to be strong (to resist the kanthal expansion), be an electrical insulator (otherwise the whole thing will short out), and act as a thermal reflector. The answer? Zirconia. After weeks and weeks of waiting (and not a few dollars), “Version 2.1” (held by its inventor) looked like this:

What a thing of beauty! Testing commenced. And then came to a screeching halt. There aren’t a lot of materials that will endure the temperature ramp rate we put into this piece during the second phase of testing, and the zirconia decided it didn’t want to play anymore:


Sigh. The top piece of zirconia (bottom white part) is barely discolored, but the cylinder cracked twice — once around the circumference (creating the piece second from the bottom that separated from the main body just above it) and once vertically (creating the odd black/tan pattern that we still don’t understand).

Bigger sigh. Since then, my beloved and sainted father has been trying to talk to people about custom insulation for furnaces. There are lots of materials that could work, but they have to work in our vacuum (without killing it) and in a partial oxygen atmosphere (without dying). We’re thinking that it’s likely going to be some carbon/zirconia fiber composite, but getting people to return telephone calls or e-mails about this isn’t as easy as it sounds… Stay tuned (hopefully for success!).

What does the microwave have to do with any of this? In a completely different (but kind of related) set of experiments, another of my beloved and sainted father’s students is trying to make thin films of new materials. Daddy’s lab has already produced some very nice thin films; here is an image from the atomic force microscope of a thin vanadium dioxide film on sapphire:


This image is 10 x 10 microns (a human hair is ~90 microns in diameter; wool fibers thinner than 25 microns can be used for clothing); the yellow part of the “step” is vanadium dioxide, and the blue part is the sapphire substrate. The “step” was “engineered in” using the “Version 1” sample holder (see above). Well, these new materials do not like to create solid films — they form patterns that look like tiny little hedge mazes (imagine tiny versions of the maze at Longleat House in Wiltshire, England). That’s interesting, but not what we’re going for. In discussion with some colleagues from the Nano Tech Center at Texas Tech, it became obvious that we needed a plasma etcher (an interesting reference describing plasma etching is here). In short, let’s consider this little gedankenexperiment: you take a drop of water and place it in the center of a normal glass microscope slide. Now, using a clean pair of forceps, try to spread that drop of water out. It turns out that you cannot. The water droplet will follow the forceps around, but it will remain a little droplet. The surface is hydrophobic. Now, put the same plain slide into the plasma etcher for 30 seconds or so and try the experiment again. This time, the drop of water will spread very evenly over the entire surface of the slide. The surface is now hydrophilic — and will hopefully help generate our solid thin film.

Buying a plasma etcher was pretty much out of the question (they cost ~$10k), but my beloved and sainted father found a way to create one using a used microwave oven. To prove it, here is a picture of it working (with argon gas; oxygen will be added later once the pump is made safe for oxygen; the hand is that of the student who is trying to make the films):


Interestingly enough, if you have just a bit too much gas in the system, you get this odd arcing pattern:

Hopefully, when my beloved and sainted father returns from Christmas break in the next day or so, everything will be in its own housing and working properly. Sometimes you just need a bit of help from above. Just to be clear, pyrex can be melted in the microwave:


Before you get all excited and say that the picture is of plain kitchen pyrex and not “science-grade” pyrex, I’ll offer the following:

Broken glass is broken glass, but a working device is a working device — in this case, all for less than $500 (which is, using my mad Pekingese math skills, less than $10,000). Sometimes, you just need some help from above.

Speaking of which, while in Wheelock earlier this month, my mother and my beloved and sainted father (glory be unto his name) went to the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church in Franklin, Texas (there’s not one in Wheelock). It’s a beautiful church, and the service was very nice (since when is Mass not nice?); there weren’t any screaming children — Deo gratias!

As my parents sat down, they noticed a large stained glass window behind the altar (you cannot possibly miss it) depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove. Now, there are lots of depictions of the Holy Spirit as a dove. I like this one from the Holy Spirit Catholic Church:


These are often serene pictures – the dove is meant to be gentle and comforting; one of my favorite images like this is the dome of St. Peter’s church in Vienna (the dove is actually on stained glass at the very top of the dome):


or this one with the Holy Father:


This image of the Holy Spirit seems different. In fact, I think it’s kind of disturbing. The Holy Spirit isn’t supposed to be mean or vicious. Something tells me that parents might use this image to persuade their children to do whatever they want. I envision something like Luke 10:27 (paraphrased, emphasis mine): “You WILL love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, OR I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND EAT YOU.” Here’s what it looks like:


I apologize for the distortion of this image. Someone was slightly perturbed that my beloved and sainted father needed to document this “beast” and this is the best he could do from that pew without making a “scene” (according to my mother, anyway). That bird has a serious beak. Put some slightly bigger talons on it, and you have one scary bird.

In any case and wherever you find yourself, Pekingese everywhere hope you had a wonderful Christmas and we wish you a very happy, healthy New Year (complete with more Thoughts from Yours Truly)!


Posted in Texas, Thoughts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Vacuum science and Hate Week

It’s Hate Week, and it’s probably time to update everyone on the progress that my beloved and sainted father has made in the laboratory since last we spoke. Let’s dive right in.

In June of 1644, an Italian physicist/mathematician named Evangelista Torricelli wrote a letter to Michelangelo Ricci in Rome about advances Torricelli made in creating a barometer. The letter specifically contained new methods of creating a barometer that involved the creation of a vacuum along with the first working explanation of atmospheric pressure; with that letter (a translation of which can be found here), vacuum science was born. To honor this, the unit of a “Torr” was born and is used even today.

One Torr is defined as exactly 101,325/760 Pascals (see, e.g., the National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 811, Section 5); the “760” part of that number comes from the original (and arbitrary) definition of a “standard” atmosphere, and a Pascal (also named after a famous physicist) is a pressure of one Newton (yep, another famous physicist) per square meter.

All of this is great, but most people think of pressure either in atmospheres (like when people think about SCUBA diving), in inches of mercury (when, e.g., you are watching the local weather, the pressure is generally given in “inHg”), or in pounds per square inch (e.g., when you inflate your car’s tires). To convert, we see that:

  • 1 Torr = 1/760 atm (or, perhaps more simply, 1 atmosphere = 760 Torr)
  • 1 Torr = 1/25.4 inHg (or, again, 1 inch of mercury is 25.4 Torr)
  • 1 Torr = about 1/51.71 psi (or 51.71 Torr is roughly 1 pound per square inch)

Just in case you need reminding, at sea level, you walk around in ~1 atmosphere all the time (~14.7 psi); when you fly in a standard passenger aircraft, the pressure inside the cabin when cruising between 36,00 and 40,000 feet maximizes at 0.76 atmospheres (roughly 11.2 psi).

Why is all of this relevant? You see, one of the things that is important for my beloved and sainted father is getting rid of all that pressure – and creating a vacuum. One of the main goals of his laboratory is the creation of thin films of materials. The materials (and the things on which the materials sit, called substrates) must be clean, and so as my beloved father carefully assembles the films together (sometimes one atomic layer at a time), he cannot have anything else in the way. No air, no water, no alcohol vapors – nothing. Hence, my beloved and sainted father must create a system that holds a vacuum, and we measure the quality of the vacuum by the amount of “stuff” left in the system, which is primarily measured by pressure.

How does one go about this? Well, it depends upon your requirements. Mommy’s vacuum cleaner does a great job of cleaning my sister’s mess off of the floor (I don’t shed — that’s all her fluff, thank you very much), but even the really good vacuum cleaners pull only ~3 psi; if you have a closed system with no leaks, that would take you down from 760 Torr to ~150 Torr. That’s not a very good vacuum.

The massive contraption my beloved and sainted father has managed to create has five (5) different pumps. In order, he has:

  1. The roughing pump (just upgraded to an Edwards XDS10). This is a dry scroll pump that takes the whole system from 760 Torr (1 atmosphere) down to the sub-milliTorr level (a milliTorr is 0.001 Torr for those who never learned metric prefixes). This pump runs all the time, because it also acts as a back for pump #2. In this range of pressures, the flow is laminar. This is because the distance between molecular collisions is very short (i.e., a gas molecule is likely to hit another gas molecule before it does anything else (like the walls of the chamber).
  2. The turbomolecular pump (Leybold TurboVac SL 80 DN 63 CF). The turbo pump plows through that range, and takes the whole system down to a few x 10–8 Torr (something like, say, 0.05 microTorr; remember that “micro” means “one millionth” or “one part in one million” – silly metric prefixes). This pressure is achieved within 30 to 45 minutes of closing the main door. At these pressures, the flow is molecular, meaning that a gas molecule is much more likely to run into the chamber walls than to run into another similar gas molecule.
  3. At this point, my beloved and sainted father would close the valve between the main growth chamber (whence all the goodness happens) and the load lock chamber (think “airlock”) so he can make the pressure in the growth chamber (which is where all the magic happens) continue to drop. With the valve closed, Daddy engages the cryo pump (Oxford Instruments Cryo-Plex 8). This pump uses pressurized liquid helium (at a temperature of 15 Kelvins) to bring the pressure down even more. Remember when Uncle Greg told you to lick that flagpole when it was freezing outside (seriously, that might be the nicest thing he told you to do…)? That’s what happens to most of the molecules that are left — they stick to the unbelievably cold interior of the cryo pump, never to return to my beloved father’s growth chamber.
  4. Once the cryo pump has been going for a few minutes, Daddy then engages the ion pump (Gamma Vacuum 150T-DI-6P-SC-220-TSPA). The combination of the cryo and ion pumps together bring the system down to a few tenths of a nanoTorr (“nano” meaning “one billionth” or “one part in one billion”). This is the range we call “minus 10” since it is expressed as something like “8.9 x 10–10” Torr, but we aren’t done yet!
  5. The last pump that is engaged is the titanium sublimation pump that is attached to the ion pump. Titanium is a “getter” material, meaning that it likes bonding to things that the cryo pump and the ion pump don’t like to take out of the system (hydrogen is a good example). The pump doesn’t “pump,” but instead heats up a small filament that lays down a very thin layer of titanium (inside the pump — not inside the system). This fresh titanium acts like a magnet to these last materials and captures them for good. This drops the overall pressure to roughly 0.07 nanoTorr (the “minus 11” range).

At this point, you’d think we’d be done, but we’re not. During operation, to keep the system as clean as possible, my beloved and sainted father uses one last trick — he flows liquid nitrogen into an interior cryo panel. This works just like the cryo pump does, but is the one last way to make sure the deposition process is clean. Once the panel is as cold as we can make it, we can find the “base pressure” of the growth chamber (i.e., the answer to “How low can you go?” but not “How funky is your chicken?”):


This is a photograph of one of my beloved and sainted father’s graduate students kneeling in front of the electronics rack for this system. The blurry (but readable) numbers show 6.4 x 10–11 Torr (that’s 0.064 nanoTorr); this falls nicely into the region scientifically called “ultra-high vacuum” or “UHV.” The “smoke” above the system is really water vapor resulting from Daddy filling the cryo panel. [For reference, daytime pressures on the Moon are roughly 10–7 Torr (see Taylor & Burton 1976, M&PS, 11(3), 225; a pressure that is four orders of magnitude higher than our system); nighttime pressures on the Moon drop down to 2 x 10–12 Torr (only about a factor of 32 less than our chamber).]

It’s not just the pumps that get our pressure this low. It’s a complex combination of:

  • The chamber construction. The entire chamber is made up of stainless steel (type 304) that has been thoroughly electropolished. It’s electropolished to make sure that there are as few nooks and crannies as possible. We can’t have random water molecules clinging on for dear life! All of the ports that can be opened (save two) use copper gaskets to close them. By sandwiching a soft copper gasket between two harder stainless steel parts, the copper “flows” into the remaining gaps, creating a really tight seal. The two ports that do not have copper gasket seals are the load lock door (used to move things in and out of the system and not on the growth chamber) and the main door to the growth chamber. Both doors use rubber (Viton) rings as gaskets. The main door to the growth chamber (which should almost never be opened) has a double O-ring seal, and the space between the two rings is differentially pumped using the roughing pump.
  • Cleanliness. In vacuum science, cleanliness best be your watchword. Nobody touches this system without a clean lab coat and clean gloves. Even a single fingerprint (probably from some graduate student’s grubby hands) will leave trace oils that are effectively impossible to completely clean off. The remnants of those oils constantly shed particles (in a process we call “outgassing” — again, something similar to a process that Uncle Greg does well) constantly, and would drive the interior pressure up.
  • Bakeout.” After the system has been open to air (even if it is just for a second), water molecules sneak in (yes, even in west Texas — amazing, right?). Those water molecules stick (adsorb) onto every metal surface in the interior of the chamber, and will outgas (similar to the forbidden finger oil). To combat this, we button up the sides of the chamber (see the gray strips of fiberglass blanket with metal twist buckles behind my beloved father’s student?) and force hot air to circulate around the outside of the chamber. Once the chamber reaches 150 degrees Centigrade (well above the boiling point of water), we let the system “bake” for several days. This ensures that everything with a boiling point below 150 degrees C will be forced off of the chamber walls and will (hopefully) find its way down into one of the pumps to be captured. If we did not have any rubber gaskets (i.e., every port used copper gaskets), we could increase the bake temperature to 450 degrees Centigrade and get an even cleaner vacuum. However, some newer information indicates that if you bake at temperatures that high, you might damage the knife edges (the parts of the stainless steel that squish the copper gaskets), thereby ruining them. Further, heating to 450 Centigrade will reduce the hydrogen gas levels in the system, and our sublimation pump takes care of that for us without risking damage to any other part of the system.
  • Look, Mom! No grease!” Since regular bolts can seize when heated (making life very uncomfortable), and since we avoid hydrocarbons (like grease) like Yersinia pestis, all of the assembly hardware (bolts, nuts, and washers) is silver plated.

The next “level” of vacuum (called “extreme high vacuum” or “XHV”) starts at a pressure of 7.5 x 10–13 Torr — about a factor of 100 less than what my beloved father has achieved. XHV is difficult to produce and even more difficult to measure; it is done only in a few laboratories that use very specialized (read: expensive) equipment where the users need to the simulate interstellar space (there are a few other highly specialized applications). Could our system reach XHV pressures? Perhaps, but I’m not sure it’s necessary for the science that we want to do, and it might not be worth the trouble. We should be proud of our base pressure (after we begin depositions next week, we might never see it again!).

At this point, however, my beloved and sainted father got to show his students a condition that shows 13 orders of magnitude difference — they are standing in 1 atmosphere (760 Torr), and they can touch (WITH GLOVES) a chamber with a pressure lower than 0.00000000000012 times less dense.

At this point, you might ask “What does this have to do with Hate Week?” Well, first of all this isn’t the Orwellian version of Hate Week (in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four); this is serious. See, for example:


What? You don’t like to see little kids cry? Here is some footage from the OU pep rally this week:


There’s really nothing positive about Oklahoma, and even less about OU. From one excellent website, we quote:

Dear OU,

First things first – your entire school is built from the ground up on the concept of stealing things. You took the Yale fight song, ravaged it through the least creative rewrite in music history, then made your band beat it into the ground ad nauseam, just like you did to the native population of your state. Yeah I went there. A few scholarships and a statue or two doesn’t erase that kind of history. Especially when your mascot is named for people who illegally stole land (Sooners) and killed Native Americans (Boomers) to get it. That’s only a few degrees of national ignorance away from Washington Redskins territory.

Speaking of territory – Texas Football might be a bit of a dumpster fire at the moment, but your state has been fulfilling the role of national receptacle since it’s inception. People voluntary came to Texas on wagons emblazoned with “GTT.” Some even laid down their lives to preserve the mere idea of Texas (you know the place – we named a bowl game after it). People were FORCED to move to Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma state flag is all kinds of awful. Graphic designers have been killed over less. Protip – if you have to put the state name on your flag you are doing it wrong. I could put the Texas flag here for comparison, but I don’t need to. You know exactly what it looks like. We put it on everything. It is awesome.


(“I dunno JimBob. Just put some stolen Indian stuff on there and a cookie. I like cookies”)

The flag is awful, but surely you guys came up with a better tagline? Nope. For years your official state license plate said “Oklahoma is OK.” Nevermind – I take it back. Most accurate description ever.

Do you know what happens when you make people play that stupid song over and over and over? This:


How about these examples of ultra-classy OU fans:


How about plain old academics? The latest (2015) university rankings from U.S. News and World Report rank the University of Texas at #53, Texas A&M at #68, and OU at #106 (cf. my beloved and sainted father’s alma mater sitting nicely at #16). Mein Gott, mann! OU is tied with the so-called “University” of Tennessee (a true diploma mill).

It’s a common mistake to think that vacuum pumps suck gas from inside the chamber. If the gas molecules in one part of a volume are removed, then the remaining molecules collide and bounce off of the chamber walls until they fill the same volume at a lower pressure. In other words, until a molecule, propelled by random collisions, enters a pump’s pumping mechanism, it cannot be removed from the chamber. The pump does not reach out, grab a molecule, and suck it in (even roughing pumps rely on molecules sticking to each other in laminar flow to work). That means that vacuum doesn’t suck.

At the same time, we know that the only good thing about Oklahoma is that it keeps Texas from falling into the Gulf of Mexico, and no matter what, fuzzier minds everywhere are secure in the knowledge that OU sucks.

Hook ‘em!

Posted in Texas, Thoughts, Vanderbilt University | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Thoughts on INVASION

Happy Saturday morning to all of my readers! Today is 23 August — only FIVE days until Vanderbilt football and only SEVEN days until Texas football begins! Happy days!! We can all finally crawl out of the darkness that is football-free into the light that is football season. Cherish these days – they will be all too short. In just four more months, it will be Christmas, and we’ll be in the midst of bowl season, gorging ourselves on as many games as possible (because America celebrates mediocrity!), until we get to the last sweet morsel, the “championship” game on 12 January. (“Championship” is in quotes since it’s only a four-team playoff and there are way too many people who are either too involved to vote without bias or who really don’t know anything about football on the so-called “committee.” Why can’t Division I football have a “normal” playoff like EVERY OTHER COLLEGE SPORT IN AMERICA? I guess that’s a topic for another day.) On 13 January, we will be forced back into the cold, dark months without any football. No more tailgating. Televisions and radios stop working both ways (my beloved and sainted father, glory be unto his name tells me that, during football season, if you yell loudly enough at the TV, the coaches and players can hear you). We are stuck with “sports” like rhythmic gymnastics and ping pong. I could cry just thinking about it.

None of that now — in just a few days, football season begins, and we can enjoy 132 beautiful days in the Sun that is college football.

That said, some of my readers might wonder about the title of today’s post. Let’s see:

  1. We have two beautiful passion flower plants. These climbing vines produce beautiful flowers (an example of one my mother grew is shown below). wpid-passionflower-2014-08-23-08-32.pngIf you find them, enjoy them while you can — flowers open around 11 AM and last only one afternoon (especially on the Caprock). While the passion vine is chemically protected by cyanogenic glycosides (that prevent plant-eating bugs from eating it), it is fed upon by caterpillars of two specialized butterflies that basically do not feed on anything else. The nasty-looking larvae of Agraulis vanilla (the gulf fritillary) are ALL OVER both of our vines, and have almost completely destroyed them. These grotesque things look like like the picture below; there seem to be ZILLIONS of them, and they are remarkably resistant to my mother’s efforts to irradiate them (which continued until she realized they were going to become butterflies; see the picture below the nasty caterpillar). It’s hard to believe that nature would allow a species to completely destroy its larval host, but I think next year, we’re going to make good use of insecticide (we might plant milkweed, like Asciepias tuberose L. (a.k.a. “Butterfly milkweed”) so the damn caterpillars will have something to eat and Mommy can have her freaking butterflies). I just want to see more passion flowers passion fruit!                  wpid-caterpillar-2014-08-23-08-32.jpgwpid-1920px-agraulis_vanillae_butterfly_from_above-2014-08-23-08-32.jpg
  2. The Crimea is a really beautiful part of the world. Until 2014 (which is really none of our business — let the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the EU handle this mess without us!), the only time anyone heard about this place was either the Crimean War (1853–1856) or the famous song about the principle waterway of the region (here). Seriously. This mess needs to end. Get over yourselves, Russia.
  3. The group calling themselves the “Islamic State” (or ISIS; a violent, terrorist organization claiming to have established a caliphate in Syria and Iraq) is committing the most heinous, abominable, and abhorrent crimes across the Middle East. There really are no polite words that can express what’s going on over there. Beheading men, women, and children (and not with a single, quick stroke, either). In some cities, this freakish group demands that Christians (those who do not believe in their so-called “prophet” and their bizarre interpretation of the Quran) must pay fines, leave, or convert to ISIS’ heathen beliefs. This is genocide in its ugliest and most base form. In any case, ISIS marks their property with the arabic letter nūn – “n” for “Nazarene.” All Pekingese (and really, all decent human beings) stand with these Christians in defiance of ISIS and their unforgivable crimes! For future reference, when you see someone wearing, carrying, or otherwise displaying a picture like what’s below, they are standing up for these persecuted people. We encourage you — in the strongest possible manner — to stand together with us – #WeAreN
  4. wpid-pastedgraphic-2014-08-23-08-32.png

Finally, for some poor souls (like my mother), school has started. For others (like my beloved and sainted father), classes begin on Monday. This is the true invasion.

My mother is now teaching VERY young children (who should be seen rarely and never heard – you KNOW they would yell into my ears and pull my tail!). Some of these lost souls have yet to experience the bathroom, and get some of the fundamental concepts confused. For reference:

These are sinks. Wash your hands. Use hot water AND soap. That means you have to get your hands wet AND get soap on them AND rinse them off. You are little Typhoid Marys, and you don’t need to be passing any of those cooties to my mother, because she’ll bring them home and infect my poor father. Especially since my mother has not allowed the construction of an emergency bleach shower just outside the front door.

These are urinals. This is where you go to mark stuff (don’t do it anywhere else, or you’ll get into BIG trouble). A quick reminder: ONLY LIQUIDS GO HERE. I’ve heard that some of you missed this point already…


These are toilets. This is where you leave your scat (again – don’t leave your scat anywhere else!).


None of these look similar, so try not to confuse them (again). Just a little help for my mother.

My poor father’s condition is even worse (although, granted, he probably doesn’t have to deal with poo on a daily basis). This semester, his teaching load has DOUBLED! That means that he’ll be working on a new lecture EVERY DAY FOR 15 WEEKS! These aren’t terribly puffy classes, either. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he is teaching a graduate class on applied nuclear physics called “Nuclear Matters;” on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he is teaching a special topics course on nanostructured transition metal oxides. If you want to try to keep up, you can periodically check his university website. If it is slightly dated, please forgive him — this promises to be a truly hectic semester!

In addition to classes, my beloved and sainted father’s laboratory has been transformed (finally!) from a filthy hole full of broken crap into something that resembles a fairly clean, fully functional, operating material science laboratory! Deo gratis! The last major piece of equipment was delivered and installed during the week of 21 July, and things are settling into place nicely. I don’t believe that “before” pictures exist, but the current configuration looks like this:


Pictures will, I’m sure, be forthcoming. Let’s look at the timeline:

  • Started work in January 2013; assigned crap lab that could never be used for science
  • ~March 2013: Assigned better lab space (the one he is currently using)
  • ~May 2013: Original occupant leaves newly-assigned lab space
  • ~June 2013: Renovation begin
  • ~August 2013: Last bits of trash leave the lab, and the lab is cleaned for the first time in (months? years? decades?)
  • ~December 2013: Realization that purchasing new equipment “isn’t working well”
  • January 2014: Purchasing solution realized; equipment starts coming in properly
  • July 2014: Final renovations completed; last major piece of equipment arrives
  • August 2014: Final equipment checks started; minor issues still need to be resolved

This means that the laboratory really went from empty to full in ~8 months. That’s amazingly fast — especially given the way certain bureaucracies work (or don’t, as the case may be). The goal is that the major systems are characterized and initial data is generated during the fall semester (while teaching a double load; ha, ha). This means that “real” work could begin in the spring.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men… Perhaps one of Murphy’s Laws of Combat is more appropriate: No plan survives the first contact intact.

For all of our friends out there, think of us as the semester begins (i.e., the invading hordes arrive). St. Albert, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Cassian of Imola, St. John Cantius, St. Ambrose, and St. Bede the Venerable, pray for us!

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A Black Day

Kenneth Charles Kaye, 71, noted League City attorney, passed away July 29 in Houston, after a decades-long battle with Crohn’s disease. A first generation American, he was born in Houston on September 15, 1942, to Walter Kaye and Margaret Schoening Kaye, who had come to America from Germany.

He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1964 and in 1968, was awarded his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Kenneth was a loyal Longhorn all his life, particularly during football season.

He was board certified in civil trial law and was selected by the National Trial Lawyers of America as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the nation. A member of the bar associations in Texas, Galveston County, and Bay Area, Kenneth was also a fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation. He served on several committees for the State Bar of Texas, including three years as chairman of the district Grievance Committee.

Kenneth was admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, the U.S. Tax Court, and the U.S. District Court of Texas. He was a referee or Master in Chancery for the 308th, 306th, 10th, and 212th Judicial District Courts in both Harris County and Galveston County. He also served as municipal judge for Taylor Lake Village from 2006 until 2013.

He married Patsy Jane Hays in Houston 43 years ago this month and became a loving father to her son, Gregory Nassar, and later to their son Anthony. He was a wonderful role model for his sons and an unfailing source of love and support for his wife.

Kenneth was a loving husband, father, grandfather, nephew, friend, and colleague who will be sorely missed by many who loved and respected him. He was preceded in death by both parents and his aunt, Dr. Eva Schoening Pfeiffer-Haufrect.

He is survived by his wife Patsy; his son Gregory Nassar; his son Dr. Anthony Bresenhan Kaye and wife Christine of Lubbock; two granddaughters, Alexandra Veronica Nassar and Marron Margaret Nassar; his sister Irene Kaye Crichton and husband Andy of Pennsylvania; three nephews, David Crichton, Stuart Crichton, and Peter Crichton; and his twin aunts, Ruth Schoening Schultz and Lore Schoening Aufhauser.

Private graveside services were held in Wheelock, Texas, on Saturday, 2 August at 10:30 where Kenneth and Patsy had a retirement home. A memorial service — a celebration of Kenneth’s life and work — was held at 2 p.m. on Monday, August 4, at the Crowder Funeral Home in Webster, Texas. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent in memory of Kenneth Charles Kaye, a good man and fine attorney, to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

As many may recognize the Hon. Kenneth C. Kaye:

My grandparents upon their engagement:


The most loving father anyone could imagine:


There will never be a more honorable, more righteous man. Requiescat in pace, Papi. You are loved, and we miss you already.

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Today’s Thoughts: Smoke!

Dominus vobiscum!

It’s been months and months since I’ve last written, and you, my dear readers, have suffered (I’m sure) as a result. My most sincere apologies.

Let’s start with the biggest news:

  1. Mommy is the latest (and best!) addition to a private school here on the Caprock. She gets to teach tiny little children (who would probably chase me and pull my tail — I’m glad they don’t come home with her!). I know she’s happy about that, and we’re all happy that she’s happy.
  2. Omi and Papi have officially moved out of my beloved and sainted father’s childhood home and moved up to the ranch. We’re all very proud of what they’ve accomplished, and we think they’ll be very happy there. For my beloved and sainted father (glory be unto his name), however, there really is no more going home… Here is their place:


My beloved and sainted father took this picture from way far away using his iPad (not a real camera). If you can’t see Omi and Papi, they live here:


When I go see them, I stay in the little house over to the left in this picture (with my parents). Here’s another picture:


Wouldn’t you like to visit?

All three of these pictures show excellent examples of crepuscular (from the latin word for “twilight,” crepusculum) rays. In this case, small water droplets are causing the sunlight to scatter through a layer of stratocumulus clouds, making the rays visible. Despite the fact that they seem to converge at a point, they are really near-parallel shafts of light. Many people call these rays “fingers of God;” what else would you expect in Texas?

  1. After more than 18 months of struggling, swearing, ranting, raving, crying, and begging, the last piece of major equipment for my beloved and sainted father’s laboratory will be installed next week (they will be here Monday through Thursday), at which point, his lab should be ~95% up and running. Deo gratias!!! I am sure more pictures will follow once everything is done. It’s a bit sad that it’s taken so long (and even sadder that this piece of equipment has been sitting in the lab, wrapped up like an untouchable Christmas present for more than two weeks – isn’t that cruel?), but the wait is now almost over. Yea! Happy bouncing Pekingese dance!!

Now for the real news. This is serious.

I mean it. Brace yourselves.

My beloved and sainted father has somehow acquired a smoker. No, Mommy doesn’t light up some foul-smelling garbage. I’m talking about the grill’s new big brother. Another device to combine fire, smoke, and meat. Thus far, I have personally witnessed the following meat exit what could only be described as the back door to heaven (since what comes out deorum cibus est):

  • Two whole chickens (N.B.: One quarter of one chicken was sacrificed to the fire god)
  • Two racks of baby back ribs
  • One massive pork shoulder

You know what’s really cool? Smoking both chickens and both racks of ribs — at once — with room left over. Yeah, baby.

Mommy is thinking she might never have to cook again (she needs to seriously rethink that, though).

Despite the fact that I’m not as privileged in the “meat tasting” department as I think I should be, I can confirm that all of this at least smells awesome. My beloved and sainted father (glory be unto his name), who never lies to me, has told me that it’s really dang good. This afternoon, however, I’ve heard whispers of the new piéce de résistance: BRISKET. Mmmmmmmmm, good – and I’m not talking about some Campbell’s soup. If I’m sufficiently stealthy, pictures should follow. I’ll bet our guests tonight will be happy (until my sister bites them…).

Until next time…

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Today’s Thoughts: Daddy’s Lab is at DEFCON 2

My beloved and sainted father (who is, as everyone knows, infinitely patient) is mere hours away from doing actual science. Don’t tell anyone – I’m sure they’ll think of (yet) something else to stop him.

After months of not having a lab at all, to cleaning out the nightmare (and doing laboratory archeology – Yea! Computer memory from the 1960’s!), to the never-ending construction (which makes a never-ending mess), to non-functional locks and uncooperative safety people, my beloved father and his students are now two-digit hours away from doing science.

That aside for a moment, I really had to think about the title of today’s post. Lots of bitches I know would have totally gone for “Hey, baby. Want to get some red hot furnace love?”


Yes, Daddy loves his furnace. He loves his new quartz sample holder even more. This picture was taken this very evening during characterization testing when the furnace reached a mere 600 degrees Centigrade (that’s almost 1300 degrees Fahrenheit). You can see the rails on which the sample travels and the half-round cross section of the sample holder itself. The bright lights going around the tube at the back are the heating elements.

During initial testing, this furnace went up to 1,200 degrees Centigrade (almost 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit). This ain’t no Easy Bake Oven, yo (in Yankee-speak)! It’s hot enough to scorch a snake’s ass in a wagon rut (as they apparently say “out West”). Since fused quartz doesn’t melt until it reaches ~2,000 degrees Centigrade, I think we’re safe (although when we hit 1,200 degrees, the temperature was still rising at a degree or two per second… we never did find the maximum).

Now that my beloved and sainted father has rebuilt it with new thermocouple wire, new housing, and modified insulation, we’re about ready to be cooking with GAS (in this case, nitrogen, and that’s not flammable; no oxygen in this furnace!). That means that he’s just one tiny (but critical) piece of equipment away from really doing something in there (something other than cleaning, setting up, fixing things that shouldn’t be broken, fighting with the safety people, ordering new equipment, organizing, cleaning again, fixing something ELSE THAT YOU WOULD NOT FREAKING BELIEVE IS BROKEN – AGAIN, the safety people said what?!?!, etc.). Perhaps something… scientific!

Hope springs eternal. Perhaps by early next week, some preliminary results will even find their way here… Until then, think upon this picture (same furnace, now at 720 degrees Centigrade):


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