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Latin America - Day 2, with a nod to our chemistry faculty

September 3, 2009

Charles Grim

September 3, 2009 20:45
En route from Panama City, Panama, to Quito, Ecuador

It has been a long day. This morning we left our hotel at 5:00 for a flight to Panama City. We visited two schools before Peaches, Drew, and I continued on. Jeff and Johanna opted to spend a second day in Panama, but the three of us have had better luck with applications from Ecuador and felt that was the better use of our time. (If you don't already know who these folks are, see yesterday's blog.)

Yesterday's visit at the United World College in Costa Rica was a roaring success. We did an Admissions 101 workshop for about 50 students from that school as well as about a dozen others from two other San Jose schools that traveled to the UWC campus. I met a bunch of really great kids at our mini-college fair and had time to interview 3 particularly interesting students afterwards.

Today was the first time that any of us had ever left the Panama airport so we all managed new stamps in our passports!! We were lucky with the weather as there were torrential downpours during our presentations at each school, but little to no rain during our taxi rides or our walk to grab a late lunch/early dinner. I had a pretty iffy tapas-style octopus appetizer and a very tasty mixed kabob.

As we were flying into Panama, we flew over and through some absolutely beautiful cloud formations, and I couldn't help but wonder something that I suspect many of you will know without even thinking about it. But I don't and without any internet access as I'm writing, I can't look it up. Why do clouds form? On the one hand, I know that there are attractions between physical bodies which would tend to bring the water molecules together, but I'm not at all clear as to what stops them from continuing to get closer until they are no longer light enough to remain suspended in air. On the other hand, don't most molecules suspended in liquids and gases tend to move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration? So why don't the water molecules spread themselves out?

If you know the answer to this deep and intriguing question, then you might also be interested to know about one of the really cool pieces of equipment that we have in Oberlin's chemistry department - a custom-built turbulent flow chemical ionization mass spectrometer. This device is so powerful that it is capable of detecting particles in the atmosphere as thinly dispersed as one particle in 7 billion! Those of you who are interested in exploring the atmosphere could assist an Oberlin faculty member, Matthew Elrod, in his quest to model the atmosphere by using this device and, perhaps, our supercomputer. I'm sure that there are many interesting environmental applications that would dovetail nicely into Oberlin's strong environmental interest. And remember that as an undergraduate-only institution, undergraduate students at Oberlin get to use this piece of equipment as well as the many, many other amazing items that Oberlin faculty have collected and built over the years thanks largely to National Science Foundation and other external grants. Check out the web pages of our various science programs to get all the details (and the correct name of the atmospheric measuring device). Given the science equipment and research opportunities at Oberlin, it is really no surprise that Oberlin has a long history of being the number one undergraduate institution in sending science students on to Ph.D. programs.

I'm fighting off sleep now, so I need to end soon, but I wanted to leave you with another little thought-provoking question. We saw the Panama Canal today from the air and were close enough to it on the ground to see the tops of the ships passing through (although we couldn't see the Canal itself). And as I was thinking about the locks and the sources of water to operate the Canal, I remembered that the two ends of the Canal are not at the same height. So then I got to thinking that when we note that some mountain is X meters above sea level, what exact sea-level are we talking about? And with global warming, polar ice caps melting, and the sea-level rising, are all of our mountains getting shorter?

Feel free to write in with a succinct explanation of clouds and thoughts on my sea-level question. I don't need anyone to point out that the question of how we stop global warming is probably slightly more important, but I'll leave solving that problem to the students and faculty in Oberlin's internationally known environmental studies program.

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