Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tourist Fun! And, work.

On Monday night, my friend Holly was briefly in town, so we decided to do some tourist things that I haven't gotten a chance to do yet.  Holly also has a Fulbright fellowship, to teach English in Macau.  Macau has a pretty strong Portuguese influence, since it was a Portuguese possession until 1999.  It's also know as the "Las Vegas of China", so all in all sounds like a pretty interesting place.

Our first stop was the Merlion Fountain at the Esplanade.  The Esplanade is a new concert hall that is right down on the bay.  The Esplanade is of course modeled after Singapore's favorite fruit, the durian:

The merlion is, just like it sounds, an animal with the head of a lion and the body/tail of a fish.  There are actually many merlion statues around Singapore, since it is the official symbol of the Singapore Tourism Board.  Apparently, the fish part represents Singapore's ancient name of Temasek, meaning "sea town" in Javanese, from back when Singapore was just a tiny fishing village.  The lion head represents new Singapore, as the Malaysia name, Singapura, means "Lion City".  We went to see the original statue:

According to wikipedia, although the statue is made of concrete, the skin is made from porcelain plates and the eyes are made from small red teacups.  To our great disappointment, when we arrived at the statue, all we could see was scaffolding set up around it - they were in the process of restoring it and we couldn't see anything!  Luckily, there was a smaller replica statue just next to it, so we at least got to look at that one.  From reading wikipedia just now, it turns out the that Merlion was struck by lightening in February of this year.  Maybe that was what the construction was all about?  Eight months seems like a long time for repairs though... 

After that, we headed to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.  The Singapore Sling was invented there in sometime before 1910, and a lot of people still go there to order an original Singapore Sling.  The Raffles Hotel is super classy and gives you the feeling that you are still back in the British Colonial era.  Here is the front of the hotel:

The inside is full of beautiful little tropical courtyards and patios and really makes me wish that I was some turn of the century British expat, lounging around in a hammock drinking a Singapore Sling while waiting for my dashing British explorer husband to come back from a tiger hunting expedition.

Here we are with our drinks:

And here is the informational handout they had about the drink:

  LongBarLogo picture  
The Singapore Sling was created at Raffles Hotel at the turn-of-the-century by Hainanese-Chinese bartender, Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon.
In the Hotel's museum, visitors may view the safe in which Mr. Ngiam locked away his precious recipe books, as well as the Sling recipe hastily jotted on a bar-chit in 1936 by a visitor to the Hotel who asked the waiter for it.
Originally, the Singapore Sling was meant as a woman's drink, hence the attractive pink colour. Today, it is very definately a drink enjoyed by all, without which any visit to Raffles Hotel is incomplete.
30ml Gin
15 ml Cherry Brandy
120 ml Pineapple Juice
15 ml Lime Juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml Grenadine
A Dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish with a slice of Pineapple and Cherry
Also, the Long Bar is one of those bars that gives you peanuts and lets you throw the shells on the floor.  I love bars that do that.

Another exciting thing that happened on Monday was that I finally met the professor I am working for, Dr. Tim White.  He is an Australian who was working here for some time and then moved back to Australia this summer, right before I arrived.  This is actually OK since I mostly work with the grad students anyways, but it was good to finally meet him.  He seemed happy with the progress that I have made, and had a couple good suggestions for solving the problems that we are still having.  That said, I really hope those suggestions work because I'm getting really frustrated with a very simple problem that I am having.  Basically, I'm making this iron oxide compound, but to make it I need to use a chemical called oleic acid (which is exactly how the name makes it sound - really oily).  However, once I've done the reaction, I need to wash the oleic acid away so that I can have a clean product.  As it turns out, this is really hard to do.  So, I've spent the last month just making samples of this stuff and trying different washing techniques and solvents to try to get the sample absolutely clean, but none of them have been entirely successful yet.  I've got one new method that I'm trying this week, and I'm pretty optimistic about this one.  The frustration is actually good, it's been motivating me to work really hard so that I can finally get this done and move on to something more exciting. 

Now I am off to work on completing my Halloween costume.  I'll put pictures up when I'm finished, but I'm pretty confident that it's going to be awesome!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


This weekend, I headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with some friends.  I felt justified taking Monday off because it was technically a public holiday, Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights.  So, Saturday morning we caught the bus and headed off to KL.

The bus ride is quoted as taking 5 hours, but it took more like 6.5.  The border crossings add significant time - one at the Singapore border to leave Singapore, then the bus drives over a short bridge and you have to repeat the same process to enter Malaysia.  But, the ride was quite scenic and also included a lot of sleeping.  For most of the drive up into Malaysia, the highway was surrounded by neat, straight rows of pineapple plantations:

The first stop after dropping our stuff off at the hostel were the Batu Caves, which are about 10 km north of KL.  We took the public bus, which is always an adventure.  I love taking public buses in new countries - the routes they take are typically less direct than trains or taxis, so you see a lot more of the neighborhoods, as well as all different types of people.  Similar to the buses in Nicaragua, these buses had "bus wranglers" who would call out the bus destinations at the station and then sell the tickets once the bus had started on its route.  This is actually a very workable solution for countries without fancy buses with automatic ticket machines, and the bus wranglers tend to be really helpful in figuring out which bus to take and where to get off.  Anyways, the Batu Caves are a Hindu religious site that contain shrines and temples.  Here is the main cave:

The statue here is 140 ft tall, and is of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity especially popular with the Tamil population of Southern India (a lot of the Indians here and in Malaysia are Tamils).  This is the tallest statue of Lord Murugan in the world!  To get to the main cave, you have to climb up 272 steps:

The main hazard here is not the steps themselves by the obnoxious monkeys - they were everywhere!  They were very used to people and very brave; visitors are advised to hold onto their bags tightly or the monkeys will run up and steal them, in the hopes that they contain food.  Inside the caves, statues and shrines were nestled into every nook and cranny.  They were hard to make out in the dark, but a lot of them were really weird and made me wish I knew what the legends behind them were.  There were also two more temples inside the caves:

That night, we did some shopping at Petaling Street, which is actually a market spread over several streets in Chinatown.  The stalls were full of convincing and not-so-convincing knockoffs of popular brands.  Our favorite store was a combination Christmas/Chinese New Year store.  Here is my friend Nathalie with the Christmas display:

I have to say, eating Chinese food in Malaysia to the sound of Christmas carols was a bit surreal. 

The next day, we woke up bright and early to obtain tickets to visit the Petronas Twin Towers.  At 1483 feet, the Petronas Towers were the tallest building in the world from 1998 until 2004, when they were beaten by Dubai.  However, they are still the world's tallest twin tower building.  The skybridge, at 558 feet, is open for visitors and free if you arrive early enough to get a ticket for the day.  We queued for about an hour (I really enjoy using queue as a verb.  It sounds so much better than "stand in line".) and got our tickets for later in the day.  We then headed outside to take some pictures with the towers.  Here they are:

Because of the extreme height of the towers, it was quite difficult to take pictures with a person in the foreground and the towers in the background.  As a result of this, people were putting themselves in all kinds of funny positions on the ground in order to get the right angle.  I noticed one guy off to the side quietly taking pictures of all the people in these funny poses.  He noticed me and, after making a shushing motion, came over to show them to me.  They were really funny!  He said he didn't care about the towers, he just liked taking pictures of the people; I also thought the pictures of the people were way more interesting.  After some lunch, we returned to the towers at our scheduled time.  First, we watched a really hokey 3D movie about Petronas, the national petroleum company of Malaysia.  This movie looked like it was made in the early 80s - odd considering that the towers weren't built until 1998.  It was pretty funny though.  Then, we took the elevator up to the skybridge.  Look at all the floors!

The elevator was really speedy, it ascended at 5 or 6 m/s.  Here I am on the skybridge:

Since it was the weekend of Deepavali, malls and stores had festive Deepavali displays set up.  These displays consisted mostly of rice paintings called kolam.  Kolam are a sort of artistic prayer - they invite the goddess Lakshmi into the house or building to bless the inhabitants.  Here is my favorite one that I saw:

 The next day, we again woke up early to catch the bus to Malacca Town, another Malaysian city that is on the way back to Singapore from KL.  Malacca was originally a Portuguese colony, and was settled later by the Dutch and the British.  There are a lot of historical buildings and influences left from these different colonising groups, and Malacca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 (this was actually quite unfortunate, since it meant that the place was crawling with tourists).  We took the local bus to the Dutch square, which contained a Dutch church, the Stadthuys (city hall), and, of course, a windmill.

After poking our head into the Dutch church, we headed to Bukit St. Paul, or St. Paul's Hill.  On top of the hill were the ruins of a church that was originally built by the Portuguese, and was later used as a fortress and lighthouse by the British.  The church contained one of my favorite things to look at when I'm travelling - old gravestones!  (Seriously, I don't know where this interest came from.  I blame my parents for taking us to the old cemeteries in Boston while there on a trip; my brother and I proceeded to laugh at the names of the dead people (our favorite was Dorcus) and had a grand old time, and from there my obsession was born.)

We then climbed down the other side of the hill to visit the remains of the A Famosa fortress, built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.  Originally, the fortress formed a 3 meter thick wall around the entire settlement, but here is all that is left of it now:

Finally, we visited the Istana, or the royal palace, of the Sultan of Malacca.  Here is a picture of his grand meeting hall:

I love museums with really hokey dioramas like these.  Another exhibit I really liked is this one, which depicts some legend of an epic duel.  It shows the earliest known example of Matrix-style fighting:

Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to look around here, since we had to get back to the bus station to catch our bus to Singapore.  In our mad dash through town looking for a taxi, we went by this museum:

I originally thought this was a body modification museum, but after a quick google search by Chris it turns out that it portrays the "differing concepts of beauty as practiced by different cultures".  The description is pretty admirable because they write two paragraphs about the museum, and use this quote in literally every sentence.

Overall, Malaysia, and especially KL, was a lot less sketchy than I expected.  It felt like being in the more shady parts of Singapore, which are really not very shady overall.  At no point did I feel worried about getting my bags snatched on the street or getting robbed by a taxi driver.  Another thing that surprised me was the large number of white tourists in KL.  I guess it's a more popular European travel destination, but I don't think I know any Americans who have traveled there.  Finally, especially in light of the large numbers of tourists, I was surprised at how few Malaysians (outside of the service industries) spoke English.  Especially in Malacca, we had to ask around quite a bit to find someone who spoke some English and could help us out with figuring out directions, etc.  Overall, I really enjoyed Malaysia, and wished that I had more time to hit some of the smaller towns, including Malacca again...maybe a return trip sometime in the future?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Activities as of Late

This weekend, I felt the need for an outdoorsy activity, so I headed to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for a hike.  Bukit Timah is the highest point in all of Singapore, at a whopping 537 feet above sea level!  In Malaysian, Bukit Timah means "tin-bearing hill" - no one is quite sure where this name comes from since it has never been known to produce any tin.  Historically, the hill is important because it was the location of the last stand by the British troops against the invading Japanese army during WWII.  Today, it's a nature reserve and one of the only places in Singapore where the original jungle landscape has been preserved. 

In going on my hike, I inadvertently made a friend.  I must have looked confused as I was getting off the bus to go the nature reserve, because an older woman who was also getting off at that stop asked me if I was heading to the nature reserve.  She was also heading off for a hike, so I walked with her to the reserve.  There were monkeys everywhere!  All over the visitor's center and the road leading up to it.  They were very bold and not at all afraid of the humans.  My new friend, Nery, was going on the 10 km hike around the hill (rather than the paved path that went straight up and down), and she invited me along.  This trail looked considerably less crowded, and that sounded good to me, so we set off.  It was quite warm and there were a LOT of steps to get up and down all the small ravines and hills.  My hiking companion Nery knew all the step counts and would happily report that "this section is only 175 steps up, we did 200 back there", setting quite a fast pace, while I huffed and puffed along behind.  (This was similar but not quite as shaming as the time Rebecca, Claire and I were thoroughly beaten on a hike up a mountain by a nine year old Nicaraguan girl named Bianca.)  Nery was a native Singaporean, so it was interesting to talk to her about the changes that she has seen occur in Singapore over her life.

One thing I was very disappointed about was that we didn't see any monkeys in the woods.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat, which would have been much more interesting than just seeing them hanging around at the visitor's center hoping for some food from the hikers.  Because of this, I have no pictures of the super cute monkeys.  Maybe next time.  Anyways, here is a nice picture of the jungle:

And one more:

What else have I been up to?  Sleeping.  A lot.  The heat here is really killer - 85 or 90 F each day with really high humidity.  It's really the humidity that kills.  The heat isn't all that bad; I don't go outside and feel hot, but after about 5 or 10 minutes of walking I realize that I'm drenched in sweat.  It's also really hard to get used to the heat, because all the buildings, trains, and buses are super over-airconditioned.  Like, 70 F or below.  It's ridiculous - I have to bring jackets to school and on the train because it's that cold.  
I'm also taking a Mandarin Chinese class.  Because the intro Chinese class at NTU is only for undergrads (and being Singaporeans, they are really picky about rules), I'm taking a class through the NUS (National University of Singapore) extension service.  It just started last week, but so far I really like it.  Mandarin is really hard because of the tones and the character system of writing.  There are four possible tones for each syllable, and the same syllable with different tones can have completely different meanings.  The characters are pretty hard to remember how to write correctly, so I spend a lot of my downtime at work just copying down characters over and over again, much to the amusement of the Chinese guys that sit next to me in my office.  Finally, it's also pretty difficult to pronounce since there are lots of sounds not found in English.  And I thought Danish pronunciation was hard!  (I joke to my Danish family that I have finally found a language that is harder to pronounce than Danish.  And of course I picked that one to learn.)  But, it's good for the language part of my brain to get a work out again.  Also, I have the benefit of getting ridiculously excited whenever I see a character or two that I recognize when I'm out and about in Singapore.
Today, I have finally perfected my omelet making skills by making the most beautiful spinach and mushroom omelet.  Seriously, no holes, no toppings falling out, and cooked to prefection.  I was so proud I almost took a picture.  
I think that's everything I have been doing lately. 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Some good books

Lately, I've been reading a lot both at work and at home.  All of the books I've read recently have been really quality, so I thought I would share me thoughts on them here.  I'm really happy to have the time to read copiously again; I hated not having the time to do so while at Mudd.  I also have a lot of downtime at the lab while I wait for mixtures to stir, solutions to centrifuge and ovens to heat up, so I get to read a lot and call it "work".

The first book I want to mention is Origins, by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  This book was recommended to me by Chris, who is secretly trying to turn me into a space nerd (OK, maybe not so secretly).  Anyways, deGrasse Tyson is a well-known astrophysicist, and an accomplished writer.  His writing, while very informative, is also entertaining and accessible.  And, the guy is just cool.  Look at him:

What a hip dude.  Origins deals with the origins of our universe and how it has evolved over time to become what it is today.  I have to admit that I've always been slightly put off by all things space, mostly because I don't understand the jargon and because it all seems so large and impossible to understand that I don't even want to try.  But deGrasse Tyson is really incredible in that he explains concepts in clear, plain language, and in ways that make space seem super exciting!  One aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed was that deGrasse Tyson always explained how scientists had obtained the data that they were using to back up their theories.  I also liked that the history of astrophysics was traced from ancient times until today, which made it easier to understand where the current theories and research came from.  For me, the coolest section of the book was about how different elements are made.  Individual elements are generated by fusion in the cores of stars, with stars of more energy generating heavier elements.  The heaviest element that can be made in current stars is iron; all the heavier elements come from super-massive stars that lived right after the Big Bang.  So, for anyone who wants to learn more about astrophysics, but is intimidated or worried that it will be boring, I strongly recommend this book!

The next interesting book I read lately is called Life on Air, by David Attenborough.  You probably know Attenborough as the narrator of the (completely awesome) nature documentary series Planet Earth.  (If you've never heard of Planet Earth, please come out of the cave that you have been living in.  Seriously, even my grandmother has seen it.  She also reads my blog sometimes.  Hi, Grandmother!)  In his memoirs, Attenborough tells of his work with the BBC starting in the 1950s, when the BBC was still in it's infancy.  Attenborough stumbled into TV by accident, and had originally studied natural sciences and geology.  It was this background that led him to start producing nature documentaries for the BBC, initially while on animal collection expeditions with the London Zoo.  Since these early programs were wildly successful with the British public, they were continued and expanded throughout the years.  Although hearing about the evolution of the BBC is interesting, the parts of the book that really shine are Attenborough's accounts of the many overseas expeditions he went on.  Attenborough and his team were always having zany adventures and getting themselves into scrapes.  Many of the destinations are chosen solely for their remoteness and lack of any Western influence, or because of a specific and rare wildlife species that had never before been captured on film.  Also, the book had lots of great pictures!  Like this one:

Awwww!  Another part of the book that I really enjoyed was when Attenborough talked about his experiences with the cargo cults of South Asia.  You may have read about these before: I've seen them mentioned in both Collapse, by Jared Diamond, and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Fenyman!, by Richard Fenyman (also both excellant books).  Bascially, the cargo cults were established by native island cultures in the Pacific after the arrival of Westerners.  The natives saw the Westerners receiving shipments of cargo from ships and airplanes, and since their cultures were not equipped to produce any of these advanced products, they concluded that the cargo must come from the gods.  The cargo cults were started to curry favor with the gods so that the natives would also receive these kinds of shipments.  They were often very intricate in their imitations of the methods Westerners used to receive the goods, doing things such as contstructing fake airplane runways and radio systems of our locally available materials.  Overall, I found the book very humerous and well-written, and I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at nature programming that the book provided.

Right now, I've just started reading Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  This book is quite an undertaking, at about 1000 pages plus 100 pages more of footnotes.    I haven't read a lot by DFW before beginning this book, but what I have read I've been incredibly impressed with.  This summer, I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of short stories and essays, which I found hilarious.  The other piece I have read by him is actually a graduation speech that he gave several years ago.  It's now published in a very small book called (I think) This is Water.  This speech absolutely knocked me off my feet.  If you haven't read it, do so!  I think it should be required reading for everyone, as it presents a very important message about the importance of being /aware/ in everyday life. 

I just bought one more book last weekend.  I don't normally buy books, because I read them too quickly.  But, this one is another 1000 pager, so I figured the investment was justified.  The book is question is 2666, by Roberto Bolano (that's actually the n-with-a-tilde-over-it but I can't figure out how to make that on blogspot).  Bolano is one of my new favorite authors.  This summer I read The Savage Dectectives, which is about a group of poets in Mexico City in the 1970s who embark on a search for the poet famed for founding their esoteric poetical subgenre.  Of course, it's the journey that is the story, not the end result.  All in all, this book was amazing - sort of if Jack Kerouac and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a baby.  2666 takes place on the Texas/Mexico border and is set in more modern times.  It was just released in English last year, so I'm pretty excited for it.  Also, having this one waiting will keep me more on track with Infinite Jest.  

What about you guys out there?  Any good books as of late? 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I'll get to the title subject in a little bit, but first I'll start with my Friday night.

On Friday night, I headed to Lau Pa Sat, a market and open-air eating area that is famous for it's satay vendors that open up each night.  In case you don't know, satay consists of thin strips of meat grilled on skewers, which are eaten with a really tasty spicy peanut sauce.  If you're in Singapore, Lau Pa Sat is the place to eat satay, and when my friends heard that I had not gone yet, we decided a trip was necessary.  The architecture of this market is really cool.  Although the structure has been moved several times, it's pretty much looks the same as it did in 1894 when it was built.  Here's a picture (not mine):

According to the website where I found this picture, Lau Pa Sat is "largest Victorian filagree cast-iron structure in Southeast Asia".  The satay vendors actually set up shop on a street behind the main structure.  This is a busy city street during the day but is closed off at 7 or so each night so that the vendors can set up their carts and tables and start cooking delicious satay!

Late Saturday night, I received a fratntic text message from my friend Natasha.  She had had a school break the following week, and she was lamenting that she had done nothing exciting in her week off and now her break was coming to an end.  Natasha wanted to do something exciting with her last day of freedom, so she proposed a trip to Batam on Sunday.  I was game, so we agreed to meet up the next morning to catch the ferry.

Batam is one of two Indonesian islands that are very close to Singapore (the other is Bintan).  Batam is about 20 km south of Singapore; about a 45 minute ferry ride.  It's not very touristy and lots of the island are still pretty undeveloped.  However, we figured it sounded good enough for a day trip.

On our way there, we saw huge numbers of cargo ships floating out at sea.  These ships are cargo ships without cargo, a very visible symbol of the economic recession.  There are huge fleets anchored here and off the coat of Malaysia, just biding their time until shipping picks up again.  I only know this because there was a very interesting article about it in the New York Times (I think it was the Times) about it a couple weeks ago.   
The ferry docked at a port called Sekupang.  Here's a picture as the ferry is pulling in:

 I paid $10 US for a visa (this was so silly, I had to convert my Singapore dollars to US dollars, so that I could bring them to Indonesia with me to pay this fee), which they printed out on a really cool machine and stuck in my passport.  We grabbed a taxi and headed to a place called "Waterfront", where we were hopeful we could find a beach to hang out on.  (Funny story, this same taxi driver ended up being our taxi driver all day, he gave us his phone number and told us to call him anytime we wanted to go anywhere.  We figured we were being scammed, but when we asked around it turned out he was actually giving us better rates than other taxis would have.  Guess we got lucky there.)  The Waterfront was in fact a beach park, albeit a very crowded one.   

I'm pretty sure I was the only white person in at least a 10 mile radius, so we got some stares.  The park was pretty old and rundown, but there was a large park in which some kind of event was taking place involving a stage and a speaker.  Maybe a concert?  A company picnic?  A church service?  We had no idea.  We also found a very strange statue.  Here is my friend Natasha with said statue:

After walking around here awhile and baking in the absurdly strong tropical sun, we called our friendly taxi guy and drove to Nagoya, which is pretty much the commerce center of the island.

After eating some lunch of cooked chicken and nasi (rice flavored with coconut milk), we ended up just walking around Nagoya looking at the shops and general scenery.  This lunch was chosen over a huge variety of American fast food options, including KFC, A&W, Pizza Hut and the ubiquitous McDonald's. The McDonald's I expected, but I was pretty surprised that A&W had made it all the way to this podunk Indonesia island!  Everywhere we walked people kept yelling at us.  Initially, I ignored them, assuming they were just yelling to be annoying.  However, once I listened, it turned out they were yelling for two reasons.  One, they kept asking if we wanted a taxi, because they didn't expect us to be voluntarily walking.  Two, they really wanted us to take pictures of them!  Everywhere we went, people would yell and pose and wave and then thank us profusely once we took their picture.Here is one such group:

It was really interesting that the men on the street, for the most part, were quite polite and would either ask us about a taxi, or yell "Welcome to Indonesia!".  Not normally what gets yelled at me on streets of other countries I've travelled to.  The houses, while rundown, were really interesting looking.  They were all painted in bright (albeit faded) colors - reds, pinks, greens, yellows, and blues.  A lot of them had really pretty iron grillwork on the windows and balconies.

At the end of the day, we headed back to the ferry terminal to catch the last boat back to Singapore.  We tried to buy some duty-free alcohol on the way back (it's super expensive here) but apparently duty-free doesn't apply to day-trippers.  All in all, a pretty good day for only making the plans a couple hours beforehand. 

Just now, I ate some grass jelly from one of my flatmates Susan.  Grass jelly looks like dark brown/black Jello and according to Susan tastes either "like nothing at all, or like herbs".  To eat it, you put some honey and maybe a little vinegar on it and then mix it up and eat it.  Yep, pretty much just tastes like honey on Jello. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pretty Science Pictures

 I did some more TEM work with my samples yesterday to see how I had been progressing with my lab work.  This week I got an "OK, you are making progress" from my labmates who were helping me with the microscope, rather than the "wow, you managed to mess up every sample you made" that I got last week (well, they said it more tactfully than this).  So, I'm pretty happy with that.  I always really like TEM pictures, even if the samples themselves aren't that great, so I thought I would post a couple here.

The first sample I've been working on making are magnetic iron oxide nanocrystals.  Iron oxide forms several phases and crystal arrangements, but it's important that I get 100% of the phase that I am looking for, Fe3O4.  On top of that, the crystals all need to be basically the same size.  That size is very small: about 10 nm across.  Finally, they also need to be monodisperse, which means that they're not all stuck together in one big clump but are each existing as their own separate little crystal.  Here's a picture of one of my samples from last week:

Terrible!  All different crystal sizes and they're all stuck together in that big dark clump in the middle.  Now, here is a much better one from this week:

So much nicer!  The particles are mostly homogeneous and really nicely spread out at the bottom.  And they're tiny (in the 5 to 10 nm range)!  Some of them are still stuck together but I should be able to fix that next week.  Still a problem though: my sample isn't a pure phase yet.  I want 100% Fe3O4 but instead I'm getting a mixture of Fe3O4 and FeOOH.  This is quite frustrating, because we can't really figure out how to get rid of the impurities yet. 

The really neat thing about high resolution TEM is that you can actually zoom in far enough to see the crystal planes in the particles.  In this closeup, each of the little crosshatch lines you can see is a crystal plane.

Neat!  This is a good way to quickly check if you sample is crystalline or not.  Another TEM capability is that is useful for this is selected area electron diffraction (SAED), which produces a pattern of either dots or rings that tell you about the degree of crystallinity of the sample as well as it's crystal structure.

The other main part of my project involves coating silica nanospheres with titania.  This process is made much more difficult by the fact that the titanium chemical that I use in the synthesis is air and water sensitive.  If I expose my reaction to air or water, titania condenses out of the solution very quickly.  Although I want to end up with titania in the end, I only want it to coat the silica spheres, and not end up all over the place in my sample.  Well, this is what happened to my sample last week:

See all the random stuff around the spheres?  That's rogue titania, which I do not want.  You can see that the spheres are also coated in titania - they look darker in the center because of the silica in the middle, and you can kind of see a ring around the edge which is the coating layer.  This can been seen a lot better in one of my pictures from this week:

Here, the edges are a little rough, but you can see the coating layer on the edges pretty well.  And much less random titania particles floating around in there.

Overall, nice to finally make some progress and feel like I'm starting to get the hang of things around here.