Monday, August 24, 2009

Joy of research: Answers may not come from where or who you might expect

When you are searching for information there is a tendency to get into a rut. It is easy just to rely on a web search engine like Google (or the latest incarnation of Microsoft MSN search). However, the answer may not come from the most obvious place.

In a table I wrote four years ago I identified nine different web search strategies. One was “Ask a Guru” – find someone who should know the answer, and ask them. Sometimes though it’s not obvious who will turn out to know about a topic.

About 35 years ago I was in graduate school doing research on the arcane topic of how steel is embrittled by hydrogen. Among other things, I was trying to learn how to electroplate steel specimens with a thin coating of bright cadmium. The recipe in 20 year-old magazine article I was reading was missing an important detail. All it said was that they had added an unspecified “organic brightener.” I asked my dad, who had been a professor of chemical engineering, but he didn’t know.

The next day I was talking with my mom. I mentioned being puzzled about the brightener in the recipe. She just laughed, and then answered my question about this bit of chemical sorcery. It turned out that back during World War II she had a summer job in the San Diego plant of Ryan Aeronautical, where they built thousands of training planes for the Army Air Corps. She had taken a college chemistry course, so one of her duties was to periodically check the chemical concentrations in the plating tanks.

Her duties also included adding a couple jars of Postum (a coffee substitute) to their fifty-gallon bright cadmium plating tank once a week. I bought a jar of Postum at a supermarket, and found that her memory of the amount they had added agreed with the recipe in the magazine. So, I added it to my tank, and found that it worked very well.

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