Posted in Education, Physical Chemistry, reading science, Science Education, working problems

How to Teach Yourself

How do you teach yourself a new skill? How do you learn a tough subject? (like pchem?) I’m glad you asked. Here are my tips and tricks specifically focused on pchem survival (but applicable to life in general).


1. Don’t be afraid! (and that’s an order!)

Thousands have been down this road and they were in your shoes back then. You may have to shore up some mathematical deficiencies and look up some vocabulary, but these tasks are obvious to you as you go along. None of this affects your value as a person. But do you have the drive to re-learn what you have forgotten and dig into what you don’t know yet? Decide now! This is not a technical question. It is a heart question. Your answer to this question will determine your future as a productive team member after graduation.

2. Do the tutorials.

Every book has example problems in the text. Every coding site has tutorials. Even Excel has example data sets in its help files to show you “how it is done”. Do the tutorials.

3. Read the text with a pencil NOT a highlighter.

Write in your book margins. Rework math proofs in your problems notebook. Unless the material goes in your eyes, rattles around in your brain, filters down your arm, and out through your pencil, then you haven’t comprehended the material. Highlighting is nothing but self-deceptive Arts and Crafts.

4. Keep a problems notebook.

Do all your problems in a composition book. It is bound and sturdy. It will last much longer than a spiral notebook. Thirty years from now, you can be amazed at how bad-a$$ you were in college when you look at the math problems you did!

AND you can use it to shame your college-aged kids when they complain that their college prof won’t just upload the homework concepts directly into their brain-chip.


If you would just use UNITS on your numbers you would catch 99% of your errors. I can’t scream this loudly enough! Units, units, UNITS! Use them, or fail. It’s on you.

“But they take up space. They take time. Whaa Whaa Whaaaa” Look at the photo uploaded with this post. There is NO way to catch all the powers of 10 that jump around in that problem without using units.

6. Pro-tip: Be Disciplined

“The scheduled task gets done”, said my father.

If your homework time is not scheduled, then it will not get done. If you are not using the phrase, “I can’t, I have PHCEM homework to do.” Then you are not learning pchem.

If you want to learn piano or guitar and you don’t schedule practice time, then I don’t want to hear you play. It is the same with sports. If you don’t schedule practices, then I’m not buying a ticket to your game.

Put LEARNING on the calendar, not just TESTING.

—Here endeth the lesson.

Posted in Spectroscopy

Excel Roller Coaster – Yes, my hobby is Excel

If you have FUN programming Excel, on a SATURDAY…You MIGHT be a Redneck I mean, you might be a PCHEMIST.


Years ago, I was at home on a Saturday fiddling with a wave function problem in Excel. The plot on the screen was of a couple of cosines, and my 8-year-old son said, “Hey that looks like a roller coaster”.

“It sure does.” I said. “Do you want to make a roller coaster in Excel?”

“Yes!”, he said.

So over the next four hours we had some quality father son time making a roller coaster in Excel. He learned something about cosine functions, and how to put custom backgrounds on a chart. Some of the finer details he did not care much for were anchoring cells, negative error bars, or the mod() function. But he really appreciated the custom look of a white wooden roller coaster and the looping macro that made the coaster run along the track.

You can download the macro-enabled (.xlsm) workbook file from my curiosities page to see how these functions and settings were used. Here is a time-lapse video of my creating the page from scratch. There are some fun tricks so I hope you enjoy it. the background loop is a bit annoying. Sorry.

The coaster uses an infinite loop. To kill it just click Ctrl+Break, and it will stop.

What Excel awesomeness to you have to share? What questions do you have about these functions and settings in this fun application?

Ask in the comments field, and subscribe for more fun in the future (like my Sudoku solving spreadsheet).

Posted in Spectroscopy

Fall Cleaning

Forget Spring. I just purchased a lot of optics, and before I rip them from their protective packaging, I had better review my handling and cleaning techniques.


Fortunately for me, Edmund Optics – the company that sold said optics – is savvy enough to send an email approximately 2 weeks after my purchase with guidelines and reminders about how to care for my optics. Here is their first paragraph followed by a link to the rest of their article. (This is not a sole endorsement of EO, but it is an acknowledgement that this 2-week email practice rocks.)

From EO:

“After purchasing an optical component, exercising proper care can maintain its quality and extend its usable lifetime. Choosing the proper cleaning products and using the proper methods are as important as cleaning the component itself. Improper cleaning practices can damage polished surfaces or specialized coatings that have been used on optics such as lenses, mirrors, filters, or gratings, degrading the performance in almost any application. Also, be aware of your clothing and your environment while cleaning optics; shirts with zippers and buttons can scratch your optics, likewise dirty or dusty environments are not well suited for optical applications.”

Continue reading



Posted in Spectroscopy

PChem at SHSU, What to Expect

Most of our frustration in life stems from incorrect expectations. So let me line out the year of PChem at SHSU so you will not be frustrated by the unknown.


Starting at 30,000 ft elevation, we have the two semesters:
Fall is Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy
Spring is Thermodynamics

Zooming in on the Fall semester, we have the following structure.
Quantum Mechanics, Spectroscopy, and Group Theory fully developed on one-dimensional systems.
QM applied to vibrational spectra
QM applied to rovibrational spectra
QM applied to atomic spectra
QM applied to electronic molecular spectra
Spectral simulation with Gaussian

This is a significant departure from the structure of my undergraduate pchem course at UT in the late 80’s. And in my opinion, it is a great improvement!

My goal for the class is for the students to be able to apply a quantum view of light interacting with matter whenever necessary.

I know this approach has been successful because alumni have written me saying that they were able to understand spectroscopic applications not covered in my course. This course gave them the skills to apply the theory in new situations, which is the greatest goal of higher education.

Drilling down into Thermodynamics, I break the course into five sections.
Statistical Thermo taking quantum theory to bulk properties.
Thermochemistry the theory of bulk properties and engines.
Phase diagrams, pure substances, mixtures, and equilibrium.
Non-equilibrium systems and transport phenomena.
Energy sources, sinks, conversion, and efficiency.

This is also a departure from the traditional pchem Thermo treatment, which in my experience was a class in partial differential equations taught under the guise of a chemistry class.

Is this treatment effective? Once again, I rely on alumni to support my claim that it is. They are well employed and advancing in GE, Baker Hughes, Nalco, Agilent, and other competitive companies.

Posted in D L Williams, Education, Physical Chemistry

Brainstorm Session on 3D Printer Waste


Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ideas. Look at the picture of the dual extruder tip cleaning fences and give me your thoughts on what they could be used for.

Background: I have recently added a 3D printer to my lab to prototype chemical laboratory accessories.

I purchased a dual extrusion Makerbot and I love it. I will blog a review of its performance sometime soon.

Technical Details: Aside from the waste produced from being a noob at 3D printing, there is also a lot of built in waste from raft and tip cleaning fence material. Turning off rafts and supports does not save filament because these help ensure a successful print. If the print fails without rafts and supports, then you have still wasted a lot of filament.

So get those creative juices flowing, and comment on what you would use these tiny little fences for. Toys? Rear view mirror bling? Let me know.

Posted in Spectroscopy

All About Slugs (Not the Slimy Kind)

Excellent advice for searchability.

The Daily Post

When we start writing a new post, WordPress automatically creates a URL for the post using our blog’s address, the date, and post title. Great, now you don’t have to worry about your post’s URL, right? All taken care of.

Not quite. You don’t need to lose sleep over your post URLs, but paying some attention to the post slug — the bit of the URL after the address and date — can have a nice traffic payoff.

“I’m still not sure what a slug is!”

The slug is the bit of your post’s (or page’s) URL that describes what that specific post is about. Here’s the URL of this post, with the slug in bold:

If I’d used the URL that WordPress auto-generated for me based on the post title, the slug would have been:

They both get the job done, but one…

View original post 502 more words

Posted in Education, Physical Chemistry, Science Education

Same Behavior, Same Results

T-minus one week and counting…

first class day

We start up the semester at Sam Houston State University one week from today. So I thought I would address the students at SHSU in general and the Physical Chemistry students in particular.

What are YOU going to do differently this year to ensure you improve performance, retain knowledge, and cultivate character?

Even the 4.0 student can improve in these areas. Begin by writing out your goal. It might look like:

  1. Make straight A’s this semester.
  2. Not get behind in my classes, job, club officer position, and family commitments.
  3. REALLY learn the material so that I can draw on my knowledge in future classes and jobs.

Whatever the goal is, do not forget to do this next important step.

Think back to last year. Identify what kept you from achieving this goal last year. Be specific. Was it a habit? a video game? a TV show? a friend who dominated your time? a student organization?

Now, change it. If this activity, person, or situation pulled you off your path to success, then either change it or change your path. You cannot follow two paths.

You cannot do everything.

Now, is the time to plan. If you are a chemistry major, especially, now is the time to commit yourself to hard work, problem sets, reading the text, and a smaller social agenda.

In the future, you will be hired based upon your chemistry abilities, not how many activities you were in. Be the best, most knowledgeable graduate you can be, no matter what your major.

It starts today.