“That I’ll have my own eureka moment. That’s the dream,” says senior Julia Berk.
The eureka moment is famously attributed to Greek scholar Archimedes. The story goes that one day he stepped into a bath and in a flash of insight suddenly realized that the buoyant upward force on an object in a liquid is equal to the weight of the displaced liquid.
Often at MIT, these moments occur for students in the Undergraduate Research Inspired Experimental Chemistry Alternatives (URIECA). It’s a lab curriculum in the Department of Chemistry, where undergraduates replicate cutting edge faculty research, experiencing the same process that led MIT faculty to glorious eureka moments.
Berk recently recreated a leading experiment originally done by Professor Christopher Cummins. “Nitrogen is one of the most stable molecules in the world, the second strongest bond in chemistry,” she says, adding that Cummins miraculously found a way to break the triple bond in nitrogen under moderate conditions. “It was a huge discovery, a huge deal. You don’t ever think it can happen, and then all of a sudden, there it is.”
Discovery is sheer thrill, she says, and although she didn’t experience the initial discovery herself, reliving his eureka moment was a blast of inspiration.
“It opens the door to a whole new world of opportunities. I keep thinking that there might be things never done before that I can do. Maybe I can synthesize a new compound that would be useful in pharmaceuticals. Or maybe I could create a new color I can make into paint.
“When you do something novel, you don’t always know what you can do with it. But,” she adds, “it doesn’t have to become a product. There’s a lot of value in scientific discovery just for discovery. There’s value in knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. It’s just so interesting to study because it’s beautiful, new, unexpected, and interesting.”
I’m 74 years old now, but, when I was very young, about 12, something surprised me: I had a WW2 surplus battery which could still provide over 90 Volts at a very tiny current. To this power source I connected a NE51 neon tube, a small mmF capacitor across the tube, and a surplus earphone so I could hear the ‘clicks’ produced by this saw-tooth oscillator. I then carried this assembly in one hand, with the earphone in my other hand pressed against one ear as I exited the dim workshop to show the contraption to my parents. As I moved from shade to sunlight, the headphone tone JUMPED! Sunlight lowered the neon tube firing voltage! It added energy, but not heat, because as I stepped back & forth between sun and shade the frequency instantly changed.
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