SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Chemical Eye on a Vibrating Professor
by Preston MacDougall


April 03, 2008

A European friend and colleague reintroduced me to an English word that I haven't heard much since my Beach Boys 8-track tape broke in the 70s - vibrations.

Chemists talk about bond vibrations all the time. And beginning at the sophomore level we teach students how to use infrared spectroscopy to measure the frequencies of these vibrations as a way to probe the molecular structure of matter at the nanoscale.

jpg Vibrating Professor Lon Nuell

Lon Nuell - an art professor who painted a big picture.
(MTSU photographic services)

But those weren't the vibrations he was talking about - he meant the "good, good, good" kind - and he was observing that there seemed to be a lack of them resonating across the campus during his two-day visit.

The Beach Boys were referring specifically to sexual excitement, whereas my friend was referring to intellectual excitement, or "buzz" as we might have called it for a short while after buzzwords started taking control of our lexicon. I don't know what the "in" word is now, so I'm going to go with vibrations.

At the time, I was a little offended. The truth hurts sometimes. While you don't need a GPS device to tell whether you are on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University or Stanford, there are pockets of good vibrations at MTSU, if you know where to look. The first Honors College in the state is one obvious place to look, but its new home was built after my friend's visit.

And there are good vibrations emanating from leading faculty in every department on campus. For instance, I wish I had introduced my friend to Lon Nuell in the art department. Sadly, it's too late now, Lon died very unexpectedly of a stroke on Wednesday, March 12. He was described as a "real mensch" by his Rabbi, but to me Lon was a great example of a vibrating professor.

In his 37-year career at MTSU, Lon radiated intellectual energy in all directions: to the art world as director of the Art Gallery, back when it was in the Barn and now in the newly renovated Todd Building; to his students as a beloved professor of art education; to children in Murfreesboro's schools as a veteran school board member; to a better-informed state as a founding member of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission; and last but not least to his faculty colleagues whom he served during terms as Chair of the Art Department and President of the Faculty Senate.

The passion and intensity of Lon's vibrations were strong enough to mix art and chemistry whenever our paths crossed, which did not happen often enough in hindsight. Recently, we would "mix it up" during artist receptions for new exhibits at the Art Gallery. On the latest such occasion, one month before his death, Lon seemed very interested in a new demonstration that I had recently read about, the "throbbing oil drop".

It was typical of Lon's intellectual curiosity that our discussion of a small, blue, plastic work of art, that happened to remind me of a quaternary nitrogen atom in a molecular model kit, would end up with him trying to learn how to get a drop of mineral oil to beat like a heart.

It wasn't just coffee talk. Lon called me the next week, and asked me to send him an e-mail with explicit instructions and any insight I could give him on what is going at the molecular level. He wanted to share the demonstration with his son, who majored in elementary education here at MTSU. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and the young Nuell sees no place for intellectual boundaries in the classroom. Art and chemistry mix just as well as art and history.

Here's what you do for some good vibrations. Pour clear water on a plate. While it is settling, gently mix a few drops of Dawn dishwashing detergent in a teaspoon of pure mineral oil. Then carefully pour some of the oil mixture onto the still water in the center of the dish. Because oil and water do not mix, the oil will make a small depression in the "skin" of the water's surface and spread out into a circular blob.

Oil and water can form an emulsion if a surfactant is used, and that is what detergent does in your dishwasher. In this experiment it isn't exactly clear what the detergent is doing. You will, however, be amazed by what the drop starts doing. Once every second or so, it will contract and quickly spring back to its original size. Somehow, simultaneous interactions that the detergent has with the oil and the water, while it is slowly evaporating into the air and diffusing into the water, cause this curious vibration.

I don't know if Lon ever got an oil drop throbbing, and if so what he thought about it. But I do know what I'll be thinking the next time I do this demonstration for students. I'll be thinking of Lon Nuell - a professor who vibrated with intellectual excitement.


On the Web:

Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

Preston MacDougall ©2008

E-mail your letters & opinions to

SitNews ©2008
Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska