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Chemical Eye on Jazz89
by Preston MacDougall


May 13, 2005

Solid. Solid. Solid.

When I applied for tenure here at Middle Tennessee State University, those were the grades given to me by my chemistry colleagues in the three areas that professors are evaluated in: teaching, research or creative activity, and public service.

jpg Preston MacDougall

Teaching is self-explanatory, and public service is pretty much what you would think. For instance, during National Chemistry Week, when my colleagues and I visit area schools, doing colorful, loud and smelly demonstrations, sometimes all at once, that is public service.

I often take a student along with me, one who is interested in eventually teaching chemistry. I coach them before hand, giving them some advice on useful analogies that will help young minds interpret the chemical transformations that will be seen, and yet in other ways will not be seen.

My student also gets some insight into the second law of thermodynamics when we try to lead twenty or more school children in gooey, hands-on chemistry demonstrations. This law, which has no exceptions, states that the total amount of entropy, or disorder, in the universe will always increase, no matter what we do, or say. Such activities with students aren't just public service or teaching; they are fusion of the two.

In my case, research means developing new ways to model and visualize molecules. For others in the chemistry department, research means developing biosensors, new antibiotics, industrial polymers, or simply basic inquiries into the nature of matter with no obvious applications, yet.

Advanced chemistry instruments rarely cost less than six figures. So I'm very lucky that my research doesn't require extensive lab equipment. Actually, I don't even have a lab. If I did, then I would have to be continually writing large grant proposals to keep my lab up to date. And, lets just say, that's not my forte. It just seems very strange to me - asking the public for large amounts of money so that I can have fun learning the inner secrets of molecules. I guess it's an acquired taste.

I have no problem asking the public to support quality jazz programming on public radio, however. In fact, this commentary topic was my idea. I got the idea when I was driving into work one day, listening to the radio. I heard something familiar, yet at the same time unfamiliar.

When you're strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you're strange
No one remembers your name
When you're strange.

I knew right away that it was one of my favorite songs from The Doors. I don't know, there is just something quantum mechanical about some of Jim Morrison's mystical lyrics. "Break on through (to the other side)," just screams "quantum tunneling" to my ear. But I wasn't listening to a rock station. I was listening to WMOT, the local jazz NPR station. And it wasn't Jim Morrison singing, but a sultry new voice in jazz, Lea DeLaria, backed up by a smooth-sounding trio; keyboard, bass and drum.

When I got into the office, and visited the WMOT website, I learned from the play list of Greg Lee, whose Morning Beat I was listening to, that the song was off Ms. DeLaria's brand new CD "Double Standards."

Talk about teaching, research or creative activity, and public service - WMOT covers it all. Solid. Solid. Solid!

I don't play a thing, but much of what I do know about the history and styles of piano jazz I learned from Marian McPartland's weekly show. She's not only a master of the periodic keyboard, but she and her guests have a knack for entertaining and educating, all at once.

The world of jazz is a many-splendored thing. It takes expert researchers to find the most creative activities that are going on out there - all over the place, and all the time.

And public service is of course what National Public Radio is all about. Can you imagine another radio station airing these strange Chemical Eye commentaries?

If your taste in music includes jazz, I highly recommend that you visit WMOT's website, From any place, and at any time, you can listen to their live broadcast, or catch up on features that you missed. Of course, you can also click on "pledge now" and help support where jazz lives in Middle Tennessee.


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 (


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