“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.
“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.
Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2S and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)
I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”
“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.
She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”
It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.
His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,
“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”
Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.
If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”
I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.