As much as I love reading, I am very much aware that occasionally, reading has led me astray. One day I will write about how Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome ruined England for me by raising my expectations far too high. It’s been 19 years and not one invitation to go sailing or solve a mystery and then drink pink lemonade, but as I said, that’s for another day. I would like to walk you through my travails brought on by another book. I will set the scene so that you can see why I am advising caution when reading books, don’t just be taken in dear reader, be wise.
Imagine me then, an earnest student, sitting in a year 9 science class, waiting for something to happen, because of this bunch of lies that I had read which made me think that chemistry classes would be far more interesting than they were. The science classes were fine, considering the kind of school it was. However, I was foolish enough to think there would be more “experiments”. There weren’t. In fact it was all just balancing equations and learning about different elements, and the numbers attached to them, and then balancing the equations whenever these elements had a meeting with one of their friends. An easy way to get marks was to remember that every reaction in physics gives off something + heat and in chemistry, something + water, but who really cares if the heat isn’t Vesuvius levels and the water apocryphal flood depths? Anyway after waiting ages for something other than the balancing of equations to occur, the teacher, a big guy with a pervy Greg Davies vibe, if I remember correctly, tells us that we will finally see some action.
The moment I had been waiting for, yes! “This is Caesium,” he said, “one of the most active elements. It’s found in the bottom half of group one. Put on your goggles class”. All the drama, we expected big things. At least I did.
Then, dramatically, with a health and safety approved flourish, like a magician going for the big reveal, (in front of a group of skittish magic fans), he cut a small piece of the Caesium. I say a small piece; I mean a sliver, a shaving even of this precious element that would spice up the day’s lesson. The hangnail of Caesium duly cut, it was thrown/placed carefully into a bowl of H2O, and then it happened. The action! It started whizzing around frantically as we all looked on, a class of 20 plus students, riveted for once, willing this speck to submit to our mental alchemy and become and stick of dynamite and blow up. (Again, maybe just me.)
There was a flame – ooh, we all breathed, hoping it was just the beginning- and then it went out. Aaah. So began my relationship with the anti climactic series of empty promises that was Chemistry class.
Nothing really happened, even when we handled so called dangerous substances they were safe. The HCL was 0.01mol, which meant if you got it on your hand it might itch, but nothing like Tyler Durden causing a serious chemical burn on a right hand. Cue more balancing of increasingly complex equations; measuring things, and balancing of measured things. I just wanted to see something catch fire. Would we never see something go up in flames?
“Flames- no never, next year we’ll teach you how to do risk assessments for your own experiments to ensure that nothing ever catches fire. Nothing will ever catch fire? Oh be still my aching heart. Abandon hope all ye who enter here (an ironic quote considering the context- but I don’t know who will get it) – nothing was ever going to catch fire. “So what’s the point”, I wondered? I cut up a frog and a heart in biology, ran electric currents through my body to change my hairstyle from regular to up do in physics and this chemistry man, with all these exciting chemicals that we could be mixing like cocktails was telling me nothing would ever catch fire. What’s the point of chemistry if not fire? Fire from elements such as Francium and Caesium in a vat of Hcl (0.01 mol, we’re not trying to start the apocalypse here). Fire from crude oil, refined into petrol and diesel, or fire from gases like methane, (CH4 to you uninitiated) fire everywhere- in books. Oh the impotent frustration of a secret pyrophile forced to look at fire- in books, about how NOT to do chemistry. I was forced to balance equations for reactions that I would never get to see in real life. Books, books, books
And what led me here in the first place? What made me think chemistry would be fun? A book! Can you believe it? A book.
“The ogre downstairs” by Dianne Wynne Jones to be precise. She has a lot to answer for. In this book, and look, I am not crazy; I know a lot of these things obviously can’t happen. I have flicked through Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the impossible”. I know that a splash of some obscurely named substance will not give me the ability to fly, the way it did with the characters in the book. I wasn’t expecting that from chemistry, I know that if some boffin somewhere manages to do that NASA will be on that patent like a shot. I am not expecting toffees to come to life and drape themselves over the radiators like lizards (this would freak me out.) Neither am I expecting pipes to come to life, and squirm when used for smoking, but come on, one little explosion. Or at least some smoke, or some dangerously noxious smells, (not sulphur, that’s a cheap trick, even an egg can do it)
This book made chemistry sets seems amazing, and I just wanted a part of that from my classes. I got nothing; the most amazing things I have ever seen in class were copper sulphate and potassium permanganate solutions. Amazing colours but not dangerous, not really. Nothing ever was. Except the balancing of equations, I was always on the edge of a cliff with that. Sometimes books lead you astray, they create worlds that you can never inhabit, but I expected more from science if I am being honest. Surely the difference between science and magic is that you can create exciting new things using the boring things around you in science? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and see what happens. My experience is disappointing on this front. Reading this you are probably thinking that’s for the best because I am still alive, but meh, I’m sticking to my guns on this one.
It’s too late for me, but I just wanted to warn you that as much as books are friends not firewood, sometimes they are just full of damned lies and shattered dreams. Read this book and be inspired, but remember, it might make science (and life) boring.