Sometimes the chemistry is just wrong.

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.


Misdirection and Misappropriation

So this week started with a huge furore about the omission of the word ‘Easter’ from an Easter egg hunt organised by Cadbury’s (the chocolate people) It turns out that there is in a fact a book to help us forward with this so called problem. The Bible! Having perused the gospels, making use of my theological training to question the text, and really get to the heart of the matter, I found that actually Jesus was not busy hunting down Easter eggs like Pokémon while on the cross. Apparently he had other things to do.

This suggests to me, and I may well be wrong, but it does suggest that perhaps Easter egg hunts are not integral to the overall meaning of Easter. At some point in history there was a conflation of the two until one day we all associated chocolate eggs with the brutal death of a man claiming to be the son of God on a crudely crafted cross.

What exactly are you fighting for here Mrs May? Surely the whole thing takes away from the origins of the whole Easter thing, and it might actually be a good idea to separate the two and let those who want to contemplate the possible death and resurrection of the Messiah do so, while those who want their children’s teeth to drop out also do the same? I mean essentially Easter has now become a more PG Halloween for Christians. It’s a pointless exercise. Let it go. It doesn’t affect Christianity at all. Christians need to stop fighting for the right to be largely irrelevant and maybe just get on with doing things that might actually be life changing instead. This woman was in Saudi Arabia, with the opportunity to speak about countless human rights violations, or about building a task force supported by the not insubstantial wealth of the Saudis to help smaller countries such as Lebanon deal with refugees. However, she found time to complain that as a Christian, she felt that children should be able to refer to ferreting chocolate out from random bushes, a Christian occasion. Okay then, a judicious use of taxes, travel all that way and then talk about chocolate.

Can we not please?

Just, no!

On perseverance, with Ayi Kwei Armah

“Those who are blessed with the power,

And the soaring swiftness of the eagle

And have flown before,

Let them go.

I will travel slowly,

And I too will arrive.

And have climbed in haste.

Let them go,

I will journey softly,

And I too will arrive.”

There are times when my quixotic attempts at living life to the fullest fall flat. Usually my first instinct is to succumb to depression. Fortunately I have quite a short attention span, especially when it comes to boring things and so my next instinct is to encourage myself. I have generally given myself good reason to trust my judgement, and so I have to remind myself that just because it hasn’t worked this time, or just at this moment, that doesn’t mean that there will not be a great moment somewhere down the line when I will be vindicated.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah holds my go to mantra. Even though I have yet to finish reading the book, there is in this book a passage that I find particularly uplifting. Written as the lyrics of a song that the protagonist hears on his way somewhere, (I don’t know where, didn’t read the book) these words remind me that even when I feel that all is lost, it generally isn’t. They remind me that when things don’t seem to be moving they probably are. They remind me to keep breathing, and anyone who knows me knows that I am given to hyperbole, (sometimes just for fun) and so trying times do generally push me over to the overly dramatic, “No, I can’t leave me here, save yourself” type of nonsense that expends much energy without giving anything back. This passage is the message from ground control, saying hey, it’s okay. It’s the message I get in my ear when I feel lost at sea that reminds me that the wind and waves haven’t won before, so there is no need to start now. It reminds me to be myself, and to let that be enough.

Occasionally we need to hear that message- to be reminded to run our own race, at our own pace. Sometimes I just need to remember that even if I was an animal, I definitely wouldn’t be a cheetah, I find running pointless- as a cheetah, this attitude would see me starve to death. I like swimming and flying though, so perhaps if I was an animal I would be a goose, or on my best day, a swan, maybe.  However, no one sits around comparing star athletes to geese, it’s just not sexy, but maybe that’s me. A not sexy good swimmer who likes to migrate for the winter! I’ll take it, I can make it work, if I remember that there are those who are eagles, who have flown before, who have done more than I have, in a shorter space of time, in more elegant or impressive ways, because they are eagles, or cheetah’s or killer whales, and I am a goose. Instead of wishing to be an eagle, or a dolphin, or a cheetah, I really should focus on being the best goose that I can be.

I don’t think I am a goose either though, that’s still a few glamour levels above my station perhaps.

There is, you see, in the juxtaposition between my visionary ambition and the awareness of my limitations, a sort of humiliation, and a sort of pride. I am proud to still be going where some might have given up, I am glad that my vision is still grandiose, and most times beyond me, but on the other hand, I am brought low (original meaning of humiliate) by my own vision. I am nowhere near where I thought I would be by now. I am therefore at once a nothing and a something, a Schrödinger’s cat of potential.

In reality I am perhaps more like a dung beetle. This underestimated creature frequently does far more than its tiny little body would suggest. One type of dung beetle can drag 1,141 times its body weight, which is apparently the equivalent of me pulling six double decker buses. I like this beetle, more than the goose, even as I acknowledge that it is not a white tiger, the coolest animal out there. However, I would love to able to do 1, 141 times more than what the circumstances of my birth dictate for me. I would be very happy with that. If, as I suspect, I am not like those who have been blessed with the power, and the soaring swiftness of the eagle, and I will never fly, nevertheless, if I continue to travel slowly, I too will arrive.

I will arrive slowly, doing something incredible, yet perhaps, not something that anyone else has much use for, as much as the dung beetle feat is impressive, how many of us really care? If someone told us they had a pet cheetah and the other said they had a pet dung beetle, with which of the two would we be more impressed? I can hear all the puns denigrating the poor dung beetle now.

So perhaps my legacy will not mean as a much in the world out there, but I will have journeyed softly to accomplish it, (and accomplish it I will). I will have taken my time, been patient, headed straight for my goal, despite obstacles, used the milky way for navigation, like a pirate, and in the end, perhaps when everyone else doesn’t even remember the race, I’ll turn up. (I have actually done that before, one sports day when I was forced to represent my house and run the 800 metres. I arrived just as the next race was about to start).

Sometimes, it’s enough to remember that you are still moving, that the journey may be slow, but the feats that you accomplish along the way may well be mind-boggling. I am travelling slowly, but one day, I too will arrive.

In the meantime, I should probably head to the gym, those buses won’t tow themselves.


There’s a book for that

I love to read, and sometimes when I find myself in new or unusual situations, I think back to one of the books I read. I find parallels between things that I read years ago and events happening in the present. I am often castigated for my use of references that no one understands or for speaking  tangentially. What people don’t seem to realise, is that in my head, it all links up. I see something and I think, hmm, I bet there’s a book (or movie, or random quote) for that. For the purpose of this blogamajig I would like to focus on books, to write about all the wonderful books about there, and why you, dear reader, might want to pick one up.

There’s a book for nearly every human situation, because books, most of them, were written by humans. I say most to exclude that one random one that some over achieving stapler wrote somewhere, but I think humans do generally do books better than staplers. I bet there’s a book for that reference too.

I hope this blog leads you to read, there are wonderful worlds to be explored that fell out of the pens of some very interesting people. Jump on in.