Heather: Today Christie and I are fessing up to the science that has often given us the cold sweats, the one that freaked us out at high school/university and that still instills a certain deep dread whenever we encounter it in the course of a story.
I’m talking, of course, about chemistry—that maze of molecules and mind-bending equations scrawled with lightning speed across a chalkboard. It’s embarrassing to admit, but my chemophobia took root quite early, in high school, while squinting at all those two-dimensional representations of molecules, with their stick-figurelike carbon and hydrogen atoms splayed across the page.
How about you, Christie? Where did your phobia begin?
Christie: Definitely in high school. My hatred of chemistry began with moles and Avogadro’s number. I still don’t understand what molecules and gas volumes have to do with those furry mammals that used to tear up my garden. Atoms and molecules have always felt really abstract and unreal to me.
Heather: To me, they looked like some kind of weird animal tracks in the snow, nothing that I could really grab hold of, visual thinker that I am. And maybe that’s not too surprising given chemistry’s history. It started out as esoteric knowledge, secret formulas kept by early metallurgists and alchemists. Right from the get-go, metalsmiths guarded the magical secret of transforming chunks of ordinary rock into rivulets of shimmering copper or silver, while alchemists careful concealed their experimental attempts to produce the philosopher’s stone. Today chemical equations seem as cryptic as Arabic to me.
Christie: I absolutely hated stoichiometry. It seemed like an evil plot to ruin the algebra that I loved by pairing it with rote memorization, which I will always loathe. It didn’t get any better in college. My chem 101 professor was a Nobel laureate who would go on to win accolades for his teaching, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get excited about our lessons. My lab experiments never worked, and when someone ripped off my expensive chemistry textbook, it seemed like the universe was giving me permission to give it up.
Heather: Well, you hung in there a lot longer than I did. My last chem class was in highschool, and I still remember the moment of pure bliss when I walked out of that classroom for the last time. I thought I was done with ionic compounds and redox reactions for good.
Christie: Right after college, I had a lab job where one of my duties was to mix solutions. Which meant making chemistry calculations. It was simple stuff, like taking a recipe for 100ml of some solution and making 750ml of it. Chemistry doesn’t get any easier than this, and I still screwed it up.
One day my boss brought me a bucket of ethidium bromide, chemical waste from the lab’s electrophoresis gels. Bromide gas is apparently some really nasty stuff. My job was to add some other chemicals to the bucket that would instigate some chemical reaction and tie up the bromide so that it wasn’t so toxic. Or something. Come to think of it, I still don’t know exactly what the hell I was doing.
Heather: Oh, oh. This doesn’t sound good.
Christie: What I do know is that when I dropped the chemical solution I’d mixed into the bucket and started stirring, a bright cloud of red gas puffed out from the bucket. Perhaps it’s just instinct, but something told me that this was a very bad thing, so I closed off the chemical waste room where I was working and ran and grabbed an actual chemist. I could tell by the way his eyes bulged out of his head that something had gone very wrong. Next thing I knew, the emergency response team was bearing down on the building and people were being asked to evacuate.
By now it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the red bromine gas was the result of a stupid decimal point error. Mine, of course. I’d added something like 1,000 times too much of something. Oops! Luckily no one died.
Heather: No insult intended, Christie, but this sounds a little like that famous Mr. Bean skit, where he innocently wanders into a chemistry lab during an open house.
But obviously the disaster made a strong impression on you, and this reminds me of a great presentation I saw recently at a ScienceOnline Vancouver event. A young chemist Tamara Kunz, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and who also does outreach work with budding science geeks, gave a talk about creativity. Tamara thinks it’s important to take the chemical reactions that many of us struggle to grasp and bring them to life in demonstrations. In fact, she likes to tell her friends that she “blows shit up” for a living. And she gave us several examples of her incendiary version of science.
To demonstrate the vast quantity of energy produced by the oxidation of carbohydrates, she performed a very cool experiment known as the growling gummi bear. Donning safety glasses, she heated potassium chlorate salt in a test tube clamped on a ring stand until the salt had completely melted, forming a bubbling, molten liquid. Then with crucible tongs, she fired a single gummi bear into the tube. Almost at once, the small candy made a strangled growl and erupted into brilliant white light. As Tamara explained, the potassium chlorate yields a lot of oxygen when heated to a molten state–enough to ignite the gummi bear (think sucrose) and produce a very satisfying explosion of bright light. Very entertaining and memorable.
I bet Tamara’s students love her demonstrations. More importantly, I bet they remember many of the equations and the principles that she’s teaching.
She wrapped up her talk by saying that how important it is in chemistry “to perform a little magic” for students. And I think she’s right.
Here’s to magic.