Monday, January 13, 2014

Relearning Chemistry

An evening ritual is to inquire what homework requires assistance, and at the beginning of the year it was a science worksheet as part of an introduction to chemistry.  That, and a later project, have exposed how much rust my knowledge of chemistry has accumulated, but also have led me down the path of repairing forgotten bits and certainly learning some new stuff
That first assignment gave TNG the pleasure of watching his father fulminate about terrible worksheets. This definition wrong! That definition wrong!  This is nonsensical.  After all, I intersect with chemistry every day in my professional life, and I did actually get a minor in it.  So certainly I knew the material.

Well, upon further reflection it was clear that while the definition of isotope had gone through a game of telephone, the rest wasn't too far off.  I haven't thought about these for a while, and certainly hadn't needed to stick to strict definitions.  After all, if ozone has a CAS compound number, it must be a compound, right? I'd forgotten my orbitals and many details of the periodic table.

Just before the winter break, a major assignment was to build a cube with each side containing specific information about a selected element.  My offspring picked tungsten, so off to the library to find anything on tungsten.  Which rather naturally led me to Oliver Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten.  Among the mountain of books we brought home were also The Disappearing Spoon and The Ingredients by Phillip Ball.  Reading through these three, and leafing through the wonderful photos in Theodore Gray's The Elements have done me a world of good (The Boy might have picked up a thing or two also!).  Before my momentum runs out, I really should re-read The Making of the Atomic Bomb and dive for the first time into Primo Levi's The Elements.

For one thing, while one of the better parts of eleventh grade chemistry was a bit of history of the development of quantum theory (and Making of the Atomic Bomb is good here too), my memory of it is a bit of Whig history; an essentially steady march towards the modern state of knowledge.  These other books helped fill me in on some of the side detours and missed opportunities -- Fermi and the Joliot-Curies failing to recognize fission, Ida Noddack correctly suggesting fission but not being heard.  Even just the idea that such greats as the Curies were reticent to explain radioactivity in terms of elements changing into other elements is remarkable.  Then there's Oxygen -- I was familiar with Priestley's claim for discovery but not Scheele's, nor was I aware that the individual who awarded that crown to Lavoisier was pretty much Lavoisier.  Dalton objecting to symbolizing elements with mere letters, rather than fanciful runes.  

It was also useful to just try to go back and imagine a world without some familiar concepts.  A world in which atomic weight was a mysterious quantity - why wasn't it always an integer?  A world without neutrons or isotopes?  Or to see the alchemical goal of transmuting base metals into gold as not absurd, but rather something that made sense given their rudimentary theory as to the nature of metals.

So, perhaps next time I'll try to remember this episode and exhibit some more humility.  Maybe -- the previous eruptions were over teaching the archaic five kingdom taxonomic system.  It that shows up again, I won't be able to restrain myself!


Anonymous said...

I was going to homeschool my son in chemistry this year (despite my having had only 3 chemistry courses in my life: a non-AP chem class in high school 45 years ago, a graduate protein structure course, and a biochem class that talked mainly about replication, transcription, and translation). But we ended up having him take an online AP chem course instead, as it was more likely to get him to stick to a regular schedule, and I wouldn't have to figure out chem labs to assign.

Instead, I'm trying to homeschool him in group theory (which I had only 38 years ago and haven't used since).

See said...

Lavoisier was guillotined by Marat. That is what I call real history :)

"As the French Revolution gained momentum from 1789 on, Lavoisier's world inexorably collapsed around him. Attacks mounted on the deeply unpopular Ferme Générale, and it was eventually suppressed in 1791. In 1792 Lavoisier was forced to resign from his post on the Gunpowder Commission and to move from his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On 8 August 1793, all the learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were suppressed.
It is difficult to assess Lavoisier's own attitude to the political turmoil. Like so many intellectual liberals, he felt that the Ancien Régime could be reformed from the inside if only reason and moderation prevailed. Characteristically, one of his last major works was a proposal to the National Convention for the reform of French education. He tried to remain aloof from the political cockpit, no doubt fearful and uncomprehending of the violence he saw therein. However, on 24 Nov. 1793, the arrest of all the former tax gatherers was ordered. He was branded a traitor by the Convention under Maximilien de Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, in 1794. He had also intervened on behalf of a number of foreign-born scientists including mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, granting them exception to a mandate stripping all foreigners of possessions and freedom.[14] Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May 1794 in Paris, at the age of 50.[15]
Lavoisier and the other former tax gatherers were formally brought to trial on 8 May 1794. According to a (probably apocryphal) story, the appeal to spare his life so that he could continue his experiments was cut short by the judge: "La République n'a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes ; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu." ("The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.")[16] Lavoisier was convicted with summary justice of having plundered the people and the treasury of France, of having adulterated the nation's tobacco with water, and of having supplied the enemies of France with huge sums of money from the national treasury. Lavoisier, along with 27 of his former colleagues, was guillotined on the same day. Lavoisier's importance to science was expressed by Joseph Louis Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying: "Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable." ("It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.")[17][18]"