Posted on June 17th, 2014
Yay for summer, when everyone’s kids are out of school and my life is a little less weird compared to the norm. Every summer when I was a kid, I would think of summer as a time when I would change, so that when I started school (or a new school in a different state, as the case usually was), I would be a different person.
pH is still doing “work,” although it’s not exactly work-work. We hit all her subjects and she reads on her own, but every day or so I have her do reading comprehension, too. (I’m so annoyed by the quality of the reading comprehension books out there that I may just write my own.) We are at the library once or twice a week and doing our usual slate of activities–with maybe a little more emphasis on science than before.
Yesterday I put out some Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and plastic pipettes on a tray on the kitchen table (all inexpensive on Amazon, although I think kH was morally offended by the cheap quality of the flasks and wanted me to send them back) and just left them there. It worked! She happily moved water from one container to another and kept coming back to it. The point was for her to understand the difference between a beaker and a flask, how to use a pipette, and how to do basic metric volume measurements (which we had talked about and done with beakers before). Mission accomplished. We didn’t even have to do a reaction to be entertained.
We did have to have a discussion that the water used for chemistry, even if we know for sure it came out of the sink and has been moved from one clean vessel to another is still not for drinking. Good policy and all that. (kH: “Unless it is the form of chemistry we know as ‘cooking.'”)
I did spring for two books: the DK Eyewitness Books: Chemistry and The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. The Elements, I’ll confess, was more for me. If a book about the periodic table can be funny–and it can–it’s this one. The picture descriptions are written as if for an art gallery brochure with a twist, e.g., “From the author’s collection, for no reason.” The DK book is good for overall concepts and some history of science. (A week or so ago pH–who has been watching Cosmos with us–spontaneously asked “How did Robert Hooke die?” and after I picked up my jaw from the floor I pulled out a Hooke bio and we talked about it. I was so shocked I didn’t even look it up online.)
Why am I doing all this and now? Well, the first camp of the summer is a kiddie chem class. I actually have no idea how much they’ll learn in this camp; it’s her first full-day camp, age-wise (or grade-wise; I suspect she will probably be the youngest or close to). I don’t think they’ll be dropping sodium metal into water or anything, but hey, I’m all in favor of being prepared–and again, she will most likely be the youngest. She’s spent a lot of time in the chemistry lab doing things with me, but this is different.
The other part is this: chemistry is like a language that is impossible to learn…without learning it. Lavoisier wrote:
I was surprised to see how much obscurity surrounded the approaches to the science. During the first steps, they began by supposing in place of proving. They presented me with words which they were in absolutely no condition to define for me, or which at least they could not define without borrowing from knowledge that was absolutely foreign to me, and which I could only acquire by the study of the whole of chemistry. And so, in beginning to teach me the science, they supposed that I already knew it.
That was what it was like for me (and for kH, and for others I spoke to). When I read that a few years ago, it was such a relief. Lavoisier felt that, too? Don’t get me wrong: chemistry education is a lot better now than pre-Revolutionary France. But my thought was this: if I expose pH to chemistry early, from finding the elements on the periodic table (I’ve turned this into a game) into doing things in labs and then hopefully figuring out the two things are related to one another, by the time she has to worry about Avogadro’s number or–heaven help her–energy and orbits and writing up no, damn it, I do NOT know why my organic chemistry experiment failed but allow me to make up some bullshit to possibly explain it because I know I cleaned my glassware twice before I started and I really think it’s because the reagents were contaminated by the stoned grad student who set them out–maybe it will make sense to her.
If I have a regret (I do have them, although I try not to), it’s that I didn’t do more with chemistry. I loved it. It was the first time I felt like I understood how the world worked. And I love the place in history where alchemy becomes chemistry, when we go from darkness to light, from a slow world to an industrial world. Are we better for it? That’s a question for philosophy (a subject I have zero patience with). My opinion is hell, yes. We use our science poorly on policy levels, but we have it. And vaccines. And medicines. And clean water (as long as you don’t think about the Mt. Tabor reservoir too hard).
Yes, I know this probably means she’ll want to do something silly like practice law. But damn it, she’ll at least be a lawyer who can wield a pen and a pipette. Or maybe she can be a patent lawyer. (I think they can still get jobs, can’t they?)