Will You Be My Neighbor?

My new glasses arrived this week. Let’s hope my spelling improves.

This week’s lesson was The Periodic Table. And with that sentence, I just lost most of my readers. Those of you still with me – imagine the vague underlying sense of discontent that haunted the chemists all through the 1860’s as they kept discovering elements, 63 in all, but without hope of reaching a greater understanding.

I used to work for a scientist who often said “Simple is best, unless it’s wrong.” Dimitri Mendeleev created the first Periodic Table simply and correctly by arranging the elements in ascending order of atomic mass. In doing so, he unlocked a powerful secret about those 63 and all that came after. The elements had a pattern and it was a pattern of eights. 

Just like my new glasses, Mendeleev’s list made everything in the world a little clearer. The elements suddenly looked like neighbors, grouped together by common interests and behavior. Holes in the list were simply houses under construction waiting for germanium, gallium, and scandium to arrive.

This begged a much larger question: What other neighborhoods were out there and just how large was this city?

Next Up: Inside The Great City

Carry That Weight

Since 500 BC we have been trying to discover what the world is made of at the smallest level that exists. And just like the search for the other Holy Grail, we have discovered other things along the way; rays from radio to gamma, chemical reactivity, compounds, elements, atoms and lots of particles. We keep searching because we know that when we understand the smallest thing we will understand everything – how to cure AIDs, fix the ozone layer, and straighten hair without damage.

I learned this week that protons and neutrons are at the center of everything, providing weight and balance. Even though electrons are much lighter, only 1/1840th of a proton, they are more important because they are in charge (no pun) of how atoms react.

However, a different weight is at my center this week. I miss having a teacher. I miss the back and forth of discussions and the feeling that someone else besides me is invested in my learning. I was inspired by two very different but equally gifted science teachers. They each were demanding, had a weird sense of humor, and liked to blow things up. I never imagined that I would have questions for them decades later.  Questions like:

  1. How does a mass spectrometer really work? and
  2. What is cytoplasm made of? and
  3. What will be on the next Chapter Test?

To my ninth grade Mrs. Marcin and my freshman year Professor Binford: a belated thanks for everything.

Next Up: The Neighborhood

The Test

I did not do well on my first Chapter Test, mostly missing on Lab Safety. For guidance, I read Dignifying Errors to Promote Learning, which is Chapter 7 in Mastery Teaching by Madeline Hunter. My husband gave me the book last week as a gift.

She says that when errors are made, we should follow three steps:

1. Create a question that correctly matches the wrong answer,

2. Prompt for and discuss the correct answer to the original question,

3. Hold the student accountable.

This way, mistakes are not a source of embarrassment but are used as an exercise to help us learn. Looking at my incorrect answers, I followed the three steps and with each I felt my discouragement pass.

Thanks, Patrick, I am ready for the next chapter.

Next Up: Weighty Matters


Two things I never thought would happen:

1. I’m studying in a bar, and

2. I am upset that I won’t be able to take a Chapter Test today.

The only internet connection available this week is at The River’s Edge Bar, so I am studying with bikers and banjo players. I have finished the first section, General Science Knowledge, but the link to the online test is not working. I console myself by moving on to one of my favorite topics: Atomic Theory.

I am astounded to learn that the nature and behavior of atoms were discovered by reason in 500 BC, thanks to Democritus. Unfortunately, his theory was discounted and ignored for 2000 years, thanks to Aristotle. Philosophy trumped Science, and not for the last time. The subsequent journey to discover the the true nature of the atom was epic and surreal; equal parts Kafka and Tolstoy.

After Democritus, we wrote laws about elements, atoms, and chemical reactions. We electrified solutions and we shot rays though tubes of gas. We discovered that atoms aren’t solid, like pudding, but they do have particles like raisins. And these raisins don’t orbit the nucleus in circles but we can predict where that are most likely to appear. The discovery that no novelist could have imagined, however, is that most of these raisins carry a charge (positive or negative). This means that at the tiniest level of our physical being we are all held together with the same force: electricity.

Me, The Sheldon Mountain Boys, Harley, and Davidson are all built of the same stuff and bound by the same glue. I can hear Aristotle rolling in his grave.

Next Up: The Test

Measure for Measure for What?

Today I learned that the Scientific Method not only demands that we observe correctly, but that we communicate our observations effectively as well. Since not all truth can be communicated by blogs, we have a language which is very handy when talking about extremely large (times ten to the sixth power, mega, etc.) and extremely small (times ten to the minus sixth power, micro, etc.) quantities. And no matter how large or small, measurements must be true (accurate) and consistent (precise).

Thankfully, we have invented a battery of instruments that can measure the nearly infinite and nearly infinitesimal. I am excited to think of a lab with meters of all sorts lined up and waiting to go out and measure the world, from light waves to electricity to acidity.

But I am worried about starting this lofty course of study with the mundane matters of measure. It seems backwards, like studying nails and hammers before understanding what a house looks like. Wouldn’t it be more compelling if we started with some of the Classic Mysteries of Chemistry and then learned how Scientific Notation, a Voltmeter, and Precision saved the day?

Next Up: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes