The Ties That Bind (or not)

The ways that atoms bond to make molecules, polymers, and metals are as wondrous as the ways that people bond to make friendships, marriages, and communities. The strongest tie happens when one atom gives an electron completely and unconditionally to another. The result is that the giving atom becomes positively charged and the recipient becomes negatively charged, so they become irresistible to each other. This type of bond is called Ionic by chemists and Lifelong Love by Bell Hooks. Once these molecules form, they remain intact and are not available to bond with other molecules.

Another type of bond occurs when atoms simply share a pair of electrons. This means that they have some common platonic interests. If the sharing is equal, the bond is Covalent and if the sharing is unequal, the bond is Polar Covalent.

Bonding gets really interesting when molecules form but they still have some extra electrons, or not enough. This causes them to bond in infinite arrays with other molecules that are seeking or giving electrons. This is how polymers and metals are formed. In the case of polymers, the pattern of electron bonding is rigid and repeating. This is why diamonds are so brittle. In the case of metals, electrons are shared between molecules freely and magnanimously. This is why metals are good conductors.

I have had to re-build many bonds this year. I am happy that that they now know me by name at the post office, bank, and hair salon and that neighbors walk in our kitchen without knocking. However, I am still looking for others that are on an on-line journey to become a teacher and I’ll gladly give an electron or two when I find them.

Next Up: Castles in The Air

One Week, Two Tests, and End Behavior

Stop the presses – I was out sick last week! But at least with on-line study I didn’t have to bring the teacher a note from the doctor and at my age I didn’t have to convince my parents that I was too sick to study. By Monday I was back at it, fueled by test anxiety and dreams of greatness.

I did much better this time on my chapter test, mostly due to over-preparation. I did not realize that the test materials included the Periodic Table, a List of Equations, and the Standard Reduction Potentials. On my next test I will have to strike a medium between the extremes of over-kill and under-prep but for now I’m enjoying the small victory.

Another test that I passed was a day of substitute teaching four levels of algebra at a local rural high school. In preparation, I observed the teacher for a day and met with him twice to create the lesson plans. I taught 6 classes, answered questions, gave 2 tests, fixed laptops, ate lunch in 20 minutes, calmed down some rowdies, and learned a lot about quadratic equations. Watching the students, I felt sympathetic when I recognized some of my own testing extremes. At the end of the day I had many more questions about teaching than I had in the morning.

My favorite concept of the day was End Behavior. This is the question: For any given function, what does ‘Y’ do when ‘X’ approaches positive and negative infinity? It’s difficult to imagine the ends without knowing the middle, especially when most functions, like life, are not linear. So next week I’ll stay in the middle, prepare for the next tests, and leave infinity to the mathematicians.

Next Up: The Ties That Bind

Preparation or Procrastination?

The results from my last chapter test were dismal and I am determined to perform better this time. I was under too much stress to learn anything this week, so I opted for memorization instead of understanding. I wanted to find the the latest memorization techniques and procrastinate with cause, so I turned to the internet.

I found Leo Fuchigami and hackmystudy.com. His motto is “be smart. be different”. He proposes that there are four methods of memorization that fit different types of information.

1. Chunking is used to memorize large amounts of information, verbatim. I used this technique for the formulas because the ideal chunk size is 3-4 units. This is the size of most equations and phone numbers. Apparently our brain can hold infinite amounts of information if it is broken into bite-sized pieces.

2. Visualization is effective because our brains are good at remembering pictures. I used this technique to imagine orbitals, the behavior of electromagnetic waves, and the patterns within the Periodic Table.

3. Multiple Interpretation is a mixed media approach, where the same information is presented repeatedly using alternative interpretations. This explains why Rihanna’s songs get stuck in my head. I reviewed the ABCTE material, read a text book from the local High School, and watched more episodes from the Kahn Academy.

4. The only technique that I didn’t use this week was Mnemonic. Nothing rhymed with deBroglie or Schrodinger and I couldn’t create any acronyms that apply to the complex beauty of Chapter Two: Atomic Structure, Periodicity, and Matter.

Wow. Maybe I learned something this week after all.

Next Week: The Test

The Heart of the Matter

This week I made the long journey to the center of everything, where there is enough energy to kill us all. The nucleus is made up of protons and electrons held together by sheer force. This force is necessary because protons are positive and like charges repel. As they get closer to each other the force that drives them apart increases. This is artfully described by Coulomb’s law and consistently demonstrated on The Bachelor.

The only way to overcome repulsion is for protons and neutrons to generate the energy that holds them together by giving up mass. The more they give up, the stronger the bond. Not a healthy relationship model, and it’s no surprise that things get really hot when a nucleus decides to split up or join with another.

Unlike the friendly chemical reactions where electrons are shared or traded, nuclear reactions generate energy, significantly more energy than is needed to start the reaction. The energy from these reactions can be used to generate steam that drives turbines that are connected to electrical generators. It can also be used to generate vast destruction via blast, fire, and radiation. There’s no middle road in the center.

Meanwhile, I am like an electron too far from center this week and I have one more week to serve before I return home. Unlike the particles that surround me, my pull stays constant no matter the distance.

Next Up: Another Test

Through The Looking Glass

Inspired by circumstance, and Wendell Berry, I am learning new skills every week. I know how to halter an uncooperative horse, spot a deer rub, make a decent loaf of bread, repair and paint a deck, color my own hair, and plant a tree in rocky soil.  Hopefully I can also learn to drive the tractor, memorize Planck’s constant, and understand Quantum Mechanics.

Quantum Mechanics describes the behavior of electrons as they surround the nucleus. This minute understanding has lead to gigantic inventions like lasers, the atomic clock, transistors, ultra-precise thermometers and even randomness generators. Everything in our world hinges on the exchange and retention of electrons, particles that we can’t even see. Fortunately, we can measure how much energy it takes to move any given electron in any given element. That knowledge has helped us map the patterns that electrons follow. These are officially called ‘orbitals’ and not ‘orbits’ because we do not know their exact path. We do know, thanks to Schrodinger, the areas in which they are most likely to appear. The unofficial term, from Sal Kahn, is ‘schmear’.

The larger the atom, the more schmears are needed to contain the electrons. Schmears are shaped like spheres, dumbbells, and inner tubes. Electrons are completely predictable in the matters of direction of spin, quantity, and sequence of schmear fill. I don’t have any difficulty following the logic and the math that led to the theory of Quantum Mechanics. But when I read that while we can predict the patterns, we still don’t understand the underlying cause of these patterns, I puzzle. When I stop to consider that everything solid is in vibration and that most of the atom consists of the empty space between the nucleus and the electrons, I puzzle some more. Richard Feynman, the late great physicist and White Rabbit said; ” I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics.”

Oh well. Two out of three will have to do.

Next Up: The Heart of the Matter

A Quantum Leap

The autonomy of on-line learning is intoxicating and disorienting. I was irritated when I could not get an answer to a simple question this week from my pricey certification program: “How was the value of v used in the equation example on page 5 of Chapter 2.4 generated?” Later that same morning I was overwhelmed by the gift of Salman Kahn delivering the best Chemistry lecture I have ever heard in my life at his site that promises to be “Completely Free, Forever.” This landscape of learning gets curiouser and curiouser every day; a Wonderland not unlike the world of Chemistry in the early 1900’s.

Thanks to classic physics, we were mostly comfortable with our models of matter (particles) and light (waves).  However, there were four behaviors that consistently did not fit and we knew that if we didn’t understand all of it then we didn’t understand any of it. So Planck proposed that in some situations, solids act like waves. Even though his math checked out, this was at such odds with accepted theory that even he did not accept his findings. Then Einstein used Planck’s model, and his constant, and applied it successfully to light waves. Black Body Radiation, the Photoelectric Effect, Absorption and Emission of Light, and Atomic Structure and Stability were solved! The Theory of Quantum Mechanics was born, where light is made of particles and solids are in constant vibration. I am still a little disoriented but I am looking forward to taking a closer look next week.

Next Up: Through the Looking Glass

Inside The Great City

This week my life was in the barns and farms of rural Missouri, but my mind was in the bustling metropolis of The Periodic Table. It has almost doubled since Mendeleev, now at 115 and counting. Since the 1860’s, we changed the addresses to Atomic Number, got better at calculating Atomic Mass, and added several new neighborhoods.

This grew to a city like New York, with something for every one. Are you a salt-of-the-earth type? Head over to the Alkali neighborhood. Is your group eclectic, colorful, active, and includes all three phases? You must be a Halogen or a Unitarian. Are you content to stay at home most nights? You would be welcomed by the introverted Noble Gases. And if just plain crazy appeals, take a walk on the wild side with the Lanthanides and Actinides. They are complicated, volatile and radioactive.

The true magic of the Periodic Table is that it led to understanding the reason behind this pattern of behavior. Atoms, just like the rest of us, need balanced energy. Too much energy (electrons) and they will give it away. Not enough energy and they will bond with anyone within reach.

I also learned about the online city of teachers. Even though my closest neighbor is 5 miles away, the emailed classroom tips, compliments, and comments made this place a little less remote and I am truly appreciative. And the true magic of my life happened ten years ago today. Happy Anniversary, Patrick! Who knew that a Philosopher/Poet and and Engineer would have such great chemistry?

Next Up: The Quantum Leap

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