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


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