Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The Girl, Amateur Chemist

“Daddy, I figured it out!”

I never get tired of hearing that.

The Girl got a couple of chemistry sets for Christmas, and we broke them out and started tinkering with them over the long weekend.  They have the basics you would expect: a few test tubes, some rubber pipettes with squeezable bulbs, a measuring spoon, and -- most important of all -- safety goggles.  

With the goggles on, she looked like Snoopy in his World War One Flying Ace ensemble.  She loved them.

Chemistry sets for kids are a little more sophisticated now than the ones I dimly remember.   I recall a great deal of improvisation when I got a set somewhere around age nine, especially once my idiot friend and I figured out that putting chemicals on paper napkins and setting them on fire in the basement -- where the concrete floor wouldn’t burn -- was kinda fun.  The experiments the set offered just didn’t seem all that interesting in comparison.

In my defense, I believed that if you already knew the outcome, then it wasn’t really an experiment; it was a demonstration.  An experiment means you don’t know the outcome.  We didn’t know squat, so we experimented.  Admittedly, we were a little loose on details like “reasons” and “procedures” and “basic safety,” but hey, it was the seventies.  Back then they put gas tanks right behind bumpers.  We were just in tune with the zeitgeist.

My high school lab partner -- a faithful reader of the blog -- can attest that by the time I got to high school, any interest in chemistry was long gone.  I treated it as a distasteful obligation to be dispensed with.  I’m hoping not to pass that on to The Girl.  

Since kids have a habit of doing what you do rather than what you say, I had to throw myself back into a discipline I hadn’t engaged in any serious way since the Reagan administration.

Luckily, The Girl was there to rescue me.

We set everything up carefully.  We had newspaper on the kitchen table, paper towels at the ready, and safety goggles affixed.  TG even briefly put her goggles on The Dog, just to see how they’d look.  The Dog demurred.  Science requires sacrifices.

Then we got down to business.

A word to the people who write the instructions for chemistry sets: clarity matters.  The one set had a series of experiments in a pretty rigid sequence: experiment 7 required that you use the products of experiment 6, for example, and experiment 8 drew on both 7 and 6.  Logically, then, a mistake in experiment 6 borne of an ambiguous phrase would render experiments 7 and 8 dismal failures.  

Which, in fact, happened.

We went back to experiment six and tried again.  TG conscientiously filled the test tubes with water to the correct height, added the right chemicals in the right amounts, applied the rubber stopper, shook gently, and watched as the liquid turned sort of pinkish.  (The instructions suggested that it would be a deep red.)  We walked through the instructions step by step, wondering why the next step that was supposed to result in the liquid turning blue resulted in, well, nothing.  So we tried it again; still nothing.

At that point, I had to pick up The Boy from his friend’s house.  I left, with TW still around in case anything exploded.

When I got back, TB in tow, The Girl beamed proudly and announced “Daddy, I figured it out!”  TW denied any involvement.

TG had meticulously retraced each step, and interpreted each next step herself.  As it happened, her sense of how it worked was more accurate than her fortysomething, PhD-bearing Dad’s.  The test tubes beamed their bright, unambiguous primary colors.

She was proud.  I was even prouder.

Rock on, TG.  And pay no attention to the paper napkins on the table.

Yay! I hope she never loses her interest in science!! As a biologist myself I still remember my first microscope and my grandma pricking her finger so that I could look at blood cells. Who knew that ~20 years later I'd study blood cells with a slightly more sophisticated microscope for my PhD? :)
Awwww! What a clever girl!
DD exaggerates slightly about his chemistry past; I seem to recall that he did take a chemistry elective in college to satisfy gen ed requirements. I also seem to remember him specifically choosing a course other than "Chemistry for (Insert Stereotype Here)".

Way to go, TG, on figuring out the lab procedure! I remember an "a ha" moment on a more grown-up scale when I was discussing a published algorithm with a peer from another group during grad school. "That (interpretation of one obscure step) must be why my calculation wouldn't always work," he had said.

I anticipate reading a more involved Science Fair blog posting in several months.

P.S. It is fitting that my word verification is SWEart (SWE = Society of Women Engineers).
TG would have fit right in with my girls. Grown now and independent, I still remember those "I figured it out!" moments well.

I teach physics and I am amazed at the number of my students who have not, apparently, ever had that "Ah HA!" moment themselves. I feel bad for them.
Like anonymous 5:23 I am also surprised by the number of CC students that seem to have never had an "Ah ha!" moment in science. One of the perqs (or perks, if you prefer) of teaching chemistry is that I get to see a few of those moments.

It's awesome that your daughter figured out the problem. Also awesome is that she had the chance to.
Yay! Real science for the girl! The poorly written instructions and unexpected results are the bedrock of experimental science - when you're standing on the edge of what is understood and trying to piece the next few bits together you have to be willing to have things not work the way you expect. Your willingess to keep plugging away and to really observe what's happening determines to a large extent how successful you will be. Fascination with good questions and enjoying the somewhat frustrating process of answering them is what drives most experimental scientists.
Yesss! Good for her, especially the persistence part.
I recall two of DD's chemistry set "experiments" well. One was the first "experiment" in the set's manual, where you mixed a few solutions to create a rich green liquid. Lame. Not educational, either.

Then there was the other one, where he'd crumple a half-sheet of newspaper into a ball, sprinkle sulfur powder on it, then set it on fire in the garage as a crude stink bomb.

See, now that's science.
Ah, yes, your chemistry sets. I recall the alarming booms and the mysterious odors. But the thing that made me most fearful were the whoops from the "scientists."

Good going, TG!
The dirty secret of lab science- we don't know what's going to be a 'demonstration' until we're already done.
Nothing works the first time. Or the second time. If she's getting it, herself, on the whatever-time-it-takes, she's got what she needs. Far moreso than chemistry knowledge.
Ah, high school chemistry! The high point, for me, was the time when, as I was about to pour some sulphuric acid from a beaker into a test tube, my lab partner said to me, "You have really cute eyelashes."

That experiment had to be done over from the beginning.
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