The Making of a Chemist

Chemists are made, not (save a very few) born. I started about age 10, when I acquired a chemistry set. In those days, the set of choice was an A.C. Gilbert (still very much around; check out the Amazon official site). I haven’t seen a set since the mid Fifties, but I’m sure they’ve been sanitized to the point of boredom.

Back in the day, a Gilbert set could be used, for example, to produce a gas with a “diabolical odor” like rotten eggs. Naturally, I had to try it out in my unventilated lab in the basement. The procedure called for heating sulfur and paraffin in a test tube (I have never heard of this method,to this day),but it sure worked! Unfortunately, I developed a world class headache and nausea. Years later, I found out that hydrogen sulfide was as toxic as hydrogen cyanide, the active ingredient in gas chambers. I’m sure the lawyers have gotten involved and spoiled a lot of fun (and probably saved some lives).

The rather small amount of chemicals in the set needed replenishment from time to time. You could buy stuff from Gilbert, but you’d pay the price. Fortunately, a friend recommended John H.Wynn, who sold chemicals to chemistry majors. To get to Wynn’s shop on West 23rd Street involved a subway ride (with one transfer from GG local train to the F express) from our home in Queens. I was 11 at the time, and my brother Alfred was 7. I needed to take him along (there’s strength in numbers, after all). My parents’ sole concern was that we had to dress suitably in case we met someone we knew (after all, NYC’s population was 7 million at the time), since we were going to the City. Imagine trusting kids to do this, in this day and time…….

We made the trek several times over a few years, to the point where Mr. Wynn trusted us to buy concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids (but not glycerin, which would have enabled us to make nitroglycerin, which is truly bad stuff).

We also dabbled in gunpowder and pipe bombs for the Fourth of July,and tried out small scale making of moonshine. I won’t bore you with the “how” of these pursuits. There are plenty of them on the Internet).

The advancement of technology has changed the learning experience of chemistry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we have emphasized the solving of problems at the expense of what used to be called “descriptive chemistry”, where we looked at chemicals in terms of what they looked like, smelled like, their physical state and other aspects. For example, yeah, hydrogen sulfide smelled like rotten eggs, hydrogen cyanide smelled like burnt almonds, mercury is a liquid, chlorine smells like a swimming pool, fun stuff like that. In many ways, we’ve taken the joy out of studying it. We’ve made it the “toughest course in high school”. To what end?

I have also learned that little or nothing which I learned over the years was a waste of time. During my years of teaching high school, on one occasion, a “stink bomb” was released into the hall. My well trained nose instantly identified it as hydrogen sulfide. The factoid I mentioned earlier as to its toxicity vis a vis hydrogen cyanide which I discovered at the time was of great interest to Al Burch, the principal . This was during the innocent era prior to school shootings (although a year or two later, the first of them took place at Columbine High School). As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around”.

The risk averse nature of our society has resulted in the de-emphasis of laboratory hands on experience. Too risky and expensive. Can’t we simulate this with computers? No, we can’t! In my later years, I taught a community college course, “Chemistry for Nurses”, the only chemistry course required – and it didn’t even include a lab! I had to sort of sneak exercises in taking some measurements for these kids. A neice of ours earned a nursing degree from Villanova in the 70’s, and took almost as much chemistry as I did. Maybe RN’s don’t need as much chemistry nowadays.

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