The Crucible

So, chemistry. Hardly remember any. Teacher was a short chap with specs and a hair-cut from the 1940’s who I don’t remember speaking to me once. I think he mostly bonded with boys.  Co-valent bonding, no doubt. The chemistry swots were speccie geeky chaps who averted their eyes from us girls and already liked chemistry and physics.

Although I was mad keen on biology, I made no sense of the hieroglyphics that this teacher scrawled all over the blackboard. It might as well have been ancient Egyptian.

I felt it was a knowledge gap that I should attempt to address so I got a ticket to ‘Chemistry – a Volatile History’ – a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival. I thought it might put chemistry in perspective at last; make sense of the carboys of noxious stuff that my bonkers uncle used to keep in the kitchen cupboards at my nan’s house and mix up on her kitchen table.

The talk, I thought, would mostly be about the Periodic Table and the latest additions…strontium, observium, obsequiem, unhingedium, ununpronouncium..that kind of thing.

Such was the aridity of my school chemistry lessons that I completely overlooked the possibility of Experiments.

The venue was a tent aptly named the Crucible. As I took my seat, a tall thin guy with specs and clear safety glasses pushed high on a forehead positively bulging with brain was crawling around on stage fussing and fiddling with the connections to a big gas cannister. An array of flasks, tubes and holders were laid out on a covered table above him.  This was Andrea Sella, a chemist from UCL. He wore terrible shapeless old jeans and aged loafers and had a giant clamp easily big enough to restrain, if necessary, his fellow presenter, physicist Jim Al-Khalili. I was on the edge of my seat already. Things looked as if they might get interesting.

Andrea began by admitting he had a huge chip on his shoulder about the poor showing his pet subject gets on TV and how declaring he was a chemist was a dead-cert conversation killer.

Chemistry is just magic with explanations, I decided, watching demonstrations of how cinnabar can be heated to produce mercury – playing with mercury being just about the only thing I remember that was fun at school. They talked about alchemists’ attempts to make gold by boiling up urine and how that led to the discovery of phosphorus.

“If it stinks and burns, it’s chemistry – if it doesn’t work, it’s physics,” quipped Andrea settling up a portable bunsen burner with a huge leaping flame that wouldn’t have been out of place on an oil platform. Bear in mind this was inside a tent.

As I was looking around to decide which of my near-neighbours’ laps I would have to climb over to make my escape from the ensuing conflagration and general terror, he got a pea-sized crumb of phosphorus to burn with a ghostly white light in a giant glass flask. I heard myself emit a small “Woo!”

They talked about Sir Humphrey Davy of Miner’s Lamp fame discovering potassium. Andreas said every schoolboy wanted to get their hands on a kilo of potassoium and drop it into a river. It was an experiment he and Jim had done – with a spectacularly violent reaction; first a ripple and then molten potassium liquid dancing about on the water surface giving off coloured smoke. Every party should have some.

Things got hairy again when Andrea, who by now was really warming to his tasks, started setting fire to hydrogen balloons which exploded into balls of orange flame. I calculated that it would probably be ok to trample the 12-year-old in my haste to get climb over the side of the stairs and drop to safety but maybe not his 5-year-old brother.

Sadly I wasn’t close enough to the front to handle the flask containing a litre of mercury. It was handed to people so they could feel the weight of it – 22 pounds – but I was scandalised by the pointless experiment attempting to burn diamonds – each diamond cost £2,000 or more from Hatton Garden. It was at that point I realised these guys really were certifiably mad. Shocking waste when good homes could have been found for those gems. Thankfully they failed to burn – the beast of a bunsen burner was just not hot enough.

But lo and behold they did actually get on to the Periodic Table. The big news is that element 112 has been confirmed as Copernicium – named after Copernicus but unfortunately 500 years too late for him to appreciate it.

Andrea waded into the realms of alpha partticles and the alpha decay chain, protons and neutrons and I was floundering mentally, not having a pal at my side to whom I could whisper “Woss he mean by that?” The guy who was next to me was a mass of nervous exciteability. It took twenty minutes for his knee to stop going up and down. One word from me might trigger another fidget-fest so I kept schtum.

I love kids at these talks. They are high quality children, the ones who ask questions at the Science Fest in their BBC accents. One enquired “Why do you need to find heavy elements?”

“Because it’s fun,” replied Andreas, and to be fair, did follow that up with an explanation that the kid understood perfectly but frankly, made me check my watch.

He said he was very fortunate to work in a research institution because it was such fun and revealed what I always suspected – that a lot of scientists remain true to their inner child, playing with expensive toys “to try and find out why stuff is.”

He talked about combustion reactions and grinned a worrying grin.

“Hey, we have to end with a fire don’t we?”

How I wished he’d been my teacher or I’d had his babies or both.

“Remember how they gave you test tubes like this at school?”

He held up a hand to indicate about four inches.

“Well at University, those of us on the staff get these babies…” and he brandished a test tube five feet long. Yes, there were gasps. And not just from me. So that’s what the giant clamp was for.

I scribbled the recipe in case I could reproduce it  at home for DT man. First, take your nitric oxide, put it in a test tube and add carbon disulphide. Brown smoke starts happening. Now cork your tube.

You put your safety glasses on and stick a lighted wooden spill into the mix and hey presto – a sudden explosive “BLOOP” and a bright blue glowing tube!

Delia’s Victoria Sandwich was never this exciting. I was starting to understand why Uncle Al’s noxious mixtures on the kitchen table had been so much more alluring to him than whipping up a nice quiche. Early photographers used the blue ‘flash’ to take indoor snaps of Queen Victoria.

Andrea did it again and talked about electrons pairing up to release energy but quite frankly I was too busy listening for the ‘bloop’ and trying to figure out what exactly was going on in the test tube filled with light of the most wondrous Blue.

I’d like to see it again, close up. Probably easy to re-create in the comfort of one’s own home for the delight of close friends and family. I’m just not sure in which aisle I might find the carbon disulphide at Sainsbury’s…


About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
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6 Responses to The Crucible

  1. When I saw the title, I thought this would be about Sarah Jessica Parker’s Who do you think you are? But it wasn’t. Great blog, its made me giggle and I too am scandalised by the wanton destruction of diamonds (even if they did fail!) 😀

  2. janh1 says:

    😀 Hi Sophie. He was holding one of the diamonds in a pincer thing when he dropped it. I swear six women in the front row visibly twitched as they resisted the urge to rush the stage and try and find it before he did!

  3. IsobelandCat says:

    Wonderful wonderful post. I was giggling by the end of the fifth word.
    Get this published somewhere.
    I didn’t get chemistry at school at all. The most exciting it got was writing notes with the word bung as many times as possible.
    A personal landmark for me to this day is when I was covering a year 8 chemistry class and we had to do chemical equations. For the first time ever I understood them.

    Try Primo Levi for a love of the elements in the Periodic Table.

  4. janh1 says:

    Ta Isobel! 🙂 Damn, I could have used “bung” in the above. I thought I was doing well remembering test tube and clamp! Actually, thinking about it, some of the lab glassware was rather nice, tubes and U bends and little globes – goodness knows what it was all for…

    Chemical equations? Maybe chemistry must be taken in and left to macerate for a couple of decades before it gels properly in the brain.

  5. theroyalist says:

    Explosive blog, Jan.

    As my tongue is muted elsewhere it gives me great pleasure to bump (not bung) my gums here. Like your good self I too have not “done” chemistry since school. Our teacher was quite mild and had no control of the class. When anyone of us got a question right there was a huge round of applause from the rest of the pupils. No hi-fiving as the American custom had not made its way over the Atlantic yet but a lot of slaps to the back.

    You’ve almost, I stress almost, made me go out and buy a chemistry set.

    Poor Copernicus.

    • janh1 says:

      😀 I should have warned you to wear those safety specs…

      My eldest had a chemistry set. The test tubes are far too small. You haven’t a clue what’s going on. It’s got to be five foot or nothing for me now. I’ve been spoiled.

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