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Monday, 10 November 2014

School Chemistry

Tasker Dunham remembers his science marks, and wonders what might have been if he hadn't joined the ranks of the idiots. 

January 21, 1965. Thursday. Got 20/20 in a Chemistry test.
January 25, 1965. Monday. Got 10/10 in a Geometry test. Also did a fab. experiment in Physics: the water equivalent of a copper calorimeter.
March 2, 1965. Tuesday. Back to school. Interim positions. Biology 1st.
October 20, 1965. Wednesday. Science Society lecture on Atomic Power Stations.
December 7, 1965. Tuesday. Science Society lecture on wine making - with free samples.

What an insufferable swot!

There was a time when things looked promising at school. I was doing satisfyingly well in most subjects, especially science, but sometimes in different subjects because of fads. Yet I only scraped through ‘O’ level by just enough to avoid total disgrace, messed up ‘A’ level completely, and had absolutely no chance of getting into university. I never did science again. What went wrong?

School Chemistry Laboratory 1950s

I was spellbound by the old science labs the moment I went to grammar school. Hidden in an out-of-the-­way upstairs corridor, with a permanent smell of pungent chemicals, coal gas, rubber tubing and wood polish, they hinted at mysterious secret knowledge. As an impressionable eleven year-old I wondered at what went on at those ancient dark benches with their sinks, water taps, gas taps, equipment cupboards and intriguing glass-stoppered bottles with names etched on the front: tincture of iodine, nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lime water. Things took place here that were beyond understanding. They could make explosives and powerful poisons. They could turn base metals into gold. They had the philosopher’s stone with the potion of eternal life. If you paid attention, you might have these things too.

One teaching room seemed like the Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institution, before the modern seating, a raked amphitheatre with beautiful tiered benches on stepped oak floors. Seated on high, you could look down on Mr. Page as he made oxygen by heating potassium chlorate and manganese dioxide in the blue-yellow flame of a Bunsen burner, collecting the gas as it bubbled into an upturned jar. He became a wizard, an alchemist, demonstrating how the gas reacts with different substances. “Magnesium burns with a bright white light” he would say, conjuring up a dazzling ball of flame too bright and too white to look at.

Spectacular effects aside, my dysfunctionally over-active memory readily absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes: mitochondria, mitosis, xylem, osmosis, islets of Langerhans. In physics, I was captivated by the sheer ingenuity of some of the procedures, such as the use of a calorimeter to measure and calculate the heat changes in physical and chemical reactions. In mathematics, the interactions of shapes and numbers were as beautiful as any art form.

In Biology we listened to a weekly series of schools programmes on the radio. What a cheat! I must have been the only person in the class with a reel-to-reel tape recorder (a Philips EL3541 model - see later post Reel-to-Reel Recordings). I showed my mother how to record the programmes at home, and handed in an outstanding essay about them. Just being able to listen to them again meant I soaked up the content like a sponge.  

For Christmas I got a Kay chemistry set. I wrote about that in the previous post, but doing your own experiments at home is another guaranteed way to turbo-charge your levels of interest and enthusiasm. My parents must have felt pretty confident I would eventually get a science degree and then on to a job in what Harold Wilson had that very year called the white heat of Britain’s technological revolution.

But as I said, I never did. From doing well at school without really trying, I started to do badly without really trying not to. Of course, I have excuses such as forgetting to revise for the summer science exam which determined the ‘O’ level groups we were put into. My school report has the evidence: position in class 2nd, position in exam 25th, “a disappointing exam result”. “I’m good at this,” I had thought, “it’ll be all right,” but it was a bad day, and I found myself in the second stream where people messed about, and I made the mistake of wanting them to like me. Things became harder too. Chemistry progressed from observation to true experimentation, quantitative measurement and atomic models. And the new school labs, light and airy in a purpose built science block, lacked the exciting, mysterious atmosphere of the old ones. The benches were now in front facing rows rather than islands, and the teachers could no longer see everything their pupils were up to, especially at the back, in other words the jokers, whose ranks I had joined.

The once admired Mister Page, who by now had become Doctor Page, not that any of us understood what that meant, was not well equipped to deal with continuous low level disruption. Thin, with a small bony face, an odd toothy mouth and a permanent worried frown, he was simply insufficiently dominant to control a second stream chemistry class full of idiots determined not to take things seriously. His doctorate in due course became his escape route from teaching to lecturing. As the saying goes, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

Every time Dr. Page turned his back to write on the blackboard, the disruption began. The cupboards underneath the benches had little metal label-holders that made a musical “ping” when you picked the top bar, and the doors had catches that clicked on opening and closing. As soon as Dr. Page turned away, an orchestral ensemble of pings and clicks would start up, continuing until he spun round angrily, only to be faced by a silent and diligent looking class innocently paying attention. 

Occasionally he spotted someone still smirking, and gave them the blame by shouting their name: Bullard!”; “Langrick!” Geoffrey Bullard perfected the ability to click the cupboard door with his foot while the rest of him remained motionless, his face expressionless. He could continue his covert clicking after Dr. Page had spun round, causing someone else to laugh, and their name to be called out:Thompson!”; Bowcock!” 

Peter Bowcock began to keep a league table of the number of times each person was named. Trevor Thompson went straight to the top after causing an uproar when he caught a wasp in a measuring cylinder and dropped it down into a bottle of sodium hydroxide. It didn’t half fly around fast inside the bottle. Before long, everyone in the back two rows had points except for Jupp , who remained at the bottom of the league on zero until almost the end of term. But the day arrived when, suffering intolerable harassment from others, Jupp was spotted not sitting quietly, and had his name called out. Everyone stood up, cheering and applauding. We had to stay late that day.

Jupp’s downfall was brought about by water. The taps in the benches could not have been better designed for mischief. They were the typical tall laboratory taps, shaped like a lower case ‘r’ with the spout pointing downwards. They could be turned on just enough to drip slowly, so that a well-timed finger could flick drops of water at the head of anyone sitting in front, and if they dared to turn round, Dr. Page would see them and shout out their name. The top of a fountain pen, the kind of top with a small hole in the side for equalising air pressure, could be pushed on the tap to squirt a powerful jet of water directly at someone sitting yards away. The rubber teat from a teat-pipette could do the same job if you made a tiny pin hole, except the spray was so fine the recipient might not notice until the back of his jacket was soaked through. A teat without a pin hole would slowly expand like a balloon, growing bigger and bigger until it became a water bomb primed to explode. There was not a lot you could do about it. Pulling off the teat was suicidal, it guaranteed a soaking. The best thing was simply to turn the tap off, hoping you had correctly remembered which way was off, and trust that the thing remained stable.

Needless to say, hardly anyone from the back of that class has an ‘O’ level in chemistry.

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