Wednesday, April 22, 2015

365 True Things: 25/Chemistry

My father was a world-class organic chemist—specifically, a phytochemist specializing in flavonoids—and UCLA professor. If my mother is to be believed, had he not fallen gravely ill during what should have been the peak years of his career (roughly 35 to 45), he would have won a Nobel Prize. He was certainly beloved by his students—those, at any rate, he didn't scare away with his exacting standards.

When I was in maybe the eighth grade, I had an assignment to . . . create a science experiment? It may have been that general. In any event, I must have gone home and informed my parents, whereupon my father jumped in with a fantastic idea: paper chromatography. I had no idea what that was, of course, but I was secretly pleased that he wanted to spend time with me on my science experiment.

He brought home some fancy glass equipment, solutions, special fibrous paper, little clips from his lab. We inoculated several strips of paper with . . . something pigmented. In researching the technique just now, I see references to analysis of colored inks. Also plant pigments—like the banana leaf shown here. But just what we used, I do not recall. For some reason I recall blues and reds, which suggests pH analysis. But who knows.

On presentation day, I confidently set up my equipment, inoculated new strips of paper and dipped them into the solution, and everyone watched in wonder as pigments crept up the papers and separated out.

Then the teacher asked what was actually happening. And I was stumped. Apparently my father had neglected to explain. Or, more likely, he'd explained and I didn't understand. And I was too shy to ask him to slow down, start at the beginning, be as basic as possible.

Thus, in a single mortifying moment, ended any potential career I might have had in the sciences.

When I later took chemistry in high school, I remember several times when I had a question and would ask my dad—and he'd start off at or (usually) beyond the question and explain from there. He assumed intelligence in the people around him. But intelligence isn't the same as knowledge. Moreover, there are different kinds of intelligence. I have never been strong at analytic thinking; I'm more of synthetic thinker. At least, that's what I tell myself. Could be I was never taught analytic thought—and that junior high experiment only confirmed that I was scientifically dumb. 

In my research just now, I've gathered (from a website called Science Stuff, geared to schoolteachers—and apologies in advance for those of you who get this stuff if I've bungled it) that there are a few reasons why things such as ink separate out the way they do: the solvent itself (a water-soluble ink will separate out in water, a permanent one will require a different solvent); the molecular weight of the component substances; and the "polarity" of the compounds (their affinity for the solvent). (In the banana leaf, the photosynthetic pigment Carotene, a dietary source of vitamin A, is the least polar—with least affinity for water, so it moves quickly: it wants to escape; whereas Chlorophyll b likes water, so rises up the paper slowly.)

There's actual chemistry behind that "polarity" business (-->), but it's too late for me.

And that chemistry class in high school? One day I walked in, and the teacher, Mr. Jerome, smirked at me. Said, "You're going to enjoy today. We're watching a film." I got a sinking feeling. I knew exactly what he was talking about: when I was younger, on various occasions my mother and I would drop my father off at a film studio on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, then go run errands, returning in a couple of hours to fetch him. He'd been making educational films. Explaining chemistry to high school students.

And yes, when the lights went down, there was my father in his crewcut perched on a laboratory bench. Explaining away. Only, not to me. By that point, I was deaf to his explanations.

That film and Mr. Jerome's name are virtually all I retain from that semester of chemistry. I wish it weren't so—I wish I did understand more of the physical world, including chemistry. It's not exactly a regret; more of a lack. One that extends into the heart of my relationship with my father as well. But that's a whole other story.


2 comments:

  1. This paragraph packs power: "And yes, when the lights went down, there was my father in his crewcut perched on a laboratory bench. Explaining away. Only, not to me. By that point, I was deaf to his explanations."

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  2. "Thus, in a single mortifying moment, ended any potential career I might have had in the sciences." This is precious, charming and funny- however quite sorry for this past mortification. Truly. Lucky us you write.

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