And two lessons I will never forget

Let me start this editorial by wishing you an excellent 2013. I hope the new year brings prosperity and happiness for all.

During our work Christmas lunch a few weeks ago, I was talking to a group of colleagues about new year’s resolutions and somehow the conversation got us sharing details of how our careers have progressed since leaving university and, more interestingly, the reasons why we had become chemists in the first place. There was a bit of everything around the table: chemistry was a process of elimination for some (‘Physics is not right for me and biology isn’t either’), vocation for the lucky majority and indecision for a small minority (‘I have no idea what I want to do with my life but I’m good at chemistry’). A few mentioned the influence that having a good chemistry teacher in secondary school had played in their decision and so we ended up recounting memorable chemistry lessons. 

In general, we were all quite shocked by some of the lab practices that we had been exposed to and by the lack of consideration given to health and safety in comparison with today’s standards. But some of the stories were quite hilarious and we should write about them some day.

For me, there are two lessons that I will never forget. In the first, our teacher came into the room grinning smugly and carrying a small tray with an unidentified darkened bottle and other bits and bobs. He told us to shut the blinds and switch the lights off. He then took a chunk of sodium out of the bottle and threw it into the nearest sink, which he had filled with water. ‘Never mix sodium and water,’ he shouted over the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ that followed the bang, the ceiling-high flames and the initial shock experienced by his very impressionable (frightened?) audience.

This was followed a couple of days later by another lecture where he produced a shoe that had a big hole in the front from an old bag. So big was the hole that there wasn’t much of the shoe left. Indeed, the toe cap had almost completely vanished. He told us to pass it round and carefully examine it, explaining that concentrated sodium hydroxide is ‘nasty stuff’ and one should not wear his best (and only!) shoes when handling it. (We must have been studying the alkali metals, otherwise the only possible explanation is that this man had an unhealthy obsession with sodium and its compounds.) Luckily, he had not been hurt during the incident but it did mean an unscheduled visit to the shoe shop for him, which he greatly resented as he liked to go ‘once a year and only if strictly necessary’.

My chemistry teacher was a quirky and interesting fellow. He was involved in local politics and was far more passionate about developing his career in this regard than in teaching the basics of chemistry to a bunch of teenagers, which he still did with some flair. He was a good orator (later on in life I attended some of his public addresses during subsequent election campaigns and was impressed) but I don’t think he influenced my career choice in any way.

Do you have any stories about your chemistry teacher that you’d like to share? Please do let us know via the usual channels.