My first memory of being taught chemistry is being told to learn the names of all the elements, in order.



My first memory of being taught chemistry is being told to learn the names of all the elements, in order. A dry list of symbols and numbers, the Periodic Table was presented with no context, no clues as to its power. The whole thing seemed perfectly designed to squish a child’s natural sense of wonder and inquisitiveness (and desire to make things go bang, of course).

Fortunately for me the seeds of chemical thought were planted in my mind long before I was formally taught the subject at school. In common with so many scientists, the unsung as well as Nobel laureates, I was given a chemistry set by my parents at an impressionable age.

There was a red test-tube rack, glass tubes, safety goggles, litmus paper and a dozen or more screw top vials with mysterious and not-yet effable identifiers: sulfate, cyanoferrate, carbonate, sodium, copper, potassium, all in striking combinations. I exhausted the protocols and suggestions in the (as it became) stained and dog-eared instruction booklet, and to my immense pleasure had reagents left over. My parents never did find that cat. But I was hooked - I wanted more.

Eventually of course I went to High School, where I knew I wanted to study chemistry. And ran slap bang into the wall of memorised facts and laws that were handed down as if on stone tablets. My seductive friends, the chemicals, were locked away, to be rationed and controlled by the high priests of education.

It was not until A Levels and a new school brought the hunched figure of Doc Beckett, cross-eyed and stain-fingered, into my life that I was able to rekindle my love affair with the sirens of my youth - and more besides. Doc learned his craft in a different age. We dehydrated glycerol to make acrolein and staggered around the lab coughing. We dropped nitrogen triiodide on the floor and spent the afternoon in a purple haze of tiny explosions. I made black powder and glycerol/permanganate fuses. During a particularly recalcitrant reduction I suggested, because I was reading some ancient text, that a certain chemical might help. Doc returned with a brown bottle from a locked cupboard, ’Potassium Cyanide’ written in copperplate on the label. I peeked in the cupboard once. What, I wondered, was ’uranyl acetate’?

Alas, all this came too late for most of my peers.

Chemistry is exciting. Innocuous-looking chemicals do strange and wonderful (and scary) things when mixed in the right (or wrong) combinations. Can school ever be the place for such experimentation? Done properly, neither teachers nor insurance lawyers would be willing to take it on.
Maybe by proscribing its teaching we could keep it set apart as a far, forbidden vista,
only to be approached with trepidation;
when, perhaps, you are ready. How do we make the next generation want to learn chemistry?

I’ve started early with my own children. For my eight year old’s birthday we bought her a chemistry set. It’s rather simple, with few ineffable chemical names, but it was immediately The Best Present Ever. And now we’re moving on: one day a few weeks ago, a tub of cupric sulfate broke in the lab. 

I swept the dusty powder into a bag and brought it home. In front of her I tipped the powder into a jam jar and dissolved it in hot water. Yesterday, I broke open the jar. Her mouth formed an ’O’ and she covered it with her hand, her eyes as shiny blue as the crystals.

Richard Grant=