When you really want to communicate to people just how much science is going on, there is no replacement for colorful liquids. Forget that they are arranged in a bizarrely clean storage container (with no trace of human interaction at all). This is a stock photo - you are not supposed to ask questions.
My degree is in chemistry. I state this half for those who don't know, and half as a reminder to myself. I had a bit of an identity crisis the other day. See - the type of chemistry I focused my attention on was Organic - Breaking Bad Chemistry , as it's known more formally. I didn't deal with a lot of colorful liquids myself, but I have enough of a science background to make people feel comfortable lobbing random street drug, pharmaceutical, and Jesse Pinkman related questions.
The other day at work, someone asked me if the compound Penicillin was tricyclic . I froze. I had no idea. What did tricyclic mean? I was drawing a complete blank. It wasn't like it was an incredibly obscure masters-level question to ask. Any schlub in first semester organic chemistry would be able to zip that up without touching a single flashcard.
Figure 1: "Cmon! Penicilin? Tricyclic? Answer me, B#@!%"
Which is why it was so humbling to draw a blank. Luckily - I had Dr. Wikipedia on another tab, so I avoided looking stupid for now. But an identity crisis germinated upon realizing that I am starting to forget things - things that I promised myself I would never forget. I loved organic chemistry. Even when I decided to move in another direction for my life. I vowed that I would always keep a sliver of my heart tender for the lab that raised me.
Nostalgia in the lab
Some of my fondest memories took place in the research lab. During my Junior year, I assisted a professor with a synthetic chemical project. I'm not sure how much I'm actually allowed to share (you could say that's classified - ladies ), but I was fortunate because I got to work with a lot of vanilla. Beakers, jars, and bags of vanilla. Eventually, I was even finding it in my pockets.
I consider myself lucky that I was placed on a project with vanilla, given most things in organic chemistry smell like old food and mouse turds. We usually save the more fragrant, colorful reactions for intro students, but the reality is most research reactions resemble too closely digging around for a piece of broken glass in a slurry of something that was leaking out of your car. You have to appreciate the moments you see something beautiful - like a crystal, colorful vapor, or a dangerous explosion.
Figure 2: Molten garbage is an aquired taste.
Working long hours by yourself, you start to go a little nuts. And trapped in a tiny room filled with dangerous toys, could you blame me? I'll confess to you - the most dangerous thing I ever did was light a piece of magnesium tape on fire. It's a demo that pretty much every fifth grader can speak to, but it was still fun to do it by myself.
Working alone also makes one think more about death. Particulary, what music I would be comfortable to have playing if someone were to discover my dead body in the morning. I actually made two music playlists because of these reflections. I had one playlist of finer, reputable music. I would listen to this list whenever I was doing something dangerous - whenever high pressure, caustic chemicals or fire were involved. I figured that way, if something horrible were to happen and my corpse was found the next morning in a seething puddle of Diisobutylaluminium hydride , the witness would at least know that I had good taste. I kept all my Katy Perry, Waka Flocka Flame, and Wiz Khalifa on the other playlist. This was more routine operations where I was farely certain my life wasn't in danger.
Figure 3: We believe there to be foul play here, commisioner. The carbon monoxide posinoning was exacerbated by the inhuman amount of captain crunch forcibly stuffed in his mouth. Also, the killer must have mockingly played Ke$ha as he died.
Along with helping out in the research lab, I spent a few semesters aiding an organic chemistry lab. I was that TA. The TA that thinks he is working the ICU of the Mayo clinic, overseeing the Apollo 13 disaster, or simply that he is almighty god himself.
Figure 4: I was looking for the IUPAC name, you peon. Here, I'll write it for you on my pecs.
As the semesters went on, I grew a heart for the underdogs and began grading a little easier. I appreciated the work ethic of the geniuses that would pass through, but the students that were right on the edge of giving up on everything really got to me. For most people that go through the class, they are not looking to linger. They carry themselves like Liam Neeson in The Grey - hard as stone and comfortable with every tribulation until death itself - only to presumably wrestle with wretching doubt behind closed doors. The moments you can pick someone up off the ground and walk them back to the path they left is rewarding enough to pay for the job without the ritzy eight bucks an hour.
I wish I did this more often, but here is a little album I made of everyone on the last lab of the semester. It was a pretty big experiment in which you synthesize lidocane (a cousin of novicane) bascially from scratch. Great work everyone. I hope you are on to bigger and better endeavors then amateur local anesthetics.
(sorry if I missed anyone. I think I may have lost some photos - just let me know if you are conspicuously missing so you can receive your rightful accolades)
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The problem with analogies
Helping out in lab was humbling because I saw so many students that were better scientists than me. I did ok, but I fear it was for the wrong reasons.
As a confused human being, I rely heavily on analogies. They are usually good, but they are still analogies. Since no analogy is perfect, it is perfectly necessary to incriminate an understanding built entirely on analogies as being far from perfect. That's just math.
A good scientist is someone who always has an analogy ready, but hesitates for the sake of principle - the principle being a deep respect for reality itself. This is why, I believe, teachers save the analogies for the end, or strictly for the after-class asides with the students who are struggling. Scientists have a deep respect for reality itself. If you think about it, learning soley through comparison with things you already know can be a sad, backwards way to move through a collegiate education if you abuse it.
And believe me - I abused it. Everything was an analogy in my head. Most of them were too embarassing to share with the class, but they worked. They were good. Generally, the less math surrounding the subject the better. Organic chemistry was the perfect underground for my seedy trick. It was built heavily on cause-effect relationships, and there was no honest math to keep me in line.
Things worked for a while, but my rouse broke down when I got to more serious classes. This is what forced me to realize that I really wasn't learning science scientifically . I was just learning it programatically.
Contrary, programmers have absolutely no respect for reality. Everything is an analogy. We work with objects, classes, and methods that we name whatever the hell we want. We are obnoxiously literal when you are incorrect and unforgivably general when we would like to be correct. Programming frequently involves traversing oceans of rich information (most of which could occupy anyone for an entire lifetime of learning) only to kidnap the snippet of insight we need to move forward with our own project. After we get what we need, we ctrl-c it out of the loving arms of its wikipedia contributors and close the tab - likey to never appreciate all the hardwork again.
It was no wonder I was drawn to it so much. When you discover programming, you in parallel discover that you have been treating every other class you have ever taken as a programming language. Everything is an analogy. Everything is just an object.
It took some personal development to resign from science. At one point, I really thought I was the only one doing things right. Pragmatically, if you can get a lesser student to grasp a mechanic in a blip of the time it would take them to derrive it themselves (even if you have to compare the valence electron shell to The Jersey Shore), why not?
One summer, I even tried to publish a series of lectures promoted by the University of Reddit . I got two videos into the curriculum before I had to stop. I would have liked to keep moving forward, but the overhead of writing lectures and editing them for youtube was way too much. Cutting the class short was heart-breaking - especially since the initial reaction to the videos was so positive. I'm sorry, you guys. I think it's better that you learn the right way.
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I have been tempted to write up the analogies I have left. They are close to my heart, and it would be a bold face lie if I said I wasn't a little proud of them. I have been flirting with the idea of posting a small blog series covering "Organic Chemistry explained disrespectfully". My sense of urgency to get it out of my head before it whithers in memory was heigtened this week by my tricyclic spaceout . If I can forget something as simple as the number of cycles in a structure today, who knows what I can forget tomorrow.
Chemists are special people
All in all, working with chemists has given me a deep appreciation for those with the bravery to learn things the right way - the crazy ones. Chemists are special people. One of the mosts amusing things I've noticed is the uniformity in horrible posture throughout the chemistry department. Everyone - from the dedicated sophomores to the tenured celebrites - walks with a crimp in their back. If you are wondering, that is the kind of thing that happens when you spend hours upon hours counting drops into a vial over a bench. But dually, I see it as a beautiful synecdoche pointing to the humility this kind of attention to detailed reality leaves you with. Chemists are some of the most delicate people, but it's hard to miss the unshakeable strength that confounds the quiet, calculated impression.
To my peers that went on without me, I wish you well. I have a feeling every single one of the chemists I graduated with is going to do amazing things. I am proud to have worked with so many of you and grateful for the teachers that poured themselves out for the sake of my experience.
Here is a video that I'm sure most people have seen. Consider it my toast to all the scientists better than I. Cheers!
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