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National Chemistry Week

Author John Cech
Air Date 11/8/1999

National Chemistry Week Transcript

This is National Chemistry Week. My father was an inorganic, analytical chemist. “Inorganic” means metal, he tells me — and that’s what he worked with all of his adult life — those red-hot lines of alloys that ran through the assembly lines of the factories in Chicago where we lived. He began his career, though, tinkering in the garage. “I almost blew it up,” he told me. When I asked him what the experiment was, he began to hem and haw a little — “Oh,” he said, “I was probably adding an acid to a base.” But when I pressed him he started to confess, sheepishly, that it was probably gunpowder — what most of the red-blooded, twelve year old kids with a bent for science like himself during the 1930s discovered that they could make with a few simple ingredients that you could then easily buy from the drug store down the block.

With me chemistry meant submarines that could race around the bathtub on a charge of bicarbonate of soda and chunks of coal that would sprout brilliant crystals if you drenched them in ammonia and blueing. My daughter’s middle school fascination with chemistry yielded a volcano made from paper maché with free flowing lava — again, baking soda was part of the mixture, along with red food coloring. You can bet a lot of table tops were ruined by that science project. But however you want to put it, whether you’re talking polymers or C-9, H-8, 0-4, chemistry is alchemy. Like those medieval philosopher-mystics knew from the start, it’s all about turning the dross, the insignificant bits and pieces of our lives into something extraordinary and, if you were lucky, something transcendent. For instance, if you process regular old crude oil in a certain way, you get gasoline; refine it further and you have the raw materials for baggies or computer keyboards. If you can separate the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules in water and harness the hydrogen you will have pulled off one of the biggest tricks of all — unlimited, inexpensive, non-polluting energy. Have your reluctant young scientists check out the web site of Bill Nye the science guy, or watch his popular public television show for children. He knows that chemistry is the ultimate magical act: fascinating, dizzying, spellbinding magic.

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