Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I Washed Out of Chemistry

When I entered Albion, I expected to become a chemist or a chemical engineer. At the bookstore I discovered a mechanical "pencil" set for the drafting class cost $70 at a time when books ran $10 -15 per course. I quickly decided I would become a chemist. The road less traveled began.

I signed up with the Chemistry department head, Dr Carnell, to be a lab assistant and was given the job of preparing 10 - 12 chemistry experiments he used to demonstrate the wonders of chemistry to his freshman class. I worked diligently following a teacher's experiment manual and lined the experiments up ready for a class I was taking. I can still recall the look of amazement - turned to wonder - on Dr. Carnell's face as he presented "my" experiments which failed as often as they succeeded! Where is that hole to crawl into when you need one?

I was reassigned to running viscosity tests in Dr. Carnell's lab. There were 6 to 8 viscosity tubes immersed in a hot water bath (fish tank) whose temperature I was expected to hold constant during the tests. You timed the flow of a fluid from top to bottom of each tube, using a stopwatch, to measure the viscosity of the liquid. If the bath temperature remained constant, all eight trials would produce the same result. The temperature rarely stated constant, so I had to rerun these tests literally hundreds of times. Was this what I had to look forward to as a chemist? Or was it payback for all those failed chemistry experiments?

To make things worst, the water bath was set in front of a window looking out over the campus, directly across from the library. What I saw while "doing my time" was guys and gals coming and going on their library dates while I was keeping company with smelly test tubes. When I saw a "woman of interest" with some other guy, I asked myself - "what in sam hill am I doing here?"

As a chem major I was required to take German as my foreign language. I am not a linguist. One day I asked Dr. Carnell how many times he had translated a German chemical tract for his work? Once! So why did we have to take German? "It shows you are an educated man." In my junior year I went to New York as best man at my cousin's marriage into a second generation German family. At the dinner celebration, I was told there were two German cousins straight off the boat. So, as best man, I proceed to one of the young ladies and in my best German said - "Wollen Sie mit meir gedanzen?" Her response was a very puzzled look! Fortunately an older lady sitting nearby reached over and said "My dear - he just asked you if you would like to dance." Why can't I find those holes when I need one?

Second frosh semester and I was blasting my way thought chemistry - full speed ahead. My chem grades were borderline B+/A- and I figured if I aced the final an A was in the bag. I studied hard and was ready. The day after the final I stopped in to see Dr. Carnell and casually asked how I had done on the final. C+ which guaranteed a B in the course. That summer at Y camp I thought long and hard, and in the fall, I said good by to Dr. Carnell and went looking for a new major. I found political history / economics and never looked back.

Fast forward 30 years. My daughter came home from her first year at Whitman College. She found a summer job as a receptionist with a management recruiter. A week later she came home and told me she had been fired! I phoned the recruiter and asked - "What's up?" He replied his business depended heavily on phone calls and my daughter was writing down incorrect phone numbers which he could not return. That's when I discovered she transposes numbers and letters sometimes. My former wife asked where that came from?

I reflected long and hard. I was never a good speller, but was unaware of a problem transposing numbers. I then looked closely at how I deal with large numbers. Sure enough - I was transposing numbers now and then. Aha - answer to why a C+ on chemistry test.

In retrospect, it's probably a good thing I washed out of chemistry. I knew the tables and valences backward and forward - maybe too backward! My career change probably saved me and other people a lot of frustration and possibly some big bangs!          BruceF

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