Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Mad science" is redundant

That's a Tesla coil. It makes lightning.

It was built by a friend of mine--here's where he talks about it. It's worth a read (or two).

We did some incredibly stupid things back in high school, and we still have all our digits (amazing) and no juvie records (also amazing).


Ms. Lehman was my high school chemistry teacher--she regularly made things gurgle, glow, boom, and smoke. She had a perpetually amazed look on her face, but maybe that was her perpetually scorched eyebrows. She loved chemistry.

We dabbled a lot in lab--not something openly encouraged, but if you had a clue of what you were testing (and not just randomly mixing chemicals), you could try it.

I wanted to make laughing gas--nitrous oxide. My chemistry was OK, but not great, and I figured I might generate some if I poured nitric acid on a penny. Something went wrong, or rather, matter behaved as matter will, and a billowing red-brown cloud of toxic fumes erupted from the flask. Pennies are not just copper, maybe I misread the metal reactivity table, who knows....

I had enough sense to get it under the fume hood. I did not get expelled.

While I still light things on fire in class, I don't ignite hydrogen bubbles. I don't (intentionally) blow things up. I don't keep snakes in the class, nor spiders, or anything else that might prove upsetting. No potassium dropped in water. No microwave plasma balls.

Heck, I went through a whole year in class without leaving a stain on the ceiling.


Would you try this in class? (I'd modify it, of course--the lack of safety goggles is appalling, and why use your mouth when a squeeze bulb would do.)

As my class leaves on Fridays, I dismiss them with a question.

What do we practice? Safe science!

But if real science about teasing the unknown, can it be truly safe? Will any of my students be building lightning boxes in their garages when their in their 50's?

A confession: Ms. Lehman was absent the day I made NO2--she wasn't stupid.
She did take into account my explanation, though, and
while she officially chastised me, I think I saw her wink when she did....

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