Chemistry is Seldom Fatal
While reading a text book of chemistry, I came upon the statement, “nitric acid acts upon copper.” I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked “nitric acid” on a table in the doctors office where I was then ‘doing time’! I did not know its peculiarities, but I was getting on and likely to learn. The spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words “act upon” meant. Then the statement “nitric acid acts upon copper”, would be something more than mere words.
All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table; opened the bottle marked “nitric acid”; poured some of the liquid on the copper; and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed, and it was no small change either. A greenish blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great cloud arose: This was disagreeable and suffocating — how should I stop this?
I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out the window, which I had meanwhile opened. I learned another fact — nitric acid not only acts upon copper but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers.
Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment, and, relatively, probably the most costly experiment I have ever performed. I tell of it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that remarkable kind of action. Plainly the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory.
The man who wrote this was one Ira Ramsen, a chemistry professor at and eventually president of Williams University.
Science is the only general topic I wouldn’t be comfortable teaching. I don’t like playing with things that require adult supervision. I’m barely an adult, myself.
Anyway, back to the anecdote. I would have liked a chemistry teacher with such a good sense of humor. I still would have disliked chemistry — nitric acid acts upon fingers, after all — but I would have disliked it while having some degree of respect for the teacher.
Any thoughts, observations or pedagogical lessons to be gleaned from this?