Sunday, April 6, 2008

my mom skipped 4th grade

Last month I induced Alice, the 13 -year old girl who owns Sequoia's sister, to tell me all about her chemistry class. Dragging "what did you learn in school today?" out of her and her older sister Rachel is -- I was about to say as difficult as gleaning FBI secrets, but that's a cinch compared to obtaining information from the Contopoulos girls. These girls don't leave laptops lying around.

Alice's explanation consisted of atoms walking down Telegraph Avenue and being spare-changed by other atoms who needed electrons. (How do they teach chemistry in other cities?) Then she started on covalent bonds and Group Zero and the second-to-last electron shell in transition metals until I was out of my depth.

I was freaking out that an 8th grader knew more chemistry than I did, until I remembered that my high school Science for Poets class focused on the metric system (all the vogue back then, when there still seemed to be a chance we'd convert) and the properties of light. In fact, my teacher was strongly against any attempt to memorize the Periodic table. I honestly think we would've been marked down for it.

Add to that that quarks weren't invented until I was seven, that I got my chem credits by reading Lavoisier at a liberal arts college, that I dropped out before I got to P Chem, and there you have it: an ignoramus. I suddenly had a magnitude more of sympathy for my mom, who never really learned division, decimals, or angles properly because she skipped fourth grade. When I was in high school she asked me what a 45-degree angle was. "People are always talking about it," she said. I used the kitchen clock to demonstrate, and she freaked out with excitement. 90 degrees! 60 degrees! Who knew?

Anyway, Alice has renewed my interest in basic chemistry. Which means I've been reading tons of crazy web explanations on the subject. Can I just say that I now have an inkling about why the U.S. lags in science? Even if I ignore the typos, I have to wade through incomprehensible grammar and meandering explanations.

Example: "When going about their natural lives, you will never (never say never because there may be an exception) find the inert gases bonded with other elements."

What the fuck does that mean? Is there a known exception or not? And since when is it okay to change the subject from "they" to "you" mid-sentence? Damn science geeks. And don't get me started on "Bronze was one of the first alloys crated by humans." Is anyone even proofreading?

But whatever, I'm fascinated by this whole carbon-14 thing. After I learn this stuff, I'm on to looking for a YouTube video of Nightmare on Puberty Street, which Rachel told me about in not at all enough detail.

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