So here is a little known fact about me…I am the proud possessor of a Bsc Chemistry degree. First class no less. From the University of Sheffield.
So here is how my education panned out. I found boys, specifically A boy, when I was 14. I got into RPG and cheap beer from cans and rock music and wandering aimlessly about woods and such. I hit a minor rebellious streak and didn’t work hard enough for my O levels. Despite being an A grade student my whole life (excepting Games where I got a C3 every single time, please see Jolly Hockey Sticks for more information on that) I didn’t achieve anywhere near enough of those As at O level.
So my grades were not spectacular. Certainly not by today’s standard. I am not sure I would have hit the grade average now required to gain entry to my children’s school’s Sixth Form. Luckily for me such things were not so much of an issue then. I passed. I did well in the subjects I wanted to take at A level, namely Maths, Geography, Chemistry oh and a bit more Maths.
I kissed goodbye to analysing Shakespeare and conjugating verbs and drawing under pressure and I could not have been happier.
So I worked for my A levels. I really wanted to do Geography at University. But my Human Geography teacher (a Mr Pollard if I recall correctly, just out of teacher training, red trendy glasses, tight trousers, very evangelical about ribbon development and economic modelling, once had an interesting conversation with him about JJ Cale and cannabis in a record store whilst on a field trip in the Cotswolds) was not enamoured of my essay writing skills, believing me really a scientist at heart and not properly invested in Maslow, had not predicted me a particularly great grade.
Even combined with the much better predicted grade from my Physical Geography teacher (Mr Jones, never happier than when discussing plate tectonics, had seen my zeal for measuring river discharge when I was up to my thighs in a freezing stream on that same Cotswolds trip, had a very boring conversation about riffles and pools on a bus) it was not good enough for most Universities.
I was sick of Maths and anyway I was struggling in Further Maths with the ‘ethereal’ quality of it all. I liked remembering equations, plugging figures in and getting a right (or wrong) result. Black and white. Further Maths wasn’t like that. Mr Rodgers (older, big bear of a man, took a group of us to the Albert Hall to watch the Proms, had great conversations about music) said that that was what University Maths was like. I decided to run a mile.
So that left Chemistry.
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I left education so choosing Chemistry didn’t seem a bad option. In any event I had been somewhat inspired during my extra special Chemistry sessions for proper geeks run at lunch times by Dr Galsworthy (just out of teacher training, complete dream boat, never had any sort of conversation with him as I could not string a sentence together in his presence) where we got to use all the intricate glass ware which fitted together so satisfyingly and produce such fascinating compounds as limonene. I still have the certificate for that extra bit of Chemistry. Still not sure what I took. It didn’t matter. Dr Galsworthy.
And I loved the logic of it all… atoms forever searching for completeness, a bit like me with Dr Galsworthy, it all appealed to my pubescent self…and fiddling about with explosions and Bunsen burners was always fun. I had a good predicted grade so off I trotted to Uni open days. They all loved me despite those questionable O levels because I was a serial joiner in-er; leading Brownie packs, ringing church bells, playing the double bass in the Youth orchestra and the like (just no sport…at all).
I did rather well in my A levels obtaining all I needed and more. Shoving two fingers up at Mr Pollard with my good result in Geography, delighting Dr Gaslworthy (I think he may have hugged me, or maybe that was just one of my fantasies) with my Chemistry result and fainting with surprise at my grade in Further Maths as I had a distinct recollection of sitting completely baffled in the Pure paper.
So I went off to Sheffield. I carried on with the RPG and drinking cheap beer, only this time from glasses, how civilised, and there was still quite a lot of wandering around aimlessly although this time in the Peaks.
Chemistry lost some of its logic and I seemed to spend the first year producing inorganic compounds which were invariably yellow powders or clear, colourless liquids that looked and smelled suspiciously like water. The labs, where I spent 3 hours every afternoon (except Wednesdays which was ‘sport’ afternoon-or ‘going to the Union and watching crap TV’ afternoons if you were me) were vast impersonal spaces full of out dated equipment and professors barking orders and trying to stop the 100 or so students from setting fire to each other or drinking those clear colourless liquids. All the mornings were taken up with lectures. It was like being at school with longer days and more work. And I smelled horrendous…
On the whole I enjoyed it. I gravitated to physical chemistry probably because of my maths background. I spent my third year practical sessions holed up in the liquid crystal department in the bowels of the basement carrying out experiments which took forever and left me a lot of time to draw, listen to rock music on my Walkman and generally mooch around in the gloom. My dissertation was finished. I took my finals and did my presentation on the results of all that waiting around to my peers. I left the Uni more than competent in Chemistry.
And since then I have had no use for the subject. I ended up in banking (it was the early 90s, jobs were scarce and I just wanted to stop eating tuna and pasta and eat some red meat protein for once and so a PhD wasn’t really an option and no employer in chemistry was interested without one) and then as a full time mum. It got to the point were I needed to fake a coughing fit if there were any chemistry questions on University Challenge, and then Mastermind, and then Pointless and now Top of the Class. Moles once more became adorable burrowing animals. Condensing was an annoying process on one’s windows. Joules was a clothes brand. At a push I could still name chemical symbols in a pub quiz but that was about my lot. Silver and gold though….still tricky…
However as my children approach the sharp end of their school lives I am slowly falling back in love with chemistry. Middlest is currently learning about the atomic model and isotopes and last year Eldest needed help with ionic and covalent bonding (see it is such a lovely subject all that searching and bonding, it’s romantic really… Dr Galsworthy).
And yesterday Eldest needed to find out the specific heat capacities of certain elements and quote his source. I no longer believe Wikipedia for anything after an unfortunate incident with densities and so I thought I would wheel out my Physical Chemistry University text book. Sure enough it had the heat capacities required but in totally the wrong units. It involved indices. It involved moles. Still furry. I hurriedly put the book back…. and used some engineering site which we hope is right…it seems to take an awful lot of energy to raise the temperature of hydrogen according to their heat capacity. I should know if that is true or not. I don’t.
When I took to facebook to bemoan the fact that I no longer understood a SINGLE word of this particular text book (Atkins 3rd Edition) a friend, whose daughter is starting a chemistry degree at Uni soon, replied to say she had just bought said daughter the 11th edition.
So two things are true. One I am old. Beyond reckoning. And two. If you don’t use it you lose it.