Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Chemistry Woes July 4, 2012

Filed under: Whatever — katblogger @ 10:26 AM
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To my great distress, it appears that I have actually retained something from HL chemistry. (I warn you – a lot of it will appear in this post. Read at your own risk.)

I understand this. That’s not natural.

This sorry tale began when I was perusing the Sunday newspaper. I had a list of chores waiting, so naturally I took my time. When I flipped over a page, I was confronted with an ad for a ‘miracle pill’. Everyone knows the type. They slow aging, make heart problems vanish, make you bleed rainbows, whatever. These were for weight loss.

What caught my attention was the introduction paragraph, which announced that new pills had appeared quickly after the FDA pulled old versions off the shelves. Besides the obvious problem of the FDA taking action, ‘quickly’ made me nervous. We spent a whole class period on drug research and formation. From isolating a lead compound to putting bottles on the shelves, the process should take around ten years. Faster isn’t safe.

Skepticism fully engaged, I read further. The chem part of my brain grew more and more distressed. The ad (and the website I checked later) did not specify a lead compound (active ingredient). Instead, it used vague terms like ‘complex phenylethylamine’. (I drew this structure and was interested to see that it was very close to amphetamine.) They were selling these pills without explaining what was in them, escaping necessary regulations and testing by marketing them as supplements rather than medication.

I launched into a rant to my family about corporate irresponsibility and consumer stupidity, referencing vocabulary terms like ‘chiral center’ and Thalidomide. Partway through, I stopped in horror. What was I doing? Chemistry was over. I shouldn’t be scrawling organic molecules’ structural formulas all over the newspaper.

It’s depressing, but it’s also depressing that companies use people’s ignorance to sell products that could be dangerous. A word to the wise – miracles usually stay in fairy tales. Avoid pills promising unnatural results, especially if they won’t tell you everything. Or just call in a chemistry student. We’ve got your back.


Death, Lung Cancer, and Failing Grades: Welcome to HL Chem February 25, 2012

Filed under: Whatever — katblogger @ 12:54 PM
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It's sad because it's true. Credit:

“Ok, guys. If I tell you to drop everything and run, just do it.”

I paused my futile attempt to tie a decent knot in my apron. “You think someone’s going to blow us up?”

“It’s better to be on the safe side,” my Chemistry teacher answered, neatly avoiding the question.

I gave up on the knot – how can you tie something behind you anyway? – and headed over to the goggles cabinet. She was probably right.

We were doing our Chemistry IAs (Internal Assessments, for those of you who aren’t IB grads). With very little teacher aid, we’d written our own experiments and were now doing everything in our ability to screw them up.  Our last attempt had netted us dismal grades ranging from 8 to 1 out of 18, and I for one was determined to at least do slightly better.

Even if, I thought, staring glumly at the pile of copper and aluminum foil shreds that needed to be separated, it meant going through piles of gunk with tweezers.

The teacher never did order us to evacuate, but she probably could have. A guy on the other end of the room put a beaker above a bunsen burner (using a complicated iron ring/clay triangle/wire gauze apparatus that would need a diagram, so I won’t explain it) and the room promptly filled with choking fumes.

“I was just trying to boil it,” he explained as we all ran for cover.

“Your boiling license is revoked,” our teacher snapped.

It would be easier if we had teacher assistance, but any help is strictly limited. IB officials want students to be self-sufficient. I suspect that they may just be sadists, because this rule means that teachers can’t tell us when an experiment is going to go terribly, horribly wrong. Last year, a girl using zinc and hydrochloric acid had to wait two hours for the reaction to end. Last semester, an injudicious mixture resulted in a gout of flame.

I had three beakers reacting and two more slowly filtering out. Clearly, it would be necessary to stay after school. I scratched a few notes on my observations table, wondering how I always managed to create an insanely complicated experiment.

“I’m done,” boasted the Extremely Unbalanced Kid at the counter behind me. “I have all this acid left over.”

“Good for you,” I grumbled, and ignored him. My preoccupation with drying filter papers meant that I missed the moment when EUK decided that it’d be a great idea to dump all of his excess chemicals into a big beaker of 6 molar hydrochloric acid. I did not miss, however, the loud hissing noise and subsequent cloud of smoke. Panicked, EUK dumped the whole mess down the drain. Even more panicked, our chemistry teacher ran over with a box of baking powder, reminding us that we’re Never Ever supposed to pour non-neutralized acid down the drain. I made a mental note not to drink from any water fountains for the rest of the day.

Why didn’t I HL in history?