Saturday, November 11, 2006

A bit of perspective, lab style

High School science is not a particularly memorable period in one’s journey through life. The science geeks generally know everything already, while the people who don’t really care are hardly inspired to learn. But my second year of high school physics had a few memorable labs.

Our school didn’t have the funds/ organization/ inclination to offer AP physics, so the “advanced” physics had one of the physics teachers dredging up all this crazy ancient equipment and teaching us the physics that they demonstrated. There were two labs, in particular, which I remember.

The first was digging up and fixing an old single grating diffractometer and looking at the discharges from various gas tubes to learn all about both diffraction and gas excitation. The culmination of this was figuring out what the fluoro tubes that lit the lab must be filled with- it was easy to look up, but cool to see that ordinary real life was made of the same elements, wavelengths, and concepts that were stored in the back of the physics cabinet.

The second lab I remember was radioactivity. The cabinet (perhaps set up by Dr. Calgari?) contained a half a dozen Geiger counters. First we learned safety procedures- which include Geiger-countering each other at the end of each lab to detect spills. Next, we looked at the radioactivity of various normal or natural items. Finally, the teacher brought out the radioactive generators. These were little disk-shaped things, about the size of a small stack of poker chips, through which a dilute acid was poured. The liquid that emerged was radioactive, and our task was to count it throughout the class to determine the halflife, from which we were to identify the isotope being extracted. I know I got the isotope wrong, and I still can’t remember what it was, exactly- the halflife was less than the class length, though, so my best guess- 15 years later- would be 223Fr.

Of course, we all had to Geiger-counter each other at the end, just to make sure nobody spilled anything, and this is where some clown snuck the pitchblende ore up behind the counter as it dropped past the beltline of a particularly nervous doctor wannabe. Being a fairly excitable sort of kid, he went on for weeks about how dangerous and stupid the entire lab was, how those extra handful of decays had needlessly put him at risk, and all the other prattlings of an angry, humiliated young man.

He sort of had a point- I mean, radiation is dangerous, and even though we were generally well-behaved and conscientious, I’m not really sure what would have happened if somebody had spilled a beaker on themselves. But the magnitude and importance of the risk was brought into clearer focus after Christmas that year.

When we came back from Christmas break, our physics teacher was gone, and the school’s other teacher took over the class for the rest of the year. We graduated in 1991, and our teacher, who was in the army reserve, had been called up to teach kids a year older than us how to drive tanks, in preparation for the liberation of Kuwait in the first gulf war.

No longer was he teaching us the physical processes illustrated by trace concentrations of U decay chain products. Instead, he was showing army recruits how to take care of, load, and fire shells made of depleted uranium.

It was then that we realized that all of the chemistry, physics, and other science that we were taught to use caution around was also used for the deliberate killing of other human beings. It is one thing to have a bottle of nitrates say, “warning: fire hazard.” It is another for someone to use the same basic decomposition reaction in a bomb or shell aimed at your head. Technology can do some nasty things to the human body, and one of my key high school revelations was that people my age would willingly put themselves in the way of technology’s most dangerous creations.

Needless to say, complaining about a high school lab seemed a little bit petty compared to the idea of going off to war. This realization was heightened when I turned in my selective service card at the post office on the President’s deadline for Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait. The bombing campaign started 2 days later.

Today is Remembrance Day. So spare a thought for all the service men and women who are putting themselves in harm’s way. They put themselves in the way of science’s most destructive and lethal applications, so that we don’t have to worry about anything more traumatic than traffic, or eye strain, or any of the other molehills that we tectonically uplift in the day to day existence of our overly civilized lives.

No comments: