personal chemistry

There is a universe I do not even know I do not know — unknown unknowns, in the parlance of Donald Rumsfeld. One of the purposes of education is to be confronted with the frontier of our ignorance, to be turned around and led to the edge of a previously unperceived precipice so that someone can point to the wide canyon before us and say: here is something you don’t know. That is, one role of education is to turn an unknown unknown into a known unknown.

I have many known unknowns, things I know I do not know. I cannot speak the primary languages of most fellow humans on this planet, build a fence, name the succession of English monarchs (or describe the detailed history for nearly any country besides the US), start or even simply maintain a garden that could sustain the family, land or even fly a plane, identify nearly any contemporary popular singer from the past two decades (to the simultaneous embarrassment and delight of my children), and so forth.

The breadth of my ignorance is extensive. Yes, I continue to learn — for example, this evening at home I advanced my knowledge of Spanish (tomar functions similarly to take in English: taking medicine, taking money, taking the train, taking a drink), drilled myself on the locations of European and South American countries, and began to read Randall Munroe’s latest book How To, including the chapter on landing a plane. But life is finite. I will always be helplessly lost about something.

As for the things I do know, my known knowns, I tend to take them for granted. Teaching general chemistry this fall has made more aware of how easily and often I regard objects and processes through the lens of chemistry.

On Saturday I finally took the ALCOSAN plant tour to witness how our wastewater is treated. I was fascinated at how chlorine served as a disinfectant until 9/11, which forced reassessing the risk of railroad cars filled with poisonous gas running through high-density population areas. When the tour guide mentioned they now use sodium hypochlorite, with sodium bisulfite to neutralize the excess before discharging the effluent into the Ohio River, I immediately imagined the chemical reaction. This is a reflex. It was only later that I realized probably no one else on the bus had been thinking in those terms.

Over the weekend I also found occasions to learn about the agents used in Class B fire extinguishers, as well as the Haber-Bosch process and other methods for nitrogen fixation. On the first homework set I wrote problems on using a propane heater and on thermite reactions, which both interest me personally.

Two weeks ago my mother, who in recent years has developed drastically different political views from mine, argued the root cause is that we were raised in different educational environments. I am willing to concede my education influences the ways I perceive and don’t perceive aspects of the world.

However, I am not persuaded that education is the root cause of our difference. Her upbringing hasn’t changed, and yet she has changed political parties. I believe the problem is that she has narrowed her current sources of information. She has inoculated herself against listening to younger people who express different views as well as to anyone who delivers news that challenge her point of view. I don’t know how to break through this dogma, or whether that is even wise, given that it seems now to have taken hold as a deep part of her identity.

Life is finite. I love my mother. I will always be helplessly lost about something. Chemistry is easier than politics.

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