A Real Science Education

The other day I was writing about our experiences unschooling high school science. I mentioned a couple of books I thought my chemistry-loving-daughter, Charlotte, might like to read. Of course, I couldn’t help myself. After publishing the post, I just had to buy both books. Well, it is the start of the new school year and everyone (on this side of the world) is busy buying resources. It’s the natural thing to do. I know…  we have heaps of books and DVDs and other interesting stuff sitting around, unused on our shelves. I didn’t really need to buy anything new. But I did…

I ordered the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, because it is only available as a paper book, but it only took me a few seconds to download a copy of The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History ofthe World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. Kindle books are really my downfall. I click and then think. Did we need that? Too late. We’ve got it. But there’s no such thing as too many books, is there?

Charlotte and I have both started reading The Disappearing Spoon, and so far, we think it’s an excellent book. I learnt so much about mercury from reading the introduction alone, things I will never forget. The author’s stories about this element are vivid and lively and imagination-capturing.

I clicked page after page until the following excerpts caught my attention, and caused me to stop and reflect:

As a physics major with hopes of escaping the lab to write, I felt miserable among the serious and gifted young scientists in my classes, who loved trial-and-error experiments in a way I never could. I stuck out five frigid years in Minnesota and ended up with an honors degree in physics, but despite spending hundreds of hours in labs, despite memorising thousands of equations, despite drawing tens of thousands of diagrams with frictionless pulleys and ramps – my real education was in my professors’ stories. Stories about Gandhi and Godzilla and a eugenicist who used germanium to steal a Noble Prize. About throwing blocks of explosive sodium into rivers and killing fish. About people suffocating, quite blissfully on nitrogen gas in space shuttles. About a former professor who would experiment on the plutonium-powered pacemaker inside his own chest,speeding it up and slowing it down by standing next to and fiddling with giant magnetic coils.
I latched onto these tales, and recently… realised that’s there’s a funny, or odd or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table. At the same time, the table is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of humankind. It’s both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook… At its simplest level, the periodic table catalogs all the different kinds of matter in our universe, the hundred-odd characters whose headstrong personalities give rise to everything we see and touch…
…And beyond just entertaining us, the tales of the periodic table provide a way of understanding it that never appears in textbooks or lab manuals. We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.
Wow! Doesn’t that sound exciting? I can understand why Charlotte finds chemistry so fascinating. I now know why she has spent so many hours enjoying the periodic table, and why she is encouraged to go off and try a few experiments of her own.

“… my real education was in my professors’ stories…”

Could it also be in stories in living books written by scientists or in stories portrayed in chemists’ videos or in stories recorded in Catholic scientists’ podcasts or…? Could Charlotte actually be getting a real science education as she dips into interesting books and websites and videos and podcasts? Is this why she knows and understands so much, without ever trying to memorise a single fact?

How I wish some of my own university professors had had a few stories to tell us. But all I gathered from them was page after page of dry facts and figures, that I struggled to commit to my poor memory… pages that eventually ended up in the garbage bin.

I am now off to read some more of The Disappearing Spoon. It’s fascinating. It’s entertaining. And I am learning heaps. At last I am getting a real science education.

Follow Sue Elvis’s board Unschooling Science on Pinterest.

Tags: , , ,

Related Posts

Previous Post Next Post


    • Amy R
    • February 9, 2013

    Could Charlotte actually be getting a real science education as she dips into interesting books and websites and videos and podcasts?

    And I think we know the answer.

    Now….to order those two books!

    1. Reply


      I hope you enjoy the books! "Periodic Tales" hasn't arrived yet so I can't tell you anything about that one. But Charlotte is certainly enjoying "The Disappearing Spoon".

      God bless!

Join in the conversation!

%d bloggers like this: