Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Encounters with Science as a School Kid

This is one part of my childhood I very fondly and vividly remember. Even then I have never ever shared these with anybody before and I don't feel inclined to do so in the near future, because it might appear that I am trying to boast about myself. So I decided to write these down here , so that these might remained remembered and maybe a few some people might accidentally going through these pages will go through it. These events are true to my memory of them and they are apart from the regular experiments and things that a normal school child do.

While in school , I don't remember having anything too much to do and as a consequence life was a lot boring. To fill the time , I used to hungrily go through all the old books of my parents trying to find any book that might be understandable by me ( and these included literature, history, geography, home science, law, military strategy and campaigns, philosophy etc etc...). I remember that when ever we got new books for new year I used to eagerly read all my and my brothers book in a few days(and then read them a few times over). One of the good part was the science books.

The first little " scientific experiment" I remember was when I was very very small , not even going to school. I used to put 2 wires to a plug , the other end of which used to be joined together and wind around it a lot of paper and put this thing under a wooden block . When I used to turn on the switch , there used to be a small bang and I used to thing that that was a sort of cracker and so I used to try this several times over. I was too little to understand what was going on and at that time the wiring was such that short circuit would not fry up the wiring of the house(there were no circuit breakers then !!).

Once I read in a GK(General Knowledge) book of my class that if you drop a mouse and a cat from a tall tower, the cat will die but the mouse will only feel only a bit confused but will be safe. Well so I promptly caught a mouse in my house and took it outside and threw it high up (to recreate the dropping from the height thing). I guess the person who wrote that never tried it out because the mouse probably got fractured legs :( but it still ran away.

The next incident was quite dangerous. I had read quite a lot how harmful mercury is to human health. I had read in Chemistry books the physical properties , MP, BP , inertness of Hg. Also the disease like Minamata surely put a scare in your mind. now we all know that thermometers have mercury in them and in my house thermometer was the only scientific instrument present. So one day I put thermometer into fresh boiling milk just to see it. I observed that the mercury quickly rose in the capillary and as soon as it reached the top, the bulb of thermometer broke and all the mercury in the thermometer flowed out into the boiling milk. I thought I was screwed. I was all in 7th grade then and was staring in front of me the prospectus of poising everyone with the mercury mixed milk. I distinctly remember the fact that Hg can result in effecting the mental abilities of a person. I was also scared to admit that I had caused that to happen. I though of finding a solution to the problem. Since Hg is liquid at room temperature and it is not supposed to react/dissolve in milk which might be around 100 degree. so I carefully removed all the milk and took out Hg and stored it with me. Looking back to this event that happened around 10 years back , I don't think the mind of anyone in my family got affected anyhow :P( I am still keeping my fingers crossed).

The next one is again about rats. At that time I was expert at catching rats by bare hands. So one day while catching one of them , the unfortunate soul got hurt and eventually died.
At that time I had a biology book of class 9. The book was good and in one chapter it had a internal diagram of a dissected rat/mouse. Now I had a dead rat with me and a diagram of the internal parts of its. It didn't take me any time to decide that I was going to do a dissection of this dead rodent. Well now there was the logistics problem. I didn't had knives, gloves , dissection table etc. I knew about flues and many epidemic spread through rats so I was not going to take a chance there by unsafely exposing myself. So I took a razor blade as my knife and polythene bags as my gloves and dissection table. The book mentioned that for vertebrates we dissect the body from bottom(or stomach side) and the non-vertebrates animals from the top side. I proceeded by first removing the fur kind of covering on the body(I deduced that all animals have a similar arrangement in which if we remove the fur we get a kind of water tight membrane, inside which everything is there). Then I cut the membrane to see all the internal organs. I didn't get any blood spilling out(strange !!).
The internal organs were just a beauty to see. The rat's body is so small and inside it so many things are packed so efficiently that there was absolutely no empty space. The organs were so small. I could find and identify lungs, heart, liver, intestine(with little green food) etc. Unfortunately I was unable to openup the brain and that was the part I missed. Finally the corpse and equipment of postmortem were safely dispensed.

After reading in 10th class chemistry books a lot of reactions involving NaOH, I wanted some NaOH so that i could myself perform some of those reactions. So for that I thought that if I get some Sodium metal and just put it in water will produce NaOH. The problem was to get sodium. Now table salt is NaCl , so I thought that maybe strong heating of table salt will give sodium. I took some salt in a spoon and kept that on gas burner. It turned out that salt slowly turned black from white and the individual crystals started to jump just like corn jumps while preparing popcorns. The spoon got so much burned and blackened that it was never to be cleaned again. I lost hopes of making NaOH by this way(as it turns out NaCl has one of the strongest electrolytic bonding and no way is normal heating sufficient to break it). Next I thought electrolysis of water seems pretty straightforward , so I started for that. First I prepared a supersaturated solution of NaCl in water by dissolving more and more salt in water by constantly heating it(maybe this way for making NaOH somehow , but I don't remember exactly). Then I put a transistor's AC power cable into this solution and switched on power. There was a lot of sound and within a few seconds water became hot. Later I filtered this blacky liquid using blotting paper, but I don't think this procedure produced anything new or useful. By this I realized that for electrolysis we need DC supply not AC .
At that time I was pretty fascinated with Hydrogen. One of its property that I don't think I will ever forget is that it burns with a 'popping' sound. This fact was mentioned in every textbook and I just wanted to see that happen with my eyes( and ears). But for this I needed Hydrogen and electrolysis seemed to be the answer for that. So I took some water with a little NaCl dissolved into it , then I took a AC-DC converter , a ball point pen. Hydrogen is lighter than water so it could be collected by downward displacement of water, so I filled my ball pen with water and kept it in inverted position over the '+' of AC-DC converter , when I turned on power, I could visually see the formation of O2 and H2. WoW !! There were bubbles forming and coming out from + & - terminals. At one terminal bubbles were forming at twice the speed so I deduced it must be H2 and collected that in ball pen by downward displacement of water. Now I just wanted to hear Hydrogen gas burning with a popping sound. So I opened the mouth of ball pen in front of fire. Phew !! no popping sound, though I was sure , I had collected Hydrogen gas(maybe because the thing continued to burn by itself , proving that it was a combustible gas). In place of that something totally new happened. I observed that the ball pen was burning and producing fiber like smoke i.e. the smoke was having carbon in form of around 1 cm long ' fibers '.
I had never seen or read about this thing before . Some weeks later the coaching class that I used to go for 10th class science, the teacher suddenly asked us what is 'particulate matter' as this was present in a chapter on pollution. Now the best part was that I was good at guessing. I had never heard of ' particulate' before and though I was well read considering class 10th standards, I had never read about this 'fiber' before. Immediately it clicked that maybe this new term was the new thing I had seen. I told the teacher the same. Phew ! I had just hit bull's eye. The teacher was totally impressed and he asked again and again that how did I knew. So rather than telling him that I did some experiments in my house, I told something gibberish and still he was totally blown away :D.

Apart from these one of the favorite things I used to do was to open up things and look what's inside them. be it radio, watches, TV, washing machine, walkmen, scooter etc etc. It was a pity that I didn't had proper tools for these exercises , otherwise I bet I would have disassembled each & each thing that I could to its elemental form. I just has 1/2 worn out screwdriver and some things more, so my handy tool was a kitchen knife which I used as a screwdriver. Unfortunately my reputation was pretty bad in my home and it was a generally believed that anything that I touched to open it would never work again. To my defense I attributed this fact to the lack of proper tools :P.

Now a little about geography. When I was in around class 3/4 , my mother used to ask me to draw maps which were given in books like Map of Japan, Australia, Italy, Europe, France etc. Slowly I picked up this and drawing maps became my past time. Once I made a pretty accurate map of India on whole of ans A2 size paper. For making that I divided the map given in the Atlas into grids and also divided my drawing paper into grids. Then I drew the map grid by grid to make it proportional. Finally the end result was good and so I copied the Master copy of Map using carbon paper. Then on each copy I marked things like Mineral distribution , political map of India, physical features of India like mountains, rivers plateau etc, food grain production, industries and so on. I also used to read geography books with lots of interest. Geography was a subject in which you could read things and understand them logically something like Physics. Also the plus point was that you could learn new things about so many places .These made geography interesting for me. Once when I was in 6th giving final examination, next to me sat a girl who was in 9th class. her's was geography paper . She was supposed to mark some simple things on Map of India and Asia, but she was messing up everything I felt bad for her and started telling her where to mark what. After sometime the invigilator saw us and thought that I was taking help from her and gave me punishment. So much for helping others :P.
I class 6th once it was geography class. In the book things were written that in Egypt wheat , barley, corn etc is grown. I knew what is wheat , barley , corn etc meant in Hindi since I had already been told by mother. Some guy asked the teacher "mam what is barley ?". I simply replied the Hindi translation of it. then he asked for others and again without much thought I gave the answer. Now i was not expecting that when the teacher asked me to stand up asked me my name etc and then for next 5 mins she kept praising me. Then onwards when a lesson was to be read in class she used to ask me to do it.
Well as far as geography goes I continues to help my neighbors in their examinations wether they be in higher class or lower. I discontinued the map making exercise , but still very much continue the practice of just staring at a map and seeing what all things,places are present.

Looking back I fell that maybe if somehow I could have utilized that spare time more to such self learning activities , I could have been better at these things. As a side thought maybe this drought of having something interesting to do made me inquisitive and motivated me to do all this and this things that I now fondly remember would not have been like this if there was some external help. Sometimes I think if I had asked for better tools and other things I would have been better off , but maybe i would not have become a somewhat resourceful person. after all when you are deprived of somethings then you innovate and finds ways where there are none.

What has been done could not be undone and I am sure reading this many of you will surely feel that if you could have done a few things like this , rather than playing and watching TV(which was banned for good or bad in our house ), both of which I got to do the least.

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