This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 21, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Many of us grew up believing that the essence of education is “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” and, in many ways, it still is. But as we understand the phenomena of the world better and better, and as our sciences have become more and more advanced as the years roll by, we realize the need for other major components in education, such as chemistry. Did you shudder? Many folks shudder at even hearing the word, “chemistry.” In most of my undergraduate college classes, I made an “A’ or “B,” but in the case of my chemistry class, I thanked God for the “C” I received.
However, chemistry has been around for a long time. In Dime Box Rural School, either my 4th or 5th grade year, my one teacher teaching all our subjects introduced us to something amazing which she called “chemistry,” and she galvanized our attention by performing some really clever chemistry tricks. When you add this to that, why does it change into something else? We had the same teacher for both the 4th and the 5th grades, and she opened such education doors for us as geography and chemistry. Geography was easier for us to understand than chemistry, even on its most basic, elementary level.
Only one of us in our class, as far as I can remember, became a chemical engineer, but many of my classmates would eventually take over the family farm; and, in many ways, they needed as much knowledge of chemistry as a chemical engineer, — think fertilizer, weed control, plow blades, salt blocks for the cows, etc.
This week, the understanding of chemistry was made real for me. My wife was taken to the emergency room for what the EMS thought was a stroke. After tests, it was discovered she was suffering from severely low levels of sodium. When your sodium level drops below 135, medical experts want you in the hospital immediately, as the consequences of a further plunge are dire. When sodium was slowly dripped into her body, she recovered little by little, eventually acting like her old self. Her potassium and magnesium levels were also low, and the medical personnel began putting those into her system.
Now just think about how awful it would be if chemistry had not produced this knowledge. How many folks know our bodies need sodium, potassium, magnesium, and a lot of other chemicals?
Chemistry, whether it’s biochemistry or the chemistry of metals, is endlessly fascinating. For example, there are certain organisms that emit light, such as an organism like bacteria, whereby you see the organism’s glow on dead fish. There is a chemical reaction in the organism which produces radiant energy without giving off much heat! I think an enzyme is involved in this process, but don’t quote me, because I made a “C” in chemistry. Most of these light-emitters are marine organisms. Amazing, isn’t it?! Not that any of us will remember this word by tomorrow, but the chemical process involved here is called “bioluminescence,” according to the dictionary.
If a chemical reaction can cause a one-celled organism to emit light, think of how many chemicals and what all they do in the multi-celled human body! Like sodium, potassium, and magnesium!
Back to the classmates studying chemistry with me in elementary school; some are still farming successfully today. For the 21st Century farmer, it’s certainly necessary to know about cutting equipment, such as plow blades and various kinds of shredders. Before a famous chemist by the name of Henry Bessemer came along, cutting tools were made of cast iron and wrought iron until chemists learned to create slag-free steel. Bessemer discovered how to remove excess oxygen from the metal. I’m guessing that it was the oxygen which caused cast iron to rust. My own experience with pocket knives over the years taught me that some steel blades can be sharpened keener than others, and some won’t hold a sharp edge at all. This is chemistry worth knowing by a farmer!
Reading, writing, arithmetic, and the list goes on. Recent experiences cause me to want to put chemistry right up there at the top.
Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.