Chemistry Lessons

by Mark Wutka

The mad scientist roared triumphantly from the laboratory. Drool oozed down the left side of his cheek and onto a blood spattered labcoat. Actually, it was just my freshman chemistry professor , Dr. Sawyer (also known as Sawyer the Destroyer), delivering another lecture in Lyman Hall, better known as "The Freshman Death Hall." I guess I thought of him as a mad scientist because, well, he was.

"Mr. Wutka, have you completed your assignment on acids and bases?" he cackled from the front podium.

"Err.. yes, sir, here it is." I groaned as I shuffled down to the front of the classroom, paper in hand.

I handed him my paper and he leered, saying "O.k., Mr. Wutka. Let's see just how much you have learned about acids and bases. You see before you two beakers. One is filled with hydrochloric acid, the other with sodium hydroxide. You must determine, using any means at your disposal, which beaker contains the sodium hydroxide and place your paper in it. If you place the paper in the wrong beaker, you will receive a grade of 'F' on your paper."

This struck me as rather strange. Here was a college professor asking me to throw my very first research paper into a beaker containing, assuming I picked the right one, pure lye. My precious work would be utterly destroyed. On the bright side, if I picked right, and my paper was destroyed, he would HAVE to give me an 'A' because there would be no way he could prove that my paper wasn't perfect. Yep.. this was going to be a 4-year cruise.

I walked to his desk, grabbed a strip of litmus paper and dipped it in one of the beakers. The litmus paper turned red, indicating that the beaker contained acid. I dropped my paper into the other beaker, and watched it slowly disintegrate.

"Very good, Mr. Wutka. May I have your paper now?"

"I-i-it's d-d-disintegrated" I stammered.

"My oh my, what an unfortunate development!" he said with insane glee. "I guess you'll have to re-type it and hand it in tomorrow."

Dr. Sawyer ignored me as I walked slowly toward my desk, his eyes instead seeking out another victim. Poor Fred Appleby was the first person to make eye contact with him. A BIG no-no.

"Mr. Appleby! Would you please come up to the front to assist me in a little demonstration?"

As soon as Fred made his way to the front, Dr. Sawyer continued: "Class, what you see here is a plastic tub filled with 100% pure distilled water. It contains no other substances. You will also see a set of battery jumper cables lying in the tub which are attached to this electrical generator."

Fred stared nervously at the generator.

"I will now ask Fred to step into the tub. Fred, please step into the tub."

Fred hesitated a moment, then reluctantly followed Dr. Sawyer's instructions.

"I will now pull this switch and send 300 volts of electricity into the tub."

Fred's body stiffened and his eyes locked on the switch as Dr. Sawyer reached for it and pulled it down. The entire class gasped, and then sighed with relief as Fred appeared to relax, obviously not feeling any electrical shock.

"Fred does not feel anything because pure water does not conduct electricity. It needs something else to conduct the electricity.. like.. SALT!" he yelled, as he threw a bucket of salt water into the tub. Fred's scream nearly drowned out the sound of the bell indicating that class was over. Dr. Sawyer was laughing heartily as he gave Fred a dry towel and a little CPR, while we all shuffled out of the classroom.

The next day, I showed up for class, my paper completely redone. I passed Fred on the way in. He looked fine, although his hair was a little curlier. Dr. Sawyer was there, bushy eyebrows giving his toothy grin a very sinister look. As the class got settled in for what was sure to be another disturbing lecture, Sawyer looked at me and said "Mr. Wutka, have you completed your assignment on acids and bases?"

"Uh oh," I thought, "deja vu." I walked hesitantly up to the desk and reluctantly handed him my paper.

"O.k., Mr. Wutka. Let's see just how much you have learned about acids and bases. You see before you two beakers. One is filled with hydrochloric acid, the other with sodium hydroxide. You must determine, using any means at your disposal, which beaker contains the hydrochloric acid and place your paper in it. If you place the paper in the wrong beaker, you will receive a grade of 'F' on your paper."

"Wonderful, my paper gets the acid treatment this time," I thought to myself, "at least this bozo likes variety. But why do I have to do this again? Did I make some mistake the last time? Maybe I should test BOTH beakers with litmus paper this time."

I grabbed two strips of litmus paper, verified that the beakers did indeed contain a strong acid and a strong base, and I dropped my paper into the acid where it slowly disintegrated.

"Very good, Mr. Wutka. May I have your paper now?"

"It's disintegrated sir," I said sadly, "I'll redo it and hand it in tomorrow."

He nodded and then began scanning the classroom for his next victim. All eyes stared at the floor, hoping to avoid that momentary eye contact that would volunteer you for what was sure to be an unpleasant experience. Dr. Sawyer was a veteran of this tactic, however.

"Thank you for volunteering," he began. Susan DeCarlo, thinking it was safe to look up now, did so and his eyes immediately locked on hers. "...Miss DeCarlo." What a master this guy was.

"Miss DeCarlo, you see in front of you a large beaker turned upside-down over a smaller beaker containing hydrochloric acid. Into the smaller beaker I have placed a small piece of zinc. As you can see, the zinc has totally dissolved forming a substance known as zinc chloride. What other substance was formed by this reaction?"

Susan only shrugged.

"Very well, Miss DeCarlo. Please take the larger beaker, still holding it upside-down, and place a lighted match underneath it."

Susan's hands shook slightly as she held the beaker and put the match underneath it. There was a very loud bang and Susan screamed, but as we all climbed back out from under our desks, we saw that no harm had come to her.

"Hydrogen, Miss DeCarlo, the reaction gave off hydrogen which collected in the beaker."

As the bell finally sounded and we left the classroom, I swore to myself that I would be rewriting my paper for the last time.

I showed up for class the next day with my freshly rewritten paper, this time in a handsome binder. I had spent a lot of time on this one, and I was determined that it wouldn't be destroyed.

Dr. Sawyer looked at me and uttered the now familiar "Mr. Wutka, have you completed your assignment on acids and bases?"

I confidently walked up and handed him the binder. Surely he wouldn't want me to destroy such a pretty binder.

"O.k., Mr. Wutka. Let's see just how much you have learned about acids and bases. You see before you two beakers. One is filled with hydrochloric acid, the other with sodium hydroxide. You must determine, using any means at your disposal, which beaker contains the sodium hydroxide and place your paper in it. If you place the paper in the wrong beaker, you will receive a grade of 'F' on your paper."

Well, back to the lye. I grabbed a strip of litmus paper and again determined which beaker contained the sodium hydroxide. Before placing my paper in it this time, however, I decided to think things through.

"Here I have a beaker full of lye that is ready and willing to eat through my paper, and a beaker of hydrochloric acid that is equally willing to perform the same deed. Hmm.. what if I..." WHAM! The realization wonked me in the head like a baseball bat! Mix an acid and a base and you get water and some sort of salt. In this case, simple table salt.

I poured the beaker of hydrochloric acid into the beaker of sodium hydroxide, then proudly dropped my paper into the mixture, where it did NOT disintegrate.

"YES!" I cheered to myself.

"Heh heh heh.. very clever, Mr. Wutka. And only three tries! My DOG figured it out in two! May I have your paper now?"

I reached into the salt water I had created, retrieved the paper, and handed it to Dr. Sawyer.

He frowned and said "Yuck! This paper is a soggy mess! Re-type it and hand it in tomorrow."

I sighed. It was going to be a long four years.


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Mark Wutka
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