By the book
15 January 2014 § 3 Comments
One thing we did not learn in genetics class was that Erich von Tschermak’s maternal grandfather, Eduard Fenzl, taught botany to Mendel. (Von Tschermak, Hugo de Vries, and Carl Correns independently and simultaneously rediscovered and published Mendel’s work in 1900.) An entire book was filled with all the things we did not learn in the course; luckily, it was the textbook that I had, so I had the good fortune of finding many exhilarating bits of information, including this:
If the DNA molecule in chromosome 1 (the longest chromosome) were a cooked spaghetti noodle 1 mm in diameter, it would stretch for 25 miles; in chromosome condensation, the noodle is gathered together, coil upon coil, until at metaphase it is a canoe-sized tangle of spaghetti 16 feet long and 2 feet wide. After cell division, the noodle is unwound again.
I never quite figured out why the spaghetti noodle was cooked, or why the spaghetti noodle was there in the first place, or how the canoe appeared as an appropriate unit of measurement. There is nonetheless a certain strange wonder in contemplating canoes full of spaghetti, which is exactly what would result if Strega Nona and Big Anthony went on a camping trip.
The author of my analytical chemistry book was more exuberant, claiming of an experiment with phenolphthalein and carbonic acid, “This one is just plain fun,” and providing the following commentary for an example problem:
[K value] <- A big number
[Another K value] <- Another big number
[A third K value] <- Ridiculously big!
In one chapter on polyprotic systems, he labelled the following paragraph with a sidenote of “The missing insight!”:
In our moment of despair, a chemist gallops down from the mountain mists on her snow-white unicorn to provide the missing insight: ‘The major species will be HL, because it is both a weak acid and a weak base.’
That excerpt is otherwise entitled “How chemistry wishes it were fantasy literature.” Later, the author claims, “We must be ever vigilant.” Inspired by Alastor Moody, this aphorism applies to everything in chemistry, especially if math and/or glassware and/or carcinogens are involved.
My organic chemistry book is funny only because the author is not funny at all. With complete seriousness, statements such as “These rules will empower us” are printed for the edification of the student. Incidentally, I never feel that mirific sense of empowerment during exams. My professor for that class was a bit crazy and began the semester with this exclamation, underscored by an expression of slightly manic enthusiasm:
Most organic textbooks will tell you all about the parts of the bicycle. This book will teach you how to ride the bicycle!
The bicycle analogy seemed almost as arbitrary as the canoe analogy. She was also fond of projecting human attributes—namely, feelings—onto things with no feelings at all. At least, I have never met a bliss-filled diene or a gloomy molecule of rhodopsin. One curious case of this chemicomorphism:
The nucleophile is the bully and the electrophile is the victim.
Occasionally, she provided valuable life lessons, such as “The leaving group must be happy to leave”: this clearly applies to groups of people leaving a party. With her assertion that insecticides abound “so we can keep people eating,” I was forced to reexamine my conclusions about the alleged purposes of insecticides. She also enjoyed telling stories, and assured us of the value of witnessing an argument at academic conferences: “It’s good to see a good nerd throwdown now and again.” This conjured images of bespectacled elbow-patched men dancing at a hoedown, which is where my brain rerouted after it found nothing for “throwdown” (is it just a melee?). This professor also talked to the textbook often and sometimes replied with “good question!” after reading a problem in it.
The problems in my physics book made me laugh every time I did homework, but this bit especially grabbed my attention:
Boxers in the nineteenth century used their bare fists. [Translation: there are no real men in the present day.]
Observations from my physics professor, an old man who favours sweeping statements about the state of modern society and seems excited only by how things fly through the air, also made me laugh. This was often inappropriate, because no one else was laughing, and it wasn’t exactly in response to a joke. The professor ignored it after a while, though he did seem confused by my face and observed four or five times during the semester, “You are looking at me strangely. Do you understand?” I still don’t know what my expression was. He also provided assurance to us a few weeks into class by announcing “I assume you can all read” (I’m actually not sure if that was entirely the case) and averring, “I’m not that smart.” It may have been a tactic to reduce the intimidation that many students felt, demonstrated by this exchange:
[professor] “We’re going to do something called dimensional analysis.”
[student behind me] “Oh man . . . “
That poor student ended up dropping the class.
And for a flashback to last year: studying for the Literature in English GRE, I found a book to help me, and it informed me of a secret truth of the exam:
The GRE Literature in English Subject Test is like a horrible cocktail party full of insufferable poseurs intent on name-dropping while grilling you on trivial gibberish (“I was over at Billy’s little soiree the other night at the Globe, private screening of his latest, Hamlink or something, anyway it’s just faboo, very artistic . . . and who’s sitting next to me? Dicky Burbage, that’s who . . . “). You don’t need to know very much about literature in any scholarly sense, but you do need to know the cocktail-party details.
That is why it does not mean much as a measure of knowledge and understanding of literature. It does give one a good reading list, though.