Knowing versus thinking in the chemistry lab

Our feeling sense can be right where book knowledge can be wrong

Knowing versus thinking in the chemistry lab

When it comes to science, and in fact any aspect of life, do we trust our innermost feelings - or our book-learned knowledge which someone else says is true?

Here’s a little story for you to ponder this question! Imagine back in 1976: there’s me in a lab coat, braids and acid-damaged, artistically-patched jeans doing an undergraduate assignment for organic chemistry synthesis. Each student chose a chemical and had to figure out how to make it by various steps, to demonstrate our appreciation of different aspects of carbon chemistry. I picked one with an interesting-sounding name: toluene sulphonic acid. Here are the formulas for 3 of its structural variations - isn’t it beautiful? There’s a hexagon of carbon atoms (one atom in each corner), with a shared ring of resonating electrons going around inside it, and some definitive combinations of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and sulphur atoms hanging off the sides.

So… I and the whole lab full of intrepid synthesisers set to with ingredients, flasks, beakers, stirrers, distillers, thermometers, measurers, burners, absorbent paper, notebooks…. carefully weighing and calculating and mixing and noting… and heating.

Have you ever cooked porridge or thick soup, and it doesn’t seem to be boiling yet when suddenly it does a gigantic ‘glub’! and a big bubble splatters food all over the stove (and you)? Well, in chemistry that’s called ‘bumping’. And it’s even less desirable than it is in the kitchen because often the hot stuff is toxic too. So there is a simple but effective technique to stop the dreaded glub, and it’s called ‘anti-bumping granules’. These are little chips of pure white marble (non-reactive) with an average size somewhere between coriander seeds and pine nuts. The method is to put 3 to 5 of these granules into your flask of chemicals before heating, so the bubbles form around them nice and small, and rise tamely to the surface with no bumps. Or so the theory goes….

I added my granules in the size and number according to the safety manual, and stood back to ‘wait for the porridge to boil’. Suddenly I felt a strong impulse to add 4 or 5 times as many anti-bumping granules as the book said. There was no visible reason for it, and after all the book was right, right?

But anyway I went and asked one of the PhDs who were supervising our class, and after dutifully pondering my experiment, he confirmed that the specified 3 to 5 granules would be fine. Well who am I to question the PhD in Organic Chemistry AND the safety manual? Nonetheless I could feel my safety concern deepening.

A few minutes later, my chemical reaction started ‘doing something’. Of course it was supposed to do something, in the process of making toluene sulphonic acid. But this something started to look suspiciously like a bump developing. I called for the supervisor. He looked a little concerned too. In that moment my bump grew alarmingly. The supervisor yelled for everyone to evacuate the lab URGENTLY. So we all took off, slammed the heavy-duty lab door behind us and peered in through the heavy-duty glass window.

Ka-boom! My toluene sulphonic acid was born with a whopping bang and a 3-metre high jet of burning acidic jelly!

Everyone with their noses jammed to the window was suitably impressed to watch the pale greenish stuff mixed with broken glass arc through the air and land in flaming globs all over the lab…. The hazard crews got called in with their suits and respirators to go clean up the mess. That was the end of organic chem prac for a week. I handed in my assignment, covered in blotches of pale green and a few burn marks, with an excellent write up that ended with “yield: 0”. The bump was taken into account in grading my paper, thankfully.

What was missing from my write-up though was a sound suggestion for future situations:

Wouldn’t it be best practice to trust our feelings (our inner knowing) instead of letting even expert or book knowledge (thinking) dictate what we do when the knowledge doesn’t seem right?

This lesson can apply to every situation, and the fact that so many of us experience ‘bumps’ in life probably tells us that we have a lot to learn yet about trusting our inner knowing!

Owning Knowledge

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  • By Dianne Trussell, BSc(Hons); 17 years in medical and biological research, co-author of 12 peer-reviewed scientific publications.

    Science is the love of my life, and for me it confirms Divine beauty, intelligence, and wisdom. I’ve always felt science to be one with philosophy, religion, art, and music, part of the oneness I feel with everything.

  • Photography: James Tolich