Magic, chemistry and books

I don’t quite remember exactly when, having acquired a chemistry set, I started doing chemistry experiments in our garden shed, but I guess it was around the time I hit my teenage years and this by way of following the example of an audacious friend who did much the same. Thus began my love affair with chemistry. It led me to do a degree in the subject and I got to teach it in secondary school after leaving university, for three years before embarking in a career in computer software. Sadly, even before leaving college, some of that spark had been driven from me. But at least in those middle teenage years chemistry held a magical fascination and I went out of my way to do experiments at home and study it at school. While limited in what I could do, I still did a fair bit of experimenting. My speciality I recall was stink bombs and explosions. On a few occasions I visited the Science museum, fascinated by the chemistry display. I was especially drawn to the periodic table and its 100 or so elements which was the basis of all matter in the universe and I sought to enhance my understanding of the various elements and compounds.

When doing my ‘O’ Levels, my teacher had a book titled: “General and Inorganic Chemistry” by J.R.Partington, which he used when he was studying the subject at university that he let me borrow. I must have spent a lot of time adding to the basic knowledge I acquired from the ‘O’ Level text books by reading Partington, fascinated as I was by the elegant and logical way facts were presented. One memory indelibly etched on my mind was being invited by my teacher to demonstrate the preparation and properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) to the class. At one point, I wanted to show how burning sodium would react vigorously when placed into a jar of nitrous oxide (something that Partington said would happen, which I was able to confirm just before writing this). It did that and more – there was an explosion, much to the hilarity of the class! I suspect we also broke all sorts of health and safety rules. I resolved to acquire my own copy of the book and even got to order it but sadly was unable to buy it because my family did not have the money.

Nearly 50 years on, my wish to have my own copy of the book finally came about. A member of my family (my sister) asks me each year what I would like for my birthday, and usually I am stumped. A couple of weeks ago, when asked this same question, I had a flash of inspiration, being mindful that these days old books can be ordered on line, relatively pain free, and I thought why not indulge my boyhood fantasy? So I requested that my present be a copy of Partington’s book, which I decided I would delve into for the sake of nostalgia and enlightenment. The book duly arrived in time for my birthday and it was the third (1958) edition, and I was more than pleased! While the book was never referred to after my ‘O’ Levels, and the subject was to move on a lot, it still imho remained a classic.

As a side note to ordering books online, I decided to order a further two books. Those who know me will know I love books, much to the consternation of my wife, and I am an avid reader. The two books I ordered were “Straight and Crooked Thinking” by Robert Thouless and “The Three Golliwogs” by Enid Blyton. I chose Thouless as I remember with affection the person who taught me RE in the sixth form. By and large my class mates weren’t religious. My teacher, a keen Christian, was keen those he taught considered the issues of life and come to a view based on straight as opposed to crooked thinking, and is why he plugged this particular book. Having just started reading my recently acquired copy, I know I won’t be disappointed and can see how pertinent it is today. The reason for choosing Blyton was simple. My kind sister claims this was the last book she ever read from cover to cover and I need to bear this in mind before using long words. Not particularly PC, but I still found reading it delightfully funny and pleasantly charming. It was yet another chance to step back into a past age of innocence. This I happily gave up in return for my own book of magical delights.

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