Friday, July 13, 2012


High School Pac
Back in high school, my favorite subject was Chemistry. Being the nerd that I was, I had my own lab goggles. (Prescription. My regular glasses were too thick to wear under the generic tax-funded goggles.) While many of my classmates worked on honing their meth lab explosion survival skills, I was carefully adjusting my bunsen burner and meticulously cleaning my glassware.

For this particular experiment, our task was to catalyze the esterification of a hydroxyl group to precipitate acetylsalicylic acid crystals. (Aspirin; the gateway drug lab drug.) At the end of class we poured the precisely measured amount of sulfuric acid into our solutions, applied a stopper to the test tube and set the tube aside. When we returned on Monday, everyone's test tube was filled with the prettiest aspirin crystals. Everyone's except mine.

I couldn't understand it. I'd followed the instructions to the letter. How could I have gotten it so wrong when everyone else in class got it right? Even the burn-outs who couldn't say "titrate" without giggling made aspirin. I unstoppered my tube and sniffed. Strong vinegar aroma, it smelled like it should. Mr. Schiff held my test tube of clear liquid up to the light, then handed it back to me with a shrug and ticked something on his clipboard. I recognized that shrug-tick combo from gym class. I put my test tube in my drawer and moped through the day's assignment the best I could. There's no crying in esterification.

Cleaning up as the bell rang, I opened my drawer to find my test tube miraculously stuffed with perfect crystals. It was beautiful! My aspirin was way prettier than anybody else's aspirin. I excitedly called Mr. Schiff over to my station. "Well I'll be damned," he said as he revised my grade on his clipboard. He explained the crystals needed a seed; a spec of dust or bit of gunk to build upon. Without such a seed, my aspirin remained in suspension.

That explained it! I didn't get the experiment wrong at all. If anything, I did it too well. I'd prepared my reagents so carefully that my potential aspirin crystals spent the entire weekend searching in vain for a single seed particle upon which to grow. Whereas my classmate's tubes were crawling with filthy crystal babies. I must have introduced a contaminant into my tube when I pulled the stopper to smell it. All it took was one tiny booger and BLAM! Aspirin.

I triumphantly raised my test tube of aspirin to the class with righteous indignation, even though I was the only one left in the room.

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