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Rich Baltimore: Chemistry Class Shapes A Career

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Rich Baltimore still remembers vividly a high school chemistry class experiment.
Rich Baltimore
Rich Baltimore still remembers vividly a high school chemistry class experiment.

In my 11th grade chemistry class, 17 years ago in my rural Virginia hometown, I learned how to make a hydrogen bomb.

Well, not exactly. "But I did drop magnesium into hydrochloric acid to produce magnesium chloride and hydrogen. I still remember the hydrogen bubbling out of the test tube like an Alka Seltzer in a glass of water. And as the teacher fitted a balloon over the test tube to capture the hydrogen gas, I remember paying a little closer attention to what was going to happen next.

The balloon filled up to about the size of, well, a large balloon. Then, after a lot of pomp, and sufficient safety precautions, we took a lit candle to the balloon. It blew my hair back, rattled the windows, and prompted the teacher next door to see if everything was okay. I could feel the impact on my internal organs. And I remember thinking, 'That might be the coolest thing I've ever witnessed in the classroom!'

In the aftermath of the experiment, I held a wet, deflated, damaged balloon -- a product of the hydrogen reacting with oxygen in the surrounding air to create water.

It occurred to me that the droplets of water in my hands were brand new. They had never been a part of the ocean, or a pond, or a stream, or a raindrop. Soon, the water in my hand would evaporate into the atmosphere, and become a part of the water cycle.

It was the newest member of the water family, most of which has been has been here for hundreds of millions of years, in various forms and places, endlessly moving and changing phases. I mentioned this observation to the teacher to confirm that my thinking was correct. Her eyes widened and she smiled. She said she had never considered that, but yes, it was true.

In a new way, I thought about the origin of the Earth, the natural resources it provides, and the rate at which we consume those resources. Then the moment passed, and I started to think about how to get my hands on a case of beer after the Friday night football game.

Still, the experience stuck with me. That weekend, beer in hand, the game over, I annoyed my buddies with banter about the wonder of creating new water. No one else seemed to care, but today, I know that the experience was an important moment in my life.

I was reminded that there were more cool things to learn. And I realized that while sometimes the learning process is gradual, other times, it comes in the form of an explosion.

Our series on lifelong learning is a partnership with the Faces of Learning campaign to share personal stories of powerful learning experiences.


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