First impressions


Hi everyone, I’m Neil, one the new associate editors on Nature Chemistry, and this is my first post here at the Sceptical Chymist. The eagle-eyed chemistry publishing blog aficionados among you may just remember some of my posts over on the Chemistry World blog, about such crucial topics as t-shirts, food and even science.

Today’s topic is inspired by a rather sad story…I found out around Christmas time that my first ever science teacher at my village middle school recently died at a fairly young age of motor neurone disease. So this post is dedicated to the memory of Mr Challinor – Gareth, I believe.

I vividly remember some of his first lessons back when I was a 9 year old, 20 years ago. The school buildings were quite new (10 or so years old at the time), so the little lab was pretty well kitted out. But he really instilled in us the fact that science wasn’t about Bunsen burners or any of the other complicated apparatus we were all seeing for the first time. A scientist’s most important tools, he said, were his or her eyes, to observe what was happening.

One of the first experiments I remember him showing us was incredibly simple, but also incredibly powerful. He’d told us about atoms, and how burning material was essentially just adding oxygen to it. To prove that things do get heavier once you’ve burned them, he carefully weighed some magnesium foil in a crucible, then set fire to it. After the bright white flame died away, he re-weighed the crucible and guess what? The weight had indeed increased.

As well as teaching us about atoms and combustion, something else he did in that experiment also stands out. He got one of the class (Jamie Preece, since you asked) to watch over his shoulder as he did the weighing (we couldn’t all fit around the balance). This was just to show that he wasn’t making it all up, that we shouldn’t believe him ‘just because he said so’, but to show what he said had happened actually did. That’s a pretty important first lesson in science for anyone, but especially a 9 year old: don’t just take someone’s word for it, see for yourself.

So, if anyone else would like to share their first ever experiment with the world, please let us know in the comments below!


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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