Science homework

My nephew phones me occasionally. You know from the sigh at the start of his calls, if it’s there, that it’s going to be a request for help with his homework.

This can be a mixed blessing. If his homework is in any way mathematical or scientific, then the upshot of the call is that I am exposed as an incompetent, ignorant and unhelpful duffer of an uncle, most particularly with science. I’m from the last generation that did no science, or none of any significance, at school. It is true that the first school I was at had a room which was labelled ‘Science Room’. About twice a year, we would be taken there, not to make planes out of balsa-wood, the usual function of the room, and a large cuoboard would be unlocked. Two slightly dusty flagons would be produced by the Science-teacher-for-the-moment, a Mr. Bell. He would set each of these flagons down on a table.

‘This,’ he would say, pointing to the first one, ‘is Hydrochloric Acid. And this,’ turning to the second, ‘is Sulphuric Acid.’ We were told that both of them were very, very dangerous. It is possible that some demonstration of the reckless attitude each of these liquids had to human life might have been demonstrated (not on the trembling ten-year-olds), but if there was anything further than that, I cannot remember it. There were no bunsen burners or anything like that, or if there were, I have forgotten them.

At the age of about fourteen, we were obliged, once a week, to do some Science, with a term for Chemistry, a term for Physics, and a term for Biology. Chemistry consisted of an elderly and vicious teacher (who had drawn a yellow chalk line at the front of the classroom and who refused to let any child across it, in case of explosions) showing us weird effects of tinkering with substances, solid or otherwise. There was one which involved snipping a small piece of glass and thereby exploding a larger piece. Does this ring any bells with anyone? I suspect it of having a name. What it demonstrated, I do not know. That’s all I know of Chemistry.

Physics. Where to begin? I say this, not because I have much to tell, but because I cannot think of a single thing that I learned or understood, and I was not inattentive. The only salient thing I can remember about the subject was that we had a test (there were 49 of us in the class, which suggests to me that it was a nod towards the new curriculum coming soon, but too late for us) at the end, to determine our aptitude. It wasa a multiple-choice test. You scored 2 for a right answer, 0 for not answering, and -1 for a wrong answer. The maximum achievable marks were 200, so I guess there must have been a hundred questions (does that make sense?) I can remember my score (I came 48th) and it was minus 11. That still rankles. I would have been better off sitting on my hands.

Biology. There were two strands here. One was a Welsh teacher who tried for about five minutes to explain how the body of a frog or rabbit worked, but then relented and started up a chat about current events. That was quite interesting. However, once or twice, our Welshman was replaced by a serious, embarrassable man, who gave us lectures on sex. This was excruciating for him (he gave every impression of having lost and lost badly in a cruel staff lottery), and therefore very amusing for us. I learned nothing.

I will have to return to my theme of general ignorance tomorrow.

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