I wasn't very good at science subjects at school, although to be honest, I wasn't very good at anything that involved effort. I was good at history and literature but as those subjects involved reading, which I had picked up early, and writing in English, which luckily happened to be my first language, little extra effort was called for. I should point out that English was also my last language.
Science was divided into three subjects that seemed to bear no relationship to themselves or to real life as I understood it at the time. My experience of life was severely restricted as a child, indeed even as a young adult. Biology at an all-boys school had left me with an uneasy feeling that procreation involved some unspecified activity that included the mandatory presence of rabbits. Dead frogs also figured as I recall.
I was about to write that the gaps were filled in during break by some of the older boys but as this was a minor English Public School, that sentence could be misunderstood.
All I remember of Physics was creating a pulley and lifting a small weight off my desk with it. I could not grasp the point. Most of the boys came from 'posh' families and I had always assumed that if they had a weight that needed lifting, one of the servants would do it. My family, on the other hand, was very poor. We couldn't afford weights, and so had no need to invest time or effort in creating machines to lift them. Looking back now I realise that if I had paid a little more attention at the time I might have been able to build a big enough pulley to remove the weight of despair that then slowly pressed down upon me.
Chemistry was a very strange experience. For a start it wasn't written in English but in hieroglyphics, Egyptian I believe. It did seem unfair that we were being asked to learn two subjects, Chemistry, and a foreign language, at the same time.
Many of the boys would get excited by Chemistry lessons. I think it was the strange exotic smells that were constantly pouring out of the beakers cooking on the Bunsen burners. For me, living in a small hovel with the extended family, strange and noxious odours were nothing new. Indeed one of the few advantages of school was getting out of the foetid environment in which I normally existed.
I did learn a couple of important things in Chemistry, both of which have remained locked in my memory to this day. The first is that if you take strips of different coloured paper and dip them in liquids, sometimes they change colour and sometimes they don't. I have never yet needed to use this fact but if the occasion arises, I am ready
The other fact I have retained for over fifty years is illustrated in the story that follows. It involved an experiment with three different chemicals whose names escape me but they could have included Sodium and Potassium. I know they definitely all ended in -ium which must cut down the possibilities.
The Science master was demonstrating how volatile each one was (or wasn’t). Holding a naked flame over the first, nothing much seemed to happen. This was a standard result in our lessons and was known as the 'Yawn' effect. The next element appeared to hold out hopes of more excitement, and I recall some form of combustion occurred. The big moment had now arrived, the piece de resistance, or probably the piece of non-resistance.
A large three-foot wide bowl was produced and a quantity of water poured in. A stoppered jar containing a lump of something in an oily liquid was opened and the contents carefully removed with a pair of tweezers and placed into the water.
At once, the chemical came to life and began whizzing back and forth across the bowl. The master announced that it was reacting with the air and giving off a gas. I wondered if my grandfather was made of the same substance. The master said he could prove that gas was being emitted by holding a glowing taper over the chemical.
This turned out to be the most interesting part of the lesson. Recall that the substance was moving back and forth with speed and it took some effort for the master to finally get object and glowing taper in proximity. Fans of Science Fiction will note the split infinitive in that last sentence, which has been specially crafted as an homage to the genre.
Meanwhile back at the science lab, the master had also accidently added in his face to the proximity experiment. There was a loud explosion, a column of water and a startled and very damp teacher. There was also an explosion of unsympathetic laughter from the class. Amid the cheers, no one thought to enquire after the health of the master. And that is the second important fact that I learned from Science. Human beings are a callous bunch.