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Julia Child’s Chemistry Lab And Other Museum Sights March 26, 2007

Posted by Kimberly in General.
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Filed by Ivan Amato

Saturday morning, Chicago was immersed in a thick fog that took the tops of skyscrapers away. With a few rare spare hours on my hands, I hopped onto city bus number 6 and rode to the Museum of Science & Industry, way down on the south side of the city. I was hoping to squeeze in a visit to Body Worlds 2, which is Gunther von Hagens’ second go around of anatomical exhibitions in which he, in his words, “plastinates” preparations of actual human bodies, and parts thereof, in a technicolor polymeric splendor that highlights nervous, respiratory, circulatory, reproductive and other systems in the most disturbing and wondrous of ways.

The museum was brimming with unplastinated humanity, so much so that I was told I’d have to wait five hours to get into the exhibit. Athough that news killed the idea of viewing the dead people at the museum, it opened an opportunity for me take a look at what this massive and beautiful Chicago museum had to tell the public about chemistry.

The museum map indicated that there was a Regenstein Hall of Chemistry on the cross-shaped balcony level, along with exhibitions on the brain, the heart, recycling, prenatal development, flight, and basic science. I mistakenly thought I had reached the chemistry display when I noticed some antiquated paintings of carbohydrate and protein structures on the wall. Thankfully, this just marked the spot in the Grainger Hall of Basic Science where there were a few tiny chemistry stations, including one on organic chemistry and one for viewing stereopairs of proteins.

The most edifying moment I experienced in this little chemistry nook occurred when I happened onto a cabinet with a simple-looking glass apparatus, a dark TV screen, and a button labeled “Julia Child makes primordial soup.” Like a kid in an intercontinental ballistic missile launch room, I pressed the button.

What followed was one of the most engaging and delightful chemistry lectures in prebiotic chemistry I ever have experienced. In one 15–20 minute uncut take, Child deftly explains, in her trademark voice that could have shattered my glasses, the conceptual foundations of origin-of-life chemistry. When she uses a diagram to explain Stanley Miller’s famed laboratory setup, Child wields as a pointer a 12-inch butcher knife that instantly recalls that famous scene in the movie “Psycho” as she highlights the flask containing the primordial soup, the condenser, and the setup’s faux lightning generator.

From there, she segues into Cyril Ponnamperuma’s recipe for primordial soup. Into 1 L of water, she shrilly tells us, dissolve 24 g of sodium chloride, 4 g of sodium sulfate, 1 g each of potassium bromide and potassium chloride, 9 g of calcium chloride, and 20 g of magnesium chloride. As she calls out each ingredient, she scoops approximations of those measures into water and, with a sense of accomplishment, at the end says, “Stir it all up, and that’s all there is to your primordial soup.” All of this without an apparent script and without stopping once. Perhaps watching this dated TV moment should be a mandatory exercise for all would-be chemistry teachers.

To be fair, anything would have had a hard time following Julia Child’s primordial soup episode, but the Regenstein Hall of Chemistry did prove underwhelming. Half of the displays that had moving parts or in which reactions were supposed to unfold with the help of automated equipment were down and had “Maintenance in progress” signs on them. This might be viewed generously as the museum staff’s nod to real world laboratories in which troubleshooting often dominates the work. One display, of the electrolytic conversion of water into hydrogen and oxygen gas followed by the spark-cataylzed recombination of the gases into water, was one of the more grabbing items because it ends with a flash and very loud bang. It was fun to watch unsuspecting passersby startle.

The most engaging part of the Regenstein Hall of Chemistry was the 30 foot by 5 foot periodic table. Each element includes a vile, cylinder, or other container illustrating the element’s form, standard information about the element, and everyday objects showing where each element plays a role.

Although I found the museum’s chemistry presentation wanting, I knew that starting the next day, the first of 9,400 chemistry presentations would begin to unfold at the ACS meeting. I wonder if any of von Hagens’ bodies is displayed in the act of switching to the next PowerPoint slide.

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Comments»

1. Blindy - August 9, 2009

I recall a video I saw in a chemistry class in high school with Julia Child demonstrating the effects of heat on phase change, or something close to that. She spent a few minutes at the beginning as if it was just another cooking show, making a beautiful meringue pie, then put it in the oven at like 600 degrees for an hour or two, and brought out a charred lump of carbon, and then discussed chemistry. Does anyone else remember this?

2. clark - January 25, 2010

Yes! I remember this video! And now I have absolutely nothing more to add about it. But if it were available on line, I’d be watching it right now.

3. Penis Stretcher - June 18, 2010

To be fair, anything would have had a hard time following Julia Child’s primordial soup episode, but the Regenstein Hall of Chemistry did prove underwhelming.

4. ülkücü tavır - August 16, 2010

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5. Complex 41 - January 30, 2011

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6. biktim tozu - January 30, 2011

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7. futbol blogu - February 17, 2011

Child demonstrating the effects of heat on phase change, or something close to that. She spent a few minutes at the beginning as if it was just another cooking shosk 🙂


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