Meka’s well into her second semester at NIU. She is majoring in chemistry and has three labs a week. I think I’m still married, I just don’t see my wife all that often. I suppose that’s why our infrequent encounters stick in my memory and I try to pay attention to what she’s talking about.
We went out to Taco Bell late one evening. It was the only place still open and Meka still had hours left to go on writing up her lab report. I asked her what the issue was. Apparently, they had conducted an experiment a number of times. This is standard operating procedure; you run an experiment many times to smooth out any discrepancies using statistical correction. However, what made this lab different was it wasn’t the end result that was important, but rather what was happening in the middle of the reactions.
“We know what the end result is,” she explained. “But there are many theories as to the intermediate steps of the reaction.” I asked her which theory was the correct one and she said no one knew for sure. In fact, the act of measuring can affect the end results, so it was unlikely they would ever know exactly what was happening and when.
I thought that was a real departure from the high school chemistry I took. Back then, the experiments were straightforward enough that you knew something had gone wrong if you got a messy answer. However, what Meka was dealing with in college chemistry was more like the real world, where A doesn’t always lead to B and then to C. Theoretical perfection has to give way to practical reality. She was learning how to run experiments that focus on the journey as well as the destination. Ultimately, I think this will make her a fine chemist… assuming the next sleepless year and a half don’t drive her crazy.