Friday, March 23, 2012

The Missing Letter

I had never been to a museum like this!  Around 1971, my family took a trip to Toronto.  Just a few years before, in 1969, Ontario Science Centre (OSC) had opened up and immediately started changing ideas about what an interactive science museum could be.  (In one of those zeitgeist-y moments in history, the Exploratorium opened in 1969 also.)

I'm not even sure how my parents found out about OSC and knew to take my brothers and me there, but from the moment we rode the escalators "through the trees" to enter the exhibit halls we were all excited and showing each other new things we had found.  In addition to the interactive components, I know I was especially fascinated by the live demonstrations --- somebody just blew a hole through a brick with a gigantic laser!

After we returned home to Detroit, I wrote a "fan letter" to the scientists at Ontario Science Centre and asked them if they could send me science experiments that I could do at home.  To my delight, a week or two later, I received a kind reply on official OSC letterhead with a little booklet of cool chemistry demonstrations. WOW!

One of the experiments allowed you to create a "carbon snake" with sulfuric acid(!) and sugar.  I showed my grade school science teachers the letter and chemistry experiments, and asked if they had any sulfuric acid I could borrow.  They did! So I took the big glass bottle with the faded label home as fast as my bike would carry me.

I didn't have any beakers, but my mom thought an empty jar would do the trick.  So I went into the basement laundry room with my supplies and started pouring sulfuric acid into the jar that had some sugar in the bottom.  Once the acid hit the sugar, bubbling and smoking commenced and an evil black looking cylinder snaked up and out of the mouth of the jar accompanied by the strong smell of burning sugar.  "Look! look!" I said to my family as I showed them the "carbon snake."  I tried other experiments with different amounts of sugar and acid to see how I could change the resulting "snake."  Everything was going great until I had the bright idea of quickly pouring some of the sulfuric acid into the jar with sugar in it and then screwing the lid on to see what would happen.


Thank goodness the laundry sink was deep and made of sturdy metal, since I hadn't been wearing any gloves or goggles.  After the smoke cleared, and I cleaned up all the broken glass that the deep sink had captured after the jar exploded (and after my mom was done freaking out!) I learned a valuable (and memorable) lesson about the effects of containing a strong exothermic reaction in a closed jar.

Somewhere along the line, that letter and booklet of chemistry experiments have gone missing, although I had them for a long time.  I often wonder if any museum would be crazy enough to send some kid experiments using sulfuric acid anymore. Probably not.

I also think of all those letters I sent to museums (in pre-email and Web days!) asking for a job when I was about to graduate from college.  And how much the letters that offered even a small bit of encouragement or an idea or suggestion meant to me, especially compared to the obvious form letter rejections --- or no response at all.

Those messages that we as museum workers send, intentionally or unintentionally, can have a big impact on our visitors, and our potential future colleagues.

Electronic communication and the world-wide reach of the Web means that I often get messages from people asking for advice or for jobs, and I really try to give a thoughtful answer to each one of those folks who took the time to write me --- because I still remember how much receiving that letter from the Ontario Science Center meant, and I suppose still means, to me.

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