Thoughts by Richard Bleil
The year was 1981. I was a freshman in college taking my first chemistry lab. In our experiment, we were called to use a certain amount of sodium sulfate. It was with the lab reagents, as anticipated, but so was sodium sulfite. For those who know chemistry, we recognize that whereas there is only one letter difference between sulfate and sulfite, there is a world of difference in the ion and its chemistry. My classmates were measuring out sodium sulfite for their experiment, but in my mind, I heard a little voice telling me to follow the procedure and use sodium sulfate as the experiment had called for. Unfortunately, the voice I opted to follow was that of a fellow classmate who told me I was supposed to use the sodium sulfite. I can’t be sure the student said this, but I was under the impression that our teaching assistant had said to use this instead of sodium sulfate.
It was the first experiment that failed. Some universities grade on a competitive basis, meaning that students are graded according to their rank in the class, but my university was not one of them. That doesn’t mean that somebody wasn’t trying to intentionally sabotage the experiment of other students, though, which might include the teaching assistant who might have been testing us by intentionally putting out a very similar sounding chemical. Regardless, it was an important lesson for me to trust in myself, or at least double-check, if something seems amiss.
Chemistry lab is an interesting environment. Often students work with partners, which had two purposes. The first is safety wherein, at least in principle, each member of the partnership can keep an eye on the other, but the other is simply to save money. With partners, you only need half of the reagents and equipment. In an advanced course in thermodynamics, we were using a highly specialized thermometer, excessively accurate and adjustable. This might seem odd, but this thermometer was not designed to read temperature per se, but rather, differences in temperature. The scale only covered a few degrees but was readable to a hundredth of a degree. To adjust it, there was a pool of mercury, and it was a three-step process. The first was to accumulate all of the mercury so there is no trapped air bubble inside. The second was to get it near the temperature range you needed with a heated calibration temperature (for example, if you anticipate needing it at 21.3 degrees Celsius, you heat it to slightly more than that in warm water). Then you do a final adjustment by turning it upside down and tapping small droplets of mercury out of the scale and into the reserve.
As any thermometer, this one had very thin glass over the oversized bulb (the excess pool) meaning it was very easy to break. And, because of the engineering and precision required, even in the seventies it cost several hundred dollars. At my university, at least back then, if you broke any laboratory equipment, you were required to pay to replace it. And my partner refused to even touch the thermometer. She (of course it was a “she”, are you really surprised?) insisted that I manipulate the thermometer so, if it broke, I would have to pay for it. And, yes, thoughts of how I would explain this to my parents raced through my mind.
No, it didn’t break.
But it takes a certain amount of confidence to do something like that, confidence that clearly my lab partner was lacking. My life has not been easy, and looking at the things that I have accomplished, along with the unmitigated failures, it becomes obvious that it takes confidence to break the typical bonds that most of us have instilled on us. NPR reported (in 2015) the results of a study that indicated that the average person lives just eighteen miles away from their parents. I pretty much have that beat. The typical person’s choice of church and even political affiliation is the same as that of their parents. This would be another mold that I broke. In my family (including extended), my sister had the highest college education before me when she graduated with her associate degree, and yet I completed my doctoral degree.
That’s not to say that living close to your parents, staying in their faith and political party or even attaining similar education doesn’t mean somebody is lacking confidence. But, there are many things that we can do that requires enormous confidence. But whatever you do, or don’t do, find the self-confidence to do what you want. There is nothing special about me, and if I can find my self-confidence to jump out of an airplane, well, then, if that’s something that you want to do, you can find it as well. I believe in you. We got this.