Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, August 16, 2013

Recollections of another academic year start, almost forty years ago

Last Monday's Google doodle reminded me that it was Erwin Schrodinger's 126th birthday. (It alweo reminded me that I'd forgotten to send a friend a birthday card, but that's another matter.)

I remember my very first day as a Chemistry student at Durham University back in October 1973. There we all were at nine o'clock in the morning, in one of the university's biggest lecture theatres: all the aspiring chemsists, as well as everyone who was taking chemistry as a subsidiary subject. This was the basic Inorganic Chemistry course and everyone shared it.

The door opened, and out walked a smallish chap called Dr Bannister. We would have him again in a couple of years for a course on sulphur-nitrogen compounds, but right now he would be starting us at the beginning. He turned to the whiteboard and wrote up this (or something very similar):

Now there were a few students who had clearly had some exposure to quantum chemistry before, or who could bluff well enough to pretend they had, but for most of us school chemistry had been mainly descriptive, and our knowledge of electrons and how they behaved in atoms and molecules was restricted to little drawings looking like planetary systems. By the end of this one-hour lecture we would have discovered that all that was basically wrong, and that we would be dealing with wave functions and probability densities from here on. (And to be fair, it did make understanding what was actually going on in reactions a hell of a lot easier.) But in that first minute or so after Dr Bannister wrote up the Schrodinger wave equation, you could feel the vibe in the classroom, and it went something like "Holy shit, Toto, we're not in Kansas any more!"

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