Chemistry Students Cause Big Reactions

Chemistry Lecturer Mike Danahy wields a torch on Coe Quad

The air at 6:02 p.m. was too chilly for a proper thermite reaction, which, had it worked, would have sent streams of molten metal pouring over the edge of a container. But the time was just right to make ice cream from liquid nitrogen, pleasing the crowd of gathered students hoping to be impressed by big chemistry explosions.

A student enjoys liquid nitrogen ice cream on Mole Day

A student enjoys liquid nitrogen ice cream on Mole Day

Students in the Kamerling Society were staging the unfortunate thermite reaction and serving up the well-received liquid nitrogen ice cream on Coe Quad in honor of Mole Day, which falls on Oct. 23 between 6:02 a.m and 6:02 p.m. Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (6.02 x 10^23), a number that scientists use to make conversions between atomic mass and grams.

The Kamerling Society, which was founded in 1979 and named for Bowdoin chemistry professor Samuel Kamerling (1934-1969), is a student group of chemistry majors and other science students who try to get people young and old excited by science.

Besides celebrating Mole Day on campus, Kamerling members regularly visit local schools to stage science demonstrations. Recently, the group visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School to introduce to students, in an after-school program, a few chemical reactions with big wow factors.

To demonstrate what a chemical reaction can look like, biochemistry major Lonnie Hackett ’14 poured two clear chemicals (bleach and luminol) together, creating an eerie neon-blue glow. The mouths of children grouped around him simultaneously dropped open, forming O’s of astonishment.

Lonnie Hackett ’14 demonstrates a chemical reaction to local elementary students

Lonnie Hackett ’14 demonstrates a chemical reaction to local elementary students

At the next table, Nathan Ricke ’14 rubbed balloons on the spiky haircuts of little boys to show how static electricity works. And while Katherine Bryan ’17 and Omar Sohail ’15 froze cherry tomatoes and racquetballs in steaming liquid nitrogran, Ben Rosenbloom ’14 and Steven Kennedy ’15 played with magnets.

Ricke, who leads the Kamerling Society with Salem Harry ’14, said the club reminds people of the value and accessibility of science. “There is a false idea that you are either a science person or you stay completely away from it,” he said. “But a little bit of science knowledge for everyone is really useful. And a lot people can read a book on science, discuss it and enjoy it.”

Harry agreed that there is an unnecessary gap between scientists and non-scientists. “I seldom engage in discussions about my [chemistry] major outside of class,” he said. “There is a lack of knowledge around scientific concepts that, if you understand them, give you a better idea of the world.”

Chemistry Lecturer Mike Danahy, the faculty advisor for the club, said Kamerling Society students also lead tours around Druckenmiller to high school students, “to show what Bowdoin has to offer, all the really cool science here.”

For young students, the Kamerling society is particularly impressive, Danahy said. “To have kids not too much older than them show how excited they are about science is really effective,” he said.

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