Please don't over-estimate my abilities!

Perhaps once a year I get an e-mail question from someone who seems to assume that I know everything there is to be known about chemistry. These questions don't tend to be from students, but from other visitors chasing up a particular enthusiasm, and quite often involve aspects of atomic physics (or similar) where I am totally out of my depth.

I have spent my working lifetime teaching chemistry to 11 - 18 year old students, and am reasonably confident that I can provide an understandable answer to most questions that will arise from someone doing a standard A level chemistry course or its various equivalents. But beyond that, I'm on very shaky ground.

At heart, my favourite part of chemistry is organic chemistry, and I am most comfortable when I can have a mental image of a process taking place. As soon as things become seriously mathematical, I can no longer be bothered to try to follow it. That may seem a surprising confession from someone who has written a successful guidebook to chemistry calculations. But the reason that the book works is precisely because I'm not particularly confident with maths, and so don't expect anyone else to be either.

I have completely forgotten most of what I did for my degree all those decades ago. In fact, I can still remember coming across some degree level essays during a tidy-up after I had been teaching for perhaps 10 years. Apart from the fact that they were in my handwriting, I would have denied ever having heard of some of the topics!

Even now, I get times when I have to do a Google search for some bit of information that I don't know and find myself pointed at one of my own pages. It can occasionally come as a complete surprise to me that I ever knew it - let alone spent hours writing about it! Teachers, textbook writers and web writers are just fallible people like everybody else.

If you ask me a question which is beyond my competence, please don't feel hard-done-by if I just say "Sorry - I don't know enough about this to be able to help." I no longer have any enthusiasm for extending my chemistry knowledge much beyond its current boundaries. One of the things you realise as you get older is that life is too short for any one person to know everything - even in a relatively small subject area!

Given a choice between spending hours on Google trying to track down information that I know in advance I won't be able to understand, and going for a walk on the cliffs, there is absolutely no competition!

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© Jim Clark 2007