Ice-9 - I n the Classroom Using Science Fiction To Teach...

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In the Classroom Vol. 81 No. 4 April 2004 Journal of Chemical Education 509 When teaching general chemistry, it is often a challenge to keep the subject matter interesting for the students and fresh for the instructor. Taking examples from science fic- tion (1) or science in fiction (2) has been used as a way to boost interest in selected topics. While motivating the stu- dents is a worthy goal in itself, utilizing examples from an- other discipline such as literature may serve to show how seemingly remote topics such as chemistry and fiction are re- lated to each other. A liberal education is about seeing the “big picture” and how each subject has an impact on other subjects. In addition, it is necessary to strengthen students’ understanding of specific concepts by applying their knowl- edge to new situations. Using examples from science fiction certainly provides new situations to consider and also serves to reinforce the idea that the laws of nature are universal. Even if a situation is fictitious, concepts such as thermody- namics can still be applied. While teaching thermodynamics to introductory stu- dents, I use an example taken from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, novel Cat’s Cradle (3). In the story, an absentminded scientist 1 dis- covers a form of solid water, known as ice-nine, which is stable at room temperature. When a seed crystal of ice-nine is acci- dentally introduced into the ocean, the ocean immediately solidifies into ice-nine, eventually leading to the end of life on Earth. Any people who come into direct contact with ice- nine are likewise instantly “frozen”. With only a brief intro- duction to the story, students are able to apply what they have learned about thermodynamics and make some rather interesting conclusions about the process of forming ice-nine. Using the information covered in a typical general chemis- try course, it can be shown that the process of crystallizing all of the liquid water on Earth must be highly exothermic and lead to a significant increase in the global temperature. Although ice-nine is fictitious, it does have some inter- esting ties to the real world (4). The author of the story, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., graduated from Cornell University with a ma- jor in chemistry. Vonnegut took a job in the public relations office at General Electric where his older brother, Bernard, was working in the lab and had discovered how to use silver iodide particles for seeding clouds to precipitate rain and snow. The author Vonnegut credits the invention of ice-nine to Irving Langmuir, who pioneered the study of thin films and interfaces. While working in the public relations office at General Electric, Vonnegut came across a story of how Langmuir, who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for his work at General Electric, was charged with the responsibility of en- tertaining the author, H. G. Wells, who was visiting the com- pany in the early 1930s. Langmuir is said to have come up with an idea about a form of solid water that was stable at
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This note was uploaded on 11/16/2011 for the course EMA 4314 taught by Professor Phillpot during the Fall '10 term at University of Florida.

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Ice-9 - I n the Classroom Using Science Fiction To Teach...

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