Community Radio

WRBP | Community Radio – Season 6, Episode 6: Carbon

February 14, 2022

Season 6, Episode 6
February 27, 2022
Theme: Carbon

I’m sitting at one of thirty desks in the school’s chemistry lab, staring at the worksheet labeled Stoichiometry. Attempting – and failing – to complete this sheet is causing me to have one of the lowest moments of self-image I’ve had in a year. I just don’t understand how to balance these chemical equations.

Do you remember doing this in high school? Adding coefficients to molecules to make sure that the law of conservation of matter was followed on both sides of a reaction. Was it hard for you too? It took what seemed like forever for me to understand it. And during that time, I hated it – hated the very idea that the people around me understood and I was as confused as a kindergartner learning algebra.

But eventually, I figured it out. One of the people around me who understood it – my best friend, now that I really reflect on it – gave me advice, walked me through it, encouraged me. Over the next few weeks of work, I got to spend time with her and other friends, joking around, balancing equations, feeling good about the work. Tough work and discovery are made easier with a partner, and I had a great one.

That’s the cool thing about science, how nothing is discovered in isolation. The work builds upon prior work, and will generate additional ideas, hypotheses, experiments. Thus it was on February 27, 1940 that two scientists – working off others’ assumption that there existed a long-lived isotope of carbon – were able to synthesize it. What Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben created had six protons but 8 neutrons, and is known as carbon-14. Then, nine years later, chemist Willard Libby developed a method of determining the age of something using that particular isotope of carbon. Most of us know this as carbon dating.

Now I can tell you those facts, but when I attempt to understand the details of the process of synthesis, or how cosmic rays are involved in the formation in carbon-14, I’m back in that desk, confused and uncertain. Thankfully, I’m not beating myself up about it anymore. That’s partly because I’m a bit more mature and confident – but also because nobody’s going to test me on my understanding of it. I’m just here to make themes for this show. So, in celebration of this key element, our theme for episode 6 is Carbon.

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