I Got (Loga)Rithm

By Larry Teren

Recently a Facebook friend posted that his father had celebrated his 75th birthday and wanted to give others who know him a chance to send greetings. You know that old expression, “a friend of a friend is my friend”. I guess through magic, Facebook is able to let the father see whatever greetings the son swaps with his friends.

What made this birthday announcement more than ordinary is that my friend’s father is my high school chemistry teacher from 40 or so years ago (yeah, do the math). Being forced to think back so long ago causes me to remember only a handful of incidents. (Doing the same math, I did not realize that the teacher was so young at that time because he had prematurely gray hair and acted, well- so mature.)

I do recall that Chemistry was one of the classes in which I got a better grade than others I was forced to take against my will. Those included English, Trigonometry and Home Room. I was better at Chemistry for two reasons: 1) our teacher was hip and fun to hang around. 2) my classmates were not better at understanding it than I was so the grading curve was a little lower. Take that Arthur Lafler. (If you have to ask who he is, I quit.)

There are three memories that I associate with our beloved Chemistry teacher.

  1. Logarithms and slide rulers.
  2. Periodic Chart
  3. Joe Namath

Logarithms and slide rulers:

Back in the days when the U.S. Space Program was in its infancy in Houston, a company by the name of Texas Instruments had not yet invented an inexpensive calculator that you could hold in the palm of your hands. Instead, you were stuck with slide rulers. These were devices that helped you convert large numbers into their logarithm so that you could use that value to multiply and divide large values.

The best way to explain a logarithm (I knew you were going to ask) is that it is an alternative representation of a number. For example, the base 10 logarithm for 1000 is 3. Why? Because 10 cube or ten to the third power is equal to 1000 (10 x 10 x 10). Conversely, if you need to know the logarithm for a much smaller number, the answer will be a miniscule fraction. To multiply large numbers, you figure out their logarithm, add them together, and then figure out how to recompile it back into a real number.

Now, that I lost you, you can understand why everyone got very happy when Texas Instruments created the cheap calculator. In the meantime, we thought our Chemistry teacher was a genius because he could reel off logarithms for many numbers like you can do the times table. (Uh, you can’t?)

Periodic Chart:

This will give you an idea of what my priorities were as a high school junior. I thought when our Chemistry teacher told us we were going to have to learn a periodic chart, that he meant we didn’t have to memorize the chart all at once- just periodically. I can tell you forty or so years later, all I remember about it is that elements have a numeric value and that in order to put a chemical solution together, the numeric representation of each element has to mix in harmony. Oh yeah- one other thing. Silver is AU and Gold is AG. Why and what does it mean? Beats me. That’s why when I closed a chemistry book in June at the end of my junior year- it was the last time up until the present.

Joe Namath:

Back in the early 1960’s, the sports world was shook up by these upstart wealthy guys who created a second football league called the AFL. It took a few years until the NFL was willing to recognize them and play a championship game to settle matters. The AFL was run with style and flamboyance in order to win fan interest. The games were played in a more wide open fashion with lots of passing and high scores compared to the more staid NFL.

After the 1968 season was over, Joe Namath, the Hollywood-looking quarterback for the AFL champion New York Jets boldly predicted that his team would whip the Baltimore Colts, led by possibly the greatest quarterback ever- Johnny Unitas. Until then, an AFL team had yet to beat an NFL team. Namath was jeered, mocked and derided. All the prognosticators predicted he would be eating dirt sandwiches made by the Colts front four defensive line.

Our hero, the Chemistry teacher, during the week before the big game told us emphatically that Namath was an idiot and that the Colts would clean his clock. He also said that if the Jets won, he’d cancel an upcoming test and give each of us an A.

This just in- the Jets won that game 16-7. I’m still waiting for my A, Mr. Chemistry teacher. Have a happy 75th.

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