Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tales of My Mother's Childhood - Mercury

When my mother was in 5th grade, she moved with her family to a village where her father was assigned as headmaster (principal) of the local high school. Now, this was a village, and houses were not constantly changing hands like they do in today's (more like yesterday's) market. When they arrived, there was no apartment or house waiting for them.

The office building of the high school was a donated/loaned Vaishya satram. It was a long, skinny building, consisting of a small kitchen, a large front room, and a smaller room in between. The entry side of the front room contained a desk and a few chairs for the headmaster and a few teachers. A row of saris strung behind this area created a wall separating the actual office from the area now used to house a family of 8.

When my grandparents and the 6 children moved in, there were two boxes in the back half of that room. One held the school library, and the other the laboratory.

While my grandfather bought and brought a large part of the library in that box, the laboratory was always owned by the school. It consisted of a balance, a couple of meters for measuring various physical properties (thermometer, an old densitometer, etc.), and a bottle of mercury.

My mother, being as curious as Pandora, immediately opened that box. She didn't loose multiple horrors upon the world, but she did find the shiny, silvery bottle. At the time, the dangers of mercury were not well known. So my mom, at the age of nine, played with it.

She tipped it up and down, marveling at the way it flowed. When she tired of that, she opened the bottle and accidentally spilled some on the ground. She tried to pick it up, but it broke apart into little balls and rolled away. Each ball she tried to pick up simply squished apart in her fingers, resulting in a multitude of smaller balls. Eventually she gave up and scooped them all together. This unfortunately meant that dirt from the floor joined the mercury. In a stroke of genius, she found a cleaning cloth. By rubbing the balls of mercury in the cloth, she could get rid of the dirt and keep the mercury!

She carefully put it back, but returned to play with it in secret when her father was busy and nobody was nearby. Within a couple months, though they found a portion of a house to rent. The library went with them, but the lab (luckily for her health!) stayed put.

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