Of Siblings and Sea Sponges

Until our early twenties, my sister and I had almost identical academic histories, right up to and including dropping out of a physics degree. The only significant substitution was that she took an A-Level1in electronics while I took one in chemistry. This had an interesting side-effect: I have a paired control case for studying A-Level chemistry. It's especially interesting as I'm fairly sure that A-Level chemistry was one of the more practically useful academic endeavours of that period, even though I never went on to study it further.

There are so many common domestic activities where a working knowledge of chemistry is useful. Thickening a soup, thinning some paint, picking a suitable cleaning product or using the right glue all become a lot easier to do on the fly when you understand the principles behind them. I have learned a lot of useless stuff in my life2, but I've never regretted understanding what emulsification is, or how detergents work, or why acids are corrosive. I've never wished the knowledge of why glass and metal and rubber behave that way be replaced with something more useful. I also have a reasonable test for whether any given piece of knowledge is dependent on me having studied A-Level chemistry: I can just ask my sister.

You know what I didn't study at A-Level? Biology. I did one chemistry module in biochem, and I've picked bits up as an interested observer over the intervening years, but there's some alternative version of me in some Bizarro Biology A-Level world, wandering around with all sorts of knowledge of metabolic processes and enzyme production and protein synthesis, using the crap out of it in assorted everyday ways that I can't imagine. It's tantalising to think about Bizarro Biology A-Level me. So tantalising, in fact, that I've taken a few small steps towards becoming him.

You may already be familiar with brothers John and Hank Green as YouTube Internet Celebrities, who started vlogging to each other in 2007, and ended up with a committed internet following. They are both eloquent and diversely well-educated, with a broadly-appealing nerdy charisma and sense of humour. A year or so ago they started expressing frustration that while the internet is very informative, it's not necessarily as educational as they might like. There are many ways of learning a lot of atomic facts about a subject, but it takes a certain amount of effort to put those facts into a broader context where you actually start to appreciate what they mean. With this in mind, they started CrashCourse.

CrashCourse consists of playlists of 10-12 minute videos, with each playlist intending to provide a broad introductory overview of a subject. At present those subjects include Biology, Chemistry, Ecology, World History, US History and Literature. Over the past couple of weeks, I've worked my way through Hank's Biology playlist. It clocks in at about seven hours, and while I doubt I'm equipped for a Biology A-Level exam after that, I have more substantial foundations in place for further inquiry. I'm not very well-equipped for Chemistry A-Level right now either, but the useful concepts are still there.

The videos are produced with laudably high production values, and while they are watchable and entertaining, I believe they also succeed at the broader goal of being genuinely educational. "OK," they'll sometimes say, "this one is going to be pretty involved, but please bear with me; it's kind of important". I have a massive amount of respect for this approach, and feel it adds to the credibility of an educator if they have some faith in your motivations for learning.

While my biology appetite has been whetted, I'm not sure what to follow it up with. It is a massive subject, and yet it doesn't intersect too neatly with anything else I'm studying at the moment3. I may just let it brew for a while. There's also eight hours CrashCourse World History playlist sitting there, winking at me, and if I'm honest, I think I prefer John's delivery to Hank's.


  1. For non-Brits, A-Levels are among qualifications typically obtained between the ages of 16 and 18 before going to university. 

  2. I possess an alarming number of "facts" about starships, supernatural creatures and the metaphysics of fictional TV shows, which I'm sure will serve me well if I'm ever stuck in a piece of Star Trek/Buffy/Quantum Leap crossover fanfiction. 

  3. In actual expensive-piece-of-paper education, I've just finished a unit on medical statistics, and pharmacology/methods of action/chemistry crossovers is something that piques my interest when reading Derek Lowe's blog, but this would presumably require some pretty heavy and well-directed study before I have any appreciable understanding, which I then probably wouldn't have much use for. 

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