Sizzle hot: the thermodynamics of history

BLINDING ME WITH SCIENCE: Asheville Middle School student Jorja Parker gives a shoutout to science education in one of the new school's modern science labs.
BLINDING ME WITH SCIENCE: Asheville Middle School student Jorja Parker gives a shoutout to science education in one of the new school's modern science labs. Photo courtesy of Asheville Middle School

BY ABIGAIL HICKMAN

First you have to understand the science. I happen to know quite a bit about the subject, because I married a sixth-grade science teacher and I tend to pay attention at the dinner table. He works at Asheville Middle School, in the new $40 million building’s slick, shiny science lab, and he comes home with stories about smartboards and collaborative projects that connect different classes via sophisticated computer programs and color-coded, interactive movie screens. The kids all wear designer safety glasses and aprons that might have come from Walter White’s own private collection. The whole operation makes science scintillate.

It’s not as if they didn’t earn it. Last year, they all endured the dubious charms of a 50-year-old building whose pipes leaked onto heads of students and teachers alike, causing 22 chins to simultaneously shoot up to the ceiling, each wondering if this was when the whole thing would finally collapse — and hoping that if it did, it would happen during the science test.

That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The sadistic heating system boiled both bodies and tempers. Perhaps the furnace felt ignored when other issues in the tired old building got more attention: the labyrinth of a floor plan, never meant for middle school kids; or the central block of classrooms with no outside windows. Like a 2-year-old having a tantrum — or, more accurately, a 50-year-old ungracefully accepting the limitations of age — the old furnace would kick itself into a whiny high gear, forcing heat into already sweltering classrooms, and no amount of coaxing or tinkering with the controls could persuade it to cool off. Sweating faculty members speculated that the antiquated system was actually some rudimentary form of artificial intelligence, but it wasn’t smart enough to dodge the wrecking ball.

The new building rose in the old one’s backyard: Each day, students and faculty watched — through windows that wouldn’t open, framed by walls that crumbled but stubbornly refused to fall — as their new beautiful new school took shape. Workers in hard hats climbed the tall skeleton, drove trucks through the mud and moved piles of dirt as big as my house from one place to another. Trapped in their inferno classrooms, these observers saw the new school go from sketch pad to concrete slab to 177,000 square feet of state-of-the-art supercoolness.

Against that backdrop, my husband’s eagerness to recount his daily science experiments makes sense. He gets to work with all sorts of cool new toys and no longer worries about students succumbing to heatstroke during a lesson on plate tectonics. Last night, for example, he worked himself into a froth about thermodynamics. He started out at high frequency. “Oh, you should have been there today: It was so awesome!” (One of the side effects of working with sixth-graders all day is the unconscious absorption of middle school vernacular like “awesome” and “savage.”)

Abigail Hickman
Abigail Hickman

“Fascinating,” I said noncommittally, knowing that once he gets going, I simply lack the fortitude to dissuade him. Objects in motion and all that. The problem is, we lack solubility (a lesson from a few weeks ago, about solvents). I could handle that one because I drink hot tea with the conviction of a zealot each morning, pouring beakers’ worth of sugar into every cup. So I understood the general concept that my hot tea is the solvent, the sugar is the solute, and the resulting moderate sugar coma kicks in right around the time I roll into work.

But at night, around our dinner table, it’s my husband who seems to have an artificially stimulated glow. It’s the science that does it to him, that and working in a gorgeous modern lab. Last night he zeroed in on thermodynamics.

“Out of all of our test subjects today, guess which one is least effective in containing heat?” he asked, eyes all dreamy. I cut a bite of juicy pork chop and dipped it into the baked apples we buy frozen at Ingles.

“What are my choices?” I asked, seeing no way out of this wormhole.

He explained the lineup of usual suspects, which ranged from a ceramic coffee mug to a wooden bowl to an empty Mountain Dew can. The idea was to pour a boiling liquid into each one and time the heat loss: a kind of scientific track meet. I sneaked a bite of the chocolate cream pie meant for dessert, the perfect ratio of creamy chocolate to thick, flaky crust. “The ceramic mug, duh.”

“Incorrect!” he cried, waving his fork in victory. “The ceramic mug is the least effective heat insulator. Through the rest of meal he breathlessly explained the laws of thermodynamics. Pointing toward our fireplace, he explained, “If you put a cold log in there, it will require more energy to heat it than if you put in one that’s already warmed by the fire.” Ignoring my yawns, he explained that heat influences coolness, not the other way around. By the time we’d finished the pie and he’d cleaned up the dishes, I thought I had it all sorted out.

The old Asheville Middle School, outdated and undercomputerized, was a holdover from a time when there was no such thing as a car pool line, or drinking fountains designed to accommodate a water bottle, or web portals where parents could track the progress of their child’s daily science experiment. Nonetheless, the sweltering structure had seen Asheville through segregation to integration, from slide rules to electronic calculators, from raising hands to clicking a button in a rousing game of Kahoot!

In other words, the smoldering old building was a conduit to the coolness of its phoenix, which rose up sexy, slick and cool. The wondrous new Asheville Middle School stands as tribute to the old one that fell at its foundational feet. All that history, all those memories, became the energetic building blocks for the new school. Heat influences cool: It’s the basic law of thermodynamics. Duh.

Weaverville resident Abigail Hickman is the author of This, That and the Third: The Shaniya Davis Kidnap, Rape and Murder, The Space between Monster and Saint, published in August by Grateful Steps Publishing.

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About Abigail Hickman
Abigail teaches English at A-B Tech and is happily nestled into a Weaverville neighborhood. She enjoys eating Ben and Jerry's ice cream directly from the container.

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