“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance?” | A Lesson in Framing

I don’t remember much from chemistry lessons at secondary school, but there is one encounter that I regularly return to.

Let me paint a bit of the scene for you.

At the front is a chemistry teacher who is wearing a white lab coat that has clearly seen better days and now has holes in several places.

The chemistry teacher himself is also a bit frayed at the edges in that eccentric professor kind of a way. The jumper he is wearing under the lab coat has leather patches sown onto the elbows, he always wears this jumper.

We are also wearing white lab coats, but ours are a combination of almost new and somewhat worn depending on whether we had older siblings or not. This was the age when things were passed down from one child to another.

We are sat at high benches with heavy wooden worktops which are all in rows facing the front. The wooden stools that we are sat on are a bit wobbly and give the impression that they could collapse at any moment, our feet do not touch the floor.

In front of the teacher and also on our benches is an assortment of glassware containing clear chemicals. Today, many of these chemicals are no longer deemed safe enough to be handled by pupils – it was a more naive time.

One of those clear chemicals is Sulphuric Acid and we have all been told, in the strictest of terms, to be very careful and not to get any on ourselves or our clothes. I think we were wearing safety glasses, but like I say, more naive times.

Our subject for the day – corrosion:

Corrosion is a natural process, which converts a refined metal to a more chemically-stable form, such as its oxide, hydroxide, or sulfide. It is the gradual destruction of materials (usually metals) by chemical and/or electrochemical reaction with their environment.

We have been marvelling at the ability of various acids to dramatically corrode different materials, our favourites being the ones that smoked as they reacted. Then one of the boys (I’m pretty sure it was a boy, but it could have been a girl, this was a mixed school after all, I’m only saying a boy because that’s how I remember it) says:

“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance that we know of?”

We were all expecting a fancy chemical that we’d never heard of and would never be allowed to handle. Certainly something with the word “acid” at the end of its name – “HydroChloroSulphoUber Acid” or something like that. We’d just seen how amazing these various chemicals could be and we’d not seen anything like it before. Surely the most corrosive substance on earth was something just like these?

Then “Sir” (I don’t remember his real name and I can’t use his nickname in polite society) looked up from his bench and gave this answer:

“I suppose it has to be H20.”

We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. What was he talking about? We drank water every day. How could it be the most corrosive thing on the planet?

He went on to explain:

“Look at the impact of water of the landscape. Think about all of the caves up in the Yorkshire Dales Limestone worn away by water. Look at all of the rust around you, all caused by water. Think about it, I’m sure you can come up with many more examples.”

We’d framed our expectations, the answer, by the situation in which we found ourselves. As someone with a bit more experience “Sir” looked outside the immediate situation and perceived the bigger picture. Sulphuric Acid may be more corrosive than water when placed onto my lab coat, but there isn’t that much of it about so it’s not going to corrode that many lab coats. Water, however, is everywhere and it’s impact is massive.

I’ve returned to this thought of framing many times. I see people making decisions that make no sense until I try to understand the frame in which they are making those choices, sometimes that changes my perception of their answer, sometimes it changes their answer. I see others framing questions in such a way as to get the answer that they needed, but not necessarily the right or the best answer. I’ve also witnessed some people re-framing their question and their answer in ways that created unexpectedly wonderful answers.

The answer doesn’t have to fit into your frame of the question, the best answers often don’t.

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