Up and atom: Will someone please count these molecules for my 7-year-old

Fallout Boy MilhouseGateHouse — Over the past couple of weeks, the boy has become a pretty huge fan of molecules.

Molecules in the air, molecules in the water, molecules in the table. Molecules in space, molecules in him, molecules in his blanket. I spent much of Mother’s Day hopelessly attempting to calculate the number of molecules in the space between (holds fingers about a millimeter apart), and failing in spectacular, fiery, Cubs/Donald Trump fashion. If you know how many molecules are in that general area, I beg you tell me now, because I’m about 30 seconds away from tweeting Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he is SO TIRED of me doing that.

The problem with being interrogated about molecules by your 7-year-old, aside from extrapolating that I can probably go ahead and take these football helmets to the consignment shop, is of course that I haven’t the foggiest what to tell him. (We determined once that air is made up of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. “Is carbon dioxide a molecule?” he logically asks, and I’m like DUDE I HAVE NO IDEA, hang on let me tweet Neil deGrasse Tyson.)


Ozomatli – Cut Chemist Site (Live on ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’)


When this started I would skulk out of his room after night-night books, wait a few minutes and sneak online to Google basic facts about molecules, straining through content farm after content farm to hotwire the dusty, forgotten chemistry-based synapses in my brain, which have pretty much been overgrown with weeds and prairie dogs since about 1992. And I would be there, tap tappity tapping quietly on the computer just outside his door, when out of the silence would come a, “Daaaad what are you doing?” and I would literally — LITERALLY — shut my browser window like my mom had just caught me with the porn, um, hypothetically, anyway, and also that story is about my brother. I am not sure at which point in your personal parenting evolution that you become insecure about getting busted Googling science terms for your first-grader BY YOUR FIRST-GRADER, but I’m pretty sure he’s in the market for a replacement male role model. 

This has gone on for weeks. He wants to know what molecules are made of, and I say atoms, and he says, “What are atoms made of?” and I freeze as though he just asked me to map the genome of the South American cane toad because in my head, which is not attuned to the rigors, wonders and lengthy compound words of science, atoms are not made of anything, right? I know two of them make water. This is where I’m starting from. I GOT A JOURNALISM DEGREE, WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?

So we go and look up pictures on Google. I get by — I know H is hydrogen and O is cadmium or whatever — but after that it gets pretty inside baseball, and there is some dude named Avogadro who apparently thinks he’s a big deal. Strangely, Googling the phrase “First-Grade Molecule Lessons That Do Not Require Parental Involvement” is of little help; so is “Will Someone Just Come And Handle This For Me Please.”

Which brings me to a question. Actually, two questions,

  1. Does anyone know how many molecules make up the table on my porch (if you guess right you win this huge jar of jellybeans!) and
  2. What in the hell did parents do before the Internet, before the entire vast breadth of human factual knowledge, and also Wikipedia, was available on our phone machines? The answer, of course, is simple: We lied. Lied to the children, outright and without remorse. And then we stood there, hands on our hips, like Moses with the tablets, secure in the awareness that we had just passed along some Serious Knowledge, with enviable disregard for whether or not that knowledge was actually “correct,” and then if busted, pointed and shouted “LOOK! A FEROCIOUS BEAR!” and ran away. It’s intellectually dishonest and morally wanting, sure, but it beats the stuffing out of counting molecules with your fingers.

About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

19 responses to “Up and atom: Will someone please count these molecules for my 7-year-old

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