Three of the longest-serving faculty members at Home Campus – Lyle, one of the mathematicians, Barb, the geologist, and Lloyd, Kim’s chemistry colleague – retired at the end of the 1998-1999 school year. And since an event like that has to be commemorated with food, drink, and song, the rest of us met over at the home of another retired faculty member for a fair amount of each.
Of course there was food and drink. There’s always food and drink in Wisconsin. You can’t gather four people together for a traffic accident in Wisconsin without someone bringing a dish to pass. The food and drink you just accept as normal. It’s the song that made the event something unusual. Not every event has song.
A group of us decided to form a singing group just for the occasion. We’d get up and perform something, and it would, of course, be the most amazing thing in the observable universe for certain values of “amazing.”
Naturally, we needed a name. And given that I ended up as the lead writer for this comedy sketch and further that I was unduly influenced by Kim’s chemistry background (hey – being married to the writer never hurts, just saying), we ended up as “Joseph Priestley and the Ketones.”
Those of you with backgrounds in history, chemistry or biology may commence groaning now.
For the rest of you, Joseph Priestley was a political radical in the late-18th-century Anglo-American world. One of the original Unitarian ministers at a time when this was an exceedingly controversial thing to be and a leading figure in the increasingly radicalizing Enlightenment, his religious and political stances so irritated people in his native and rather conservative Britain that a mob burned down his house and he was eventually forced to flee to the US. He settled in Pennsylvania and got caught up in the fierce partisan politics of the day, which is how I came to discover him while researching my dissertation. He was also one of the founders of modern chemistry, and is generally credited with discovering oxygen (or “dephlogisticated air” as he called it – fortunately the name never took). Priestley was therefore a simple choice for the lead singer.
Ketones are a class of organic compounds, and their pronunciation (Key-tones) makes them perfect for the backup singers in a scientifically oriented parody band.
So now you can groan too.
I wrote up a script that followed the grand tradition of those old K-Tel album advertisements that used to infest the UHF channels on television back when the distinction between UHF and VHF was actually meaningful. It was heavy on the chemistry jokes, as you’d imagine. We may have even rehearsed it once or twice, though that particular fact seems to have been lost in the mists of time. We borrowed some lab coats and – in my case – a choir gown, and we were ready to roll.
And on the day, there we were.
From left to right, there’s Kim, Beth, Dave, Mary, Julia, me, and Dick. You can’t see Marty, who played the Announcer, but he’s up at the top of the steps next to Kim. I think that’s Ted in the background behind Dick, just photobombing us.
We were sharp. We were cool. We were, as the Announcer said, “the greatest band ever to light the fuse on a bomb calorimeter.”
I dug up the original script out of the recesses of my computer and translated it out of the Linear C that is Word 5.0. And rather than pick out bits here and there, I’ve decided to post the whole thing. Because I can do that. It’s my blog.
Here it is, in all of its glory.
Announcer: Ladies and Gentlemen! Fisher Scientific is proud to present Joseph Priestley and the Ketones!
JPK: Sittin' In Committee All Day
[Tune: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding)]
Sittin in the morning sun
I'll be sittin' when the evening's done
Watching the coffee roll in,
Then I watch it roll away again
Yeah, I'm just sittin' in committee all day
Watching my life roll away
Sittin in committee all day
I left my home this morning
Lookin' forward to productive day
Now I have nothing to live for
Look's like nothing gonna go my way
So I'm just sittin' in committee all day
Watchin' my life roll away
Sittin in committee all day
Look like nothin gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same
Sittin' here resting my bones
And this moron won't leave me alone
Two thousand hours they drone
And my ass just turned into stone
Now I'm just sittin in committee all day
Watchin' my life roll away
Sittin in committee all day
Announcer: Yes, Fisher Scientific has teamed up with Molar Records to bring to you on compact disc the greatest hits of the greatest band that ever lit the fuse on a bomb calorimeter! All the songs that kept you company those late nights in the lab are now collected in one place! Better Living Through Chemistry features such classic hits as The Chemist
JPK: The Chemist
[Tune: The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel)]
I am just a chemist, though my story's seldom told
I have squandered my existence for a lifetime's worth of mumbling
Such is lecturing
All lies and jest
Still a man says what he wants to say and asks it on the test
Announcer: And who can forget the classic Lab Cycle - a sixteen-hour rock opera about the daily routines of a scientist? Well, most people, actually - but with Better Living Through Chemistry your mind will forever be scarred by classic musical moments as Joseph Priestley and the Ketones take you through the scientific process, from its anxious beginnings...:
JPK: Stir Bar Spinnin'
[Tune: Blackbird (The Beatles)]
Stir bar spinnin' in the dead of night
Take these separate layers and mix them right
Through the night
I will sit here waiting for a way to see the light
JPK: Thymol Blue Titration
[Tune: Crystal Blue Persuasion (Tommy James & the Shondells)]
JPK: Don't Touch That
[Tune: U Can’t Touch This (MC Hammer)]
Don't touch that
Announcer: To its anguished declarations of moral purity...:
JPK: They're Pharmaceuticals
[Tune: You’re Unbelievable (EMF)]
These things you take
They make you feel so good
Oh, they're not drugs
Announcer: To final triumph:
JPK: Sweet Alkaline
[Tune: Sweet Adeline (every barbershop quartet ever in the history of the universe)]
Sweet alkaline! My alkaline (my alkaline!)
You're the caustic stuff I love, dear alkaline (my alkaline).
Announcer: But Joseph Priestley and the Ketones were more than just one unwieldy and excessive fiasco! They were several! From Joseph Priestley and the Ketones vs. Broadway, their last CD before they were broken up by international treaty, come such bursts of musical shrapnel as:
JPK: Sunrise, Sunset
[Tune; Sunrise, Sunset (Fiddler on the Roof)]
Is this the measurement I long for?
Is this the measurement I need?
I don't remember adding sulfur.
Where will it lead?
Why did it get to be a liquid?
Why did it get to be so blue?
What if it turns into a vapor?
What will I do?
Swiftly flow the years.
One damn thing following another
Trapped in this chemist's vale of tears.
Announcer: And this:
JPK: Favorite Things
[Tune: My Favorite Things (The Sound of Music)]
Stir bars on benchtops and pipettes in beakers
High molar acid that eats through my sneakers
Brown viscous liquids supported by rings
These are a few of my favorite things
Announcer: And, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the theater:
[Tune: Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious (Mary Poppins)]
Super-heated catalytic oxygen reaction!
Announcer: Yes, the songs that haunted you in the wee hours of the morning when you were trying to sleep, the songs that plagued you in the late hours of the afternoon when you were trying to do something productive, the songs that bothered you in the evening when you were trying to eat dinner can now be yours! Don't delay, act now! Plus, as a special bonus for the first 6.02x10(23) callers, you will receive absolutely free the Ketone's version of that classic hit, Their Way.
JPK: Their Way (written by Bob Blue)
[Tune: My Way (Frank Sinatra, for all practical purposes)]
I came, brought all my books, lived in the dorms, followed directions
I worked, I studied hard, met lots of folks who had connections
I crammed, they gave me grades, and may I say, not in a fair way
But more, much more than this, I did it their way.
I memorized all sort of things, although I know I'll never use them
The courses that I took were all required, I didn't choose them
I learned that to survive, it's best to act the doctrinaire way
And so I buckled down and did it their way
But there were times I wondered why I had to walk when I could fly
I had my doubts, but after all, I clipped my wings, I learned to crawl
I learned to bend, and in the end, I did it their way
And so, my fine young friend, now that I am a full professor
Where once I was oppressed, now I've become the cruel oppressor
Like me, you'll learn to cope, you'll learn to climb life's golden stairway
Like me, you'll see the light, you'll do it their way.
For what can I say, what can I do? Open your book, read chapter two
And if to you it seems routine, don't speak to me, go see the dean
As long as they give me my pay, I'll do it their way.
Announcer: Don't delay! Send $19.95 to Fisher Scientific, 481 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. This offer is good for a limited time only! Void where prohibited by statute law, legal precedent or good taste. Your mileage may vary. Your red scarf matches your eyes. No checks or COD's. May be habit forming - consult your physician. Do not operate heavy machinery while listening to this music. Removal of the music from its social context will void the warranty. Order now!