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March 2, 2009
Volume 87, Number 9
p. 104

China Tricks Mother Nature, Chemistry In Mandarin

Blanket: A snowy scene in Beijing.

Snow fell in Beijing last week, but not by the will of Mother Nature. To stave off a severe drought that had gripped the city and surrounding areas, officials in Beijing resorted to chemically COAXING THE SNOW TO FALL.

Zhang Qiang, deputy director of the Beijing Weather Modification Command Center, told China's official news agency, Xinhua, that "more than 500 cigarette-sized sticks of silver iodide were seeded into clouds from 28 weather rocket launch bases in the city."

Silver iodide has a crystalline structure similar to that of ice. When particles of silver iodide are injected into the clouds, they attract water, which then freezes around the particles to form either snow or rain.

Seeding clouds with silver iodide is not a new concept. China recently used this technique to ensure that it would be dry for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. They seeded clouds moving toward Beijing and forced them to release their rain before reaching the city. It appears to have worked: On opening night, there was not one drop of rain.

That's Chinese chemistry in action. I'm also familiar with Chinese CHEMISTRY IN WORDS. While I was growing up, my dad, who's an organic chemist, tried sneaking chemistry into our dinnertime conversations every opportunity he got.

Linda Wang/C&EN
Symbols: Periodic table elements in Chinese.

"Did you know that drinking orange juice after eating a pickled duck egg creates an acid-base reaction in your mouth?" he'd ask in Mandarin Chinese. Pickled duck eggs are a common Chinese delicacy, and they are preserved with a base such as sodium benzoate or lye.

Over time, I amassed a sizable vocabulary of chemical terms in Mandarin, not that I could impress any Chinese chemist with my language skills, except for maybe my dad.

When I learned that a high school in Columbus, Ohio, was offering a general chemistry course taught entirely in Mandarin, I felt surprised and then truly impressed. Mandarin is probably one of the most challenging languages to learn, and from my own experience, it's clear that even if you're fluent in Mandarin, you still might be unable to hold an intelligent conversation with a Chinese chemist.

This class of seven ambitious 10th-grade students at Metro Early College High School meets for two hours per day, five days per week. Students must have completed and aced three trimesters of Mandarin and also have gotten an A in a previous science course at Metro.

Pinpin Peng, who teaches the chemistry in Mandarin class, says a goal of the course is to prepare students to study abroad in China, which many in the class plan to do. Sophomore Zunera Syed says the course has forced her to think about chemistry from a global perspective.

Although the lectures are given in Mandarin, the labs are conducted in English for safety reasons. But that doesn't mean miscommunication doesn't occur during the lectures. Syed tells C&EN that she accidentally blurted out an answer to an exam question to the entire class when she misunderstood the teacher's spoken instructions.

"C&ENtral Science" first blogged about this unique course in a Jan. 27 entry. In a comment, Andrew Sun says that as a native Mandarin speaker, he has a hard time pronouncing certain chemical terms in English. The term that gives him the most difficulty? Naphthalene. That's one I can't pronounce in Mandarin either.

Linda Wang wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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