What’s the Matter with Chemistry?
Am I just dizzy from the fumes of ammonia, or has that serpent swallowed its own tail? A minor love affair with chemistry.
What’s the matter?
Growing up I wanted to be a microbiologist. My most prized possession was, and still is, a hospital-grade microscope gifted to me by my grandmother, a nurse—none of this Toys “R” Us pink plastic 2x magnification nonsense. On that note, the website Sociological Images hosts an interesting snap: a catalogue where the girl-coded pink microscope has the least powerful magnification of all the toy microscopes advertised.
I harboured burning ambitions of growing E. Coli in my bedroom. I’d feed it meat broth, read it bedtime stories, and… well, I’m sure I would have thought of some way to incubate it. The wrench in the works was that nine-year-old me hadn’t a clue where to buy Petri dishes in non-industrial quantities.
As a natural extension of my interest in microbiology, I also read a lot about chemistry. Chemistry held none of the fleshy appeal or living, breathing intrigue of biology, but it did describe the fundamental building blocks of all of matter.
I remember being deeply puzzled by the phrase ‘a uniform mixture’ in a textbook. I had no problem with the word ‘homogeneous’ as it was totally new to me, but I kept trying and failing to square the word ‘uniform’ with my gingham school dress. A scratchy, ugly, uncomfortable mixture?
As a high school student, I was far from a dab hand at lab work. I’d never get the quantities of anything right. (I’m also a terrible cook for this very reason.) Below is a transcript of every titration experiment I have ever done. Ever.
I didn’t trust myself to add the titre, so I would instead direct my lab partner to:
“Add a little more…
A little more…
Well, dark indigo is pretty close to blue.”
Sigh. We’d overshoot, each and every time.
My approach to lab safety also left much to be desired. Instead of waiting in line for the fume cupboard (like a sucker!), I would stock my bench with large quantities of ammonia and hydrochloric acid. Sure, I had a slight headache, but I’d saved a boatload of time and isn’t that the imp… import… is anyone else feeling a bit woozy?
Growing up I wanted to be a chemist or a pharmacist (and at one time, a detective like Sherlock Holmes or Batman), so I did work experience at an analytical chemistry laboratory. Sometimes they got to analyse chocolates or the particle size of the fat droplets in ice creams—this involved freebies. Alas, while I was there it was river water and coal samples.
A far cry from the antiseptic depictions in the media, this real-life lab was unexpectedly messy. Here’s a quote to illustrate what I mean:
“Excuse me, I’d like to show off what I’ve learnt in 10th grade chemistry, so should I wash out this test tube with deionised water, or will tap water do?”
“Yeah, you can wash it… if you want.”
By the way, for more on the messiness of real-life labs, check out Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. I haven’t read it yet—it’s gathering dust much like the microscope—but it came highly recommended by my Philosophy of Science lecturer.
In Year 12 I took university-level chemistry, which required attending the university for lab work during school holidays. My favourite exercise involved analysing mass spectroscopy and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance outputs to determine the identity of a ‘mystery’ organic molecule—provided it contained a ring. (My least favourite exercise involved measuring the quantity of anything to add to a quantity of anything else.)
I was wholly uninterested in any organic compound without one (when you consider certain organic molecules ‘cooler’ than others, that’s when you know you’re a nerd), and breathed a sigh of relief whenever I saw that telltale spike in the spectroscopy printout.
Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the classes taught at my high school by the sort of science teachers who, well, don’t teach but rather heap praise upon students whose parents have paid tutors to do this arduous task for them. And derision upon anyone who dares ask for their help, this being interpreted as some sort insubordination against their pigeonholing. Rather than nurturing my love of science, they all but snuffed it out.
Dreams and phantasms
Could we take a brief detour to discuss the myth surrounding the discovery of the ring structure of benzene? Grade A horse manure, but it’s something I wish notable artists and scientists of today did more of—claim, ‘It came to me in a dream’. One laden with arcane Jungian imagery, of course. I live for the day Elon Musk comes out with ‘Ah yes, this solar-powered vehicle design… inspired by a phantasm of Phaethon and the Sun Chariot.’
Composer Giuseppe Tartini was visited in a dream by Beelzebub himself who played him a melody most exquisite, the pale echo of which became the Devil’s Trill Sonata. (Oh, it’s exquisite.) Still, nothing beats the vision related by Kekule von Stradonitz: a serpent swallowing its own tail to reveal the ring structure of benzene to him. The mystery of benzene solved by an ouroboros, how conveniently congruent with alchemical symbolism… von Stradonitz, you fibber!
Before I was tragically, unjustly and untimely-ly de-platformed due to my “belief” that men are not women, a reader by the name of San Cassimally contributed a fascinating auspicious dream tale in the comments of an earlier version of this article.
San grew up in ‘Mauritius, a small country where people new everything about everyone’, including that his school teacher was a bit of a betting a man. At the Le Champ de Mars, one of the island’s oldest racetracks, his teacher held a ‘record win of Rs.187.50 for a one rupee bet’. All due to a dream where:
He saw himself at the Champ de Mars waiting for the off, and became aware of a white line at his feet. Then the line began squirming and started moving in a straight line from his feet towards the finishing line of the race. At that point he knew he had to place his bet on the combination Lampréco-Bambinette. [...] In french speaking Mauritius, white line = ligne blanche. Ligne meant Lampréco and Blanche stood for Bambinette. He must have spent his winnings very fast, for within a week he was borrowing money from my school friends!
The mysterious machinations of the universe
All in all, younger me seemed to lack the patience and precision required to be a scientist. I never did become a chemist (or a microbiologist*). These days I’m a data analyst, a career path that follows the same mysterious machinations of the universe, I imagine, as winding up a proctologist. But one day, I’ll be a successful writer. With your help, of course:
All that remains
I can say one thing about my erstwhile obsession with chemistry, at least I’m very knowledgeable about the molecules and elements of murder. (And luckily, when it comes to poisons, it’s okay if you overshoot.)
*This was in part owing to a biologist family friend who acted a bit like a cross between Eeyore and The Onion’s anteater specialist on the topic of his career. I think all he said to bouncing-on-her-heels twelve-year-old me was, ‘It doesn’t pay well’.