Missing Chemistry Lab?!

“How are you managing to do Science experiments during these Covid times?” I asked the daughter as she munched on a cookie while on a diatribe about her latest Chemistry assignment.

“Oh we do it online. You can tip stuff into test tubes with your mouse, and it shows you what happens.” she said with a shrug, and I must tell you, I paled.

Wasn’t the whole fun of Chemistry lab the hissing noises as two unlikely elements reacted? Or the joy of seeing the colors change inside the test tube as you held it up to be seen by the light? The bright copper sulphate blue, the lilac, the pinks and turning neutrally to white letting out fumes? What about the olfactory? The hydrogen sulphide that sent us gagging towards the windows with the rotten egg smells. (The fact that we made it straight to lunch after a Chemistry lab with H2and tucked in with an enormous appetite speaks volumes to the marvelous feeling of youth.)

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I said as much to the daughter, and she gave me the pitying look she reserves for me when she senses that I miss my school days. “It’s just Chem Lab, it will be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Should I just forget about those eggs I bought a while back, so you can experience the rotten egg smells to your heart’s content?!” I asked solicitous.

She roared with laughter at this and said, “Your cooking is Chemistry enough Mother!”

It was in part conversations like this that peppered my read of Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, A Chemical Boyhood.

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His journey with the Sciences and his joyous epiphanies as he realized the neat order of things, and his poetic joy  as he traversed the Periodic table, gave me a new appreciation for the Periodic table too. In his words,

“Chemical exploration, chemical discovery , was all the more romantic for its dangers. I felt a certain boyish glee in playing with these dangerous substances, and I was struck in my reading, of the range of accidents that had befallen the pioneers. Few naturalists had been devoured by wild animals or stung to death by noxious plants or insects; few physicists had lost their eyesight gazing at the heavens , or broken a leg on an inclined plane; but many chemists had lost their eyes, limbs and even their lives, usually through producing inadvertent toxins or explosions.”

Chemistry, is tucked so far away in my consciousness, that I reveled in the beauty of it all almost anew. Glimpses of my committed Chemistry teachers in my youth came to me. I remember the feeling where their passion for the subject came through as they explained how the electrons revolved around the nucleus, the atomic weights, the inert gases and all the rest of it. I can vaguely begin to recognize how it must’ve felt to wax eloquent about the structural wonders in the world around us, to a bunch of mildly interested, if not completely indifferent, teenagers.

If ever there was a profession that was steeped in delayed gratification, teaching must be it. Why does it takes us decades to realize the stalwarts who did their best by us?! I tried putting all of this into words as I discussed the book with the daughter, and she said, “Yeah age makes you kooky I suppose. Must find the chemical reactions for that!” She laughed at her own wit while I  scowled. Slowly, she donned a far-off look, and said, “You know? Chem is just fine if he doesn’t keep having us go back and write out our mistakes for him so we show him why we made the mistake! Really! He is a grumpy old man and he is only twenty!”

I guffawed out loud at this – I must remember to ask about this Chemistry teacher of hers a few decades from now.

The Noble Accolades

The sun was up briskly rousing all of nature’s non-nocturnal creatures to rise and shine. I opened my eyes – the sun had nudged me half heartedly wondering whether I was to be classified as nocturnal or non-nocturnal that beautiful Sunday morning. I had after all spent a good part of the night reading several books late into the night. Covid-19 has wrought a strange change in reading habits and I found myself yearning for some uninterrupted time in which to get my reading done. I devoured two short stories by P.G.Wodehouse, read some tidbits of 3 other books and finally settled in for a long-ish snuggle with Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks.

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I felt strangely alive – with that beautiful feeling of youth-ish rebellion stealing over me as I read on. How long had it been since I had defied reasonable bed-times and gone on reading late  into the night? Moreover, I was reveling in the boyhood of the great Oliver Sacks – a boyhood steeped in Chemistry and his experiments with them.

But, there is a reason for such pesky things as sleep times. As a teen, the body shrugged off a night like that with a spot of tea, but I found the intervening decades did not take so kindly to this sort of treatment, and I was being given by the stink eye by the neurons in the brain that refused to wake up.

I dragged myself from bed the next morning and set some dish-pots on the stove for the afternoon meal. I don’t know what I plopped in there it terms of ingredients. I moped and moaned, “Oh with Covid, all these folks are posting these amazing pictures of their culinary adventures in Facebook, and I don’t even know what I am making!”

“Aww! Don’t worry ma! You always manage to make it palatable except when you get creative and experiment and stuff!” said the daughter eyeing me drooping over the kitchen counter. She shuddered and said, “Remember that bread pudding?!”

I maintained a dignified silence for post-bread-pudding, most people had to do the same as the pudding seem to get their jaws stuck. While the pot bubbled, I flopped over to the Uncle Tungsten book again, and started  reading. The chapter was about Eve Curie’s biography of Madame Curie. The book was given to Oliver Sacks when he was a ten year old boy by his mother and he had savored the copy over the years. 

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 I seemed to finally awaken as I read the passage below aloud to the children:

Eve Curie’s biography  of her mother – which my own mother gave me when I was ten –   was the first portrait if a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply  impressed me. It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images- Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming  vats and crucibles, stirring then with an iron rod almost as big  as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless  solutions, more and  more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grid continually getting into the solutions and undoing  the endless work.”

The book is full of footnotes, and annoying as this can be sometimes, this particular footnote was fun. 

Footnote:

In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I  had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I  was talking I became conscious of a very  old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile  going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t  be!” But it was – it was Eve Curie, and she signed her  book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it. 

The pot I had set on the stove sizzled over, and I charged to take control. When the dish was salvaged, I said, “See what all can happen when Eve & Madame Curie worked together dear? Madame Curie won the Nobel prize, and her daughter chronicled her! Imagine all that is possible if we were work together more sweetly in the kitchen together? I plop, you stir, I salt, you pepper. Maybe we could have our picture posted on Facebook as two smiling chefs who were never happier than when cooking together, and you can post the dishes-finale in your Insta account!” I said. 

The child did not even have to think before she shook her head. “Mom and daughter working together with chemicals and stuff! Oh they must’ve fought plenty. Besides! Think Mother! Is a Facebook photo worth all that?”

“You think!” I retorted. I have always been quick with dumb repartees.

She laughed and tousled my hair – she is now fully a head taller than my head and these days when I need to give her ‘the look’, I get the feeling of a meerkat peering at a giraffe. I suppose my noble culinary marvels will just have to wait for the Facebook accolades.

The Other Side of the Glass

There is a girlish delight in tucking oneself in the mode of Being, away from the duties of a Doing life on a Saturday morning. As I watch the minutes blend into hours, I sense my senses relax and delve deeply, calmly and yet completely enthralled at the prospect of indulging in my favorite pastimes of reading and writing. I feel the privilege in that sentence as I write it, for I recognize it for what it is: a luxury.

I hear the bees buzzing in the beautiful Spring day outside, a pair of blue jays have chosen a tree nearby to make their nest, and I watch the pair of them flit about busily during their days. Every now and then, one of them would come and peck on the window pane as if to check on me, though I know that comes from the human longing for self importance. The blue jays may just like the sound of the glass against their beaks, or probably; the reflection of themselves as they fly past. Whatever their motive, it is one of their many acts that I relish from the other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

What a wonderful way to observe the world? The internet is rife with jokes on humans sheltering in place with animals peeking at us, with their clever commentaries of us, and I must say I relish it. For once, we are all unanimously united in that state of achieving inner peace against the steady dripping of the news around us.

So, here I am sitting comfortably and reading the book, Uncle Tungsten – Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks.

The world as seen by the prolific writer and physician – his boyhood escapades with Chemistry and the influences of his life, are fascinating, full of learning and wonder, and makes one acutely alive to the fact that each life is a magnificent journey on its own. To those of us who are lucky to see life as an act of not just being, but becoming, it is a subtle reminder of the love of living.

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Every now and then, a passage takes you by surprise, such as this one. Oliver Sacks was born into a family of 4 siblings to physician parents, Dr Samuel Sacks and Dr Muriel Elsie Landau (one of the first female surgeons in England).

Reading has a way of taking us into worlds other than our own. I was delving into London of a century ago in his memoirs. The act of taking our consciousness with it to a different place and the ability to anchor us to the here and now, is a unique gift of reading. I found that strange juxtaposition in this passage:

“When it was time for my father to open his own practice, he decided, despite this early training in neurology, that general practice would be more real, more “alive”. Perhaps he got more than he bargained for, for when he opened his practice in the East End in September 1918, the great influenza epidemic was just getting started. He had seen wounded soldiers when he was a houseman at the London, but this was nothing to the horror of seeing people in paroxysm of coughing and gasping, suffocating from the fluid in their lungs, turning blue and dropping dead in the streets. A strong, healthy young man or woman, it was said, could die from the flu within three hours of getting it. In those three desperate months, at the end of 1918, the flu killed more people than the Great War itself had, and my father, like every doctor at the time, found himself overwhelmed, sometimes working forty-eight hours at a stretch.”

Just like that, I had moved to the other side of the glass. 100 years on, here we are, sheltering-in-place with the Coronavirus pandemic, and watching a similar situation of our good doctors being overwhelmed, and resources being stretched to their limits, as the virus sweeps through the world.

The other side of the glass.