I love chemistry.
My late grandfather was a chemist who worked in dyes at a local mill. He was apparently some kind of impoverished prodigy, and the Dow corporation once tried to recruit him (he turned them down for reasons unknown.) And far back in the mists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both sides of my family produced a few other chemists and engineers. We don’t know where their money went, but they existed. So chemistry is in my blood. Well, it’s in everyone’s blood, but you know what I mean.
I enjoyed chemistry in high school. My teacher was a boring old man everyone hated, but that didn’t stop me from poring over my textbook every night. I even started to use Lewis electron dot structures as a form of emotional expression; “I am in an octet today,” I would say when I was feeling withdrawn. I should have signed up for AP chemistry, but the rich kids in the AP classes were snobby and mean and surprisingly stupid, and I had taken college prep algebra instead of honors algebra, and so on. My lack of formal education did not stop me from buying a periodic table poster and developing a deep obsession with Primo Levi, however.
Now I’ve picked up the thread using online resources, and when I finally get my butt back in school I plan to study chemistry. I’m nuts about it. It makes me happy. Yesterday I wrote a song about the spin quantum numbers, based on “This Magic Moment”:
This magnetic moment
So different and so new
Was like any other
Until I spun you
And then it happened
New quanta we surmised
I saw that you had spin too
By the double emission spectra lines
Wolfgang Pauli just knew (Pauli just knew)
What an electron could do (electron could do)
He could do everything (do everything)
To make Mendeleev sing
This magnetic moment
Will keep the orbitals aligned
Depending on space and tiiiiime
Someone told me this song means I’ve hit Peak Nerd. They are wrong. Bohemian Gravity is Peak Nerd, and I only wish I’d done something like that.
Unfortunately for nerds, the unethical applications of chemistry are having a bit of a cultural and historical moment.
Breaking Bad, AMC’s beloved series about a cancer-afflicted chemistry teacher who becomes head of a meth-dealing empire, comes to an end tonight. It’s all anyone’s been talking about. I must say that I admire this show’s style and its determination to get the chemistry right (see related articles), but a big part of me can’t wait for the final curtain to fall. Other chemistry-lovers see Breaking Bad as thought-provoking entertainment, and can easily laugh off the facetious assertions lobbed by their non-nerd friends. A white lower-income East Tennesseean may be forgiven for laughing a little less. When the head of my public housing development dropped by my apartment for a brief inspection, I considered hiding my science homework. “You’re cooking!” is not a joke where I live – it’s an allegation.
This must have been what physics nerds felt like in the 1950s, when Albert Einstein died and the mutant ants from Them! replaced him in the national consciousness. Conversations about the shady side of science are important, so very important, and yet for nerds they can grate. When media depictions of science become frightful enough, the line between “Caution, nerds, don’t let yourselves become power-hungry greed-monsters” and “All nerds are power-hungry greed-monsters” can become blurred. I hate them blurred lines.
I can’t help but be reminded of Primo Levi, my favorite writer and in many ways the anti-Walter White. Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian-Jewish chemist who got involved with anti-Nazi activities in the Italian Alps, and was sent to Auschwitz as a result. The tale of his survival is tied up in chemistry – he had fever dreams about carbon atoms that briefly and crucially reminded him that life was worth clinging to; a comparatively cushy job as a slave in an IG Farben chemistry lab kept him from starving to death, and also provided him the bizarre experience of meeting German chemists who were working in Auschwitz. And of course the threat of being gassed, as his girlfriend and comrades had been, hung over him ever hour of every day. When he returned to Italy and began working in the paint and varnish industry, he found that his sense of morality was fine-tuned, almost painfully exquisite, as a result of his suffering.
Just as the scientific character leaked into his writings on the Holocaust (Cynthia Ozick referred to him as “a Darwin of the death camps”; she meant this as a dig but Levi would consider it a compliment), the Holocaust leaked into his writings about science. When The Periodic Table is not busy being brilliant and amazingly fucking beautiful, it often concerns itself with what it means to be a good chemist in a world of gas chambers and meth – though he does not mention the latter. What to do when reason is a tool of fascism but also, oddly, its antidote?
Chemistry…let to the heart of Matter, and Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to fascism, was our enemy…After being force-fed in liceo the truths revealed by Fascist Doctrine, all revealed, unproven truths either bored me stiff or aroused my suspicion.
In Other People’s Trades, he concluded that knowledge is a form of redemption, an imperfect redemption but one that could cover a multitude of sins.
The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return of barbarism.
This is my view as well. Yesterday I was outside reading The Greatest Show on Earth when a young boy approached me and started chatting with me about science. He was a little professor who knew things about whales and insects that I, 21 years old and counting, did not know, though I was able to make up for it by sharing my knowledge of birds and minerals. He also got a perfect score on the math section of the T-CAPS despite going to a dismal inner-city school. His goal is to become an engineer who works with vehicles and renewable energy. This is my portrait of redemption: two geeks from the projects trade nature facts and become friends, illustrating what Breaking Bad gets wrong. In Breaking Bad, education makes you a great meth dealer. In life, it keeps “meth dealer” off the list of career options.