The Joy of Chemistry

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist whose book Awakenings was made into a film starring Robin Williams. In this essay for The New Yorker, he revels in the excitement and heroism of scientific discovery.

My parents and my brothers had introduced me… to some kitchen chemistry: pouring vinegar on a piece of chalk in a tumbler and watching it fizz; then pouring the heavy gas this produced, like an invisible cataract, over a candle flame, putting it out straightaway. Or taking red cabbage, pickled with vinegar, and adding household ammonia to neutralize it. This would lead to an amazing transformation, the juice going through all sorts of colors, from red to various shades of purple, to turquoise and blue, and finally to green. I enjoyed these experiments, I wondered what was going on, but I did not feel a real chemical passion [until I] remet Uncle Dave, and saw his lab and his passion for experiments of all kinds.

It was through reading Mary Elvira Weeks’ Discovery of the Elements… that I got a vivid idea of the lives of many chemists, the great variety, and sometimes vagaries, of character they showed; and the relation (sometimes) between their characters and their work. Here I found quotations from the early chemists’ letters, which portrayed their excitements (and despairs) as they fumbled and groped their way to their discoveries, losing the track now and again, getting caught in blind alleys, though ultimately reaching the goal they sought.

If Humphry Davy was the first chemist I had ever heard of, he was also the one I most warmed to. I loved reading of his experiments with explosives and electric fish; his discovery of incandescent metal filaments and electric arcs; of catalysts… of the physiological effects of… laughing gas… He appealed to me especially because he was boyish and impulsive, the way he danced with joy all around his lab when he first isolated potassium, in 1807, and saw the shining metallic globules burst and take fire…

It was through reading these accounts that I first realized one could have heroes in real life. There seemed to me an integrity, an essential goodness, about a life dedicated to science. I had never given much thought to what I might be when I was “grown up” – growing up was hardly imaginable – but now I knew: I wanted to be a chemist. A sort of eighteenth-century chemist coming fresh to the field, looking at the whole, undiscovered world of natural substances and minerals, analyzing them, plumbing their secrets, finding the wonder of new and unknown metals.

See here for details on how to read the full essay.

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