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Chemistry

 

The significant chemicals of living tissue are rickety and unstable, which is exactly what is needed for life.
     Isaac Asimov

 

Immediately south of nitrogen is phosphorus, which was first isolated by the distillation and treatment of urine — an indication of the lengths to which chemists are prepared to go, or perhaps only a sign of the obsessive, scatological origins of their vocation.
     P. W. Atkins, The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey 
     into the Land of the Chemical Elements
(1995)

 

There are several points we need to tie up before leaving this aspect of alliances in the kingdom. One concerns the overarching power of carbon to participate in molecule formation, a power that results in such complexity of structure and collaboration that the alliances it forms become alive and can reflect upon themselves. The essential reason for this latent power of a single region is, as noted, carbon’s intrinsic mediocrity, its lack of self-assertion. Sitting as it does in the middle of the northern coast, it is neither an aggressive shedder of electrons, as are elements to the left, nor is it an avid receiver, like the atoms to its right. Carbon is mild in its demands on the alliances it makes. Moreover, it is even content with its own company, and can make extensive liaisons with itself, forming chains, rings, and trees of atoms. Were it readier to give up its electrons, it would do so at the demand of another atom, and then find that it had not retained sufficient electrons to bind other atoms in a precise disposition. If it were more avid for electrons, it would soon satisfy its tendency to bond and would lack the opportunity for subtle conspiracy with others. By being in the middle, undemanding and not particularly generous, it can spin lasting alliances rather than hasty conspiracies.
     P. W. Atkins, The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey 
     into the Land of the Chemical Elements
(1995)

 

The real world is a jumble of awesome complexity and immeasureable charm. Even the inanimate, inorganic world of rocks and stone, rivers and ocean, air and wind is a boundless wonder. Add to that the ingredient of life, and the wonder is multiplied almost beyond imagination. Yet all this wonder springs from about one hundred components that are strung together, mixed, compacted, and linked, as letters are linked to form a literature. It was a great achievement of the early chemists — with the crude experimental techniques available also with the ever-astonishing power of human reason (as potent then as now) — to discover this reduction of the world to its components, the chemical elements. Such reduction does not destroy its charm but adds understanding to sensation, and this understanding only deepens our delight.
     P. W. Atkins, The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey 
     into the Land of the Chemical Elements
(1995)

 

We have come full circle. The chemists of the nineteenth century discerned family kinships among the elements. The full set of relationships was identified — in so far as the elements had been identified — by Mendeleev towards the end of the century. Yet his arrangement was empirical and there could be no understanding of why one element should be the cousin of another. How could it be that one sort of matter was related to another? Light flooded over this question once the structures of atoms became understood early in the twentieth century. Once the nucleus had been identified and the rules governing the arrangement of electrons had been established in the 1920s, it immediately became clear that the periodic table is a portrayal of the solutions of Schrödinger’s equation. The table is mathematics made material. With two simple ideas — that electrons organize themselves so as to achieve the lowest possible energy, and that no more than two electrons can occupy any given orbital — the pattern of matter becomes understandable. Chemistry is at the heart of understanding matter, and at the very heart of chemistry lies its currency of discourse, atoms.
     Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger:  The Ten Great Ideas of Science (2003)
     “Atoms:  The Reduction of Matter”

 

Until the 1960s, scientists tended to believe that the Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere — it is roughly one-fifth oxygen and four-fifths nitrogen — was a 'given,' a result of geological processes on the early Earth. According to this picture, a planet with an oxygen blanket could support life but does not necessarily do so.
     Now they see things very differently. The chemical composition of the air is not a precondition for life but the result of it. Around two billion years ago, primitive living organisms transformed the atmosphere from one largely devoid of oxygen to one with plenty of it.
     There is no known geological process that can maintain a high level of oxygen in our planet's atmosphere. Eventually the gas will react with rocks and become locked away in the ground. Only biological processes can strip oxygen out of its combinations with other elements and return it to the skies. If all life on Earth were to end, the oxygen level would gradually dwindle to insignificance. For this reason, an oxygen-rich atmosphere is a beacon that proclaims the presence of life beneath it.
     Philip Ball, The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements (2002)

 

The [periodic] table is one of the most beautiful and profound discoveries of the nineteenth century, but, until quantum mechanics was invented by physicists in the twentieth century, one could look upon it only as a mysterious cipher, a kind of crib sheet that served as an empirical reminder that elements come in families whose members show similar proclivities.
     Philip Ball, The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements (2002)

 

Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.
     Dave Barry

 

In high school and in undergraduate courses in college, one learns from textbooks. One learns what is known with considerable certainty, in compressed form, so that one can remain quite ignorant of the fits and starts and false trails and silly beliefs that were amply displayed when that textbook knowledge was first being gained by human beings. Only when one tries to do something oneself — even if it is only the repetition of some standard experiment — does one begin to get a glimpse of what those equations in the texts actually stand for. Thus, having learned from lectures and books a host of chemical reactions involving organic substances, that oxidation of an alcohol yields an aldehyde and then an acid, for example, I discovered in the laboratory that when organic chemists talk about the product of a reaction they do not mean that the reaction proceeds cleanly, that the product is all that is produced. Far from it. Some reactions yield only a small percentage; and the product is the substance that interests the chemist, not necessarily the one that is produced in the most copious amounts. (Beginners usually find that tars are produced in the most copious amounts.)
     Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and 
     the Myth of the Scientific Method
(1992)

 

The chemists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost maniacal impulse to seek their pleasures amongst smoke and vapour, soot and flames, poisons and poverty, yet amongst all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that I would rather die than change places with the King of Persia.
     Johann Joachim Becher, Physica Subterranea (1667)
          quoted in Paul Strathern, Mendeleyev's Dream:
          The Quest for the Elements
(2000)

 

The important point is not the bigness of Avogadro's number [6 x 1023 atoms/mol] but the bigness of Avogadro [who consisted of some 1027 atoms].
     Henry Albert Bent, The Second Law (1965)

 

All that glisters may not be gold, but at least it contains free electrons.
     John Desmond Bernal, lecture at Birkbeck 
     College, University of London (1960)

 

Be careful with water! It's full of hydrogen and oxygen.
     Ashleigh Brilliant

 

As William Crookes noted in 1865 when reviewing a book on stuttering that had been inappropriately sent to Chemical News for review:  "Chemists do not usually stutter. It would be very awkward if they did, seeing that they have at times to get out such words as methylethylamylophenylium."
     William H. Brock, The Norton History of Chemistry (1992)

 

The history of chemistry has served and continues to serve many purposes: didactic and pedagogic, professional and defensive, patriotic and nationalistic, liberalizing and humanizing. As I write, especially in America, where words like ‘chemical’, ‘synthetic’ and ‘additive’ have unfortunately become associated with the pollution, poisoning and disasters caused by humans, the history of chemistry has come to be seen by leaders of chemical industry and educators as a possible way of revaluing chemical currency: that is, of demonstrating not only the ways in which chemistry plays a fundamental role in nature and our understanding of cosmic processes, but also how it is essential to the economy of twentieth-century societies. In other words, the history of chemistry not only informs us about our great chemical heritage, but justifies the future of chemistry itself.
     William H. Brock, The Norton History of Chemistry (1992)

 

In 1980, at the phenomenal cost of $10,000, a bismuth sample was transmuted into one-billionth of a cent’s worth of gold by means of a particle accelerator at the Lawrence Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley. The ‘value’ of the experiment is underlined in Frederick Soddy’s ironic remark some sixty years before [1917, see G. B. Kauffman, ‘The Role of Gold in Alchemy,’ Gold Bulletin, 18 (1985): 118]:
     “If man ever achieves this further control over Nature, it is quite certain that the last thing he would want to do would be to turn lead or mercury into gold — for the sake of gold. The energy that would be liberated, if the control of these sub-atomic processes were possible as in the control of ordinary chemical changes, such as combustion, would far exceed in importance and value the gold.”
     William H. Brock, The Norton History of Chemistry (1992)

 

In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

Carbon is only the fifteenth most common element, accounting for a very modest 0.048 percent of Earth’s crust, but we would be lost without it.  What sets the carbon atom apart is that it is shamelessly promiscuous.  It is the party animal of the atomic world, latching on to many other atoms (including itself) and holding tight, forming molecular conga lines of hearty robustness — the very trick of nature necessary to build proteins and DNA.  As Paul Davies has written:  “If it wasn’t for carbon, life as we know it would be impossible.  Probably any sort of life would be impossible.”  Yet carbon is not all that plentiful even in humans, who so vitally depend on it.  Of every 200 atoms in your body, 126 are hydrogen, 51 are oxygen, and just 19 are carbon.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

No other profession is endowed with such a rich landscape, draws inspiration from so many fields of science, exercises the hand and mind in so many different ways, offers such opportunities to employ creative instincts, and mixes ideas, theory, and experiment on a daily basis. Hurrah for the science of organic chemistry, and for the joy it brings those who play the research game.
     Donald J. Cram & Jane M. Cram, Container 
     Molecules and Their Guests
(preface)

 

We believe the substance we have extracted from pitchblende contains a metal not yet observed, related to bismuth by its analytical properties. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we propose to call it polonium, from the name of the original country of one of us.
     Marie Curie

 

Chemistry is all about getting lucky.
     Robert Curl

 

Ashes denote that fire was;
Respect the grayest pile
For the departed creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile.

Fire exists the first in light,
And then consolidates,
Only the chemist can disclose
Into what carbonates.
     Emily Dickinson

 

Doubtless a vigorous error vigorously pursued has kept the embryos of truth a-breathing: the quest for gold being at the same time a questioning of substances, the body of chemistry is prepared for its soul, and Lavoisier is born.
     George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

 

The sight of the planet through a telescope is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow outvalues all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than volumes of chemistry.
     Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Second Series (1844)

 

All theoretical chemistry is really physics; and all theoretical chemists know it.
     Richard Feynman

 

[C]hemistry, Madame Lefrançois . . . the composition of manures, the fermentation of liquids, the analysis of gases and the influence of miasmata — what, I put it to you, is all this, but chemistry pure and simple?
     Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

 

Atoms are nice, atoms are fundamental, but they're not chemistry. Chemistry is about molecules, the fixed but transformable way in which atoms get together for a while.
     Roald Hoffmann, Chemistry Imagined:  Reflections 
     on Science
(with Vivian Torrence, 1993)

 

These chemicals we desire and fear (chemists call them compounds or molecules, once they are reasonably pure) are not the largest (the realm of astronomy), nor the smallest (part of physics). They are squarely, nicely in the middle, on our human scale. Which is why we care about them, not as distanced, hypothetical constructs, but in this world. Those molecules, of pharmaceutical or pollutant, are of just the right size to interact, for better or for worse, with the molecules of our bodies.
     Roald Hoffmann, The Same and Not the Same (1995)
     "Preface"

 

The very first question a chemist asks when faced with a sample of anything new under the sun — some dust brought back at fantastic expense from the surface of the moon, an impure narcotic off the street, an elixir extracted from a thousand cockroach glands — is always the same: “What do I have?” This query turns out to be more complicated than one might think, for in the real world everything is impure. If you were to look at the purest things in our environment — silicon wafers, table sugar, or some pharmaceuticals — you would find that at the parts-per-million level, you might not want to know what is in there! ...
     Why are natural things impure? Because living organisms are complex, and they are a product of evolution. You needs thousands of chemical reactions, a myriad of chemicals, to “run” a grape or your body. And nature is a tinkerer; the solutions for ensuring survival of a plant or animal are the result of millions of years of random experimentation. The patches on the fabric of life come in a bewildering variety of molecular shapes and colors. Anything that works is co-opted. And banged into shape by all those natural experiments.
     Roald Hoffmann, The Same and Not the Same (1995)
     "What are You?"

 

The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldst perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery. But thou, O my son, do thou experiment so that thou mayest acquire knowledge. Scientists delight not in abundance of material; they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods.
     Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan [Geber], The Discovery
     of Secrets
attributed to Geber (1892)

 

The alchemists of past centuries tried hard to make the elixir of life . . . These efforts were in vain; it is not in our power to obtain the experiences and views of the future by prolonging our lives forward in this direction. However, it is possible and in a certain way to prolong our lives backwards, by acquiring the experiences of those who existed before us and by learning to know their views as if we were their contemporaries. The means for doing this is also an elixir of life.
     Hermann Kopp, Die Entwicklung der Chemie in der neueren Zeit (1873)

 

I started out as a molecules kid. In high school and early college I loved chemistry, but I gradually shifted toward physics, which seemed cleaner — odorless, in fact.
     Leon Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the
     Answer, What is the Question?
(with Dick Teresi, 1993)

 

The finest imagination in the world could not have conceived of a better idea than the philosophers' stone to inspire the minds and faculties of men. Without it, chemistry would not be what it is today. In order to discover that no such thing as the philosopher's stone existed, it was necessary to ransack and analyse every substance known on earth. And in precisely this lay its miraculous influence.
     Justus Leibig, quoted in Paul Strathern, Mendeleyev's
     Dream: The Quest for the Elements
(2000)

 

There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean "the New," "the Hidden," "the Inactive," and "the Alien." They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, that they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries. As late as 1962 a diligent chemist after long and ingenious efforts succeeded in forcing the Alien (xenon) to combine fleetingly with extremely avid and lively fluorine, and the feat seemed so extraordinary that he was given a Nobel prize. They are also called the noble gases — and here there's room for discussion as to whether all noble gases are really inert and all inert gases are noble. And, finally, they are also called rare gases, even though one of them, argon (the Inactive), is present in the air in the considerable proportion of 1 percent, that is, twenty or thirty times more abundant than carbon dioxide, without which there would not be a trace of on this planet.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Argon"

 

The glass in the laboratory enchanted and intimidated us. Glass for us was that which one must not touch because it breaks, and yet, at a more intimate contact, revealed itself to be a substance different from all others, sui generis, full of mystery and caprice. It is similar in this to water, which also has no kindred forms: but water is bound to man, indeed to life, by a long-lasting familiarity, by a relationship of multifarious necessity, due to which its uniqueness is hidden beneath the crust of habit. Glass, however, is the work of man and has a more recent history. It was our first victim, or, better, our first adversary.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Hydrogen"

 

For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world. . . . I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: "I will understand this, too, I will understand everything."
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Hydrogen"

 

There was no need to get from Caselli the other raw material, the partner of zinc, that is, sulfuric acid: it was there in abundance in every corner. Concentrated, of course: and you had to dilute it with water; but watch out! it is written in all the treatises, one must operate in reverse, that is, pour the acid in the water and not the other way around, otherwise that innocuous-looking oil is prone to wild rages: this is known even to the kids in liceo [Italian high school].
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Zinc"

 

In this place, too, nobody wasted many words teaching us how to protect ourselves from acids, caustics, fires, and explosions; it appeared that the Institute's rough and ready morality counted on the process of natural selection to pick out those among us most qualified for physical and professional survival. There were few ventilation hoods; each student, following his text's prescriptions, in the course of systematic analysis, conscientiously let loose into the air a good dose of hydrochloric acid and ammonia, so that a dense, hoary mist of ammonium chloride stagnated permanently in the lab, depositing minute scintillating crystals on the windowpanes.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Iron"

 

We began studying physics together, and Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there, in our Autenrieth, in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Iron"

 

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Potassium"

 

The assistant looked at me with an amused, vaguely ironic expression: better not to do than to do, better to meditate than to act, better his astrophysics, the threshold of the Unknowable, than my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad's switch points; the chemist's trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist's trade.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Potassium"

 

But this is no longer the time for sprites, nickel, and kobolds. We are chemists, that is, hunters: ours are "the two experiences of adult life" of which Pavese spoke, success and failure, to kill the white whale or wreck the ship; one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this — to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it. My weekly conversations with the lieutenant sounded like war plans.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Nickel"

 

... a chemist without a nose is in for trouble.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Arsenic"

 

The fact that alloxan, destined to embellish ladies' lips, would come from the excrement of chickens or pythons was a thought which didn't trouble me for a moment. The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz) teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals to us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Nitrogen"

 

... well, you asked for it. So fly now: you wanted to be free and you are free, you wanted to be a chemist and you are one. So now grub among poisons, lipsticks, and chicken shit; granulate tin, pour hydrochloric acid; concentrate, decant, and crystallize if you do not want to go hungry, and you know hunger.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Tin"

 

In the middle of the lab was a large ventilation hood of wood and glass, our pride and our only protection against death by gasing. It is not that hydrochloric acid is actually toxic: it is one of those frank enemies that come at you shouting from a distance, and from which it is therefore easy to protect yourself. It has such a penetrating odor that whoever can wastes no time in getting out of its way; and you cannot mistake it for anything else, because after having taken in one breath of it you expel from your nose two short plumes of white smoke, like the horses in Eisenstein's movies, and you feel your teeth turn sour in your mouth, as when you have bitten into a lemon. Despite our quite willing hood, acid fumes invaded all the rooms: the wallpaper changed color, the doorknobs and metal fixtures became dim and rough, and every so often a sinister thump made us jump: a nail had been corroded through and a picture, in some corner of the apartment, had crashed to the floor. Emilio hammered in a new nail and hung the picture back in its place.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Tin"

 

This salt [stannous chloride], in itself, is odorless, but it reacts in some manner with the skin, perhaps reducing the keratin's dissulfide bridges and giving off a persistent metallic stench that for several days announces to all that you are a chemist.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Tin"

 

The lab is a place for the young, and returning there you feel young again: with the same longing for adventure, discovery, and the unexpected that you have at seventeen.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Uranium"

 

... it did not seem fair to me that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin, countess, ancient Roman, conspirator, and Polynesian lives and nothing about how we transformers of matter [chemists] live ...
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Silver"

 

Having reached this point in life, what chemist, facing the Periodic Table, or the monumental indices of Beilstein or Landolt, does not perceive scattered among them the sad tatters, or trophies, of his own professional past? He only has to leaf through any treatise and memories rise up in bunches: there is among us he who has tied his destiny, indelibly, to bromine or to propylene, or the -NCO group, or glutamic acid; and every chemistry student, faced by almost any treatise, should be aware that on one of those pages, perhaps in a single line, formula, or word, his future is written in indecipherable characters, which, however, will become clear "afterward": after success, error, or guilt, victory or defeat. Every no longer young chemist, turning again to the verhängnisvoll page in that same treatise, is struck by love or disgust, delights or despairs.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Carbon"

 

... all honor to the pickax and its modern equivalents; they are still the most important intermediaries in the millennial dialogue between the elements and man ...
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Carbon"

 

Carbon, in fact, is a singular element: it is the only element that can bind itself in long stable chains without a great expense of energy, and for life on earth (the only one we know so far) precisely long chains are required. Therefore carbon is the key element of living substance: but its promotion, its entry into the living world, is not easy and must follow an obligatory, intricate path, which has been clarified (and not yet definitively) only in recent years. If the elaboration of carbon were not a common daily occurrence, on the scale of billions of tons a week, wherever the green of a leaf appears, it would by full right deserve to be called a miracle.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)
     "Carbon"

 

It [the fact the fossils of wooden tools are rare] should remind us that wood, like all organic substances, is stable only in appearance. Its mechanical virtues go hand in hand with an intrinsic chemical weakness. In our atmosphere rich in oxygen, wood is stable more or less like a billiard ball placed on a horizontal shelf edged by a border no thicker than a sheet of tissue paper. It can remain there for a long time, but the tiniest push, or even a faint breath of air, will be enough to make it go past the barrier and drop to the ground. In short, wood is anxious to oxidize, that is, to destroy itself.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "Stable / Unstable"

 

Although their trade is more recent than that of theologians, vintners, or fishermen, chemists too, since their origins, have felt the need to equip themselves with a specialized language of their own. Nevertheless, unlike all other trade languages, that of chemists has had to adapt itself to rendering a service which I believe is unique in the panorama of the numerous specialized jargons: it must be able to indicate with precision, and if possible describe, more than a million distinct objects, because that is the number (and it grows every year) of the chemical compounds found in nature or constructed by synthesis.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "The Language of Chemists (I)"

 

In Italy and France the first syllable [of luban jawí, “Java incense,” benzene] was mistaken for an article and has fallen off: what remained of the name, that is, banjawi, was pronounced and written in various ways until it became established as benzoé, beaufoin, benjoin, and finally benzoin. More centuries passed, until in 1833 a German chemist was the first to think of subjecting benzoin to dry distillation: heating it at a high temperature in the absence of water, in one of those retorts which to this day appear here and there as heraldic symbols of chemistry, even though chemists no longer use them. It was believed at that time, more or less consciously, that this treatment served to separate the volatile, noble, "essential" part of a substance (not for nothing is gasoline still called "essence" in French) from the inert residue which remained at the bottom of the retort: in short, it was believed that a soul was being separated from a body. In fact in many languages, the word “spirit” designates the soul, as well as alcohol and other liquids which evaporate easily.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "The Language of Chemists (I)"

 

Often a glass carelessly exposed to the open flame gave off a sinister tick and cracked. If the crack was small you pretended that nothing had happened, hoping that when the glassware was returned the man in charge of supplies would not notice it; if it was large, the piece was put on auction: it could still be useful. It could be useful to the student who had spoiled a preparation, or who had scattered a precipitate to be weighed, or who at any rate, also for private reasons, needed to blow off steam; for a few lire he bought the damaged glass, and publicly, with the greatest violence and the worst possible racket, flung it against the wall over the sink.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "The Mark of the Chemist"

 

To botch an analysis was worse: perhaps because unconsciously one realized that the judgment of men (in this case the professors) is arbitrary and debatable, while the judgment of things is always inexorable and just: this law is the same for all.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "The Mark of the Chemist"

 

Despite the drawbacks mentioned above, I believe that every chemist preserves a pleasant, nostalgic memory of the university lab. Not only because in it there was nurtured an intense camaraderie linked to the common work, but also because one left it every evening and more acutely at the end of the course with the sensation of having "learned how to do something," which, life teaches, is different from having "learned something.
     Primo Levi, Other People's Trades (1989)
     "The Mark of the Chemist"

 

Luria is a geneticist, that is, a man who studies those very long talking molecules on which are written our identity (and, to a great extent, our destiny); my by now distant past as an organic chemist has led me to frequent other long molecules, the mute and brute (because desperately monotomous) molecules of synthetic polymers — they have practical virtues, but they "say" nothing, or rather, they repeat the same message to infinity. The former stands to the latter as a novel would stand to a hypothetical book the repeats from first page to last always and only the same syllable. [In a review of A Slot Machine, a Broken Test Tube: An Autobiography by Salvador Luria, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in medicine]
     Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker (1989)
     "Bacteria Roulette" (June 6, 1985)

 

In the white ones there is sugar: "only sixteen calories" is written on them but they are still calories, and they make you fat; in the pink ones there is a disagreeable mixture of sweeteners, and a notice coldly informs that on experimental animals it has sometimes induced cancer. For the credulous there is no choice: it is either obesity or cancer; or, obviously, bitter coffee.
     Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker (1989)
     "Among the Peaks of Manhattan" (June 23, 1985)

 

... the chemist finds the compound he is looking for (when it's there — at times, if he's not very experienced, when it's not there), but to find what he's not looking for, he must be extremely skillful or shamelessly lucky.
     Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker (1989)
     "The Wine of the Borgias" (August 9, 1985)

 

Chemistry without catalysis, would be a sword without a handle, a light without brilliance, a bell without sound.
     Alwyn Mittasch, Journal of Chemical Education (1948, p. 531-2)

 

Vigorous evolution of gas, quick coloration to brown, and the formation of precipitates; there, hidden, was the treasure of possibility in the bubbles of foam on the surface, which were observed in the reaction vessel in a corner of our small laboratory! For organic chemists, facing such an unpredictable phenomenon is not uncommon. In flasks, that which can never be predicted by thought or discussion with co-workers often happens.
     Teruaki Mukaiyama, in Challenges in Synthetic Organic Chemistry

 

I try to identify myself with the atoms ... I ask what I would do if I were a carbon atom or a sodium atom.
     Linus Pauling

 

While reading a textbook of chemistry I came upon the statement, "nitric acid acts upon copper." I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I was determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked nitric acid on a table in the doctor's office where I was then "doing time." I did not know its peculiarities, but the spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words "act upon" meant. The statement "nitric acid acts upon copper" would be something more than mere words. All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table, opened the bottle marked nitric acid, poured some of the liquid on the copper and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed and it was no small change either. A green-blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose. This was disagreeable and suffocating. How should I stop this? I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out of the window. I learned another fact. Nitric acid not only acts upon copper, but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers. Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment and relatively probably the most costly experiment I have ever performed. . . . It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that remarkable kind of action. Plainly, the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory.
     Ira Remsen, quoted in  F. H. Getman, "The Life of Ira Remsen" 
     (Journal of Chemical Education, 1940) quoted in 
     Richard W. Ramette, "Exocharmic Reactions" (in Bassam 
     Z. Shakhashiri, Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook 
     for Teachers of Chemistry, Volume 1
, 1983)

 

Rutherford's research at McGill unraveling the complex transmutations of the radioactive elements earned him, in 1908, a Nobel Prize — not in physics but in chemistry. ... The award for chemistry rather than for physics at least amused him. "It remained to the end a good joke against him," says his son-in-law, "which he thoroughly appreciated, that he was thereby branded for all time as a chemist and no true physicist."
     Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

 

Let us approach a much more modest question: not whether we can know the universe or the Milky Way Galaxy or a star or a world. Can we know, ultimately and in detail, a grain of salt? Consider one microgram of table salt, a speck just barely large enough for someone with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of salt there are about 1016 sodium and chlorine atoms. This is a 1 followed by 16 zeros, 10 million billion atoms. If we wish to know a grain of salt, we must know at least the three-dimensional positions of each of these atoms. (In fact, there is much more to be known — for example, the nature of the forces between the atoms — but we are making only a modest calculation.) Now, is this number more or less than the number of things which the brain can know?
     How much can the brain know? There are perhaps 1011 neurons in the brain, the circuit elements and switches that are responsible in their electrical and chemical activity for the functioning of our minds. A typical brain neuron has perhaps a thousand little wires, called dendrites, which connect it with its fellows. If, as seems likely, every bit of information in the brain corresponds to one of these connections, the total number of things knowable by the brain is no more than 1014, one hundred trillion. But this number is only one percent of the number of atoms in our speck of salt.
     So in this sense the universe is intractable, astonishingly immune to any human attempt at full knowledge. We cannot on this level understand a grain of salt, much less the universe.
     Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979)
     “Can We Know The Universe? Reflections On A Grain Of Salt”

 

But let us look a little more deeply at our microgram of salt. Salt happens to be a crystal in which, except for defects in the structure of the crystal lattice, the position of every sodium and chlorine atom is predetermined If we could shrink ourselves into this crystalline world, we would see rank upon rank of atoms in an ordered array, a regularly alternating structure — sodium, chlorine, sodium, chlorine, specifying the sheet of atoms we are standing on and all the sheets above us and below us. An absolutely pure crystal of salt could have the position of every atom specified by something like 10 bits of information. [Chlorine is a deadly poison gas employed in European battlefields in World War I. Sodium is a corrosive metal which burns upon contact with water. Together they make a placid and unpoisonous material, table salt. Why each of these substances has the properties it does is a subject called chemistry, which requires more than 10 bits of information to understand.] This would not strain the information-carrying capacity of the brain.
     If the universe had natural laws that governed its behavior to the same degree of regularity that determines a crystal of salt, then, of course, the universe would be knowable. Even if there were many such laws, each of considerable complexity, human beings might have the capability to understand them all. Even if such knowledge exceeded the information-carrying capacity of the brain, we might store the additional information outside our bodies — in books, for example, or in computer memories — and still, in some sense, know the universe.
     Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979)
     “Can We Know The Universe? Reflections On A Grain Of Salt”

 

The ancient teachers of this science [chemistry] said he, "Promised impossibilities and performed nothing." The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophends seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.
     M. Waldman in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

 

Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study; but at the same time, I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.
     M. Waldman in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

 

For the first time I saw a medley of haphazard facts fall into line and order. All the jumbles and recipes and Hotchpotch of the inorganic chemistry of my boyhood seemed to fit themselves into the scheme before my eyes — as though one were standing beside a jungle and it suddenly transformed itself into a Dutch garden. "But it's true," I said to myself. "It's very beautiful. And it's true."
     Baron C. P. [Charles Percy] Snow

 

It is common knowledge that the ultimate source of all our energy and negative entropy is the radiation of the sun. When a photon interacts with a material particle on our globe it lifts one electron from an electron pair to a higher level. This excited state as a rule has but a short lifetime and the electron drops back within 10-7 to 10-8 seconds to the ground state giving off its excess energy one way or another. Life has learned to catch the electron in the excited state, uncouple it from its partner and let it drop back to the ground state through its biological machinery utilizing its excess energy for life processes.
     Albert Szent-Györgi, in W. D. McElroy & B. Glass (eds.), 
     Light and Life (1961)

 

The formula for water is H2O. Is the formula for an ice cube H2O squared?
     Lily Tomlin

 

I would have been dead if it weren't for that great gift to civilization from the Chemistry Department of Harvard, which was napalm, or sticky jellied gasoline.
     Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus (1990)

 

Chlorine is a poisonous gas. In case I should fall over unconscious in the following demonstration involving chlorine, please pick me up and carry me into the open air. Should this happen, the lecture for the day will be concluded.
     Egon Wiberg

 

Organic chemistry nowadays almost drives me mad. To me it appears like a primeval tropical forest full of the most remarkable things, a dreadful endless jungle into which one does not dare enter, for there seems to be no way out.
     Friedrich Wöhler, letter to Berzelius

 

The unique challenge which chemical synthesis provides for the creative imagination and the skilled hand ensures that it will endure as long as men write books, paint pictures, and fashion things which are beautiful, or practical, or both.
     Robert Burns Woodward

 

[Referring to a glass of water] I mixed this myself. Two parts H, one part O. I don't trust anybody.
     Steven Wright