HomeLifeCarl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence
March 11, 2018
Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence
I’ve at all times been fascinated by transformation — the seemingly magical course of, typically delicate and typically violent, by which a one thing turns into a something-else. This, maybe, is why I selected chemistry as a focus in my science-intensive Bulgarian highschool. When I got here to the United States for college, I used to be bewildered to understand that the college-level American textbooks of my highschool curriculum weren’t essentially a mirrored image of my lecturers’ tutorial overambition however of the truth that high-school-level chemistry textbooks had been merely a rarity bordering on nonentity in America, the place chemistry was not a required topic in the highschool curriculum.
Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) laments this truth in his poetic foreword to Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — a ravishing and weird guide, half primer and half poetic serenade, by the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, meant to ignite in younger folks a zest for the enchantments of chemistry by way of the intersection of artwork and science. A believer in the fertile common ground between poetry and science, Hoffmann — himself a poet in addition to a scientist — weaves authentic poems in regards to the processes, phenomena, and historical past of science all through his elegant expository prose. Accompanying his writing are intricate collage work by artist Vivian Torrence, who got here to the venture by way of the gates of wonderment, ruled by her conviction that trendy science is “a symbolic search, utilizing the powers of logic and mind because the driving power to search out what’s actual.”
Although as a scientist, Sagan had at all times been animated by an electrical love of chemistry’s charms — his clarification of how stars are born, live, die, and give us life is a traditional — he should have composed his foreword from a much more private place. At that specific cut-off date, the mutations of myelodysplasia — the uncommon type of most cancers that might ultimately take his life — had been already coursing by way of his physique. Chemotherapy would quickly be his lifeline. In order for his physique to not reject the bone marrow transfusion he acquired from his sister, Sagan would take seventy-two drugs labeled “BIOHAZARD” in a single sitting — chemistry at its most acutely double-edged.
In these last years of his life, Sagan brings his singular reward for science and romance to the foreword:
Except for the 2 easiest, hydrogen and helium, atoms are made in stars. A cascade of thermonuclear reactions builds hydrogen and helium up into ever bigger and extra advanced atoms that are then spewed out into interstellar house because the star ages and dies. There they drift for ages, often coming shut sufficient to 1 one other to make a bond. Then two or extra atoms make a dedication to undergo life collectively. These bonds are the enterprise of chemistry. In an eon or two a maelstrom of self-gravitating interstellar matter gathers up solitary atoms, and people bonded with their fellows, and plunges them right into a forming planetary system. Four and a half billion years in the past, that’s what occurred in our neck of the galactic woods. Our heat and well-illuminated little world is one outcome. All the atoms of Earth (hydrogen and helium nonetheless excepted) derive from these distant and historic interstellar occasions — the silicon within the rocks, the nitrogen within the air, the oxygen atoms in a mountain stream; the calcium in our bones, the potassium in our nerves, and the carbon and different atoms that in beautiful element encode our genetic directions and job orders for making a human being. We too are made from starstuff.
There is hardly a facet of our lives that’s not touched basically by chemistry: electronics and computer systems; meals and diet; depletion of the protecting ozone layer; mining and metals; drugs and prescription drugs; each illness together with AIDS and most cancers, schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome; medicine, authorized and unlawful; poisonous water; and far of what we name human nature. We are, at the very least largely, the way in which we’re due to the atoms and molecules that make us up, and the way they work together. In a deep and basic approach chemistry makes us us.
There is one thing of William Blake in Torrence’s gorgeous drawings, which carry to life Hoffmann’s narrative tracing the historical past of chemistry from the rudimentary concepts of the Ancient Greeks, who first theorized the atom, to the transmutations of the medieval alchemists, in whose fingers science and superstition commingled, to the catalytic breakthroughs of eighteenth-century science, which impressed titans of poetry like Goethe and Coleridge, to the arrival of spectroscopy within the nineteenth century, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, to the atomic age of the 20th century, which forever changed our relationship to nature.