Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence
By Maria Popova
I have always been fascinated by transformation — the seemingly magical process, sometimes delicate and sometimes violent, by which a something becomes a something-else. This, perhaps, is why I chose chemistry as a concentration in my science-intensive Bulgarian high school. When I came to the United States for university, I was bewildered to realize that the college-level American textbooks of my high school curriculum were not necessarily a reflection of my teachers’ academic overambition but of the fact that high-school-level chemistry textbooks were simply a rarity bordering on a nonentity in America, where chemistry was not a required subject in the high school curriculum.
Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) laments this fact in his poetic foreword to Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — a beautiful and unusual book, part primer and part lyrical serenade, by the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, intended to ignite in young people a zest for the enchantments of chemistry through the intersection of art and science. A believer in the fertile common ground between poetry and science, Hoffmann — himself a poet as well as a scientist — weaves original poems about the processes, phenomena, and history of science throughout his elegant expository prose. Accompanying his writing are intricate collage paintings by artist Vivian Torrence, who came to the project through the gates of wonderment, governed by her conviction that modern science is “a symbolic search, using the powers of logic and intellect as the driving force to find what is real.”
Although as a scientist, Sagan had always been animated by an electric love of chemistry’s charms — his explanation of how stars are born, live, die, and give us life is a classic — he must have composed his foreword from a far more personal place. At that particular point in time, the mutations of myelodysplasia — the rare form of cancer that would eventually take his life — were already coursing through his body. Chemotherapy would soon be his lifeline. In order for his body not to reject the bone marrow transfusion he received from his sister, Sagan would take seventy-two pills labeled “BIOHAZARD” in a single sitting — chemistry at its most acutely double-edged.
In these final years of his life, Sagan brings his singular gift for science and romance to the foreword:
Except for the two simplest, hydrogen and helium, atoms are made in stars. A cascade of thermonuclear reactions builds hydrogen and helium up into ever larger and more complex atoms which are then spewed out into interstellar space as the star ages and dies. There they drift for ages, occasionally coming close enough to one another to make a bond. Then two or more atoms make a commitment to go through life together. These bonds are the business of chemistry. In an eon or two a maelstrom of self-gravitating interstellar matter gathers up solitary atoms, and those bonded with their fellows, and plunges them into a forming planetary system. Four and a half billion years ago, that is what happened in our neck of the galactic woods. Our warm and well-illuminated little world is one result. All the atoms of Earth (hydrogen and helium still excepted) derive from these distant and ancient interstellar events — the silicon in the rocks, the nitrogen in the air, the oxygen atoms in a mountain stream; the calcium in our bones, the potassium in our nerves, and the carbon and other atoms that in exquisite detail encode our genetic instructions and job orders for making a human being. We too are made of starstuff.
There is hardly an aspect of our lives that is not touched fundamentally by chemistry: electronics and computers; food and nutrition; depletion of the protective ozone layer; mining and metals; medicine and pharmaceuticals; every disease including AIDS and cancer, schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome; drugs, legal and illegal; toxic water; and much of what we call human nature. We are, at least in large part, the way we are because of the atoms and molecules that make us up, and how they interact. In a deep and fundamental way chemistry makes us us.
There is something of William Blake in Torrence’s stunning drawings, which bring to life Hoffmann’s narrative tracing the history of chemistry from the rudimentary ideas of the Ancient Greeks, who first theorized the atom, to the transmutations of the medieval alchemists, in whose hands science and superstition commingled, to the catalytic breakthroughs of eighteenth-century science, which inspired titans of poetry like Goethe and Coleridge, to the advent of spectroscopy in the nineteenth century, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, to the atomic age of the twentieth century, which forever changed our relationship to nature.
That treasures like Chemistry Imagined fade out of print fills me with sadness for a system that is supposed to steward books and infuse the body of culture with substantive literature, but instead prioritizes what is easily marketable over what is lastingly meaningful. Complement this particular forgotten treasure, which is well worth a trip to the library or the second-hand bookstore, with Edward Livingston Youman’s splendid Victorian diagrams of how chemistry works, the story of how Mendeleev discovered his periodic table in a dream, and Berenice Abbott’s arresting black-and-white photographs of scientific processes and phenomena, then revisit Sagan on the power of books in protecting democracy and his timeless, increasingly timely wisdom on moving beyond “us” vs. “them” in bridging the divides of culture.
Published March 11, 2018