An excerpt from the novel.
The best thing about undergrad labs is that the fume hoods are just for show. Under ideal circumstances, any chemical of any significant volatility or toxicity should be dispensed and handled in these ventilated plexiglass cabinets. The brilliance of a fume hood is that no matter how skin-meltingly eye-wateringly trachea-burningly reproduction-preventingly carcino-/muta-genically toxic a given chemical is, it’s safe for even an undergrad with questionable fine motor skills to manipulate fearlessly in a hood, the chemical, because the complex HVAC assembly1 housed in the ceiling above the hood constantly pulls air in from the room and across the offending chemical, picking up fumes as it goes, the air, and whisks them through a series of tubes2 straight up to the roof of the CoC3 tower where they disperse into the atmosphere to be forgotten, the fumes, until some day in the (hopefully very) distant future. But undergrad chemistry labs are entirely unlike undergrad physics lectures.4 No, in the undergrad lab, the empty fume hoods drone dumbly in the corner, while students bustle around making off-color but mostly on-topic jokes,5 poking each other with Pasteur pipettes and slopping volatiles across bench tops like skim milk across dining hall tables. Which, the combined effect of the underutilized hoods and the cavalier use of what really are alarming amounts of acetone and dichloromethane is that working in the undergrad organic chem lab just past the elevators down the absurdly long CoC hallway is exactly like working in a perfume department at the mall if the mall were a Brutalist interpretation of a Cro-Magnon skull and if perfumes were stupor-inducing ethers and noxious aldehydes. So like I said, working in the undergrad lab is exactly like working in a perfume department at the mall, and it smells great, too.
Hank Fluoresconi is a solvent guy. When he first set foot in the organic lab as a dull-eyed freshman, he wasn’t drawn to the tryptamine and the phenethylamine precursors that Pendleton swore he could transform into some hallucinogen loosely resembling mescaline that probably6 wouldn’t leave them too permanently impaired to talk. Hank wasn’t floored by the fuming acids, or the exotically colored metallo-complexes, or even the wildly toxic halogenated aromatics. No, it was the humble solvents that fascinated Hank, and in particular it was the hydrocarbons, the more hydrogenated, the better.
Hank’s personal favorite chemical of all time is pentane for obvious saturation reasons,7 but also because when you go to the flame8 cabinet and get the jug of pentane and slosh it around a little, it looks just like water: so much so, in fact, that you might even consider putting a hold on your experimental procedures to pause and take a little swig because that crumpled peanut butter sandwich you sat on in calculus this morning then forced down your uncomfortably dry gullet9 as you ran up the stairs to the lab left you awfully, almost painfully thirsty. But the moment you open the lid, you kind of have to take a careful look around you and make sure you know which way is up and where the door is and that sort of thing so that by the time you tip the bottle over your filthy 4-hydroxycoumarin-encrusted erlenmeyer that some desperate sophomore duo just spent the last three hours of their lives10 charring over a high flame in a desperate grade-grubbing type attempt to synthesize a few mgs of rat-poison-cum-heart-medicine11 before their overwrought TA kicked their sorry pre-med asses out of the building for committing the sixth mortal sin of chemistry12: forgetting to add a working stir bar, you can watch the fumes positively flow out of it, the pentane bottle, like heat waves from an open oven, what feels like years before any honest-to-goodness pentane liquid gets up the courage to make an appearance at the bottle lip, and you can feel just a few more than a few neurons flicker and dim for what you’re pretty sure13 isn’t the last time, knowing you’ve got your bearings and can make a quick escape if that neuronal dimming begins to take effect on what one might call a tristate area kind of scale in the old entorhinal cortex. But if you really press Hank, he’ll tell you that what he really likes about pentane is that it’s spelled almost like Pantone, which he’ll freely admit is a little corporate, but who doesn’t have a favorite multinational trendsetting brand they subconsciously adore?
Hank hasn’t always loved chemicals. Back when he arrived as a dull-eyed freshman and moved into some overpaid UC architect’s Plattenbau wet dream of a dorm, he was stunningly, happily ignorant of nucleophilic substitution and ligand exchange reactions.14 Yes, back in those dull-eyed days, Hank’s understanding of TLC had nothing to do either with thin layers or chromatography15 and the only time he’d ever heard the verb titrate was from a plump, well-meaning nurse after his old man guzzled what Hank’s mom said was a little but what Hank himself had come to regard, in slightly less dull-eyed retrospect, as maybe more like way too much eggnog at Grandma Fluoresconi’s River Park holiday shebang, and he, Hank, had had to scoot over to the Sutter Memorial ER to watch his nogged-out dad undergo two pumping procedures at once: one for his stomach and one for his arm,16 both of which called for bags, only one of which, Hank ascertained, had anything to do with bananas, the bags. Back in the days when he thought his drunken Friday night musings with his friends in the dorm discotek17 might indicate an attitude for philosophy18 that he should maybe think about pursuing,19 Hank’s idea of scientific notation was the illegible chalkboard scribbling of an over-eager Evangelical Zionists College High Interest Prep. School (EZCHIPS) physics teacher who’d started out as an engineer bringing in amounts of change that Hank’s high-achieving, extracurricularly engaged EZCHIPS classmates, 20 who you could just tell judged 4-H chickens as a like fun spare time type hobby and were working, too,21 diligently toward their latest Hippogryph Scout requirements22 when they weren’t assessing the next Foster Farms poster chick or whatever, referred to admiringly as “chunks,” before discovering the Peace Corps and spending some time in a sub-humanly destitute corner of Kentucky to realize the existential drain of his “civilized” life and taking a pay cut that couldn’t rightly be called negligible23 to teach the next generation of Hippogryphic-oath-taking semi-pro chicken judges that the derivative of velocity is acceleration and the derivative of acceleration is jerk.24
But so when Hank first walked into Rich Saykally’s Chem 1A lecture25 and stared dully around at his classmates, he still had a vague sense that his philosophical altitude26 might yet win his four year collegiate day and land him in a series of esoteric classes writing increasingly long papers about increasingly irrelevant ideas that Hank had been groping for diligently each Friday with increasing desperation while the realization that the irrelevant ideas were beyond his grasp dawned slowly upon him with an, “Everything the light touches will be your kingdom but it’s pretty damn overcast and the 10-day forecast looks about the same so maybe ratchet back those expectations a tad, Simba, my boy” kind of effect. And like so it was with dull eyes and a mostly cloudy but on the whole open kind of mind that Hank took a seat in Saykally’s class and learned about atoms and electrons and the rhetorical subtleties of well-timed explosions. And week by week the rheumy film of a Rolling Rock philosopher dissolved to reveal Hank’s true eyes: eyes with the luster and clarity of quality Pb-doped silicate glass.27 And Hank abandoned his paper classes and devoted himself to the pursuit of chemistry, and eventually particularly the solvation chemistry of saturated hydrocarbons.
And but so Hank hasn’t always loved chemicals, but like the main thing Hank will tell you is that the main thing to remember about chemistry is that anyone can do it. Take for example that time you heated up those nachos or whatever and the cheese got all melty and tasty looking but you figured you’d better find a song to listen to while the nachos cooked and you left the microwave spinning too long and when you looked again it wasn’t melty anymore, the cheese, it was sad and kind of depressing and brown and didn’t smell quite like cheese anymore, not that that meant you didn’t eat it, maybe with some hesitation at first and then maybe with like a hint of self-loathing that maybe was more than a hint. That was chemistry. And like when you consider the gas in your lighter that burns when you finally grind your raw thumb hard enough over that sandpapery little cog that you know some greasy mechanical engineer over at the Bic R&D Dept. whimpered and slaved over just trying to earn a buck so he could put three squares or at least two squares and a triangle on the table in front of his oily high-pressure wife PAM and his Kewpie mayonnaise sack of a kid, that’s combustion. That’s good old dinos and plankton of olde, dead and pressed and sucked up out of some well that maybe would be better referred to as a sick and refined by your friendly neighborhood petrochemical outfit to light that sweet j you and your Covid-conscious crew just rolled and swear you’ll smoke through a balled-up fist until you give it an honest shot and realize that you knew all along that your fist isn’t airtight and neither are your virus avoidance practices.
And but so maybe that old get me another coffee you lazy grad student and this time make it hot and by the way where’s that manuscript you promised me two weeks ago professor Saykally was right when he said, “When you sit outside on a sunny day you’re doing chemistry.” And don’t take this the wrong way but old man Saykally seemed like maybe he’d done just a few too many chemistry experiments, and not the kind where you need a sunny day if you know what Hank’s saying. And but like old man Saykally was right, too, when he said what he said at the end of the class, something along the lines of “Don’t smoke it, eat it,” or some hey check it out kids I’m your professor and I’ve got your academic balls on a hot plate cranked to HI especially after that last exam where I pretended to intentionally curve to a 30 when I actually forgot all about teaching you Louis dots and those former charge things28 but I’m also cool like your Hawaiian-shirt wearing uncle and you really should consider the like longer term effects of incomplete combustion products on those supple young alveoli so for the love of god put out the doobie and eat a damn gummy kind of thing like that.
And but so like Hank knows that if Saykally can do it, anyone can do it, and so he does it, chemistry.
NOTES AND ERRATA
1. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. In this case basically a big backward fan.
2. See Ted Stevens circa 2006.
3. College of Chemistry, aka College of Chem, akb the phallically suggestive acronym CoC.
4. In that none of the conditions encountered can be considered even remotely ideal
5. e.g. “get a load of the crack in this round bottom.”
7. Saturation in this case (as in the case of the %DV on the back of your milk carton) referring to the maximal amount of hydrogens being stuck on a given carbon chain. On a saturated, unbranched molecule of pentane (from the Ancient Greek πέντε (pénte – “five”)), which has a chain of (you guessed it) five carbons, there are exactly 12 hydrogen atoms (divided among the carbons equally except that the carbons at the ends each get an extra hydrogen because of valence satisfaction considerations we really don’t have time to delve into at the moment), although the degree of branching (for similar valence satisfaction reasons) can change the number of hydrogens necessary to reach saturation, which in turn can change the degree of Hank’s infatuation, but again we’re doing more delving here than is perhaps strictly necessary, depending on one’s upbringing and one’s involuntarily acquired understanding of words like “strict.”
8. Which, like, why would you call a cabinet full of flammable chemicals by the name of the exact thing you never want to bring into contact with said cabinet?
9. Are you getting a cold, perhaps?
10. Hours, the sophomores will assure you, they’ll, like, never get back.
11. Distributed as Sewarin by Killgerm Chemicals Ltd. Wakefield Road, Ossett, West Yorkshire, WF5 9AJ, UK. Also distributed as Coumadin by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Princeton, New Jersey 08543 USA. Known on the generic market as warfarin.
12. The seven mortal sins of chemistry being, in no particular order:
1) Adding water to acida
2) Refusing to tie your hair back when blowing glassb
3) Heating a pressurized vesselc
4) Pipetting by mouthd
5) Storing nitrates together with organicse
7) Using the word “organic” to refer to anything other than a carbon-based compoundg
a) which, if the acid is concentratedi, results in what the learned call an “extremely exothermic reaction,” which really just means the odds of the acid spitting right back out of the water and onto your face are roughly the same as the odds that you will never commit this sin again, which is to say good.ii
b) which explaining this one would almost certainly be an enormous waste of everyone’s (or at least everythinkingone’s) time, but if we must, just for a moment imagine you’ve put the finishing touches on the cracked borosilicate tube you just annealed, taking care to soften the edges in the stoichiometrically idealiii methane-oxygen torch flame, and you decide to bend slightly at the knees and lean forward a bit to place said annealed, edge-softened tube on the cooling block, which is a literal brick of alumina placed in what you will in retrospect determine is exactly the most dangerous place for a cooling block, which is to say directly in front of the torch flame, but down a touch and just out of reach unless you bend slightly at the old pre-osteoarthritic kneesiv and dangle those stringy strands of dead keratin that really could use a thorough scrub with a well-marketed keratin-strand-care-specific surfactant mixed with a suffocating combination of olfactorily appealing synthetic ethers and estersv capital p Plagiarized from natural substancesvi like bananas and something called sandalwood, which can you imagine anyone actually wearing wooden sandals except for maybe in Japan and suddenly you realize your hair’s on fire.
c) For the moment, this remains on the list, although since the introduction of the Instant Pot to the undergraduate laboratory scene, this sin has come under increasing scrutiny by a number of high profile chemistry-oriented members of the NAS.vii
d) Formerly a prerequisite for becoming a true chemist.viii Currently a prerequisite for becoming a certified badass.ix
e) For clarification, see Beirut 2021.
f) See text.
g) And yes that includes those runty, misshapen apples that are so ungodly expensive that their purchase unquestionably serves to confirm your unassailable holiness and all-around moral superiority and furthermore guarantees BOGO wristbands to Disney World & Universal Studios in the Sky, which upon further consideration may constitute some sort of fructiform indulgence, except that these “get-out-of-jail for an exorbitant price” passes are peddled not by an Inquisition-era bishop with a cathedral to build but by a bald book geek turned ruthless business mogul with a newly acquired upscale multinational grocery chain and an international empirex to build.
i) and good acids generally are
ii) and if you’re wondering, as Hank did, how you’ll ever be able to dilute your acid, it turns out that adding acid to water works swimmingly.
iii) A notable exception to Note 4 supra
iv) Thanks mom, can’t wait.
v) “shampoo,” for the uninitiated
vi) See the entire oxymoronically named field of natural product synthesis bullet1
vii) National Academy of Sciences; what one might call the College of Cardinalsbullet2 of the natural sciences
viii) assuming you don’t accidentally aspirate a few mL of that nitric
ix) common misspelling of idiot, see Note viii, supra
x) not to mention a legacy
bullet1) in which synthetic reaction pathways are devised for chemicals of interest found in naturesubbullet1
bullet2) Governing arm of the Catholic Church comprised of the cardinalssubbullet 2 and responsible for papal elections as well as long term facilitation of day-to-day child abuse.
subbullet1) often plant alkaloids e.g. Paclitaxelsubsubbullet1, found in the bark of Pacific yewsubsubbullet2
subbullet2) generally red of face and prone to twittering but not under any circumstances to be confused with members of the genus Cardinalis
subsubbullet1) marketed and distributed under the brand name Taxol by Abraxane as a cytotoxic agent useful in chemotherapeutic contexts
subsubbullet2) Taxus brevifolia
13. Or at least are really hoping
14. Don’t worry about it.
15. No, really, don’t worry about it.
16. What Hank still doesn’t really realize, even after a few trips to the campus ER following nights of particularly intense musing and even more particularly intense consumption of Rolling Rock (RR) is that IV bags, at least bags of the banana sort, don’t so much pump as more just like slowly drizzle what Hank now knows is electrolytic water into highly ethanolated bloodstreams.
17. Really just the concrete-walled dorm lounge Hank and his friends outfitted each weekend night with some portable high-lumen LED strobes Hank’s little sister gave him for his birthday last April and Pendleton’s Campbell’s Tomato Soup cana-amplified iPhone speaker, pumping Berghain style remixes of Top-40 favorites.
a) complete with BPA lining and Warhol-inspiring label.
18. sic. Likely aptitude
19. But probably tomorrow morning. Or maybe better to wait until afternoon when the RR farts finally subside and return his Eastern-Bloc style room back to just a regular old chamber devoid at least of the RR-derived kind of gas.
20. Who, Hank’s pretty sure, took the “College” actually seriously and their “Prep.,” too. Although maybe less seriously than the “Evangelical,” and definitely way less seriously than the “Zionist.”
21. Appositive phrase optional. The “too” works, as far as Hank is concerned, both ways.
22. because the Eagle Scout system got saturated with nobodies looking for an easy in on the old over-trafficked Ivy-League application circuit.
23. Judging by the wistful look in his eyes and the way he teared up with, like, nostalgia whenever he recounted the comprehensivity of his former engineering job’s company’s healthcare plan, “debilitating” would maybe be more like the word.
24. No fooling.
25. MWF 12-1pm Pimentel
26. See note 18, supra.
27. Which is to say crystal
28. sic and sic; Lewis and formal, respectively, presumably