amazing and cool shit, dinner time conversation, miscellaneous, drivel

…the holy grail…

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Reading again – this time, the Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean – history and tales about elements in the periodic table. I say the holy grail, simply because it’s presented so well, so illuminating, such an immaculate idea of order…

I’ve never understood chemistry. The one class I had in Jr. High consisted of burning iodine in test tubes over a bunsen burner. The point of which? I can only guess to watch it swell into a purple foam, which soon overflowed onto the plastic laminate counter top of the lab and left a scar. And then we talked about Mt St Helens erupting. And that was it. There was no periodic table, no discussion of elements. Actually, before that, I did have some chemistry in elementary school. A teacher there used a train transformer to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen (a test tube half as full!). After a spell, he pulled the hydrogen one out, donned some glasses, and stuck a match under it, causing it to emit a marvelous whistling flame…

My final ‘formal’ brush with chemistry came during my freshman year at the UW. It was a class that presumed one already knew most of the basics of chemistry; i.e. the periodic table, atomic weights, how to add them, and how they behaved. I knew none of it, so I did what any self-respecting slacker would do; after a week I dropped the class, and enrolled in a philosophy course instead…

I can say this, because now, I see both sides a bit better. People like me take philosophy classes and drop chemistry, only maybe becoming fascinated by it much later in life through cooking and a good book, because there’s a distinct difference in the cost of entry. Living an odd life prepares one quite well and perfectly for philosophy. Simply being curious and having to improvise a lot of stuff along the way is the ticket to being passionate about your beliefs amid people who proclaim to ‘know’ ethics, or have thoughts about such things. It’s because fate has forced you to develop your own as it wrestled away your own sense of religion at an early age, gave you doubts you still can’t rectify, yet left you, oddly, spirituality intact… You immediately, and easily, dismiss a lot of ‘experts’ as drivel, yet are wowed at the depth of thought that some other had along the way… Chemistry on the other hand, presupposes a different path. It assumes you’ve had foresight to study it before you get to study it. Which, in turn presupposes a certain stability – both in personal dreams, home-life, the abundance of texts you might have access to, and the discipline you might have at any given point in your adolescence…

Maybe what’s most fascinating is the simple order of it; the periodic table. It’s not just an ordering element; it’s a tool that implies logic about things; predict where (and what!) elements should be, even when we haven’t found them yet (or created them). It’s beautiful, and I immediately start thinking of it terms of food, because I love thinking in analogy…

Each column is a group. As you go down the list, vertically, each element below is very similar in structure to the one above it. Carbon, for example, a simple element everywhere in our world sits at the top of one row. Directly below? Silicon! The stuff computer chips are made of – a very similar thing to carbon itself, except that it’s got a little bit more stuff in its nucleus and electrons. Below Silicon, Germanium – denser, heaver than Silicon – actually used originally instead of Silicon but abandoned because heat affects it… Then below that? Tin. Then Lead. All similar structures, just a bit denser, a few more parts to them each level down… On either side are elements that are rather like cousins to the others at least atomically; they might be nearly identical except the ones on either side, may only have 7 electrons instead of 8, or 9 instead of 8… little things make differences; To the left of Lead is Thallium, a toxic metal; to the right is Bismuth the ‘bis’ in pepto-bismal…

If you were to think of this in terms of food; a menu maybe; you might start at the top of some column with a simple ground beef patty… Below it, a patty on a bun… And then one with cheese below that… And bacon and cheese below that one… Maybe to the left it’s a turkey patty instead of beef; to the right maybe it’s pork… Far off on the edges maybe you have condiments; sauces and things; simple stuff like a mayonnaise at the top of one group, and working below that iterations on that one simple idea; rouille, caesar dressing, buttermilk ranch dressing… On the other side you might have things like acidic sauces; citrus juices, vinegars, gastriques, barbecue sauces… each one making the previous ones a little bit more complex or jumping to the left or right for a twist that makes it something really unique, or really toxic, potentially…

Oddly; it’s exactly the sort of structure I’ve needed for my cookbook; things swirl around in my head in a chaos – or they have – and I’ve always wondered just how to present or at least organize it all. And now I know. Thanks to mucking around in places I’ve no real reason to be wandering, which is where I always find inspiration and order…

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