A matter of character

A matter of character


“The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth”
Deng Xiaoping, 1992

She must have got back to work by now. But holidays had never felt so good. A much-needed break from the hectic pace of her office job.

The station was thronged with passengers, their incessant chatter turning into a constant background hum pierced only by shrill whistles. Luckily, her Beats headset cancelled out the noise, muffling the hubbub, and so she could just let herself be carried away by the music. All of a sudden, a vibrating alert made her reach for her pocket. A reminder had flashed up. With a swift movement, she swiped the message away. Then, she swivelled her slim wheelie suitcase, tapping on the screen with the other hand as she made for the platform. She easily overtook a middle-aged man who was trundling an overloaded trolley, puffing and panting as he slowly ploughed his way to his train. You’d better travel light unless you want to pick up a nasty injury and spend the rest of the Festival in bed, with granny greasing you like a duck with her magic ointments for back pain. She giggled. Presents for friends and family? Online shopping and home delivery, why would one bother going to stores anymore?

The sleek high-speed train was ready for the long journey inland, heading away from the sprawling megalopolis on the seaside. Her coach was the first, just behind the engine and no other fellow passenger had got there yet. Standing alone at the far end of the platform, she savoured this moment of calm. She hesitated before getting on board. Would auntie ask again the same questions, like, boyfriends and getting married? Sighing, the girl brushed aside these thoughts, and rapidly unlocked her Huawei. The shutter clicked. The selfie was lovely: the train windows were reflected in her oversized, stylish glasses, while, in the background, the passengers disappeared into a faint blur, indistinct shapes out of focus. “Smart travelling – standing out from the crowd”. She posted it online with one last tap, then a step on the footbridge, her back turned to Shanghai, looking ahead to the end of the tracks.

What’s in a quote

The account is fictional, the character is not. Kind of. A job as a sales manager, an undergraduate degree in business at a university abroad: you can learn so much about someone on LinkedIn, at least just enough to start inventing a believable character. We had exchanged a couple of e-mails before I received that message. It included two attachments: a formal quotation, and a brochure showing off a jaw-dropping list of customers worldwide. Would we become one of them?

Our laboratory needed a piece of equipment and I had been asked to shop around to get the best deal. This allowed me to embark on a tour of the five continents and the seven seas, well, at least a virtual one. After all, how does that old saying go? “Do science, see the world”, right? After going on a massive e-mailing spree worldwide (including a reckless sortie into Alibaba territory), I duly got spammed in return by sales representatives eager to satisfy my requirements and entice a new customer. When I finally tidied up the stack of e-mails in my inbox before reporting to my boss, I realised that two thirds of the quotations had come from Chinese companies, all of them based in the greater Shanghai area. In a sense, this came as a no surprise: I already knew that, in the context of the squeeze on research budgets, academics are increasingly turning to more affordable pieces of equipment. After all, ‘Made in China’ no longer means a cheap and low-quality, ‘better-than-nothing’ alternative; nowadays, it is rather a proxy for no-frills, reliable instruments that (usually) turn out to be sturdy workhorses and deliver the goods just as well as those manufactured by more renowned companies, while remaining by far more affordable.

Battery research has felt the full force of the rise of China as a global R&D superpower. Don’t worry – I will neither deliver a lecture on the latest plenary session of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, nor take sides in trade wars nor harp on about the skyrocketing number of scientific publications authored by my colleagues from the People’s Republic of China (PRC henceforth). Let me just remind you that the PRC has been implementing a plan called Made in China 2025, demystified in a superb BBC video explainer, which aims to make China a global leader in cutting-edge, research-intensive manufacturing. The overarching goal of this plan (purportedly inspired by Germany’s comparable Industrie 4.0) is a major overhaul of the PRC’s industrial sector to upgrade it with a special emphasis on domestic supply chains. What does it mean in practical terms? By 2025, high-tech goods will ideally include 70% of components made in China. Among the ten strategic sectors we can find “smart green cars”, “renewables” and “high-tech materials”: you could argue that batteries have a finger in every plug (ho ho!). It just takes a few minutes’ surfing on the Internet to see the incoming tide flowing from this sea-change: most of the world’s lithium-ion battery “megafactories” are (being built) in the PRC, which is following a coherent strategy to make the most of its own raw materials, as described by the journalist Guillaume Pitron in his article in Le Monde Diplomatique (English version):

China’s electric vehicle strategy is the world’s most ambitious. In 2015 the Made in China 2025 plan identified electric car batteries as an industrial priority. China’s huge domestic market allows economies of scale, which give its carmakers a competitive edge, and its production of rare metals has helped the initiative. The West, in offshoring its mining pollution, has handed its rival a near monopoly on raw materials strategic to the industry: China now produces 94% of the magnesium, 69% of the natural graphite and 84% of the tungsten consumed worldwide; for some rare earths, it’s as much as 95%.

(Yes, a whopping 95%. Now you can understand why Deng Xiaoping’s statement looks so visionary. If you are a battery-savvy reader, take note of the figure for graphite).

Coin collectors

Still not convinced? Follow me, let’s take a stroll in the battery lab and pretend to be a materials scientist. Say you have come up with an innovative/novel/ground-breaking battery material with unparalleled/unprecedented performance (the superlative is flourishing in the literature, as rightly criticised in this ACS Catalysis editorial) and you want to test it. One of the first things to do is quite simple, almost too trivial to be true, and not very different from making a sandwich. Pack your wonder powder into a small disc, stick it into a glovebox, pile up the first disc, a wet separator, and a lithium disc (Volta would simply love having a go!), crimp everything into a coin cell – yes, the very same little thing that powers wristwatches. Mind the polarity, and just keep charging and discharging the battery. At the same time, record the potential. That’s it? That’s it, except that you’d better repeat all the sequence for at least a handful of batteries (science is all about reproducibility, right?).

If you feel like trying yourself… (watch out: get some sturdy chemical-resistant butyl gloves, like the black ones you’ll see in the first video):

The piece of equipment that you need to run such a battery of tests is called – quite disappointingly – a battery tester. If you look at the two testers in our laboratory, you can see at a glance the two superpowers facing each other, China vs the US. The older tester, made in Texas, is a heavyweight box that looks like a vintage computer with huge cooling fans at the back and a thick canopy of cables branching from the instrument to the battery racks. It was probably manufactured in the 1990s and it is computer-controlled with a program that runs on MS-DOS – oh yeah, that dinosaur software, and if you recognise this abbreviation, welcome to the oldies’ club. This instrument has let us down quite a few times, the tester cutting out halfway through experiments. In spite of that, it still usually does the job.


Opposite the giant stands the slimmer tester made in PRC, composed of modules stacked on shelves, equipped with small wheels that make the instrument relatively portable. It’s a cliché, but I don’t resist the temptation: a martial arts master’s nimble footwork and graceful movements pitted against a wrestler’s massive bulk and brute force – we all know who wins in the end.


Plug-in required

But the battery tester from China did not really create a buzz when it first arrived – well, it did, but for all the wrong reasons.  No English-language manual was provided. How could we possibly coax the battery tester into functioning properly if we did not speak a single word of Mandarin? Well, you first sort out the tangle of cables in the box and you make sure that and all jacks are properly connected. Easy. What next? Someone would have to decipher the script: a brave PhD student stepped up and started plugging away at this problem. A lot of e-mails and days later, he triumphantly worked out how to run the software, making the most of an abridged English-language manual that the manufacturers had especially translated for him, with a little help from online resources. (Take-home message: never write Google Translate off as a cheat).

Follow the script

If there is one thing that immediately caught my attention when the battery tester was set up, it was the string of Chinese characters printed on the front panel of each module. I have always been fascinated by this script and rarely do I resist the temptation of trying to deconstruct the characters to work out their meaning. Moreover, it is exciting to think that unlocking the secret of the ideograms could also provide a shortcut to the mindset and worldview of those using this script. Intriguing, and dangerous at the same time: this sort of linguistic determinism may lead you down a slippery slope. Yes, neuroimaging (i.e. functional magnetic resonance) has shown that, when a subject is reading Chinese, very specific parts of the brain fire up (see for instance here and here). Nevertheless, we should not forget that “That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a very suitable quote to mark Saint Valentine’s Day). José Saramago wisely wrote “words are labels put on things, they are not the things”2. It is reckless to make a fetish of words and to overload them with significance – unless you are writing poetry, but that’s another story.

Leaving dissertations on neurolinguistic aside, I find it hugely entertaining, to say the very least, to sit down and discover the origins and evolution of Chinese ideograms. If this is also a way of chipping a hole in the Great Language Wall denying access to Chinese culture, all the better. That’s why, to celebrate the Spring Festival in my own personal way, I borrowed a book entitled 100 mots pour comprendre les Chinois (by Cyrille J.-D. Javary, Albin Michel, 2008) – “Understanding the Chinese in 100 words”. What a tall order, and I have the gut feeling that the book does not fully lives up to the great expectations created by the title, but the challenge that it faced was formidable. On the other hand, it does appeal to a broad readership: those just looking for trivia will learn lots of anecdotes to impress colleagues at the next office bash, while the book will give an extra taste of Chinese culture to those already as keen as mustard. In short, I recommend this book as it makes for a very enjoyable read, well, provided that French is no double Dutch to you.


But we should not beat about the bush: the characters on the battery tester still need to be deciphered. At this point anyone familiar with the Chinese script will be laughing out loud saying: “Matteo behave, stop pretending you’re Indiana Jones trying to decipher Linear A, don’t kick up a fuss about nine characters. Just stick it into Google Translate and cut a long story short”. No, I want to crack the code the good old way, that is, I want to get to grips with the characters barehanded, as in martial arts, just with the help of a good old paper dictionary. Fully hand powered, and no need to worry about chargers: ink does not run on batteries, does it ?


A few minutes hours days later

(which explains why I am late with my post, which I was supposed to publish on the first day of the Spring Festival, the 5th of February).


Grinning proudly, I had the translation checked by my colleague Mengyang, who gave me the thumbs-up. Look at ‘battery’, a beautifully simple combination of two characters: an electricity (电, diàn) reservoir (池, chí). I’d like to dwell a little longer on the first character, one of the hundred dealt with in the book I was talking about. It is written as 电 in simplified characters (i.e. the script in use in the PRC), while the traditional character (still in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao) is 電 (choose your favourite). As Javary explains, we need to look at traditional characters if we wish to make out the composing parts and understand the ultimate meaning. If we break dian up, we recognise a top part, 雨 (), meaning ‘rain’, and a bottom half akin to 申, shēn. Javary points out that this is an old ideogram that conveys the idea of a vital force, a natural ‘spirit’. On the other hand, my faithful dictionary translates the character as ‘to state’, ‘to express’, and talking about Chinese Zodiac, this character also stands for ‘monkey’ (which will make its comeback only in 2028). So, it takes just a bit of imagination to see the character combining these two moieties, 雷 , as a clever shorthand for ‘something expressing rain’, and, lo and behold, it does mean ‘thunder’ (léi). But I’ve probably already gone too far in my linguistic antics. A lengthy dissertation on the origin Chinese characters falls beyond the scope of this post, and so we had better leave it at that.

Back to what matters, electricity. If you look carefully, our friend 電 is almost identical to thundery 雷. Find the difference. Yes, there’s an extra ‘hook’ added at the bottom, which, as Javary reminds us, is an ancient decorative motif having to do with ‘lightning’. ‘Electricity’ has thus an intimate connection with the sky’s most impressive phenomena, and, not surprisingly, 電 is indeed employed in a combination standing for ‘lightning’ (閃電 shǎndiàn)

Aptly enough, it also looks like that 電/电, in colloquial speech, conveys the ‘chemistry’ that you can have between people (both wiktionary). After all, ‘love at first sight’ becomes coup de foudre, ‘lightning strike’, in French.

(Quote unquote: an epilogue of sorts)

For a few days, I did not hear from her. We had sent her an e-mail asking for a revised quote including some optional parts. Then, all of a sudden I found a message from China: although it still looked very professional, I somehow had a hunch that it had been written in haste, amidst friends and family, while a flurry of firecrackers and fireworks was going off. Indeed, she apologised for her late reply and kindly reminded me that her would be on holiday until the 12th of February. I greatly appreciated the remark, and I decided not to bother her for the rest of her holidays. We still need more information before we can take a decision, and so I will probably drop her a line later today. By then, she will have gone through the massive stack of e-mails that she must have received during the holidays. When I sit down and start typing, it will be so hard to resist the strong temptation to let her know what happened. How the no-nonsense, business correspondence that we had exchanged by a lucky coincidence just before the Spring Festival took me on an exciting journey through Chinese characters and culture, as far as the very metropolis where she lives and works.

Because this is what that quote really meant. “Do science, see the world” is an invitation to keep our eyes open, to be curious, to make the most of science as a means to explore and appreciate the world in its entirety, while meeting lovely, interesting people on the way.

And, as we have learned, it’s only a short step from batteries to electricity and thrilling chemistry.

It’s electric when you click.


I gratefully thank Mengyang for her infinite patience. 谢谢 !

He’s the one who finally got it cracked. Quentin is a veritable unsung hero.

The beautiful photos from Lisbon are courtesy of Rita and her friend. Both are kindly acknowledged.


1 The full original quote, retrieved online, reads: 中东有石油,中国有稀土,中国的稀土资源占世界已知储量的80%,其地位可以和中东的石油相比,具有极其重要的战略意义,一定要把稀土的事情办好,把我国的稀土优势发挥出来。”The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth: China’s rare earth deposits account for 80 percent of identified global reserves, you can compare the status of these reserves to that of oil in the Middle East: it is of extremely important strategic significance; we must be sure to handle the rare earth issue properly and make the fullest use of our country’s advantage in rare earth resources.”

2 From As Intermitências da Morte (“Death at Intervals”): “As palavras são rótulos que se pegam às cousas, não são as cousas, nunca saberá como são as cousas, nem sequer que nomes são na realidade os seus, porque os nomes que lhes deste não são mais que isso, os nomes que lhes deste



Laying the table

Laying the table

The periodic table is worth making a fuss about.[…] But the origins of this year’s potential big bang of chemical understanding lie in a proclamation from a bureaucracy that is hardly known for its skills at kindling inspiration and jaw-dropping awe.

Roger Highfield, Turning the tablesChemistryworld (12th December 2018)

The new year truly begins only on the 2nd January. Only on this day can we really flip the calendar, when the overexposure to classical music and sparkling wine, the occasional hangover and the unrealistic New Year resolutions, are all but forgotten, and life slowly resumes its usual pace.

Yesterday, the downtown gym opened at 10 and I was not at all surprised to see the reception so full; at the desk, many fitness hopefuls were queuing up to subscribe for their pass, the first step on the perilous path back to shape.  As I shuffled past them, on my way to the dressing room, I yawned hugely, suddenly realising how drowsy I still felt. I shrugged my tiredness off as a simple consequence of the cold snap holding Montréal in its icy grip. This was such a feeble attempt at whitewashing my conscience … shouldn’t you have gone to bed earlier last night? As soon as I entered the gym, my no-nonsense, unpretentious training session started looming large as the first veritable challenge of 2019: I mustered all my strength as I was desperately trying to shake off my lethargy.

Heavy legs. Another yawn. The clock turns. Off we go.

The periodic training

It was as I was lapping at a leisurely pace on the running track that I started thinking about writing a post about the New Year. Not just any post, mind you, but a post about what makes 2019 so unique : its being IUPAC’s International Year of the Periodic Table, celebrating the publication of Mendeleev’s brainchild in 1869. Deep into my training, when running had taken its toll on my knees and started to make me feel somewhat light-headed, I lost myself in a reverie, one in which that each periodic passage over the start line meant returning to the end of a period, only to begin scrolling through it again, group after group, step after step. Everything around me became a blur of shapes : the flat screen broadcasting news live from the US, the shortcut to the loo,  the pace clock and its four slowly revolving hands, the entrance to the squash court, the line, and back to square one : all elements that returned, lap after lap, as my legs were growing sorer, as if I were really walking down the table, stepping into the cases of heavier elements along the way.

Time was up, thanks goodness. I drifted away to a quiet corner and I set about stretching. Then, limping, I headed for the exit with a thin smile on my face: I had made it, and so I could finally step into the New Year for real.

Table of contest

So do we now, here on the blog, but don’t be disappointed at me if I won’t be talking about the thing itself, the Periodic Table. You can flip back to my previous posts (one, two and three), skip to this article on The Conversation (including a curious Underground Map of the Elements), or click on the link to this engaging, informative long read covering Mendeleev’s biography on the website of Chemistryworld (the monthly magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry) and simply forgive me for being lazy this time. After all, I can be excused : I am still recovering from yesterday’s reckless morning run, and the temperature outdoors hovers around −15°C at the time of writing. Joking aside, what made me sit down and think twice before impulse-posting a celebration of all things periodic was this opinion piece published in Chemistryworld. In this article,  Roger Highfield, director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group (UK), wonders if the International Year of the Periodic Table will turn out to be yet another formality, or if it will instead have a real impact on chemistry’s disappointing invisibility in public discourse :

Will this anniversary turn out to be an amazing opportunity for outreach and public engagement? […] Or will the global festivities around the International Year of the Periodic Table be yet another deadly example of all those initiatives that preach to the converted? […] The first step to raise the profile of chemists is to think less about how to broadcast the periodic table and more about how to persuade the target audience to listen.

Aha, good point! A quick look at the official website of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry let me realise that Highfield was right. As I nosed about for news on this year’s programme, something caught my attention.  At first sight, The Periodic Table of Younger Chemists may seem an original, lighthearted attempt at killing two birds with one stone :  celebrating the rising stars of the discipline (defined “outstanding chemists”) while honouring chemistry’s iconic emblem and marking the first 100 years of IUPAC. Don’t get me wrong (and IUPAC please do not take it personally): getting to know the people underneath the lab coat is always a laudable effort. However, outstanding chemists will eventually be recognised by theirs peers regardless of the creation of yet another pointless award fuelling the toxic competitive attitude which has turned academia into a cut-throat world.

(For your information:  the Periodic Table of Younger Chemists is still incomplete, and so far I happen to know just one of those, all more or less of my age, who have already received the ultimate accolade).

What else can one bring to the table?

But I have got no time to waste in a spell of ranting. Let’s get back to the point : how to lay chemistry on the table and make it tasty, not only palatable, for all those who are coming for dinner, and not just for food geeks. I will put in my two pennies’ worth focussing on this year’s three keywords, one at a time: Periodic, Table, and Elements, to share some humble ideas, some New Year resolutions of sorts.


The central word to start with, because chemistry and cooking is a marriage made in heaven, and you do not need to mess with mind-boggling molecular gastronomy to blend molecules and food. If you are a newcomer to the field and feel motivated, I suggest starting from McGee’s superb reference book On Food and Cooking (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004). Geeky at times, you might argue, but thoroughly enjoyable even if you just want to savour a flavour of food and chemistry. Best eaten as little nibbles.


Food books pitched at a more accessible level are peppered with a lot of chemistry between the lines, too. Take Micheal Pollan’s Cooked (Penguin, 2013), for instance, subtitled “A natural history of transformation”, a definition that could hold true for chemistry as well. In this engrossing read, Pollan takes us on an exploration moving in a space defined by four cardinal points : Fire, Water, Air, Earth, four icons of different aspects of cooking which obviously hint at Empedocles’s four elements. Talking food and chemistry comes in with an added bonus : one can place broader issues on the dining table and serve a full-course meal. Sustainability in food production, global warming, pollution.


Following up on my last point, I move on to the Elements. To keep this resolution, I will simply pick a few elements having a considerable significance in our times, and I will commit myself to placing a greater emphasis on them in the next twelve months.
Here are my suggestions, beyond the ever-present carbon :

  • Nitrogen, which ties in well with the previous paragraph, as there is a growing awareness of the urgent need to curb nitrogen imbalances caused by excessive use of fertilisers and, to a lesser extent, fossil fuel combustion. Spare a moment, and have a go at calculating your nitrogen footprint here. Too large? A couple of tips to cut down on it : do not waste food, eat less meat, don’t buy junk you don’t need (which probably travelled the world by ship in a container), become an infrequent flyer.

    Chipping away at your nitrogen New Year resolution…
  • The « rare earth metals», that is, a collective term regrouping a merry band of seventeen elements (as ruled by IUPAC) : scandium, yttrium, plus all the lanthanoids, those sort of hanging around at the bottom of the most widespread, shorter form of the Periodic Table:  lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium. Need a primer? Here is a fantastic podcast from BBC Radio (also featuring Andrea Sella, whose talent for chemistry outreach is truly prodigious) and an article from The Conversation.  Despite the small amount produced, they are crucial in some cutting-edge technologies, particularly those involving magnets and coloured screens. China is the world’s largest rare earths producer, controlling the entire supply chain from cradle through value-added products to grave, which gives Beijing a potentially enormous bargaining leverage in global geopolitics.
  • The endangered elements, superbly depicted by Andy Brunning (Compound Interest website) in a customised Periodic Table. Too many? Scroll down to indium next time you fiddle with your mobile phone (here is another BBC programme to help you to get to grips with this critical element).


Finally, the more theoretical term, that Periodic which, honestly, did not inspire me any clear New Year resolution at first – maybe except for taking up regular exercise! After racking my brains, I will recommend one last book, Periodic Tales, about “The Curious Lives of the Elements” by Hugh Aldersey-Willliam (Penguin 2012), which I also talk about in a previous post.


More importantly, “Periodic” suggests that we should all draw inspiration from Mendeleev’s yearning to pinpoint the elusive patterns informing the properties of chemical elements. After all, being a chemist is first and foremost an attitude, a mindset, a way of life that everyone, everwhere, can adopt in their daily life. Periodic also conveys an idea of repeated pattern, which conjures up those enthralling periodic structures such as the DNA double helix  (for the curious readers with some chemistry background, here’s a treat for you : Roald Hoffmann’s seminal paper Molecular Beauty). From aesthetics to philosophy there is just a short step. Nothing encourages a deep reflection upon the fleetingness of life and its periodic cycles more than snow falling peacefully on a cold winter night, which also reminds me of the opening of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow:

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.

Snowember night

And this is the right moment to consider snow crystals and their exquisitely beautiful symmetry.


The perks of living in Montréal…just walk downstairs if you want to take a snapshot of snowflakes

Let the Periodic celebrations begin and uncork your fizz– if you’ve still got any left, three days into the New Year.

Spring vegetales

Spring vegetales

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin, The Trees

Come May, they are back out again.

Shrugging off its winter blues, the market lets out a huge yawn and its doors open; after the long winter months, it comes as a liberation: the stalls are set up outdoors once more, and the surface of the market multiplies. This special moment feels like playtime at school; at the end of a boring, lengthy lesson, the bell would finally ring. The schoolchildren would break free and let loose, running to the playground where they would frolic until the lessons resumed.

Because this is spring in Québec: frantic impermanence, an exponential season, a transition state. Time picks up speeds, it gains momentum and gathers pace: it seems exceptionally fast, unpredictably short. What is in blossom today, tomorrow may already be in full leaf. It is a burst of energy, opposite to the sluggishness of sultry summer sunsets and yawning winter dawns.

The fleeting beauty of Montréal’s own ‘sakura’ flowers at Parc Laurier

There is no better place to observe these frantic changes than at Jean-Talon farmers’ market, the place where “Montrealers pretend to be in Naples or Marseille” according to the writer David Homel (as cited in Carnets de Montréal) – after all, the market is aptly located in the Little Italy district. Spring at Jean-Talon market is a time of renewal and unending surprises: fresh seasonal produce starts to be available, and new vegetables show up week after week.

And that’s where it all began.

Fiddling with danger

The lady behind the stall looked as if she was about to let me into some secret of sorts that only the chosen could ever know. She blinked at me as she was talking, then she pointed at the little box in front of her, full of what seemed to be unfurled green coils, and, finally, she stared back at me, waiting for my reaction. Surprised by my questioning gaze, she curled her mouth into a mischievous, somewhat beguiling smile that she flashed at me with yet another blink of her eyes.

“You’ll adore them, I bet” she said. “Just boil them twice, to be on the safe side”.

The final remark startled and confused me even further. I felt as if the lady had cast a spell on me and I was only slowly coming around. Yes, she had extolled the virtues of that strange-looking unknown vegetable, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to try this unmatched, very Québécois spring delicacy, even if this would mean failing my test of Québec-ness.

If in doubt, back out.

I smiled at the lady and I walked down the aisle and, all of a sudden, I started spotting them everywhere, on all market stalls. Fiddleheads, or têtes de violon.


A handout attracted my attention like a red flashing warning light…


What was so terribly wrong with eating these delicate greens, reminding me of a motif from an Arts and Crafts decorative pattern? Why on Earth do you need to boil them twice, and pay such attention to how you handle them?

No sooner had I got home than I ran to the kitchen, where I carefully slid a thick volume out of a massive pile, dangerously leaning sideways, of cookery books.


Holding my breath, I then started flipping frantically through my copy of On Food and Cooking, the ultimate reference book on all things edible by Harold McGee, until I found the answer to my question on page 259 – watch out, those featuring on the market stalls are ‘ostrich ferns’, aka Matteuccia species:

Bracken-fern toxins cause several blood disorders and cancer in animals that graze on this common fern (Pteridium), which is sometimes collected in the young “fiddlehead” stage for human consumption. Ostrich ferns, Matteuccia species, are thought to be a safer source of fiddleheads, but there’s little solid information about the safety of eating ferns. It’s prudent to eat fiddleheads in moderation, and to avoid bracken ferns by checking labels and asking produce sellers.

The story unfurls…

So, any suspicion that fiddleheads can pose harm has seemingly been allayed, at least until further evidence emerges. Looking up on the Internet, I found this page from Canada’s health agency and an article in Chronica Horticulturae featuring an interesting historical overview on fiddleheads, from which I cite this excerpt:

The curled fiddlehead fronds that emerge in late April or May in the northern hemisphere herald the end of winter and in many areas are the first fresh spring vegetable. Growing in the moist soilbeds adjacent to rivers and streams, picking fiddleheads is a rite of Spring for many Maritime Canadians and New Englanders, which dates back to the very first days of European colonization. Previous to this, native peoples savoured the fiddlehead since time immemorial […] In North America, many eastern native peoples have historically consumed the ostrich fern. The Malecite Indians of the St. John river valley used fiddlehead greens as a Spring tonic […], while the Abenaki of New England roasted the entire crown over a bed of hot stones, covering it with branches […]. The Passamoquoddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine also harvested, consumed and sold ostrich fern greens.

Fiddleheads would become part of the European settlers’ diet in New Brunswick as early as in the 1700s, as you can read in another article. Imagine these people, weary and hungry after weathering one of those harsh Québec winters that drag on well into April. Newcomers to unchartered territories, they would anxiously wait for the snow to melt; when the thaw eventually arrived, their surprise and joy must have been great. In a few days’ time, the white blanket would vanish under the ever warmer sun, unveiling the yellowish grass scorched by the frost, grass that would soon thrive green again. A spectacular metamorphosis that repeats itself in Montréal every year, more or less at the turn of April. A couple of weeks later, the settlers, desperately hungry and trying to eke out a living on dwindling supplies,  would venture on the muddy banks of the streams flooded by the thawing ice, maybe trailing, furtively, someone who had always known where to look for fiddleheads. Or, more simply, a member of one of the First Nations may have disclosed the location of patches of ostrich ferns by using that universal language made of gestures and nods, while sharing some of these strange-looking greens; what was the settler’s first reaction at the fiddlehead’s “delicate, unique taste, which has been likened to the quality of asparagus and artichoke,with some of broccoli’s brute strength”? We can only guess. These graceful ferns were apparently instrumental in the survival of those American Loyalists (aka: those who stuck with the British Empire during the American War of Independence) who left the US to resettle in New Brunswick in 1783. Ill-equipped for the winter, they resorted to foraging for food in the wild in the following spring and ate fiddleheads along with “grapes and even the leaves of trees” as a source reports.

Curling up in a pot: an ostrich fern nursery

The Chronica Horticolturae article does include a section on fiddlehead toxicity (page 14), pointing out from the outset that, although “Matteuccia struthiopteris is thought to be safe in the human diet”, there are periodical outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with the consumption of these ferns, including an occurrence in Quebec in 1999. One of the references is a paper on several cases of food poisoning related to the consumption of fiddleheads of the ostrich fern, and all occurring in New York and western Canada in May 19941. This report describes the symptoms affecting those who had eaten fiddleheads at a restaurant in the state of New York: nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. As in a detective story, the authors hunt for clues as to the cause of the illness. The fiddleheads had been grown on a farm located (relatively) far from sewage treatment plants and industries. So, the hypothesis of a chemical or bacteriological contamination lost ground. Samples were taken to laboratories, and analysed with state-of-the art methods – just imagine a vintage episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation set in the 1990s, with bulky white computers running MS-DOS instead of slim tablets and fancy touchscreens. The plot could for instance revolve around an outbreak of food poisoning affecting the favourites for the 1994 Football World Cup, which took place in the US: will this unexpected twist influence the final outcome of the competition? (Relive the actual, dramatic final match here).

From fiction back to the lab, and hard facts: no evidence of pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus, pesticides such as organophosphates, or heavy metal accumulation was found. The mystery deepened: the detectives had to look elsewhere. It was by comparing different recipes using ferns sourced from the same farm that the sleuths picked up another trail: in fact, nobody had fallen ill at a second restaurant, where the fiddleheads had been boiled for ten minutes and then sautéed. Instead, the fiddleheads served to the unfortunate patrons had been “removed from a refrigerator and sautéed for 2 minutes in butter, garlic, salt, and pepper1. Further research unveiled other cases of food poisoning, this time in Canada, and completely unrelated to the first; yet, a cross-check of the available evidence strongly suggested that1

the most likely cause of illness in each of these outbreaks was an unidentified toxin. Heating and boiling may either inactivate or leach the toxin from the plant.

The fiddlehead toxin continues to defy chemists and other researcher to this day: when I conducted a survey of the recent literature on this subject, I did not found any new report on the identification of the mystery chemical. By the way, I came across a few publications unveiling the supposedly whopping health benefits of fiddleheads, and here is a quote from one of them:

For green vegetable tissue, it also has a high and unusual fatty acid content, which includes the omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid, and the omega-6 arachidonic, γ-linoleic and dihomo-γ-linolenic acids. Thus, the ostrich fern fiddlehead can be recommended as a healthful vegetable in the human diet and should be consumed where it is seasonally available.

Lots of chemistry in there, but let’s stop fiddling with fiddleheads for now. In fact, other chemically interesting encounters were in store among the market stalls.

Salad days

On the following Saturday, when we went back for our weekly shopping, you could hardly recognise the market: flowers everywhere, in a dazzling overflow of colours, people moving like buzzing bees among the pots and the petals, taking pictures, smelling, like busy pollinators. We were overwhelmed by this larger-than-life sensorial feast.

The organic farm had set up their stall, too. The queue testified to their success, as the number of their aficionados keeps growing among Montréal’s (deep-pocketed) lovers of wholesome food. Eating the mesclun, the mixed salad grown on this farm, is one of ours guilty healthy pleasures. This time, though, something else would spice up our lunch in a completely unexpected way.

I tucked in with ravenous appetite. The crunchy leaves cracked open and filled my tongue with their juices, sending my taste buds off the scale. It seemed as if my whole mouth had been flooded with concentrated lemon juice, but the taste was somewhat sharper, nothing I had experienced before. I started chuckling in a silly way,  and, while still squeezing my eyes in discomfort, I picked up another of those large, oval leaves that stood out in the midst of a sea of non-descript green. Eat, weep, repeat : the surprise was giving way to a sort of appreciation of a newly-acquired taste. Sorrel had definitely won me over.

Tuck in and spot the sorrel aka oseille aka azêdas aka erba acetosa (Rumex acetosa)

When lunch was over, I reached for McGee’s sacred text once more. The hefty tome in my hands, I stood up and started reading aloud (page 411):

Sorrel is the startlingly sour leaf of several European relatives of rhubarb and buckwheat that are rich in oxalic acid : Rumex acetosa, scutatus and acetosella. Cooks use them mainly as a source of acidity, and they also provide a more generic green aroma. Sorrel readily disintegrates with a little cooking into a sauce-like puree […] whose chlorophyll turns drab olive from the acidity.


Oxalic acid, here’s the culprit. An image suddenly flashed through my mind, and I pictured myself sprinkling my salad with a dash of that chemical, so useful in the lab, but in the kitchen so feared, and by so many.  In fact, oxalic acid features in the list of plant-related chemicals McGee tells us we should be wary of, alongside, of course, fiddlehead toxins. The problem with oxalic acid is well known : it contributes to the formation of kidney stones. Here is a TED talk if you wish to learn more about it :

Pure oxygenius

There is a very ancient chemical connection between the name oxalic acid and the French term for sorrel, oseille. The plant inspired the acid, and their common…root is the Greek oxalis (=generic sorrel), relayed by Latin. The name oxalis itself has a pungent taste on the tongue, embedded in the word oxus, (ὀξύς), “sharp”. It is reminiscent of an even ancient term that would later morph into the word acid. This linguistic detour comes full circle when we think about the etymology of oxygen (“acidifying principle”), and when we remember the chemist who first isolated oxalic acid, and who was among the first to discover oxygen: Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786).

The brevity of this (already too long) blog post would not do justice to this major, yet somewhat underrated, figure in chemical history. The Swedish chemist’s biography can be read in this paper by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, and the story of the controversy over the discovery of oxygen sparked the inspiration for the play with the same title, written by chemists Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann (the synopsis and the text of the play are available on Hoffmann’s website). This is a tale on competition, ambition, the rush to be the first to publish and more, much more. Djerassi and Hoffmann identify the discovery of oxygen as the turning point when chemistry becomes a fully-fledged, “modern” science. If you want to get a flavour of the electric atmosphere of chemistry research in the second half of the 18th century, read this excerpt from Histoire de la chimie by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers (my translation from French). The year is 1766; Cavendish has just isolated hydrogen, and now

the hunt for the various “airs” has begun[…]. It takes place throughout Europe, from Uppsala to Paris, from London to Berlin, at a time when European chemists are constructing a veritable network: exchange of letters, travels, scientific journals; Krell’s Chemische Annalen call for papers is not only addressed to German chemists, but also to scientists from all over Europe. Chemists from all walks of life get involved: Cavendish and Boyle are rich members of the aristocracy; Lavoisier (1743-1794) is an academic and a civil servant who dips into his own pockets to equip his laboratory; Priestley (1733-1804) is a Unitarian minister whose laboratory was funded by an aristocratic patron; Scheele (1742-1786) is an apothecary who learnt chemistry on his own: he will work in the shadows and with limited means without any formal academic affiliation, wandering throughout Sweden from Stockholm to Uppsala, and from here to Köping [a town in central Sweden], where he will finally purchase his own pharmacy.

Scheele, described as “an exceptionally modest fellow who never sought academic recognition and only ever attended one meeting of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences2, was in other words a real outsider in the cut-throat world of chemistry research, so aptly summarised by Djerassi’s words in his 2014 interview to Chemistryworld:

We are a discipline which is probably the most collegial of them all. At the same time, the most brutally competitive, and that combination is very important one. The other one is ambition. No question. We want to be first. We have an Olympic game, you might say, in which there’s only a gold medal, there are really no silvers or bronzes.

This is a central theme of Djerassi’s and Hoffmann’s play, as we learn from the synopsis:

The ethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of this play are as timely today as they were in 1777. As are the ironies of revolutions: Lavoisier, the chemical revolutionary, is a political conservative, who loses his life in the Jacobin terror. Priestley, the political radical who is hounded out of England for his support of the French revolution, is a chemical conservative. And Scheele just wants to run his pharmacy in Köping, and do chemical experiments in his spare time. For a long time, he—the first man on earth to make oxygen in the laboratory—got least credit for it. Will that situation be repaired 230 years after his discovery?

Scheele started out as a teenage pharmacy apprentice in Sweden’s bustling port of Göteborg and, thanks to his dazzling experimental skills and sheer chemical genius, he would become a leading figure on the contemporary chemical stage, and this apparently without keeping a lab journal3 (don’t follow his example!). Even after rising to fame, Scheele kept on working at his own pharmacy in Köping instead of enjoying the academic spotlight as a professor3. Overshadowed by the tussle over oxygen, Scheele’s isolation of oxalic acid from wood sorrel (not the common sorrel found in my salad) in 1768 is anyway a milestone, laying the foundations for Wöhler’s synthesis of this compound in 1824. Working in his laboratory in the city of Malmö, Scheele showed that4

through boiling and crystallisation, it was possible to produce sorrel salt (sal acetosellae [potassium oxalate]) which although poisonous in large doses, was popular due to its pleasant sour and refreshing taste.

In old age, Scheele’s health started to deteriorate due to kidney problems, a sad coincidence for the man who had been able to isolate oxalate, the responsible of kidney stones.

Apart from this, oxalic acid comes in very handy when one needs to clean metals, not only rusted iron, but also something a bit fancier, like titanium. If you want to get rid of the thin oxide layer that covers (“passivates”) titanium metal, there’s nothing better than a good hot oxalic acid bath (concentration: ca. 10% in weight) that will etch and clean the metal. After leaving some titanium foils in oxalic acid at 80°C for half an hour, you should see something like this (rinse well before use):

Back to Marché Jean-Talon for our closing remarks. More and more vegetables will come to the market as summer follows spring and the season unfolds. Rhubarb and asparagus are now in the spotlight on the stalls, both of them with their own chemically distinctive character: the stalk of former contains a relative large amount of oxalic acid, while the latter imparts some people’s urine with a pungent smell – admittedly because of the metabolites of the sulphur-containing asparagusic acid.

One thing is certain: there is a boon and a bane in everything, and vegetables make no exception. Rather, what matters is to keep our eyes open and, why not, add a pinch of chemistry in our salad.

All with a grain of salt.



1. MMWR. 1994. Ostrich fern poisoning – New York and Western Canada, 1994. Morbid. Mortal. Week. Rprt. 43:683-684.

2. Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Periodic Tales, Penguin Books, 2012, page 151

3. Reported in J.L. Marshall and V.R. Marshall, Rediscovery of the Elements, The Hexagon of Alpha Chi Sigma, Spring 2005

4. The quote is from the paper by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences

The lore of lists

The lore of lists

He’s making a list,
and checking it twice;
gonna find out
who’s naughty or nice…

Santa Claus is Coming’ to Town, by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

Read. Check. Tick. Move down, that’s done, tick.

We undoubtedly take a certain pleasure in going through a list and ticking off all the things that we’ve already sorted out, item by item. It gives a comforting illusion of order, the impression that we are getting back control over our lives, letting go what’s unnecessary and keeping what matters. Decluttering is an essential need. At times, all we really feel like doing is tidying up, and making sense of the mess that inevitably tends to build up when we go about our daily business.

This is particularly true at the turn of the year, the perfect time to wrap it up, to winnow the wheat from the chaff (in plain English: pick what to keep and what to chuck). The end of December and New Year’s Day are especially conducive to lists. We’ve got, of course, the wish list par excellence, the one we submit to Santa for approval, and, like any other manuscripts (we’re scientists, after all) can be accepted, returned for revision or outright rejected. Except for the last case, we can safely say that writing of presents is a very pleasant pastime – reward circuits hardwired in our brains must fire in anticipation of the upcoming treat.

The dreaded “New Year’s resolution” list is another cup of tea: we all remember how it went last time, we all know we’re bound to fail, and yet we shall fall into the old bad habit of sitting down and drawing up the infamous list, once more, as the dying year is about to flicker out. Frustration, as it seems, will inevitably hit back on the third Monday of January, jokingkly considered the most depressing (a.k.a “Blue Monday“).

And then…there are those lists that you don’t even have to write (unless you are a journalist): you can just sit back and enjoy reading the selection of the most remarkable events or the greatest hits of the year while sipping mulled wine. “The best of (add year here) in (choose a topic)” is a classic late-December theme. Everyone seems to want to have a go at it: from authoritative dictionaries (the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2017 is youthquake) and high-impact scientific journals (Science‘s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year is cosmic convergence), to Chemistry magazines or blogs, and finally TV programmes at a loss for ideas.

Peer-reviewed lists

Arguably, one of the perks of being a scientist – apart from enjoying PhD Comics and going through your e-mails at a New Year’s party – is that you don’t have to wait until December to read ‘best of’ lists: review articles regularly come out all year round. Apart from generalist, flagship titles such as Chemical Society Reviews and Chemical Reviews, there are other journal publishing collections of review articles. Among them, the series Current Opinion in (add topic here) aims to address scientists’ need “to keep up to date with the expanding volume of information published in their subject” (in the publisher’s own words). With new issues every two or three months, these journals publish review dealing with a very specific topic.

We the electrochemists are fortunate enough to have our own Current Opinion in Electrochemistry, launched in January 2017 and reflecting the current fad for today’s renewed interest in electrochemistry; after all, “Never has electrochemical science been more active! Nor has the world seen so many electrochemists!”, as the Editors remark, somewhat echoing Churchill’s rhetorics. The scope and aim of the journal, outlined on the journal homepage, reflect a clear vision: articles should be “clear and readable”, while the vast domain of electrochemistry is broken down into twelve “themed sections”. As far as I can tell, articles in Current Opinion indeed tend to be a more digestible fare than the comprehensive yet usually oh-so-lengthy typical review.

Current Opinion in Electrochemistry has just turned one (offering access to a selection of articles free of charge – a Christmas present of sorts?), and so I find it tempting to look at all the published reviews as yet another end-of-year “best of” list. Inappropriate? I don’t really think so, because, in the end, authors have to be invited (by the editors) before they can write a review. This means that, apart from being recognised as leading scientists in their own research fields, perspective authors also need to have good connections – which never hurts: ‘networking’ has always been part and parcel of the practice of science. By incorporating this twofold prerequisite for selection, these collections of reviews end up reflecting both scientists’ impact and their visibility ‘beyond their science’; as such, these reviews not only provide an overview of the state of the art, but also the closest thing to a “Who’s Who” in contemporary electrochemistry.

Charting electrochemistry

However, what I want to focus on is not the authors themselves or editorial choices – as a humble postdoc, how could I dare defy the foremost authorities? Picking out certain authors and not others could also bruise someone’s ego and put me between a rock and a hard place – not the wisest resolution for the starting year.

Instead, I want to take a spatial turn: an analysis of the affiliations of the authors of the articles published in the first eight issues (six for 2017, plus two in progress and already available online) is a simple approach to mapping out electrochemistry on a global scale. Because I wanted to devote my holidays to (more interesting) pastimes (such as finding ways of braving the harsh cold wave gripping most of Canada), I have kept it simple and I would never claim that my analysis fulfills rigorous statistical criteria and the likes. In short, I have just avoided counting authors twice and, in the case of multiple affiliations, I have tallied both. By the way, I had to do it manually – which kept me busy for the best part of an afternoon a few days ago as I was coming down with a nasty cold.

The areas reflect the number of authors with affiliations in a given country. Data from the first eight issues of Current Opinion in Electrochemistry available online as of end of December 2017.

The resulting “atlas of electrochemistry in 2018” features clusters of countries and some archipelagos isolated amidst empty oceans, a weird planet in which entire continents disappear. Two superpowers stand out, the US and China, followed by other significant players on the global scale such as France, Japan, the UK and, maybe surprisingly, Spain, which outscores Germany. Taken as a whole, Europe is a global leader, a force to be reckoned with. Despite the clear limitations of my analysis (based on a single collection of reviews), the map is a useful snapshot of the leading centres of electrochemical research in 2017 as seen through the lens of their own peers. It also closely compares with more general trends in chemistry publications1 in 2017.

Has it always been like this? The answer is surely no: the global dominance of nations waxes and wanes, in football and science as in geopolitics. Nevertheless, it is quite hard to set out to compare the present situation with, say, that of fifty years ago, and for many different reasons. It would be too boring to address them here at length. Suffice it to remind that, in the Cold War era, electrochemistry and scientific research in general took place in a “divided world” (to echo the title of a Springer book I would like to read, but that is not exactly very affordable).

What lies ahead

As 2018 is about to start, two science powerhouses intensely compete for dominance, against the backdrop of global geopolitical trends and growing international mobility and collaborations. The analysis of the articles in Current Opinion in Electrochemistry shows that this discipline is very multipolar, and we can confidently expect it to become increasingly so, in the wake of changing trends in R&D funding.

Trying to forecast what is to come is one of New Year’s classic “trivial pursuits”, and, like good resolutions, one usually bound to fail. That’s why I won’t yield to the temptation to play the soothsayer: I’ll make no prediction on World Cup or Nobel Laureate winners for 2018. I’ll just send you, my patient readers, my warmest wishes for a wonderful 2018.

And remember:

[…]And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it

[…]Κι αν δεν μπορείς να κάμεις την ζωή σου όπως την θέλεις,
τούτο προσπάθησε τουλάχιστον
όσο μπορείς: μην την εξευτελίζεις

(As much as you can – original title Όσο Mπορείς, by C.P. Cavafy, Greek text available here, English translation here)


1. According to Web of ScienceTM, of the 31809 records classified as “chemistry” and published in 2017, 25% contain an affiliation in the US, 19% in China, 10% in Germany, 8% in the UK and 7% in India. France, Japan, Spain, Canada and Italy are the remaining countries in the Top 10.

The Stockholm Syndrome

The Stockholm Syndrome

Scientists do science for its own sake, but, being human, also respond to external incentives. Typically, the external incentive they care most about is recognition. Prizes are a part of the landscape of incentives […] To improve matters we propose a paradigm shift in the prize business: prize-granting entities should begin by identifying a major development and then determine the key individuals who contributed to it. Ideally everyone identified in this fashion would share in the prize[…]
S. Sondhi and S. Kivelson, Time to fix science prizes, Nature Physics, 2017, 13,822

Oh yes, it’s one of those days again… just after the equinox, when seasons shift and nights grow longer, when mists and mellow fruitfulness take over. Harvest time, time of plenty, when the fruit of our hard work is, at last, plucked and savoured. Like sweet corn, the golden delicacy of late-summer Québec.

But if we can all bite into a succulent corn cob, only for just a handful of us the reward will come in as solid gold, in the form of a medal.

It’s Nobel Prize week, again.

So here we are, back to fever pitch, all anxiously tweeting and wondering and, well, sometimes even betting (as the Simpsons famously did) on who will receive the ultimate scientific recognition and be crowned with the Nobel Laurel.


Last year, a friend of mine tries his hand, too, but he was not so successful…

for post

Nowadays, speculations tap into big data, thus making full use of h index and other devilish bibliometric tools. This is not my strongest suit and, for authoritative updates on the latest predictions, check for instance on Chemistryworld.

Ok, wait, maybe I’m wrong, maybe most of us chemists do not even care about the prizes and all the news hype…doubt arises and suggests me the really tricky question: should one care at all about Nobel Prizes? Should we worry about the Prize being given ‘yet again’ to a non-chemist? By the way, this reason for simmering discontent among chemists was wittily defused in this Angewandte Chemie editorial by -Nobel Laureate- Roald Hoffmann. He emphasises that, despite the media hype, “by recognizing excellence, the Nobel Prize evokes aspiration. Especially for young people”, adding that this prize can also be seen as a motivation for personal development, to aim higher and farther: “in our contemplation of prizes and contests […] we are reaching out for material and spiritual betterment in ourselves. The essential role of prizes may be a focusing of our own aspirations“.

I’ll come clean about it: honestly, I myself do not really know what to make of the Nobel prizes anymore. As a child, I used to feel deep admiration for the Laureates and dream of being among them one day, just as Hoffmann recalls doing as a teenager. Then, yes, there is the prestige and the fame that go along with the golden medal, and I would lie if I said that I am completely disinteresed in Nobel Prizes and fully immune to the fascination of the vintage glamour of its aristocratically anachronistic gala reception: the King, the notables, the white tie protocol, the splendour of the crystal chandeliers, the halls and the balls.
At the same time, my conviction that science is ultimately a collective endeavour makes me all too aware that the Laureates’ greatness resemble so much that of the great navigators of the Discovery Age. From the Chinese admiral Zheng He to Christopher Columbus and (Montréal oblige) Jacques Cartier, these undoubtedly outstanding, visionary, inspirational individuals would not have sailed anywhere without a crew (and someone providing them ships to do so…). Similarly, what would Nobel Laureates have done without technicians and other support staff? 1

My favourites among the Laureates are those who remain humble in victory and honest in glory, openly acknowledging the contribution of those around them. Good examples? Ben Feringa, who, in an interview to Chemistryworld, said:

I’m fairly privileged, like others in academia, to work with talented young men and women – undergraduates, PhDs, postdocs and coworkers. Over the years, several generations of students have passed through my labs and it’s a great privilege to have the brightest people around you every day. I don’t want to pick someone special out. We work together with many groups and each individual student contributed”

Or, for instance, take the Nobel Lecture by Aziz Sancar, in which (here I refer to the transcripts) Sancar, after saying “I have had the good fortune of having worked with outstanding students and postdocs over the course of my career who have conducted most of the experiments I described here“, goes on to list all lab members, collaborators and mentors.

Yet, will acknowledgements ever feature in the opening slide of the Nobel Lecture? That would be a momentous change (If this has already happened, please do let me know).

It’s clear from what I’ve written. It seems I’m coming down with a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts again: I can’t help liking the very thing I criticise…

Let’s tidy things up. There are several sides to this issue, which cannot be depicted as a simple love-hate affair.

Tales and their characters

In the first place, science needs its own stories, were it not just for outreach and communication. The public’s hunger for tales is a well-known fact. The key ingredients of storytelling are gripping plots, evocative descriptions touching the five senses, and unforgettable characters. Nobel winners – often larger-than-life figures – make for ideal protagonists (and the press is instrumental in this – even the reputable Chemistryworld did not resist the temptation to call 2016 Nobel winners ‘Supraheroes‘). In addition, the narrative of the discovery process, unravelling from an initial challenge to breakthrough and final success through toil, hardship, and a series of hurdles to overcome2, does work wonders because it matches a universal template for stories which is, arguably, hardwired in us since the most distant past3. It has fuelled our desire to listen to stories, from ancient myths to epic tales and Games of Thrones. In this respect, not only do Nobel Prize winners bring chemistry closer to the public as advocates of science, but also the special characters who make a timeless narrative machine tick faultlessy.

Yet, a conversation with a professor during a short visit at Coimbra made me think of outstanding chemists from another point of view. In a paper presented at the 10th International Conference on the History of Chemistry (Aveiro, 2015), Prof. Rodrigues pointed out that even great chemists are not as well-known by the lay public as one could expect, at least by comparing them to, for instance, famous scientists from other disciplines. He suggested that biographies of chemists could play an important role in bringing them closer to the public by getting under their skin, eventually unveiling what lies underneath the lab coat.  Chemists’ biographies are potentially powerful outreach tools which could be exploited much more effectively, Rodrigues argued, provided that they are well-written – that is, if they offer an objective depiction while avoiding a black-and-white stance which pits the the contributors to human progress against evil geniuses. After reading Rodrigues’ paper, I could not help wondering why chemists, even Nobel winners, easily tend to drop off the radar. Is it because chemistry is perhaps seen by the public as a somewhat ‘workmanlike’ science, done by skilled tinkerers (as Pierre Laszlo wrote), artisans, rather than by great geniuses? Does this stem once more from the ‘curse of invisibility’, plaguing what should be the central science, so “close[r] to the human scale” (in Hoffmann’s own words) that it eventually becomes too human, hence too material and lowly, to rise truly to fame in the public eye?

Winner takes all

Then, there’s the award itself. Our society, and all the more so the scientific community within it, shows a marked penchant for rankings, classification and the inevitable counterpart that goes with it: a pot-pourri of awards, prizes, badges, distinctions. The Nobel, the Prize par excellence, ties in perfectly with this rationale of evaluation and classification that seems to define our times, something that appears to be both an inevitable choice dictated by dynamics out of our control and a willing act of submission to and acceptance of a questionable logic of cut-throat competition. Winners thrive and shine, second-bests dive into oblivion (except for Mendeleev, who outshines 1906 Nobel winner Moissan, in a belated reversal of fortunes). Besides this, it is not at all surprising in that our global ‘Society of the Spectacle’, to use the famous definition introduced by Guy Debord, the media are quick off the mark to shine the limelight on the latest Nobel Prize, so as to satisfy the audiences’ insatiable appetite for winners, be they scientists or singers topping the charts. As long as you can tweet about it, everything goes.

Not that fame is the ultimate goal of most scientists…the article The not-so-noble past of the Nobel Prizes , appeared on The Conversation, reminds us that:

Ironically, receiving the prize that recognises a great accomplishment is often accompanied with a decline in scientific accomplishment. This is most likely due to the deluge of social demands placed upon the laureates, who are perceived not just as a great scientist but also a sage.

French biochemist André Lwoff, winner of the 1965 physiology or medicine prize, speaking on behalf of his colleagues, observed:

«We have gone from zero to the condition of movie stars. We have been submitted to what may be called an ordeal. We are not used to this sort of public life which has made it impossible for us to go on with our work…Our lives are completely upset…When you have organised your life for your work and then such a thing happens to you, you discover that you are faced with fantastic new responsibilities, new duties.» ”

The other side of the medal

Finally, I will not shy away from what are arguably the most controversial aspects: how does the Nobel Prize fit in with the era of the crisis of peer review, the push towards open access and science for all? Am I going so far as to advocating a worldwide referendum to choose the Nobel Prize? Not sure…in particular now that Le Monde Diplomatique warns us that we should beware of a referendum overdose, and yet I admit that would be a wonderful thought experiment. More simply, I am thinking about, for instance, the ideas for sweeping reforms of the Nobel Prize which were put forward in a Scientific American article: “The Nobel committees force a category error: they insist on awarding the prize to a few individuals, while in reality, the nature of the scientific enterprise has changed. Teams now perform the bulk of the highest-impact work“. Authoritative voices raise criticism, as pointed out in the Nature Physics editorial piece (cited at the beginning of this post) in which the authors suggest recognising the impact of developments in a field and then acknowledging the contribution of all key individuals, and not just three, as it is currently the case for the Nobel Prize. Assigning credit: this is a thorny issue, addressed in Nature News last year, and in the aforementioned The Conversation article, which focussed on the long-lasting neglect of women by the Nobel Committee.

New horizons

Time to wrap it up: what should we make of the Nobel Prize? “Does it affect our professional opinion of what is good chemistry? Hardly“, emphasises Hoffmann in his Angewandte Chemie editorial, suggesting that we should see the winners as inspirational figures. This reminds me again of the similarity between navigators and leading scientists, who, indeed, lead the way, opening up new research avenues. They, literally, “give the world new worlds”, to use an expression in Jardins de cristais, a book about chemistry and literature by the Coimbra chemistry professor that I mentioned before, Sérgio Rodrigues. In the Portuguese original, the expression reads “dar novos mundos ao mundo4, and refers to the key role of Portuguese sailors as pioneers on the sea routes opening up new horizons for the whole of Europe. The Portuguese seem to know it better, as reflected in their visual expression a leading lamp illuminates twice  (“candeia que vai à frente alumia duas vezes“). In an interview to Chemistryworld, a former member of the Nobel Committee tells us that one of the criteria for choosing the Nobel Prize winners is indeed that “The achievement should somehow open a door, or open our eyes. We will see things in a different way“. Exactly what great poetry does, remarks Rodrigues: “it shows and opens the way”. Nothing could express this better than the opening verses of a famous poem by William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 

As I wrote in one of the “propositions” (stellingen in Dutch) of my PhD thesis, a dozen or so statements that you have to be ready to uphold during the defence of your thesis, science is like chess and there are two ways of playing: one is to study all the possible sequences of moves, the other is to expand the chessboard. Though equally important for the advancement of science, only the latter can specifically be seen as the most important lasting legacy of outstanding scientists – or poets or philosophers (be they Nobel Prize winners or not). Broader horizons. New tricks up the chemist’s sleeve. A fresh outlook on molecules we have always supposed to know well. A deeper understanding of human nature.

This must be our own touchstone to scratch the surface and weigh the carats of the Nobel medals when, tomorrow, the Web and the press will be abuzz with the reactions to the news release. When the winners receive the ultimate accolade, and earn rightfully deserved universal acclaim; while their contribution to science is acknowledged in blogs, articles and news headlines, it won’t hurt to stop for a while and think about what lies underneath the gilding. Critical thinking is a scientist’s essential skill and skepticism, after all, has always been a defining attitude of chemists, as Boyle would agree.

The sheen and the medal: don’t let them blindfold you.

Gold is more than its glitter.


1. In this respect, the Royal Society of Chemistry rightly recognised the key role of a University of Nottingham technician, Neil Barnes, who was instrumental in performing the experiments that feature in the outreach collection Periodic Table of Videos starring chemistry professor and You Tube sensation Martyn Poliakoff.

2. Ben Feringa again: “During these first moments, I have to admit, I felt 30 years of emotion. Winning a Nobel prize isn’t something you do in a day, a week or a year. This was 30 years, starting as a young academic and slowly building up my group. We’ve had a lot of disappointments, but also breakout moments, and all of these passed by quickly in my mind: all the hard work, the emotions, the frustrations and the beautiful moments that you celebrate. I remembered how I was also silent, how I couldn’t speak, when I saw something moving with our molecular motors for the first time.

3. On this subject, the interested reader (oh that sounds so formal…) can refer to sources such as On the Origin of Stories, by Brian Boyd, and  The mind and its stories, by Patrick Holm Cogan.

4.Actually echoing a verse from the Portuguese epic poem Os Lusiades by Camões: “Novos mundos ao mundo irão mostrando”

The same cloth?

The same cloth?

The European scientist was a member of the intellectual class, dressed in a three-piece suit, watch chain across the vest and wearing a carefully trimmed beard or goatee[…]The American scientist is dressed practically, either in the lab coat or working man’s clothes. His clothes carry with them no hint of social rank, just as the monk’s habit abolishes the distinction of class at birth. The new scientist was clean-shaven, with short, slicked down hair. This reflected the new fashion for men of the day, especially in the U.S. and it also made clear that these men were progressive, concerned with the needs of the market, and distinct from the old professors. The new scientist was also pictured, metaphorically and literally, with his sleeves rolled up and getting down to work.

Andrew Ede, Abraham Cressy Morrison in the Agora: Bringing Chemistry to the Public, HYLE, 2006, 12, 193-214

A glorious summer afternoon filtered its blindfolding light through the foliage of the trees that flanked the side-street. We were strolling leisurely along the pavement, moving from sunny to shady cases like chess pieces shuffling quietly over a chequerboard, when I suddenly caught sight of him. A man was looking at us from his balcony. He must have been watching the passers-by to kill time. Small tired pupils peeped through slits, his cigarette hanging at a slant from his pursed lips. We could smell his gaze following us as we walked and inhaled the invisible smoke. We turned the other way, and our eyes breathed something else in, absorbing another kind of vapour, one that words emit, highly addictive if you yield to it.

An overdose of poetry.

They were hanging from trees – hey, wait a second, I’ve been scooped! That was my idea, hanging poems here and there –  dozens of poems printed on corrugated plastic sheets. The street, lined by short compositions and excerpts from longer ones, turned into a poetic hypertext, and you could zigzag from verse to verse, from side to side. Your path then became itself poetic word, an enjambement across the centre line.

Rue de la poésie

We gathered at the street corner for a poetry reading; the poets were randomly scattered among the bystanders, and it was obviously impossible to spot them before they stepped up. It was at this stage that my mind started drifting away, summoning up the sterotypical images of poets inspired by novels and paintings: the dandy and his walking stick, the penniless romantic with scruffy hair, the academic attired in waistcoat and black tie…
…I startled, a ripple of applause followed a poem, shattering the silence and those stereotypes, smashing them like cold, voiceless glass figurines in a recycling bin.

Instead, these poets are very much alive, they read their compositions aloud, giving voice to everyone of us in the audience, here, now. They walk the city with us, they tread its uneven pavements, they crush the splinters of cracked beer bottles under their shoes, only to craft an ocean from this archipelago of shards. Sometimes they are slovenly dressed, like aging rockstars, with unkempt flowing hair and a tatty old sleeveless T-shirt. Appearances deceive: their hands tremble as they read their verses. Otherwise they sport a trendy cloth cap, a well-groomed beard, a cigarette dangling from their lips: a little girl listens to dad’s poems talking of the hidden lane where she and her friends play hopscotch, where the wrought iron staircases spiral downwards. It seemed to me that these poets perfectly embodied Wallace Stevens’ definition of modern poetry, in Of Modern Poetry:

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.   
It has to face the men of the time and to meet   
The women of the time

“So much for my poetic stereotypes” – I said to myself, tongue-in-cheek, as I was looking at the distorted image of my face in a car wing mirror; then I wondered:  “Well, what about chemists, then?”

Lab coat anyone?

Say chemist, see a lab coat on two legs. Maybe. The lab coat is indeed a fascinating example of a powerful, long-lived metonymy that has become deeply ingrained in popular culture. Yet, there is much more to say about it.

On the hook without it

For instance, this metonymy that we almost take for granted is approximately a century old, and its origins are associated with development in photography and shifts in the self-image that chemists, or scientists, wanted to promote among the laypeople:

“There is some debate about when scientists were first shown in lab coats. [This] does not represent a new image, but rather an important interpretation of the image that contributed to the creation of a powerful visual metonym in the public sphere. The use of the lab-coated scientist as a metonym does not have a single source of origin. In part, it evolved from images of chemists and other scientists at work, where they often wore aprons or light overcoats to protect their suits. As photography improved, candid pictures of scientists at the lab bench became more common by the 1920s, so the wearing of the lab coat came to be associated with a scientist at work. The other source of the image came from physicians, who started wearing white overcoats and aprons in the late 19th century and were far more likely in this period to be pictured in their white overcoats than most scientists.” 1

“Scientist at work”. This is the key point. Although I enjoy finding similarities between chemists and poets, there is a fundamental difference with respect to the actual place where they let their creativity unfold. A poet can be a poet anywhere; instead, a chemist needs a lab to engage with the material world. I believe that this peculiar space, somewhat isolated from the rest of the world2 where ideas, matter, and human agency  interact, requires for the chemist to “switch” to laboratory mode by putting on a white coat. In a sense, I see the lab coat as a uniform that chemists need to don, not only because of safety concerns, but in particular because this unique garment is instrumental in putting the chemist in the right mindset before an experiment much as a jersey, a pair of boots, and shorts allow someone to become a player of a certain football squad. Additionally, I find it really fascinating that the white coat is an international metonymy of the scientist at work, which is a powerful antidote to the resurgence of national identities and socially divisive symbols which is sadly so rampant these days. Lab coats of the world unite.

That said, I must recognise that the white coat seems to experience fluctuating fortunes, and I speak from personal experience. Despite the widespread adoption of risk assessment practices and the improved safety records of academic laboratories, the approach to accident prevention remains “more relaxed” than in industry 3. Take for example the tragically famous mortal accident that occurred at the University of California, Los Angeles, in late 2008 . The investigations into the accident, and the ensuing trial,  uncovered violations of “occupational health and safety laws“. The research assistant was not wearing a laboratory coat when the compound that she was handling, t-butyllithium, caught fire, spreading to her clothes, thus causing fatal burns? Would a lab coat have saved her life? That is extremely hard to say.

Slip it on. Do it safely…

However, I believe that the (apparently) mixed fortunes of the laboratory coat cannot simply  explained simply a matter of a laissez-faire attitude displayed towards safety: I strongly suspect that apart from unsafe practices in the lab there must be something else at play, perhaps a growing intolerance towards this cumbersome item of clothing that makes all chemists look identical. Something utterly unbearable in the age of personalisation, where “be different” is a mantra that we hear over and over again. Oh, well, but you could always write something on the white coat to customise it, as we used to do as teenagers back at the technical school for chemistry. Never mind…

…but don’t overdo it!

Anyway, it is clear that the same fate does not lie in store for the other fundamental items of personal protective equipment, that is, safety eyewear in all its forms (goggles, spectacles, etc.). Throughout my career as a chemist, I have very, very seldom seen someone neglecting eye protection, or making light of potential eye damage, and this stands in stark contrast to what I wrote above about the laboratory coat. It seems that getting holes or destroying your clothes is perceived as a sort of acceptable risk (I will return to this point later on), while eye injuries, and the appalling images that they evoke, are enough to crank up every chemist’s vigilance. Tus ojos no tienen repuesto, ‘your eyes have no spare parts’, read a sign on the door of a laboratory at the University of Alicante, Spain, where I worked for a few weeks, and this short but effective slogan has stayed with me ever after. Apart from common sense, there must be something subliminal about this warning, and I wonder if it plays on chemists’ ancestral fears: the ever-impending danger of losing an eye to explosions, or other accidents may be, in this respect, a meme passed from one generation of chemists onto the next. Illustrious chemists have paid such a price while carrying out their research (Bunsen and Sharpless 3 to name a few). This fear also surfaced in an interview by Primo Levi about his life, Il segno del chimico (“The chemist’s sign”), when Levi recalls an excerpt from his practical organic chemistry textbook, the venerable Die Praxis des organischen Chemikers by Ludwig Gattermann:

Il più importante organo da proteggere è l’occhio. In tutte le operazioni che si svolgono sottovuoto o sotto pressione, ad esempio per le distillazioni sotto vuoto, o quando si pratichi per la prima volta il vuoto in un essiccatore nuovo, o quando vengano manipolati tubi di vetro a fusione, bottiglie a pressione, autoclavi, si porti sempre un paio di robusti occhiali protettivi, muniti di vetri spessi. Lo stesso vale per l’esecuzione delle fusioni alcaline, e per tutte le operazioni in cui si possano verificare spruzzi di sostanze caustiche o facilmente incendiabili: primi fra tutte,il sodio e il potassio metallici

“The eye is the most vulnerable organ. Safety glasses with sturdy lenses must be worn while carrying out all operations under vacuum or under pressure, for example vacuum distillations, or while operating vacuum desiccators for the first time, or when handling fused glass tubes, pressure flasks, autoclaves. Similarly, safety glasses must be worn at all times when carrying out alkaline fusions or during operations that can throw sprays of corrosive or highly flammable materials, first and foremost metallic sodium and potassium” 4

Let me finally say something else about the laboratory coat. I believe that the expression “white coat” does not really apply to chemists. No matter how hard you try, the coat will never remain white, and, please be careful, I do not mean to say that most chemists are careless and enjoy splashing coloured chemicals on their overalls. A laboratory can be an extremely dusty place, for example, with window sills placed behind massive equipment, out of the reach of dusters. Or, take fumehoods dedicated to the handling of strong acids: their sashes will inevitably rust, and striping your coat red with iron oxide is just a matter of time.

Feeling rusty?

So here is the chemist at work,  wearing safety spectacles, a no-longer-white laboratory coat, and closed shoes – no sandals, please! But what can we say about chemists’…well, ‘plain clothes’ ?

The parts and the hole

I have always thought, or assumed, that the chemist’s clothing preferences should be shaped by purely practical reasons. Chemistry is a hands-on science, after all, and flirting with stuff sometimes turns into a messy affair, in spite of lab coats; so, a chemist going to work – I believe – had better avoid wearing that pair of perfectly tailored pinstripe trousers, and varnished shoes. Just pull on those scruffy jeans, and a tattered (polo, T-) shirt, and this will do. As much as I am concerned, I subscribe to this doctrine…and maybe that’s why I advocate it! Joking aside, clothes are never fully safe in a laboratory. Droplets of corrosive liquids could inadvertently drip out of a pipette, and that’s it. By the way, the damage that concentrated acids and bases inflict to fabric look quite different (and I’m saying this on the basis of some very empirical evidence). Acids are more blatant: they will invariably make holes, upon contact or after the first cycle in the washing machine. After all, highly concentrated sulphuric acid burns through paper. Alkaline solutions, on the other hand, exert a subtler effect: they will leave a discoloured stain, but the change in colour will depend on the concentration, ranging from a faint shadow to major bleaching. (1 M NaOH will leave a somewhat greenish spot if spilled on paper).

Enter Mercer

Guess what? Alkaline treatment of cotton thread is a commercial process known as mercerisation. Sodium hydroxide “has the effect of swelling the cotton fibre. It converts the fiber from the shape of a ribbon to that of a rod with circular cross-section5. This process is named after its inventor, John Mercer (1791-1866), a self-taught British chemist whose success story is a veritable riches-to-rags-to-riches tale6 ending with his election as Fellow of the Royal Society. Born to a Lancashire family who owned a spinning mill, Mercer had to start working at the age of nine after his father died – his death being a dramatic epilogue of the terrifying sequence of financial disasters suffered by the Mercers. Eventually, our hero, who in the meantime had become a weaver in his teenage years, took a passionate interest in dyeing. Mercer was hired as apprentice in a colour shop in 1809 but an economic downturn in the printing industry forced Mercer’s employers to lay off staff. The apprentices, at the bottom of the pecking order, were of course those who bore the brunt of the recession. Sounds familiar? Anyway, Mercer had to fall back on his previous trade “with regret”. What follows6 is an anecdote relating Mercer’s random encounter with chemistry:

It is related that on his way to get his marriage license he stopped at a stall
to purchase a few books. One of these was a used copy of the “Chemical Pocket Book” arranged in a “Compendium of Chemistry” by James Parkinson of Hoxton
So, when you are rushing somewhere and you happen to spot a roadside bookstall along the way, listen to that voice, don’t be in a hurry, don’t walk on. Always stop and rummage through the piled-up second-hand books. You can never know what you can find in such a treasure trove. At the very least you can buy something to read while you are standing in the endless queue at the register office…(Mercer did eventually get married!).

In 1817 Mercer discovered the new dye antimony orange (antimony trisulphide), while the patent for mercerisation was filed in 1850. The rest is history.

Casual-chic: the scientist’s style

From Mercer to the fashion industry, the question is: does the no-nonsense attitude to clothing (call it poor dress sense if you like) carry over into a chemist’s …’off-duty’ clothing style? Not really, I think. My experience at several international conferences tells me that chemists can be as fashion-conscious as anyone else. A curious fact? Over the course of the last few years I have noticed that there is a fashion label which seems to be all the rage among scientists. In my eyes, this is completely inexplicable, and it is most likely a typical case of pandemic spread of consumer tastes. When in doubt, just follow the crowd. I wonder when this trend emerged, and who set it. In fact, fashion can cross all barriers of discipline or age: I have spotted lots of (male and female) physicists, chemists, engineers, from first-year PhD students to forty-something professors,  wearing the same range of preppy sweaters and shirts with the striped blue-white-red logo. These designer clothes invariably look casual-chic, and I think this is a killer combination that resonates with the scientist’s contemporary self-image, which hyphenates the desire to dress smartly with the will to break with the traditional suit-and-tie conference dress code. Or, maybe, the sporty look of this fashion label is an unconscious (Freudian?) way of covering up the sedentary lifestyle which is often part and parcel of the long-hour culture in academia.

Chemist-spotting is then quite a daunting task unless you are in a laboratory, and there is no birdwatching guide to help you. Yet, are poets and chemists birds of a feather?

Coda – a path cut from same cloth?

After all, you could easily get it wrong. Say you have come across someone who is wearing ripped, faded jeans, and this person could well either be a chemist bearing the scars of corrosive liquids, or simply that poet next door going out on a walk downtown. Wandering around the city, or in other words doing a déambulation poétique (‘poetic strolling’), is an approach to writing that I have only recently discovered. The act of strolling through the streets, while feeling the very heartbeat of the urban setting, turns into a pulse that informs the rhythm of the verses. The chance encounters, the pictures snapped along the way, the bustling city teeming with life, outline the framework of the poem. The wandering mind disconnects from pre-existing ideas and opens up, becoming more receptive, perfectly poised for inspiration, while also avoiding wallowing in nostalgia.

The writer’s block: on the latch, not locked.

In a talk, the poet Hector Ruiz, who has extensively worked on the déambulation poétique, described the figure of the écrivain déambulateur (‘strolling writer’) pitting it against the écrivain migrant (‘migrant writer’). The former strolls and explores the space of the city to feel the resonance of the self with the world here and now, thus loosening the inner shackles forged by the past, while the latter remains handcuffed, burdened with a heavy emotional baggage, a ballast that effectively blocks and impairs writing.

“Il y a un ici, un lieu à habiter, un espace et un langage à découvrir. La ville et la feuille”7

“There’s the here, a place to live, a space and a language to discover. The city and the sheet.”

Wander the streets, walk the ropes, weave your lines. Write.

Walking can set you free and open up your horizons, but if and only if you are willing to challenge yourself, letting yourself be challenged by what you see along the way . Indeed, sometimes it takes a detour around oneself to find the shortest route towards poetic creation. There is just one rule: drift on the flow that pulses through the veins of the city, fall into step with it: play the game, and you will not be playing the same old tune yearning for a long-lost time, but you will be singing something different, unbeknownst to yourself.
Any migration is a form of death, invariably accompanied by mourning; yet, another type of movement in space can side-step it, and that is strolling. There is no way back;  exploring the unchartered territory of the city is a forward-looking antidote to the merciless, irreversible exile from the past. Put yourself to the test, follow the cracks on the city pavements, those fault lines that mirror yours, those that scar you deep within. Unzip yourself, wear your tears, acknowledge them, because these open wounds are permeable membranes that set up a two-way traffic across one’s own borders: the desire to engage the city allows it to engage you, too.

Let’s take a break from strolling for a while to stop and think. There is something familiar in Ruiz’s sketch of the strolling writer’s attitude. In a sense, it reminds me of my description of the chemical and poetic inspiration in a previous post. More precisely, the strolling writer seems to combine the best of both worlds: the receptivity of the wandering mind, primed for that cue that will trigger poetic composition, along with the ability of to ‘feel’ the texture of the world that one is exploring, something that I associated with the chemist’s hand at work. Ruiz describes clearly that defining moment (éclaircie – ‘sunny spell’, a flash of lightning)  when inspiration sends ripples through that open gate. It is a voice, a vibrating pattern with its own characteristic frequency, defining a language, a pulse: riding the wave, letting it carry you along, is the only way to harness its force. All inspiration is resonance, all poetic composition is the result of impinging wave and of the inner structure.

Like in X-ray diffraction.

Or as good old philosopher Gaston Bachelard would say: “Le spectacle extérieur vient aider à déplier une grandeur intime.“, “The exterior spectacle assists in unfolding an intimate dimension” 8

Moreover, the idea of pinpointing defining features of the urban settings of the déambulation as waymarks guiding the poetic composition has a distinctive flavour that tastes like the mapping out of the energy landscape of a molecule, or a reaction. Map out, yes, I stress the word, because the poetic strolling and computational chemistry will draw a more or less fine-grained image, a reference grid that the poet will then flesh out, or the chemist make sense of.

At this stage, I would like to ask this question: is then chemical research a form of strolling, too?  The exploration of the material world, the sudden twists and turns, the unexpected serendipitous discoveries, the continual challenge to one’s own ideas and hypotheses, and the struggle to follow that trail that you think you have seen…indeed, there seems to be a form of déambulation in the lab. To answer this question, I could also look at a chemist who has crossed borders and boundaries, within chemistry, between disciplines, and between science and the humanities: Nobel laureate and poet Roald Hoffmann. In a short article, he stressed that “building bridges” has been a defining feature of his twofold career as scientist and writer, and this image of a movement that overcomes a separation (central to the reflection on geopoetry9) makes me wonder what Hoffmann would think of my depiction of the chemist as a scientifique déambulateur, a strolling scientist. (Aptly enough, Hoffmann was a migrant, too, when he left postwar Europe to reach the United States in 1949). In addition, Hoffmann emphasises that the fabric of chemistry is a networked universe of “hundreds of small[er] problems”, “puzzles”.
Charting paths, charting territories. This somewhat ‘topographic’ aspect of chemistry is the topic of one of Hoffmann’s poems,  Theoretical Chemistry, which is inspired by the exploration of energy landscapes:

You see, that thick lush growth stopped progress
here, but I could spot a road gathering
on the other side. That’s where we had to go.


[…]I saw tracks in
and tried to follow them. But it didn’t
work, bushes closed in, there was poison oak,
vines with rows of sharp red thorns. I came back
day after day, trying, tracing paths back

from the other side. For I knew a pattern,
the right way, had to be there. In the end
I found one, but  what’s bothered me since
is that I didn’t follow the paths that
are hidden there, the way I should have, but

I hacked a rough piece of a new one through.
The other day I met a friend who’s run
into the same wild terrain. Starting out
from a hill nearby, he found a different
way. But I told you there was only one.

Disallowed reaction pathways. Try elsewhere

The converging trajectories of Hoffman’s poem can be contrasted with the diverging “two roads” of Robert Frost’s famous The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From poetry to chemistry and back. The déambulation has come full circle.


1. Andrew Ede, Abraham Cressy Morrison in the Agora: Bringing Chemistry to the Public, HYLE, 2006, 12, 193-214

2.Chemistry: The Impure Science, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Jonathan Simon, Imperial College Press, 2012 (2nd edition).

3.From the Special Report: How dangerous is chemistry?, Nature, 2006, 441, 560-561 (doi:10.1038/441560a):’But what does seem clear is that academic labs are more dangerous than those in industry, with a more relaxed approach to safety.“We find that the accident rate [in universities] is 10 to 50 times greater than in the chemical industry,” says James Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Massachusetts. “In DuPont, if a guy hits his thumb with a hammer in Singapore, the chairman of the board has a report on his desk,” he says. “Imagine if that happened in academia.”
“In industry we often say that we are surprised more people aren’t injured in academic labs,” agrees Derek Lowe, a research chemist who blogs on “In the pipeline” (http://www.corante.com/pipeline). “In universities, people are still learning, and people work all hours. If you are there alone at three in the morning, that’s seen as a good thing.”

4.My translation. The Italian text is quoted from Il segno del chimico, Einaudi. I have not cited the original German text because I have been unable to retrieve a copy of Levi’s edition of Gattermann’s textbook (Die Praxis des organischen Chemikers. Von L. Gattermann, bearbeitet von H. Wieland. 26. Auflage, 428 Seiten, mit 58 Abbildungen im Text. Verlag W. de Gruyter &Co., Berlin und Leipzig 1939).

5.Robert J. Harper and Robert M. Reinhardt, Chemical treatments of textiles, J. Chem. Educ., 1984, 61 (4), 368

6.Sister V. Heines, John Mercer and mercerization, 1844, J. Chem Educ., 1944, 21 (9), 430

7.Ruiz, Hector. 2014. La voix déterritorialise. Autour du recueil «Qui s’installe?». Conférence organisée par Figura, le Centre de recherche sur le texte et l’imaginaire. Montréal, Université de Montréal, 30 septembre 2014. Document audio. En ligne sur le site de l’Observatoire de l’imaginaire contemporain. . Consulté le 9 juillet 2016.

8.Gaston Bachelard, La poétique et l’espace, Gallimard, 1961. Bachelard is also well-known for his works on philosophy of science, especially philosophy of chemistry, a subject which he addressed notably in Le matérialisme rationnel, Presses Universitaires de France, 1972.

9.Rachel Bouvet, Vers une approche géopoétique, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2015



Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. When people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

Anaïs Nin, in D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (and as found at the end of my PhD thesis)

I pulled over, and I thought about it. The wind was as cold as steel and sharp, invisible nails piercing through my hands, as I was filling the car up.

It was exactly then, as I was fiddling with the fuel dispenser at a filling station, that I thought about it once more.

We had been driving all over southern Wales, towards the setting sun, a race against the time, against a wild headwind, to see the sky blush orange and the sea swallow the remains of the day. The narrow road twisted up and down following the contour of the hills, a grey ribbon unfolding before us, a skin shed by an invisible snake, a trail for us to follow.

Directions, paths, cycles, and irreversible transformations. I thought about all of this as I sniffed the sweet organic smell of petrol. Harmful. Irresistible, like so many things in life. Like speed, and the fear and the thrill that go with it. What car racing is made of. Ayrton Senna once remarked that: “We are made of emotions, we are all looking for emotions, it’s only a question of finding the way to experience them. There are many different ways of experience them all. Perhaps one different thing, only that, one particular thing that Formula One can provide you, is that you know we are always expose to danger, danger of getting hurt, danger of dying1.

Heat as a source of motion. Danger as the source of emotion.

I had enjoyed that long drive, allowing myself some fun with the last gearstick that my left hand would shift for quite a long time. A long straight dives down, then an uphill strech comes up as a sharp turn approaches: brake, change down and double-declutch -or, I’d better say as far as I’m concerned, do your best attempt at it-, steer, enter the corner, open the throttle again, and floor the pedal: it did not take much more than this to feel as close as ever to the world of car racing.

Something clicked and I stopped day-dreaming. The tank was full, petrol dripping from the nozzle of the fuel dispenser. Droplets drifted in the wind while falling down, and I felt for those lost hydrocarbons, lost and vaporised into the crisp air of an early spring day, somewhere in Wales.

And I thought about it once more.

I thought about entropy.

Illusions of stillness

Thermal engines, and their elegant profiles sketched on pressure-volume plots. It seems like yesterday, but it is a life ago. Secondary school, my brand-new driving licence in my wallet, and those long hours studying invisible gasses being compressed, expanding, at a frustratingly slow rate, for equilibrium to be attained.

Stillness. Only then does entropy remain unchanged.

My duel with thermodynamics continued at university. Fast-forward to those rainy days of November 2002 when the grey city was drenched, its underground was flooded, and its sewers were bursting at the seams. At first, I felt a mortal dread of that first-year physics course. The professor, a middle-aged stamp collector sporting a grey toothbrush moustache, relished the thought of inspiring terror in his students, and wielded his power in the most unlikely of ways, for examply by punishing students who mispronounced physicists’ names. You could easily fail an exam because of the tricky uy combination in the name Huygens. 

Maybe that is why I ended up going to the Netherlands for my PhD. To learn to say “Huygens” the Dutch way. To visit the Provinces that could flourish during their Golden Age of tulips, trade and art. To see the canals criss-crossing Amsterdam. To meet the intense gaze of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and taste the overripe fruits that defy time in Dutch still lives.

Quasistatic images, like those reversible processes.


No. I’m fooling myself. It’s nothing but an illusion. Even then, even when she was actually by my side, even on those tablecloths… entropy ruled supreme, as it always does. Loss, dissipation, and disorder. Look more closely: there’s always a fly on the cheese, or a bruise, a crack on the skin of the fruits. They’re about to rot.

Stillness does not befit a chemist, after all. Chemical equilibria, one of the defining features of our science, hide microscopic, frantically reversible transformations occurring at a blistering pace, all under the cover of a macroscopic invariance.

So, a chemist’s inner balance is dynamically stationary, reminiscent of what Tolstoj writes in The Death of Ivan Ilych: “He in his madness prays for storms and dreams that storms will bring him peace“.

The howling gale was sweeping the Welsh coast.
I drove off. I turned the ignition on.
Time to go, follow the fuel and its flow.

Dissipation and multiplicity

I have always regarded the Second Law of thermodynamics with a mixture of awe and distrust. I am aware that this law stands for something powerful and ubiquitous, but I have always believed that it is, in some respects, utterly incomprehensible at the same time. Part of this gut feeling probably boils down to the countless ways of expressing, defining, interpreting the law. If you want to discover more about the confusingly multifarious nature of the Second Law, the Web will provide loads of notes, course handouts, etc. : just have a look out there, for example on this page.

What most angered me was the concept of efficiency. Don’t laugh at me! For reasons that I struggle to explain, I have always felt for thermal engines, toiling and sweating and ticking over, only to convert into work just a fraction of the energy extracted from, say, petrol. Dissipation was inevitable, like a thermodynamic curse placed on engines, a fact of nature which, I firmly believed, was deeply unjust.

So, despite passing all my physical chemistry and physics exams with flying colours, I always felt profoundly uncomfortable with entropy and the Second Law until I attended the fourth-year course on statistical thermodynamics. Boltzmann’s formula changed my outlook. It reads like this:

S = kB ln W

where kB is Boltzmann’s constant and W stands for the number of microscopic states consistent with a given macroscopic state. How to understand this concept? Suppose you want to describe an ant colony: you can choose to approach this task at a macroscopic level (how big the mound is, its temperature…) or try and describe the colony on the basis of the position and the speed of each ant. The overall appearance of the ant colony will not change for countless equivalent sets of positions and speed of all the individual ants. Well, these equivalent sets are by far and large a good example of what W means.
(At any rate, note that here we encounter once more the micro/macro duality that pervades all chemistry).

Another autumn, another clash with thermodynamics, another tryst with the Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was the year 2005, and I was preparing for my first adventure abroad, the Erasmus exchange project at Leiden University. I remember slipping handouts on the conjugation of Dutch verbs into the pages of the reference textbook of that course, the venerable Fundamentals of Statistical and Thermal Physics, by Frederick Reif.

I remember defying entropy with her. Perhaps.

One day, the lecturer stopped halfway a sentence, stared at us and said: “This formula is carved on Boltzmann’s tombstone“.He paused for a while, as if had forgotten what he was to say. Then, he quipped, grinning proudly : “Physical chemists never die, they tend to the maximum entropy”.

Equilibrium as the maximum number of equivalent states. Electing one is a kind of death.

Ode to entropy

A few days ago, on a sleepless night, I found myself thinking about Boltzmann’s formula and those long-lost days at university.

I closed my eyes. My mind strayed as I was humming a tune…

…infinité de destins
on en pose un
qu’est-ce qu’on en retient?…

…an infinity of destinies
we set one aside
what remainder will we keep?

…entropy, entropy everywhere once more, entropy blowing sand across the desert and I was wondering  what we keep, what we know, when we choose, take a turn, leave a path. I looked at my hands. I saw words as if tattoed on my skin.

occorrono troppe vite per farne una

“Too many lives are needed to make just one…”2

I startled. It was just an ink stain, my fountain pen had smeared my fingers, again.

Not a wink of sleep. My mind drifted away to the Aegean Sea, and somehow these forgotten words came ashore, like a message in a bottle, like a sudden flash:

μή, φίλα ψυχά, βίον ἀθάνατον
σπεῦδε, τὰν δ᾿ ἔμπρακτον ἄντλει μαχανάν. 3

Among others, here is my favourite translation:

O my soul, do not aspire to infinite life, but exhaust the limits of the possible”.

The limits of the possible…like in racing, the limits of grip define how fast you can drive, how dangerously you can live. Listen to Ayrton Senna once more: “you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, ‘Okay, this is the limit.’ As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further.1

Treading the fine line between grip and spin seems the price to pay to live life to the full. Like a ± sign, like the uncertainty of measurement, the secret lies in that blurry space, a shimmering haze surrounding our lives and defying all attempts to define them.

I thought about Boltzmann’s formula once more, and its being a special case of a more generic formulation of statistical entropy known as Shannon entropy related to information theory.

The higher the entropy of a state, the higher its probability, but also its microscopic randomness, which means that we know less about it. Yet, see it the other way: it is uncertainty that unlocks multiple possibilities, multiple equivalent states.

Not convinced?  Take Boltzmann’s formula. S = 0 when W = 1. Indetermination disappears when there is no multiplicity, and then we know everything. Or maybe not, because we can reach S = 0 only without being alive to experience it. To put it bluntly, death is the only case when there is just one possible state. What a price to pay.

Well…”Electing one is a kind of death” once more, right?

So, Boltzmann’s formula can really come into its own in our everyday life, as this is not a dry mathematical expression, but something within grasp.  For example, think about this interpretation: being alive, having in other words S ≠ 0, implies that there is more than one equivalent microstate. Well, I’d like to imagine that these microstates are the countless permutations and combinations of mood, thoughts, ideas that each of us experiences at a given moment in life.

In other words, we should stop despising entropy.  Look it in the face: after all, entropy was coined from the Ancient Greek ἐντροπία, meaning “a turning towards”.

Yes, I hear you shrug and say: “Brilliant metaphors, a fine piece of writing, but in the end that’s just empty talk”. Fair enough.  Yes, entropy may well be a spell cast on us, and yet everything changes when we make most of it, when we acknowledge and harness it. Now, the key question is, how to attain an equilibrium embodying the maximum multiplicity of accessible lives at a given moment? At the same time, how to make sense of and shoulder the ever heavier burden of the alternative routes that we have not followed, of all the paths left behind at the many crossroads, along the arrow of time?

We need to talk about chemistry

In my realms of chemical fantasies, I imagine that the arrow of time can put on peculiar disguise, such as the extent of reaction or the reaction coordinate, turning into transforming matter and space, respectively.

The extent of reaction is, as defined by the IUPAC Gold Book, an “extensive quantity describing the progress of a chemical reaction equal to the number of chemical transformations, as indicated by the reaction equation on a molecular scale, divided by the Avogadro constant (it is essentially the amount of chemical transformations)”.

So, if you take it word by word, the extent of reaction, indicated by the graceful letter ξ, is nothing but the amount of stuff being transformed, corrected by the stoichiometric coefficient (“as indicated by the reaction equation on a molecular scale”), and expressed in moles. Why am I talking about ξ ? Simply because it will unlock yet another reincarnation of the infamous Second Law, which sneaks in and determines the conditions for chemical equilibrium, and the direction of chemical reactions.

To understand this, we need to face the so-called Gibbs free energyG, something that is dearly beloved by chemists. A lightning sketch of what it means? Take a battery, any battery, and read its voltage. Guess what? You are looking at a masked form of G.

For those who prefer the nuts and bolts, G packs up in a neat way all sorts of variables that can come into play in chemical transformations. Its definiton is:


where H is the enthalpy, T the (absolute) temperature, and S our dear entropy. So far, so good, all like in a textbook. What I would like to point out is this:

  • entropy always matters, unless the temperature is zero.
  • entropy is not the only thing that matters, when talking about free energy…
  • …but entropy is to be inteded as entropy of the chemical system, so an “internal” state function of the system, while enthalpy is transferrable, energy exchanged with the surroundings.

Chemical reactions and their inner entropy, along with another form of energy that impacts what surrounds us. The randomness within together with the energy that we can share with those who are closest to us.

Chemistry can be so close to the human scale.

Unveiling what G really depends on is a good way of understanding free energy: pressure, temperature, and number of molecules are its natural variables. Let us focus on the latter, because it is, arguably, the ‘most chemical’ of the three.  If we forget about the first two variables, keeping them constant (or making the assumption that they shall be),  we start to understand why the extent of reaction ξ comes into play. We can imagine that ξ is like a dial letting us play with the concentration of reactants and reagents of a certain chemical reaction, changing their amount, which means moving the reaction forwards and backwards, and so time, at least in our thought experiment. G will respond accordingly: think about the focussing knob of binoculars, there will be a position giving the sharpest focus, while turning left and right will both give an unfocussed image.

Focussing means turning the knob until we reach the minimum blur.
Equilibrium means tuning ξ until we reach the minimum G.

This change in G as a function of ξ (the partial derivative of G with respect to ξ) is the free energy of reaction (watch out for the subscript r) which is accounted for by comparing free energies of products and reactants. This equals zero at equilibrium.

Let’s sum it up with a bit of maths and graphs:


Look at that last equation: ΔrH = TΔrS. Chemical equilibrium, the condition where the inner and outward energy associated with the chemical reaction are evenly balanced, without necessarily being equal to zero.

A dynamic levelling out of our randomness within, and the warmth that we give -or take.

Moreover, do not forget that we have set the composition of reactants and products by choosing the value of the extent of reaction minimising G. Is the chemical equilibrium then a boring stasis? Not really: two-way chemical transformations continue frantically and you can imagine that it is this ease of mutual interconversion of products into reactants and viceversa that embodies the “maximum randomness” corresponding to the minimum G. If we start from the reactant A, we can claim a much more detailed knowledge of what is in our flask than at equilibrium, when the molecules of A and B keep changing identity, despite being in macroscopically fixed proportions (set by the extent of reaction, which is the equilibrium constant in disguise).

Could chemistry be the most unlikely signpost of a dynamic peace, a waymark to happiness?

Shedding the old colours

Chemical equilibria are achieved through chemical transformations, and there is no better time of the year to talk about this topic than spring, the season of changes, of renewal. If life had a birthday, that would fall sometime in April. Yes, Eliot’s infamous “cruellest month”4, which turns wonderful when the “increase of the density of lived time may be found in those days of alternating sun and rain, […], when plants grow, almost visibly, several millimetres or centimetres a day. These hours of spectacular growth and accumulation are incommensurate with the winter hours when the seed lies inert in the earth5. The time of the year when birds migrate north, and wear their brightest plumage. They moult.

So does this blog: it sheds its worn winter feathers, sporting this new theme, and a new header image. Let me stop to acknowledge the work of a dear friend, fellow blogger, who took up the daunting challenge of turning my fuzzy ideas into a picture. Thanks ever so much, M.

This change accompanies yet another metamorphosis, another transition, a sudden gust of wind that makes my own flickering flame tremble and shake.
Like the atoms in a transition state…

…it was as I was listening to a song by the Italian band Baustelle that I thought about thermodynamics once more, on a sleepless night. Its title is La natura, (“Nature”), and the lyrics say it all:

L’unico modo per mostrare a tutti la felicità.
E’ la metamorfosi, la sola possibilità.
Ne sono sicura, muove la natura e la biologia

There’s just a single way of letting them all see
Only a metamorphosis will show how happy you can be
That’s a fact of nature of biology I can’t be wrong.

At a first glance, chemical reactions seem to imply that it is the outcome of the metamorphosis that matters the most. Beginning and end, products and reactants: what we had before and what we have in our flasks now; what we used to be and what we will be.
However, as my road trip in Wales taught me, with the many lengthy detours we had to take, there are countless paths between two given points.

Charting the course

Here we finally encounter the other form of (as I see it) chemical arrow of time, the reaction coordinate, which, by far and large, has a geometric meaning, along with my suggestion to interpret it as disguised time. The reaction coordinate represents the change in a chosen geometric feature of a reacting molecule (say, the distance between two atoms, or the angle between them) which can be a proxy for the progress of the reaction. In a sense, the extent of reaction was a reaction coordinate of sorts, referring to reacting stuff, and not geometry. Also, we note the macro/micro distinction again: the reaction coordinate is much more on a microscopic scale than the extent of reaction, which is rather an accounting tool to keep track of the amount of transforming matter.

Now, our discussion of G taught us that free energy plays a key role in chemistry, and all the more so when talking about reaction pathways, the trajectories of transformations. Say that the hydrogen molecule H-H is falling apart: we can imagine that H on the left and H on the right start to move farther and farther until they become loose. It takes energy to do so, and this “effort”, expressed in the form of free energy, can be plotted as a function of the distance between H and H.

At the top you will encounter the transition state.


Reaction energy diagrams are not restricted to this classical xy plane of textbook plots: reaction coordinates can be more than one, giving rise to geometric hypersurfaces. Take the molecule H-H again, and imagine mishandling it in all possible ways, by pulling, twisting, bending the poor thing as you try to break it apart.The transition state is by definition at the top of saddle points. This precise localisation also comes in with a well-defined configuration and a 50-50 of forming the reactants or the products of a reaction.

Too neat, too clear. I had rather talk about activated complexes instead. It takes energy to get there, to reach those fleeting arrangements hovering close to the highest point of the trajectory which transforms reactants into products. Life is on the edge up there, but what a scenery one can admire! On top of that, one must have a head for heights to be an activated complex, teetering on the brink of a headlong fall backwards, or poised to plunge forward at a breakneck speed. You must be a hybrid of past and present, an entity without clear identity. I quote this beautiful, almost lyrical description from Wikipedia: “in other words, [the activated complex] refers to a collection of intermediate structures in a chemical reaction that persist while bonds are breaking and new bonds are forming. It therefore represents not one defined state, but rather a range of transient configurations that a collection of atoms passes through in between clearly defined products and reactants.

Steer your reaction course, your racing line, the direction followed by the metamorphosis, climb the uphill stretch to the saddle point, become an activated complex, and then stop at the top of the pass, and enjoy the commanding view onto your energy landscape. Feel the wistful nostalgia for the reactant state left behind, be tempted by the descent backwards, yield to it, or dive down and cross the barrier into an unchartered territory,into the unexplored coordinates on the contour map…

La trajectoire de la course
Et ton message à la Grande Ourse
Un instantané de velours
Même s’il ne sert à rien

The trajectory of the race
and your message to the space
the sweetest picture we can take
though meaningless at all.

The path to the products may well follow a single course,  and yet all other trajectories will combine, and plot your graph.

And entropy will account for all the lines that part.


Footnotes & Acknowledgements

V.B. is gratefully acknowledged for the featured image, and B.P. for the photograph closing the post.

  1. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ayrton_Senna
  2. Eugenio Montale, L’estate (“Summer”).
  3. Pindar, Pythian 3, lines 61-62
  4. From the first lines of The Waste Land:
    April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain
  5. John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous