The first drop

La chimie rend heureux, la poésie rend triste,
Il faudrait arriver à une science unique
.
(Michel Houellebecq, Après-midi Boulevard Pasteur).

A leaky burette is a terrible thing, a negation of one’s self, a veritable loss of identity. In fact, the very essence of a burette rests on a pretty simple fact: the immobility of the liquid when the stopcock is closed. Only then do the graduations on the burette make sense at all, only then can the uncertainty affecting all measurements be minimised. Apart from the presence of a bubble in the barrel, a leaky burette is the greatest scourge of all analytical chemists, let alone of poor first-year undergraduates. Frustration and unhappiness build up if this happens during setup, while a burette that starts leaking halfway through a measurement is a recipe for disaster. A leaky burette resembles incontinence in that it always happens in the wrong place, at the wrong time: matter slips out of control, and the spill spreads on the bench. Volumes, graduations, everything loses their meaning. The accuracy of the measurement vanishes as the burette leaks.

So chemistry can indeed make you feel quite unhappy, with all due respect to Houellebecq’s witty remark. Yet, there is more to say…instead, could a leaky burette be the embodiment of freedom, a trapped fluid that escapes the constraints of the barrel and finally finds a way out of the boring routine of titration, an unavoidable descent through the stopcock into another liquid, followed by dissolution, reaction, and death by transformation? The escape of the dripping solution reminds me of In limine, a poem by the Italian poet, and Nobel Laureate, Eugenio Montale, and its encouragement to break free:

Cerca una maglia rotta nella rete
che ci stringe, tu balza fuori, fuggi!
Va, per te l’ho pregato, -ora la sete
mi sarà lieve, meno acre la ruggine.

Find a break in the meshes of the net
that tightens around us, leap out, flee!
Go, I have prayed for your escape—now my thirst
will be slaked, my rancor less bitter . . .

(English translation retrieved on http://www.sumtone.com/prog-note.php?workid=131)

In a leaky burette, the liquid finds the “break in the meshes of the net” (maglia rotta nella rete), and is encouraged to “leap out, flee!” (balza fuori, fuggi!). Gravity will eventually make it splash onto the bench, but freedom is in the reckless escape, regardless of its end.

Why then The leaky burette? The unifying science (science unique) advocated by Houellebecq will only arise at the intersections of chemistry, art/literature, and everyday life, at those interfaces where boundaries blur and overlaps occur, where the stopcocks that we take for granted leak. It is this leakage that I want to look for, and that I want to explore, post by post, musing over daily life in the laboratory, following the permanganate trail dripping out of a leaky burette.

It will be like a long stroll along a road one believed to be familiar with, but this time I will be walking at a slower pace, and I will be as curious as ever. I will stand at the crossroads and look at the hurried passers-by, waiting for that moment when, by sheer chance, a spark flies, eyes meet, setting the mind on fire, as it happens with love at first sight.

It will be as startling and surprising as the sudden realisation that a burette has been leaking into the beaker, and the indicator has irreversibly changed its colour all of a sudden. I believe that a glimpse of this science unique is in this leak, when a burette lets you down and forces you to think of it not as a useful piece of glassware, but as a puzzle to unravel.

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