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.
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:
“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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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-section“5. 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:
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.
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.”
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
[…]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.
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).
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