Wednesday, 10 August 2016

the romance of science

From Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks:

Scheele was one of Uncle Dave’s great heroes. Not only had he discovered tungstic acid and molybdic acid (from which the new element molybdenum was made), but hydrofluoric acid, hydrogen sulfide, arsine, and prussic acid, and a dozen organic acids, too. All this, Uncle Dave said, he did by himself, with no assistants, no funds, no university position or salary, but working alone, trying to make ends meet as an apothecary in a small provincial Swedish town. He had discovered oxygen, not by a fluke, but by making it in several different ways; he had discovered chlorine; and he had pointed the way to the discovery of manganese, of barium, of a dozen other things.

Scheele, Uncle Dave would say, was wholly dedicated to his work, caring nothing for fame or money and sharing his knowledge, whatever he had, with anyone and everyone. I was impressed by Scheele’s generosity, no less than his resourcefulness, by the way in which (in effect) he gave the actual discovery of elements to his students and friends – the discovery of manganese to Johan Gahn, the discovery of molybdenum to Peter Hjelm, and the discovery of tungsten itself to the d’Elhuyar brothers.

Scheele, it was said, never forgot anything if it had to do with chemistry. He never forgot the look, the feel, the smell of a substance, or the way it was transformed in chemical reactions, never forgot anything he read, or was told, about the phenomena of chemistry. He seemed indifferent, or inattentive, to most things else, being wholly dedicated to his single passion, chemistry. It was this pure and passionate absorption in phenomena – noticing everything, forgetting nothing – that constituted Scheele’s special strength.

Scheele epitomized for me the romance of science. There seemed to me an integrity, an essential goodness, about a life in science, a lifelong love affair. I had never given much thought to what I might be when I was “grown up” – growing up was hardly imaginable – but now I knew: I wanted to be a chemist. A chemist like Scheele, an eighteenth-century chemist coming fresh to the field, looking at the whole undiscovered world of natural substances and minerals, analyzing them, plumbing their secrets, finding the wonder of unknown and new metals.