Isaac Newton: Alchemist Role Model?

Olivia Judson writes about Isaac Newton in today’s New York Times (“The Ten Days of Newton“).  It’s heartening to see an article in a major newspaper discussing some aspect of science in both an informative and entertaining way.

I must confess that I use Sir Isaac Newton as one of my secret justifications for my interest in alchemy, as well as my interest in the interaction of science and religion.  If he could dabble in alchemical studies, I guess it’s OK for me to do the same.  (See Wikipidea’s extensive article on “Isaac Newton’s Occult Studies.”)

Published in: on December 24, 2008 at 7:51 am  Comments (1)  
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How to Synthesize a Chemoir

Forty-two years ago, as a fifth-grade student at Meeker Elementary School, I discovered the mystery and power of mixing two different substances. Following Mrs. Mathre’s instructions, I stuck a measuring spoon into a small cardboard box.The front of the gold-colored box featured a big red circle and a curious drawing—a muscular arm holding a hammer. Carefully scooping out a heaping portion of a white powder, I dumped the powder into a clear plastic glass. Then, I picked up a Dixie cup that my teacher had given me, a cup half-full of a stinky, colorless liquid. The smell reminded me of my kitchen and of pickles.

As I poured the liquid onto the powder, I experienced magic.

Today, I’m still mixing different materials, and I’m still amazed at what can erupt from this simple process. My materials these days are just as dissimilar as the baking soda and vinegar of my youth. Now, however, I like to mix experiences and ideas from two different worlds—chemistry and parenting.

I am a creative nonfiction writer, Ph.D. chemist, and single father of four sons. My training as a chemist and my parenting responsibilities provide me with a living laboratory that’s full of ideas, metaphors, materials, conflicts, chaos, and order. As I write, I explore how concepts and activities from the world of chemistry and science have provided me with new perspectives on parenting and on living a deeply-felt, authentic life. I believe this practice of finding connections and meaning in the “stuff” of our daily lives is a process that’s available to all of us, and through my writing I invite others to do the same in their own lives.

I have been a professional freelance writer for the past fifteen years, pursuing two streams of writing. One stream deals with science and technology, the other with parenting and fatherhood. At first blush, my twin writing interests might seem incompatible, as different as oil and water. In recent years, however, I have started to deliberately mix these two disparate interests. I have been exploring a new writing format that I call the “chemoir.”

A “chemoir” is an essay that uses metaphors, concepts, and images from chemistry to bring new meaning to experiences in everyday life. Many chemical images and metaphors are already being used in everyday language (e.g., “to distill the essence of a story,” “to be a catalyst for change,” and “litmus test”). In many cases, however, the originally rich metaphors have become empty, because most people haven’t experienced the actual physical phenomena that underlie these metaphors. And in some cases, our scientific understanding has changed so significantly that the image is now outdated and obsolete. We’ve lost the ability to experience the world as the alchemists did—to understand that transformations in the physical world can mirror similar transformations in our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual world.

While writing chemoirs, I try to breathe new life into old chemical metaphors and introduce new metaphors from the world of modern science. Metaphors engage all our senses, so these essays deal not only with ideas, but also with sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells. And they reach outside the familiar scientific territory of intellect and reason to bring in the emotions, dreams, and fears that are essential elements of the human experiences. By bridging the gap between the worlds of science and everyday life, chemoirs encourage readers to travel back and forth between these two worlds, bringing new meaning and insight from one realm to the other.

Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 9:55 am  Comments (2)  

Parenting: It’s Not Rocket Science (Or Is It?)

In an essay I wrote several years ago,
“Parenting: Maybe It Is Rocket Science” (in The Chronicle of Higher Education), I listed some of the ways my Ph.D. in chemistry prepared me for parenting.  In the intervening years, the list has grown, and I could add a number of new items to the original list of four lessons.

Here’s one that seems especially appropriate this week, when my four children (ages 23, 20, 17, and 15) are all together for the first time since last Christmas break:

Lesson 1:  It’s very challenging to find a solvent that works for four different chemical compounds.

One of my goals for the next few days will be to find activities and interests that will “dissolve” (i.e., actively engage) all four boys at the same time.  With their diverse interests, it’s going to be a challenge.  Here are some of these activities/solvents I’ll be trying:

  • Food (Feeding three omnivores and one vegan will be tricky.)
  • Music (Their favorite musical genres include trance, indie, “noise” and “nerdcore hiphop.”   I like Baroque.  Can you say “generation gap?”)
  • Board games (“Cranium” worked last year.  I’m going to try “Apples to Apples” this year.)
  • Road trip (We’re driving 200 miles together next Sunday.  Enforced togetherness will either be a big success or …)

Synthetic chemists believe that finding the right solvent is both an art and a science.

Wish me luck.

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 8:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Seeking Your Design Comments

Just like in a chemistry experiment, I’m going to be tinkering with the design elements (i.e., reagents, reaction conditions, etc.) in the coming weeks. Please let me know what you think.

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 10:12 pm  Comments (1)  


Welcome to my new blog.    I’ve been writing about science and parenting for a number of years–always in the print world.  Now I’m joining the online world with this blog.  I’ll be building this site over the coming days and weeks.

In the meantime, if you want to check out some of my previously published print articles on this topic, please visit my website at

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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