“Celebrated annually on October 23 from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m., Mole Day commemorates Avogadro’s Number (6.02 x 10^23), which is a basic measuring unit in chemistry.”
If this blog has an official holiday, it’s Mole Day. I know I’ve announced it on this blog at least once before, and I’ve been annually announcing it on my LiveJournal for years.
However, rather than simply announce it this year and then move on, I’ve decided to actually go into a little depth on why I take note of this day every year, since I know the vast majority of you have your head tilted and are scratching your scalp. Get ready to enter the bizarre little world of Pike…
DISCLAIMER: This is a non-WoW post. If you are here for the WoW, it won’t hurt my feelings if you skip it.
A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I was about ohhh, four or five years old. My mom was in pre-med school, and she was taking a biochemistry class. And at some point she realized that I could be her little study buddy. So she sat me down with some paper and told me about this magical world that was so tiny that nobody could see it, and it was made up of atoms and molecules. Then she started telling me about them and drawing little diagrams on the paper. About how “H” was hydrogen and had one bond, and “C” was carbon and had four bonds, and “O” was oxygen and had two bonds, and so long as I remembered those rules, I throw a whole bunch of letters onto the paper and connect them with lines and make my very own molecule!
So I did. And my mom looked at it and told me what molecule it was. I was in awe. I drew a new one, and she did the same thing. I’m pretty sure this was my mom’s clever method for studying for a test or something, but what she didn’t know was what she had unleashed in her little girl’s brain. See, I found this molecule world to be absolutely fascinating. For days after that I would fill up spiral-bound notebooks with giant sprawling molecules that I had “invented”. One day I found out that since “H” had only one bond, it could bond to itself, like so: H – H . I showed this to my mom, proud of what I’d discovered, and she informed me that that was how Hydrogen worked in its natural state. I was just floored by this all. It was the coolest thing ever. My mom even milked my new little obsession by getting me chemistry kits and letting me leaf through her huge textbooks. I soaked it all up.
So flash forward several years to high school when you could choose to take either physics or chemistry and I, of course, chose chemistry (unlike pretty much the rest of the high school.) I vacuumed everything up; it was all just amazing to me. Combining chemical elements to make new substances? It was so magical to me.
The next year I went even further and took Advanced Placement Chemistry. Now, those were the days. We had a lab class once a week and a lecture class on the other days and I just poured myself into that class. Balancing chemical equations was my favorite thing in the world. It was like my version of Sudoku or something. I also took about a hundred index cards and made “Reaction Prediction Flashcards”– Various chemical substances are mixed together under a certain circumstance, what happens?– and I memorized those things the way a kid would memorize his Pokemon cards (or the way I memorized my Pokemon cards, for that matter… /cough) My excuse was that it was “practice” for the big scary AP Chem test at the end of the year, but really I just loved doing it.
It was also about this time that I first read the book “Uncle Tungsten“, a collection of memoirs written by the famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, about his childhood love affair with chemistry, and I identified poignantly with it. I was sure that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to play with molecules and chemicals and make things.
…but there was something else competing for my geekish heart.
I have long told people that I am too sciencey to be an artist, but too artsy to be a scientist, and that would rear its head several times throughout my journeys in chemistry. As much as I loved the technical side of everything, I also found myself taking an unusual position in science: seeing the art in it all.
In the margins of my notebooks I would sketch up anthropomorphic caricatures of each of the chemical elements. Carbon was represented by a diamond, and Mercury was a crafty shapeshifter. Helium was a large red balloon who was rather self-conscious about being a noble gas despite having only two valence electrons. I wondered about their lives and their stories. Did the noble gases, I wonder, feel terribly lonely that they couldn’t naturally bond with any other element? Did the halogens go through their life filled with a longing and aching to be filled with that missing electron? I didn’t think they felt this way for real, of course, but all I could think of was how great of a story it would make.
I wrote up dorky chemical love poems.
I’ll be sodium if you can be chlorine
And together we’ll form a
Binary ionic pair;
On second thought, you tend to be
More positive than I so
You can be sodium there.
And made dorky chemical jokes.
“What’s another name for a ring of steel? A Ferrous Wheel!
I marveled at how beautiful the Periodic Table of the Elements was. Everything all aligned and in its place. It was a tool, but to me, it was also a work of art.
And thus it was that at some point I decided that instead of making things, I wanted to tell their stories, and so that other love of my heart– my love of art and fiction and stories and little film reels in my head– finally carried me away. I hung up my lab coat and my goggles (I really did own both of those, and loved wearing them,) and went to college and majored in Media & Theatre Arts. Originally I wanted to double-major in chemistry as well, but there is literally no overlap between the classes in those two completely different majors, so it would have been expensive and time-consuming, and so other than one chemistry class freshman year (that I didn’t have to take but I took anyway because I wanted to), thus ended my formal training in science.
In the years that have passed since then, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice. Sometimes I want nothing more than to dig out my lab coat and goggles and run away and become a scientist, the way other “freaks” would join the circus. Alas, life is a little more complicated than that, and going back to school is expensive, so I sit here and I dream. I dream about chemical elements with emotions and feelings who live and play in a gigantic laboratory, and the adventures they have.
And I carry a Periodic Table of the Elements in my wallet. Because it’s beautiful. And quite loveworn with use. (And cause you’ll never know when you’ll want to work out exactly how many sodium atoms are in the bag of chips you’re eating on break.)
So Happy National Mole Day.
…and yes. I’m the biggest geek of all time. We don’t have to beat around the bush here…