An Adventure of Atomic Proportions

“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…

45 thoughts on “An Adventure of Atomic Proportions”

  1. You may be a geek, but I think geeks are awesome. There needs to be more cool people like you out there. There just aren’t enough. =) Great Post!

  2. Ah yes…I felt geeky just by understanding your jokes. It’s kinda like that time I watched a terrible movie with my ex-gf and they had a joke “Hydrogen and Oxygen are sitting in a bar when Gold walks in and they say “Ey You, get outta the bar!” Yeah, good times. We were the only two to get the joke in the whole theater.

    But hey, I sort of understand where you’re coming from. I love Chemistry as well, and I love programming as well. At times I wish I had chosen to continue my Chemistry education, but I feel quite content being a Computer Scientist for the time being. I’m still in school, so I always have the chance to change but I know it wont happen because of my scholarship being on a time limit (4 years).

    I’m sure that you will always ask yourself if you made the right choice, but I’m pretty sure that most people feel that you did. As long as you’re happy doing what you do, then you must have made the right choice.

  3. There’s nothing wrong with being a geek at all. My daily web surfing consists of: rotating between various blogs, wowwiki, star wars wiki, wikipedia, webcomics and playing around with excel spreadsheets.

    More people need to embrace their inner geek. It’s in there, just need to lure it out.

  4. A mole is an animal that burrows in the ground
    It’s a spot on your chin that you’ve gotta shave around
    But there’s another kind of mole that’s of interest to me
    That’s the kind of mole they use in chemistry

    A mole is a unit, or have you heard
    Containing six times ten to the twenty third
    That’s a six with twenty-three zeroes at the end
    Much too big a number to comprehend

  5. I love to see other people reveling in their geekery too!

    Being a geologist and a zoologist, I don’t know very many chemistry jokes. (Geology has *loads* of bad puns, though. “Want to go to the bar tonight? Fore shore!”) I do know one chemistry joke, though (courtesy of my mother, a biochemist). You have to imagine the numbers in subscript, however.

    What’s (H20)4? Drinking!

  6. Amazing post! I’ve always liked Physics more than Chemistry though. But here I am studying Computer Science 😀

  7. It’s not very common to have the right half and left half of the brain work together so well, but you (and many others here) make me feel less weird: graphic designer + marine biologist.

    Maybe we should all start a club…

  8. WOW- I have NEVER seen such an adorable display of geekishness 😀 I’m also glad that my mind hasn’t rotted to the point that I couldn’t understand what you were saying 😀

  9. Pike, people like you, with an intuitive grasp of chemistry and an ability to readily express it in lay terms, are in a state of precious shortage in the world.

    Maybe, just maybe someday, think about going back to school to teach science for a living 🙂 You could do the world (or at least a few hundred kids) a whole lot of good.

  10. You know it’s never too late to buy some books and start learning on your own.

    Most people think I’m an economist for real, however that’s just the same for me as chemistry for you. I studied it next to (and sometimes instead of) work.

    You wouldn’t guess what’s my formal education!

    It’s chemistry PHD, and your story is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read.

  11. I similarly thought of double majoring in biology and literature/writing during college, but ended up going the biology route. It’s been all right though. I still do a lot of creative writing in my free time! 🙂

  12. Aww, I loved reading this. That’s how I feel about Biology, and I ultimately ended up dropping that as my second major and going with my other love, English.

    I hope that someday you get to mix both loves into something rewarding. I bet there would be profound appreciation for creative ways of thinking about Chemistry.

  13. Chemists do it periodically. (I guess we’re the same as magazine folk…)


    And I learned that “Little Timmy was a chemist…” diddy as “Poor Willy was a chemist…”

    I love good puns, good jokes and a whisp of science to make my day… (no alphabet soup after my name, but I do chem for a living as well… just alot more “BS” 😉 )

  14. Greetings from Australia Pike. You say this is a non-WoW post … but my Terbina (Nagrand) is an avid alchemist specialising in transmutations … unfortunately no periodic tables required 😉

  15. Reading about your enthusiasm of science is very catching!

    I was torn between choosing something “sciencey” or “creativey” at university too. I ended up doing computing and arts (history and philosophy), which was a great mix, but I still wish I could have done more science or maths! Strangely enough, I’m now working in graphic design 😀 I wouldn’t change what I did though, except to choose to do more (if I could)!

  16. Lovely story, Pike. Geeks are very cool people, and geek jokes are the best. I used to love balancing chem equations too.

  17. You know Pike, Gary Larson has made a very nice career out of combining art and science. I’ve read your blog for a while, and much as I appreciate your warcarft info, you should do more posts like this. Great stuff!

  18. Heya Pike… ya know:

    Forensic Chemists do it protected

    Analytical chemists statistically, does it better than anyone

    Organic Chemists do it in oil

    LOL I know this post sounds like something that I should have posted at Runy’s “Unbearably HOT” blog… but great to see another geekie scientist at heart!

  19. I was the opposite in high school. I disliked chemistry, found it boring, and was absolutely terrible at it. Oh my god, I was awful at chemistry.
    You make it sound like it was so much fun!
    Go ahead and consider this an echo of the “consider teaching” sentiment. You’d probably be fantastic at it.

  20. That’s incredibly cute! But it’s NOT so, that you have to choose between science and art!

    I have a degree in engineering and I am now in the film business. A geeky mind can really help in a creative environment where technology has taken over – the pure artists need so much hand-holding, believe me. Tech-savvy artists are in high demand.

    Here’s the first thing I thought of upon reading your story: art + pure science: (Just the first semi-appropriate link I discovered to illustrate my point.)

    Think of all those nifty animated science sequences you see on Discovery Channel. It’s a niche occupation, for sure, but I think it might be worth your time to explore.

  21. Well I feel better now!

    I’m back in college after a 12+ year absence to finish a degree– and I’m finally taking Chemistry! .. and everyone’s been a bit incredulous that I’m pretty stoked to be learning about it. Ah, well. At least I’m not alone in my geekery!

  22. Hi there!

    Complete newcomer to your blog (though not sure how, I’ve been playing Hunters off and on for ages…) and so far loving it.

    I have to say, this in particular is the most awesome display of proud geekishness I’ve seen in years… big highfive and thumbs up from me!

    Anyway, I figured that this…. is something that you’d love just as much as I did. And I have only a cursory interest in chemistry, not nearly the extent you do!

    I’m just a nerd 😉


  23. Hey your a sweetie pikey hehe, keep it real and NEVER let your dreams die…its what makes this world magical.


  24. I honestly wish I had your combination of love and talent for something :). Rather, I seem to have a modicum of talent in any several different fields, but none at which I truly excel, and a love for few.

    Although seriously, you make chemistry sound hella fun.

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