The Chemist and the Alchemist

Last February, we saw an art exhibition inspired by a fairytale, The Painted Lady and the Glass Man. It’s a cute love story based on the relationship of the painter/glassblower couple, Tracy Levesque and Peter Zimmerman. The whimsical and other-worldly imagery made me wonder whether I could write such a fairytale based on the relationship of Son and me.

Here’s a shot:

Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young chemist. He worked long hours each day, impelled by an almost maniacal impulse to seek pleasures amongst smoke and vapors, poisons and poverty. He saw the elegant beauty of electron orbitals and high-yielding reactions and delighted in the challenge of harnessing the most unpredictable and unruly of species: transition-state molecules. He dreamed of using his power over the molecular world to solve problems and cure diseases in the human world.

In contrary to popular portrayal, the chemist did not work in a basement in solitude. Rather, he worked alongside colleagues and apprentices in a tower overlooking beautiful sunsets on the city skyline. These were his sources of inspiration and relief as he wrestled to unlock secrets at the molecular level.

The chemist had started from humble beginnings, having grown up in a declining post-war mill city in the Far East. He nonetheless developed a strong sense of nationalism and pride in his academic achievements. Through his fortitude and diligence, he gained a fellowship to study at the nation’s capital. Four years later, he graduated first in his class of young chemists. The chemist’s dreams had not stopped there, though, and in a quest for the highest knowledge and deepest truths, he traveled halfway around the world to an American university. The American university did offer state-of-the-art laboratories, groundbreaking science, and good friendships, but the chemist doubted whether these were enough to keep him an ocean away from his homeland.

One year, the chemist was assigned an apprentice who stood out from all others he had worked with. She was young and ambitious, smart and hardworking, as any good apprentice should be. She was also lovely and nimble, with long golden hair, chocolate brown eyes, and a dance in every step she took. She was observant and meticulous and could be quite stubborn at times. “Clever people are usually somewhat stubborn,” the chemist noted. He was unsure how to tutor an apprentice who was at once so enchanting and willful.

The apprentice learned quickly, and she accepted the chemist’s invitations to join him for hot cocoa or a walk on the lawn, though at times she looked eager to get back to her reaction flask. The chemist doubted whether a traditional scientist such as himself who had grown up half a world away could connect with a Western girl such as his apprentice. One summer afternoon, he invited her to venture farther from the laboratory for a stroll around nearby Lake Phalen, where East met West in a friendly competition of dragon boat races.

As they walked along the lakeside, the chemist asked the apprentice, “Are you the dawn or the dusk?” “Are you the bird or the plane?” “Are you the candle or the light bulb?” And through her replies, the chemist found that they were kindred spirits in their love for tradition, elegance, beauty, and simplicity. They were the type of scientists who concerned themselves with concise natural laws and succinct equations rather than best-fit models that required estimation of multiple parameters. At the end of the day, what mattered was the binary question of whether or not their chemistry produced the desired product.

“I do honestly love my work with you,” said the apprentice, “but I want to do more than just synthesize natural products. Those are challenges that have already been solved by evolution. Why must we work so hard just to create the poison of a dinoflagellate? We should be able to create more useful, valuable products out of the basest, cheapest starting materials. Sunlight, for instance. I want to capture golden sunlight and harness it as stored energy. Then I can truly make a difference through my work.”

“Do not underestimate such industrious microorganisms as dinoflagellates,” the chemist teased. “By replicating their work you learn the answers to questions you were not clever enough to even ask. Turning golden rays into electric current is a noble goal, but it seems more like alchemy than chemistry to me. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t follow your heart. No matter what you want to do, I will support you.”

He gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead, and she nestled into his side. And at that moment, the chemist  knew that he no longer had an apprentice to train; he had an alchemist to mentor as she set out to tackle life’s most elusive goals.

The alchemist spent several months making dyes and star polymers and functionalized buckminsterfullerene to capture sunlight. Once she had captured the light, though, she was at a loss to know how she could conduct it and store it and use it. She traveled across the country to learn more about the electrodynamic properties of materials and decide how she might move her science forward. The alchemist and chemist were sorry to be separated to by so much distance but hung onto faith that science would bring them together again soon.

The alchemist soon learned about a new, intriguing, and somewhat elusive material with a powerful set of conductive, diamagnetic, and mechanical properties: graphene. Soot shaved into a single atomic sheet. The alchemist set out to produce graphene from soot on a large scale that would be useful for conducting the solar energy she had captured with her dyes. After several months, though, the chemist remained unsure whether the soot she that came out of her reaction flask contained graphene. And if it did contain graphene, how could it be isolated and harnessed to use in photovoltaic devices? Not knowing how to move forward, the alchemist withdrew from her chemistry and wished that the chemist would be near her again for guidance and support.

“I’m afraid that I have strayed too far from the practical chemistry you taught me,” she told the chemist. “Come join me in Massachusetts.We will marry and I will try once again to use the art of organic synthesis to create good for the world. I will create medicine, an elixir to cure all ailments.”

“I’m afraid that you are still an alchemist at heart, my dear,” said the chemist. “But I will of course join you as soon as I can find a laboratory in Massachusetts to work in.”

The chemist and the alchemist had a small, lovely wedding, and the chemist joined his wife in Massachusetts as promised. The alchemist, however, did not create an elixir. As she studied the work of others who had tried to create elixirs before her, however, she discovered the power and danger and elegant mechanisms of medicines already in use.

“I want to use medicine to heal the most fragile patients,” the alchemist now professed to her husband. The chemist supported this plan for it was, indeed, the most practical one she had yet set her heart to.

The alchemist studied pathophysiology and pharmacology and pharmacotherapeutics for three years and then sought out an institution that could make use of her newly honed skills. She visited prestigious hospitals in the city, humble hospitals in the countryside, and outpatient clinics in the suburb. She grew weary and sad as she failed to find a suitable place to carry on her vocation.

“I have so many dreams and so many plans but none seem to work out any longer,” the alchemist said wistfully, remembering her simpler days as an apprentice.

“Have faith and patience. Things will work out. Not the way you had imagined, and not as soon as you would like, but everything will fall into place in time.” The chemist presented her with a rectangular package wrapped in deep blue paper. The apprentice opened it gingerly, and inside was a clothbound journal. The fabric was an Oriental motif evoking images of cranes wading in a lotus-filled pond.

“I made it for you in the tradition of my father and ancestors,” said the chemist. It is a place for to put your hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments. It will help you find your place in the world.”

“Thank you,” the apprentice said simply. She stroked the spine and corners of the journal, appreciating the craftsmanship and love that went into making it. Then she clutched the book to her breast and gave the chemist a peck of the cheek.

Over the coming weeks, the apprentice filled the journal with anecdotes, observations, accounts of her travels, predictions, frustrations, and joys. She learned to put some distance between herself and her life, and through this she was for once able to recognize how far she had come. She hoped to also discover through her writings her path forward, a way to best use the experience, skills, and insight she had gained as an apprentice and as a vagabond alchemist.

One winter evening as she sat writing on the couch in front of a crackling fire, the apprentice reached last page of her journal. She felt no sense of satisfaction as one who had finished a novel. The journal contained many poignant observations about life and love, but there was no well-defined beginning to the story or conclusion.

“This is my problem,” thought the apprentice. “I’ve spent my whole life looking for meaning and purpose where there is none. I put hours into this journal, but in the end, it is nothing more than the ramblings of a lost girl.”

With that, she tossed the journal into the fire.

“Don’t underestimate the value of your ramblings.” The alchemist jumped at the sound of the chemist’s voice behind her. “Life is not about where you go or what you do. It’s about who you are. The family that you came from and the family that you create. Once you know who you are, everything else falls into place. You are a scientist, an alchemist, a pharmacist, a healer, and a loving person. You don’t need to try so hard to make a mark on the world. You will make your mark on the world just by being you, a person who can solve any problem thrown at her, a daughter devoted to her parents, a wife who will be faithful to her husband to the end of the world, a woman who will one day instill her children with wisdom, and a citizen who is generous… but only on her own terms. You strive for quality in all that you do. You change every institution that you pass through for the better. And that, dear lady, is the mark you will leave on the world.”

“Oh, I am so sorry, love. Look what I’ve done. I’ve taken your gift, put my heart and soul into it, and tossed it into the fire. You are right. I need to stop worrying about the destination. Living is in the journey.”

The chemist embraced her, and they fell asleep in each other’s arms before the hearth.

When she awoke, the apprentice lit a lamp and peered into the ashes on the hearth.Her eye caught the glimmer of gold, perking her curiosity. She took a poker and prodded through the ashes and coal, revealing the outline of her journal. Lifting it out of the hearth and dusting it off, she saw that it was, indeed her journal, but it had been transformed in the fire. The cover was now made of gold, and when she opened the book, the alchemist found that each page was a sheet of strong, flexible graphite with shining silver writing crossing each page. She sat down with the book to read it and found that although some of the pages told familiar stories that she could remember recording in the book recently, other pages told stories of her childhood and still others told stories of the children she would one day raise. She saw that her life to this point was, indeed, a good one, and she saw that the adventures ahead would bring both tears and joy but at the end of the day, they were also good. Finally, she saw her vocation as a scientist, alchemist, pharmacist, and healer fulfilled as a developer of new medicines, one who helped define the safety and efficacy of compounds that would bring hope to people now suffering and allow their physicians to make the best treatment decisions possible.

The alchemist closed the book and set it down. She looked at her husband still asleep. She was thankful for all that he had given her and resolved that she had a gift to bear for him as well. Quietly and gently, she nestled into his side once again and fell asleep with newfound peace and new life growing inside her.


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