- My own first love was biology. I spent a great part of my adolescence in the Natural History museum in London (and I still go to the Botanic Garden almost every day, and to the Zoo every Monday). The sense of diversity—of the wonder of innumerable forms of life—has always thrilled me beyond anything else.
- Personal correspondence, quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, "Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!", Dinosaur in a Haystack (Harmony, 1995), p. 245
- The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an aesthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, with awe. ... [The forest] has to do with the ancient, the aboriginal, the beginning of all things. The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or aeons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes. ... Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.
- “The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island” (Picador, London, 1996) pages 223-225
- Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.
- My Periodic Table, New York Times, 24 July 2015
Uncle Tungsten (2001)
Quotations are from the Knopf hardcover edition, ISBN 0-375-40448-1 (337 pp.)
- Hydrogen selenide, I decided, was perhaps the worst smell in the world. But hydrogen telluride came close, was also a smell from hell. An up-to-date hell, I decided, would have not just rivers of fiery brimstone, but lakes of boiling selenium and tellurium, too.
- p. 90
- We had a large old-fashioned battery, a wet cell, in the kitchen, hooked up to an electric bell. The bell was too complicated to understand at first, and the battery, to my mind, was more immediately attractive, for it contained an earthenware tube with a massive, gleaming copper cylinder in the middle, immersed in a bluish liquid, all this inside an outer glass casing, also filled with fluid, and containing a slimmer bar of zinc. It looked like a miniature chemical factory of sorts, and I thought I saw little bubbles of gas, at times, coming off the zinc. The Daniell cell (as it was called) had a thoroughly nineteenth-century, Victorian look about it, and this extraordinary object was making electricity all by itself—not by rubbing or friction, but just by the virtue of its own chemical reactions.
- p. 160
- I never heard [my parents] talk between themselves about Palestine or Zionism, and I suspected they had no strong convictions on the subject, at least until after the war, when the horror of the Holocaust made them feel there should be a “National Home.” I felt they were bullied by the organizers of these meetings, and by the gangsterlike evangelists who would pound at the front door and demand large sums for yeshivas or “schools in Israel.” My parents, clearheaded and independent in most other ways, seemed to become soft and helpless in the face of these demands, perhaps driven by a sense of obligation or anxiety. My own feelings […] were passionately negative: I came to hate Zionism and evangelism and politicking of every sort, which I regarded as noisy and intrusive and bullying.
- p. 171
- On one occasion—it was an oppressive Saturday in the tense summer of 1939—I decided to ride my tricycle up and down Exeter Road near the house, but there was a sudden downpour and I got completely soaked. [Aunt] Annie wagged a finger at me, and shook her heavy head: “Riding on shabbas? You can't get away with it,” she said. “He sees everything, He is watching all the time!” I disliked Saturdays from this time on, disliked God, too (or at least the vindictive, punitive God that Annie's warning had evoked) and developed an uncomfortable, anxious, watched feeling about Saturdays (which persists, a little, to this day).
- p. 172
- When I was fourteen or fifteen […] the Yom Kippur service ended in an unforgettable way, for Schechter, who always put great effort into the blowing of the shofar—he would go red in the face with exertion—produced a long, seemingly endless note of unearthly beauty, and then dropped dead before us on the bema, the raised platform where he would sing. I had the feeling that God had killed Schechter, sent a thunderbolt, stricken him. The shock of this for everyone was tempered by the reflection that if there was ever a moment in which a soul was pure, forgiven, relieved of all sin, it was at this moment, when the shofar was blown in conclusion of the fast […].
- p. 177
- During the war the congregation was largely broken up […] and it was never really reconstituted after the war. […] Before the war my parents (I, too) had known almost every shop and shopkeeper in Cricklewood […] and I would see them all in their places in shul. But all this was shattered with the impact of the war, and then with the rapid postwar social changes in our corner of London. I myself, traumatized at Braefield, had lost touch with, lost interest in, the religion of my childhood. I regret that I was to lose it as early and as abruptly as I did, and this feeling of sadness or nostalgia was strangely admixed with a raging atheism, a sort of fury with God for not existing, not taking care, not preventing the war, but allowing it, and all its horrors, to occur.
- pp. 178–179
- When I was five, I am told, and asked what my favorite things in the world were, I answered, “smoked salmon and Bach.” (Now, sixty years later, my answer would be the same.)
- p. 182
- A spectacular anomaly came up with the hydrides of the nonmetals—an ugly bunch, about as inimical to life as one could get. Arsenic and antimony hydrides were very poisonous and smelly; silicon and phosphorous hydrides were spontaneously inflammable. I had made in my lab the hydrides of sulfur (H2S), selenium (H2Se), and tellurium (H2Te), all Group VI elements, all dangerous and vile-smelling gases. The hydride of oxygen, the first Group VI element, one might predict by analogy, would be a foul-smelling, poisonous, inflammable gas, too, condensing to a nasty liquid around −100°C. And instead it was water, H2O—stable, potable, odorless, benign, and with a host of special, indeed unique properties (its expansion when frozen, its great heat capacity, its capacity as an ionizing solvent, etc.) which made it indispensable to our watery planet, indispensable to life itself. What made it such an anomaly? […] (This question, I found, had only been resolved recently, in the 1930s, with Linus Pauling's delineation of the hydrogen bond.)
- pp. 204–205
- It came upon me sometime in my fifteenth year that I no longer woke up with sudden excitements—“Today I will get the Clerici solution! Today I will read about Humphry Davy and electric fish! Today I will finally understand diamagnetism, perhaps!” I no longer seemed to get these sudden illuminations, these epiphanies, these excitements which Flaubert (whom I was now reading) called “erections of the mind.” Erections of the body, yes, this was a new, exotic part of life—but those sudden raptures of the mind, those sudden landscapes of glory and illumination, seemed to have deserted or abandoned me. Or had I, in fact, abandoned them?
- p. 310
- This new quantum mechanics promised to explain all of chemistry. And though I felt an exuberance at this, I felt a certain threat, too. “Chemistry,” wrote Crookes, “will be established upon an entirely new basis…. We shall be set free from the need for experiment, knowing a priori what the result of each and every experiment must be.” I was not sure I liked the sound of this. Did this mean that chemists of the future (if they existed) would never actually need to handle a chemical; might never see the colors of vanadium salts, never smell a hydrogen selenide, never admire the form of a crystal; might live in a colorless, scentless, mathematical world? This, for me, seemed and awful prospect, for I, at least, needed to smell and touch and feel, to place myself, my senses, in the middle of the perceptual world.
- pp. 312–313
- And I often dream of chemistry at night, dreams that conflate the past and the present, the grid of the periodic table transformed to the grid of Manhattan. […] Sometimes, too, I dream of the indecipherable language of tin (a confused memory, perhaps, of its plaintive “cry”). But my favorite dream is of going to the opera (I am Hafnium), sharing a box at the Met with the other heavy transition metals—my old and valued friends—Tantalum, Rhenium, Osmium, Iridium, Platinum, Gold, and Tungsten.
- p. 317