By George B. Kauffman
(Author’s note: The following is a tribute to my mentor and longtime friend, Louis Coombs Weller Baker (November 24, 1921–April 15, 2003), on the 10th anniversary of his death.)
Compound α: Ode to a Complex Salt [CoCO3NH3)4]NO3.1/2H2O
“There and Back Again,” Bilbo Baggins’ original title for the Hobbit—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
It sits in a small, squat bottle on my office shelf,
A dull, brick-red, free-flowing powder,
Carefully labeled in a meticulous adolescent hand,
“Compound α, May 10, 1948.
First member of a growing collection of colorful substances,
Created with an endless parade of student protégés,
Now mature scientists scattered God knows where,
Today faceless names long since departed…
A partial payment of my debt to Lou.
The heavy metal fire door clanged shut behind us,
As Lou and I entered that part of the Harrison lab where freshmen never go.
In his apparatus-clogged office, bereft of human artifacts,
Save a solitary rose in a water-filled flask,
Through which the sunlight, the same glinting off his thick, rimless specs,
Cast a spectrum of the white pages of our prep book,
With growing excitement, we began our joint work.
He, the graduate assistant, towering over me, physically and intellectually,
And I, the admiring spellbound novice, obeying his commands and gesticulations;
Together we made the salt now gracing my shelf…
No wonder I dedicated my first book to him!
I used my work with Lou to write my first composition,
Breaking my defeatist conviction that I couldn’t write prose;
Like Cyrano, I spoke in my own voice for the very first time.
Before, I had others write my English compositions;
I even copied one from a book (Mea culpa!).
It only earned a “B”: Imagine that!
And now, years later, I turn to that first experiment again
To try my hand at poetry.
That salt was the color of dried blood,
Reason enough for me to make it.
I knew nothing of its properties, uses or reactions,
Its crucial role in the coordination theory
Erected single-handedly by Alfred Werner,
My future scientific hero, whose story I would someday tell,
After a year’s ferreting out the tale from his Nachlass,
In Zürich, that quaint medieval town on the banks of the Limmat.
That sheltered Jewish boy from Philly
Never dreamed where that salt would lead him,
Surprising his most unrealistic fantasies,
Honored and lionized on three continents,
Presenting a seminar in the shadow of Berkeley’s campanile,
Quizzed by a Nobel laureate;
Chairing a session in Moscow, while glancing out the window
At the gilded onion domes of Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov;
Lecturing in lush, rain-soaked Nikko,
Near the temple of the three monkeys
(See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil);
All this swirled like a genie
From that little magic bottle.
Trapped within each molecule of carmine crystals,
Hidden to the eye, ear, nose, and tongue,
Invisibly sleep four molecules of ammonia,
Slumbering harmlessly for six and a half decades,
Yet capable of expanding to liters of caustic, toxic gas
Upon the liberating touch of heat or chemicals.
The quintessence of stability…
I wish that I could be so stable!
And yet would I really want to trade my life today,
To be 17 once more, awkward and uncertain,
Dreading the future, assuming the worst?
The salt still stands upon my shelf, unchanged by time,
Exactly the same in weight and color and form
As when I poured it into its container through a paper funnel,
Careful not to lose a grain of my precious prize;
Give ’em Hell Harry was president then,
And a watergate was just an irrigation device.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.