The Sceptical Chymist | Chemiotics: Apologies to Borodin

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Can you picture yourself spending a week with a group of people who can’t tell an Angstrom from arugula, some of whom are wary of all “chemicals”. Many highly analytic types (mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, electrical engineers and even chemists) do just that and enjoy it immensely. I speak of adult amateur chamber music festivals (or ‘band camp for adults’ as one of my friend’s grandkids calls them). After 35 years of them, I only met the 5th chemist this year. They are vastly outnumbered by the other analytics, particularly mathematicians and physicists.

Participants are highly educated for the most part, but the most talented cellist this year was a moving-company man who hauls furniture around for a living, and I still remember playing with a marvellous 300-pound violist years ago who was a jail matron.

If you were an aspiring organic chemist in the early 60s, the bible was “Mechanism and Structure in Organic Chemistry” by Edwin S. Gould, a physical chemist amazingly enough. He also happens to be an excellent violinist and I had the pleasure of playing with him a few years ago. He’s still active in research although he received his PhD from UCLA in 1950. Who says chemicals are toxic!?

Occasionally the two cultures do clash, and a polymer chemist friend is driven to distraction by a gentle soul who is quite certain that “chemicals” are a very bad thing. For the most part, everyone gets along. Despite the very different mindsets, all of us became very interested in music early on, long before any academic or life choices were made.

So, are the analytic types soulless automatons producing mechanically perfect music which is emotionally dead? Are the touchy-feely types sloppy technically and histrionic musically? A double-blind study would be possible, but I think both groups play pretty much the same (less well than we’d all like, but with the same spirit and love of music).

I wonder why chemists are so outnumbered in this group? It’s been downhill ever since Alexander Borodin. Perhaps a larger sample is needed. Any thoughts?

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