When I was younger, I could tell my girlfriends had fallen head over heels in love when they dropped off the face of the planet. When we reestablished contact, it seemed like every other word out of their mouth was this new guy’s name, and everything we talked about reminded them of him. It was so charming and fun to share in that flush of excitement and anticipation that comes with new love, when a person is so smitten she can’t help it.
That said, I have a new love, named Chemistry. And my God, I can’t get enough.
I think in the past, I had a crush on Chemistry, admiring it from afar, the way I might look at an incredibly handsome and intriguing man across a bar and figure he’d never be interested in someone like me, who tends to walk into doors and gets excessively excited about talking animals. I flirted with Chemistry in my job as a research assistant, performing measurements in an art conservation context and wishing I really intimately understood what the spectroscopy was telling us. I even got fair at interpreting and explaining data in very specific contexts, but it nagged me, constantly, that I couldn’t apply what little I did understand to anything else.
My first proper encounter with Chemistry really didn’t go well. In the middle of two master’s degrees, while struggling to stay on top of my job and my art history thesis, I tried to jump into a condensed summer semester of Organic Chemistry, having taken the prerequisites ten years prior. I was a terrible student, I stayed up all hours of the nights talking with a friend of mine about boys and job frustrations and gossip, or complaining that I was frazzled and had so much reading and work to do instead of hunkering down and doing it. I think, as with many self-sabotaging situations, if I’m afraid I won’t succeed, I don’t apply myself, or I stunt my efforts, and I did a bang-up job of getting in my own way that summer (in all regards). I passed the class, but I didn’t get what I needed out of it, so it comes as no surprise that when I went to take Organic Chemistry II nearly two years later, this time as an actual chemistry major in a second bachelor’s program, I really wasn’t prepared.
One of the harder decisions I’ve made, financially and personally, turned out to be blindingly easy after all. I talked with my professor before the final exam and felt that even if by some unfathomable miracle I did well and passed the class (which I did, but barely), I really didn’t feel comfortable going forward as a chemistry major with the level of understanding I had. She agreed that organic chemistry is fundamental to the rest of what I would be learning, and that if I were starting out with such a shaky foundation, it was only going to get worse.
I retook both semesters of Organic Chemistry this summer, and I have to say, from the very first day, I knew it was the absolute right decision. Everything started clicking and making sense in a way it really never had before. I completely understood the reading, with a rich fullness that I never thought possible, and the more I learned, the more incredibly fascinating and illuminating I found the material. I used to treat labs like a cooking class, where I followed along with the procedures and stumbled through a half-assed summary in my reports, but this summer I found I really got what we were doing and why, that I could envision the reactions and explain why things were happening the way they were.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this summer was an epiphany, and I am thrilled at the prospect of moving forward in this field.
Chemistry feels a whole lot like the love of my life, an incredibly beautiful and rewarding pursuit that certainly tests my patience and challenges me at every turn, but keeps me breathlessly excited and anticipating the next encounter. It perfectly marries the ideas I was trying to pursue philosophically and materially through art and writing with an unbelievably satisfying glimpse into the order and nature of the universe, in a way that I find nothing short of electrifying. As with most loves, I imagine, I believe this level of enchantment and admiration will last forever because it is based in the purity of an empirical science, the intellectual equivalent of loving a person for exactly who they are. I might not always be so delighted with jobs or the interpersonal hurdles that come with any profession, but at the heart of what I’m doing, I truly love and believe in the sanctity and loveliness of science.
To bring my whole self to it, without hesitation or insecurity, to give my all and become a better person in the process, to rush in head over heels without fear… feels downright spectacular.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if I talk a bit too much about Chemistry after a long time without contact, or if I steer every conversation toward its charming habits and tendencies. The thing is, I’ve just fallen madly in love, and I can’t help it.