Sunday, August 21, 2016

ETC: Vonnegut, Djerassi, and a Mystery Polymer

I've recently finished the 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, by acclaimed science fiction / humor writer Kurt Vonnegut. For those unfamiliar with Vonnegut's work, I enjoy drawing parallels* between him and "chemical provocateur" Carl Djerassi.

These two men share some odd similarities: born within 13 months of one another, each man suffered the Second World War - Djerassi as a refugee; Vonnegut as a POW - and had their personal lives scarred by young, tragic deaths in their families. Nevertheless, both became prolific writers of short stories, novels, and plays, and both lived to be elder statesmen in their chosen careers: Vonnegut to 85, and Djerassi to 91.

I'd even wager that they looked somewhat alike, with their bushy mustaches, well-coiffed hair, stylish clothing and impish eyes:

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut
Credit: Enotes

Chemist and writer Carl Djerassi
Credit: DLD / Stanford

Breakfast of Champions convinced me that Vonnegut may have had more than a passing fancy for chemistry, himself. Consider this hand-drawn rendering of a mystery plastic, ostensibly factory run-off that main character Kilgore Trout has unfortunately found stuck to his feet after wading through a river in Midland City, Michigan:

Credit: Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
Clearly, that's a cyanoacrylate co-polymer - think Superglue - and it seems to be drawn with a dendrimeric A-B-A architecture. I'm guessing that the ethylene glycol spacers (O-CH2-CH2-O) are meant to suggest the foaminess several characters encounter in the novel, that this mystery polymer is "...the stuff f***ing up Sacred Miracle Cave...", an in-book tourist trap overrun by large, odorous brown bubbles.

Incidentally, I love Vonnegut's inference for the continued polymer chain; where we chemists might write n, Vonnegut inserts his time-work "ETC."

Why? I'll let the author explain his philosophy:
"The man who taught me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be Professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.
 And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them - with an abbreviation that means sameness without end.
 The proper ending for and story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation . . .it is in order to acknowledge the continuity of that polymer that I begin so many sentences with 'And' and 'So,' and end so many paragraphs with '...and so on.' 
And so on. 'It's all like an ocean!' cried Dostoevski. I say it's all like cellophane."
Sometimes you encounter (surprisingly accurate) chemistry in places you didn't expect.
So it goes.

--
*Bonus: Here's Roald Hoffman interviewing both authors in a 1999 piece for American Scientist magazine

6 comments:

  1. More chemistry exists in "Cat's Cradle", also by Vonnegut. A scientist discovers ice IX which is stable at room temperature and pressure with the typical disastrous consequences. Of course there is an actual ice IX but it's only stable at very high pressures, think GPa.

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  2. More chemistry exists in "Cat's Cradle", also by Vonnegut. A scientist discovers ice IX which is stable at room temperature and pressure with the typical disastrous consequences. Of course there is an actual ice IX but it's only stable at very high pressures, think GPa.

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    1. Came here to mention Ice Nine in "Cat's Cradle". Fantastic book.

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  3. I recently heard a lecture from Nocera, who was apparently buddies with Vonnegut too. Nocera tells some story about Vonnegut cheerfully talking about how the planet will rid itself of the scourge of humanity when we choke ourselves out with carbon emissions. Weird. He definitely was interested in the Chemistry though.

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  4. Highly recommend Galápagos by Vonnegut, as well! The effects from the disease he describes sound an awful lot like Zika.

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  5. Kurt's brother Bernard Vonnegut was a chemist (PhD in P-chem from MIT). There is a wonderful book about the two brothers, "The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction of the House of Magic", but Ginger Strand. Much of the chemistry in Kurt's novels is in vague reference to work from that his brother had done.

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