Spectral Materialism


Chemists are all afflicted by a strange, morbid melancholy. A black humour that exhales from our twisted stills, and which is perhaps only a strange contagion caused by intimate daily contact with the intoxicating vapours of our solvents. It is said that even the brightest mind in human history, that of Isaac Newton, was momentarily overshadowed by the poisonous miasma of his alchemical mercury when, in search of the Gold of the Philosophers, he allowed himself to be plunged into the creeping darkness of chemical transformation. Moreover, the experience of experimental chemistry occupies a traditionally ambiguous position in the grand scheme of the sciences. Where the physics experiment is typically framed in order to provide a confirmation or refutation of a theoretical hypothesis formulated in advance, chemical synthesis has an intrinsically productive and transformative nature, having as its primary objective the generation of a new substance, and only as a collateral purpose—assuming it is possible at all—the construction of a predictive and generalised model of its field of knowledge.

In fact, it is curious how much the vision of science as the luminous triumph of reason over matter seems to be completely shattered when it encounters the test of life in the laboratory. It is not uncommon, within the walls of chemical laboratories, for fatalistic, even magical, thinking to spread about the forces controlling the outcome of certain operations of synthesis or techniques of analysis. In a confused grey area between superstition and irony, I have seen votive candles appear next to excessively capricious instruments, and apotropaic talismans based on animal remains forgotten in the dustiest corners of lab counters.…