The Chemoir Writing Project:

Transforming Matter into Meaning

Randall Wedin, Ph.D.
Wedin Communications

 

A "chemoir" is an essay that uses metaphors and images from chemistry to bring new meaning to experiences in everyday life. The two starting materials in this creative reaction are the chemistry textbook and the personal memoir (see Reaction 1 below). A hands-on chemistry activity is often included to catalyze the creative process and add an interactive component.

Hands-on Activity:

Chemistry Textbook + Personal Memoir ---> Chemoir (1)

Many images and metaphors from chemistry are already being used in everyday language (e.g., "that team has good chemistry," "a catalyst for change," and "litmus test"). In many cases, however, the originally rich metaphors have become empty, because most people haven't experienced the actual physical phenomena or understood the theoretical models that underlie these metaphors. And in some cases, our scientific understanding has changed so significantly that the image is now outdated and obsolete. The Chemoir Writing Project strives to breathe new life into old chemical metaphors and to introduce new metaphors from the world of modern chemistry.

Metaphors call on us to use all our senses, so these essays deal not only with ideas, but also with sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells. And they reach outside the familiar scientific territory of intellect and reason to bring in the emotions, dreams, and fears that are an essential part of the human experience.

By bridging the gap between the world of science and the world of everyday life, chemoirs encourage readers to travel back and forth between these two worlds, bringing new meaning from one realm to the other. For readers who are scientists, the essay format allows them to stretch their vision and imagination beyond the boundaries imposed by the traditional scientific formats of journal articles and textbooks. For the general public, these essays provide a non-threatening exposure and introduction to the language, images, and process of science. For students, especially those inclined toward literature and the arts, these essays (and accompanying hands-on activities) provide an alternate door into the world of chemistry.

Scientific communication will benefit as scientists and science communicators find innovative ways to discuss their theories, models, and experiments (and personal lives) with students and the general public. And science itself will benefit as experiences, intuitions, and observations from everyday life spark new scientific insights.

Sample chemoirs by R. Wedin include:

1. "Parenting: Maybe It Is Rocket Science", an essay on balancing work and family, integrating science and parenting. Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 3, 2003).

2. "Coffee Chemistry" an essay on caffeine, community, and bonding. Published in The Ruminator Review: The Independent Book Review (Spring, 2002)

3. "Breaking Down the Barriers," also written in the format of a longer (3250 words) literary essay, incorporates a simple, hands-on chemistry activity that could be performed by the reader.

Additional chemoir topics being explored and developed by R. Wedin include:

  • Seed crystals and crystallization
  • Covalent and ionic bonding
  • Solvent effects and chemical reactions
  • Chromatographic separation of inks
  • Extraction of dyes from plants
  • Polymerization at the interface of two solutions
  • Catalysis and activation energy barriers

Possible extensions of the Chemoir Writing Project include:

  • Book-length collection of essays written by R. Wedin
  • Magazine column (by R. Wedin and/or guest columnists)
  • Anthology of "Chemoir"-like essays written by various chemists/scientists
  • Curriculum guide to accompany essays and expand on the hands-on activities
  • Magazine feature articles profiling leading chemists, using a chemical metaphor from their research as the narrative vehicle for the story line (i.e. chemoir as biography instead of autobiograph)

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