Last week I said that that I do not like Isaac Asimov’s fiction. I deliberately specified fiction because Asimov’s nonfiction is not only informative but also highly readable and enjoyable. One book in particular, Adding a Dimension (which, sadly, seems to be out of print) holds a place of high esteem and considerable sentimental value in our family.
I can’t remember when I purchased this book. I might have still been in high school. My oldest son read it as soon as he was old enough. I can’t remember when that was either but I’m sure it was at a younger age than most people would expect and it clearly affected him for life. We still occasionally refer to the book in conversation, often obliquely.
I want to share the beginning of one of our favorite chapters. I’m sitting in the dark corner where our computer lives, typing this while trying to keep the book open so please pardon any mistakes I might make.
It is difficult to prove to the man in the street that one is a chemist. At least, when one is a chemist after my fashion (strictly armchair).
Faced with a miscellaneous stain on a garment of unknown composition, I am helpless. I say, “Have you tried a dry cleaner?” with a rising inflection that disillusions everyone within earshot at once. I cannot look at a paste of dubious composition and tell what it is good for just by smelling it; and I haven’t the foggiest notion what a drug, identified only by trade name, may have in it.
It is not long, in short, before the eyebrows move upward, the wise smiles shoot from lip to lip, and the hoarse whispers begin: “Some chemist! Wonder what barber college he went to?”
There is nothing to do but wait. Sooner or later, on some breakfast-cereal box, on some pill dispenser, on some bottle of lotion, there will appear an eighteen-syllable name of a chemical. Then, making sure I have a moment of silence, I will say carelessly, “Ah, yes, ” and rattle it off like a machine gun, reducing everyone for miles around to stunned amazement.
Because, you see, no matter how inept I may be at the practical aspects of chemistry, I speak the language fluently.
But, alas, I have a confession to make. It isn’t hard to speak chemistry. It just looks hard because organic chemistry (that branch of chemistry with the richest supply of nutcracker names) was virtually a German monopoly in the nineteenth century. The Germans, for some reason known only to themselves, push words together and eradicate all traces of any seam between them. What we would express as a phrase, they treat as one interminable word. They did this to the names of their organic compounds and in English those names were slavishly adopted with minimum change.
It is for that reason, then, that you can come up to a perfectly respectable compound which, to all appearances, is just lying there, harming no one, and find that it has a name like para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde. (And that is rather short, as such names go.)
To the average person, used to words of a respectable size, this conglomeration of letters is offensive and irritating, but actually, if you tackle it from the front and work your way slowly toward the back, it isn’t bad.
He goes on to explain, clearly and quite entertainingly, the meaning and history of each syllable and by the end of the chapter you can easily pronounce para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde. It will be worth whatever effort it takes to find this book in a library or used book store – read it and make your kids read it.* They will surely thank you for introducing them to the endlessly entertaining lifelong pastime of getting on people’s nerves by using “big words” and knowing all sorts of interesting facts.
*I should add that no one ever had to make my kids read anything. Really, if you want your kids to read just let them see you reading.