It is COVID-19.
It is a pandemic.
A global retreat sends everyone home.
Stay at home.
Shut in, distant, incredulous.
For weeks we have been bodies trapped in springtime, without relationships, the usual, the daily, the fortuitous, perhaps trivial, that are born and die in the unceasing metamorphosis of the horizons in life.
Stay at home.
Even the students of chemistry at the University of Ferrara.
Lab coats and gowns folded, suitcases filled with books, notebooks, periodic tables, and … so off home!
There, everything will be different, it will be safe.
To reach the motorway, in the direction of Venice, the mammoth Chemical Centre of the city must be navigated. It is a forest of chimneys and, towards the black sky, hazes of whipped cream ceaselessly defy gravity, and then lights, many lights.
Ferrara at night is like a deserted port, and the Chemical Centre its lighthouse. It could also be taken for an old funfair, puffing, without music but with some powerful outburst of youth.
There is something mysterious in there, something seductive … a complex so majestic that it inspires fear. Or perhaps not … In any case, it has something that attracts, like that behind the sparkle of Las Vegas … a gamble that provides work.
In fact, nothing seems more actively motionless, a chemical cathedral teeming with energy and a thousand lights determined to give the best of itself in a horizon that already seems to be embalmed.
Who knows …
Moving away, closer and closer towards home. I think of Alberto who, after working in the laboratory or being in the cafeteria, would say goodbye, take his bicycle and wander off right there into his own neighborhood, traveling through the narrow streets that reach him, like rivers flowing to the sea, with the grass thinned and frozen at the roadside.
“I sniff the chemical smells brought by the wind,” he would explain, with certainty, in his scarf, and this was only a short time ago. A few weeks ago.
What Alberto wanted to smell was the perfume of the future, a threat for those who are still young and dream.
We all dream of it, that future, that or another, with the table of the elements on the desk.
Stay at home!
With the gates of the University closed and the library and mess windows barred … only study remains possible, at home …
Wires that are technically invisible remove distances, creating new bridges: distance teaching, online didactics, cooperative learning, tutorial exercises … hurrah, everybody setting off for chemistry!
The apparent immobility is a ferment, creative reaction, an explosion of possibilities. The panorama has changed, has broken up old certainties and gives new ones.
Three, two, one … Go! Connected!
Every day the voices and hands of the teachers and lecturers “paint” on the monitor, draw graphs, integrals, new and incredible formulae. Their voices, sometimes a little puzzled, sometimes enthusiastic and relieved, spread out through the rooms of the house, the words of chemistry expand and mix in with the surreal silence, with the perfume of the dessert in the oven, with the buzzing of the first bees that beat against the studio windows, with the neighbors’ music, with the barking of dogs. Sound waves in the absolute, incredible, powerful silence of the lockdown.
No more the many expressions, the persuasive looks, the satisfied smiles, the typical gestures that distinguish and tell of the features, preferences, trends, and manners of every professor, that have always been scanned, probed, and investigated by students of all times, to smile over even when the years at university become a nostalgic memory. Now, those features, so necessary because so human, seem to fade away, now only voices and words, differing in timbre, accent, cadences, and inflexions that invite, explain, inform, encourage, amuse, and, with color, try to make us imagine new chemical and mathematical spaces.
Because the screen gives and the screen takes away, it does not send back the mimicry, the little personal grimaces, the glances that can stress a concept, underline a trap, describe the greatness, perhaps the miracle of a crystallization.
Study is now on the abscissae, it is listening, writing, or script reading, and on the ordinates … let us take up some imagination!
Because chemistry is creativity, inspiration, whim, risk, but it is also rigor, severity, passionate research, and brilliant liberty within the rules that must be observed and reinvented, that must be defied and experimented. Seek the essence, chemistry.
Dismantle and recreate the old, discover and try out the new, play with molecules and materials, with all those things that the planet has given us, both those that have preceded us from time out of mind and those that will survive.
Citing Steve Jobs out of context, chemistry, even in the times of COVID-19, seems to tell us, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish!”
To be famished within the walls of the house… not easy!
Something is missing, often the connection, but in fact, everything is very much missed: the journey from the lodgings to the department, and vice versa, the coffee from the machine, the laughter, the sandwich nibbled on the run, the weight of the rucksack or schoolbag, missed …”Oh Lord, I have forgotten my lab coat.”
In short, every day something or someone is missing, perhaps nearly everything is missing.
And what is especially missing … the chemistry laboratory.
How much is missed the feverish comings and goings between the bench and the scales?
How much is missed the emotion of weighing-separating-distinguishing-mixing-reheating-distilling …?
And the waiting, side by side with your companions, the consternation and dismay, and the satisfaction shared in a rapid glance, the doubts, the hope of having thought of everything, really everything. So much is missing.
Missing especially is the tension of the intimate duel, silent, constant, infinite, with the subject and with its/our inescapable fate.
Discovery, challenge, marvelous astonishment crash into the screen every day, nothing can replace the lay rites of the laboratory, nothing.
Do we all feel less like chemists now?
No, the COVID-19 virus does not diminish us, perhaps it mortifies the quintessence of chemistry, making everybody wear the mask and the gloves and takes them from us, but that does not prevent us from imagining, analyzing, improving, doubting, discussing, dismantling, interpreting, devising, and revising. Then, as always, more than ever, start again in the creative disorder that is mixture, that is life.
I was born in Brescia, raised in Romagna, and I’ve been living in Veneto, all in Italy. I am a wanderer not through choice, perhaps it has been my fate, and this applies also to my studies at university. Sometimes one has to walk very far and make many attempts before discovering the right way. At last I am sure that I have found it, enrolling in the department of Chemistry at the University of Ferrara, Italy, where I am attending for my first year.
Francesca Giorgi, University of Ferrara, won the Mention of Merit prize of the 2nd 1000xChemistry competition with this essay.