I’ve grown tired of celebrating The Amazing Resources We Enjoy At Princeton in all the usual modes: gawking at fat stacks of cash in the back of the endowment trunk, fawning over a star-studded lecture schedule, tallying up our noble faculty’s Nobel haul, regurgitating admissions brochure platitudes about a “true undergraduate experience.” So I thought it more tasteful to examine some of the quieter manifestations of our supreme excellence. In the library I found what I was looking for.
The stacks in question are glossy but not glamorous: the vast selection of tremendously obscure academic journals in Lewis or Firestone Libraries, those sad denizens of dank bowels of JSTOR you never anticipated encountering in physical form. Having now spent some time drifting through the stacks and sampling their wares, I now reluctantly propose this semi-regular feature: some sly Nass layman (or laywoman) finds a lonely-looking journal and turns its pages, becoming possibly the first or third warm-blooded being to do so. After listless weeks spent immobile, making literal the cliché of “gathering dust,” these journals silently call out for our attention, sputtering forth their nervous bursts of American ornithology and Slavic linguistics and Turkish botany. The Nass writer tends to these pariahs, plucking one choice journal off the shelf and lavishing upon it the intellectual love and attention it deserves. After an inquisitive hour spent in its company, the Nass writer with a gentle pat sends the journal back on its way, and recounts the convalescent experience in writing. These journals appreciate being appreciated. Call it review as rehabilitation. I seek to appreciate them—to memorialize them in these pages—at least once before the next volume arrives and they’re relegated to the archives or the recycling or worse.
On my first foray I chanced upon Zeitschrift für Kristallographie—New Crystal Structures. It drew me in first with its promise of crystals, then with its Teutonic title. This is how it describes itself on its inside cover:
1) results of determinations to hitherto unknown crystal structures which do not justify detailed discussion of determination procedure, crystal structure, and/or structure-property relations (routine determinations and structures),
2) refinement of previously published crystal structures which do not require a new description or discussion
But that left me unmoved. So this is how I will describe it.
This is a showroom for crystals never before seen, novel compounds cooked up by chemists in university labs—almost exclusively in China, though occasionally in Iran or western Europe—crystals perhaps not useful enough to warrant serious investigation and yet somehow worth recording. For our intellectual amusement, perhaps, or to appease man’s boundless hunger for taxonomies. Judging by how faultless and crisp its paper remains I imagine I am a pioneer on these pages. I flip through the pages and see the structural diagrams of these crystals and I see the multifarious creations of man.
I see spindly mobiles I’d want twirling above my erstwhile infant head, honeycombed planes intersecting severely, elegantly lopsided stick insects that natural selection would’ve coolly snuffed out, sleek Tatooine hovercraft from unmade prequels, a slender rose rendered in sterile polygons. If I didn’t know any better I’d say I’d stumbled upon the fruits of countless lysergic rounds of Connect-the-Dots. In reality I had found diagrams of the unit cells of these crystals, that smallest most essential component that when endlessly reiterated forms the forms we see and hold and embed in gold. Even on this base level we unearth complexity and beauty, of a different kind than that of an emerald dripping off an earring, but there nonetheless.
Since I will never know those crystals in nature, and since there are no photographs, and since the journal offers only the most clinical descriptions like “blue-colored block” or “colorless block,” one unusual claim is true of all these crystals I encountered: these point-and-line diagrams prove will forever be their most evocative feature, surpassing the tangible thing itself. After a few minutes of browsing I soon spied a favorite, a fragile hourglass with a basketball hoop hanging off the top, which wondrous creature goes by the name of (5-bromo-2-pyrdyl)ferrocene, or C12H12BrFeM . I’ll never hold its cool weight in my palm or raise to the light. I’ll only ever know it by its imperceptible interior, by its hourglass-basketball hoop.
For some time I zoned out and pored through the crystals, tending only to the images. But after all this time treating this serious academic journal like a picture book, I figured I’d finally hack my way through the thickets of its text, using the somewhat blunt machete of my philosophy degree and vestiges of high school chemistry. I am happy I did so because I found some poetry buried therein. Amid tepid discussion of bond angles and methods of synthesis I discovered underneath each crystal diagram a set of data tables, each housing long strings of coordinates. They described, in three dimensions, the position of each individual atom in the crystal. This one fits there, this one above, that one askew: everything in its right place because we cooked it there. If we cannot know our grand design we can at least know theirs.