Tag Archives: chemistry


Nimbus II, Berndnaut Smilde

Nimbus II, Berndnaut Smilde


I’m so pleased to be starting our nonfiction november with an essay by Mika Taylor.  Enjoy!


eu·di·om·e·ter  (yü-dē-ˈä-mə-tər) n.  [Gr.  eudios, clear, fair (eu-, good + dios, genit. of Zeus, god of the sky) + meier].  1.  originally, an instrument for measuring the amount of oxygen in the air.  2.  an instrument for measuring and analyzing gases.


I pictured a machine – some complex contraption with tubes and knobs and glass spirals. It measures the air. Air is everywhere. It measures the everywhere.


In reality, it isn’t much – a simple apparatus – an upside-down test tube with numbers on the side, its mouth end submerged in water, a pipe leading from another closed tube in which something (anything) combusts. Arrows point the gas up and out the pipe, under the water and into this numbered tube, pop, pop, pop, floating to the top, and displacing what it can. Once the material is burned, the gasses released, there is a number, an exact measurement that those far better with numbers and chemicals and processes than I, will use somehow.


I don’t know how much gas there is in in a penny or a pound cake. I don’t know how much gas there is this room right now or on the planet or in myself. If I did know, that knowledge wouldn’t matter. I cannot change the number. I don’t think it would change me. These things exist. They are measured. Is there comfort in knowing that they can be quantified, and that others are doing that job? Perhaps.


There are so many things I would measure if only I could construct the right network of tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners. But I do not have the expertise. I measure and order and quantify what I can with words, not numbers – parsing language to better explain all I see and feel. But life is not exact. Life is complicated and long. There is beauty and pain. There is beauty in pain. I try to find order, but with words there is so much slippage. What I mean, and what I say, and what you read, and what you understand, are all different, all variable.


Even for this simple apparatus, the word is layered, its meanings multiple. The root, eudios, means clear and fair and good, and of the sky. This device was invented to measure the “goodness of the air”. It now just measures quantities of gasses. “Goodness” must have been too soft a term for modern thinkers. The inventors though, the namers of this particular tool called on Zeus, god of the sky, as if they were looking to measure something more in those tiny bubbles, something profound, and eternal, and real.


It’s time for someone to invent a machine to measure me. Centrifuge my cells. Boil my blood. Quantify and qualify. Be precise. Tell me my weight, my height, my bone density. Tell me how much is water and muscle and fat. What gasses are in my system? In what amounts? Tell me my IQ and income level and the number of descendants I will leave behind. What is my life expectancy? What can I expect from life? Numbers of years and days are not enough. Time changes. It opens up in front of me and disappears as I pass through it. Years go by and time is always now.


Tell me how much I have lived – how much more there is. Give me a precise calculation of everything I have gone through so far. I want an exact measurement of what is to come. How much more love do I get? How many more ideas can I have? How often will I laugh and cry and change my mind? How deeply will I feel each particular loss that sits unknown in front of me? How hard will it be from now on?




Mika Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (aka Romantic Willimantic, aka Heroin Town USA, aka Thread City, aka Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis and Petunia, their crime-solving dog. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Southern Review, Guernica, Hobart, The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, and Diagram.

Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction november


Inside a Hot Air Balloon. Provence, France. Photographer Unknown

flo·ta·tion (flōˈtāSHən)  n.  [earlier floatation, respelled as if < Fr. Flottatison],  1.  the act or condition of floating or launching.  2. the act of beginning or financing a business by selling an entire issue of bonds, securities, etc.; hence, 3. the act of beginning; becoming established.  4.  in mining, a method of ore separation in which finely powdered ore is introduced into a bubbling solution to which oils are added: certain minerals float on the surface. And others sink. Also spelled floatation.


And from another definition: “involves phenomena related to the relative buoyancy of objects”


Thoughts on floating, in three sections


It is difficult for us human types to be buoyant when water is not involved. There is a gravity to us, not just the weight of our skeletons, our sinew and tendons and muscles. There is a gravity to the way we think about and interact with the world. Just the nature of our consciousness and our ability to consider ourselves, to reflect on our lives and our relationship to other lives, means that we hold ideas and concerns within us that weigh us down. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Without weights, balloons fly off into the sky. Being grounded is often a necessary, satisfying feeling. Some of the poses that feel most challenging to me in hatha yoga are balancing poses, where I am required to suspend most of myself in the air without both feet firmly planted on the ground. There is satisfaction in rooting.

However, I do think there are moments when we need to be able to experience lightness to balance out the things that keep us weighed down. For hundreds of years, different seekers have tried to achieve a greater form of lightness.

English scientist Henry Cavendesh isolated hydrogen in 1766 and doing so, commented on the idea of “negative weight” and the possibility of lifting objects above the earth.

The hot air balloon was invented by French brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier seventeen years later. This invention began as a smaller experiment when they found that in filling a silk bag with hot air, containing less density than the air surrounding it, it rose to the ceiling. They created a larger bag to hold the air, attached a basket and sent several farm animals aloft. A few months later, they launched a seventy-foot high balloon that raised Jean Francois Piltre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Artandes three thousand feet above the ground. One hundred and twenty years prior to the Orville Brothers’ first successful flight by plane, these men were the first to have that feeling of rising far above the ground and being held by the air, of being sustained in a sort of static flight.

But long before this hot air balloon flight, Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit priest, mathematician and

Francesco Lana De Terzis Flying Boat Design, c. 1670

naturalist, designed his own airship, one that moved from force of wind in the bellows. He is often referred to as the Father of Aeronautics for his designs, innovation and exploration and for legitimizing aeronautics as a field of study. The airship design itself resembles a sea ship, with its crescent sails and curved boat-like bottom. Instead of moving through water, this ship would navigate the sky.

By 1663, he had developed plans for his airship and published them in a book. His invention was designed after and would be steered as if it were a sailboat. The ship was to be made of a central mast with a sail attached and four smaller masts to which were attached copper foil spheres. He calculated the size of these spheres and the air that would be pumped inside them, in vacuum conditions, so that they would be less dense than the air surrounding them. No one had the capacity during his time to manufacture the thin copper foil. As it turned out, no such capacity exists. Even if done in vacuum conditions, the pressure of surrounding air would immediately flatten the thin metal.

The idea itself was problematic even to its inventor, but for other reasons besides actualization of the design. De Terzi expressed concerns that the ship could be used ultimately as a weapon in war, saying, “God will never allow such a machine be built…because everybody realizes that no city would be safe from raids…iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurdled from a great height.”

Bartolomeu de Gusmãos airship

Fellow Jesuit priest and Brazilian naturalist Bartolomeu de Gusmão redesigned an airship, in the tradition of de Terzi, and in 1709, he shared his secret plans and blueprints with King John V of Portugal. His design was for a large sail to be spread across a boat-shaped base like a rainbow. The momentum of the vessel was to be derived from magnets in two balls on either side of the ship. The planned public test of the machine never took place, but some reports say that he did more informal experiments and was able to make the vessel fly. Gusmão later worked on a newer invention of an airship, with a gas-filled pyramid above the vessel, but he died before he could bring his design to fruition.

I think about these thinkers and inventors and their desire to sail through the air. They had the yearning be above the ground, not merely for a given practical purpose but for the experience of it, the change in perspective, the ability to see the earth that we know assume a different shape as we rise above it.

There is a beauty to the way that we humans constantly try to defy our own gravity. We jump on trampolines, we bungee jump, we suspend ourselves from ropes, we hang on trapezes, we fly in airplanes and helicopters, we parasail, we gondola, we zipline. We manufacture all kinds of ways where we experience freedom from the ground, where we experience little more than air encasing our bodies. I don’t think these are merely executions of adventure but ways in which we experience the ephemeral nature of our lives and our spirits. We are born into bodies and these keep us grounded. We are made up of matter—of water and stardust—but there is something about us that seeks to reconnect with the air, and with the lightness that is also present within us. It would be injurious to not recognize this quality about ourselves as substantial as well, even if not as easily measured, weighed or quantified. For it is this lightness of our beings that encourages us to take risks, to try to create, to find ways to suspend ourselves in mid-air, if only for a moment.



Today, I read a modern day fairytale that was a transformation of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson. This story takes place not underwater or in a fabled land, but rather, in San Francisco, a city I called home for three years. So I was immersed from the get go in being told of the Victorian on Divisadero—a street I lived one block away from, in another Victorian, during my time in “the City.”  In this fairytale, a long-married but strained couple set up a huge water tank in their living room and take turns competing to see how long they can hold their breath before they must, inevitably, float up to the surface.

For me, the story was about both the beauty and danger of being underwater and the beauty and danger of allowing ourselves to rise up, to surface again.

Another focal point in the piece “What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone” by Katherine Vaz* is the aquatic ballerina Annette Kellerman. She was once called “The Ideal Woman” because the shape of her body mimicked the proportions of Boticelli’s Venus de Milo. But Kellerman was born with a defect in her legs and had to wear braces to walk. She was hardly an ideal candidate to be a ballerina. However, Kellerman found her physical limitations were completely resolved after she took up swimming. She created ballets underwater, her feet flicking in the same quick movements as other dancers did in the air, momentarily floating above the ground. The video I watched of her on youtube is in black and white and there is a dreamlike ethereal quality to it. She is visible and yet her features are awash. Her movements are clear but the video lacks sharpness. I found myself taken by the beauty she creates of appearing to be rooted in this underwater world. She holds onto items as she moves through the water but it is not a grasping.

Annette Kellerman

When I was about ten, Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out. I memorized all the words to “Part of this World,” the song when the mermaid Ariel muses about the oddness of the human world and all of the things she wants but, by nature of her fins, cannot be a part of. She has collected trinkets from this world, but she has no context for them. She wants to be a part of a world that she does not understand. And while this story ends happily and the Anderson version does not, both rely on the prince’s decision and affection for their endings. In neither story does the mermaid herself have a sense of volition.

I think of Annette Kellerman, who is credited for creating and bringing to popularity the first one-piece women’s bathing suit, a full-length form-fitting jumpsuit. She needed to be able to move through the water and create art with her body so for practicality’s sake created a costume that allowed her to do so, and defied expectations for women in the early 1900s. I think of Annette Kellerman, who is credited as the mother of synchronized swimming. I think of Annette Kellerman, creating her dance underwater, the beauty of her movement and the ability to create the vision she had, without becoming wrapped up in other’s expectations of what she should do, how she should dance.

When you watch the video of her dancing underwater, you can see the grace of her movements and you can also see the tiny bubbles of air floating from her mouth to the surface. She is doing kicks and splits and backbends, she is forming her body into elegant shapes, and, she is breathing.



In mining, flotation is a process whereby a mineral-bearing substance is concentrated into an ore. The raw substance is treated using chemicals so that the desired mineral articles attach to air bubbles and the air bubbles carry these to the surface of the pulp. Undesired minerals remain submerged.

The process is also called “frothing” or “froth-flotation” because once the desired minerals rise to the surface, the froth is then sweeped from the top, collected and distilled. This process is used for many minerals, most popularly, silver.

Frothing is done according to minerals “wettability.” The chemicals used are chosen to completely wet one of the types of particles while partially wetting the other type. It is the partially wet type that will attach to air bubbles and will lift up to become part of the froth.

Although initially developed for mining, the froth flotation process is now used for other needs of modern society, like treating wastewater, like de-inking paper so it can be recycled into new paper.

by Anthony B. Bannister, Copper-Gold Froth Flotation at Rio Tintos Northparkes Mine-NSW-Australia

Images of froth flotation resemble the bubbling up of sparkling water, of soda, of hot springs. Except these bubbles are opaque. The minerals attach to the bubbles and color them shades of gray, of silver, of black, of copper, of brown. The mineral particles attach to the air bubbles, become part of them for a while, and they float for just a moment before they are then separated again, distilled out.

I have never been good at chemistry. I can get some of the basic concepts. I can memorize formulas. I can understand that matter can change in structure, in form. But I have never been good at understanding or identifying the precise moment when pieces of matter conjoin or divide, at being able to envision the exact time in which matter transforms, becoming suddenly more heavy or becoming weightless.


*published in the amazing collection, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words