I had lunch with Andrea Sella today and reflecting on our conversation, I found that the word Erudite came repeatedly to mind.
Hearing him recount his rationale for creating carbon nanotubes stuffed with white phosphorus, I was reminded of my vision of the Tree of Knowledge. Not the one in the bible, but my imagined metaphorical organic structure within which all knowledge belongs.
On this tree, each thing we know is a small leaf. And each leaf is near other leaves. And the leaves are on twigs, which are on branches that are all connected to a trunk. And importantly the trunk is connected to roots.
In short, all the things we understand are ultimately connected. And acquiring the perspective to understand that the few ‘twigs of knowledge’ with which we are personally familiar really are a part of this vast tree represents a first step towards erudition.
What brought the words ‘Erudite’ and ‘Andrea Sella’ together most clearly in my mind was a series of articles that Andrea has written called ‘Classic Kit’.
Each article describes a piece of apparatus, most typically something that might once have been commonplace in a chemistry laboratory, but which has now become obsolete or obsolescent.
Each article is a gem: a distillation of extensive reading combined with an appreciation of the personal nature of each item: either the genius who invented it, or the frustration it engendered in generations of bewildered chemistry students who tried to make it work! The mixture is then catalysed by Andrea’s enthusiasm.
Each article represents a journey along the roots of the tree of the knowledge – those parts of the tree which are hidden from common view.
Typically Andrea pushes his muzzle into the deep mulch formed from discarded leaves of knowledge and unearths rare truffles of delight. Luggin’s capillary, Abderhalden’s drying pistol, Vigreux’s column, Büchner’s funnel. Who knew their history?
I think that one of the paradox’s of erudition is that when one is exposed to it, one becomes better informed, but feels more generally ignorant because one has been reminded just how small is the fraction of the tree of knowledge with which we are generally familiar.
Ciao Andrea .
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