The book's title was An Elementary Study of Chemistry, and within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning "violet," and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning "a stench." These were the sorts of things I needed to know! I slipped the fat red volume under my sweater and took it upstairs, and it wasn't until later that I noticed the name H. de Luce written on the flyleaf. The book had belonged to Harriet.
Soon, I found myself poring over its pages in every spare moment. There were evenings when I could hardly wait for bedtime. Harriet's book had become my secret friend.
In it were detailed all the alkali metals: metals with fabulous names like lithium and rubidium; the alkaline earths such as strontium, barium, and radium. I cheered aloud when I read that a woman, Madame Curie, had discovered radium.
And then there were the poisonous gases: phosphine, arsine (a single bubble of which has been known to prove fatal), nitrogen peroxide, hydrogen sulfide . . . the lists went on and on. When I found that precise instructions were given for formulating these compounds, I was in seventh heaven.
Once I had taught myself to make sense of the chemical equations such as K4FeC6N6 + 2K = 6KCN + Fe (which describes what happens when the yellow prussiate of potash is heated with potassium to produce potassium cyanide), the universe was laid open before me: It was like having stumbled upon a recipe book that had once belonged to the witch in the wood.
What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation all of it! was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn't see it in our own world, there was real stability.
Excerpted from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley Copyright © 2009 by Alan Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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