Spacing Lee B. Montgomery


I was nearly ten when my parents gave me a chemistry set for Christmas. It cam in a handsome wooden box and contained a rack for test tubes, as well as niches where vials of powerful powders might be kept. There was a little packet of sensitive paper (litmus, I think), a knobbed glass rod, the obligatory manual, a metal loop for suspending a test tube over a flame, a conversion table (ounces into spoons), and suitably exciting poison labels. Dreams flew out of that box when its lid was lifted: dreams of bombs and poisons, of plots described in disappearing in, of odors distressful to the weak. I set up a small lab in the basement and there I performed my experiments. “Performed” was the right word. “Experiment” was not. For I didn’t follow the booklet where it led, or listened to its lectures. I slopped about, blending yellow with white and obtaining brown, mixing crystals with powders and getting dust, combining liquids with solids and making mud.
            Later, in high school, I would take chemistry the way I took spring tonics and swallowed headache pills. Although I  broke beakers and popped little pieces of potassium into puddles of water to watch the water fly, I did occasionally manage to obey tutorial instructions as well, repeating experiments which others had long ago undertaken. My predecessors had asked their questions of Nature with genuine curiosity, and waited, like an eager suitor, her reply. My method displayed a different spirit, which was to fudge my procedures in order to obtain the result already written in the chemmy books. I was not being taught to experiment, or even to repeat experiments. I was being taught to cheat.
            An experiment, I would learn much later, when I studied the philosophy of science in graduate school, had to arise from a real dissatisfaction with existing knowledge. There was a gap to be filled, a fracture to be repaired, an opening to be made. Nature’s interrogator had to know how to ask the correct question, and to state it so  clearly that the answer would be, in effect, an unambiguous “yes” or “no,” and not a noddy wobble. Every experiment required a protected environment and an entirely objective frame of mind. The results should be quantifiable, and the process repeatable. Every successful repetition spoke favorably for the quality of the first occasion. Furthermore, experiments were never carried out against the rules, but were performed, like surgery, always well within them, otherwise they would not be recognized as experiments at all.
            What is generally called “experimentation” in the arts, more nearly resembles my ignorant and youthful self-indulgent mess-making. I was acting out a fantasy, not learning anything about chemistry, and while every smelly substance I concocted had to have been made according to chemistry’s laws, I did not know those laws, nor could I have learned them from anything I was doing. And how many botches have been excused by calling them the results of the experimental spirit? We have to imagine an artist wondering what would happen if she were to do this, try that, perform a play in silence, omit the letter “e” in three pages of French prose, construct a world of clothes-hanger wire, color walls with cow manure. Having found out, through, then what?