Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
Hastings Research Institute
Calvin Evans also worked at Hastings Research Institute, but unlike Elizabeth, who worked in crowded conditions, he had a large lab all to himself.
Based on his track record, maybe he deserved the lab. By age nineteen, he had already contributed critical research that helped famed British chemist Frederick Sanger clinch the Nobel Prize; at twenty-two, he discovered a faster way to synthesize simple proteins; at twenty-four, his breakthrough concerning the reactivity of dibenzoselenophene put him on the cover of
In addition, he’d authored sixteen scientific papers, received invitations to ten international conferences, and had been offered a fellowship at Harvard. Twice. Which he turned down. Twice. Partly because Harvard had rejected his freshman application years earlier, and partly because—well, actually, there was no other reason. Calvin was a brilliant man, but if he had one flaw, it was his ability to hold a grudge.
On top of his grudge holding, he had a reputation for impatience. Like so many brilliant people, Calvin just couldn’t understand how no one else
He was also an introvert, which isn’t really a flaw but often manifests itself as standoffishness. Worst of all, he was a rower.
As any non-rower can tell you, rowers are not fun. This is because rowers only ever want to talk about rowing. Get two or
more rowers in a room and the conversation goes from normal topics like work or weather to long, pointless stories about boats, blisters, oars, grips, ergs, feathers, workouts, catches, releases, recoveries, splits, seats, strokes, slides, starts, settles, sprints, and whether the water was really “flat” or not. From there, it usually progresses to what went wrong on the last row, what might go wrong on the next row, and whose fault it was and/or will be. At some point the rowers will hold out their hands and compare calluses. If you’re really unlucky, this could be followed by several minutes of head-bowing reverence as one of them recounts the perfect row where it all felt easy.
Other than chemistry, rowing was the only thing Calvin had true passion for. In fact, rowing is why Calvin applied to Harvard in the first place: to row for Harvard was, in 1945, to row for the best. Or actually
best. University of Washington was
best, but University of Washington was in Seattle and Seattle had a reputation for rain. Calvin hated rain. Therefore, he looked further afield—to the other Cambridge, the one in England, thus exposing one of the biggest myths about scientists: that they’re any good at research.
The first day Calvin rowed on the Cam, it rained. The second day it rained. Third day: same. “Does it rain like this
the time?” Calvin complained as he and his teammates hoisted the heavy wooden boat to their shoulders and lumbered out to the dock. “Oh never,” they reassured him, “Cambridge is usually quite balmy.” And then they looked at one another as if to confirm what they had already long suspected: Americans were idiots.
Unfortunately, his idiocy also extended to dating— a big problem since Calvin very much wanted to fall in love. During all six lonely years he spent in Cambridge, he managed to ask out five
women, and of those five, only one consented to a second date, and that was only because she’d thought he was someone else when she answered the phone. His main issue was inexperience. He was like a dog who, after years of trying, catches a squirrel and then has absolutely no idea what to do with it.
“Hello—uh,” he’d said, his heart pounding, his hands moist, his mind suddenly completely blank as his date opened the door. “Debbie?”
” his date sighed, taking the first of what would be many glances at her watch.
At dinner, the conversation lurched between the molecular breakdown of aromatic acids (Calvin), to what movie might be playing (Deirdre), to the synthesis of nonreactive proteins (Calvin), to whether or not he liked to dance (Deirdre), to look at the time, it was already eight thirty p.m. and he had to row in the morning so he would be taking her straight home (Calvin).
It goes without saying that there was very little sex after these dates. Actually, there was none.
“I can’t believe you’re having trouble,” his Cambridge teammates would tell him. “Girls
rowers.” Which wasn’t true. “And even though you’re an American, you’re not bad looking.” Which was also not true.
Part of the problem was Calvin’s posture. He was six feet four inches tall, lanky and long, but he slouched to the right—probably a by-product of always rowing stroke side. But the bigger issue was his face. He had a lonesome look about him, like a child who’d had to raise himself, with large gray eyes and messy blondish hair and purplish lips, the latter of which were nearly always swollen because he tended to chew on them. His was the kind of face that some might call forgettable, a below-average composition that gave no hint of the longing or intelligence that lay behind, save for one critical feature—his teeth—which were straight and white, and which redeemed his entire facial landscape
whenever he smiled. Fortunately, especially after falling in love with Elizabeth Zott, Calvin smiled all the time.
They first met—or rather, exchanged words—on a Tuesday morning at Hastings Research Institute, the sunny Southern Californian private research lab where Calvin, having graduated from Cambridge with a PhD in record time and with forty-three employment offers to weigh, accepted a position partly because of reputation, but mostly because of precipitation. It didn’t rain much in Commons. Elizabeth, on the other hand, accepted Hastings’s offer because it was the only one she received.
As she stood outside Calvin Evans’s lab, she noted a number of large warning signs:
DO NOT ENTER
EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS
Then she opened the door.
“Hello,” she called over Frank Sinatra, who was blasting from a hi-fi that sat incongruously in the middle of the room. “I need to speak to whoever is in charge.”
Calvin, surprised to hear a voice, poked his head out from behind a large centrifuge.
“Excuse me, miss,”
he called, irritated, a large pair of goggles shielding his eyes from whatever was bubbling off to his right, “but this area is off-limits. Didn’t you see the signs?”
” Elizabeth yelled back, ignoring his tone as she made her way across the lab to switch off the music. “There. Now we can hear each other.”
Calvin chewed his lips and pointed. “You can’t be in here,” he said. “The
“Yes, well, I was told that your lab has a surplus of beakers and
we’re short downstairs. It’s all here,” she said, thrusting a piece of paper at him. “It’s been cleared by the inventory manager.”
“I didn’t hear anything about it,” Calvin said, examining the paper. “And I’m sorry, but no. I need every beaker. Maybe I’d better speak with a chemist down there. You tell your boss to call me.” He turned back to his work, flipping the hi-fi back on as he did.
Elizabeth didn’t move. “You want to speak to a chemist? Someone other than ME?” she yelled over Frank.
he answered. And then he softened slightly. “Look, I know it’s not your fault, but they shouldn’t send a secretary up here to do their dirty work. Now I know this might be hard for you to understand, but I’m in the middle of something important. Please. Just tell your boss to call me.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. She did not care for people who made assumptions based on what she felt were long-outdated visual clues, and she also didn’t care for men who believed, even if she had been a secretary, that being a secretary meant she was incapable of understanding words beyond “Type this up in triplicate.”
“What a coincidence,” she shouted as she went straight over to a shelf and helped herself to a large box of beakers. “I’m busy too.” Then she marched out.
More than three thousand people worked at Hastings Research Institute—that’s why it took Calvin over a week to track her down—and when he did finally find her, she seemed not to remember him.
“Yes?” she said, turning to see who had entered her lab, a large pair of safety glasses magnifying her eyes, her hands and forearms wrapped in large rubber mitts.
“Hello,” he said. “It’s me.”
“Me?” she asked. “Could you be more specific?” She turned back to her work.
“Me,” Calvin said. “Five floors up? You took my beakers?”
“You might want to stand back behind that curtain,” she said, tossing her head to the left. “We had a little accident in here last week.”
“You’re hard to track down.”
“Do you mind?” she asked. “Now
in the middle of something important.”
He waited patiently while she finished her measurements, made notations in her book, reexamined yesterday’s test results, and went to the restroom.
“You’re still here?” she asked, coming back. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“You can’t have your beakers back.”
“So, you do remember me.”
“Yes. But not fondly.”
“I came to apologize.”
“How about lunch?”
“Listen,” Elizabeth said, her large mitts resting on her hipbones, “you should know you’re starting to annoy me.”
Calvin looked away, embarrassed. “I sincerely beg your pardon,” he said. “I’ll go.”
“Was that Calvin
?” a lab tech asked as he watched Calvin weave his way through fifteen scientists working elbow to elbow in a space a quarter the size of Calvin’s private lab. “What was he doing down here?”
“Minor beaker ownership issue,” Elizabeth said.
“Beakers?” He hesitated. “Wait.” He picked up one of the
new beakers. “That big box of beakers you said you found last week. They were
“I never said I found beakers. I said I
“From Calvin Evans?” he said. “Are you crazy?”
“Did he say you could take his beakers?”
“Not technically. But I had a form.”
“What form? You know you have to go through me. You know ordering supplies is my job.”
“I understand. But I’ve been waiting for more than three months. I’ve asked you four times, I’ve filled out five requisition orders, I’ve spoken to Dr. Donatti about it. Honestly, I didn’t know what else to do. My research depends on getting these supplies.
They’re just beakers.
The lab tech closed his eyes. “Listen,” he said, slowly reopening them as if to dramatize her stupidity. “I’ve been here a lot longer than you and I know things. You know what Calvin Evans is famous for, don’t you? Besides chemistry?”
“Yes. Having an excess of equipment.”
“No,” he said. “He’s famous for holding a grudge. A grudge!”
“Really?” she said taking interest.
Elizabeth Zott held grudges too. Except her grudges were mainly reserved for a patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less. Less capable. Less intelligent. Less inventive. A society that believed men went to work and did important things—discovered planets, developed products, created laws—and women stayed at home and raised children. She didn’t want children—she knew this about herself—but she also knew that plenty of other women
a career. And what was wrong with that? Nothing. It was exactly what men got.
She’d recently read about some country where both parents worked
took part in raising the children. Where was that, again? Sweden? She couldn’t remember. But the upshot was, it
functioned very well. Productivity was higher; families were stronger. She saw herself living in such a society. A place that didn’t always automatically mistake her for a secretary, a place where, when she presented her findings in a meeting, she didn’t have to brace herself for the men who would invariably talk over her, or worse, take credit for her work. Elizabeth shook her head. When it came to equality, 1952 was a real disappointment.
“You have to apologize to him,” the lab tech was insisting. “When you take the damn beakers back, grovel. You put our entire lab at risk, and you made me look bad.”
“It’ll be fine,” Elizabeth said. “They’re beakers.”
But by the next morning, the beakers were gone, replaced by dirty looks from a few of her fellow chemists who now also believed she’d put them in jeopardy of Calvin Evans’s legendary grudge holding. She tried to talk with them, but each gave her the cold shoulder in their own way, and later, as she was walking by the lounge, she overheard the same few grousing about her—about how she took herself so seriously, how she thought she was better than any of them, how she’d refused dates from all of them, even the single men. And how the only way she could have possibly gotten her master’s from UCLA in organic chemistry was the
way—the word “hard” being accompanied by rude gestures and tight laughter. Who did she think she was anyway?
“Someone ought to put her in her place,” said one.
“She’s not even that smart,” insisted another.
“She’s a cunt,” declared a familiar voice. Her boss, Donatti.
Elizabeth, accustomed to the first words but stunned by the last, pressed herself against the wall, overcome by a wave of nausea. This was the second time she’d been called that word. The first time—the first horrible time—had been at UCLA.
It had happened nearly two years ago. A master’s candidate with only ten days left before graduation, she was still in the lab at nine p.m., certain she’d found a problem with the test protocol.
As she tapped a freshly sharpened number-two pencil against the paper, weighing her hunch, she heard the door open.
“Hello?” she called. She wasn’t expecting anyone.
“You’re still here,” said a voice free of surprise. Her advisor.