Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mad As A Hatter

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones that are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.~ Jack Kerouac

I once met someone who went mad. He was a professor at a small state university. He was one of those guys who had been been well-schooled back east but, finding no place at the table there, headed west and carved himself a niche at lesser place.

His niche was electrochemistry-the science of what happens at metal electrodes in contact with chemical solutions. He used a special type of electrode called a hanging mercury drop electrode which, as the name suggests, was a hanging droplet of mercury which comprised the electrode. The beauty of the method was that the mercury droplet was the actual working electrode immersed in solution. The droplet, being metallic, was in electrical contact a capillary of mercury in contact with a reservoir of fresh mercury. An applied voltage made cool things happen at the interface: ions line-up in layers, mimicking what happens in things as mundane as milk colloids and in nerve cells. Other electrodes tend to gunk up quickly but the beauty of the hanging drop method was that the electrode could be clipped off and a fresh one rapidly "grown" from the reservoir. This allowed very precise and ingenious time-dependent experiments, faster than a person could analyze. His wife was a computer programmer (she was also a professor, but in the Electrical Engineering department) and her programming skills came in handy. Together they were the first to develop such computer-controlled experiments in 1960's.

His wife passed away in the early 1980's and he was one of those guys who lost interest in life afterwards. They had no kids (that I knew of) and had put all their love and legacies into their students and papers instead. By the time I met him he was erratic, irritable and quite likely mad. We blamed mercury. After he died (he flipped his car on a rural highway, leaving everything to his cat) his lab was cleaned out. There was mercury everywhere, in every crack and crevasse. You couldn't open a drawer without little balls of the stuff rolling and bouncing around inside. So yeah I think the guy was as mad as a hatter.


  1. Do you blame Mercury poisoning for his madness?

    Or did the trolly simply miss a stop or two?

  2. I now believe that he actually died of a broken heart.

    Also, when his wife died, he didn't know how to even run her programs. Those were the days of key punching cards and so forth. This is one of the risks of hyper-specialization. He couldn't continue his research without her input and she apparently left no provision for filling her shoes. His own scientific self-esteem hit bottom too.

    So the mercury was perhaps a too convenient excuse for what really happened.

  3. @LL: I enjoy writing these accounts about real people how are otherwise just forgotten. I try not to embellish anything.
    We live in a much too celebrity driven culture IMO.