In the 'good' years of my PhD in Salamanca, we, the third and fourth year PhD students, had to give about 60 hours of classes a year. I loved teaching, even if it was the practical classes that university lecturers hated, and I had a great time with the students. One year I was in the School of Pharmacy, where I had to teach the physical chemistry lab, and another year I was in the School of Chemistry, where I also had the physical chemistry lab (this one more advanced). One of the most common experiments was to measure and analyse the infrared spectrum of hydrogen chloride. The students were taken to a hood, hydrochloric acid was poured over sulphuric acid and the gas released (hydrogen chloride) was led into a container which we measured in the spectrometer. The result was a spectrum full of peaks whose separation depends on the mass and geometry of the molecule. This is why the exercise is so popular, because such a simple activity can demonstrate many concepts such as the quantification of energy, isotopes or statistical thermodynamics.
This summer I learned in the US that the first person to measure this spectrum was a black scientist called Elmer Samuel Imes in 1919. Imagine that! How remarkable that the son of someone who had been enslaved, who grew up in the South and in the worst era of segregation, got his PhD and was the first to do what chemistry students all over the world are now doing. This man should be the talk of the world! Not so. When I got back to Glasgow, I went to the library and went through a stack of textbooks and dozens of articles talking about the experiment, and none of them mentioned Imes. So I set about writing an article on his biography and a brief review of black history in the USA (plus it's very interesting to see how infrared spectra were measured a century ago!) The result is published in the latest issue of the Anales de Química de la Real Sociedad Española de Química (RSEQ). It is a bit more advanced than what I usually present here (after all, it is aimed at chemists), but I promise it will be worth it. The article has also won the Salvador Senent Award of the RSEQ. You can find the link to the article here:
I am trying to get the English version published. As soon as I do, I will post the link here!
This summer, when I went to the United States for a conference, I was lucky enough to stop in New York for a few days and do one of the things I always wanted to do, which was to go to Louis Armstrong's house. Louis was one of the greatest guys in the history of jazz. I think if you polled all the jazz connoisseurs, the vast majority would put him in their top 5. And although he won dozens of awards, made dozens of records and appeared in many films, and although his friends were all the stars of the moment, Louis was a humble, pleasant man who never wanted to leave his modest home. Today this house is a small museum dedicated to him. It is located in the Corona section of Queens, next to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the final scene of Men in Black was filmed, with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones shooting at the giant globe in the middle of the park. Not far away is the Louis Armstrong Stadium, dedicated to our hero, and where the US Open tennis championships are held every year.
The museum is now accessed through the garage, where objects that belonged to Louis are displayed; some were in the cupboards when the curators arrived, others were donated by collectors. Up a narrow flight of stairs we reached the first floor of the historic house. It was a unique experience for me. Everything was just as it had been when Louis Armstrong was alive. On the bathroom shelf was his half-full bottle of cologne, the vacuum cleaner was in the cupboard and his notes were still scattered on the office table - it was as if one of the occupants was going to emerge from somewhere at any moment!
I took the tour with five other people and a guide took us around, telling us anecdotes and routines of the couple. We visited the kitchen where Lucille used to cook Louis his favourite dish: rice and beans (the poor thing was forced to learn to make it exactly the way his mother cooked it). The cupboards are painted a deep turquoise, apparently the same colour as Lucille's Cadillac. We saw the living room where they had dinner parties with their friends (the guest list would be the envy of any royal palace) and went upstairs to the bedroom where the couple slept. On entering, I had the same feeling I had as a child when I walked into my grandparents' bedroom. There was a tiny television in the back, an antique wardrobe and a copy of Dalí's Christ of St John of the Cross on the wall. There was also the bed in which Louis died. Then we went into his studio, which was dominated by a desk with a tape player behind it. On one wall was a portrait of him painted by a certain "Benedetto" (Tony Bennett himself!) and, if you pressed a button, through a small loudspeaker in the ceiling you could hear the painter explaining his relationship with Louis and why he gave him the painting. People who knew Louis work as volunteers at the museum, including one whose father had been the one to fix things in the house and another whose mother helped Lucille with the shopping when Louis died.
At the end of the visit, in the thirty-something heat, I was able to sit down on the steps of the house to rest in the shade. There, the children of the neighbourhood were waiting for Louis to return from his tours so that he could play the trumpet with them. When the lyrics to What a wonderful world were presented to him in 1967, Louis agreed to perform them because they reminded him of those gatherings. In an interview he said: "There are so many things in 'Wonderful World' that take me back to my neighbourhood, Corona, in New York. Lucille and I have lived there since we were married. And everyone there is like one big family. I've seen three generations grow up. And everybody, with their kids, their grandkids, they all come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille (I didn't say it, but Satchmo was Louis' nickname). So when I sing, 'I hear the babies cry/ I watch them grow/ they'll learn much more/ than I'll ever know', I can see the faces of all those children. And I have pictures of them when they were five, six and seven. So when they offered me 'Wonderful World', I accepted immediately".
Listening to the song now, the way Louis sings makes a lot more sense.
I loved the visit. I felt as if Louis himself had invited me into his home. And in his hospitality I saw that everything they say about Louis Armstrong is true, and I thought we need more people like him.
I've finally seen Fire of Love! I've been looking forward to this documentary ever since I read Peter Bradshaw's review in the Guardian, but I couldn't get to see it when it was screened at GFT, the independent (or hipster) cinema in Glasgow. It's now available on Disney+ and I highly recommend it! The documentary is about the lives of Maurice and Katia Krafft, the French volcanologists who lost their lives in the explosion of Mount Unzen in 1991, and in its 100 minutes tells us how Maurice and Katia fell in love with volcanoes as children, how they fell in love with each other in the heat of May '68, and how they fell in love with being as close as possible to the eruptions. I liked the fact that the documentary is almost entirely made up of the personal archives of the protagonists, and because it is the footage they took to document their research, it is full of spectacular and also personal sequences. There are rivers of lava and volcanoes bubbling just a few metres away. There are explosions and pyroclastic showers. But there are also many personal moments in which we can see the couple's humour and how much they loved each other, like when Maurice appears and throws a huge rock at his wife's head to test the handmade helmet they made, or when we see them climbing freshly solidified lava hand in hand while the narrator tells us that they always explore volcanoes together because if an accident were to happen, she couldn't bear to outlive her husband. I found the seventies style that director Sara Dosa gave to the documentary to be spectacular. Not only because of the archival footage (I am still fascinated by the way her photographic films capture the red colour of the glowing lava), but also because of the sound, the music, the typography and the very careful editing. In short, Fire of Love is an emotional and spectacular documentary that takes us inside the love story of Maurice and Katia Krafft and their passion for volcanoes. If you like nature and a good story, I highly recommend you give it a chance. I am sure you won't be disappointed.