Q: Do you have a favorite crystal?
A: I’m having a lot of fun with zinc sulfate monohydrate (ZnSO4•H2O) and ammonium sulfate ((NH4)2SO4). Both are fertilizers. If you mix zinc sulfate with ammonium sulfate, you get zinc ammonium sulfate (Zn(NH4)2(SO4)2), which is a Tutton’s salt [a double salt with two different cations]. It forms these clear crystals. And if I prepare a solution and add a seed crystal, the entire container can be covered in crystals in a matter of hours…. It crystallizes so fast, I thought what if I subjected an already crystallized cicada to a crystal that’s a completely different compound? Would it crystallize so fast that it would crystallize over the [first] crystals without dissolving them?
To test this, I took a cicada covered in cobalt(II) ammonium sulfate (Co(NH4)2(SO4)2) crystals. They’re toxic. They’re a dull, peachy red. But they’re really toxic. So I’m not putting these out to the public. That’s irresponsible. But I thought could I subject cobalt(II) ammonium sulfate crystals to a very saturated solution of zinc ammonium sulfate. And I did. And exactly that happened. These clear crystals grew over and encased the red crystals before they were dissolved. The clear crystals made a protective layer over the red ones from the boiling hot solution.
Q: Do you view yourself as more artist than scientist or more scientist than artist?
A: I would say I’m equal parts chemist and artist. It’s hard, because I want to spend more time doing chemistry, and really learning it. I wonder if I should go back to school. But I do enough research, and I’m obsessive enough sitting at home poring through books. That doesn’t work for everybody. I learn a lot by giving into my obsessive tendencies.
Art for me is something I do. I do think I’m an artist. But it’s kind of like breathing. It’s something I do all the time. It happens when it does, and that’s not going anywhere. Chemistry feels more fleeting.
But I get in this mindset: Can I call myself a scientist? I don’t have a degree. Can I call myself that?
Q: Do you have any advice for high school chemistry students?
A: I would just say, take it outside of the book. Chemistry is going to be boring if you’re memorizing a bunch of equations. Think about how you can take that information and do stuff on your own. If you want a deeper appreciation of chemistry, look at the periodic table as building blocks. Do experiments. Don’t do anything stupid. Take your creative energy and look at the principles of chemistry as paint brushes. You’re using your paint brushes. That’s one of the better ways to appreciate chemistry.