Gateway to the Classics: The Wonder Book of Chemistry by Jean Henri Fabre
The Wonder Book of Chemistry by  Jean Henri Fabre


U NCLE PAUL is a man of some learning who waters his lettuce-plants and weeds his cabbages and turnips in the quiet of a humble little village. Staying with him are his nephews, Emile and Jules, young scholars already grappling with the intricacies of the rule of three and the pitfalls of the past participle, and both of them very eager to learn. Jules, the elder, is even now beginning to suspect that school will not have taught him everything when he has mastered his grammar and arithmetic. Their uncle does his best to encourage the boys' desire for knowledge, convinced as he is that in the stern battle of life our best weapon is a trained intellect.

For some time past his family had noticed in him an unusual preoccupation. There was ripening in his mind a plan for teaching his nephews the rudiments of chemistry, that science so fruitful in its practical applications.

"What are these dear children going to be, some day?" he asked himself. "Will they be manufacturers, artisans, mechanics, farm laborers, or what? Who knows? One thing, at any rate, is certain, and that is, whatever direction their activity takes it will be to their advantage to be able to give an account of the things they have accomplished. A little science is something that they must have. I should like my nephews to know what air is, and water; why we breathe, and why wood burns; the nutritive elements essential to plant life, and the constituents of the soil. And it is no vague and imperfect knowledge from hearsay I would have them gain of these fundamental truths, on which depend agriculture and the industrial arts and our health itself; I would have them know these things thoroughly from their own observation and experience. Books here are insufficient, and can serve merely as aids to scientific experiment. But how shall we manage it?"

In this wise did Uncle Paul ponder over his project, a project involving grave difficulties, such as the want of a laboratory and of all those ingenious devices without which it would at first seem impossible to undertake any serious experiments in chemistry, the only appliances at hand being the commonest of household utensils,—bottles and phials, jars and pitchers, plates and cups and earthen bowls, drinking-glasses and old mustard pots. It is true the distance to town was not great. For special occasions, but within the very modest limits set by an imperative economy, a few drugs and glass implements might be bought. Ten francs must be made to cover these extraordinary purchases. How, then, to impart some useful knowledge of chemistry with the help of little more than such simple appliances as the village could furnish—that was the problem.

But in the end it came about that one day Uncle Paul announced to his nephews that he proposed to enliven the monotony of their regular studies by introducing a little diversion. Without using the word "chemistry," which would have meant nothing to them, he spoke of certain interesting things he had to show them, of various wonderful experiments to be performed. Lively and curious, as are all children, Emile and Jules greeted this announcement with enthusiasm.

"When shall we begin?" they asked. "Tomorrow—to-day?"

"To-day, very soon. Give me five minutes for my preparations."

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