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Chemistry, in a book and a board game

by Alexandra Taylor
May 22, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 21

The many meanings of ‘chemistry’

Credit: Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf
Passion project: Weike Wang’s “Chemistry” shows the human side of science.
The cover image of Weike Wang’s novel, featuring a female figure with electron orbitals circling her head, one of which contains a heart.
Credit: Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf
Passion project: Weike Wang’s “Chemistry” shows the human side of science.

Weike Wang’s experience as an undergraduate in a chemistry lab at Harvard served as the inspiration for her debut novel, “Chemistry,” available from publisher Alfred A. Knopf this week. The novel confronts many issues relevant to graduate students, including what it means to love science.

After an incident involving some smashed glassware, the main character takes a stress-related leave of absence from her chemistry lab. She grapples with whether to return to her Ph.D. program while entertaining a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, who has finished his degree and is preparing to take the next step in his career. The decision of whether to be honest with her strict parents about her diversion from the straight and narrow weighs heavily on her as well. She accepts a position tutoring students in math and science while she examines her options and reflects on how she arrived at this point.

Wang herself completed her doctorate in epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in April. While working toward her doctorate, she also completed an MFA in creative writing at Boston University. She originally wrote “Chemistry” for her creative writing master’s thesis. “I didn’t know I was going to write a novel until it was sort of happening,” she tells Newscripts.

Wang says that working on her writing degree during the research phase of her doctorate was helpful because it allowed her to figure out where her passions lie. “I actually enjoy writing when it’s going terribly,” she says. “But I hated research when it was going terribly.” Although a lot of academic scientists are drawn to the creative side of research, Wang says that isn’t the case for her; writing is her creative outlet.

But science is a clear inspiration throughout the novel. Wang’s love of chemistry and physics is evident in the way she weaves scientific concepts into her writing. “There’s a lot of beauty in science, just like there’s a lot of beauty in art and music and language,” something both the general public and researchers could stand to be reminded of, she says. “I wanted to present science in a way that was interesting and stimulating.”

Ethnicity features prominently in the novel as well. “People who go into science are disproportionately Asian,” she says. “I wanted to investigate that—if we go into it because we love it, or if we go into it because of other forces.” If the latter, Wang wonders, what happens when things don’t work out?

Wang’s primary purpose in writing the novel was to make people think about why they’re doing what they’re doing, which she says is a question that everybody should ask. She has no plans to pursue a position in epidemiology just yet: “I am sort of hoping this writing thing might work out.”

A nontrivial pursuit

Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Rosenthal
Think fast: Reagent cards match with chemicals to carry out reactions.
A playing card for the board game React!, featuring the structure of tert-butoxide and some other info relevant to the game.
Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Rosenthal
Think fast: Reagent cards match with chemicals to carry out reactions.

Organic chemistry can be daunting. That’s why a team of students at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed React!, a multiplayer board game that helps learners get comfortable building molecules and carrying out reactions using illustrated cards, markers, and dry-erase boards.

React! is meant to be accessible to everyone from high school students to working chemists, and no prior organic chemistry background is needed. The game was chosen as one of three winners of UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas start-up competition, and the students are running a Kickstarter campaign to help launch the game.

Alexandra Taylor wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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