My dad (left) and brother (right) somewhere in the Cascades.


Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”

When I found out that the November theme was “the periodic table,” I knew immediately that I needed to outsource the element-selection process. There was no way I could write a coherent post about any one of the 118 elements with my own (admittedly atrocious) chemistry knowledge, and like any lazy recent college grad, I did not want to have to do the research myself. 

But many years of reluctant research told me that I could probably find someone who knows more than me to point me in a good direction. I decided to turn to the biggest chemistry nerd I know, my brother. I texted him*:

What’s ur favorite element and why?

Oooof that’s a hard one. I’ll give it a think and get back to you

Isaac is my younger brother, and I always get a kick out of calling him my little brother, since he towers over me at an inconvenient-but-Dutch-average-6’2”. Growing up, I was always tall for my age, and taller than him—until the summer he entered what my dad fondly calls “the bottomless pit stage,” ate us out of house and home, and grew six inches in six months. 

Imma say nitrogen. I think it’s cool because of its prevalence in organic and biological compounds, its ability to coordinate metal ions, electronegativity and orbital configuration. I like that NH4+ is a tetrahedral cation, while NO3- is a planar anion. I like that it can engage in resonance and forms a triple bond in its diatomic state

Nerd. But thanks.

I will be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about chemistry (except that cations are pawsitive), and Isaac would definitely agree. Nevertheless, he delights in sharing his mad-scientist-level obsession with chemistry, and he spends his free time doing things like subscribing to chemistry periodicals and keeping apprised of the latest research in the field of… something. I never quite understand what he’s saying, but I know he means well. 

Also, I like nitrogen because it has fun names for nitrogen-containing-compounds, like azides, amides, amines, azetidine, pyrrol, pyrrolazine, indolazin, ozazole… Also, what’s the context of this question??

The November theme for the post calvin is the periodic table so we each take an element

Oh, neat! If you want I can make up another favorite

You’re the biggest chemistry nerd I know so I figured you could have some inspiration

Four years ago, I never would have expected to have this sort of conversation with my brother. To be honest, four years ago I wouldn’t have expected to have any conversation with my brother. 

When I graduated high school and moved halfway across the country to a place where I knew literally no one, I was glad to not live in the same house as him. Our relationship as kids was… fraught. We’ll leave it at that. 

So you can imagine my surprise when, two years after I moved to Calvin to study mechanical engineering, Isaac followed. After living out his high school years being introduced as “Lillie’s brother” and having to fight to make a name for himself, I was shocked that he followed me to the same school and—get this—the same degree program. 

I remember the first week he was at Calvin, he said something like, “Lillie, everyone here knows who you are! Even the freshmen!” He was clearly annoyed, but for my part, I thought, what did you expect? The school is small, and the engineering department is even smaller! This summer I asked him about why he followed me to Calvin, and he said that part of the reason was to repair our relationship. 

It took a few years, and I was wary at first, but I’m glad to say we’re on much better terms these days. He’s grown into an actual adult human being with diverse interests and passion for the things he does. He’s seeking a double major in mechanical engineering and chemistry (he decided to drop the math major and Spanish minor after a few semesters), and I often tell my friends that he is better than me in every way. 

He’s smarter, kinder, funnier, more creative. He’s more patient, more welcoming, more generous. He loves school, he makes friends easily, and he is an incredible cook. 

And you know what? I’m not even mad. 

I’m glad to know that after a rocky first 16 years of knowing him, he’s someone I genuinely appreciate having in my corner. He cooks delicious food for me when I come to visit for dinner, he sends me some of the weirdest Latvian music videos I’ve ever seen, and he helps me think of Christmas presents. Three weeks ago, he missed school and helped me move across the country to my new home in Rochester, NY.

Being a terrifying nitrogen nerd is one of his very few failings, and in this case it turned out to be a great help. 

Though this shaped up to be an essay much more focused on my brother than on chemistry, I will have you know I did bow to the pressure and do some cursory investigation of nitrogen: Wikipedia told me a bunch of things that I didn’t understand about spectral lines and the Van der Waals radius. Apparently, nitrogen is present in all living things, including people and plants. 

All in all, I’m glad to leave the chemistry to the chemists, and I’m glad that my brother is one of them. 


*Texts are not exactly verbatim, in order to improve coherency.


  1. Avatar

    I also texted someone for ideas—my friend in a PhD organic chemistry program—and was like “HELP what’s cool?”
    But more than that, man I related to the rebuilding of sibling relationships. It’s kind of beautiful how you can go from living in the same house and not connecting at all to maturing and loving each other at a distance. I’ve seen that slow transformation in my life, and I’m happy to read it in yours as well.

  2. Kyric Koning

    Well, if nitrogen is in all living things, you still wrote about it while writing about your brother. And to be honest, I’d much rather read about that than the something from a chemical periodical (which is a lovely inadvertent pun). Those in closest proximity to us are not always closest to our hearts and it sometimes does take work to fix those relationships. I am glad that the both of you were willing to cross that bridge.


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