A lust for life and base elements

The Same and Not The Same
February 9, 1996

What is this activity called science? It is not something philosophers, educators, sociologists or anyone else can tell you. Let the best scientists speak for themselves and you will realise it is nothing short of an intense love affair with nature, and one that is highly contagious. Roald Hoffman, Nobel laureate chemist, has totally redeemed my impression of chemistry as an unrelentingly dull subject, ever stopping short of the "big questions" of ultimate physical reality on the one hand and of life on the other. He has managed to reinfuse chemistry with the magic of alchemy, drawing out the eternal dualities that bring about transformation in nature, and, deep within the human psyche, form the creative tensions that motivate artists and scientists alike. At the same time, he confronts the ethics and responsibility of a chemist faced with the growing list of pollutants and poisons issuing from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Hoffman does all that with the exquisite charm and eloquence of the accomplished poet that he also is. The volume is lavishly illustrated, the chemistry clearly and lovingly displayed, complete with chemical formulae and frequent references to art, literature, linguistics, music and with personal anecdotes. Hoffman is my kind of scientist: he exemplifies many aspects of what doing science means to me.

Hoffman makes a convincing case that science is a creative activity as much as art, and every bit as engrossing. Within chemistry, no activity fits the bill better than organic synthesis, which is responsible for ten million compounds that were not on earth before. Synthesising molecules, according to Hoffman, is akin to making sculptures. Engagingly, he describes the synthesis of cubane, an eight-carbon compound in the shape of a cube, from how it was conceived to how it was realised, step by step, in a feat comparable to a Mozart composition. Cubane was made, not for any utilitarian purpose, but because its perfect symmetry and the theoretical concepts behind it compelled the scientist-artists to bring it, Pygmalion-like, into being. As a result, we understand much more of the remarkable chemistry of carbon that makes life itself possible.

I cannot help reflecting how far off the mark our science policy-makers have become when they seem to think so-called "curiosity-driven" science, as opposed to "applied" science, exhausts the categories of scientific endeavour, let alone that such categorisation is appropriate in the first place. Good science is, as a rule, both inspirational and useful; inspirational because it heightens our understanding of nature and useful because any authentic knowledge of nature is bound to be useful. One of the most inspiring discoveries in biochemistry is how green plants trap sunlight by means of chlorophyll molecules in the fastest chemical reactions known and use the energy to extract electrons from water to fuel the synthesis of carbon compounds, thus feeding nearly all living things on earth. Knowledge of the process - photosynthesis - is obviously important for agriculture and ecology, it is also teaching us how to make efficient photovoltaic cells, which could solve the energy crisis and save us from global warming.

Aesthetics, or feeling, is integral to science simply because the act of knowing is itself creative. Nature is not given as an "objective" realm situated outside us. Instead, we participate in constructing it by our activities, starting from the most primary act of perception. This has been recognised by all traditional indigenous cultures worldwide. To be "objective", in the context of participatory knowledge, is to be maximally communicative with nature with our whole being, intellect and feeling. Visual experiences are organised by the context of seeing, which includes one's previous experiences, prior knowledge and, most of all, one's feeling and imagination. Do Tycho Brahe and Kepler, the two great astronomers who held diametrically opposite theories on the universe, see the same things when they gaze upon the evening sky? They see the same and yet not the same. Tycho sees the sun journeying from horizon to horizon, such that from some celestial vantage point, the sun (carrying with it the moon and planets) could be watched circling our fixed earth. Kepler, on the other hand, sees the horizon dipping, or turning away from our fixed sun. What generates the different theories is, in both cases, the individual act of imagination, of conjuring that which is not seen and cannot directly be seen.

It is the imaginative tension between the seen and the unseen, the actual and the potential, that great works of art and good scientific theories have in common. We are moved by their ability to connect disparate phenomena, thereby deepening and expanding our experience of reality. This imaginative tension lies at the very core of meaning and understanding. No one has seen a real molecule, images derived from the electron microscope notwithstanding, and so the various chemical formulae are pictorial representations of reality as much as are neolithic cave-paintings or paintings by Picasso. And, one might argue, how well they work as signs of reality depends, in all cases, on their effectiveness in conjuring an authentic reality - not just a reality most supported by empirical evidence, but the reality that feels most authentic and satisfying in our imagination. Imagination and feeling are vital to real understanding, in particular, the understanding of science. Science is not inherently more difficult or demanding than art or poetry, as some scientists would have us believe. The reason why science is so unpopular with students at all levels, and why public understanding of science is so inadequate is because the predominantly dry-as-dust scientific discourse and science teaching give no hint of the flesh-and-blood passions and the intellectual and aesthetic adventures the practice of real science entails.

The lack of public understanding and participation in science brings its own dangers. After all, scientists are humans subject to human failings. In a chapter on the "dark side" of human impulses, Hoffman lightheartedly shares his own experiences of aggressively sarcastic and dismissive comments from that beastly breed - "anonymous referees" in scientific journals.

More seriously, not all of the ten million compounds synthesised by chemists have been useful or beneficial. The overuse of industrial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides in intensive agriculture is creating environmental problems worldwide. Industrial synthetic processes also generate many environmental pollutants as byproducts. The most dramatic failing of the chemical industry affecting the West within living memory is thalidomide. It was widely recommended as a sedative for pregnant women until 8,000 children were born with drastic limb deficiencies and numerous other abnormalities. Thalidomide was synthesised by the German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal, whose researchers convinced themselves, erroneously as it turned out, that it had good sedative properties simply on account of its structural resemblance to two sedatives, Valium and Veronal, successfully introduced into the market in the early 1950s. So confident were they that same structure equals same sedative property, and so tempting was the enormous profit to be made, that clinical trials were nonexistent or perfunctory, to say the least. Hoffman chides the chemists involved for abdicating responsibility. The same story has in effect been repeated over and again in a variety of chemical disasters and poisonous chemical dumping worldwide: DDT, Bhopal in India, tank cars of benzene or chlorine derailed, and the chlorofluorocarbons destroying the ozone layer.

There is no clearer demonstration of the familiar adage that knowledge is power, and scientific knowledge all the more so. That power entails responsibility has been recognised in all cultures since time immemorial. The rainmaker who failed to make rain sacrificed himself to appease his gods. Socrates died for what he taught. Today, our medical students graduate with the Hippocratic oath. Scientists, too, harbour the ideal to serve their fellow human beings, their own human failings notwithstanding.

Why then do so many scientists insist on the "purity" and "objectivity" of science to the extent that they eschew any "political involvement"? Time and again, scientists have been slow to speak out in the face of mounting evidence of harm and have failed to curb their enthusiasm for the science to go ahead regardless of the destruction it would bring. The atomic bomb ought to have served as a salutary lesson. The end of the millennium brings us to the threshold of large-scale commercial gene biotechnology that carries with it global ecological and health hazards that may make Bhopal and similar incidents seem insignificant in comparison. Are we to enter the era of gene biotechnology with the same abdication of responsibility?

Caravaggio's Narcissus, which graces the cover of the book, forms a fitting allegory of the scientist's dilemma. When Narcissus caught his reflection in the water, what he saw was not just himself, but himself situated in nature that nurtures and sustains him, of which he is inextricably part. He is not so much in love with himself as in love with nature revealed to him by his efforts, in his own image. An intimate knowledge of nature is at the same time the most profound knowledge of oneself. Scientific pursuit, at its best, is a passionate quest to create meaning in life. It involves the exercise of reason, intuition and, most of all, our feeling for the sublime poetry and mystery of nature ever just beyond our reach. The alchemical quest, we are told, is to hasten the "natural" evolution of metals from base to noble, and to secure a similar transformation of the body, from sick to healthy, from mortal to eternal. It is an act of love, resolutely grounded in ethics and responsibility.

Mae-Wan Ho is director, Bioelectrodynamics Laboratory, Open University.

The Same and Not The Same

Author - Roald Hoffman
ISBN - 0 231 10138 4
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - $34.95
Pages - 294

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