Beauty meets truth on the lab bench

Elegant Solutions
April 28, 2006

Julie Macpherson delights in the delicate aesthetics of scientific exploration.

At school I was told I could not take both science and arts subjects because the two were not compatible. Time and again, the relationship between science and art is debated. Can one consider a scientist to be an artist, too? Can we compare the way scientists take an idea from concept to visualisation in the form of, say, a new chemical compound or a unique spectroscopic pattern in a spectrometer to the way artists express the fruits of their creative thinking on a canvas, in a sculpture or an installation?

In Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry , the science writer and consultant editor for Nature , Philip Ball, challenges the reader to think about the science-art relationship by considering beauty in chemistry. Ball chooses his ten "beautiful" experiments from more than three centuries of chemistry to illustrate his ideas, and once again he demonstrates that his knowledge of science is truly encyclopaedic. Such a book must have a clear definition of beauty. But beauty, as the 19th-century author Margaret Hungerford said (and not Plato, as is usually thought), "is in the eye of the beholder". And so the ten selected experiments are really Ball's personal choice. One of his key themes in selecting them was that the experiments should have been shaped by human attributes: invention, elegance, perseverance, imagination and ingenuity.

For this reason, some of the experiments that featured in a similar list produced by the American Chemical Society (ACS) a year or so ago fail to make it on to Ball's list. For example, William Perkin's 1856 synthesis of the aniline dye mauve, which featured at number five in the ACS listings, is rejected by Ball because the discovery of the beautiful deep purple colour was the result of a messy, misconceived attempt at chemical synthesis, an experiment lacking in elegance and imagination.

The book's ten chosen beautiful experiments are arranged not in order of beauty or merit; no ranking is given (apart from the chapter numbers) and the order seems almost to be chronological. Thus one is invited not only to question the relationship between art and science but also to have a lesson in the history of science. Issues such as the cost of science versus scientific output, the role of women, collaboration versus competition, the correct credit for scientific discovery, ingenuity of experimental design, interdisciplinarity, the public understanding of science and the tardiness of journals all feature in various forms through these experiments from different periods, all of which makes for fascinating reading.

The list opens in the early 17th century with Jan Baptista van Helmont, a Flemish physician who wanted to demonstrate that everything tangible was ultimately made from water. He therefore planted a small sapling and weighed the soil and tree. After attempting to exclude all other sources of matter except water and air, he waited for five years and weighed again.

Obviously the tree was much heavier and the soil remained almost the same, and van Helmont had irrefutable numbers to back up his claim about water.

Although we now know that his interpretation was wrong - the tree had not got heavier due to water alone - this was one of the first real experiments based on observation as well as logical thinking.

In the second chapter, the list moves on to Henry Cavendish, who wanted to challenge Aristole's generally accepted assertion that water was an indivisible element. Cavendish's experiment illustrates for me another quality of a truly great scientist - the willingness to go against received wisdom. Only real experimental data, measured with accuracy and precision, would suffice for Cavendish.

Less beautiful, to me at least, is the experiment in chapter three: Marie and Pierre Curie's extraction of polonium and radium from processed pitchblende. However, the painstaking tenacity with which the Curies extracted tiny amounts of radium from kilograms of pitchblende certainly resulted in joy and wonder for them both as they watched the number of containers projecting their luminous glow increase little by little over four years.

Chapters four and five both deal with experiments in atomic science. In the first, we are introduced to Ernest Rutherford, who devised a magnificently simple but conceptually beautiful experiment to demonstrate that alpha particles consist of the nuclei of helium atoms. This contrasts wonderfully with chapter five and the work of large international teams of scientists who use particle accelerators to fuse atoms and create new chemical elements with new chemical properties. Here, physicist readers may get slightly upset at these experiments being referred to as chemistry.

Especially as Rutherford's experiment featured in a similar list drawn up by the magazine Physics World in 2002 defining the ten most beautiful experiments in physics.

After this comes Louis Pasteur's separation of the mirror-image forms of tartaric acid (chapter six) and a PhD student's desire to recreate the origins of life using simple laboratory equipment on the lab bench (chapter seven). In chapter eight, we are introduced to Neil Bartlett, who proved that the noble gases found in air were not truly inert - although, as is often the case in scientific discovery, this proof appears not to have been the original motivation of his experiment. Finally, chapters nine and ten deal with the race by chemists to be the first to produce the complex structures of vitamin B12 and dodecahedrane, one of the Platonic solids.

Elegant Solutions is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Ball writes with enviable style. Interesting facts allow the reader an insight into the character of those behind the beautiful experiments. The difficult scientific concepts are simplified enough to give the book an appeal well beyond the world of experimental chemistry. Although simplification in some cases slightly distorts the exact scientific explanation, there is a comprehensive bibliography for those interested in reading further.

Whether his list of ten experiments is the only possible one is more debatable. Personally, I would include Ahmed Zewail's exploration of the decisive moment in a chemical reaction when bonds are broken or formed and, from an aesthetic point of view, the beautiful patterns during the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, which heralded research into non-linear chemical dynamics. However, I am sure the author would be very surprised if all chemists were in full agreement on his list given the subjective nature of this very difficult but rewarding task.

Julie Macpherson is a Royal Society research fellow and reader in chemistry, Warwick University.

Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry

Author - Philip Ball
Publisher - Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing
Pages - 212
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 85404 674 7

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