20th ICCE Day 1 – Chemistry’s essential tensions

I was fortunate enough to be part of Prof. Roald Hoffman’s plenary session at the 20th ICCE today. Prof. Hoffman is a Nobel prize winner in Chemistry. More than anything, although he was talking about chemistry, his talk inspired me to look at technology and learning in ways I had not conceived of before. He started by talking about chemistry in culture and culture in chemistry. His belief is that chemistry is not separable from arts and social sciences insofar as how we perceive our world, though the operational aspects may be entirely different. He held forth three views of chemistry.

The first was looking at Chemistry from the perspective of a few hundred years ago, before we had chemistry as a formal science and chemist as a formal profession. In those days, chemistry was the art, craft and business (before it became a science) of the transformation of substances – things that are and how they transform. Even then we had products that were utilised to create metallurgical implements, medicines, art, cosmetics etc. For example, the colour blue was made in Egypt (“egyptian blue”) and used by artists who created paintings that are today works of art in our museums. This colour was made by transforming substances. Even alchemists, who are treated as not being scientists, by whose concoctions many a king who desired immortal life perished, sought this transformation. Their work, he says, was fuelled by philosophies of transformation, of desires – the desire to transform sickness to good health, poverty to richness, immortal life. And when it became useful, the normally conceived secretive, abstruse, hermetic became, by the same philosophy of transformation, what was already pre-existing – chemistry!

The second view was that of the internal working of that transformation.  Over the last 200 years, at the microscopic level, persistent patterns or groups were found of what we know as atoms. Suddenly chemistry became the art, craft, business and science of that transformation. There are inherent tensions in this view – for example the one between the simple and the complex. We appreciate quickly the symmetrical, the organized, the simple – whether it be a design of a monument or the explanation of a problem. We even equate our concepts of beauty with this simplicity. But our challenge is dealing with complexity, all that which is not simple or beautiful. The aesthetic is in the diversity. Simplicity is implicit in the nature of science and we must fight that. Beauty, he says, resides between order and chaos. It affects us emotional and cognitively. Prof. Hoffman showed us Mendeleev’s periodic table and one of William Blake’s poems on science. They looked beautiful. But then he also showed us Mendeleev’s explanation or story (which perhaps became better with each narration!) and the last draft of Blake’s poem, both of which showed just how much effort and negotiation in between order and chaos creating these entailed. This he finds beautiful as do I.

His third view is the perception of chemistry today. The inherent tension here is in things like harm vs. benefit. Perception is determined as much by politics and religion as by media and communications today. He reminded us of just how little we learn to appreciate the beauty of the efforts that go in to create a wonder drug or the way a new technology works. He firmly stated that chemistry is about change and there will be ambivalence about our perceptions of it – we need to come to terms with it, embrace it.

These tensions bring with them the potential of change in any culture or domain. We must work to foster these in ourselves and our young generations. I think we must build enough ways to engender critical thinking, creativity and the quest for beauty not only in chemistry but all our domains – in fact, our lives.

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