Chemical Common Sense

Miroslav Holub

  • The Same and Not the Same by Roald Hoffmann
    Columbia, 294 pp, $34.95, September 1995, ISBN 0 231 10138 4

The ‘courage of not knowing’ is in fashion among artists nowadays and the new democracies of Central Europe excel in it. Science is almost a dirty word, or, at best, simply one of many ways to acquire knowledge. Publishers and editors seem to believe that the broad public underwent a mutation after 1989 when they started to hate molecular genetics, taking up instead with psychedelic phenomena and the works of St Augustine. It is, in many ways, an interesting situation; the new political freedom in Central Europe looks likely to bear the imprint of its first contacts with types of thinking – and behaviour – that were previously embargoed: already phenomenology, Post-Modernism and a rehash of the Beat movement dominate the scene. Intellectual standards in the media have risen considerably, but science is on the whole excluded, largely because it is politically suspect, having enjoyed a reasonable degree of freedom under the communists. It is also true that Teilhard de Chardin is a rather easier read than Dobzhansky and that Husserl, Lyotard and Lévi-Strauss have had the advantage of a good introduction, represented as they are by influential and eloquent Czech followers.

Among 67 non-fiction books released in Prague and recently listed in a literary magazine, I have found only one with some bearing on science – an atlas of archaeology. There are 20 editions of philosophical texts from Plotinus to Husserl and Buber, and 14 volumes on a range of topics, including Indian metaphysics, Zen, Buddhist meditation, Judaic prayer, the history of eschatology, life after death and the spiritual path explained by a Tibetan guru. Three more are in the New Age style or promoting New Age ideology. There are also essays by Proust and Timothy Leary and some Freudian texts. Between them, these dominate the list and are the most visible volumes of non-fiction in the windows of every bookseller.

Newspapers carry only an occasional article on popular subjects such as a new comet or an old virus – HIV. Something alarming, like a picture of an athymic hairless mouse with a human ear implanted on its back, is sure to provoke a sound anti-science reaction from local animal rights activists, who believe that the garden of experimental medicine is for sadists, whose greatest earthly delight is to transplant human ears onto any of God’s creatures.

That a mainstream newspaper could carry a serious science page once a week is perceived as a lunatic notion which would deprive it of its readership along with its profits. Science has to be rediscovered by our publishers, some of whom once had a long tradition in popularising the various disciplines in special series. They must also recognise the simple truth that there is no such thing as ‘alternative’ science – only science and non-science. No wonder, under these conditions, that a normal, non-mutated scientific worker would read a new volume written by a scientist and destined for the general public with great sympathy.

In Anglo-American literary culture, three kinds of popularisation – or comprehensible science writing by active scientists – have crystallised: the belletristic essay, such as the work of Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, Alan Lightman or Harold Morowitz, which reveals the elegance and spirit of science; the scientific discourse that is interesting to the broad public because of its ‘human’ dimension, as in the immense, neo-Darwinian undertaking of Stephen Jay Gould, the books of Lewis Wolpert, Peter Medawar’s essays, the psychiatric narratives of Oliver Sacks or the clinical deliberations of Sherwin Nuland; and finally the heroic attempts to describe a single discipline, including its technical details and particular kind of reasoning. For inclusion in this category I would suggest Milton A. Rothman (The Science Gap), Joseph S. Fruton (A Sceptical Biochemist), Richard Selzer and the present author, Roald Hoffmann, who in spite of the fact that he is also a successful poet, has chosen to write about chemistry not from a celestial or ‘general human’ perspective, but in the basic language of the discipline.

The great advantage of The Same and Not the Same is that it seems unlikely to create a readership of self-made men who believe they have original ideas, after reading one or two popular essays. The book points out that to acquire the simplest possible view of a carbon atom or molecule takes some ten years, not only of learning, listening and reading, but also of active laboratory work. The problem is to escape the routine laboratory jargon on the one hand, and to remain as accurate as possible on the other. The scientific article in a scientific journal has, says Hoffmann, a canonical form which ‘suppresses many of the truly creative acts’ in the work reported: ‘the chemical article is a man-made, constructed abstraction of a chemical activity. If one is lucky it creates an emotional or aesthetic response in its readers.’ It should be added that this response is only possible in a reader who is a chemist, or perhaps another kind of scientist. For anyone else the scientific article will probably remain a wilderness of strange expressions, symbols and graphs; a prejudiced humanist would even say that it is a selfish and inhuman wilderness, since in his mind, the terms ‘cyclohexane’ and ‘fullerene’ (after Buckminster Fuller) are much less human than oxymoron, buon fresco painting or Hermes Trismegistus, which are for him the fundamental components of culture and education.

The scientific mode of communication is simply alien and ‘incomprehensible’: this reminds me of an article on semiotics by a literary theorist in one of our cultural magazines. His definition of the nature and action of interleukins (inter-cellular chemical messages) was so complicated that not even the pioneers of interleukin research, Doctors Dinarello or Oppenheim, would have understood what he was speaking about. And yet his uncultured metalanguage was perfectly acceptable for a cultural magazine. Hoffmann’s lucid explanation of superimposable mirror-image molecules would have been abhorrent to the same journal.

The great art of scientific writing is to render the terms of professional scientific communication in such a way as to make them understood by almost everybody, while avoiding too many tangential explanations and detours. The process must also reveal the aesthetic and affective dimensions of the science in question, often with reference to a particular quest by particular scientists, and catch the elegance of the inquiry, the painstaking search for provisional answers. Hoffmann agrees with C.F. von Weizsäcker that the language of the physics or chemistry lecture is often imprecise. Yet physicists and chemists understand it because it is a common idiom mobilising a set of shared suppositions.

Hoffmann’s success, then, is the success of the decoder. He can acquaint his readers with some of those shared suppositions and bring them as close to chemistry as it is possible for an untrained chemist to get. From a series of short, interesting chapters at the beginning of the book, he talks us through the derivation of basic principles in chemistry (the identity and construction of molecules, the mechanism of the chemical reaction, the magic of catalysis, the adventures of carbon) and their significance in the world beyond the laboratory (thalidomide, the disturbance of nitrogen equilibrium, the 3-way catalytic converter for cars, the uses of new chemicals in industry). There is much here about the relation of science to politics, culture and human responsibility. But there is also Roald Hoffmann the poet, who is ready to quote other poets, as well as philosophers, and to invoke the arts whenever appropriate. So we have ‘Three views of norbornane, C7H12’ opposite the Lascaux cave paintings, and, in the chapter ‘The Salieri Syndrome’, T.S. Eliot’s lines next to Karl Popper. I don’t remember any other professional scientist who is so at home in ‘the first culture’. In Hoffmann, the science/poet combination brings with it, above all, an aptitude for metaphoric rendering and representation (the title of the book itself) and a gift for condensed reasoning and narration. Of more than fifty chapters, few exceed five or six pages, including illustrations. In my view, this is the best way to present the stuff. A lengthier and more elaborate approach is too often an unconvincing attempt to create continuity and coherence. Brevity is a real virtue in science writers and a privilege for a reader in a period which is not yet cured of a malignant proliferation of words. In The Same and Not the Same, the common stock of (chemical) knowledge is fragmented, but so is scientific reality. Only angels and paranoiacs see the world as a whole.

The supporting illustrations in the book are both copious and diverse. Many are scientific graphs and tables, but there is plenty of art as well, and some strangely spurious colour photographs: ‘waste barrels’, ‘reading chemical journals in a university library’, ‘an oil refinery’ and ‘another oil refinery at dawn’; ‘rugby scrum’ and ‘garlic bread’ on the next page, and ‘apples on a tree in the Cornell orchards’. Perhaps these are intended as a place of rest for the eye, strained by too much molecular structure.

Hoffmann definitely makes his molecules ‘inherently interesting’, but misses no opportunity to speak about science and the state of human affairs in general. He shows kindness and tolerance towards all other kinds of cultural activity, where I would be inclined to show less, particularly when it comes to the ‘alternative’ Post-Communist and Post-Modern cultures I spoke of earlier. But so would Hoffmann had he been in the Village during the Sixties, and he would surely be as impatient as I would in discussion with New Age or Christian Science health experts.

‘It seems to me,’ Hoffmann says, ‘that scientists are at their best when they are out of power but still engaged in the political process. Then they are motivated to speak as the voice of reason, to give sound advice, to counter ascendant irrationality. Their competence meshes with the demands of the role they play.’ This is hard to disagree with. It is true, too, that ‘there are very good reasons why we should wake the environmentalists within all of us’ rather than delegate to the self-appointed Greens who have no other specialism than their own neurosis.

The chemist and poet concludes his work on the stock of common chemical knowledge as follows:

I think chemistry is interesting to its toiling practitioners, and to people who use it (or abuse it) without being chemists, because its activities parallel deep avenues in our psyche ... a given fact (a molecule, a line from a poem) has a history, a context, to be sure. But it comes to life only if we think of the molecule (or the poem) as suspended – yes, tensely – in a space that is defined by different themes or oppositions.

The trouble is that many poets just refuse to see that space, those themes; they wear their refusal like a coat of arms as they ride into noble Post-Modern isolation.

In the Czech Learned Society – which has replaced the old Soviet-style gathering of academicians – all kinds of scientists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, medical scientists, sociologists and historians listen to each other, but the philosophers never attend. Apparently, they know better.