(C5H5)2Fe meets Macbeth

How does an artist's imagination differ from a scientist's? Harry Kroto, who helped to discover Buckminsterfullerene, says it is mainly a language problem
Click to follow
The Independent Online
From my perspective, I have never seen much intrinsic difference between the nature of the arts and of the sciences, although there is clearly some sort of language problem. In an attempt to clarify and justify this claim I'll start with two words: one is "Macbeth"; the other is "benzene". Many may not know the play Macbeth in detail, but the word itself will almost automatically invoke several key facts - in particular that it is one of the archetypal great tragic plays in which Shakespeare explored facets of the human condition taken to excess, in a way few other writers have equalled. Many would also be able to remember the odd quotation.

In contrast, when confronted by chemical formula C6H6, few would know much about what they were dealing with. If they were told that this formula represented benzene, they might vaguely remember hearing that benzene is a toxic additive in petrol and that they should avoid inhaling while filling the car at the petrol pump - probably without wondering why it might be there.

Benzene is, however, a pivotal compound in chemistry. In 1825 Michael Faraday extracted it from fish oil by an extremely careful procedure. The structure of the molecule presented serious problems to early chemists who struggled to understand how its six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms were linked together. The resolution of this problem, that the carbon atoms were linked in a hexagonal ring pattern, was one of the great achievements of 19th-century chemistry and has gone on to underpin the structural basis of much of organic chemistry.

There are also human factors surrounding the credit for elucidating the molecule's structure. It was previously believed that Kekule came upon the ring solution while dozing in front of a fire, half dreaming that he saw snakes chasing their tails in circles among the flickering embers. Serious misgivings have recently been raised about this account, the archetypal example of the scientific "eureka" moment. Thus the word "benzene" invokes similar overtones (to "Macbeth"), of possible misdemeanours stimulated by personal ambition.

As far as chemistry is concerned - organic chemistry in particular, which is some 90 per cent or more of our known chemistry - benzene plays a pivotal role. It is a component in countless natural products; these are the so- called aromatic compounds, many of which occur "organically" (so they must be OK!) in plants, animals and in particular the human animal. The famous hexagonal benzene ring is a key structural component in a plethora of compounds: DNA; steroids such as oestrogen; drugs such as aspirin; TNT; dyes such as indigo and Tyrian purple; plastics such as polystyrene - the list is truly endless. Countless reactions characteristic of these so-called aromatic compounds occur in the body, and thus our very lives depend on the chemical properties of benzene and its derivatives.

The structure of benzene was only finally understood after the real intellectual giants of the 20th century (Planck, de Broglie, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Dirac, Born, Pauli and their colleagues) created quantum mechanics. This theory explains essentially everything of any significance in our world, ie essentially all of chemistry and much of physics.

So now I come to the crux of my case, which lies in the perception of the chemist when she/he sees the formula C6H6. The chemist recognises it as a symbolic representation of a tangible, real structure. There may be some philosophical discussion about whether a particle is a wave or vice versa, but to all intents and purposes the molecule can be usefully perceived as a highly structured collection of atoms, a beautiful edifice at the scale of about 1 millionth of a millimetre (the nanoscale - or if you want to be pedantic the nanometre scale; 10-9 metre, or 1 billionth of a metre). The electrons buzz around the nuclei in beautiful "geometrically diaphanous" swarming patterns, understandable only by solving elegant mathematical equations. It is the electrons that hold together the constituent nuclei of molecules (and thus also our bodies, because we are nuclear too) - a bit like glue.

The chemist creates new compounds perhaps because they exist in her/his imagination as a beautiful Holy Grail, or because they are desperately needed (as in the case of Florey, who strove to find a way to make viable amounts of penicillin during the War). Others create compounds because they are predicted to have useful properties; this was the stimulus in the case of the liquid crystal compounds, made by George Gray of Hull University, that have revolutionised display technologies - LCDs. Sometimes, some fortunate chemist stumbles on something rather special by accident. This happened in my case when Bob Curl, Jim Heath, Sean O'Brien, Yuan Liu, Rick Smalley and I found C60, Buckminsterfullerene, serendipitously in 1985. This beautifully symmetric molecule self-assembled in a few microseconds in the chaotic, super-hot plasma produced by a laser beam focused on a piece of graphite.

Chemists, when they create a new compound, experience an exhilaration that has much in common with that of others who create, including artists, writers and musicians. The greatest empathy may be with architects, who design and organise the construction of buildings. By clever chemistry the chemist has created a fantastic microscopic world consisting of millions of molecules with elegant structures that rival great buildings - from the Parthenon to Richard Rodgers' Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. In the work of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca one finds drawings of elegant structures including many symmetric polyhedra such as the truncated icosahedron (it has the same pattern as the modern soccer ball), which was known to Archimedes. In our case we serendipitously discovered the C60 molecule, which also possesses this soccer ball pattern and which follows the same structural principle as that which Buckminster Fuller devised for the Expo 67 US Pavilion in Montreal, and is currently used for the Epcot Building at Disneyworld in Florida.

On these two images I base my case - that small is beautiful, too, and the chemist has the ability to "see" this beauty in symbols such as C6H6, C60 or (C5H5)2Fe - now that is what I would call abstract art.

One of the major problems we face today is the apparent divide between those with a good understanding of the environment created by science and technology which has revolutionised the way we live, and those who have little or no understanding of it. Chemists have made massive contributions, as have physicists, engineers, mathematicians, civil engineers, biologists, biochemists, geologists and others.

So what is the difference between a scientist and a non-scientist? At a deep level of the cathartic experience involved, both in creation and appreciation, I do not think there is any. It is basically a language factor. It is roughly equivalent to the difficulty that a Japanese scholar, who knows very little or no English, would have in understanding a play by Shakespeare - or, conversely that I would have in truly understanding the work of a Japanese writer such as Akutagawa, without a knowledge of Japanese and, just as serious, no ability to decipher the Kanji characters that are as intrinsic to written Japanese culture as molecular formulae are to chemistryn

The author is Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex and last year's joint winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry