George Whitesides: "Chemists - we change the way you live or die"

I don't know if I have highlighted this eminently readable quote from a review on the future of chemistry by the always interesting George Whitesides before, but it's quite memorable, not just because it dramatically illustrates how chemistry contributes to our world but also because it accurately does so.

Whitesides is talking about an old and thorny problem: how to pitch the wonders of chemistry to a public which often thinks that while physics is about the universe and biology is about life, chemistry is about glue and vitamins. How do we convince people not just of the practical utility of chemistry but also about its vast reach as the "central science". Whitesides's advice is to try out the line at the end of the following exchange on your next trans-Atlantic flight fellow passenger.

To me, the beauty of that statement is not just that it encompasses the ubiquitous and deep role that chemistry plays in human life and death but that it also satisfies a key constraint from the philosophy of chemistry: that of representing the discipline at the right emergent level. What I mean is that it would be trivial to say that the statement "We change the way you live or die" could encapsulate physics and biology even better; after all there would not be life or death without evolution, and even less so without the second law of thermodynamics. 

Yet not only does chemistry serve as the major workhorse for both evolution and the Second Law but it also contributes to life and death at a very direct level, as opposed to an abstract if very general one. The ATP, glucose and water molecules coursing through your body can put a chokehold on your very ability to live right away if their number dwindled. So can the molecules in your food supply or your environment. They are life-giving and life-depriving in a very real sense unlike the laws of physics and biology which, although they may be more generally encompassing, don't describe the system at the right explanatory level.

It is the combination of pleasing philosophical applicability and damning practical applicability that make that quote feel as satisfying to me as a Bruce Willis quote on living and dying from "Die Hard".

Book review: Simon Winchester's "Pacific" - A "behemoth of eye-watering complexity"

I am always game for anything written by the prolific polymath Simon Winchester. His specialty is to dig up stories of entire geographic regions and/or the fascinating individuals who populate them. In the past he has written about the making of the Oxford dictionary ("The Professor and the Madman") and about the brilliant Joseph Needham who revealed China to the West ("The Man Who Loved China"). He has also written about the history of the Atlantic Ocean, and now he turns his sprawling attention to the Pacific.

The Pacific, writes Winchester, "is a behemoth of eye-watering complexity". Its size beggars belief - its sixty-five million square miles can hold all the world's continents and still leave room for more - and its fringes and its heart contain some of the most important stories of science, history, geography and human civilization. How does one tackle an entity of such enormous scope and complexity?

Winchester's tack is a neat one. What he does is tell us the story of the Pacific in ten diverse chapters. The subtitle of the book, "Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers" gives us a flavor of the myriad topics he takes on. The beginning of every chapter portrays a major event related to that chapter, which then becomes a springboard for a much broader theme. Here are some of the chapters that I found particularly interesting.

The first chapter starts with a history of the hydrogen bomb tests in the countless tiny islands of the South Pacific which the US brazenly set off in the late 40s and early 50s. This series of tests leads to the real story, which is the sordid history and tragic exploitation of the native Pacific islanders populating these tiny islands: the Marshall Islands (including Bikini atoll where the first hydrogen bomb was detonated), the Solomon Islands (where John F. Kennedy almost died after his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer during World War 2) and the Marianas (which were the sites of some of the most ferocious battles of the war). The islanders essentially became pawns in the Cold War, and their constant uprooting and exploitation is a reminder of how forgotten people can almost be erased from history in the struggle between superpowers.

Another chapter talks about how surfing took root in Hawaii and how, due to the efforts of a select few westerners - including writers Jack London - came to California and spawned a whole culture. There's also a chapter on the founding of Sony and the key role that Masaru Ibuka played in it (Akio Morita's role is usually better known). Winchester characteristically digs up amusing facts; for instance I did not know that Sony's transistor radios became big in the US after a highly publicized heist in which hundreds of them were stolen from a warehouse - while others were left untouched.

A lot of the book is about the coming of age of Asian powers. One of the most interesting chapters is about the 1968 capture of the NSA spy ship USS Pueblo and its sailors by North Korea. That story provides a springboard into the exploration of the bizarre regime of North Korea and its highly repressive and otherworldly culture. Particularly illuminating is a brief history of the Korean War in which the boundary between the North and South was decided arbitrarily and literally on a whim by an American Colonel named Boneskull. And there's a description of one of the strangest places on the planet - the DMZ between the two countries where bears, exotic birds and other animals have thrived as in no other place on the planet. The capstone of the chapter is a bizarre dinner which the author has in the Swiss embassy which was formed to oversee the truce in 1952: a dinner that takes place with speakers in the background constantly blaring propaganda inviting South Koreans to live in the promised land under the beneficence of the Dear Leader.

Just like the Pacific has been an enormous stage for geopolitical affairs, so is it also a great cauldron of geography and biology. One chapter tells us how - through its marshaling of El Nino and La Nina - the Pacific's heaving currents and underwater geography essentially control the entire world's climate. The same chapter also explores how ocean acidification caused by climate change is resulting in the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef's magnificent corals through a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Since I was at the reef only a few days back this chapter hit home. Perhaps the most elemental role played by the Pacific is illustrated through a chapter detailing the discovery of tremendous hot chimney like structures called black smokers which can generate life-giving nutrients in the absence of sunlight and which can sustain entire ecosystems of fascinating and bizarre creatures deep down on the ocean floor. The discovery of these smokers has revolutionized our understanding of the origin of life.

Another chapter in the book talks about Australia and its amusing politics, especially the incident in the 70s when the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was fired by none other than the Queen of England (technically her representative). Much of that chapter is about Australia's mixed legacy of alternately welcoming and shunning immigrants and also about the building of an iconic Australian symbol - Sydney's Opera House (which I have always found a bit underwhelming). Since I visited Australia just a few days ago I can attest to many of the things Winchester says about it. It's a beautiful country with very friendly people, but its nature is perhaps summarized by a remark made by one of Winchester's Australian friends: "Australia is a great country to live in, but it's not a great country yet".

The last part of the book deals with an entity on the geopolitical stage which is undoubtedly going to loom large in the very near future - China. This is illustrated by one chapter which deals with the ceding of former colonial possessions in the Pacific to their rightful owners by former colonial powers. This is actually an inspiring chapter since it illustrates the waning years of imperialism. However one cannot but feel a bittersweet twinge of regret as Britain handed Hong Kong over to China. Britain had forcibly possessed Hong Kong from China during the Opium Wars of the 19th century, but it's also clear that in some sense China's governance of the island might be less benign than Britain's. China's assertive demands to take charge of Hong Kong in 1997, even as Britain had to meekly concede it, is illustrative of the power that that country has started to wield in the region. Winchester's ambivalence toward the trappings of this power are made clear in the last chapter when he talks about how China is gradually but surely expanding its military power by quietly building bases in the South China sea. While the West's withdrawal from the Pacific is a welcome sign of the end of centuries long imperialism in the region, China's authoritarian power and global plans make the peaceful future of the entire region uncertain.

It was quite timely that I visited Australia right when I read this book. Through Winchester's narrative my appreciation of the key role that this mighty ocean has played in the fortunes of men, in the downfall of empires and in the sustenance of our planet - its very reach and its captivating romance - was enhanced. As I stood on the shores of Trinity Beach in Cairns (photo below) and contemplated the roiling waves, the billowing winds, the graceful palm trees and the beautiful but deadly jellyfish that lurked in the depths, my mind went back to the islanders on the Marshall Islands who, guided only by the stars and the wind, would have arrived on their tiny atolls tens of thousands of years ago and called them home. The same story of arrival and expulsion has played out over and over again in the Pacific. Which one of these tales prevails in the future is up to us.

The Djabugay medicine woman and the varieties of knowledge

An exquisite piece of art from the Tjapukai, illustrating the fishes, reptiles, mammals and other animals which are essential
for their culture, beliefs and sustenance.

Recently as part of the holiday break, I had an opportunity to visit the Djabugay (Tjapukai) cultural center in Cairns, Australia which showcases the often fascinating lifestyle and culture of the Djabugay people. Typical of other Australian aboriginal tribes, the Djabugay have occupied the land of Australia for thousands of years before the settlers and convicts came in. Everyday the cultural center organizes events demonstrating some of the essential activities of the tribe: these involve spear sharpening and throwing, boomerang throwing, dance and song including didgeridoo playing, folk art and medicinal plants.

All of the events were enjoyable but as a scientist I was especially interested in the session on medicinal plants. It was presented by a woman standing in front of a huge tray laden with different kinds of fruits, nuts and herbs. First she told us about all the fruits which the Djabugay had found were beneficial to their health. Then she told us about all those fruits and plants that were toxic. That was the end of the presentation.

During the Q&A session I asked her what exactly happens when we eat the toxic plants. “You die” was the commonsense answer, accompanied by a muffled chorus of laughter from the back. I stumbled around for a better-phrased question and asked what the mechanism of death was; whether the fruits were neurotoxic or cardiotoxic or paralyzing agents. The women replied by saying that she did not know anything about that. She genuinely seemed not to.

I was struck then by how different the knowledge of the Djabugay regarding these toxic plants was. For the Djabugay, the very word “knowledge” meant practical knowledge, the existence of facts without reasons. For us knowledge means something different; a body of thinking that allows us to unearth not just facts but the reasons for their existence. The Djabugay were of course no different from thousands of ancient and cultures around the world whose practitioners knew whether something would kill you or save you but who had no idea of how it worked. Their way of obtaining knowledge was no different from that of Neolithic man finding out things the hard way. From a primitive standpoint this makes a lot of sense; knowing how something works is a useless bit of information if I don’t know whether it will kill me. Knowledge of life and death, irrespective of mechanism, is very useful knowledge.

And yet the kind of knowledge that the Djabugay and their counterparts had is fundamentally different from the kind that has come to be associated with modern science. The whole idea of the scientific revolution can be traced back to the time when we went from asking not just “what” but to asking “how” and “why”. This fundamental shift in inquiry is much more radical than it seems, especially since, as illustrated by the Djabugay’s identification of poisonous fruit, asking “what” seems very important for survival while asking “how” seems like mere idle curiosity. Yet the flame of this idle curiosity was always present in man, and it was only by the sixteenth century in Europe that we started to find ways of systematically and comprehensively applying an algorithm that would help us fruitfully satisfy this idle curiosity.

The scientific method that enabled us to do this made it possible to go from consequences to mechanism, a connection that had largely escaped primitive people. Going from consequences to mechanism, and especially abstract mechanism, was truly revolutionary. People like the Djabugay would understandably have frowned upon the quest for mechanism, had they not known that three hundred years later, it would be abstract mechanism and not just purposeful, commonsense knowledge that would result in some of our greatest inventions, including computers, lasers, plastics and drugs. Curiosity-based, supposedly impractical thinking led to some of our most practical wherewithal. Scribblings on paper led to machines humming away and making other machines. That’s a long way to come.

And yet we are not as different from the Djabugay as we think; even among their ranks there were undoubtedly tinkerers, questioners, mavericks who indulged in what we today call “experiments and “testing”. Perhaps these mavericks were relegated to the side by the elders and the leaders who were more interested in knowing the what rather than the why and the how, but it was undoubtedly the ones who were far ahead of their times who were unknowingly laying the bricks of the cathedrals of the future.

As historian of science David Wootton implies in his recent book “The Invention of Science”, one of the greatest events in the invention of science was the very formulation of a vocabulary – containing the terms “facts” and “hypotheses” and “experiments” and “theories” – which enabled the scientific method. The Djabugay did not individually lack this vocabulary’s abstract mental representations even if they might have collectively lacked its vocalization. But the most important lesson that the Djabugay illustrated for me is that knowledge can be a subjective, fluid entity. It can consist of reasons or it can consist of facts, or it can consist of both. Primitive knowledge might be primitive but it has a seamless connection to our present as the primal wellspring of all that we regard as relevant today. Religious knowledge might be subjective but it too bears connections to our human existence because of its ability to make us forge communities and understand each other better. To live, to thrive, to love and to teach we need all kinds of knowledge. Once we start seeing knowledge as a multifaceted, many-splendored thing we will be able to appreciate its various manifestations, and even if some of these manifestations may have deficiencies, we will be able to use their merits to augment each other.

Hypotheses non fingo: Why chemistry defies the traditional philosophy of science

Chemist Roald Hoffmann has often emphasized
the non hypothesis-generating nature of chemical
A discussion on hypothesis-driven science on Twitter made me think again about a rather underappreciated issue that people don’t seem to much talk about – the fact that non hypothesis-driven science has been an integral part of science since the beginning, and that chemistry is probably the best example of non hypothesis-driven science that we know of.

Hypothesis generation has always been regarded as a key aspect of science; if you don’t have a hypothesis how would you know what experiment to perform or what quantity to calculate? And yet chemists when they synthesize new molecules seldom have a hypothesis in mind. The hypothesis may lie in the application of those molecules; for instance one may be making a molecule to test a hypothesis about the workings of a particular biochemical pathway, or about the quantum yield of a particular solar cell. But the synthesis itself is not really in the domain of hypothesis generation. The often quoted analogy between chemistry and architecture is thus not without merit from this viewpoint either; when you are laying down plans for a new bridge what hypothesis exactly are you generating?

The same goes for another pillar of science, namely falsification. I have written about falsification and its discontents - especially as applied to chemistry - before and the point is worth belaboring again. When a chemist is synthesizing a new molecule she is not expressly trying to falsify a hypothesis, except in the trivial sense of trying to falsify the basic laws of chemistry. As chemist Roald Hoffmann elegantly puts it:

"What theories are being tested (or falsified, for that matter) in a beautiful paper on synthesis? None, really, expect that such and such a molecule can be constructed. The theory building in that is about as informative as the statement that an Archie Ammons poem tests a theory that the English language can be used to construct novel and perceptive insights into the way the world and our minds interact. The power of that tiny poem, the cleverness of the molecular surgery that a synthetic chemist performs in creating a molecule, just sashay around any analytical theory-testing."

Chemistry is largely a creative activity, trying to come up with novel ways of deciphering the structure of molecules and of making them. Chemists making molecules are like termites building an intricate nest; the humans who make molecules are no more trying to falsify molecule-building than termites are trying to falsify termite mound-building. The goal is to create novelty, not to falsify existing ideas.

The fact that much of chemistry defies both hypothesis-generation and falsification highlights how impoverished the traditional philosophy of science as it’s taught is. One of the reasons this is so is because philosophy of science has traditionally been created, taught and proselytized by people with a background in physics. Many of the big names in the philosophy of science – Aristotle, Hume, Popper and Kuhn to name some of the most prominent – were either trained in physics, thought mostly about physics, lived in a time of great upheavals in physics or were influenced by other physicists. Kuhn and Popper especially came of age in the heyday of physics, and Kuhn who was a physicist himself had written extensively about the Copernican revolution and other topics in physics and astronomy before he published his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962).

The principles laid out by these philosophers of science were not wrong, but they illuminated only one aspect of scientists’ daily work, and incompletely at that. For example falsification is almost never on the minds of everyday scientists working on their everyday problems; what’s on their mind is confirmation, notwithstanding David Hume’s problems with induction. Neither do most scientists throw away their theories when a few experiments threaten to falsify them; if they did this every time the progress of science would be greatly impoverished and much slower than what it is. Similarly, hypothesis generation was traditionally a very important part of physics, but in other sciences and most notably in chemistry, it has played a relatively minor role. Even in physics there are now subfields like the physics of emergent systems where hypothesis generation is not the most important activity.

The problem with philosophy of science is not that it’s invalid; it’s that it’s biased by the backgrounds of the philosophers who preach it and the existing fashions of the time. As Hoffmann says, the philosophy of science might have looked very different if it had been taught by chemists, emphasizing synthesis and exploration instead of hypothesis generation and falsification. 

Every science shares some facets of the traditional philosophy of science, but it also has its own explanatory devices which render its philosophy unique. Chemistry is a model example of why as science changes its philosophy must change and adapt, retaining the most cogent of the old principles but nimbly incorporating new ones.

Note: Based on the comments below I want to clarify a bit more what I said. I certainly don't imply that there are no aspects of chemistry that lend themselves to hypothesis-creation or falsification. What I simply imply is that creative and synthetic - and not just analytical - sciences like chemistry present features that go far beyond these two heavily emphasized aspects of the traditional philosophy of science.