Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

A Nobel chemist on the art of natural science

By William N. Lipscomb, William Lipscomb is a Nobel Prize-winning chemist whom we first met when he was listening to Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet and later when Professor Lipscomb himself was playing clarinet in a chamber music concert. Would he by any chance give Home Forum readers a personal view of those links between art and natural science that have been so much a part of the history of scientific discovery? We are delighted that he would. / November 14, 1983

Once, at a meeting in Lindau, West Germany, I took my seat at lunch beside a lady to whom I introduced myself. She replied, ''How do you do, I am Mrs. Heisenberg.'' Immediately I asked, ''Are you certain?''

Skip to next paragraph

She was. Indeed, she was the widow of Werner Heisenberg. He showed us that all measurements involve the measuring system (us), and that there are statistical aspects rather than certainties in every measurement. It is within these limits that we expect to choose among rival theories or descriptions by the use of experiments or observations in science.

But how does one arrive at the theories? I am prepared, I suppose, to recognize some truth in the methods of inductive and deductive reasoning which I was taught as the methods of science. However, it was already clear to me from original research that I had done previously in high school that I was more inclined to make large intuitive jumps, and then set about to test the conclusions.

There must be some fundamental survival advantage, not completely described to us by the psychologist or anthropologist, in observation, perception, reasoning, and abstraction. Were myths and the arts necessary for cohesive social behavior in the evolution of man? I do not pretend to answer questions so far from my field. I do want to observe, however, that the absolutely amazing degree of abstraction in the mathematics of the last two centuries is equalled only by much later discoveries that some of these developments are relevant to the physical sciences.

From my own experience, I would certainly not separate aesthetics from science. When, after years of research I realized that a whole area of chemistry (of boron) was really quite different from anything that had previously been thought, I felt a focusing of intellect and emotions which was surely an aesthetic response. It was followed by a flood of new predictions coming from my mind as if I were a bystander watching it happen.

Only later was I able to begin to formulate a systematic theory of structure, bonding, and reactions of these unusual molecules. Both the structures and wave functions describing the bonding were based on simple polyhedra of high symmetry and their fragments. Was it science? Our later tests showed that it was. But the processes that I used and the responses that I felt were more like those of an artist.

Poincare, the French mathematician, said:

''The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living. . . . I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.''

Commenting on these observations of Poincare, J. W. N. Sullivan, the author of perceptive biographies of both Newton and Beethoven, wrote (in the Athenaeum for May 1919):

''Since the primary object of the scientific theory is to express the harmonies which are found to exist in nature, we see at once that these theories must have an aesthetic value. The measure of the success of a scientific theory is, in fact, a measure of its aesthetic value, since it is a measure of the extent to which it has introduced harmony in what was before chaos.