Open doors at Chemistry (1): Unbolting the Periodic Stable

The nobility of Man[…] lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and [that] I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in the liceo*; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!

* liceo = Italian secondary school for students aged 14-19
Primo Levi, Iron, in The Periodic Table, translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

The façade of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, South Parks Road, Oxford

Friday 18th September 2015 marked the beginning of a series of events unfolding at the interface between chemistry and art and culminating in the exhibition Periodic Tales: Art of the Elements, which will take place at the Compton Verney Art Gallery (Warwickshire, UK) from 3rd October to 11th December. This art exhibition was launched during a special public lecture at the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory (Department of Chemistry) of the University of Oxford, one of the first events of the 2015 Alumni Weekend of the University. On the following day, the programme continued with tours of the Department of Chemistry and a drop-in exhibition on the Periodic Table.

What follows is an insider’s account of the lecture and the exhibition, as seen through the lens of a member of the Alchemists, the outreach volunteers of the Department of Chemistry who guided the tours and contributed to organizing and staging the Saturday exhibition. If you want to see with you own eyes and relive the moment, have a look at the video/audio recordings of the Friday public lecutre, available online.

Vicious patterns and shiny reflections: the multifaceted personalities of the elements

No matter how materialistic our philosophical stance may be, we all agree that the human nature is unfathomable, a mystery still to be unravelled. Yet, one could possibly simplify this daunting challenge by trying to identify recurring patterns, repeating units that contribute to shaping who we are. The artwork Fuse (cast iron, Antony Gormley), reproduced on the poster of the public lecture Periodic Tales, can be seen at one time as a poignant reminder of this relentless quest and as the result of the recombination of elementary building blocks in the form of polyhedra. After all, weren’t the elements of ancient philosophy shaped, according to Plato, as regular solids? On the other hand, a more chemical eye could identify in Gormley’s polyhedral man the typical profile of electron microscopy images of metal nanoparticles, with their (more or less well-defined) facets and different crystal orientations.

The poster of the public lecture “Periodic Tales”

When I arrived at the lecture theatre, the audience was flocking in, and I decided to perch onto one of the seats at the back, ready to follow Periodic Tales from this vantage point. No sooner had I taken my seat than I realised that chemical elements were already clashing in front of me, as my very 20th-century notepad-and-pen combination sat next to a sleek laptop computer. Silicon and rare earths versus oxygen, hydrogen and carbon: an apt prologue to the tales of the elements.

Three speakers took turns on the floor before the question time: Hugh Aldersey-Williams, writer and author of Periodic Tales1; Georgiana Hedesan, Wellcome Trust postdoctoral research fellow in Medical Humanities, and Peter Battle, professor of Chemistry at Oxford. The lectures were introduced by Philip Mountford, head of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford, and Stephen Tuck, director of The Oxford Reserach Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Periodic Tales is one of the last events of the 2014-15 series of TORCH lectures, book discussions, seminars and debates exploring the frontiers between humanities and science.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams briefly surveyed the landscape of elements and their relevance to literature, art and popular culture: as the author remarks on his website, “the elements come to us“, sometimes openly declaring their presence, while concealing themselves at times. Given my passion for the written word, I found the literary quotes particularly intriguing, in particular the following from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which, in the author’s own words, was a veritable “epiphany” for the entire project of Periodic Tales. Portia, the leading female character of the play, offers her suitors three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead, only one of which contains Portia’s portrait. He who finds it will win her hand. Aldersey-Williams explained that he regarded the caskets as material allegories of human vices and virtues, inextricably correlated with the character of the different metals (following T.S. Eliot I would say that the caskets are objective correlatives). In Shakespeare’s own verses2:

The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;’
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;’
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

A suitor of Portia’s wondering which casket to choose

Thus, gold is the epitome of avarice, silver an invitation to trade (recalling the use of this metal as currency), while lead represents the fatalist choice, because, as the speaker remarked, lead has always been linked with fate, hazard, death and the acceptance thereof: for example, augurs could foretell the future by looking at molten lead that solidifies into bizarre shapes when cast in a bucket full of water. Lead was the material of choice for dice in the Roman world, because heavy dice fall more decisively: to have an idea, think of Caesar reportedly saying “Alea iacta est“, “The die is cast”, when crossing the Rubicon. That lead and death walk hand-in-hand can be explained by mentioning the toxicity of this metal, and this is such a pervasive topic, a powerful combination, that it keeps surfacing again and again in literature and culture: the short story dedicated to the dull metal in Primo Levi’s The Periodic System is a tale of Rodmund, a craftsman/miner of Germanic origins that roams Europe in search of (lead-containing) ores, to extract the metal which will make him rich while condemning him to fatal illness and death, the curse cast on his lineage by the daily handling of the heavy metal. Finally, lead is death by metonymy, as in bullets: Aldersey-Williams discussed an artwork by Cornelia Parker (which will be included in Art of the Elements at Compton Verney), Bullet Drawing (Crosshairs), in which the artist uses lead to trace the trajectory from cause and effect, the metal being the ‘material framework’ unifying them. Lead from a bullet was molten and cast into a net, which was then mounted on paper and distorted as if hit by the bullet.

The author went on addressing several other elements, but I will let the curious reader set off on his/her own personal exploration of the periodic table, perhaps using Aldersey-William’s book as a primer. What matters at this point is the principle inspiring Periodic Tales: elements have a certain meaning for the chemist, but this is intertwined with countless threads from culture, history and myth creating a richly patterned fabric. Looking at every single case in the Periodic Table is like opening the lid of a set of Chinese boxes: once an element is unpacked, its multiple references to our (material and immaterial) culture will pop out, prompting us to keep on exploring.  Aldersey-William’s lecture also prompts a comment on the term element and its multiple meanings. The writer pointed out that ten elements (in modern terms) were known in antiquity (being gold, silver, carbon, sulphur, lead, tin, mercury, antimony, iron, copper and zinc), while Aristotelian elements, as discussed in On Generation and Corruption, just amounted to four (air, earth, fire and water, aether being a fifth, and most obscure, element), each one bearing a certain property (hot, cold, moist, dry) to the highest degree. If one were to stick to Mendeleev’s rigorous notion of element, an abstract entity with an experimentally accessible property (the atomic weight), it would be more appropriate to say that ten “simple substances” of elementary composition were known in the classical world. But I do not want to sound pedantic or dwell too long on this issue in this post.

If there had been an alchemist among Portia’s suitor, he would surely have chosen the gold casket: after all, transmutation of lead into the most precious metal was never accomplished, and several experimental procedures (think of the discovery and use of aqua regia, for example) eventually ended up destroying gold, rather than producing it. This is what I learned as I was listening to the second talk by Georgiana Hedesan, historian of alchemy, who focussed on alchemy as the art of making gold. However, as Hedesan warned, transmutation of base metals into gold was just one of the many goals of alchemy. Gold has attracted humans since the dawn of times for several reasons: its shine (the Proto-Indo-European root for gold means ‘glow’3), its sun-like colour, its rarity; it is a soft, easily shaped metal but at the same time it is also resistant to chemicals and it does not tarnish; it can be turned into stunningly beautiful jewellery, but this requires specialised craftsmanship, much as transmutation calls for the “dark arts” of alchemy. Here is an interesting point raised by the historian: the alchemists did not want to exploit transmutation to become rich, but they were seeking knowledge which would raise them above their contemporaries. For those interested in the history of chemistry, this sounds familiar: alchemists (and later on chemists) were regularly accused of impious, boundless hubris, trying to recreate fake reproductions (‘artifacts’) of the natural world, and in doing so defying the order created by (one or another) god4. This resonates with the opposition natural/artificial so often heard when nasty ‘chemicals’ are pitted against supposedly benign, more wholesome alternatives; in terms of reflections of this theme in literature, just think of the arrogant scientist in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus. Interestingly, alchemists aimed to produce gold also because it was thought to be a panacea for good health, a proxy for eternal afterlife; even today, an relic of the alchemical era survives as (Danziger) Goldwasser, a strong liqueur containing gold flakes and dating back to the end of the 16th century, approximately the period on which Hedesan’s own scholarly interests research focus. More recently, elemental gold in the form of nanoparticles has garnered intense interest in research projects across the board seeking to develop effective drug-delivery systems or treatments for cancer. But today’s chemical research is nowhere as universal in its aims as the body of the alchemical knowledge of the 17th century, which, as Hedesan showed, could produce works such as Atalanta Fugiens (1617), which combines poetry, image and music to describe alchemical practices. Its author, Michael Maier, gives us an insight into the vastly broad scope of later alchemy in another work, De Circulo Quadrato Physico, sive de Auro (1616). It was in Maier’s times that the printing press allowed the scrutiny of alchemical practices by uninitiated but “skeptical chemists”, while also offering the inspiration for satirical comedies such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist 4,5.

Gold and alchemy

Next came Peter Battle: his lifelong experience on the stages of international conferences was instrumental in delivering an engaging lecture touching on chemistry, art and aesthetics. After pointing out that chemists are mostly interested in compounds rather than elements, Battle said that he regards the latter as ‘building blocks’ and agents which introduce certain desired properties into the structures he and his group design and assemble (his research focusses on magnetic materials). This echoed a remark by the French chemist Michel Pouchard, as quoted in Chemistry: The Impure Science4: “The chemist is primarily the architect of matter as well as its mason; his scale is that of the nanometer, his bricks the hundred or so elements in Mendeleev’s periodic system, and his cement is their valency electrons“. Thus, not only are elements abstract concepts, as suggested by Mendeleev while he was working on the periodic system; they are also very practical raw materials for the wet-lab chemist, ‘bricks’ stacked to assemble structures such as this shown by Battle:

Symmetry in chemistry

The speaker emphasised that if one looks at chemistry zooming out from the level of the single elements to those of compounds, a different type of periodicity is evident: simpler elements repeat following an ordered pattern to create an overall regular structure. One of these simple elements is the unit cell of crystals, which has its eye-catching architectural counterpart in the Atomium in Brussels, a Modernist stainless steel utopia embodying faith in technological progress as instrument of peace.  For a chemist like Battle, the Atomium is a body-centered cubic unit cell, which incidentally is that of iron, the element which Primo Levi, in one the tersest short stories of The Periodic Table, conjures up to talk about freedom, dignity and life-changing choices in a dark Europe.  Battle also stressed that chemical architectures (and the word is not randomly chosen!), from molecules to crystals, often feature symmetry elements: the structure displayed here, for example, has a horizontal symmetry plane reflecting the top half into the bottom half. This is often mirrored by landscapes, such as in the superb view of the still surface of Lake Buttermere (Lake District, UK) reflecting the mountains which rise up towards the skies from the lake shore. The solid state of matter is also characterised by simple components that are repeated periodically, giving rise to a regular shaping, and this is reminiscent of architectural features such as the recurring, imposing arches of Sweetheart Abbey. In this respect, the chemist is definitely an “architect of matter”, and not surprisingly one of the most famous chemists of all times, August Kekulé, first enrolled at the University of Giessen as an architecture undergraduate, falling for chemistry after listening to Liebig’s lectures. Mentioning Kekulé, I cannot help thinking about organic compounds and the symmetries observed in molecular orbital theory, for example in the so-called Hoffmann-Woodward rules. Roald Hoffmann himself has often reflected on the role of aesthetics in chemistry and it is an impossible task to summarise his stance in a few lines here: let us mention at this stage that Hoffmann addresses the shape of molecules and crystals at the start of his 1988 landmark paper Molecular beauty.
What is art’s own image of chemistry? Battle started by showing a painting included in the exhibition Art of the Elements, specifically The Alchemist (there we go again!), by Sir William Fettes Douglas, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Have a look at the picture and you will understand why the speaker stressed the fact that, annoyingly (at least from the chemists’ point of view), there is an intimate association between chemistry and someone looking at a round-bottomed flask. Here Battle echoes a detailed analysis by Schummer and Spector on The Visual Image of Chemistry, in which the authors maintain that “Whenever today’s chemists want to be portrayed in such a way that anybody can recognize their professional identity, they usually hold up in their hand a flask filled with some liquid that they visually inspect. This posture has become the stereotypical visual icon of chemistry in self-portraits, professional photographs, and clip-art cartoons6 . Unfortunately, it is not ideal for chemistry to be represented by this image, because, as Schummer and Spector remark, it originates from an early medical practice, uroscopy, which would eventually be associated with charlatans and their fraudulent practices. In a sense, this unflattering representation does not come as a surprise, because, at least from the point of view of philosophy of science, chemistry suffered neglect for centuries. Despite his later “conversion”, most likely following Lavoisier’s breakthroughs, a giant of philosophy like Kant was instrumental in asserting the notion of chemistry as “improper science”7. This philosophical stance may have had a fallout in the visual arts, too: Battle showed An Allegory of Chemistry, by the Austrian painter Hans Makart, which belongs to the collection of the Belvedere Palace at Vienna. An Allegory of Chemistry depicts a scantily dressed woman (euphemism!) doing…you guess…yes, right, scrutinising a laboratory vessel, and without wearing safety glasses, as Battle wittily remarked! Compare this to a related painting, Allegory of the Sciences, and you see what Kant meant by improper science: first of all, chemistry has its own painting (an undesirable privilege, in this case), and the second painting depicts a group of serious, somewhat childish-looking scholars all perusing the vastness of the cosmos with telescopes and pondering over massive tomes.

Finally, are there limits to the two-way exchange between chemistry and art? Possibly, as Battle suggested, when remarking that a chemist’s scientific background might prevent a full appreciation of the symbolic message of an artist’s artwork when the latter clashes with chemical facts. So, Gormley’s Fuse uses red iron (oxide) as a proxy for the iron-containing blood in our bodies, but, in Battle’s eyes, Fuse is primarily nothing but rust with a collection of different surface orientations (facets). This is because the chemist knows that iron in blood haem and iron in rust are fundamentally different incarnations of the same element. I find this dichotomy truly fascinating as it brings up the clash between the artist’s freedom in imbuing raw materials with any desired symbolic meaning and the outlook on the world acquired through chemical lenses, which forces the observer to take into account the molecular identity of matter beside its macroscopic qualities (i.e. colour).

Beautiful matter?

Later on, the panel of speakers took questions from the audience. The first question addressed allotropes and how they have (or not) changed our conception of the elements. This prompts us to remind Mendeleev’s philosophical stance, underpinned by the distinction between simple substances (graphite and diamond) and elements (carbon). The second question touched on the equivalence symmetry-beauty, a truly broad topic. Georgiana Hedesan pointed out that symmetry was at the heart of the alchemical thought, from the figures used (squares, circles) to the fact that, supposedly, the four elements came in identical amounts. Peter Battle remarked that, although we tend to see symmetry as neat, too much symmetry might hurt (and – I add – sometimes unexpected properties of materials indeed arise from the suppression of long-range regularities and symmetry, the so-called “defects”). All of this makes me think of Italo Calvino’s reflection on literature in his essay Exactitude in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which, discussing 20th-century literature, he pitted the party of the crystal against that of the flame: “Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings…

Again on the issue of symmetry and beauty, we should remember that symmetry in chemistry is a deeply mathematical concept, based as it is on group theory. Hence, we can recall what the philosopher of chemistry Joachim Schummer wrote in his sweeping paper on the aesthetics of molecules: “apart from early Pythagorean views on beauty in nature, it is difficult to find any source in the whole history of western theory of art that considers mathematical symmetry the essence of beauty. Instead, we have severe criticism of that idea as well as aesthetic theories based either on the alternative concepts of proportion and harmony or on the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry in a broad sense8. Schummer’s remark is at odds with what is generally perceived as a natural relationship between between beauty and harmony of proportions, as in Palladian villas or Leonardo da Vinci’s man. As a final comment on symmetry, progress in the periodic classification of the elements took off when scientists stopped trying to force all elements in neatly symmetrical groups and periods (see for example Gmelin’s V-shaped periodic system, almost perfectly symmetrical), allowing for the existence of separate subgroups.

Finally, the audience raised the issue of the aesthetic value of scientific photography, which is becoming increasingly popular as demonstrated by the growing number of contests organised on this theme. I have always wondered what contributes to making a scientific photograph a masterpiece; in other words, which are the, so to say, ‘aesthetic criteria’ of scientific photography? Is it the technical challenge of the experiment producing a certain image? Or, rather, a purely visual appeal of the final picture? Perhaps a combination of the two? Take for example, the EPSRC Science Photo Competition 2015; applicants must submit “a jargon-free extended caption (maximum 150 words) putting the research into context. The caption must be comprehensible to the lay reader and will be taken into consideration by the judges when making their decision“. This central importance of the caption seems to mirror the fact that much contemporary art, in particular in its more conceptual forms, heavily depends on the title to ensure a complete appreciation of a certain artwork.

Ask the chemist, ask the writer

At the end of the question time, the audience streamed to the ‘Abbot’s Kitchen’, one of the oldest sections of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, dating back to 1878.

The visitors could admire a complete collection of the elements of the periodic table; polonium was definitely in the limelight, because of its dark role in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.

A full set of the elements of the Periodic Table

Yet, the engagement with the public has always surprises in store: as I was supervising the precious box full of elements, someone came and asked me about the current state-of-the-art in the research on lithium batteries, inspired by the chunk of silvery metal high in the top-left corner of the table.

Lithium galore…and Swiss cheese?

In my view, improvised conversations like these are public engagement at its best because scientists do not have time to get bogged down in technical jargon and the layman can ask all sorts of questions for the sake of sheer curiosity. So, the “fourth wall” between the chemical stage and its lay audience is finally broken.

During the drinks reception I also had the pleasure of chatting with Hugh Aldersey-Williams for a short while: this was a great opportunity to find out more about what it means to be a writer. In my naivety, I was surprised to discover that a writer’s literary agent does contribute in steering the author’s pen towards this or that topic. A timely reminder of the never-ending struggle between the artist’s or the scientist’s creativity and the forces harnessing and reining it in, such as patrons’ own conception of art, and their political or strategic orientations: patronage and support of the artists have always come at a price.

The Elizabethan age and the Queen’s patronage of Shakespeare may well be history, but new characters play on the stage of the digital age, from literary agents to funding agencies and research councils.

And still we stand in front of locked caskets: which one hides our modern Portia, that coveted research grant ?

  1. Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Penguin Books, 2012
  2. Act II , scene 7
  3. The root being, as reported on Wikipedia, the slightly scary combination *h₂é-h₂us-o-, from which Proto-Italic *auzom which turned into Latin aurum.  ‎
  4. Chemistry: The Impure Science, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Jonathan Simon, Imperial College Press, 2012 (2nd edition).
  5. Chemistryworld, August 2015: A shared secret?
  6. J. Schummer and T.I. Spector, The Visual Image of Chemistry, HYLE, 2007, 13, 3-41
  7. J. Van Brakel, Kant’s Legacy for the Philosophy of Chemistry, in D. Baird et al. (eds.), Philosophy of Chemistry, Springer, 2006
  8. J. Schummer, Aesthetics of Chemical Products, HYLE, 2003, 73-104

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