Where’s the story here? Well, it’s less of a whodunit and more of a “how-the-heck-did-they-do-it”—in a way, an ultimate demonstration that it is the path that matters. This approach is much like a classic quest narrative. The path is set out in the retrosynthetic chain in the figure on page 252. Chemical “Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon” were along the way; they were overcome or evaded. Will the 18 authors of this paper achieve their goal; will Odysseus reach his Ithaka? They did. And the makers probably would have set out the story—yes, the story—quite differently had this road map failed them.
Note the dual protagonist of this tale: the molecule to be sure, and the chemists who made it. Is not the retrosynthetic scheme, the plan set out to make the molecule, a glimpse into the inner life of the molecule? Or is it the inner thinking of the narrator chemists? Remarkably, the molecule has still another life, another story to tell, one that is not revealed in this paper. It is the way taxol is made, naturally, in the Pacific yew. You can be sure that it isn’t the way that Holton’s group made it. There are six more stories to be told, in the ingenious other syntheses of the molecule.
This paper tells how a much-desired molecule was made for the first time in the laboratory. All the elements of a heroic epic are there—a quest, and in the parts of the paper not shown, battles with the elements, obstacles galore that must be overcome, and in the end, deserved success—with perhaps the exception that the journal article lacks an explicit rendering of the synthetic chemists’ thoughts. But there is enough detail in the story that readers can imagine what the makers felt. One lovely, complex, and useful molecule—breeding a multitude of stories.
Tension and Narrative in Science
In fiction, there is no end to the ways that the author has of posing the narrator—as an omniscient being privy to the thoughts of all the characters, as the inner voice of one protagonist, as a pseudowriter—these are just selections from a repertoire of authorial Russian nesting dolls. Yet even as we recognize the artifice, the author’s métier is to have the reader suspend disbelief. Readers enter into a writer’s machinations to the extent that they forget the author, so eager are they to access the soul of another.
The tension in scientific articles is of another ilk. The protagonists are the investigators of nature. And the investigator takes on two roles. The first is the scientist trying to understand; in his or her mind is a congeries of what teachers taught, what is known. He or she concocts fecund stories of what might be and calls them hypotheses. I refer to that face of a scientist as the “scrabbler,” because attempting to understand anything is a struggle at first. The second face of the scientist is the “writer.” The writer sanitizes, gives the best yield of a reaction, the most plausible story, as mathematically or logically dressed up as possible. Both are narrators—the desire-driven and mistake-prone scrabbler, the oh-so-logical Occam’s Razor–wielding writer. The late Nobel Prize laureate Peter Medawar described the process beautifully in his 1963 lecture “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”
The subject of the scrabbler’s and the writer’s story is reality, represented by the world of science in its ephemeral guise. Represented reality has some observables to throw in the path of the scrabbler who becomes the writer (in a multiauthor paper, each person sometimes takes on the scrabbler role, and other times the writer one). The significance of the facts has to be interpreted. It took us a long time to get past our exquisite yet easily seduced senses, and we need the skeptical rancor of debate to calibrate the reliability of those sensory extensions, our instruments. Carefully done measurements of observables are an essential ingredient of science, against which theories must be measured. They constitute facts, some will say. Well, facts are mute. One needs to situate the facts, or interpret them. To weave them into nothing else but a narrative.
The tension of the scientific narrative resides in the divided personality (or personalities) of the authors, scrabbler and writer, and the representation of reality that their work shapes. Reality turns a different crystal face to all its viewers. With the writer telling the neat story that the stumbling yet imaginative scrabbler found, the investigators together build reality, or a face of reality. That face is in turn seen in a different light by others who compete with, or who follow, the one person who is both scrabbler and writer.
Capturing Benzene Dimers
Often the reader is unaware of what lurks beneath the surface of a journal article. There is a prehistory to what is reported. In the course of the work, the authors make decisions that influence how the narrative unfolds. Just as one is interested in how Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice and, as one reads the novella, what the feelings of the boy Tadzio really are, so one wants to know the story behind the story of a scientific narrative. I only truly know this about my own work, so with the permission of my coauthors, I will tell you the story behind one of my recent papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This may not be the best choice, because I’m a writer too. Like a mild disease, poetry and theater have infected my science writing. So have the strategies of storytelling.
The article is “Jailbreaking Benzene Dimers,” published in 2012 with two colleagues, Andrey Rogachev and Xiao-Dong Wen. At the time they were postdoctoral researchers in my group; each has now embarked on an independent career. Our paper found its home in an excellent journal, after, incidentally, rejection from another excellent journal. That rejection too can be construed as part of the journey. It made us improve the underlying proofs for our suggested structures, and so made the story stronger.
The story begins with a reference to our previous theoretical work on the behavior of benzene under pressure, which led to the questions we had about benzene dimerization: “In the course of thinking about benzene under gigapascal pressure, we decided we might learn something from the dimers of benzene, as signposts to the pressure-induced polymerization of the compound.”
What we didn’t relate is that there is another, preceding record of chemists experimentally compressing benzene and getting amorphous, hard-to-characterize polymers rather than the nice, orderly structures our group had predicted. Those studies suggested to us that perhaps we should study the first step in any polymerization, and that is the reaction of just two benzene molecules with each other, the dimers. We didn’t rehash the prehistory because it would have taxed the patience of the readers, presumably chemists already familiar with it. As it was, we had a good enough story to tell. The article has hardly the quality of Mann’s novella, but he also chose what to omit, for instance not to tell the reader the previous life of the young boy Tadzio.
After that hint of previous work, we jump right into the current study:
To induce the benzenes to dimerize, we brought two benzene molecules to an uncomfortably close contact, and then let loose the geometry optimization of a quantum chemical program… The molecules reacted to this torture by moving apart, or by forming dimers.
Why did we do that? Because that’s what high pressure does—it forces molecules closer to each other than they “normally” would like to be, much as people do in a subway car at rush hour.
We did not tell our readers that our “explosion” method of finding structures (meaning we put the molecules too close to each other in the simulation, then let them “blow apart,” expand, and in the process explore new bonding arrangements of their component atoms) was already in the literature to study possible arrangements of a given number of atoms. We simply didn’t know that our method was not new; we were led to this procedure for sampling all kinds of bonding by our noses (or rather, Dr. Wen’s nose).
Wen showed me the set of dimers he got from his calculations. Because of my organic chemistry background, I saw that some of his dimers were known, but two were new to me (5 and 6 in the figure above). I said the equivalent of “Play it again, Sam,” and off we went, first continuing the “explosive” way of looking for new benzene dimer structures, and eventually substituting a more systematic exploration as we spotted the essential molecular characteristics of the new molecules.
Where is the dramatic tension here? This work is theory; we predicted a total of four new benzene dimers, and we postdicted seven that are known (and one that people had suggested previously but hasn’t yet been made). The postdiction is actually a good check on our method. We tried very hard to estimate the stability of the predicted new guys. The drama (although I might be biased) is that no one had thought of these four molecules before. Once written down, they seem eminently makeable. But are the calculations behind our predictions good enough? Evidently the reviewers who first rejected our paper—good quantum chemists all, even if I found them illogical for some minutes—thought “no.” One real tension remains unresolved, the classic tension between theory and experiment: Will these molecules actually be made?
Where is the narrative? Before this paper, chemists had synthesized amorphous benzene polymers and seven known dimers. We (both the scrabbler and the writer sides of my coauthors and me) have woven the new structures into a narrative of how a simple dimer is not simple, but rather has 12 realizations (same number of atoms, connected up in a different way; chemists call these isomers of each other). If you saw the scattered pages and computer screen of the theorizing scrabbler’s calculations at the outset of this work, you would never find the story in it. Just numbers. The story behind the story took shape in conversations between my coauthors and me. As writers, we polished up the tale.
The article constructs an inner life for the molecules. We had to worry whether the isomers that we proposed were stable. The molecules’ persistence in the lab depends on the barriers to their falling apart or reacting with other molecules, which are created by bonds, energy levels, and so on. Those barriers are a kind of prison cell; we want the molecules imprisoned, so to speak, because we need time to study them. Ergo the title of the paper—my collaborators (perhaps cursing under their breath at the labor involved) had to look for all the ways in the world by which these dimers could break out of their bond-imposed jail to the greener pastures of lower free energy, a state that all molecules “prefer” to reach.
Storytelling in Science
Science has stories in it. Scientists shape those stories, and the protagonists of these stories need not be human. These narrative qualities are not only important to composing research papers, but also to effective teaching. An innovative, recent chemical text, Mark Green’s Organic Chemistry Principles in Context: A Story Telling Historical Approach, makes consistent use of storytelling by focusing on particular chemical problems and the lives of the chemists who solved these problems.
By analyzing exactly how scientists approach scientific literature, I hope to reveal the humanity of the scientific method. I also aim to demonstrate the connections between the scientific process and other forms of creation, such as art, literature, and storytelling in general, be it Mann’s novella or African Mandé tales. The narrators in chemical articles indeed are human, as much as they may try to efface themselves by writing in the third person. In the literature of chemistry—yes, it is a literature—molecules take on a life of their own, as do the ways of making and identifying them. No anthropomorphization is needed. There is a life-giving tension between the several roles of the scientist as author, revealing and creating onion layers of reality’s representation in his or her science.
- Fludernik, M. 2009. An Introduction to Narratology. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Green, M. M. 2012. Organic Chemistry Principles in Context: A Story Telling Historical Approach. New York: ScienceFromAway Publishing.
- Holton, R. A., et al. 1994. First total synthesis of taxol. 1. Functionalization of the B ring. Journal of the American Chemical Society 116:1597–1598.
- Medawar, P. B. 1963. Is the scientific paper a fraud? Listener 70:377–378.
- Rogachev, A. Y., X.-D. Wen, and R. Hoffmann. 2012. Jailbreaking benzene dimers. Journal of the American Chemical Society 134:8062–8065.
- Stephenson, F. 2002. A tale of taxol. Florida State University Research in Review. http://www.rinr.fsu.edu/fall2002/taxol.html.