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Abstract Science?

Abstraction, not just mathematics, has its place in science as it does in art

Roald Hoffmann

Unnatural Products

Through synthesis, contemporary chemistry makes the objects of its own contemplation. In this way it comes close to art. For many molecules, utility is a distinguishing feature and a source of value, so that this science is poised between art and engineering. A kind of abstract-art movement within chemistry is the effort expended on the synthesis of molecules with (chemical) formal elements that are prominent, but without apparent utility. A cube made out of DNA, a C20H20 molecule dodecahedral in shape, an amine that is not basic at all, a molecule whose overall oxidation (or loss of electrons) paradoxically causes reduction (or gain of electrons) of one piece of it—these curiosities carry the elements of surprise, of violation of the given. But are such molecules not more like surrealist art? Surrealism works off transgressions of normal conventions—Dali’s wilted watch, Magritte’s play with reality.

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