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Abstract Science?

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

Roald Hoffmann

Giving the Aleatory Its Due

A Bizen pottery pieceClick to Enlarge ImageOne recurring theme in 20th-century abstract art is the tension generated by seeming chance at work, seen famously in Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, but also apparent in conceptual art. And randomness exists in another way in ceramics, for instance, in the studied interplay of clay with plant, wood material or interposed objects controlling reduction or oxidation in wood-kiln firing in Bizen and Shigaraki Japanese ceramics (right).

An interesting counterpart in chemistry is the recent growth of combinatorial chemistry or diversity-based organic synthesis. The idea is to come up with a set of facile reactions that generate not one, but millions of diverse molecules within one beaker. In part, but only in part, this work has a biomimetic motivation. For at some stages nature introduces steps that are dispersed, to populate niche-seeking molecules. Most do nothing, but a few succeed. The workings of the immune system and the diverse structures resulting out of terpene synthesis are examples. But the laboratory generation of vast “libraries” of potential enzyme inhibitors or fuel-cell catalysts has a feeling of seeing the aesthetic value in chance.





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