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Abstract Science?

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

Roald Hoffmann

Organic Synthesis as Music

Music is the most abstract art form. Programmatic tone-poems and birdsong or burbling-brook mimicry aside, music is more than imitation. As Igor Stravinsky said, “For at the root of all [musical] creation one discovers an appetite that is not an appetite for the fruits of the earth.“

On one level, music is a patterned sequence in time of audible tones varying in frequency and volume, with overtones and harmonics. What makes music so much more than this dry definition is the strong psychobiological resonance that sound sequences have for humans. No art form is more abstract, I think, and no art form has an easier way into the psyche.

systhesis of penicillinClick to Enlarge ImageIf time is the critical variable of music—in that for both melody and rhythm, the moment before and the moment after matter deeply—then perhaps organic synthesis proffers a rough scientific analogue. Take a sketch of the synthesis of penicillin by John C. Sheehan of MIT, made in the World War II era (facing page). Note that an RNCNR (it’s called DCC, for dicyclohexylcarbodiimide) piece is added in, in the center of the scheme, and then at the lower left of the reaction, the piece comes off again, carrying along the elements of water. DCC (now widely used in laboratory synthesis of peptides) is an “activator”; it makes possible the formation of the crucial four-membered ring in penicillin. The process is firmly embedded in time. If the steps were reversed at any stage, one would have a different reaction, a different melody. Or even a failed synthesis, a discordant descent into chaos, black gunk in the flask.

What makes a chemical synthesis, arguably the most intellectually developed part of chemistry, very different from a musical work is that the synthesis is motivated by its aim—to make one type of molecule, and no other. A movement of a Beethoven quartet will have its crescendo and coda. But in the end there is silence again; the emotionally wrenching, contrapuntal path in time to that silence is what remains, to be experienced only when the piece is played again.

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