George Whitesides

The Best Our Species Can Do


by Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — of  art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.

An equation can be a thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it. As an evocation of reality — as the shortest of descriptions, but describing worlds — it is hard to beat the most artful of poems and, equally, of equations. They are the best our species can do.

Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves. Equations may be all we have: sometimes word fail, since words best describe what we have experienced, and behaviors at the smallest scale are forever beyond our direct experience.

Consider Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
Like a hook in an eye

A fish hook
An open eye

Consider Louis de Broglie (a twentieth-century physicist, and an architect of quantum mechanics):

λ = h/mv

Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: “A moving object is a wave.” Huh? What did you just say? How can that be?

It’s an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately devolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace that path from one end (from molecules) to other (us). Not with poetry, nor with equations. But each guides us part way.

Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.

*     *     *     *

I’m a chemist. My universe is nuclei and electrons, and the almost endless ways they can assemble. Atoms are just at the border between ordinary, macroscopic matter and matter dominated by the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons, in particular, have the unnerving property of having mass and charge but no extent — no size. There’s no tiny BB down in their core, as there is a nucleus sitting at the center of an atom. “Ah,” you say, “that’s strange. If there’s nothing there, what is it that has a mass? And what’s charged?” Good question…

…As a chemist, I’ve come to uneasy terms with the weirdness of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing.

Look More Closely

Water drop, Felice Frankel

“We glance, and turn away without noticing. We don’t ever really see, and then we forget what we have seen. Water drips from faucets; candles burn; yeast makes bread rise; a tiny, living mouse — pursuing its tiny murine intentions — runs across a floor that was once a living tree; the sun consumes itself.

We don’t notice.

Look more closely, and everyday events bloom into a reality so transfixingly marvelous that you can’t look away. Life becomes something we don’t understand that happens in ordinary matter. Ordinary matter happens somehow when atoms get together. Atoms build themselves from electrons and nuclei, following rules that flummox intuition. Electrons and nuclei are strange avatars of yet stranger fish swimming in a darker sea.
But whatever it all is — this amazing assembly we so flippantly nickname ‘reality’ — is all there is, and all we are.”

~ Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale 


"I'm sort of a visual ambassador in the sense that I'm using a language, that is the pictorial language, to get people to be less intimidated about what is going on in the laboratories. Photographing science is definitely about showing evidence, but the photography itself, the process is sort of a metaphor for the discovery in science. Most of this stuff, you come to the assignment and you think you have a way you're going to do it, and then you don't do it that way. You discover another way to do it. And in the process you see things. Isn't that fun?"

~ Felice Frankel, on her method for capturing the images that appear in the book, No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, which she co-wrote with Harvard chemist George Whitesides. (Studio 360, 09/10/2010).

See also: Slideshows from 2020 Science and Science Friday