Chemistry and its Literary Depictions

Chemistry as a science developed from alchemy and phlogiston theory – both are terms are now obsolete. Lavoisier is usually claimed to be the father of modern chemistry; his revolution of chemistry was not only scientific but also literary/linguistic. When he proposed a change of approach from qualitative to quantitative, he pushed alchemy out of its mystical and philosophical realms and into the hard sciences – alchemy was no more, it was chemistry. If a modern chemist read “chemical treatises” before Lavoisier’s intervention, they would find them incomprehensible. Therefore, literature and language have been important defining factors in the inception of chemistry.

The literary representations of chemistry can be divided into two periods: the literary representation during the nineteenth century and the twentieth century.

During the nineteenth century, the English Romantics describe chemistry as “the striving after unity of principle, through all the diversity of forms… it was poetry” For example, Humphrey Davy’s work (an English chemist and poet – you can find more about him here) influenced the creation of Frankenstein; Keats’ use of “poetic” words such as “ethereal” had an extra layer of scientific meaning from Davy’s work. In Elective Affinities, Goethe uses metathesis as a metaphor for human relationships – a comfortable couple is torn apart when one (or both) is more strongly attracted to another party – with a lengthy discussion on metathesis, which he describes in both abstract and specific terms. While literary depictions didn’t focus on up-to-date chemical theories, authors showed increasing awareness of the prominence of modern chemistry in nineteenth century science and society.

During the twentieth century, chemistry became less interesting, a trend ascribed to the absence of “grand themes”: chemistry is perceived to have become more about technology than about asking deep questions. Many of its literary depictions focus not on chemistry but on its consequences. Crime fiction and detective stories gained popularity, and with them, chemistry was relegated to explaining complicated and almost-supernatural murders.

With the introduction of gas warfare during WWI, the negative image of chemistry was perpetuated. A common theme started to arise – cautionary tales about environmental degradation and adverse health effects, all the way up to global-scale catastrophic events.

Three recent authors have brought up chemistry in a positive light. Primo Levi (chemist and Auschwitz survivor) reconnects chemistry and life with his essay “Carbon” in the The Periodic Table. Roald Hoffman writes about chemistry and its use of creativity rather than artificiality. Carl Djerassi writes about the scientific profession and its culture rather than science itself.

The shifts in focus that chemistry has had in literary depictions tell us about the past – they illuminate the cultural perception of its role in society, but they also help us think critically about the way chemistry can be used and perceived in the future.



Chemistry + Aesthetics

Aesthetics is a compelling lens for thinking about the philosophical aspect of the human and its attempt to understand the world through chemistry.

Roald Hoffman wrote “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry”, an essay that discusses visualization and the inherent desire to find beauty. He says, “Beauty is built out of individual pleasure around an object or idea. It may be personal, but gains in strength when it is shared with others…The components of the aesthetic transaction are the object or idea, the human being who created it, and the one who contemplates it, the two linked in separate, yet intense, pleasurable contemplation”. While beauty might be considered an individual concept (“beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”), it is also collective since it gains and expands its meaning when shared with others.

In chemistry, aesthetics is a way to satisfy the human desires for beauty and rationality, “The human beings who are drawn to chemistry…construct compounds and meaning. And imbue the substances, and the little pictograms we draw of them, with intimations of beauty…Because building a pleasurable rationale for hard labor is a psychological necessity. And because we naturally seek beauty, as we seek good”. According to Hoffman, aesthetics (the beauty, symmetry and architecture of molecules) is necessary for us to make sense of transformations and fulfill our need to find beauty, meaning and understanding.

Hoffman’s essay was jointly published with the virtual exhibition “Chemistry in Art”, an exercise to promote dialogue between disciplines by using the visual arts. The following artists’ statements are just some of the many featured in the exhibit:

Blair G. Bradshaw – “The ability of the periodic table to represent such complicated ideas in such simple form soon became the focus of my attention. There is no simpler vocabulary for such a rich language. I continue to try to explore the complexity and depth of such simple graphic representation by altering and distorting it artistically”

David Clark – “his museum doesn’t explain but shows us the difficulties for art and science in the transition from the modernist world to our own. The mouse is a particular figure here; both the mouse that has lent itself to psychology experiments and the computer mouse that evokes an entire virtual world that is devoid of the chemical senses”

Cheryl Safren – “The images shown here were rendered without the use of any paint. Instead, dynamic chemical reactions on sheet metal form the basis of my process. Changing color through reaction, crystallization, fusing, and solidification are a few of the ways chemistry informs this work. ”

As seen through the works of these artists and their joint publication with Hoffman’s essay, at the crossroads between aesthetics and chemistry lies the latter’s power to create, challenge and complicate our idea of meaning and reality.



There has been debate as to whether or not chemistry can be reduced to physics. The term reduction refers to the view that all the deep questions in science can be resolved by using the fundamental theories of physics. Most philosophers of science believed chemistry was of no interest because it is reducible to physics. However, in the last ten years there has been a resurgence of interest.

The reduction of chemistry is implied with the increasing use of physical principles to explain atomic structure and the periodic table. The physical laws, rather than focusing on the qualitative aspect and diversity of phenomena, were more prevalent. This has important repercussions on education because chemistry teachers must face the challenge of getting students comfortable with the more unpredictable nature of chemistry as opposed to the certainty of physics.

However, as philosophers of science start to refocus on chemistry, they have begun to explore how much chemical data can be predicted from the laws of physics. Some argue the claim that chemistry can be reduced to quantum mechanics is an overstatement. Hence, teachers need to be aware of the situation when teaching it.

I believe the reduction of chemistry lies in the inherently human desire to have order. We must learn to be ok with the fact that chemistry is more uncertain than physics. While chemistry has its own laws, they are less encompassing than laws like Newton’s or Thermodynamics. For example, the periodic law (the physical and chemical properties of the elements recur in a systematic and predictable way when the elements are arranged in order of increasing atomic number) differs from the previously mentioned because the recurrence of elements after certain intervals is only approximate. Also, the repeat period varies as the periodic table progresses. While these traits don’t make the periodic law less powerful, they suggest the laws of chemistry cannot be judged by the standards of the law of physics.

The reduction of chemistry makes us vulnerable to the loss of knowledge about the natural world. It might lead to artificial understanding. Its reduction must be something teachers and students are aware in order to find a balance between achieving a sense of order and accepting the uncertainty and diversity of chemistry.


Philosophy of Chemistry

How do some of the philosophy of science issues translate into chemistry?

One direct translation is the purpose of science: what is the purpose of chemistry? Should it be realist or instrumentalist?

Some chemists criticize the realism of the current quantum mechanical molecular structure. They suggest the current structure is just a metaphor with no objective reality. One of the main criticisms is that the model assumes the nucleus is fixed in space and electrons move within a specific framework.

In other words, the molecular structure we studied in class works with an instrumentalist ideology that cares about prediction rather than description. If we believe this argument, our modelling of molecules is not the way a water molecule or an allene molecule looks like but a human artifact used to predict chemical behavior.

However, most chemists refute the claim, pointing to evidence that comes from spectroscopic and other structural studies. On September 2013, a research in China was able to capture the image of a hydrogen atom, proving the theoretical image chemistry has been using. (Click here for article.) While the research proves the realism of Lewis structures, it also reminds us that they were only theoretical until last year.

For the utilitarian purposes of learning chemistry and using it to explain some simple aspects of the world, instrumental models are necessary. However, as chemical studies get more sophisticated, it is important to use philosophy in order to recognize the difference between reality and appearance.



Philosophy of Science

Chemistry can intersect with seemingly incompatible topics such as literature, art and philosophy.  One of these intersections happens through the philosophy of science. Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy that thinks critically about the foundations, methods and implications of science. Some of its main concerns are:

  1. The demarcation problem:  how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience (non-science)? Why is literature not literary science? What are the requirements for a branch of knowledge to be a scientific pursuit?

One solution for the demarcation problem is postpositivism. Thomas Kuhn suggests that a paradigm is scientific if it suggests solutions to new problems while continuing to satisfy all of the problems solved by the paradigm it replaces[1].
However, Larry Laudan saw the question of whether a belief is reliable or not to be more practically and to be more philosophically significant than whether it is scientific or not[2].

  1. The induction problem: Can scientific reasoning be justified? Can inductive reasoning lead to true knowledge?

David Hume argues we cannot use induction because it assumes that nature will not change. Therefore, scientific proofs are not proofs if they rely on inductive reasoning[3].
Karl Popper argued that science does not use induction but rather conjecture and criticism. Looking to find and correct errors is what should be done to validate a theory[4].


  1. The purpose of science: What is the purpose of science? Should it focus on explanation and description or accurate representation?

Scientific realism sees the world described by science as the real world. It also believes that science makes a forward progress – theories get better and answer more and more questions[5].
In contrast, instrumentalism believes that a scientific theory does not need to accurately describe objective reality but rather effectively describe phenomena[6].

These questions lead to one of the biggest concerns in philosophy of science: reductionism – can one discipline be reduced in terms of another? Can chemistry be reduced to physics or can sociology be reduced to psychology? Is any knowledge lost? Is it useless to study chemistry and sociology? Ultimately, philosophical thinking in a scientific context should allow for a greater understanding of the natural world.




[1] Hansson, Sven Ove (2008). “Science and Pseudo-Science”. In Zalta, Edward N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 ed.). 4.2 Falsificationism.

[2]Laudan, Larry (1983), “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, in Cohen, R.S.; Laudan, L., Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 76, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, pp. 111–127, ISBN 90-277-1533-5

[3] see Dr. Peter J. R. Millican’s. “Hume, Induction and Probability”D.Phil thesis.

[4]Karl Popper (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. pp. Ch. 1.ISBN 84-309-0711-4.

[5] Jarrett Leplin (1984), Scientific Realism, University of California Press, p. 1, ISBN 0-520-05155-6

[6]Ian Hacking Representing and Intervening, Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1983.