Science often advances upon willful transgression of a seeming interdiction. Examples which leap to a chemist's mind are noble gas compounds, strained hydrocarbons such as tetrahedrane, activation (by organometallics) of even methane, and, to mention just one brilliant, more recent achievement, inclusion of an allene within the confines of a six-membered ring while preventing its conversion into a benzenoid. Such feats put all the cunning of a scientist into coaxing and, yes, coercing the system at hand to obey instructions from one's daring imagination. As always, it is hard. Not for nothing is our playroom called a laboratory. And when the task is done and the time arrives to convey to others (who might not be privy to the anguish of the work) all that struggle and the majesty of the achievement, the scientist quite naturally lapses into metaphor. One such, founded in male 19th century language as much as in history, is some more or less prurient variant of "Unveiling the Secrets of Nature." Another, evoking the thorny, twisted path to understanding and the long hours of toil in the laboratory, is "Wrestling with Nature."
Roald Hoffmann and Pierre Laszlo
(*) Professor Roald Hoffmann
Professor Pierre Laszlo
The latter metaphor has been central to experimental science at least since the Elizabethan Age, and is the subject of this small essay. While the roots of the metaphor lie in Greek myth, it makes a striking debut in a seminal brief for experiment in science. This arresting phrase also marks a bifurcation in the way science is viewed by nonscientists, even -- and especially so -- in our day. The proof text here is that of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his Novum Organum. Bacon's 1620 book was a clarion call to replace Aristotelian reasoning about the world (forgetting Aristotle's occasional close observation of nature in his Animalia) with experiment. Bacon's words read as if they could be written today:
"...every interpretation of nature which has a chance to be true is achieved by instances, and suitable and relevant experiments, in which sense only gives a judgment on the experiment, while the experiment gives a judgment on nature and the thing itself."
Francis Bacon likens matter to Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, and describes the scientific endeavor, as it strives to discipline matter, as follows:
"And the manipulations of art are like the bonds and shackles of Proteus, which reveal the ultimate strivings and struggles of matter."
Three hundred and sixty-five years later, Primo Levi, in his wonderful chapter on hydrogen in The Periodic Table, writes:
"We would be chemists, Enrico and I. We would dredge the bowels of mystery with our strength, our talent: we would grab Proteus by the throat, cut short his inconclusive metamorphoses from Plato to Augustine, from Augustine to Thomas, from Thomas to Hegel, from Hegel to Croce. We would force him to speak."
What is going on here, and who is Proteus? Here is a pithy definition out of a dictionary:
"Proteus is a prophetic sea divinity, son of either Poseidon or Oceanus. He usually stays on the Island of Pharos, near Egypt, where he herds the seals of Poseidon. He will foretell the future to those who can seize him, but when caught he assumes all possible varying forms to avoid prophesying. When held fast despite his struggles, he will assume his usual form of an old man and tell the future."
The episode of Menelaos wrestling with Proteus in the Odyssey is one of the topoi of literature. The old man from the sea, when the hero and his companions try to catch him in their arms, first becomes a bearded lion, followed by - the sequence of creatures the magician turns himself is not unlike the list of the years in the Chinese calendar! - a snake, a leopard, a huge boar, flowing water and a high and leafy tree. But Proteus has to submit to brute force from Menelaos and his companions; and, firmly held, he finally consents to act as a seer - as someone with the uncanny ability of the poet, viz. to describe in vivid and memorable words the images which flock into the mind. Indeed, Proteus is an inspired speaker: when Socrates teases Euthyphro, in their dialog, he tells him that "like Proteus, you must be held until you speak!"