It is almost 50 years since C P Snow first identified the rift between the 'two cultures' of the arts and the sciences


It is almost 50 years since C P Snow first identified the rift between the ’two cultures’ of the arts and the sciences. Simply put, most scientists don’t know their Shakespeare and most artists can’t solve a non-linear second-order differential equation for toffee. Many admirable attempts have been made to reconcile the two, usually by persuading artists to draw on science for their inspiration. But what can chemists learn from the arts?

The Western literary tradition absolutely reeks of chemistry, and a cursory glance reveals a hundred latent PhD projects. For the Greeks the whole shebang gets going when a herb is administered to Cronos to make him cough up his own children. Wouldn’t you want the same if you had swallowed your child? Get working on it.

Later on, the betrayed chemist Medea bumps off Jason’s new fianc?e with a poisonous robe. This seems no less plausible than trying to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar, or the assassination of Georgi Markov with a ricin-tipped umbrella. Yet nobody seems to be pursuing death by clothing. Perhaps the work has been classified.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Europe, a small village of indomitable Gauls was holding out against the Roman invaders. They relied on a magic potion brewed by their druid Getafix, which gave the villagers superhuman strength. A lot of work will be needed to reproduce Getafix’s results because he notoriously refused to divulge the potion’s contents. However, we do know that mistletoe was one of the active ingredients. Aspiring druids should remember to cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle, preferably one made by the famous Metallurgix in faraway Lutetia. Oil was once also thought essential, but beetroot juice turned out to be an adequate substitute. Has anyone tried to solve our present day energy problems with beetroot? Why not?

Shakespeare loved to poison his characters, almost as much as he liked a good stabbing. In Hamlet, there is poison in people’s wine, on the tips of their swords and, memorably, in their ears. Almost the entire cast is poisoned. But if you want some serious chemistry in your plot devices, you should consider Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. The witches’ brew scene in Macbeth is detailed enough to be published in a journal as it stands, but the potion that sends Juliet into a death-like sleep would probably be easier to market. It’s a brave pharmaceutical company that tries to sell Macbeth’s cauldron of animal parts to the modern consumer.

The rise of chemistry as a respectable science was paralleled by the rise of the novel. Novelists often turned to chemistry for inspiration, and chemists did well to heed their words. No one who read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would ever be likely to pipette by mouth again. Nevertheless, a drug that could separate a person’s good and evil sides would be invaluable to psychologists. It could be combined with the innovative drug delivery mechanisms in Alice in Wonderland, not to mention the latter’s refreshingly brief approach to labelling.

The composition of the substances abused by Alice is not discussed, which is something of a setback for nanotechnologists. Despite their protestations, we all know that in their hearts they really want to miniaturise people. Fortunately, they are rescued by the greatest ever union of chemistry and literature: George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. The effect of George’s medicine on his grandmother clearly indicates that it belongs to the same family of drugs as Alice’s drink and cake. Not only that, but he lists almost every reactant and details every step in the experimental method. The story goes on to illustrate the pitfalls that await those who don’t write down their work in a lab book, the dangers of badly designed clinical trials, and the important role of serendipity in scientific research. It should be a set text for every chemistry course.

Tom Keal