Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Roald Hoffman on Curiosity

Our abilities to remain on the move and to embrace fluidity has becomes important qualities that define our lives. We want to be like water, present everywhere and with an ability to shape shift depending that which surrounds us. Our restless search for change is probably one of the aspects that marks our time most. In a text for American Scientist, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and writer of poetry and drama, Roald Hoffman reflects on the nature of curiosity. He starts out by noting that the Latin root of the word ‘interesting’ means being ‘in between’ and moves on to reflect on a liquid metal: “The observer first has to know what is normal, in order to care about what is not. Lithium tetramine (Li(NH3)4) is a bronze-colored metallic liquid (that combination of properties is interesting by itself) that crystallizes into a metallic solid at 89 degrees Kelvin (–184 degrees Celsius). That is a low temperature, but so what? Other elements and molecules solidify at lower temperatures: molecular hydrogen (H2) at 14 degrees Kelvin and helium not at all. But none of these other atoms or molecules is a metal. Li(NH3)4, a liquid and a metal, has a freezing point nearly 150 degrees lower than that of any other liquid metal. How am I to think about the way intermolecular forces (responsible for solidification of all compounds) interweave with the free motion of electrons that is the hallmark of being a metal, to make (Li(NH3)4) melt at such a low temperature?” In other words, what is important here is less which atoms make up the molecule, but rather what holds it together. No, not even that, but what is different about these forces from the other forces. What are the forces that hold us together as human beings and where does the power of the artist fit into this? What should we be in between to be interesting?