Painting with rubber

While exploring my creativity, trying to prove I can reinvent myself and find a lost connection with a free-spirited self, I just couldn’t kick the chemistry habit. I was coming up with all sorts of questions like ‘What is this pigment made of?’ ‘Does the state of California actually have something against ultramarine blue? Is it going to follow the faith of cinnabar vermilion and lead white?’ And inevitably, ‘How does paint dry?’

Oil paints have been used for centuries, which explains why so much is known about how they work. I refer you to this 36-page review covering in detail how oil paint dries. Reading about the curing of oil paints led to another mystery; ‘But how do acrylic paints cure?’

First, let’s cover some terms:

Monomer is a small molecule which can be used to build a bigger one like links in a chain.

Polymer is the chain: a big molecule formed from many little ones.

Acrylic refers to a molecule derived from acrylic acid. It contains an alkene double bond and a carboxylic acid. These are important for two reasons: the alkene is used to connect the monomers amongst them, the carboxylic acid is useful because it allows to easily add extra features to our molecules.

Emulsion is a mixture of two liquids which cannot form a solution; instead, one is dispersed as small droplets throughout the other. An emulsion of acrylic monomers in water is used to prepare acrylic polymers – ready suspended in water – by a process called emulsion-polymerisation. Britannica have a very good explanation here.

Glass phase transition is the point at which an amorphous solid (i.e. its molecules are disordered) such as a polymer transitions between the glass and rubber phases. In the glass phase, below the glass phase transition temperature (Tg), the long polymer molecules can’t change shape: the solid is a glass, rigid and brittle. In the rubber phase, above the glass phase transition temperature (Tg), the long polymer molecules can change shape: the solid is rubbery, elastic. Here is a good summary.

Crosslinking is forming chemical bonds across from one molecule to another, linking them together.

Covalent bond is the strongest kind of chemical bond.

Think of rubber: if it’s too cold it becomes stiff and it’s not stretchy anymore, because the molecules can’t change shape and move past each other. Bring it back to the rubber state by warming up and you can stretch and bend it. But only to a certain extent. If you put too much force, it will eventually tear. The molecules come apart and the material with it. That is why rubber gets vulcanised. Vulcanisation is a form of crosslinking by which actual bonds are made between the rubber molecules. Some of the stretchiness is lost, but the rubber is much harder to break apart. The molecules can’t move as freely, but they are much harder to pull apart.

Introduction to polymers over (and me refreshing my memory), let’s discuss acrylic paint and how it dries (I get curious about the strangest things). The compulsory Google search yielded some pretty good and consistent results: acrylic paint drying is a physical process. Some resources here and here. Let’s compare oil paints and acrylic paints for perspective. In oil paints monomer molecules crosslink (bond) under the influence of air, light and additives to form a paint film held together by covalent bonds. Acrylic paints don’t contain monomers. They contain polymers held apart in emulsion form. As water and other solvents evaporate after the paint is applied, the polymer molecules in the emulsion move from their droplet form to come together and form a solid. Sounds simple.

However, I didn’t find this explanation enough. If there is no reaction taking place and no bonds are formed between the polymer molecules, how can the film formed be so strong?

I strayed outside of my comfort zone and into the fearsome field of polymer chemistry. Lucky for me, I found this research article: Acrylic Paints: An Atomistic View of Polymer Structure and Effects of Environmental Pollutants, published by Aysenur Iscen, Nancy C. Forero-Martinez and Omar Valsson, headed by Kurt Kremer. They were looking from the same angle I wanted to approach this: from the atom scale. Theirs is a thorough computational investigation, but let’s see what the main learnings are.

  • Acrylic paints are mostly composed from pigment (colour, <10%), binder (the acrylic polymer, ~30%) and carrier (water, ~40%). When the paint dries, the polymer content goes up to ~60-70% because of water loss
  • The binders used are P(MMA-co-EA) and P(MMA-co-nBA). MMA, EA and nBA are the monomers. The P stands for polymer, and the parentheses tell us what monomers go into making the polymer
Image reproduced from The Journal of Physical Chemistry B 2021 125 (38), 10854-10865
DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.1c05188 under a CC-BY-4.0 licence
  • The glass transition temperature (Tg) for the polymers used in acrylic paints is around room temperature. This means the paint has a good compromise of qualities under normal usage conditions: it is flexible enough so it won’t crack easily, but is not too sticky and will hold its shape
  • The polymer molecules are pretty much stuck in one place at room temperature. They can wriggle but can’t move easily to another location
  • nBA is used more than EA nowadays because it makes the paints soft and rubbery, so they are easier to work with. nBA lowers the glass transition temperature and makes the polymer molecules more mobile. This is essentially because the bigger nBA is more demanding in terms of space, preventing polymer molecules coming together and staying together
  • Using the bigger nBA has another effect: it stretches out the polymers. Each polymer chain has many nBA fragments, and they can’t bump into each other. The polymer has to stretch out to give them space. This stretching actually makes the material weaker and leaves gaps in which water or other molecules can travel

Let’s summarise all this. There are two microscopic properties we care about: how easily individual polymer molecules change shape and how easily polymer molecules move past each other. There are two macroscopic properties we care about: how flexible our material is (i.e. is it more like rubber or more like glass?) and how tough it is (i.e. how much force can I put on it before it breaks?). Keep in mind ‘breaking’ means different things. Glass will shatter by breaking cleanly into sharp pieces, rubber will tear into shredded pieces.

How easily polymer molecules change shape determines how flexible the material is. How easily polymer molecules move past each other determines strength.

So far we covered in quite a lot of detail how changing the polymer changes its flexibility (and that of the material it comprises). But what about its strength, i.e. how well it holds together? This has to do with entanglement. Steven Abbott has a great explanation on his website. In summary, long polymer molecules, like the ones used in commercial products, become tangled. And as you’ve probably noticed with any tangled mess (rope, cooked spaghetti, cables, Christmas lights) simply grabbing on to it and pulling will not bring the components apart. The more strands you have and the longer they are, the harder it is to untangle the mess.

Engineering the polymers and paint composition to make the paint work is tricky business. One composition change can impact more than one property. It can improve one feature, but be detrimental to another (flexibility vs strength). Balancing everything is key to optimising properties.

To wrap up, how strong is artist’s acrylic paint anyway? I realised I didn’t really have a feeling for this. I started by believing it’s really strong with the way it creates a film on the painting surface. After writing this article I wonder, is it not more like rubber?

I came up with a little test. I used my white acrylic paint and made a little circle. The thickness was between 4 and 6 mm. I then left it to dry for 3 weeks (but didn’t watch) and removed it from the support. I was left with a little rubbery creation that is really stretchy and strong.

Check out the video below.

Bitter is the coffee

Many of us don’t go through the day without having at least one cup of coffee, and some hardcore enthusiasts I’ve met spend the whole day drinking coffee instead of water, only to finish strong with a 9pm espresso. No later so it won’t affect their sleep.

Our dependence on coffee is partially due to the functional addiction caffeine induces: once it leaves the body, we feel more tired than before, and we crave more. We believe we can’t function without it and see it as our means of coping with constant demands for performance.

To a large extent, however, we drink coffee because we have a lifestyle dependence on it. It fills many gaps in our often boring days and we like it for its taste and flavour, and for its bitterness. This latter liking is acquired, and many drown out the bitter taste with sugar and dairy products. But if you’re a true fan of coffee, you probably want the bitterness and appreciate the additives for the new experience they create.

I was intrigued when I found that in 2016 a US company called Senomyx claimed in patent number US 9.247,759 B2 a way to reduce consistently the perceived bitterness of coffee. The food and pharmaceutical industries have been masking out bitter tastes for a long time. The additives used are trivial – sugar, salt – or already widely used and derived from natural sources: gluconate, carboxymethylcellulose or beta-cyclodextrin. But early in the 2000s companies started looking at ways to block the taste, rather than just mask it. Some potential uses appeared sensible, for example to make very bitter drugs more palatable to patients.

Tasting bitter

We can taste many different compounds as bitter, but can’t tell them apart based on taste, i.e. we can’t discern different kinds of bitter. The intensity of the sensation determines how we react: coffee and tonic water earn our liking, but intensely bitter substances, such as denatonium benzoate, make us so strongly averse that they are used as deterrents to prevent accidental poisoning. Little was known about the molecular basis of our tasting bitter before a team of scientists (Elliot Adler, Mark Hoon, Ken Mueller, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Nicholas Ryba, Charles Szuker, Luxin Feng and Wei Guo) reported in the year 2000 the discovery of a type of taste receptor called T2R (Taste receptor type 2, also abbreviated as TAS2R) responsible for bitter taste detection in mammals.

The biology

Taste receptor cells are found on taste buds covering the surface of the tongue, and in other areas of the mouth. You can see an illustration of a taste bud here. Receptor cells contain structures which allow for interaction with a tastant (a chemical entity eliciting the sensation of taste). Sour and salty are detected by channels in the cell membrane, but sweet, bitter and umami are detected by TRs (type 1 deals with sweet and umami). Adler et al. showed that taste cells contain T2Rs and proved they function as bitter taste receptors. Some only responded to a single compound, like mT2R5 (m for mouse strain) which reacted to cycloheximide, while others were not so selective. Using cell experiments the researchers explained why mice with mutations in T2R5 were about 8 times less sensitive to the repulsive cycloheximide.

Adler’s team showed how a bitter compound can be detected by one or more receptors, and that by blocking those receptors it should be possible to reduce the sensation of bitterness experienced. They also predicted from genome analysis the existence of 40 to 80 different T2Rs in humans.

The chemistry

A study published in 2010 (by Wolfgang Meyerhof, Claudia Batram, Christina Kuhn, Anne Brockhoff, Elke Chudoba, Bernd Bufe, Giovanni Appendino and Maik Behrens) investigated the detection range of human T2Rs (25 known at the time) against a selection of 104 compounds from natural and synthetic sources. A complex picture emerged with most T2Rs detecting multiple compounds – hT2R14 (h for human) was the least selective in this study and responded to 33 compounds – and more than half of the compounds activating up to 3 receptors, with one (diphenidol) found to activate 15 different hT2Rs. This complex detection pattern probably emerged from the evolutionary process which shaped it into a sophisticated means of preventing poisoning. For example, the studies of Meyerhof et al. showed how hT2R46 detected the toxic compound strychnine and the very similar, but about 100-200 times less toxic, brucine. The sensitivity for strychnine over brucine was just about as high as the toxicity factor and orders of magnitude higher than required to detect the poison in food.

It is no surprise that with so many receptors responding to so many different compounds, we end up finding bitter things that are not toxic to us today. Caffeine itself is bitter, but not dangerous in the amount we usually ingest.

Senomyx reported that compound C (below) can be used in taste tests to reduce consistently the perceived bitterness of a coffee fraction (i.e. instant coffee, medium roast or medium-dark roast) to which it had been added. The receptors targeted were hT2R8 and hT2R14, found to respond to bitter compounds in coffee. Compound C was also found to block to different extents the response of 19 other T2Rs, indicating it could be used broadly to reduce the bitterness of products.

Reported synthesis of compound C by Senomyx.

The chemistry for making compound C is nothing to write home about. It’s a simple three step procedure. The sulfonyl chloride starting material is reacted with 4-methoxybenzyl amine to form a sulfonamide, which is then N-alkylated with benzyl bromide under basic conditions. This results in the carboxylic acid being benzylated as well, so the final step involves a base hydrolysis of the benzyl ester to give compound C.

Bitter is the coffee

Animals have developed complicated systems to detect bitter chemicals as a means to avoid poisoning. Although we are now far less reliant on these defense systems, should we try to block them out? I agree there is value in applying this strategy to medical products, especially if intended for children who are more sensitive to bitter taste than adults. But what about foods and drinks?

What got me thinking was the structure of compound C and others Senomyx exemplified. They look to me more like drug molecules than food additives. The compounds chosen would have to be approved by regulatory agencies, so I don’t think there is any real danger there, as far as the science is concerned.

My question regards the principle. Cheating your own senses to avoid disagreeable sensations covers a range from necessity to indulgence. Taking painkillers is a valid improvement to our quality of life made possible by modern science. It is necessary if we are to function normally. Numbing our tongues to eliminate disagreeable taste from a drink we consume for enjoyment is luxury.

Where do we draw the line between necessity and luxury? Is it wrong to make use of any opportunity to increase our satisfaction and make life as enjoyable as possible? No, if it doesn’t contravene legal and moral principles. Is there value in denying ourselves this then? I think the value is in pushing ourselves to pursue more elevated means of satisfaction. Rather than spend time and energy fixing every nuissance, we could be thinking of better ways to find joy in our lives. Or how to acquire a liking for the bitter things.

Squeezing a Mannich reaction in Haloperidol synthesis

I recently learned about the life of Dr Paul Adriaan Jan Janssen, the Belgian physician who founded Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies and contributed, directly or otherwise, to the development of 80 medications, 18 of which are on the WHO List of Essential Medicines.

I want to discuss one of his company’s early breakthrough discoveries: Haloperidol. The drug is used for its antipsychotic properties, and is prescribed for treating various conditions.


Bernard Granger and Simona Albu discuss the story of the discovery in this article: The Story of Haloperidol, Ann. Clin. Psychiatry 2005; 17(3): 137-40. The compound is reported to have been synthesised in February 1958 during an intense screening campaign, not unlike those used in today’s medicinal chemistry.

One of the investigators’ early compounds R 951 is presented as follows: “. . . a Mannich base of meperidine would be much more active. The synthesis of such a product is achieved very easily by using meperidine, acetophenone and formalin, and takes 30 minutes. The Mannich base of meperidine, known as propiophenone, was synthesized under the code name R 951”

R 951 does certainly look like it could have been made by the Mannich reaction, but not from meperidine which is N-methylated. R 951 is a substituted propiophenone, but not propiophenone proper.

Top left: meperidine. Top right: propiophenone. Bottom: R 951.

The article does not indicate how haloperidol R 1625 might have been made. I went in search of the original procedure.

Paul Janssen reported the discovery in the Journal of Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, but unfortunately I don’t have access to this article. I found the synthesis in this patent granted by the United States Patent Office.

It turns out to be a nice bit of chemistry many chemists have probably seen, most likely on an exam question, yet never knew where it originated. A Friedel-Crafts acylation of fluorobenzene generates intermediate A, which is used to alkylate the piperidine B to form Haloperidol. Three days at 120 °C, a real struggle with that chloride.

Two-step synthesis of Haloperidol

One thing caught my attention: of the two reported ways to make amine B one does involve conditions similar to a Mannich reaction: formaldehyde solution and ammonium chloride.

Synthesis of piperidine B

A mixture of reagents is prepared at 60 °C, and then the substituted methylstyrene is added. The exothermic reaction is allowed to proceed with cooling until temperature drops to 40 °C. I assume the reaction will be mostly done at this point and methanol is added to prevent the remaining partially alkylated ammonium salt from precipitating. The reaction is allowed to proceed overnight before methanol is removed. I assume this is mostly to prevent uncontrollable boiling in the next step, but perhaps also to prevent addition into the double bond. Speaking of the next step, this involves an intramolecular SN2 displacement of the ammonium leaving group, at 100 °C in concentrated HCl, to close the piperidine-to-be ring. Yes, not mild conditions. HBr gas is passed for 7 h through a solution of the alkene intermediate in acetic acid to form the corresponding bromide, which is easily hydrolysed with sodium hydroxide. It’s not obvious to me why this sequence from alkene to alcohol wasn’t performed as an acid-catalysed hydration. It must have given inferior results.

No yields are reported. I have a feeling that alkylation to form Haloperidol was terrible. The quality of the work is great, however, with purification either by distillation or crystallisation performed for every intermediate.

Chemistry lesson over, I think Granger and Albu’s little mishap discussing chemical structure is not a big deal. They have my appreciation for the effort. Collaboration between disciplines is in high demand today and researchers, motivated by pressure or curiosity, are venturing more often outside the boundaries of their training. Their slips of the tongue should be forgiven but not ignored. This is all the more important when the target audience does not have expertise on the matter. Passing information along in the style of an ‘oral tradition’ can result in some truly flawed statements forming. If you find it easy to roll something off the tongue, maybe take a closer look to see if it’s correct.

On and off topic – the disconnect between sodium ammonium tartrate and Gantt charts

Can I talk about chemistry? Can I be nerdy, veer off course and ramble?

Yes, I can. Unfortunately, it took me more than 15 years to learn this. In fact, I only had this revelation about 10 minutes before I started writing this post. The wonderful topic I was investigating was how could I make racemic sodium ammonium tartrate at home, crystallise it and separate the enantiomers the way Louis Pasteur did to make his way into history books in 1848. (Note: the series of reports made by Pasteur started in 1848 and culminated with this discovery in 1853. A list is available here)

My cause is not noble – I just wanted to make a Youtube video. But the flashback I had was of Proust eating his madeleine with jasmine tea proportions. Don’t worry, my prose is far more modest.

I was somewhat of a weirdo even in the chemistry enclave. My interests never lined up with those of others. Scientists, as you expect, tend to be pragmatic and think about the future, the next discovery. This is great, and necessary for their survival in today’s scientific environment. I, on the other hand, have always been inclined towards the past. I got excited about the stories of discovery usually reserved for textbooks and other materials made for the public.

If you’re not a scientist you might be thinking what is wrong with that? We learn from the past – that’s what history tells us. Scientists generally appreciate the teachings and will go searching the literature for information, but they don’t care that much about who did what and how they got there (not beyond the requirements of referencing anyway). And if the information is now common knowledge, any attempts to uncover the murky, distant past are scoffed at. This makes an onerous task a shameful one. Scientists don’t care much for the history of science.

Back to my experience; I remember working on my master’s project thesis. I had an intro that was a bit like a herpetologist touching on the likely anatomy of the biblical snake in the garden of Eden. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received by my supervisor. I had to cut out a lot of the work which made me so proud.

I was heartbroken and furious. That maybe some points were valid (the page count for example) is irrelevant. Always getting our work edited and aligned with the standards and interests of the majority is damaging. Yes, that is how we learn and improve. But in my case, that is how I completely lost direction.

I ended up being unhappy doing what I liked. I hated what I was doing because it was what someone else wanted. I always got told they wanted to help me. I eventually gave up on chemistry and tried doing something else.

I failed so far. I recently got sacked from a new job (not a chemistry one) after two weeks. But I am not bitter about it. I think it was actually the most honourable rejection I’ve ever received. There was objective evidence I couldn’t do it. I got given a chance for what I had to offer and for my dedication. This is opposite to what I had experienced in chemistry where what I had to offer and who I was never mattered. The only thing that mattered was whether I delivered exactly what was expected.

I am obviously being emotional and still bitter about my chemistry past. I can’t think of anything clever to say here to balance this statement. And the only problem is I feel I should. Here it comes (after hours of mulling). Part of being a scientist is seeing black and white at the same time. But no one cares about dull, grey complexities – Not even scientists.

And that’s a shame. I think part of the problem with modern science is that it’s focused on delivering scientific ‘products’ rather than knowledge. It’s focused on the future, on achievement. It’s creating solutions to predicted problems rather than current ones.

Problems are solved by experimentation, by study, by reflection. Solutions are always serendipitous. Asking scientists to plan their work and their discoveries is absolutely ridiculous. I remember I had to make a Gantt chart at the beginning of my PhD. I hadn’t even heard of one before – which is to say that the study experience doesn’t quite prepare you for this. What is worse, the work was planned around ideas that were already in place for my project. Ideas which were written before I had arrived.

How can you expect young scientists to develop the skill of coming up with ideas, if you waste all their time researching someone else’s ideas? Pasteur is famous for his statement: ‘In the field of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.’ I don’t think Gantt charts was what he had in mind.

Why is this relevant? Because scientists should care about what they are doing. If you kill their interest and their passion, you are losing your biggest asset: the scientist. I cared. I still want to care. It just bothers me seeing how few people care.

I probably can’t change that. I just hope I can find the strength and ability to convince other people how exciting science can be. To make them appreciate the story of sodium ammonium tartrate.

A Christmas card for organic chemists

Being the grinch that I am, I thought I might as well jump on the celebration boat following the obvious reasoning of ‘ I want to see the world burn’.

So, here is my take on the Christmas card/wishes business.

Having ’til not long ago worked as an organic chemist, I still find a connection to this world which provides me with plenty of inspiration. That is how this card came to be.

What about its meaning? I don’t want to risk it being misunderstood; I am sure it will be mostly ignored. But I have to try.

Here it is in the painful equivalent of explaining the joke.

  • If you’ve been naughty, did not follow proper protocol, and ended up with your beloved sample getting intimate with the Rotavap bath, then Santa has a great bottle of XquisitePhos ready for you
  • If you’ve been nice, followed proper protocol, and both optimised your eluent polarity and measured the Rf value for your sample, then Santa has a nice glassware brush waiting for you

You may be thinking ‘That makes no sense’. There are a couple of possible explanations: either I’ve mixed up my boxes or I planned this all along in a clever way; something that chemists call, use, and abuse: rational design.

Let’s assume it is the latter. I planned it this way. Why would the naughty chemist get the expensive present? Well, there is the old saying ‘Fortune favours the brave’, and as I have found for myself, playing by the rules gets you nowhere. Sometimes it goes wrong, but you have to take your chances if you want to get anything done.

There is one other clever interpretation of this metaphorical Christmas ‘wish-you-well’ item. There are a couple of things any organic chemist who’s been in the business for long enough cannot avoid: going on the Phos and having to clean glassware. Some, working on very well-funded projects, might have lab dishwashers (I actually don’t know what the proper name is for those). In that case I assume they would probably throw out the compromised glassware that can’t be cleaned this way. Maybe I was wrong.

It’s less likely that you can get away from the Phos. Which brings me to the label on the beloved expensive Christmas present:

ResplendentPlus grade
Purified by triple incantation
Immobilised onto unicorn tears

I am so proud of myself for coming up with this one that I won’t explain it. If you are a chemist and don’t get it, then I must be new? Good luck!

Happy holidays and may the Phos be with you!

A brief account on SARS-CoV-2 variants

Information retrieved from World Health Organization website on 15 December 2021.

The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors and coordinates the efforts of member states in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Viruses mutate rapidly, meaning that many different strains (variants) of virus can circulate in parallel, each with potentially different rate of transmission, severity and nature of disease caused, and resistance to current treatments and preventive measures (hereon referred to as Traits).

Naming and Classification

The scientific community labels each strain of virus using different systems based on the compiling of genetic analysis results. However, these labels are difficult to use by media and the non-expert population. WHO has adopted through their Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) simple-to-use and non-discriminatory Greek letter labels for key variants.

WHO distinguishes three categories of relevant variants (in decreasing order of health risk): VOC, VOI, and VUM, the former two accounting for key variants. The following descriptions are based on WHO working definitions:

  • VOI Variant of Interest presents genetic changes known or predicted to affect Traits and is observed to cause an increase in total number of cases with increasing strain prevalence.
  • VOC Variant of Concern fulfils the criteria for VOI and additionally is shown to cause a detrimental change to any one of the Traits on a scale significant to global health.
  • VUM Variant under Monitoring has genetic changes suspected to impact virus characteristics and some indication for possible future risk.

Variants that are no longer circulating, have been circulating without an impact for a long time, or have been classified of no concern using scientific data stop being monitored.


The actions required of member states and the WHO to manage the pandemic in the context of rapid virus evolution are as follows:

  • Member State reports detection of a new strain and its possible classification to WHO and uploads genetic sequencing data to a public database, such as GISAID. If resources allow, conducts further laboratory and field research to assess impact genetic changes have on Traits.
  • WHO gathers and analyses data to monitor on a global level spread of novel strain and the impact it has on public health, in comparison to other strains. When required, coordinates research efforts between member states. If a strain has been labelled as VOC, WHO reports on the findings to member states and updates guidance, if necessary.

How Should Scientists Look at Art?

Ever since the days of me vaguely paying attention in school to literature studies I carried around the simplistic view of scientists being apollonians and artists being dionysians. Not to say that this was expressly taught, but having been presented with an aggrandised view on the virtues of knowledge by the power of metaphor, I proceeded to (mis)understand and retreat into my sand castle of scientific study. The Apollonian and Dionysian are in fact collections of fundamental traits in humans, and therefore found in members residing on either side of the science/art divide, and contrary to what a keen highschool teacher might have suggested, imply in no way one being better than the other.

On my journey of crossing from the science to the art side, I wanted to understand why would the proponent of one be often against, or at least ignorant about, the other? Having highlighted above that one’s nature does not direct one way or the other, I need to find another strategy for analysing this problem.

I would like to reference an analysis carried out by professional musician Adam Neely in his episode on ‘What does music mean?’, where he reviewed relevant historical background and then concluded in his eloquent and dizzying way that, in spite of music not meaning anything, it results from the power of metaphor to transform the physical basis of music.

I am going to take creative writing and the visual arts of painting and drawing to subject them to the same analysis involving the physical basis and the means of eliciting consumer response. I think the issue of message is fundamental to consider for understanding the scientists’ apprehension towards these arts, and I will include it as well. Scientific knowledge values the terse argument, the communication of immediate and comprehensive information on the topic under discussion. Failing to obtain this cognitive gratification, scientists divert attention and worse, sometimes, as the public in general tend to, develop a derogatory attitude towards art.

  1. Creative writing. I don’t think there is a physical basis here. Unlike music, which can be experienced through the recognition of sound, with the exception perhaps of musicians’ ability to hear music while reading sheet music, writing is only a surrogate for speech. It records auditory information in a visual fashion. As far as eliciting response goes, I don’t think creative writing is limited to the use of trope, because unlike scientific writing, it leverages the value of the body of writing. By stripping text of any superfluous content, all possibility for it to contain meaning beyond the explicit is removed and it thus becomes just a ‘skeleton’ of writing. Furthermore, I think well-written text offers the opportunity for vicarious enjoyment of existence: you become immersed in the action and briefly, and in a limited fashion, you live inside the writing. So, next time you are reading a book and are exasperated by the author describing the colour of the sky, remember these two things: you don’t have to try to assign meaning to the colour and if the author had failed to include enough detail to create a world, you would have been reading an instruction manual.
  2. Painting and drawing. The physical basis is the obvious use of colour and tone to record an image, which we can see because of the interaction of light with matter. There is no obligation on the author’s or artwork’s part to convey meaning: art can have purely decorative purpose. What matters is that by making clever use of visual elements, the artist manages to elicit a response from the brain of the viewer and its hardwired image recognition mechanisms: light/dark contrast, bright colours for food, dark colours for the unknown, smooth/ragged shapes for comfort/discomfort, etc. Use of symbols and visual metaphor in an attempt to convey more sophisticated information is optional, and would make use of the image recognition the viewer has learnt, rather than inherited.

Having argued my way through the fact that scientists and artists are people, and that art doesn’t have to have a meaning for it to be appreciated, I can now answer the title question: There is no way for you to look at art. Just look at it! And if you don’t feel anything, don’t believe that no one else will, or that another piece of art will not bring you to feel something.

Why Chemistry is a Weird Career Choice

If you have not studied chemistry past the secondary school/high school level, or if you have, but have been unfortunate enough to follow a bad curriculum with a bad teacher, chances are you probably misunderstand what modern chemistry is like. No need to feel bad; I myself don’t really know what physicist do nowadays. We all are a bit ignorant.

Why is chemistry a particularly troublesome science to explain briefly? That is because of its very broad nature. Before interdisciplinarity was a thing, chemistry was riding that wave, because it had no other choice. The stereotype involving the chemist mixing solutions using test tubes or having some green solution bubble around a statement glassware setup (just as entertainment venues use statement lighting, chemists occasionally use such setups, fail, and then avoid them like the plague) is rooted somewhat in the long distant past involving alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but mostly in the early development of chemistry as a true science, starting about 250 years ago. Great chemists discovered the elements and their combinations, invented the statement glassware, because they had to, and step by step laid the foundation of our current understanding of the world, and life in particular, as a chemical problem. But in order to do so, chemistry had to bridge the gap between physics and its concern with the particular and biology and its concern with the general. Put it differently, physics gave us the atom, biology gave us evolution theory, and chemistry had to figure out how atoms make up living creatures.

And this historical metaphor sets the precept of chemistry as fundamentally empirical: trapped between seeing and imagining, the chemist just had to try it out. And that is what chemistry is all about. Trying it out. If this is what attracts you to chemistry in the first place, before you understand much of what is going on, then you are a chemist at heart.

Why is pursuing a chemistry career in modern times a weird choice then? It has to do with money. It always does. And I don’t mean average pay, but the cost of research. Research is expensive. And the body paying for research, unlikely to be an individual, will want to see what they are getting for their money. Which means, that unless your ‘trying it out’ is contributing towards solving a commercially relevant problem, it will probably be scrapped for a different approach. Pretty much everything is ‘commercially relevant’ in one way or another. No need for us to get disgusted at the idea that money makes the world work. Thank Science! that scientific research is on the expenditure list. Humanity needs it! But the drawback is that the resulting pressure can be uncomfortable for the curious chemist who wants to do the mixing for a living.

And that is why chemistry is weird: pursuing it professionally often involves dropping attachment to its core values. The commercial issue is easy to see in the industrial setting. It is somewhat more tricky in the academic setting. The research in most such institutions is funded using public money. Again, thank Science! for the governments spending money on improving the human condition. But how is the created value assessed? I believe the answer has to do with publication. In chemistry, most of the current publication is carried out through peer-reviewed journals, which belong to a publishing house. The publisher holds the rights to the content, and sells it to anyone who needs that scientific information. And although contradictory (public money funding scientific journal publishers?), and certainly not free of flaws, this model accounts for how the economy turns over and everyone gets what they want: the scientist has created new knowledge, had it approved by his peers, and disseminated it widely; the publisher has new content to sell; the government will receive tax money in return; and only finally, sadly, chemistry, science, and humanity benefit themselves from the expanding body of knowledge.

Sounds kind of great? Let’s not forget who had to sacrifice their job satisfaction for this to work? The poor ol’ chemist, who couldn’t just ‘try it out’, but had to carry out a laborious analysis beforehand to assess the potential gain to loss ratio. And they might not be the only ones losing out: serendipitous discoveries are made less often this way, and perhaps more important, fewer chemists will want to pursue that career.

How can I help fight that? I think everyone has the right to an informed decision, and that is why I tried to create a balanced picture in this article. It is certainly not sufficient for anyone to make a decision. But I would encourage you to start thinking of all these things before you, if you happen to be in the position, find a scapegoat to vent your frustration.

And if you want to know more about what modern chemists use in the lab, it is a mixture of very simple (look up the round-bottom flask) and very complicated (look up NMR spectroscopy). We still use test tubes sometimes, we just don’t like washing them.