Thursday 4 October 2018

Imagination in Science (1878)

The Dutch chemist Jacobus van’t Hoff was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1901. He is credited with two original ideas. Firstly, that molecules are really three-dimensional and secondly that the rate of a chemical reaction is related to temperature and the concentration of active species in the reaction. 

In 1878 van ’t Hoff was appointed as a full Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Amsterdam. His inaugural lecture, ‘Imagination in Science’, is even today a profound and inspiring read. 

Here are extracts from the English translation of his lecture published in 1967 by Springer-Verlag New York.

One of the things that van't Hoff did was to explain how great scientists use their imagination - and often this is reflected in them also being artists or poets. He gave numerous case studies of this e.g.

"I consider artistic inclinations a healthy expression of imagination. I give here a few quotes so that everyone may judge the reasons upon which I have based my conclusion that this aptitude was present. The quotes are taken from the biographies in question:

1.NEWTON(ARAGO.Oeuvres. III. 324) : “It was towards the end of his stay at Grantham that, besides a marked success in painting, he developed a remarkable poetic talent. Several
productions from that time are carefully preserved by connoisseurs.”

2. HAÜY (BUCKLE. Miscellaneous Works. I. 10): “He was essentially a poet, and his great delight was to wander in the Jardin du Roi, observing nature, not as a physical philosopher, but as a poet. Though his understanding was strong, his imagination was stronger.”

3. MALUS (ARAGO. Oeuvres. III. 114): “I found, among his papers, two stanzas of an epic poem entitled The Creation of France or la Thémelie and two completed tragedies, one concerns the capture of Utica and the death of Caton, the other,which is entitled, ‘Elektra’, recounts the horrible vicissitudes of the house of Atreus. Beautiful verse and interesting situations, etc.”

5. GALILEI (ARAGO. Oeuvres. III. 260 and 286): “In his youth he was a great admirer of Ariosio; he knew the entire Orlando furioso by heart. During his time a dispute arose in Italy over the comparative merits of Arioso and Tasso, a dispute in which he took part vehemently. Age did not weaken his art of expression nor the fluency of his poetry which distinguished the productions of his youth.”