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History Vs. Science

I spent my career largely as an organic chemist — but I also study history simply because I want to know who those people were that preceded us on this planet. I know it doesn’t make much difference that Franz Shubert died of syphilis at age 31; I still love his music. I’m staggered by the knowledge that Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf and still was able to write his stirring Ninth Symphony. How could one write a masterwork, and never be able to hear it?

Sadly, not only can I not see these people, I can’t really know what they looked like because photography wasn’t around till the 1840s. Still, I can understand a fair amount about them from what has been written by historians.

“History” can mean everything from Ancient Egypt to the January 6 Capitol riots. What writers of history try to illuminate is what the people were that made that history, what they looked like and what their issues were. History, after all, is the story of people. But when people, especially young people, hear the word ‘history’ it conjures up different thoughts. Some find it fascinating. Others look bored, or ask ‘why bother?”

Much is the same with another word that defined my life — chemistry. To me it’s aspirin, penicillin, DNA, the mystery of how vaccines work, and many other things that make our lives go around. But for many others, chemistry means bad smells and having to memorize equations. Even people teaching the subject often don’t think about how exciting chemistry can be. Instead, they talk about what someone wrote in a textbook.

History teachers do that too: “When was the Norman Conquest? (1066)” “When did Columbus discover America? (1492)” Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? (Grant, maybe?)

And students think: “What does that have to do with me?”

I learned once again how much fun “kitchen chemistry” can be a couple of weeks ago when I watched Beyond the Elements, a NOVA show on PBS. I didn’t know one could extract DNA from strawberries. But one can! Just crush three strawberries in a plastic bag, add 3 tablespoons of detergent to which a bit of salt is added, shake well, and filter the red mixture through cheesecloth into a small glass. Take about 20 milliliters (1/2 cup) of rubbing alcohol, cool it in the fridge, and when the mix is filtered, pour the cold rubbing alcohol carefully down the side into the glass and wait.

If you do it right, strands of DNA will escape the detergent at the red top heading into the alcohol. There, a spindly white near fiber will rise up.

Even after a lifetime in research, I don’t think I had ever seen DNA for real until I saw that experiment. Some brilliant person designed a DNA experiment so simple any child could do it.

Fortunately, the producers of the PBS show had the sense to show us that experiment. They likely knew that many of us have seen video of Moderna and Pfizer making COVID vaccine, with people in lab coats with endless pipettes pulling liquids from one place and depositing them in another.

Looks complex and mysterious, right?

Well, it must seem that way to most of those watching. But while molecular chemistry is a complex subject, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that DNA, the fundamental building block of life, is so simple one can visibly extract it from strawberries.

The chemist has one big advantage over the historian: He or she can use what chemists have done before, and recreate it. If you are interested, you don’t have to rely on TV pictures of a lady in a white lab coat moving stuff around with pipettes. You can go extract DNA yourself.

Historians, try as they might, can’t repeat a historical event. They study people in the past. Chemists repeat historical results, and then make adjustments and changes to ‘hopefully’ create the future.

So why do some works of history sell millions of copies, while there are few popular books on chemistry?

The problem is that most chemists don’t know how to tell a good story.

Historians, on the other hand, can spin good tales about the old days. Whether accurate or not, they’re fun to read and watch. CNN just produced a documentary about Lincoln in which modern figures talked about Old Abe as though he were with us today. Broadway can electrify millions by singing about Alexander Hamilton.

Was the story completely true? Regardless, it’s a good tale.

So unless and until chemists get to the point of being able to clone Lincoln, or Hamilton, or for that matter Henry VIII, we’ll be stuck with reasonably accurate guesses from the records as to what they were really like.

But we can all know what DNA is. After all, we can see it emerge from strawberries in our kitchen.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and a former chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.

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