Monday, March 24, 2014

I'm Gonna Call Myself An Alchemist...

So my organic chemistry teacher started off our chapter on aromaticity by recounting the story of how August Kekule figured out the cyclic structure of benzene. He dreamed of the ouroboros, the mythical snake that swallows its own tail, and in thinking of it realized that the carbon atoms of aromatic compounds (in particular, benzene) could be arranged in a circle:

I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.

For comparison, here is a typical ouroboros (you may find others in your standard fictional medieval setting):

Here's Kekule's drawings of benzene:

To us organic chemists, it usually appears more like this:

Now, there's two things I know about the ouroboros: it's generally the symbol of an artificial, 'perfect' life-form (as the ouroboros is supposed to have neither beginning nor end), and it's generally evil. Perfect case in point: FullMetal Alchemist. The homunculi (artificial humans, created by alchemical use of the Philosopher's Stone and believed by themselves to be superior to mere humans) all have the ouroboros tattoo somewhere on their body.

So where is the point at which chemistry and alchemy becomes indistinguishable...?

I do love the thought of calling myself a scientist, but the thought of calling myself an alchemist is also pretty darn appealing...

In Pace Christi,


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