Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nature vs. necessity

As I was talking to Mike today at lunch, we talked about my research work, on chemical kinetics. I told him what I do is basically this: I take a single molecule, bring it to a certain temperature and pressure state, and see how it decomposes. As it decomposes, there are various intermediate chemical species that are formed, and I measure those species using various analytical techniques. I am primarily an experimentalist. I do all of this work physically. On the other hand, you have can have a computational chemical kineticist. The goal of the computationalist is to develop a mechanism that predicts how this single molecule breaks down. The computationalist comes up with intermediate chemical species, many of them radicals, 99% of which you can never measure, or even know whether or not they exist. In the end however, the mechanism is compared to my measurements of those measurable species. For example, I am about to pick up again the study of this large chain hydrocarbon, a single hydrocarbon molecule. With this actual molecule, I have been equipped with a mechanism that predicts its kinetics. This mechanism consists of 2200+ intermediate species and 8000+ reactions. Hmm...

I want to add a few words to several previous posts on the limits of the mind and research (of course inspired by a simple comment by Wendell Berry). Much of our current research work, we like to think, is done because we have to. There is an urgent necessity to know how exactly things happen in nature. In this process, we inquire, we spend, we invest, and we consume. In trying to recreate natural phenomena, we use natural resources. But the manner in which we use natural resources is not the same way it happens naturally, in nature. If something is done by nature, which means naturally, there is a most beautiful use of land, air and water, in just the right amount, to create something magical. Think of an orange. How does it create those delicately skinned juice clusters that are the surrounded by a delightful peel? The tree uses the nutrients in the land, the nutrients in the air, and the nutrients in the water, and magically converts them to thousands of complex sugars and acids and who knows what. It is the nature of the tree to do so. And it does so perfectly. It uses exactly what it needs, to produce exactly what it wants.

If humans tried to recreate this process, out of necessity, we would need lab gloves, petri dishes, pipettes and temperature baths. We would need lab coats and burners and paper and pencils and computers and plastic and metal and all of these other things that the tree doesn't need. We would need these things because it is not in our nature to produce oranges. It is not in our nature to travel five hundred miles per hour. It is in our nature, however, to walk and talk and think and love and respect and care and eat and drink and be happy and be sad. These are things that don't necessarily require mountaintops full of resources. These are things that don't require trash and waste. Because it is our nature.

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