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Influence of Kekulé Dream On Benzene Structure Disputed
Scientists differ on role of imagination and unconscious processes—such as Kekulé's vision of a snake biting its tail—in scientific advances
Richard J. Seltzer, C&EN Washington
Generations of chemistry students have cut their teeth on the tale of August Kekulé's dream—one of the most often retold anecdotes in the history of science. Dozing before the fireplace in the winter of 186162, the German chemist is pictured as having a vision of a snake biting its own tail. This dream inspired him to propose a ring structure for benzene in papers published in 1865 and 1866. His vision is called "probably the most important dream in history since Joseph's seven fat and seven lean cows" in Arthur Koestler's book on the creative process, "The Act of Creation" (Macmillan, New York, 1964). Knowledge of the benzene structure led directly to modern chemical industry based on structural organic chemistry, in particular the rise of the German coal tar dye and pharmaceutical industries in the final third of the 19th century. But did Kekulé really have the dream? There is "no basis in truth" for "this attractive piece of chemical folklore," charge John H. Wotiz, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Southern Illinois University, and Susanna Rudofsky, a research scientist in the department of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago. indeed, Wotiz disputes the concept in general of scientists' "getting their ideas in 'dreams/ " That concept "presents a damaging pic22 November 4, 1985 C&EN
ture of scientists, and chemists in particular," to the public. "Chemists don't operate by dreaming up things. We do experimental work and get hard facts first. Then we formulate a chemical structure. We have to get out from u n d e r , the Kekulé myth." Since the summer of 1984, Wotiz and Rudofsky have disputed Kekulé's dream at scientific meetings, in correspondence, and in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Chemistry in Bntain. Their theses have been criticized in particular by Alan J. Rocke, associate professor in the Program for History of Science & Technology at Case Western Reserve University, and O. Bertrand Ramsay, chairman of the chemistry department at Eastern Michigan University. And Rocke has just published a 27-page review in the journal Annals of Science [42, 355 (1985)], which he calls "the most extensive discussion of the origins of the benzene theory ever to appear."
Wotiz: no basis in truth
Wotiz and Rudofsky also outlined some of their theses at American Chemical Society national meetings in September and last spring. Indeed, the Division of The History of Chemistry scheduled a debate between Wotiz and Rocke for the September meeting. However, Rocke withdrew from the debate, leaving Wotiz to present both sides of the dispute himself. Rocke says he withdrew because "it would not be useful to engage in polemics. It would turn into a circus. I've already said all I have to in published papers." The Illinois chemists' skepticism about Kekulé's dream stems from their examination of circumstances and historical records. The source of the dream story, they point out, is the published text of Kekulé's extemporaneous speech in 1890 at the Benzolfest, the 25th anniversary celebration in Berlin of his first paper on the cyclic structure of benzene. Nothing had been published about the dream in the 28 or 29 years since he had supposedly experienced it. He also revealed at this ceremony that he had had another dream, probably in 1855, leading to publication in 1858 of his paper formulating the basis of organic chemical structure theory—the tetravalency and linking of carbon atoms to each other. The Illinois chemists question whether Kekulé even mentioned the snake dream in his oral remarks, although he apparently mentioned his 1855 dream. They say that press accounts of the speech do not mention the snake dream. And his remarks later, after writing down the speech for publication, indicate that "if dreams were mentioned, it would have been in a humorous way and, therefore, not to be taken seriously." Moreover, Wotiz and Rudofsky find no hints of a dreamlike revela-
The evidence indicates that Kekulé did reveal his two dreams in public for the first time in his Benzolfest speech. He reiterated this theme in his Benzolfest speech. Smith believes that "a fundamentally new scientific idea always starts with a feeling of certainty with one's whole body. Smith. For example. and he and Ramsay find that "few of the claims made in their work are sustainable. preserving "the image that the then-new aromatic chemistry was a strictly German scientific contribution. Wotiz believes in a strictly rationalistic. with a letter emphasizing that "this is exactly how the speech was given. not just with the mind—an esthetic sense. It is always something that is illogical when you first get it. 1985 C&EN 23 . including the dream stories." Indeed. and perhaps then we will find the truth." Indeed. Rocke cites the growing body of opinion that creative scientific t h i n k i n g cannot be explained only in terms of linear. After describing the snake dream." "There is no reason to disbelieve what Kekulé himself says about his dream. "You then must apply logic. professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wotiz and Rudofsky's conclusions fly in the face of standard interpretations. it must break away from established patterns and seek a different relationship between components. This first step is absolutely essential: It's like the nucleation step of a phase transition. But let us also beware not to publish our dreams until they have been examined by the wakened mind. there are explicit or implicit references to the dreams in seven newspaper reports on the speech (although there's no specific mention of snakes)." and who "preceded Kekulé in writing cyclic structures." As evidence of Kekulé's "antiforeign bias" Wotiz cites a letter during the war in which Kekulé refers to the French as "hundevolk" (sons of bitches). Wotiz believes that rising German nationalism—stimulated especially by the FrancoPrussian War (1870-71)—may have influenced Kekulé in 1890 to attribute conception of the benzene structure to a dream." Moreover. Kekulé accompanied t h e written version of his speech. colleagues. Summing up the dispute. French chemist Auguste Laurent. Mid-19th Rocke: no reason to disbelieve century European science was strongly positivistic and inductivistic. and that those dreams did occur. Smith tells C&EN. On one side. the evidence shows he was an internationalist. he emphasizes. basing his claims only on facts. Scottish chemist Archibald S." As discussed in Koestler's book. On the contrary." In addition. there is evidence that the dream stories were long familiar to Kekulé's family and friends.tion in Kekulé's papers on carbon structure in 1858 or benzene structure in 1865 and 1866. he said. and rigorous thought to test and extend the ideas. Many nuclei are erased by this process: Nothing ever grows out of them. a sensual step. Couper." In this way." He knows of no professional historians of chemistry w h o agree w i t h Wotiz and Rudofsky. He only published it several years later. Rocke and Ramsay note. many scientists have reported daydreams and other moments of creativity t h r o u g h the unconscious—when they were not thinking about science. statements in the 1865-66 papers indicate Kekulé had formed his ideas on benzene structure seven years earlier. "Let us learn to dream. Wotiz says he has acted as a scientist. the benzene theory did not enter Kekulé's mind fully formed via a dream. he "did not have to credit foreign investigators"—in particular. not conceived before. and it can grow and produce a new structure. when a scientist is not in a logical but in a sensual mode. Rocke has spent 11 years as a historian of chemistry intensively studying Kekulé. On the other side. positivistic process. His views are reinforced by noted metallurgist and historian of science Cyril S. Furthermore." Rocke explains. and Austrian chemist Joseph Loschmidt— "on whose shoulders he was standing. mathematics. his son Stephan wrote in 1927 that his father had told the dream anecdotes repeatedly to family members. they say. In addition. You get the nucleus of a new pattern of thought. Instead." This is because "something really new doesn't fit. they say. He urges that the two sides try to resolve their differences in debate before an appropriate audience. he believes that "practically every new scientific theory comes about from what might be called daydreams. Rocke believes the dispute over Kekulé's dream really comes down to conflicting models of how scientific advances come about." He stresses that this is but the first step in the process. Rocke and Ramsay point out. direct logic: "Creative moments often come t h r o u g h n o n r a t i o n a l p r o cesses. and they offer "no persuasive reason to change. and acquaintances. "telling such stories as a d i s t i n g u i s h e d elder spokesman of science at an elaborate festival in one's honor would be a very different matter. On the other hand. and Kekulé would "open himself to immediate ridicule" if he referred in his papers to inspiration from dreams. He believes Rocke and Ramsay have not responded adequately to his findings. An 1886 parody of his whirling snakes in the Chemische Berichte also indicates familiarity of his colleagues with the dream." D November 4. it is "naive" to seek evidence of the two dreams in Kekulé's 1858 and 1865-66 papers. Rocke and Ramsay reject the charge— which Rocke says is "based on a single anti-French comment made in a private letter to a friend during wartime"—that Kekulé was a xenophobic German chauvinist.
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