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Chemical Eye on Love
by Preston MacDougall


February 13, 2006

Editor's note: Truthfully, love is eternal. Whereas commentaries on modern science, technology, or current events, can become dated rather quickly. Last year's Valentine's Day Chemical Eye commentary - on the chemical associations of love - lies somewhere in between. And while the bons mots below are a year old, the chocolate bonbons, which are rich in mood-elevating theobromine, and that Dr. MacDougall will present to his eternal Valentine, hopefully will not be stale.

The digital side of John Mayer's CD "Room for squares" has one of my favorite ultra-romantic songs - "Your body's a wonderland" - but the best part of the CD is the periodic table gracing the other side. (If you didn't know that, but you enjoy the song on your i-Pod, then Napster ripped you off too!) On behalf of chemists everywhere, especially those that are romantics: "Thank you John Mayer".

In fact, chemistry and romance have a long history. A comparison of books on Western civilization, and the history of science, will reveal that physics became King of the sciences during the Enlightenment, while chemistry became their Queen with the inadvertent help of Romanticism.

jpg the kiss

The Kiss

The German romantic, Johann Goethe, may be most famous for his timeless portrayal of Herr Faust and his deal with the devil. Literary chemists, however, are enamored with his most fundamental depiction of human emotions in "Elective Affinities". In this novel, the characters act out the chemistry of acids and bases, positives and negatives, that the author, a closet chemist, believed to have the ultimate starring role on life's stage.

I'm not sure, but it is certainly possible that this is the origin of a common description of two people who are in love: "the chemistry between them is magical."

Poets, such as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey, were known to frequent public lectures on chemistry, many by London chemist Humphry Davy, in search of their next sublime metaphor. Davy has even been described as Lord Byron of Chemistry. His lectures featured titillating demonstrations of chemistry, such as the jocular effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. (Kids, don't try this at home.) Coleridge wrote famously of this gas's tendency to make him want to laugh when he looked at people. Young women in London pined publicly outside his laboratory when Davy ailed gravely.

To revisit this long-lost sentimentality, I would like to chemically paraphrase John Lennon's famous theorem. First, however, I need to tell you that the most important thing about chemical reactions is that they try to reach equilibrium. Or, to put it in thermodynamic terms, when they occur in the open, they seek to minimize their Gibbs energy, which is universally given the symbol capital G. Graphically, and truthfully, one can say that reacting molecules spontaneously find the lowest spot on their G-curves. Getting back to the Beatles, perhaps the love you take is in equilibrium with the love you make?

Closer to home, children are both the product of love, and seemingly able to spontaneously generate it, even where none existed before. This is a feat that chemists are unable to rise to, as atoms are never created nor destroyed during chemical reactions.

"Good Night Moon" is probably the highest-charting of Margaret Wise Brown's children's books, and if I've read it once, I've read it a hundred times, each, to my three children. But my personal favorite of hers is "The Important Book". It teaches the staple lesson of its genre: that a child's parents love them for who they are.

It also teaches a second, very pragmatic lesson as well: to prioritize. For instance, one page has an illustration of a glass with daisies and water in it, and the caption is "The important thing about glass, is that you can see through it." That's it. Elsewhere in the book, there are busy illustrations, sometimes with poetic descriptions, but always a primary truth. The final page teaches the foremost lesson, and instead of a busy illustration, there is a mirror overwritten with the words "you are you."

What the book doesn't have is a page about love itself. I can see that this might be too existential for a two-year old. Perhaps the author wrote another book for wives to read to their husbands, which I have yet to find, or be given. If she did, I imagine that it would have a picture of a Valentine's Day card, and the caption would simply be "The important thing about love is that you show it."

Here's wishing you a lovely Valentine's Day.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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