Humour and Humanism in Chemistry


    UNDER this title, Prof. John Read, of the University of St. Andrews, gave an address to the Alchemists' Club of the University of Glasgow on February 28. One of the chief defects in the average science course or textbook, he said, is the neglect of the human element. He deprecated this omission, which he holds responsible for many of the misconceptions of men of science by their colleagues of arts and letters, “who, from attending a limited number of strictly formal and impersonal lectures on science have often deduced that the man of science is of necessity cold, formal and aloof; narrow in outlook; insensible to the finer human emotions; incapable of expressing himself in the common tongue; devoid of humour and humanism; and a stranger to the humanities.” In the course of a picturesque survey of selected aspects of historical chemistry, Prof. Rad claimed that the study of chemistry, if approached befittingly, may reasonably take rank beside the so-called ‘humanities’, as a broadly educative, cultural, and humanising influence. He re-defined humour in various terms as the golden thread running through the whole history of chemistry: the real philosopher's stone-the universal catalyst. The present generation of chemists, he remarked, are inclined to take themselves too seriously; like Liebig, Wohler, and their more remote alchemical forebears, they should include a large pinch of humour and humanism in their curricula. The narrowness of outlook which is becoming increasingly associated with the ultra-specialistic trend of contemporary chemical research can be combated most effectively by the cultivation of an interest in the broader humanistic aspects of chemistry. Those chemists who aspire to become leaders in the future should cultivate a discerning and sympathetic acquaintance with the past. During the ensuing discussion, in reply to Prof. T. S. Pat-terson, the speaker threw some new light upon the possible origin and interpretation of the enigmatical seventeenth century illustrations appearing in the Mutus Liber.

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