This July, the late doctor Oliver Sacks wrote his last column for The New York Times. In February, Sacks had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer. “Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death … And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.”
Two weeks ago, he died.
I will venture to say that few writers at Yale feel such affection for the physical sciences. To many, they are a foreign discipline, a frustrating distributional requirement. Yet after more than half a decade of unadulterated humanities, I recently decided to be a doctor. It would be a lie to say that the “hard” sciences did not daunt me. Yesterday morning, I took my first bio quiz, and sitting in a sea of freshmen in SSS 114, I felt a familiar fear: Would my mind be nimble enough to trade fiction for fission? And would I even enjoy it? Science classes are meant to be dense and horrible, full of facts to absorb and discard.
I am glad to have been so wrong. Studying chemistry this summer, and biology this semester, I have come across so many parallels between the sciences and the humanities that I have begun to believe that atoms and humans behave with similar volition.
Everyone knows what an atom looks like. It’s an iconic image, emblazoned above every Apple store genius bar, on the walls of every physics classroom, on every episode of Jimmy Neutron. The center of every atom is comprised of protons and neutrons, while electrons randomly whirr about in orbitals surrounding the atomic nucleus.
Electrons are territorial — only two share every orbital — and additional electrons occupy unfilled shells farther from the center of the atom. Scientists call these peripheral gyrators “valence electrons,” and an atom’s valence electrons dictate the kinds of bonds an atom needs to become stable. Every atom wants to fill their outer orbitals, to steady their core and make their outside whole. Most atoms, like most humans, form connections.
The strongest bonds between atoms are covalent bonds, in which two or more atoms share their valence electrons. Carbon, for instance, has four valence electrons and wants four more. Hydrogen has one and needs one. Methane forms when a carbon atom shares its valence electrons with four hydrogen atoms.
The strongest bonds between humans are also the ones in which people share a part of themselves. In this way, methane mirrors the relationship within a family of five; bonds of love form over years of bedtime stories, chores, fights and road trips. Platonic and romantic love are also founded on a sense of mutuality. We share memories and insecurities with our friends and lovers just as carbon and nitrogen form a peptide bond. In doing so, we form bonds not just with one person, but intimate connections to groups and institutions, just as peptide bonds connect atoms and entire amino acids — the building blocks for life.
Not every chemical bond is a strong one. Table salt, or sodium chloride, is held together with ionic bonds; the electron-hungry chlorine takes away sodium’s stray valent electron, leaving the two atoms adjacent, bound together by deficit. These bonds allow salt to form beautiful crystal lattices, but they crumble easily and dissolve completely in water.
Ionic bonds are weak for the same reason that many relationships are weak: One person gives and the other takes. These kinds of relationships take many forms — hookups laced with guilt or exploitive friendships. They seem solid, but eventually fall apart.
These metaphors are not perfect, nor are they closed to contradictory interpretation. I know I look for patterns I want to see. But it seems the metaphors bridging science and humanity are too numerous and too specific to ignore. We are quick to put our self into intellectual categories, which can obscure how interwoven our understanding of the sciences and the humanities are. There is a reason that we anthropomorphize atoms. Our professors say they “steal” electrons, and “want” to be bound to other atoms, as if they were just like us. Human and atomic behavior invites the same kind of organizational framework. The sciences and the humanities, often seen at odds, are not just like each other. They are fractals of each other.
Nathan Kohrman is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.