Dave Barnes

The Chemist's Lecture

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In the mid seventies, I spent my mornings in a lecture room with 500 other people listening to a famous chemist describe the construction of matter from little somethings. The illustrations of the little somethings in his book, a compulsory purchase, were depicted as three-dimensional interference patterns. The illustrations were plots of mathematical wave equations. The wave equations described the way that isolated little somethings occupied space as detected empirically by instruments at the time.

To a visually-oriented person, the book’s artful renderings of the experimental findings, the way that one set of shapes implied the next, were understandable intuitively. If you put blobs of certain shapes together, you knew what the result would be without taking any time to think.

Like any equations that describe things with circles or volumes, the equations that represented the findings looked pretty daunting. The simplest ones have to have all of the pi’s and e’s and square-roots and powers that are necessary if you want to express infinite concepts of roundness with math that is organized for counting on fingers. If you want to describe more complexity than the simplest expression, the equations grow to occupy pages.

So, the chemist would start at one end of the blackboard and work his way to the other end of the blackboard writing all of these wave equations that he had learned. Practically, the equations described balloon poodles but with all respect to Erwin Schrödinger’s work that the chemist presented, we never even got past the poodle’s face.

For the culmination of the series, the chemist gave a special lecture on the “Way that scientists see science”.

For this lecture, he cleared off all of his blackboards and started at the left and drew a line to the right. On the left, he wrote


and moving to the right, using arrows, he wrote:

“Regular People” followed by

Economists -> Sociologists -> Ecologists -> Biologists -> Biochemists -> Chemists -> Physicists -> Mathematicians...

Then he turned to us and said dramatically waving his hand from one side to the other, “each of these wants to be the next .” Then, after a dramatic pause and with a twinkle in his eye, he added an arrow to the right and wrote

-> God.

People chuckled, then nodded, then clapped.

It seemed so obvious.

As a biology student somewhere toward the bottom of his thinking chain, there was something wonderful and troubling about the great secret he had just bestowed. Like so many good lessons, the payload wasn’t the one the chemist intended to present.


After some time in a lab where we watched the way people thought, I had my first insight about the message he had delivered. The chemist had depicted a continuum of brain laterality -- classic reversal of the left-brain preferrers on the right and the right brain preferrers on the left!

When I learned more about RV and its metaphysical sisters, who was good at it, who poo-poohed it, and so on, I realized that the diagram displayed, in reverse, who was inherently likely to “get it” and who was likely to miss the whole for the point.

When I understood more about our limitations of conscious information processing, where the highest bandwidth was handled and how many thoughts could be processed serially, I realized that for where we need to grow, his chain diagram was probably backward.

… And he'd put God on the wrong end.
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  1. Rick Hilleard's Avatar
    A really impressive view ! I would love to have been at that lecture.