Jacobus Van’t Hoff: Imagination and Science


The name of this blog was taken from Einstein’s famous quote, “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.”

The general idea here is to convey some of the basic wonders inherent in Earth science discoveries as best this layperson can.

Of course scientists also know that they’re living in a wonderland, but their enjoyment of it is more complex. More than any member of the general public, a field expert knows the problems and challenges that have to be overcome in order to understand things.

Take the mantle and metamorphic gems we’ve looked at recently. They form deep inside a planet–there’s no way anyone can watch the process. So how do we know what happens?

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This is very detailed information about such an inaccessible place. (Tim Evanson. CC BY-SA 2.0)

The seismic waves that enabled Inge Lehmann to discover Earth’s inner core can’t help. Change in chemical composition is usually invisible to them.

Enter Jacobus Van’t Hoff, a Dutch scientist from around the turn of the 20th century and the first recipient of the Nobel chemistry prize.

To answer our question in brief, Van’t Hoff’s work is one of the pillars of a new scientific field–physical chemistry, which includes geochemical ways to visualize the Earth’s interior.

But this isn’t the reason Van’t Hoff is today’s geoscientist of the week. He earns that place because of his answer to a smackdown a fellow scientist gave him.

The role of imagination in science

Jacobus Van’t Hoff (biographical details here) had his own unique take on life, the universe, and everything.

His creative way of looking at things clashed with some late 19th-century scientists. At first he struggled to find work, and during this difficult time a chemist named Hermann Kolbe mocked him.

A few years later, a much better established Van’t Hoff – now Full Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology at the University of Amsterdam – replied to Kolbe in an inaugural address called “Imagination in Science.” (Dutch, plus a little German, French, and English)

Now Hermann Kolbe is still remembered and respected today for his work in organic chemistry, but Van’t Hoff’s “Imagination in Science” lecture is legendary. It transcends all fields to discuss the scientific method itself and the role imagination plays in that.

Van’t Hoff, 26 years old at the time, pointed out that this method of observation of the environment and investigation of cause and effect is, in itself, sterile. The human mind brings in first enthusiasm and then perseverance–two signs of imaginative creativity that many scientists also show outside their research fields.

He noted, for instance, that Isaac Newton was into painting and poetry, as well as math, while Poisson skipped dinner every fifth and tenth day so he could afford theater tickets.

Imagination in scientific minds is sometimes unhealthy, too. Kepler apparently believed that Earth was a reptile and that the planets made musical chords, with Jupiter and Saturn being bases while Mars was a tenor. Nevertheless, he did good science.

The ideas expressed by Jacobus Van’t Hoff in his 1878 lecture (and total ownership of Hermann Kolbe), “Imagination in Science,” hold up well today.

For most of us, applied scientific imagination looks something like this:

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Elliott Brown CC BY-SA 3.0.

And that is wonderful.

But scientists go farther into the actual wonders of life, the universe, and everything by using their imagination as well as training their minds to observe and understand the most minute details of everything around them, even when it doesn’t contain action figures.

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Jay Erickson CC BY 2.0.

We have Jacobus Van’t Hoff and others like him to thank for that.


Featured image: Wikimedia. Public domain.


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