This is a story of results achieved over three decades with the invaluable help of the author’s science students at Southern Adventist University, the University of Denver, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Three of these students were African American, three were of Asian descent, and several were of European origin. The results achieved were also due to the intermittent but crucial collaborations of American, Belgian, Chinese, Colombian, Croatian, French, Indian, and especially Russian colleagues. Science—yes, even chemistry, mathematics, and physics—involves your intuitive, social, side.
The internet makes it possible to interact with people who have authored articles or with scientists you meet at conferences. At a recent conference, I chatted with five Iranians; at another, my wife and I shared a dinner table, in Poland, with an Israeli and two Palestinians who were very close friends.
What are these results? Our “Holy Grail” is the construction of classifications of molecules like H2O (water) and NaCl (salt) and millions of others into periodic systems that are somewhat like, but go far beyond, the chart of the chemical elements that you see on most science classroom walls.
A compilation of atomic “watt” data:
It all began with the measurement and collection of data that describe how atoms emit light. You could think of it as their “wattages.” Then we learned, again at an international conference, that NBS (the National Bureau of Standards, now NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology), was about to begin a comprehensive compilation of these same data. We entered into a brief collaboration with them, which ultimately resulted in our collection being donated to help the NIST effort. This anecdote is relevant to an event, which I shall describe below, that happened almost 15 years later.
A compilation of molecular “watt” data: The author was considerably involved in NASA’s research on the testing of spacecraft reentry shields and in the Department of Energy’s research on thermonuclear fusion machines. The first research was of course important to protect astronauts’ lives. It took place at the Arnold Air Force Research and Development Center, in Tullahoma, Tennessee (now the “Research” has been deleted) and at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis.
The second research involved fusion machines, which seek to tame the energy of light-element weapons for the generation of electricity. It took place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where hundreds of scientists from all parts of the world work together. In both the reentry shield and the fusion research, molecular light emissions were encountered for which data were unavailable. Our group therefore embarked upon a compilation of known data in the hope that we could see trends leading to the needed, unknown, data. The compilation included entries from an existing data base that could not have been obtained except that a Southern Adventist University student from Spain went home for summer vacation near to where it existed.
Help from an unexpected quarter, during the Cold War:
The author was invited by the American and Soviet Academies of Sciences to serve as an exchange scholar in the field of light emission (measuring the same data that were our topics of interest). This invitation gave an unparalleled opportunity to explore the subject of periodicity: the periodic table of the elements had been a symbol of national pride and study in Russia for decades. The author had the opportunity to meet most of the living Russian scientists who had given some thought to a molecular periodic system. One gentleman in Leningrad came to me in tears, saying” I’ve waited 30 years to hear what you just reported.” (In the 1970s and 1980s, at least, senior scientists in America and Russia could think about such things and even pursue them for no reason other than curiosity!)
Having recognized that the scientists at Moscow State University (and other institutes in Russia) were far more capable and far more advanced in the analysis of molecular data than we were, we gave our compilation of molecular data to them during a second exchange visit. This gesture, somewhat like our giving an atomic data compilation to NBS, was to contribute greatly to our continued research.
Completion of the periodic systems of diatomic and triatomic molecules:
A combination of several factors—including a passing comment by a Southern Adventist University student, a note from Dr. C. E. Wulfman (University of the Pacific, retired), and discussions with Russian scientists—resulted in the success of our quest for a periodic system of diatomic molecules. It is a four-dimensional architecture formed by a mental trick which must be performed in a quiet and dark closet: you visualize the flat (two dimensional) chart of the elements and think of multiplying it by itself into a four-dimensional structure. Four dimensions means East and West; North and South; up and down; and (say) inside and outside.
For molecules with three atoms, six dimensions are necessary. This structure is very embracing: it includes in itself some published periodic classifications of molecules contributed by British, Chinese, German, and Russian scientists.
China and Japan:
The Chinese contribution was the work of Dr. F.-A. Kong, and it came to him when he was imprisoned during the “Gang of Four” period. Dr. Kong was very fortunate; his was a “house arrest” in the University of Science and Technology in Hefei. When his first publication appeared in 1982, I made immediate contact by mail and Dr. Kong responded with an invitation to lecture at several universities in China. Since then we have met together twice, one time for a week as a guest in our home and as a collaborator at Southern Adventist University.
A conference in Japan made it possible to meet again a Japanese linguist with whom my wife, Inelda, and I, and our two children, had made friends in the Soviet Union. His family spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese, so our hospitalities were in Russian!
Germany and Russia:
The German contribution was that of Dr. A. Haas, of the University of Bochum. When his first publication on the subject appeared—also in 1982!—I made arrangements for what turned out to be a very pleasant visit (including dinner with his family in an old Teutonic castle). The next day I met one of his graduate students, a Humboldt scholar who was wearing a T-shirt marked “Russia.” It turned out to be Dr. E. V. Babaev, of Moscow State University. Dr. Babaev worked with us at Southern Adventist University for two weeks somewhat later and we have worked together on important scientific articles. During his visit here, he also was a guest in our home and I took him on a hike in the Smoky Mountains. At the top, he stood on a prominent boulder and recited glowing poetry from Russia’s beloved poet, Pushkin!
A group of Russian chemists at Leningrad State University had long hoped to describe all molecules—water, salt, paint colorings, asparin, etc.—in such a way that the properties of one group (in the gas, liquid or solid phase), could be related to the properties (and phase) of some other group of molecules by sophisticated mathematical techniques. The techniques did not occur to them, but in order to prepare for the day when that should happen, the chemists embarked on a massive data-collection enterprise.
We have found a suitable mathematical technique and have applied it to many of the data collected by the Russian chemists. In science, such ideas rarely occur to just one person or group, so it was no surprise last summer to learn that Dr. I. G. Zenkevich, also from Russia, is using an analogous method.
While this little story is about groups of people, there is also a branch of mathematics called “group theory.” This mathematics seeks to describe the natural world in terms of symmetry. It has been extensively applied to the behavior of atoms, and in fact you can recreate the chart of the chemical elements with it. Well, that’s going too far. You can recreate the shape of the chart; but you yourself have to fill the little boxes with names like hydrogen, oxygen, sodium and chlorine, and so on. In 1979, our work came to the attention of Dr. G. V. Zhuvikin, who is fluent in the language of mathematical group theory. We met—as you will have guessed—during the exchange visits to Russia (Section 4) and extended the group theory method into the realm of molecules—two-atom molecules like the oxygen and nitrogen we breathe first, then three-atom molecules like the water we drink, and in principle to molecules with any number of atoms. We worked together on many occasions, including his two-month visit to Southern Adventist University in 1991. Like Dr. Babaev, he enjoyed our Smoky Mountains.
Colombia, South America:
One of the most pleasant surprises during a very important conference in Kananaskis Country, near Calgary, Canada, was meeting G. Restrepo from the University of Pamplona in Colombia, South America. He appreciated my few recently-learned phrases of Spanish and eventually invited me to give a 20-hour lecture series at his University. We have shared our lives several times, in various countries, since then and look forward to meshing our researches together.
Central and South Asia:
Knowing “foreign” languages has open many doors for Inelda me. Just as Spanish is the tongue of vast areas of the Americas as well as in Spain, so Russian gives access to vast areas whose speech is closely related to Russian. On a memorable trip to Uzbekistan, I was invited to lecture in Russian to an audience at the Chemical-Theoretical Institute in Tashkent. Part of what made the trip memorable was a visit to Bukhara, which had several universities while Europe was still enduring the agonies of the medieval age.
Dr. S. C. Basak, of the University of Minnesota in Duluth, has been very active in the transfer of American scientific skills to India. He has organized scientific events that allowed us three visits to that endearing Country. In this case, knowing the local language(s) had no role, because English is widely if not universally spoken in their scientific community. Both in Uzbekistan and in India, Inelda and I were treated to the warmest possible hospitality (in no small part due to her warmth and adaptability). In fact, the same has been true in all of the countries that I have featured here.
I like to think that scientific conferences relevant to our research will eventually take place in other parts of the world, and that we will have the resources to go and make friends there.
A prominent astrophysicist once described his role in a large collaboration as being like that of an orchestra director. This story has been about a much more modest orchestra of a dozen part-time senior investigators, plus their students. They started off with the one-part eight-note music of the chart of the elements and have already played the two- and three- part harmonies of the molecular periodic systems.
Science, like music, art, literature, and sports, is a transcendent human activity which can bring people together in spite of political, racial, or even religious differences. Exchange visits, such as took place between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and such as are organized by Fulbright Scholars Program and the Sister Cities Organizations, can do much toward fostering peace and understanding and brotherhood amid diversity.
Part or all reprinted with permission of “Adventists Today”
- The Global Diversity of Science– by Dr. Ray Hefferlin - March 8, 2015