Hervé This: Chemist
Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique
Lavoisier, the founding father of chemistry said, science is investigating phenomena, but you grasp phenomena through thoughts, and you manipulate thoughts using words—you cannot improve science without improving language and you can’t improve language without improving science, which is very true because if you have the wrong word for something, then your thoughts become wrong.
Louis Pasteur did many things but in particular what is fascinating with his story for me is that he explained very well that when—a big part of his life was devoted to technology and not to science. He said it was a pity, because he knew that for the well being of humankind he had to drop science and to go into technology, and he was one who was very clear about explaining that applied sciences don’t exist—there are applications of science, and you get them through technology, you have science and science is not applied—‘applied sciences’ is a mistake. Many people make that mistake—I feel it’s our duty to explain that to young people or to older people when they make that mistake.
Science and application are very different—the reputation lies on the way science is used, not on the people who figure out how to use something. Because you know in advance the application—you don’t know which application will come, but you know there will be application and probably some of it will be bad.
In France in 2001 I was at the ministry of National Education to introduce into primary schools experimental sessions. In one of these sessions was the exploration of whipping egg whites. So we are teaching children how to make much from one egg, and the process of this educational curriculum is not to make all children chemists. For me, a good chef is better than a poor scientist and a good shoemaker is much better than a poor engineer. A good artist is better than a poor politician etc. So we should not compartmentalize people. It’s the wrong kind of thing for the world, it has no meaning. It’s insanity.
But there are various activities, and what I say is that we are not beasts, we’re not animals, we have a brain, and with our brains we have a duty to culture and knowledge. This knowledge can be of many directions—it can be a culinary/creative knowledge which is art and technique, and it can be a scientific knowledge which is different, we are promising an explanation of the world for the rest of humankind while they are producing food for the rest of humankind—there are different skills, so all children at French primary school, I don’t want them to be all chemists. If they are good historians or biographers, that’s alright. If they are sportsmen, that’s alright.
This is what humanity has to do – to run a school. The cultural activities are a way—not the only way, but a way. But I know that we’re also interested in eating, we’re animals, and we have to find a way to communicate this from the body to the brain. We have to keep them eating and invite them to think.
Of course I would love if more people would appreciate chemistry, because it’s a very big mistake when people are ignorant: science is not murder, science is not pollution. When you discover the structure of the atom, you’re not responsible for the irrational bombing of Japan. The scientific discovery of the scientific structure of the atom is knowledge—later on you have the application. The application can be good or bad, depending on who you are. If you are making a bomb then you are giving this knowledge a bad reputation. If you’re using this knowledge to make electricity, you’re giving it a good reputation.
This is why I’m saying that importance of this session is good, to give more knowledge and education to you—starting from school, which is appealing to students, where you can discover big questions. You know there was a wonderful evolutionary biologist called Stephen Jay Gould, he published a book: The Flamingo’s Smile, he said something very clever: ‘if you ask me a question about the meaning of life, it’s too complicated, but if you consider the inverted beak, through that you can come to the idea of evolution. This is exactly the method that I’m using for this session in school, in which we start from these tiny questions that plant a seed that blossoms later. If I ask you what time it is, you tell me the time and the conversation is finished. It’s different if we have a grand discussion about time and the evolution of humans beings, the present and the past. Think about this: you have a stomach. You digest meat, because you eat meat, your body is made of two parts: one part is bone and one part is meat. It means that—your stomach is not bone, so it’s meat. It means that if your stomach digests meat, it means that meat digests meat. So why is not your stomach digesting itself? Now I leave you this question and it is a gift that you’ll have all your life long—I will not answer the question, but there is a seed that was planted forever. I’m giving this kind of question to children at school—then they—we hope—instead of watching the TV, they will perhaps do something with their lives.
The population only wants games and food—it’s very very sad. Of course when I say ‘games’, I’m not saying a game is not necessarily interesting, I’m saying sitting in front of the TV drinking a lot of beer and looking at the baseball—I think that a human being deserves better. It is also true that if you watch soccer or baseball in front of the TV every day, people will not make the evolution, they will keep sitting in front of the TV
This question is very present. Evolution is our responsibility. And now there is a question about food—people are spreading fear about food. In france the last two weeks weekly journals were discussing the amount of poison in food. At the same time people make a big public fight against this, but they ingest toxins of their own free will. Someone may say, ‘ I love chocolate.’ And others say ‘well you know it’s not so good for you.’ And they say ‘oh no it’s very good because there is some magnesium in it. They don’t know what magnesium is, and they forget that chocolate is half sugar half fat. This fat—you don’t ask if there is saturated or unsaturated fat, you just eat what’s on your plate. This is why nowadays I’m writing a book on bad faith. I met an old friend of mine—she was smoking organic cigarettes. When I asked her why, she said, well it’s because the chemical producers are the additives. Nicotine and tar are much more dangerous than additives—and it kills only half of people smoking. We should laugh at it.
This is the duty of intelligence. You’re not in life to make chemical experiments. If you do make them, you should have a reason. Then it means that it is politics. We [chemists] should be involved in politics—it should be part of the ideas that we have. This is why I’m so fond of Diderot and the enlightened century—the enlightenment is not over, it is not true. We are exactly in the middle of what is needed—we need to apply in the way of the motto of the enlightenment:
‘Aude Sapere’: Be Brave Enough to Feel for Yourself.
We have to promote this idea.
When you have meat and you put it on the table, you have a mass of meat. If you give a spine to this mass of meat, suddenly you make a body. So the body is standing there. Since the beginning of this discussion, I just put meat on the table. I’m not sure that I gave it the spine. Because what would be the moral of all that. Only that the sum of intelligence is kindness and honesty. I should have given that in the beginning.