This short video was created back in 2008 as an advertisement for the European Union’s Marie Curie science fellowship program. It imagines what elements would look like and how they would interact if they were people, and the result is pretty funny. But weirdly enough, this approach to understanding the elements isn’t so far off from how many chemists actually think about chemistry. Chemists often talk about “promiscuous” atoms or molecules when discussing particularly reactive chemicals – even within the otherwise unimaginative text of an academic journal. And chemists are constantly concerned with the emotional wellbeing of atoms and molecules: ‘Is this atom happy or unhappy?’ they’ll think to themselves, and occasionally say out loud, while figuring out how a chemical reaction works. By “happy” they mean stable and by “unhappy” they mean reactive. A carbon atom, for example, is happy when it’s bound to four other atoms. But strip away one of these bonds and the incensed carbon will do whatever it takes to reestablish the lost bond.
In my own work as a chemist, I’m guilty of occasionally imbuing molecules with personalities and other human traits as well. Some molecules, for instance, are wallflowers. They seem shy and sensitive and need to be carefully coaxed into participating in a reaction with just the right set of conditions. And other molecules seem to have a one-track mind, reacting in the same way over and over again, no matter how much you try to persuade them to do otherwise. I imagine them as creatures of habit, like people who order the same dish every time they go out to eat. Still other molecules are extreme extroverts, forming bonds with anything and everything around them. These are the aforementioned “promiscuous” molecules.
It’s not just chemists who anthropomorphize their work. I suspect that most scientists do this to some degree, whether they admit it or not. After spending months or years or even decades studying a single, specific topic, it’s only natural to form a one-sided relationship with a research subject. Humans are social creatures after all, and thinking about the world in social terms is something we’re prone to do. And although this is a very unscientific way to think about things, I don’t think it necessarily prevents scientists from doing good science.
Except when it does. Even though I sometimes invent a personality for a molecule, I know the molecule is really just a non-sentient collection of atoms held together by electromagnetic forces. But when the research subject is a living thing, the situation gets muddier. During the 20th century, scientists discovered that certain species of bacteria produce a wide array of antibiotic compounds. Of course, they then went on to isolate some of these compounds and used them to treat infections in humans, revolutionizing the field of medicine. The flip side to this story is that for decades after these antibiotics were discovered, biologists generally assumed that the bacteria that produce them use them for the same purpose we do: to kill other bacteria. In a 2010 article in Nature, biologist Julian Davies describes how this assumption led many biologists to describe bacterial ecosystems as “battlefields” where bacteria employ “chemical weapons” in a competition for space and nutrients. This view of bacterial ecology mirrored the human world, where resource competition often leads to war.
Davies argues that the idea of “bacterial warfare” made sense to biologists because it matched up well with human experiences. It made so much sense, in fact, that biologists didn’t consider the possibility that bacteria might produce these antibiotic compounds for some other purpose. For some bacteria, the primary purpose of these antibiotic compounds may indeed be to kill other bacteria. But there is now evidence that the compounds may play a role in a bacteria cell’s internal biology as well, regulating physiology and modulating gene transcription. Davies argues that, for years, biologists were blinded to this possibility by anthropomorphic thinking.
Although anthropomorphic thinking can throw a wrench into the scientific process, it can also make science more approachable, easier to understand, and more appealing. It provides a way for us to relate to science on a personal level. In an interview with RadioLab, Oliver Sacks described how, as a shy, socially awkward kid, he felt a keen sense of kinship with the unreactive noble gases, since both he and the gases had “difficulties forming relationships.” This personal, childhood connection to the scientific world helped lead Sacks to a long and prolific career in science.