Robert Ausubel responds to 'Boats & Deckchairs'
[The following letter was written to the editor of Natural History in response to the article "Boats & Deckchairs" by Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer, which was published simultaneously in Tout-Fait 1, no. 1 (December 1999) and Natural History 108, no. 10 (December 1999 - January 2000): 32-44.]
Dear Dr. Gould;
When I saw the headline of the article you and your wife wrote in the December-January Natural History, as a chemist, one thought came to my mind: cyclohexane. As I read the article, I realized that the connection may be germane.
When learning organic chemistry, the structures initially are written as two-dimensional. Only later are three-dimensional representations introduced. Hence, methane (CH4) initially is presented as a Greek cross with carbon in the middle and the four hydrogens attached to it as the directions of the compass, with angles of 90º. Later, one learns the actual three-dimensional structure is different. Mutual repulsion keeps the hydrogens as far away from each other as possible, giving a tetrahedral structure.
Similarly, initially, cyclohexane is written on the board or paper as a perfect hexane. When the third dimension is introduced, we learn that the structure is puckered, with two more-or-less stable confirmations, called the boat and the chair.
I find it interesting that Duchamp picked these two objects, boat and chair, to represent his thoughts on three- and four-dimensional world, while we chemists associate them with the difference between two- and three-dimensional representations. Is it a coincidence?