Crystal Worlds: the end of vitalism

” This investigation has yielded an unanticipated result that reaction of cyanic acid with ammonia gives urea, a noteworthy result in as much as it provides an example of the artificial production of an organic, indeed a so-called animal, substance from inorganic substances. ” Friedrich Wöhler, 1828

Until the early 19th century most people, and indeed many scientists, believed in a theory called vitalism that held that living organisms were fundamentally different from non-living entities, in that they contained some unique non-physical element called the vital or life spark. In this context, believers of vitalism predicted that organic materials could not be synthesised from simple inorganic components. However, when Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea, a compound present in the body, from simple chemicals, it spelled the end for the concept of vitalism. Wöhler, however,  was troubled by his discovery and wrote “The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” because he saw vitalism to be a beautiful concept, and  his crystals of urea suggested that the theory was false. Nevertheless, he eventually shed his faith in vitalism, and accepted the simple scientific facts before him. These videos document the formation of crystals of urea and the creation of order from disorder. This is what would have been what Wöhler would have observed had he had access to 21st microscopic techniques, that is, self-assembling shards, that penetrate, and emerge from the random dance of urea molecules. Today, there is no need invoke vitalism’s  life spark when considering biological systems, and I believe that Nature’s mechanisms are far more beautiful than Wöhler could have ever envisaged.

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