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August Kekule’s Benzene Vision

The first time I heard of August Kekule’s dream/vision was from my dear mother! (My mom is a geologist who obviously had to know a lot of chemistry.)  I am referring to Kekule’s vision while gazing at a fireplace which somehow prompted him onto the idea for the structure of the benzene molecule C6H6. And then I heard that the story is suspect maybe even a myth cooked up by unscientific minds. Now I have learned that Kekule himself recounted that story which was translated into English and published in the Journal of Chemical Education (Volume 35, No. 1, Jan. 1958, pp 21-23, translator: Theodor Benfey). Here is an excerpt from that paper relevant to the story where Kekule talks about his discovery.

I was sitting writing at my textbook but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background.    My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.    As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis. Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we shall find the truth.

And to those who don’t think The truth will be given. They’ll have it without effort.

But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by the making understanding.

Countless spores of the inner life fill the universe, but only in a few rare beings do they find the soil for their development; in them the idea, whose origin is known to no men, comes to life in creative action.  (J. Von Liebig)

I believe it is unnecessary to rule out or ridicule dreams, trances, visions in the pursuit of scientific truth. Because, after all, they still have to be tested and examined in our sober existence (as Kekule already alluded). I see them as extensions of thinking and contemplation, and surely there is nothing wrong with these.

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