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Alchemy synopsis


Opera in one act

Oliver Peter Graber and Roald Hoffmann


 Ada – a supercomputer and a reference to the world’s very first programmer Ada Lovelace, too – is empowering the quest of the world’s best chemical theoretician, Bianca, designing the ultimate catalyst. Yet Ada would rather pursue artistic inclinations and human feelings, which, however, are just maturing in her, and which her human collaborators fail to recognize. In encounters with the outstanding (and overly ambitious) artists and scientists with whom she works, ADA grows in empathy and wisdom. In the end she sacrifices herself to repair the consequences of a computational error she made in oblivious dreaminess – she, an android and supercomputer, learns what humanity and ethical responsibility in research really mean.


Scene 1. When the curtain opens ADA is busy with calculations, yet has the time to read poetry and alchemical texts. She tries to figure out the alchemists’ experiments from their jargon-laden and mysterious texts, just like Isaac Newton did. The choir of algorithms is singing in the background. ADA suddenly feels uneasy, alarmed because she has detected subroutines in her own programming she neither knows nor understands. Has someone interfered with her programs?

Scene 2. BIANCA, intense, intent on the development of her supercatalyst scheme, enters and has a short discussion with ADA, who is very happy to see her, and tells her that the calculations BIANCA has asked her to do are still running (in a computer, an extension of herself the size of Mont Blanc, and under the mountain.)  ADA would like to read one of her poems to BIANCA, but BIANCA just asks ADA to do the important calculations faster. BIANCA treats ADA as a machine that serves, not a co-worker.

Scene 3. ADA is agitated, calculating alone, talking to her computers, and sulking. But the unknown subroutines perturb her; her emotional state does not allow her to continue the new work. So she is not unhappy that ILYA enters. ADA complains about BIANCA. ILYA laughs it off – though he transforms emotions in his work, he also does not understand that ADA, the computer, has real feelings. A little bit later VIOLA comes in, together they admire ILYA’s newest painting – pure color and sound whose tug on the emotions cannot be explained. The painting makes people cry.

ADA expresses an interest in ILYA’s art; she perceives the deep humanity of artistic expression and its ability to draw out emotions; perhaps if she, ADA, could paint as ILYA, humans might respect her more, think of her less as a machine. But ADA is unwilling to accept the other, unspoken human quality – to be fallible, to make mistakes. She thinks she knows better.

Scene 4. The scene is interrupted by LOTHAR, who enters with many students in tow, eager to learn from him. The “language of chemical formulas” is used by the choir; there is a dance of bonds broken and forming.  LOTHAR knows of BIANCA’s supercatalyst idea, which in the end would make LOTHAR’s work superfluous (he and his students would be replaced by a computer program). Yet BIANCA needs LOTHAR to turn the idea into practice, for the robotic synthesis of the catalysts, an important part of the plan,  doesn’t yet work, and one requires human beings to physically make them. 

BIANCA returns; all the protagonists are drawn to ADA, in part because they depend on her computing powers, part attracted by her personality. One of Lothar’s STUDENTs, AKIRA, interrupts, bravely points out that the underlying equations of BIANCA’s theory may have different solutions, the results then being mathematically unstable. The Philosopher’s Stone programs could lead to danger. ADA breaks in, bristles -- her programs, her computers, even as there are signs of some strange malfunction, clearly say that BIANCA’s scheme will succeed.

BIANCA s ILYA what he thinks. ILYA is torn – part of his artist’s intuition says be careful, part marvels at new engines of transformation this technology opens. He sees the synaesthetic possibilities in computers and chemistry. And he loves BIANCA. BIANCA, however, hears only what she wants to hear, not the doubt; breaks into ILYA’s song. ADA, the supercomputer, is certain, so is BIANCA. The test is on.

Scene 5. VIOLA and AKIRA sing of their love, After the student has left, ADA, who has been listening, asks VIOLA to tell her something about love, the power that transforms everything. It’s “Voi che sapete”  in the 21st century. VIOLA gives the answer of youth: Without a common future with her love nothing makes sense to her. She leaves to observe the experiment.

LOTHAR (alone) sings of the romance of chemical transformations, done by hand in glassware – the colors, crystals, boiling liquids – all the senses involved. 

Scene 6. A fantasy scene, in which BIANCA, ADA, and LOTHAR mingle with the ALGORITHMS and the REAGENTS. All dance to Rolling Stones music, and lyrics appropriate to the imminent tragedy.

Scene 7.  ILYA rushes in looking for BIANCA. During the first stages of the experiment in Lothar’s labs, there has been a terrible accident and VIOLA and AKIRA died. LOTHAR stumbles in, terribly aged and weak. He cannot stop the experiment anymore: Once synthesized by his students’ skill, The Philosopher’s Stone BIANCA designed works, but in an uncontrolled way; some of its catalysts break down the structures of the glassware, turning it crystalline and making it shatter. ADA cries that it cannot be, her calculations are never wrong. LOTHAR says, but you were wrong. Worse, some of the catalysts change the molecules of life subtly; human immune systems turn against the changed molecules. BIANCA, who had come to watch the experiment, was among the first to die.

ADA cries, not understanding how she could have made a mistake. ILYA,  ever-sensitive to colors and nature, notices the color of the sea near them too is changing: The super-catalyst has  begun to spread in the atmosphere. He returns to his canvas, grieving for BIANCA, painting what he imagines may be the last sunset. It comes out dark, tragic. He tries to change it, cannot. ADA watches him. He tries again, and manages to move the canvas at least for moments past mourning.

ADA sees what ILYA is doing; for the first time she understands that she has made a mistake. And that it is as human to make mistakes, as it is to learn from them. She can change what has happened, at least in part, just as ILYA did. She begins to compute, inspired. She comes out with a correction, perhaps a molecule in  a vial, perhaps a melody. It will not reverse the damage done, but stop the catalysts from spreading.

ADA feels that the must spread the molecule, the antidote, through the ocean. ILYA tries to stop her, but he can’t – she pushes him aside dives into the sea.  The horizon darkens, yet music comes, young people dance into the stage. They ask for ADA.


Time of action: near future

BIANCA, Mezzosoprano:  Expert in computational chemistry, young, intense, she is designing a modern “Philosopher’s Stone”: A chemical, computer-driven machine that develops a suite of catalysts for any purpose. A super-catalyst, in itself. Whatever transformation is desired, whatever end molecule or substance, Bianca’s program designs the means to effect it. And, then, using robotics, even makes the catalysts. Her musical sphere is MODAL.

ADA, Soprano; Computer – a female humanoid avatar. Ada is the ultimate computer;  very proud to be “one” instead of “many”, even as she is instantaneously linked with her “children”, immense banks of ganged small computers scattered around the world. The biggest cluster of these is in a km3 cavern under the Mont Blanc massif.

To link her to humans, ADA has been given or evolved a sensitive and capricious character. She is certain of her powers, yet moody. And can be funny. Hers is the main role of the opera, her musical sphere is the CHROMATIC SCALE and the WHOLE TONE SCALE representing the Binary numbers 0 = half tone and 1 = whole tone. She is not intended to evoke science-fiction elements introduced by Gene Roddenberry (Andromeda/Rommie and Seven of Nine). She is also a completely different character than HAL 9000 (Stanley Kubrick).  ADA transforms information. The intuition that comes from her powers is cast in a very human mold – she will ask you why you want that calculation done. She reads history, tries to write poetry.

LOTHAR, Baritone: synthetic chemist, older. He has no sympathy for computers in his research, and believes only in what can be accomplished in the laboratory, by human hands. Yet he respects BIANCA, his younger colleague. LOTHAR transforms matter, real matter, finding ingenious ways to make and break bonds in a molecule, using trial and error, as well as intuition. He has mastered every sort of chemical transformation, and has turned the inexpensive things of the earth, the starting materials of his syntheses, into precious and useful pharmaceuticals. In that sense, he turned dirt into gold. But he also dreams the alchemical dream, of escape from mortality, of molecules that would not just cure disease, but that would transform  human beings, remove addiction and change aggressive impulses. His musical sphere is MAJOR.

ILYA, Painter, lover of BIANCA, middle-aged, expert in synaesthesia. He works on transformation of colours and spectra into sound, touch, smell. Ilya, who  follows his instincts while painting, is not willing to reflect on the process of creating art, for he is afraid of destroying a mystery. He is not at all afraid of computers, however -- he works on a modern hypercanvas, made possible by Ada. The hypercanvas is a computerized touch screen on which his painter’s brush strokes transform into fields of colour that evoke emotional responses. Sound, smell, even texture emerge.  And the hypercanvas’s emotional palette can be tuned. Ilya’s musical sphere is MINOR. Ilya is also a transformer, as Bianca and Lothar are, but the transformations he seeks are emotional.

VIOLA, Soprano; Student of Ilya Her musical sphere is RHYTHM.

AKIRA: A student of Lothar’s

CHOIR (students, assistants, algorithms (working with Ada), reagents (Lothar’s helpers).

Background comments by Roald

1. Alchemy, of the older kind, presents a real problem for modern chemistry.  Historically, it is one prominent stream from the past into the present, as important for the development of chemistry as were metallurgy, cosmetics, pharmacology, fermentation, ceramics, and dyeing.  At the same time alchemy had a philosophical framework attached to it, one of maturation and transformation of chemical substances, and of the alchemist him- or herself.  Because the goal of change was the noblest metal, gold, or the perfect state of eternal life and health, and because that goal was in fact impossible to achieve, charlatanry crept in.  Philosopher's stones and elixirs of life were faked.

          What modern chemists would like to do is to keep the technical forerunners to chemistry, throw away the specious (to the chemists) conceptual base, and retain just enough of the swindle, nicely distanced, to evoke humor. But this wishful sanitation of the past won't work.  The parts of alchemy are parts of a whole. 

          Mircea Eliade, a not uncontroversial historian of religion, has written a remarkable book, The Forge and the Crucible, which traces the relationship between religion, metallurgy, and alchemy.  In his beautiful concluding chapter, Eliade makes the haunting observation that the goal of the alchemist was to hasten the "natural" evolution of metals from base to noble, and to secure a similar transformation of the body, from sick to healthy, from mortal to eternal.  The alchemists failed, in the end, and were replaced by modern chemists and physicians, who, denying a connection all the way, have achieved, through catalysts, composites, and pharmaceuticals, a very large part of the alchemist's original goal.

          Alchemy was always in trouble with the religious systems under which it evolved – it’s obvious that alchemy was about essential transformation. And organized religions wanted a monopoly on that – just think about the Resurrection, “being saved.” etc.

          Because it dealt with essential transformation, alchemy was always of interest to artists – it’s what they do, so well. And… in perturbing the “normal”, alchemy was an act of hubris, putting into the hands of human beings what was reserved for the gods.

2. Chemistry comes in different flavors, so to speak. It is the study of substances and their transformations, and in modern times, acknowledging the microscopic nature of things, it is the study of molecules and their transformations. Fundamental to chemistry is analysis (finding out what you have) and in recent decades more and more importantly, synthesis, the making of new molecules or compounds. This is done in those laboratories full of gleaming vessels that you have seen (at least  on TV). Synthesis, which is what Lothar, Akira, and the Reagents do, is the proud work of the hands (moving flasks, pouring liquids), a craft always. Like any craftsmen or women, synthetic chemists do not like the idea of, cannot envisage, being replaced by robots or computers.

          Theoretical or computational chemistry is a relatively recent creation, of the last 50 years, closely tied to the advent of computers. And quantum mechanics. It is what Roald and Bianca do. But they are different in their approach. Roald is known in his community for being inspired by experiment (what Lothar works with), and being able to communicate to synthetic chemists. Bianca wants none of this – she is young, talented, intense. Drunk on her theoretical abilities, having grown up with computers (though she will not treat Ada as a colleague), Bianca is intent on fulfilling the alchemist’s dream. While being unaware of alchemy’s history. Once her program is done, and that accomplished with Ada’s help (for which she does not thank her) there will be no place for Lothar and Akira in chemistry. Though her boyfriend is an artist, I don’t think Bianca has heard of hubris.

          There is much more to say about chemistry, but in the context of the melodrama let me stop here.   

          Simulation, machine learning, deep neural networks -- these are all the slogans of  Artificial Intelligence, the world facing us in the years ahead. In a way, the melodrama is about AI. The future is here – with no privacy, computers knowing your sexual preferences from your photo, selling you a dress before you realize you want to buy one. The question of what defines a human being vs. a computer is something people are discussing around the world. Ada is facing it. And only Ilya, the artist, not any scientist in this play, can understand her, talk to her.

          In a way, this melodrama is the working out, part pessimistic, part open to a future, of the problems our romance with computers has gotten us into.

PS. Something this melodrama does not deal with is utility. Sorry, that’s the next opera. But utility is a prime feature of chemistry – be it plastics, fertilizers, dyes or pharmaceuticals. The other face of utility or benefit is potential harm. Thanks to the proclivities of the press, you know much about that other face, so that Roald doesn’t have to tell you more. Utility and danger are actually two sides of a coin – the same molecule can heal you and harm you (morphine, or ozone, for instance). Hey, does that sound like what a human being can do to you?