The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. X, S1430-4171(02)03569-6, 10.1007/s00897020596a, © 2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
A Chemical History Tour: Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science. By Arthur Greenberg. Wiley-Interscience; John Wiley & Sons: New York; Chichester, England, 2000. Illustrations. xviii + 312 pp. 21.1 ´ 28.5 cm.; hardbound; $62.95. ISBN 0-471-35408-2.
George B. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org
According to Arthur Greenberg, former Chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and now Dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of New Hampshire, his purpose in writing this beautiful, oversized volume was “to treat you to a light-hearted tour through selected highlights of chemical history” and “provide an entertaining and attractive, but informative resource for chemistry teachers, practicing professionals in science and medicine, as well as the lay public interested in science and appreciative of artwork and illustration.” In my opinion he has admirably succeeded in fulfilling this goal.
Designed as a “picture book with sufficient text to explain details and context” and with its wide, generous margins, and fine paper, it is a work of art as well as of science. Greenberg’s idea of using visual images to convey science and its history was inspired by another triumph of art and science, Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington, DC, 1993; reviewed by G. B. Kauffman and L. M. Kauffman, J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, A239-A240 ), for which Roald Hoffmann provided the text and Vivian Torrence provided the illustrations. A charter member of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Bolton Society (named for chemical bibliographer Henry Carrington Bolton) and an inveterate antiquarian book collector, Greenberg states, “Unless otherwise noted, the figures are from books or artwork in my own collection.”
Intended for either browsing or reading in its entirety, Greenberg’s tour begins with the early practical and mystical roots of chemistry and traces its evolution into a modern science in both pictures and words. He admits that his coverage of twentieth-century chemistry is relatively light because of the exponential explosion of scientific discoveries. However, he includes cutting-edge structural chemistry with the synthesis of nanoscopic polyhedra, recalling the Pythagoreans’ view of the heavenly- or fifth element (“ether”) postulated some two and a half millennia ago, and the use of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to view individual atoms. Although he has tried to recognize scientific contributions beyond those of Western culture, he attributes his weak coverage of early science in Chinese, Indian, African, Moslem, and other cultures to the lack of printed books.
The pictorial tour is divided into eight approximately chronological sections, which in turn are divided into 117 subsections:
1. “Practical Chemistry, Mining, and Metallurgy” (6 essays, 22 pp)
2. “Spiritual and Allegorical Alchemy” (13 essays, 41 pp)
3. “Iatrochemistry and Spagyricall Preparations” (3 essays, 10 pp., the shortest section)
4. “Chemistry Begins to Emerge as a Science” (26 essays, 60 pp., the longest section)
5. “Modern Chemistry is Born” (19 essays, 45 pp.)
6. “Chemistry Begins to Specialize and Helps Farming and Industry” (17 essays, 41 pp.)
7. “Teaching Chemistry to the Masses” (10 essays, 27 pp.)
8. “The Approach to Modern Views of Chemical Bonding” (23 essays, 53 pp.)
The book concludes with a one-page “Postscript” consisting of the images in three short poems by modern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, that underscore a major theme of the book—the unity between matter, nature, and the human spirit.
Many of the vignettes bear ingenious, witty, whimsical, anachronistic, or quirky titles (for example, “Ratso Rizzo and the Poet Virgil as Transmuting Agents?;” “The Dream Team of Alchemy;” “A Tree Grows in Brussels;” “Black’s Magic;” “Fire Air (Oxygen): Who Knew What and When Did They Know It?;” “Adams Opposes Atoms” (John Adams, the second U.S. President, “could not comprehend atoms.”); “Why’s the Nitrogen Atom Blue, Mommy?;” “Want a Great Chemical Theory? Just Let Kekulé Sleep on It;” “My Parents Went to Karlsruhe and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee-Shirt!;” “A Mid-Semester Night’s Dream;” “It’s the Atomic Number, Dmitry!;” and “Where Did We Dig Up the Mole?”). They range in length from half a page to 10 pages and are all linked to one or more figures except for the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone (pp 22-23).
Familiar and rare instruments, portraits, apparatus, textbooks, woodcuts, artwork, and a wide variety of other intriguing illustrations are included. Dates of birth and death are given for almost every one of the many persons who parade through the pages. The book is meticulously documented and cross-referenced; specific references as late as 1999 follow each essay, and Greenberg is scrupulous to a fault in specifically acknowledging assistance to numerous persons. Although his volume is intended for laypersons as well as scientists, he does not hesitate to use formulas and equations wherever appropriate. A detailed (12 double-column pages) index makes the book particularly user-friendly.
Greenberg has a way with words, and the tone of the book is so decidedly light-hearted that it will appeal to everyone but the most hidebound reader. It abounds with rhetorical questions that draw the reader into the story. The volume is also full of satire, puns, and informal and colloquial speech, although his use of “snuck” (p 256) is carrying informality too far for my pedantic taste.
Greenberg modestly declares, “I am not a chemical historian,” yet he displays a fantastically wide, multifaceted knowledge of chemistry and all manner of subjects. Although he states that “like any tour, [the book] is idiosyncratic in the highlights that it chooses to show the tourist,” almost all of the theories and concepts that are a sine qua non of the usual introductory chemistry course are dealt with, thus making the book an ideal source of humorous anecdotes and tales for chemical educators who wish to enliven their lectures with supplementary, often humorous, material.
Considering the large number of persons and works cited, the number of errors, mostly in proper names, does not seem excessive. Some are “typos,” e.g., sparse (not sparce)(p xi); Prelude (not Preclude)(p xv); Van (not Von) Helmont (p 159); Seuss (not Suess. Yes, even Dr. Seuss is included among the numerous popular, nonscientific authors cited) (pp 173, 310); H2O (not H20) (twice on p 175); and Benjamin (not Benjamen) Thompson (p 311). Others involve the omission of diacritical marks, e.g., André Ampère (p 176); André Dumas (p 176); Jöns Berzelius (pp 187, 188, 229, 302); and Frédéric Gerhardt (p 207). Consistent errors too frequent to be cited by page include Humphry (not Humphrey) Davy; Macmillan (not MacMillan); Encyclopædia (not Encyclopedia) Britannica;and omission of authors’ names in the numerous articles cited in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography; the editor of which is also omitted.
Other errors include the following: Partington (James not John)(pp xvii, 308); A.D. should precede, not follow, the year (p 45); Sylvius (dele Boë not dela Boë) (pp 96, 310); Starkey (George not John) (pp 100, 310); Eilhard (not Eilhardt) Mitscherlich (pp 175, 307); Quaregna (not Quaregua) in Avogadro’s title, but even Partington has this typographical error) (p 175); and Glenn T. Seaborg died on February 25, 1999 not March 1999 (p 283);
Also, it was Victor L. King not John Read who resolved the first coordination compound (p 252). In Greenberg’s favor the article by Ivan Bernal, from which Greenberg obtained the information, contains the error; furthermore the first coordination compound to be resolved was the cis-amminehalobis(ethylenediamine)cobalt(III) salt not the corresponding cis-dinitro salt, for which the reference is given). Again, in Greenberg’s favor, Karl Lehrs’ admonition, “Immer Quellen lesen, daraus ergibt alles von selbst” (Always read sources, from which everything flows automatically), is often more honored in the breach than the observance.
In view of the large number of illustrations (164 numbered black and white plus eight color plates), most of which are full page, as well as the fine workmanship involved in producing this book, its modest price is both surprising and welcome. Professor Greenberg has put an immense amount of time and effort into this delightful book, and it shows. I highly recommend it to practicing chemists; chemical educators; bibliophiles and book collectors; anyone interested in chemistry, art, and culture; and even historians of chemistry and of science. The author obviously had a lot of fun and enjoyed himself in writing it, and in reading it you’ll experience the same feelings.