Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the

8 Aug 2001 - Peter Medawar, the immunologist and Nobel laureate, once observed that “a view widely prevalent among the Young. Turks of Science is th...
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Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball by Trevor H. Levere The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, 2001. x + 208 pp. Paperback: ISBN 0-8018-6610-3. $17.95. Hardcover: ISBN 0-8018-6609-X. $42.50. reviewed by A. Truman Schwartz

Peter Medawar, the immunologist and Nobel laureate, once observed that “a view widely prevalent among the Young Turks of Science is that interest in the history of science is a sign of failing powers.” Be that as it may, the days when most college and university chemistry departments offered courses in the history of chemistry are long gone. Nevertheless, there appear to be enough of us Old Turkeys around to motivate publishers to issue new histories of our discipline. Transforming Matter, by Trevor H. Levere of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, is the latest. It joins four other similar works published within the past decade: The History of Chemistry by John Hudson (Chapman and Hall: New York, 1992); Ideas in Chemistry: A History of the Science by David Knight (Rutgers University Press: Brunswick, NJ, 1992); The Norton History of Chemistry by William H. Brock (Norton: New York, 1993); and A History of Chemistry by Bernadette BensaudeVincent and Isabelle Stengers (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1996). Interestingly, none of the authors work in the United States. Levere’s book consists of 14 chapters in chronological sequence. As the subtitle suggests, the book begins with a consideration of the alchemical origins of chemistry. The second chapter, on Robert Boyle, correctly describes him as strongly influenced by the alchemical tradition. Many modern chemists, perhaps over-identifying with the delicious title, The Sceptical Chymist, and not the contents of that book, inappropriately attribute many modern ideas to its author. On the other hand, it is fashionable to ridicule Becher and Stahl for developing the long-since discredited phlogiston theory. Levere rightly recognizes the importance of the phlogiston theory as a unifying paradigm, though calling it “one of the most powerful and fruitful theories in the history of chemistry” may reflect a bit of hyperbole. The author characterizes the chemical revolution as a transformation brought about with “new instruments, new methods, and a new language”, and he clearly demonstrates how all three of these tools advanced the “French science”. Levere’s treatment of the contributions of Priestley and other pneumatic chemists is evenhanded, and he avoids entry into the priority dispute over the “discovery” of oxygen. The primacy that Lavoisier attached to experimental results and operational definitions is well established in Chapter 6. We are reminded that the relationship between Lavoisier’s opera-

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tional elements (or more exactly “simple substances”) and Dalton’s “ultimate atoms” was by no means obvious. That issue illuminates Chapter 7 and Chapter 9, which revisits the atomic weight controversy. The book also includes chapters that treat the history of organic and physical chemistry, the teaching–research laboratory, molecular structure, and chemical bonding. The reader does not enter the 20th century until encountering G. N. Lewis on page 171 (out of 199 pages of text). Moreover, the final chapter, “Where Now and Where Next? New Frontiers” is a rather disjointed hodgepodge. The book’s greatest strengths lie in its treatment of the 18th and 19th centuries. In his introduction, Levere states: “I have addressed the book to those seeking an introduction to the history of chemistry, whether they have a background in the science or not.” There are only few chemical symbols, formulas, and equations and no mathematical relationships. Moreover, the book is well written and a fast and easy read. It is clearly not intended to be a work of historical scholarship. There are a few footnote references to the original literature, but all of the suggestions for further reading are from secondary sources. Thus, the book should be accessible to general readers and of interest to chemists who wish to have a quick overview of the history of the discipline. Serious students of the history of chemistry will learn little new. Although this brief volume could serve as a supplement to a general chemistry course, I think it would be too superficial for use in an undergraduate history of chemistry course. For a more thorough treatment, I recommend Brock’s book or Aaron Ihde’s 1964 classic, The Development of Modern Chemistry. By and large, the chemistry is presented in a logical and comprehensible form. People and ideas are emphasized. However, because of Transforming Matter’s brevity and its intended audience, there are inevitable oversimplifications and sins of omission. There were also a few sins of commission in the uncorrected proof that I read. On page 159 there is an implication that equilibrium does not exist in “irreversible” processes such as the precipitation of silver chloride. The author rushes through electron orbitals in one paragraph (page 178) in which he mistakenly refers to something he calls “Planck’s equation” and appears to identify p orbitals with n = 2. On the next page we are told that “overlapping p orbitals produced a pi bond.” True, but they can also produce a sigma bond. And on page 198 we learn that “a single Freon molecule can cause the decomposition of millions of ozone molecules.” The most frequently cited estimate is 100,000 ozone molecules decomposed per Freon molecule. This may be the nit picking of a physical chemist, but it does reflect some of the hazards of trying to achieve an admirable goal— introducing readers to the fascinating history of our fascinating science. A. Truman Schwartz is in the Department of Chemistry, Macalester College, Saint Paul, MN; [email protected]. • Vol. 78 No. 8 August 2001 • Journal of Chemical Education