From the earliest use of fire to forge iron tools to the medieval alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the secrets of the elements have been pursued by human civilization. But, as the authors of this concise history remind us, “disciplines like physics and chemistry have not existed since the beginning of time; they have been built up little by little, and that does not happen without difficulties.” Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers present chemistry as a science in search of an identity, or rather as a science whose identity has changed in response to its relation to society and to other disciplines. The authors—respected, prolific scholars in history and philosophy of science—have distilled their knowledge into an accessible work, free of jargon. They have written a book deeply enthusiastic about the conceptual, experimental, and technological complexities and challenges with which chemists have grappled over many centuries.
Beginning with chemistry’s polymorphous beginnings, featuring many independent discoveries all over the globe, the narrative then moves to a discussion of chemistry’s niche in the eighteenth-century notion of Natural Philosophy and on to its nineteenth-century days as an exemplar of science as a means of reaching positive knowledge. The authors also address contentious issues of concern to contemporary scientists: whether chemistry has become a service science; whether its status has “declined” because its value lies in assisting the leading-edge research activities of molecular geneticists and materials scientists; or whether it is redefining its agenda.
A History of Chemistry treats chemistry as a study whose subject matter, the nature and behavior of qualitatively different materials, remains constant, while the methods and disciplinary boundaries of the science constantly shift.
How should the history of chemistry be written? The word ‘chemistry’ has its roots in Hellenistic Egypt, being centuries older than the comparative neologisms ‘physics’ and ‘biology’. Yet, even on this level, the sense of continuity can be deceptive… In view of this, any attempt to trace the history of science down the ages seems fraught with peculiar hazards. The authors of this book are well aware of the problems and confront them head-on, as they are well qualified to do… The key to their successful collaboration here is a willingness to recognize the fluid and unfinished identity of chemistry, its periodic remaking and realignment with the historical forces that have shaped it… This is a remarkable book: learned, thoughtful, and elegantly written and translated… Specialists…will…relish the imaginative picture of the history of chemistry it offers. For the chemists who will surely also be among its readers, the book conveys important lessons about the history of their science. And, for students and general readers, it conveys an enthusiasm for chemical ideas and discoveries that is quite infectious. The authors have aimed at a readership much wider than academic specialists, and they deserve to reach it.
Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers are professional historians, and have written a book that will be accessible to those with little chemistry, and stimulating to those better informed. They reject the commonplace idea that there is some unchanging essential thing called chemistry, about which researchers are finding out more and more. From the beginning, they see chemistry’s place on the intellectual map as determined by constantly changing laboratory techniques, professions and institutions… [A] good story well told.
The answer to the inevitable question ‘Is this history different from all the others?’ is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Although almost all the personalities and topics traditionally considered in the usual history of chemistry course are here, from the ancient alchemists to the latest developments…they are treated in a markedly different manner and context, with a greater emphasis on interdependence and relationships between events than is found in conventional texts… The authors show chemistry as a science whose identity has changed in response to its relation to society and to other disciplines. Their book is arranged chronologically, and each of its five chapters profiles a different face of chemistry, delineating its identity during each time period and presenting a corresponding picture of the chemists of that period… The authors succeed admirably in demonstrating that from its very beginning, chemistry’s position in the world of knowledge and culture had been determined by a combination of three factors that were constantly being redefined: laboratory techniques, professions, and institutions. [This book is] controversial, provocative, and thought-provoking… I recommend it warmly to…instructors of history of chemistry courses… The book will also be of great interest to chemical educators in general and practicing chemists.
A History of Chemistry is a pleasure to read, informative, provocative, up-to-date, serious. It will introduce the novice to the history of chemistry, and will pose the professional a series of challenging puzzles.
- 313 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.