How do you portray a science that now owes (perhaps) as much to Bill Gates as to Bunsen?

The public image of chemistry

Joachim Schummer, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Brigitte Van Tiggelen (eds)

London, UK: World Scientific 2007 | 383 pp | ?31.00 (HB) ISBN 9789612775849

Reviewed by Paul Board

How do you portray a science that now owes (perhaps) as much to Bill Gates as to Bunsen? A science whose roots may be traced back to the arcane and archaic world of alchemy, but whose black arts have been replaced by black (or more frequently grey) boxes? This eclectic collection of a dozen chapters shows how it was done and how it is done and is written by ’experts from philosophy, history of science, literature studies, sociology, and chemistry, from eight countries.’

The book spans and spins the two cultures of science and arts, landscape to literature, Middle Ages to modern times, and where appropriate, recognises the influence of religion on the public perception and portrayal of alchemy and chemistry. Although Frankenstein and his creation often take centre stage, authors apart from Mary Shelley covered in some detail (by Philip Ball, himself a very eloquent populariser of chemistry) include Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo for their novels Gain , Gravity’s Rainbow , and White Noise respectively.  

Museum pieces provide practical insights into the delicate task of displaying chemistry with so many people to please, not least nowadays the health and safety inspector, particularly when displays attempt to be interactive. The great populariser Liebig gets a whole chapter to himself, as does A Cressy Morrison in an examination of the images in his Man in a chemical world . 

In addition to a brief coverage of science radio and journalism in the 1930s, the visual image of the chemist and chemical industry form the subjects of a number of chapters, whether that image is a clip art, a commercial photo, a painted landscape, a mad scientist movie, or a shop window display. It is perhaps ironic that all the illustrations in the book (including that of William Perkin, inventor of mauve and founder of the modern dye industry) are in black and white. This understandable criticism aside, I would recommend this book to any chemist who has dealings with the media or the public at large.