Chemistry has always been the most secretive of sciences, argues Philip Ball

Is there something about chemistry that breeds secrecy? The chemists I know are nothing if not generous with information about their work. But after reviewing the history of publishing in the chemical sciences, as a symposium of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry did on 26 October in London, you might have to concede that an awful lot of energy has gone into the art of concealment. 

That needn’t be surprising. Being the most applied of the fundamental sciences, chemistry has always had a commercial aspect, which means that its knowledge carries a premium and has sometimes been jealously protected. You won’t make much capital from the theory of relativity or of evolution - but discover how to make soda from salt and you’re sitting on a fortune. 

But there’s more to it than filthy lucre, especially for the early alchemical and chymical pioneers. It’s true that there were plenty of sharp practitioners with an eye on the financial worth of gold-making - Johann Becher, the wily German alchemist of the 17th century, promised the Dutch government he would turn sand into gold by the ton if only they would set him up with a hundred pounds of silver. It was not for nothing that Mercury, the patron of the Hermetic arts, was also the god of trade - and the patron of thieves. 

Yet hiding alchemical lore had a supposedly more elevated motive too. For its practitioners, this knowledge was power, and not to be handed out lightly to the ignorant and unprincipled masses. The medieval Book of the Secret of Secrets, derived from an Arabic word that was apocryphally attributed to Aristotle, makes this point explicit: ’I am revealing my secrets to you figuratively, speaking with enigmatic examples and signs, because I fear that the present book might fall into the hands of infidels and arrogant powers.’. This work has been called the most popular book in the Middle Ages, and it helped to establish the alchemical tradition of cloaking knowledge behind a veil of arcane terminology that only the genuine adept could penetrate. 

That obscurity was famously challenged by Robert Boyle in The Skeptical Chymist - but as Peter Forshaw of University College, London, pointed out, it is overlooked that Boyle criticised cryptic language only when applied to general principles. He defended it when discussing profound matters such as the preparation of the philosopher’s stone. This obscurantist style was deliberate and not just the product of fuzzy thinking: the lab notebooks of the Bermudan alchemist George Starkey, Boyle’s mentor, are clear and systematic, but when he published, his writing became esoteric and enigmatic. 

The alchemists had cunning strategies for preserving secrecy: dividing up secrets between several publications, omitting key steps or ingredients, and breeding confusion by heaping up strange names and metaphors. Sound familiar? They are disturbingly like the tricks used in today’s scientific literature whenever it aims to protect intellectual property; as a former editor, I’ve seen them all. 

We like to think of the 19th century, in contrast, as a time of open scientific discourse. But the ground-breaking Chemical News, the weekly bulletin of chemistry founded by the superhumanly energetic William Crookes, tells another story, as Jim Mussell of Birkbeck College revealed. Published every Saturday for 3d, its promise of up-to-date news on the latest in chemical technology was its selling point in an age when fortunes were being made from dyes, drugs, and industrial raw materials. There was no equivalent in the other sciences, for they hadn’t a comparable commercial currency. But Crookes’ correspondents expressed anxieties about trade secrets: would he publish them if he came across them? One industrialist argued that it was legitimate for chemical manufacturers to do all they could to protect their secrets; but that if Crookes found them out, he should feel obliged to reveal all without delay.

There needn’t be anything shameful about a legacy of secrecy - everyone has to make a living. But secrecy becomes a problem, even a hindrance to innovation when it becomes a reflex. Writing in a Cold War climate, Norbert Wiener had some wise words about it in his book Invention (MIT Press, 1993) that resonate strongly now that both intellectual property rights and ’national security’ are back on the agenda: ’If we have so organised our flow of information that there are no minor leaks, we have probably channelled it so narrowly that the healthy growth of our own technique is hampered, and we had better reconsider our action for the long haul.’