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P-Chem Pioneers

Mary Jo Nye

Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks: The Spirited History of Physical Chemistry. Cathy Cobb. 420 pp. Prometheus Books, 2002. $29.

In Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks, Cathy Cobb takes the point of view that "the story of physical chemistry is a celebration of the free spirit, the glory of the unabashedly odd." Her narrative is explicitly one of heroes and heroines, and what she calls mavericks, renegades and eccentrics. The history moves from ancient astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy through early modern developments in mathematics, physics, alchemy, medicinal remedies and chemistry, using the assumption that physical chemists could achieve their aims only after the foundations of mathematics, physics and chemistry were well laid. As a consequence, some surprising figures appear in the book: Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) and Nicolò Tartaglia (1499–1557), for example, who are included on the grounds that physical chemistry has to do with mathematics, so that the history of algebra is crucial to the story.

John Dalton (1766–1844),Click to Enlarge Image

Cobb's style is lively and swashbuckling. Many of the figures traditionally found in such a history make appearances in her narrative, such as Robert Boyle, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, John Dalton, James Clerk Maxwell, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Ludwig Boltzmann, Gustav Kirchhoff, Hermann von Helmholtz, Jean Perrin, J. J. Thomson, J. H. van't Hoff, Niels Bohr (whose first name is occasionally misspelled), G. N. Lewis and Linus Pauling. Marie Curie gets less attention than the 17th-century figure Marie Meurdrac, but other women scientists, such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Maria Goeppert Mayer, are included.

One of the strengths of the book is its effusive and engaging style, which is suitable for high school and college students as well as a general audience. For the most part, Cobb explains the chemistry and physics clearly. She has a striking gift for giving homespun, everyday analogies or examples for mathematical, physical and chemical phenomena and theories. The wealth of unexpected analogies should prove valuable for teachers in particular. Maxwell's law that gas viscosities are independent of pressure and go up as temperature rises is explained by comparing molecules of gas to cows being herded down a cattle chute, and Planck's quantum theory is explained by comparing his packets of energy to cups of various colors (their size depending on the wavelength of the color) standing in a field during a rainstorm. Electrons are likened to fleas on an elephant.

Two chapters late in the book, on nonlinear dynamics and nanotechnology, are especially original. Some interpretations in earlier chapters are thought-provoking, if controversial—for example, the claim that exactly "three problems, the need to maximize the range and aim of cannons, the need for better telescopes, and the need to determine longitude, encapsulate the problems facing the scientists of the Scientific Revolution."

Two aspects of Cobb's book are disconcerting. One is its determined emphasis on the history of physical chemistry as a collection of renegade and heroic episodes. The other is the failure to define physical chemistry effectively, leading to an impoverished account of its history. Having decided on a heroic strategy, Cobb relies strongly on biographical entries from the 18-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles C. Gillispie (Scribner's, 1970–1990). Some use is made of other approaches and of other work in the history of science and the history of chemistry, but much has been ignored. By emphasizing (especially in her title, preface and introduction) the "renegade" character of scientists, as well as by using the theme of heroism throughout, Cobb obscures the importance of the ordinary, everyday practices of science—what Thomas Kuhn and many others call "normal science." She is correct in writing that skepticism is healthy, but she is wrong in claiming that "We only make progress when we see beyond the present paradigm." Progress is made in many ways; it is not exclusively revolutionary and iconoclastic.

Cobb sometimes talks about physical chemistry and physical chemists as if they had always existed: Physical chemistry began, she says, with attempts to understand reactions by sorcerers and alchemists. Yet she also writes that "The goal of physical chemistry is to develop mathematical models that explain and predict the structures of molecules and the forces that govern the behavior of chemicals in reactions." However, mathematical models were hardly the aim of sorcerers and alchemists. Nor does she cite statements by scientists of their goal of mathematical models: Such statements can be found and should have been provided.

Cobb notes that after theories of modern physics were developed, "new" work that was done in the overlapping areas of chemistry, physics and mathematics was sometimes called chemical philosophy or theoretical chemistry and that the name physical chemistry came into general acceptance in the late 1800s. But she never really explains how physical chemistry was made into a professional and intellectual discipline. In a discussion of Jean Perrin's experimental work on Brownian motion, she writes that the birth of Perrin in 1870 "corresponded to the formal birth of the discipline of physical chemistry." And in the next sentence she mentions Wilhelm Ostwald. But she never discusses the founding of journals and professional societies, the establishment of educational curricula, the post-1870s textbooks and declarations of a new discipline by physical chemists, or the development of new kinds of laboratories and industrial practices.

Cobb draws on some of the work of chemists and historians who have written about those developments—Keith Laidler, John Servos and Diana Barkan, to name three—but she has decided to stick to the simpler story line of heroes and heroines and renegades and martyrs who are the stuff of drama and theater. Her book is thus an inspirational history for students of science, not a definitive history for the record.—Mary Jo Nye, History, Oregon State University, Corvallis

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