The fine art of making stopples go

The Art of Chemistry
July 4, 2003

Deciding what to call a sequel is not always easy. The film industry frequently comes up with titles such as Crocodile Dundee II, which may be unimaginative but at least provide an indication of what to expect. This book is a sequel to Arthur Greenberg's A Chemical History Tour, and while it is understandable that he did not want to use a title inspired by cinema, to have done so would have been more informative.

One might have expected a volume titled The Art of Chemistry to be centred on works of art inspired by chemistry. Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Pieter Brueghel the Elder, produced many representations of alchemists at work. Although there are fewer more recent examples, they are by no means non-existent. Chemists themselves have produced works of art, and images of crystals photographed under the microscope can be stunning. The 19th-century chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge developed a method of making "self-grown pictures" by spotting coloured solutions on to filter paper and adding other solvents. Had he concentrated on improving the separation technique rather than the aesthetic result, he might have developed chromatography before Michael Tswett.

As Greenberg states, the book is, like its predecessor, inspired by examples of artwork (as opposed to works of art) "employed over the centuries to illustrate chemical apparatus as well as our various metaphors for the nature and structure of matter". It consists of 72 essays with 187 in-text figures, most of which have been taken from chemical and alchemical texts.

Greenberg admits that his book is idiosyncratic, and its coverage of the history of chemistry is unashamedly patchy. The book has an undoubted charm, for while many topics will be well known to those who are familiar with the history of chemistry, some of the byways it explores will not.

In the early sections, Greenberg has plenty of artwork to choose from.

Alchemical texts were often richly illustrated, and some illustrations have been interpreted by scholars as being representations of perfectly comprehensible chemical processes. A reproduced illustration from Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1618) shows a wolf feasting on the body of a king, while in the background the king walks out of a fire in which the wolf is being consumed. As Greenberg explains, this is a representation of a method of purifying gold.

Later Greenberg refers to a 1599 text describing the medicinal properties of the crushed Spanish fly (cantharides beetle), which are "good for those who want erection, and do promote venery very much". He quotes a passage in which a man "fearing that his stopple was too weak to drive forth his wifes chastity the first night, consulted the chief of Physicians, who was most famous, that he might have some stifte prevalent Medicament, whereby he might sooner dispatch his journey". The prescribed remedy was painful and ineffectual. The modern gentleman experiencing problems with his stopple should thank the chemist for the introduction of Viagra and Cialis.

Several essays are devoted to relatively unknown early American chemists such as John Penington, Thomas Smith, James Woodhouse and Amos Eaton.

Another fascinating byway that is explored is Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev's masters thesis of 1856. Greenberg reproduces the title page and four pages of the text. Mendeleev lists many atomic and molecular weights and also some properties, and Greenberg cites a claim of the book collector Roy G.

Neville (who owns the document) that the dissertation contains hints of the periodic law, but without a translation from the Russian one cannot pass judgement.

Among other illustrations is a collection of Belgian cigarette cards featuring chemists, as well as cards sponsored by the Justus Liebig Company to advertise its meat extract. Included are a few works of art, among them a portrait of Benjamin Franklin painted by Madame Lavoisier. It was Jacques Louis David who, as well as giving art lessons to Lavoisier, painted the famous portrait of her and her husband, and also the picture of the stabbed Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. The latter is reproduced here, but more pertinent is a page of illustrations from Marat's book, Recherches Physiques sur le Feu (1780).

Greenberg could perhaps have discussed in greater detail the impact that some of the books and their illustrations must have had. A case in point is Agricola's famous De Re Metallica (1556), which was a complete manual of ore prospecting, assaying, mining and metal extraction. With its wealth of artwork depicting all the operations in detail, this book must have helped considerably to stimulate the production of metals in the second half of the 16th century.

Greenberg gives his essays a catchy or provocative title where possible. An example is the essay "An early but distant relative of the periodic table", which is about the table of affinity produced in 1750 by Christian Ehregott Gellert, following the earlier example of Etienne-François Geoffroy. There is nothing periodic about Gellert's table, and it was produced long before the modern concepts of the element, the chemical atom or atomic weight had emerged. To call a slight perceived similarity a relationship is overstating the case. Among other quirky titles are "Never smile at a cacodyl" and "Trade ya Babe Ruth for Antoine Lavoisier!"

In places, Greenberg attempts to lighten his text with humorous pieces. A case in point is an essay inspired by some doodles made in 1891 by a female student on the title page of her chemistry textbook. Greenberg writes a Walter Mitty-like piece on the young lady's possible day-dreaming as she sat in an uninspiring chemistry class. Depending on your point of view, this kind of thing either adds variety to the text or is a waste of space.

The book contains a number of elementary chemical lapses: stalactites and stalagmites are not formed by the reaction of aqueous carbon dioxide with calcium oxide (CaO, quicklime) in the soil, but with calcium carbonate - the solution of calcium hydrogen carbonate thus formed decomposes back to calcium carbonate in the cave; and silver and copper do not react with dilute aqueous acids to yield hydrogen.

Greenberg states that he is aiming at a broad audience that includes chemists, chemistry teachers, other scientists, engineers, physicians and non-scientists who like science and enjoy artwork. In writing for such a wide readership, an author has to face the problem of how much chemical knowledge to assume. Greenberg tries to accommodate non-chemical readers in places (he defines allotropy twice) but elsewhere no help is provided. Thus the reader is expected to be able to cope unaided with sentences such as "Gomberg reacted triphenylmethyl chloride with zinc dust expecting to obtain hexaphenylethane".

This is mainly a book for chemists. But it is not, and does not claim to be, a complete history of chemistry. No doubt Greenberg could produce a third collection of essays, but if he does so, I hope he chooses a title that better indicates his theme.

John Hudson is honorary research fellow in the history of chemistry, Anglia Polytechnic University.

The Art of Chemistry: Myths, Medicines, and Materials

Author - Arthur Greenberg
ISBN - 0 471 07180 3
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £40.50
Pages - 357

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