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How is a chemistry book like a mystery thriller?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2010 - About 50 years ago, C. P. Snow sparked an international debate, to his own surprise, when he gave a lecture titled “The Two Cultures” to an audience at Cambridge University. Basically, he claimed that a strange split had separated “scientific culture” from something he called “traditional culture” and that to people in Greenwich Village people at M.I.T. might as well be speaking Tibetan.

Quarks? String theory? And now, bioinformatics? — sounds foreign to most people.  Surely, Snow was onto a serious issue. He suggested T. S. Eliot and Ernest Rutherford as exemplars of the divide. While Eliot is probably a well-known name to almost anyone who went to college, what about Rutherford? And yet he won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry a century ago and has been called the father of nuclear physics.

By now, many people barely consider the “two culture” issue, except to presume it’s still true. Those of us on the “outside” of science often tend to mix our ignorance of that world with some suspicion of industrialism and a little fear of computer technology, too. The usual result is that we keep producing movies like “Avatar,” and we are hopelessly confused and angry after every new technical disaster, such as the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Snow was certainly not the first to divide culture in two. Centuries of antagonism between secular science and various church doctrines still continue. The 19th century Luddites of England were another famous example. They literally tried to fight off the Industrial Revolution by destroying wool and cotton mills to save handicraft industries.

As recently as 1931, the famed typography designer Eric Gill preceded Snow by summing up an old antagonism: “The two worlds can see one another distinctly … the power of industrialism, the humanity of craftsmanship.”

Both Snow and Gill wanted people to break down the divide and learn from both sides. Snow was a novelist and a physicist. Gill was as an artist and a printer, creator of the famous Gill Sans alphabet now familiar to anybody who ever to tried to choose a computer font.

But people like to divide the world into “us” and “them” — and then keep on dividing.

Now comes a chance for us to bridge the divide and simultaneously see it operating. A little over a year ago a college chemistry teacher and native St. Louisan, Patrick Coffey, wrote a curious book called "Cathedrals of Science," published by Oxford University Press. 

Coffey is now visiting scholar at the office for history of science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley. He grew up in University City and attended St. Louis U. High School, and we happened to be classmates. We knew each other just enough to nod “hello” in the hallway.

And that’s probably the reason I learned about the book, which is no doubt going to be read by chemistry scholars. But who else will be reading a book on the history of chemistry over the last century?

I won’t pretend Coffey’s book was an easy read for me, but I was surprised to find that it was genuinely fascinating.

I have no complaint about difficult books in general and happily re-read Snow’s "The Two Cultures" just to see how much it related to Coffey’s book. And Snow’s claims do still hold and Coffey’s book excellently bridges some of the gap.

Even so, I will also admit that the last three books I’ve read were the popular new murder mysteries by Stieg Larsson, starting with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Curiously, I can see some connection. That sounds goofy, I know, but I’m not joking — well, I’m not lying, anyway.

The murder mysteries by Larsson are popular mostly because they’re filled with kinky sex and brutal violence. Fair enough and I enjoyed those features, too. But the stories are always deeply detailed explanations of power politics and a good bit of the egocentric competitions that go on between ambitious practitioners in several fields. The “stars” in journalism, detective work, and government politics all want to be winners.

What Coffey does in "Cathedrals of Science" is nothing less than tell the stories of the big stars of physical chemistry over the last century and how they wheedled, needled, lied about and argued with each other to win or withhold Nobel Prizes and fame in general.

So, no, his stories of a dozen famous chemists and one pair of competing Americans don’t include any kinky sex, but the rest is present — the endless grudges, the dirty tricks, the relentless attempts to find another way to solve the puzzle, all of those features of good storytelling are part of the tale.

Along the way, we also learn how chemical discoveries got turned into big money, how breakthroughs in food fertilizer technology got turned into gas warfare, Nazi science and other frightening implications, and how individuals showed bravery, cowardice, small-mindedness and nobility.

Let’s not forget that chemistry is at the heart of the most frightening weaponry of the 20th century.

And this book not only explains just how the chemicals were discovered and developed, but also who was backstabbing whom in the process.

I don’t mean to imply that "Cathedrals of Science" is likely to become a summer blockbuster movie, but it actually might make an interesting little indie film.

Will you understand it all if you have no science background past high school chemistry? I didn’t. But that’s not always a problem, after all.

The author often pauses between equations to give funny stories and family gossip, basically offering the hardworking reader a little relaxation. And he’s not pandering, either. He unquestionably wants to show the reader why all those people were working away at finding new chemical answers.

Coffey presents the complex, interesting, century-long story of modern physical chemistry with a unique combination of pleasure and precision. He clearly likes talking about this stuff and clearly wants to make good sense of the tangled web of personalities, discoveries, university politics, world wars and huge prizes that have transformed the world of the chemist in the past 100 years and more.

So why should you read the book?

Foremost, to make some sense of how modern chemistry became a key feature of our daily life. Second, the author tells a whale of a good story.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies. 

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