The Who, What, When, Where and Why of Chemistry
Chemistry is not a world unto itself. It is woven firmly into the fabric of the rest of the world, and various fields, from literature to archeology, thread their way through the chemist's text.
"...as a Philosophess she will not be discouraged by one or two Failures" Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to William Brownrigg dated 7 November 1773, where he wonders if Mrs. Brownrigg has succeeded in making Parmesan cheese (which I have to admit, I did not think was a cheese that colonial Americans knew of).
I appreciate Franklin's confidence that a woman could conduct rational experiments, particularly as at this moment I am virtually sitting on top of the site of Franklin's house in Philadelphia — I can see it from my window — working at being a Philosophess myself. I began a two month stay at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia today, as the Herdegen Fellow in the History of Scientific Information. My project is looking at how chemists, now and in the 19th century, deal with critical commentaries on the primary literature. Where are the commentaries located and does location change their tenor and/or content. I'm off to learn a bit about ways to computationally evalauate emotional tone, and to find some compelling narratives of critique in the 19th century and the 21st century.
I briefly wondered in my most recent Nature Chemistry Thesis column about what it meant for me to be working as both a historian of chemistry and a chemist, and how much of one field should we be exposing students of the other field to. Just how much history of chemistry does a chemist need to know to function well as a chemist? And if you do need to know something, what sorts of things? Dates? People? Materials? Methods? You can read my musings at Nature Chem, and those of Qian Wang and Chris Toumey on the same topic here. (Sorry...you or your institution need a subscription to see these, or if you would like a reprint of mine, drop me an email.)