by W H Brock Book
The Fontana History of Chemistry   (2011-03-10)
Review of "The Fontana History of Chemistry". William H. Brock. London, UK: Fontana Press.1992 by W. H. Brock.
The Fontana History of Chemistry is thoroughly recommended by this reviewer, who has greatly enjoyed reading it and who has learned much from the experience. Having said that it is a lengthy book, running to 664 pages after which there are some appendices and a forty page bibliographic essay for the enthusiast, so it is not a book that many people will read at a single sitting.
The first point is that the book attempts to give an overview of chemistry from ancient times to the present, mentioning some events up to 1992. The overall framework of the book is of sixteen chapters each of which examines some particular aspect of chemistry and tells a fairly complete story in itself. Although the chapters are in general chronological, chronology is not an obsession and it is the chapter themes that are more important. The first ten chapters (out of sixteen) deal with themes and ideas, which are found in most histories of chemistry and there is plenty of original new material in these chapters too.
I liked the explanations of the knowledge that chemists of particular eras possessed, as the context of discoveries and ideas seems to me to be the part of history that gets most distorted in, say, the potted histories found at the front of chemistry textbooks. On reading them, one tends to wonder how, for example, people could have believed "the phlogiston theory". The author here takes time to explain the context. Different readers may well feel that their favourite historical chemical character gets short shrift in the text. I checked on a number of chemists from the past whose stories interest me and although there may not be much detail on some of these in the text, I found, via the index which is very well compiled, that they all get a mention, and the bibliographic chapter includes ample references for further study. In fact, the author's real skill is to have summarised so much history of chemistry, so well in the areas that are already well referenced in order to open new fields, where discussion is less often found in standard histories.
Amongst these interesting additional fields, there are chapters or parts of chapters on the teaching of chemistry, on the development of the laboratory, on chemical societies and scientific journalism, on Australian chemistry, environmental chemistry, industrial chemistry, the chemical bond and chapters bringing the history of organic and inorganic chemistry up to recent times. Amongst all this wealth of new material, I particularly enjoyed the section on the teaching of chemistry, with a lot of information about H.E. Armstrong and the very great influence that he has had on our teaching of chemistry today.
The book contains a few black and white illustrations. I did find a number of typographical and other errors, which one hopes will be removed in future editions. There is quite a little quiet humour in the book: in fact I was chuckling away to myself at a physicist's (Lord Rayleigh's) view of matters after he had discovered the element argon and had received constant criticism from chemists (p.336) . He then returned to his beloved physics expostulating that in physics "the second rate men know their place". My laughter in a motel cafe in New Zealand caused the waitress to ask if I was laughing at her. When I explained what I was laughing at, I am far from sure that she believed me. There was a second gently humorous extract referring to the research work of the Australian chemists E. Turner and G. Burrows on the preparation of some arsenic compounds (p.603).
" More amusingly, the successful preparation of the arsenic analogue of indole- logically 'arsole' - did not get past the censorious eye of an editor and had to be renamed arsindole!"
I recommend this history of chemistry to colleagues on grounds of originality, price, scholarship, interest and humour.
Originally published in Issues in Educational Research, Volume 4, No.2, December, p.119-120.
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