Issue Date: June 2, 2008
The Myriad Images Of Chemistry
Chemists have been worried about their image for a long time. In the words of the American Chemical Society's vision statement, chemists view themselves as "improving peoples' lives through the transforming power of chemistry." But we are distressed and defensive when portrayed as polluters and nerds, or when chemistry is seen as arcane and uninteresting. Chemistry does have a real image problem that is often associated with the failure of the public to distinguish among the chemist, chemical sciences, chemical industry, and chemical pollution. For these reasons, chemists should be interested in a book entitled "The Public Image of Chemistry."
"The Public Image of Chemistry" is edited by Joachim Schummer, a fellow at the Technical University of Darmstadt, in Germany; Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris X; and Brigitte Van Tiggelen, a research associate at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium. The book starts by asserting, "Of all the scientific disciplines, chemistry seems to be the one particularly concerned about its public image."
Furthermore, the book's editors claim that even though chemists are particularly concerned about image, they "have never translated their complaints into serious research programs to understand the public image of chemistry in its cultural and historical contexts." They also say that chemistry has reason for these concerns because in the past it has been associated with alchemy, sorcery, and mad scientists, and in modern times, with chemical warfare and environmental pollution. One chapter author goes so far as to state that popularizing chemistry is a problem because it "now writhes beneath popular dislike to a greater degree than other sciences." Another author traces "chemophobia" as far back as the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where problems were "befouling of air for breathing and water for drinking." These examples illustrate the degree to which this book presents a negative image of chemistry based on historical and literary analyses.
In reading this book, chemists will have to decide whether they are convinced that the current image of chemistry is as negative as suggested and whether it is indeed derived from historical connections to alchemy and literary figures such as Frankenstein and Dr. Faustus. I am doubtful. However, the book points out that chemists' image of themselves and their science is much more favorable than that of the general public's.
The book is divided into three sections: "Popular Images in Fiction and Movies"; "Self-Images in Chemistry Popularizations"; and "Mediated Images," further described as the "self-images chemists use to promote their discipline to the public." The 12 chapters are written by academics who specialize in history, philosophy, literature, journalism, and sociology, and yes, a few are chemists. As the author list suggests, the book is directed at historians of science more than at the working chemist.
In the first chapter, English professor Roslynn Haynes of the University of New South Wales, in Australia, goes back to medieval alchemy as the historical ancestor of chemistry. She suggests such popular characters as Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (and Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus), Honore de Balzac's Claes, and E. T. A. Hoffmann's Dr. Coppelius were portrayed as "dangerous, sinister and possibly mad" alchemists. These images have remained so powerful, she suggests, that they raise the question of whether chemistry today "can ever align itself on the other side in the archetypal saga of good versus evil."
In another chapter of this section, sociologist Peter Weingart of the University of Bielefeld, in Germany, uses a quantitative analysis of some 200 films produced since 1897 to look at the use of alchemical imagery. He finds 12 titles relating to alchemy. Besides films with these titles, he finds chemistry in many other movies and asserts that "most films dealing with chemistry... are meant to frighten their viewers." He pointsout that although films use clichés and stereotypes about science, Hollywood did not invent these images. He joins the other authors in tracing the distorted and negative image of scientists to fictional characters such as Dr. Faustus and Frankenstein.
In the second section, the chapters provide five case studies of how chemists, primarily in the 19th century and earlier, have tried to respond to the (usually negative) public image of chemistry.
History of science professor David Knight of the University of Durham, in England, describes how, in the "golden age" of the 19th century, audiences clamored to both hear and read illustrious scientists such as Sir Humphrey Davy (popular with women) and Michael Faraday (reportedly brilliant with children). How did chemists succeed with audiences then? Knight cites explosions and other spectacular effects as a reason for their popularity???a device still used effectively today by University of Wisconsin professor of chemistry Bassam Shakashiri and others. Addressing what is needed today, Knight says chemistry must be "made exciting and respectable in our culture of suspicion."
Another case study centers specifically on developments in the Netherlands during the 19th century. Ernst Homburg, a professor of the history of science and technology at Maastricht University, reports that a heyday for popular chemistry books for "common people" occurred during 1845–65.
With the beginning of the promotion of chemical industry, popular interest in these books dwindled. One problem was that the chemical industry's image became so strongly intertwined with that of chemists that there was "confusion between the two in the public mind." The result was that "the science of chemistry became particularly vulnerable to criticisms" of the chemical industry. This author draws a clear distinction between chemists as scientists and the chemical industry. In many other analyses of chemistry's image in the book, I found this distinction lacking.
My favorite chapter is a case study that describes the unrealistically positive images of chemistry from the 1935 ACS meeting in New York City. Andrew Ede, an author of books on history of science and technology, explains that an ACS committee headed by honorary chair Francis P. Garvan and Arthur Hixson, a chemist at Columbia University, asked writer A. Cressy Morrison to author a book promoting chemistry. When published in 1937, it was titled "Man in the Chemical World: The Service of Chemical Industry." Morrison's book "attempted to link the image of the chemist to the divine, promote the utility of science and redraw chemistry as an American endeavor," Ede writes. His point is that this ACS-financed attempt to construct a positive image of chemistry was partially successful at best.
The ACS-commissioned book also shows an official poster for the 1935 national meeting. A Native American in a loin cloth and a feathered headband is shown working with a Pilgrim and they are stirring a giant steaming caldron. This image is advertised as celebrating "three centuries of the chemical industry in America." The historical exaggeration, the unlikely scene portrayed, and the image of the Native American all serve to illustrate how much times have changed.
The final case-study chapter discusses at great length the negative historical meaning for the image of a chemist holding up an Erlenmeyer flask and examining its contents. Author and editor Schummer and chemistry professor Tami Spector of the University of San Francisco point out that this image, often used to represent today's chemist, meant something very different in centuries past. These historical images are related to uroscopy, the examination of the patients' urine for color, smell, taste, and so on, which was once a major means of medical diagnosis. The modern image is close enough to the historical one, the authors claim, that it becomes tied to a symbol of "quackery, imposture, and fraud." They conclude that sometimes chemists, "rather than correcting the popular clichés that they frequently complain about, reinforce these clichés in their own self-representation." I found it hard to believe that most people looking at the modern pose would ever connect it to history as the authors claim.
The final section of the book looks at "the self-images chemists use to promote their discipline to the public" and centers on 20th-century developments.
Today's chemists may find the final chapter, "On the Self-image of Chemists, 1950–2000," to be the most interesting historical analysis. Pierre Laszlo, an emeritus chemistry professor from the University of Liege, in Belgium, shows how events in the world at large influenced chemistry: the rise of the research university in the 1950s, the effect of Sputnik in the 1960s, the oil crisis in the 1970s, the "intoxication with growth" (citing the "uncontrolled proliferation of organometallics" in particular) in the 1980s, and the rise of chemical biology in the 1990s. Laszlo concludes that chemists share a strong self-image—that of creative scientists and benefactors of mankind. This he contrasts with their stereotypical public image—those who befoul the environment and manufacture chemical weapons.
I came away from reading this book somewhat overwhelmed by all the historical detail and believing the volume's title, "The Public Image of Chemistry," should instead be "A Myriad of Public Images of Chemistry based on Historical and Literary Research." The editors themselves point out that the chapters reveal a "wide spectrum of public images" from which, they argue, "the full complexity of the dynamics of public images emerges." Then why the title they have chosen?
How could the history that the book documents help chemists improve their image today and in the future? The editors argue that "working on public images requires sensitivity and detailed cultural knowledge, which chemists, eager to improve their image, might not always be aware of." While a general knowledge of history might be helpful, the editors do not suggest definite actions. They are more specific about what does not work—"adopting a defensive attitude" or hiring publicists to invent slogans. For example, after World War I, DuPont adopted "Better things for better living through chemistry" to address its negative image. Instead, according to the editors, the slogan "helped create an image of chemistry as a new life style, where consumption is the indicator of technological progress and civilization," Therefore, it tended "to confirm and even reinforces public prejudices against chemistry."
In summary, the volume may be of more interest to historians of science and chemistry than to most working chemists. Nevertheless, I agree with the editors that chemists can benefit from some knowledge of the many historical forces affecting chemistry's public image, and this volume is a start. If it was easier to "see the forest rather than the trees" when reading this volume, it would be of even greater interest to chemists.
Martha Casey is assistant vice chancellor emerita at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She currently serves on ACS’s Council Policy Committee and the Committee on Budget & Finance.
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