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Examining Icons of Chemistry

Author takes a warts-and-all approach to the people who built 20th-century chemistry

by Sam Kean
October 6, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 40

Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry,
by Patrick Coffey, Oxford University Press, 2008, 400 pages, $29.95 (ISBN: 978–0-19–532134–0)
by Patrick Coffey, Oxford University Press, 2008, 400 pages, $29.95 (ISBN: 978–0-19–532134–0)

One hundred years ago, two unknown chemists, Gilbert N. Lewis and Irving Langmuir, met at an American Chemical Society meeting in New Haven, Conn. Both young, both trapped at academic posts with small-minded supervisors, they took a shine to each other, and as Patrick Coffey explains in “Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry,” the two greatest American chemists of the early-20th century decided to stay in touch.

Forty years later, both Lewis and Langmuir had made seminal discoveries and were equals, scientifically. However, their personal lives, Coffey shows, had diverged. Langmuir would soon appear on the cover of Time, and he made millions of dollars for the company that nurtured his career, General Electric. He won a Nobel Prize for surface chemistry and hobnobbed with the likes of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Lewis, despite building the University of California, Berkeley, chemistry department into the best in the world, had become a bitter hermit. Lacking a Nobel Prize, Lewis resigned (or was forced to resign) from prestigious posts, and people whispered about his mental health. Coffey relates how, one afternoon in 1946, panicked graduate students discovered Lewis prone in a laboratory that smelled like almonds–a sign of cyanide gas. They dragged him out by the foot, but he was already dead.

How Lewis and Langmuir arrived at their fates—and whether they deserved them—is the subject of “Cathedrals of Science.” Coffey also examines the lives of Linus C. Pauling, Svante A. Arrhenius, Walther H. Nernst, Fritz Haber, and Glenn T. Seaborg. It’s a nice compendium of biographies, but the book reaches beyond mere biography to explore the ugly terrain of scientific ambition, especially issues of priority. Unlike in poetry or painting, elegance cannot win immortality in science. You have to discover something first, and the sometimes twisted way that scientists win priority—or assign it, post hoc, through prizes—dominates the book.

This subject matter explains Coffey’s choice of characters. They are, as the title attests (in a quote from Lewis), “cathedrals” worthy of veneration. But the cathedrals’ pillars have cracks, Coffey says, and the marble facades have flaws. The book isn’t tawdry. For one thing, Coffey patiently explains all the chemistry involved, even obsolete or superseded ideas like “cubic atoms.” But Coffey also misses few chances to dig up personal insults. Arrehnius was “lazy and clumsy” and “corpulent,” said a former supervisor in a letter Coffey cites. Haber was “quick, risk-taking, unfocused, and a bit of a loudmouth,” a historian is quoted as saying. Langmuir did not always share credit fairly for discoveries in his lab, according to an assistant that Coffey cites. Novelty stores sometimes sell coffee mugs adorned with clever Shakespearean insults, and you could cull a fair imitation of one from the epithets scattered throughout “Cathedrals of Science.” Compared with a cheery but emotionally superficial biography like Seaborg’s “Adventures in the Atomic Age,” this book cackles and crackles.

Credit: UC Berkeley
Credit: UC Berkeley

In fact, Seaborg is a good example of someone who gains depth in Coffey’s work. Seaborg led a team during the Manhattan Project that purified plutonium, and he kept a famously meticulous diary while doing so. But when the Fat Man bomb vaporized tens of thousands of people at Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, Coffey notes, Seaborg recorded the explosion in a few lines, almost as an aside, then spent four times as many words detailing his hopes for a big raise at a new university after the war. A reflective J. Robert Oppenheimer, he was not. Coffey also presents evidence that Seaborg, a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley and later the chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, fought for patent rights on nuclear power to make a financial killing from the government after the war. This grubbiness doesn’t impugn Seaborg’s scientific and public service work, but it gives the tall, avuncular chemist a third, uneasy dimension.

Credit: UC Berkeley
Credit: UC Berkeley

Other characters also appear in the book as two-faced holograms, depending on the chapter. Nernst, a chemistry professor at the Institute of Physical Chemistry & Electrochemistry in Göttingen, Germany, comes off as the pettiest lab supervisor imaginable, uninterested in anything but quickly publishable data and hostile to free-roaming curiosity. A few chapters later, an elderly Nernst—almost alone among his countrymen—practically spits at Adolph Hitler for driving Jewish scientists out of Germany. Arrhenius comes off as a model of pluck at first, taking a “D–” Ph.D. thesis and transforming it into a Nobel Prize. His legacy secure, Arrhenius, as chair of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry, in Stockholm, then spent his life blocking the prize nominations of rivals like Nernst, who in turn blocked Lewis. These are complex, contradictory men whom Coffey portrays as having Macbeth-like ambitions. What’s more, their lives all spill over into each other’s. Lewis and Langmuir loathed Nernst, who served as a postdoc adviser for both. Langmuir got over it; Lewis, characteristically, Coffey says, could not. Pauling applied to UC Berkeley’s graduate school under Lewis, but the school lost his application. Seaborg got in. And every character seems to have studied in Germany, the center of the chemistry universe before Hitler’s purge.

Apart from the interesting lineages, the main story line of the book follows Langmuir and Lewis, for a few reasons. First, Coffey writes for a U.S. audience, and the peccadilloes of the other main American in the book, Pauling, are better known, especially his obsession with “megadoses” of vitamin C, which helped spawn the dietary supplement fads of today. What’s more, when Pauling, a longtime professor at California Institute of Technology, gets vindictive in “Cathedrals of Science,” he seems justified. In the 1950s, Pauling won a race with Dorothy M. Wrinch, a mathematician, to determine the structure of proteins. Wrinch derived an elegant but empty theory of “cyclols,” and Pauling annihilated her arguments with his deep knowledge of chemical bonds. It’s hard to root against a brave woman scientist like Wrinch, but her self-promotion and refusal to admit errors drove many supporters to abandon her. Even when Pauling was petty toward Wrinch—writing letters to argue against her receiving a grant, for instance—the book makes him seem spot on about her flawed chemistry and personality.

Second, Langmuir and Lewis emerge as the main characters for the prosaic reason that Coffey did most of his original research about them. Given that other historians haven’t analyzed his revelations yet, it’s difficult to gauge how they will receive this book, especially since Coffey is an outsider making big claims. (He spent 30 years in industry, and only later studied science history at UC Berkeley.) But, perhaps anticipating criticism, Coffey justifies every swipe he takes, by including 800 footnotes in the book. Many footnotes rely on secondary documents such as translations of German texts, and sometimes Coffey only makes explicit the flaws that other writers gestured at; for example, Lewis’ petulance. But Coffey also conducted dozens of interviews with still-living graduate students and relatives of Langmuir and Lewis.

Not that the book is clotted with documentation. Coffey has the proverbial good eye for anecdotes, which enlivens what could have been a dreary list of scholarly accusations. The spirited Nernst, for instance, rich and an avid gambler and drinker, gave his daughter “intensive coaching” in baccarat when she was eight.

Coffey can also paint full character portraits. Langmuir, both a theoretical and technical whiz, takes time to answer letters to precocious children. Coffey also emphasizes Langmuir’s reputation as an intoxicating speaker, a talent that proved negative in some cases and beneficial in others. On one hand, eloquence allowed Langmuir to be a grand ambassador for science. But when Langmuir threw his professional weight behind Wrinch’s misguided protein work, or grew obsessed with the dubious practice of seeding clouds with silver iodide to induce rain, his silver tongue allowed him to escape condemnation, Coffey argues.

Then there’s Lewis, the book’s tragic hero. Coffey sketches out a man dictatorial about how he wanted UC Berkeley to run research labs and teach classes, but who inspired cultish loyalty in underlings: The department’s janitor refused to clean anyone else’s office.

What’s more, Coffey does an excellent job with vexing historical questions about Lewis, such as, “Should he have won the Nobel Prize?” Coffey says yes, although he says being denied one makes sense. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Nobel Committee tended to reward specific findings, like Nernst’s third law of thermodynamics. Lewis, a scientific vagabond, dabbled in acids and bases, deuterium, photochemistry, and so on, and never settled on a field. In retrospect, his work revolves around how electron pairs work, but that was difficult to see at the time. Moreover, while Lewis’ science won him many nominations, his petulance and ambition won him few votes. “If there was a manual on how not to win a Nobel Prize,” Coffey suggests, “Lewis could have written it.”

More uncomfortable is the question of whether Lewis killed himself with cyanide. Circumstantial evidence suggests he did—especially after Coffey reveals that Lewis and Langmuir probably had lunch on the day of Lewis’ death. Was the sight of his popular colleague enough to throw Lewis into a dark fit? If not, why did the people who arranged the lunch, including Langmuir, seem to cover it up and never mention it again? However, for once, Coffey pulls back from the more provocative conclusion and argues that Lewis died of a heart attack and, moments later, merely dropped the cyanide, which he worked with in his lab. Coffey notes that the chemistry graduate students who pulled Lewis out probably would have noticed signs of cyanide poisoning, like blue lips, but they reported nothing. Plus, Lewis smoked dozens of cigars daily and was famously indifferent to exercise. “Perhaps he was depressed and was upset by his meeting with Langmuir,” Coffey writes, “but people who are depressed have heart attacks, too.”

Overall, this book will sink or float on the basis of two criteria. First, is it well documented? Yes. Second, are the conclusions it draws accurate? That depends. Facts are facts, but in a book about personalities, accuracy comes down to interpretation. So while the book stands up as scholarship, the onus now rests on other historians or those who knew the characters involved to dispute Coffey’s interpretations. More than anything, Coffey shows that these great chemists were just people. But if Coffey sometimes magnifies the flaws of these cathedrals of science, he also makes sure to step back and point to the rafters and to explain why their magnificent lives are worthy of contemplation.

Sam Kean is an associate editor at Search: A magazine of science, religion, and culture. He has a book forthcoming on the hidden stories of the periodic table.


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