Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views. By CARL DJERASSI and DAVID PINNER. Pp. 184. Imperial College Press: London. 2003. £18.00, $24.00 (hbk); £11.00, $15.00 (pbk). ISBN: 1-86094-390-6 (hbk); 1-86094-390-X (pbk).
Newton’s darkness is threefold. In his science, there is an obscure undercurrent of alchemy.In his religion, there is a strand of heretical Arianism. And at the root of his sentiments, there is an area of repressed homosexuality. These darknesses play a role in the plays written by David Pinner and Carl Djerassi on Newton’s fights against Robert Hooke and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Pinner’s dramatic view is called “Newton’s Hooke.” Here, Newton’s darknesses are only hinted at. What kinds of assistant are John Wickins and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier? Arius appears only once, at Trinity College, Cambridge, during the official redefinition of the Lucasian Chair; and Newton’s nocturnal alchemy is symbolised by a crucible covered with a cloth and the Star Regulus of Antimony as a gateway to the true Law of Universal Gravitation. But these alchemical experiments and theories should be left in the dark because, as Newton whispers, “the Art is not to be shouted abroad.”
Djerassi’s view is called “Newton’s Whores.” This is a play about a play within a play, and it is as intricate as a novel by John Barth. Here, Newton’s darkness is represented by his absence from the play, the fight against Leibniz and his infinitesimal calculus being waged by three of Newton’s minions on the secret Committee of Gentlemen of Several Nations. But the play is also about how to write a play on Newton’s dark method of minions. And, finally, it is also a guess as to how Djerassi’s playwrights found out the truth about Newton’s darkness.
Mutual Favours: The Social and Scientific Practice of Eighteenth-century Swedish Chemistry. By HJALMAR FORS. Pp. 225, illus., index. Uppsala Universitet: Uppsala. 2003. ISBN: 91-506-1669-2.
Hjalmar Fors’s dissertation is a sociological microstudy of how the discipline of chemistry was fashioned in Sweden in the eighteenth century. The chemists’ struggle to obtain public recognition and to establish social and intellectual spaces for chemistry is seen as an enlightenment enterprise, during which chemistry was to be transformed from “hidden, obscure and secret knowledge into rational, transparent and intellectual knowledge that contributed to the public good and could be pursued by members of society’s elite” (199). The applied historiographic framework thus rests significantly on Jan Golinski’s terminology. Besides Golinski, Martin Rudwick’s monograph The Great Devonian Controversy is mentioned as a source of inspiration.
The creation of social spaces for chemistry is explored within the matrix of the “ideal of reciprocity.” On the one hand, the chemists operated within the norms of the republic of letters, and on the other, the involved persons all participated in and were subordinated to the norms of patron–client relationships. The central figure, Torbern Bergman, obtained the chair in chemistry at Uppsala University with aid of his patrons, while he himself became patron of more marginalised chemists such as Carl Wilhelm Scheele. To a large extent, the developing chemical network drew on the strong tradition of mineralogy, but it sought at the same time to redefine the craftsman’s knowledge so that academic chemistry — as performed by Bergman — could become acknowledged as “the highest form of chemical knowledge” (204).
The analyses in the dissertation are primarily based on thorough readings of the surviving correspondence between the chemists involved. The letters are, however, properly supplemented with other, mainly published, sources. One of the most striking results of the research is Fors’s re-evaluation of the previous images of Scheele and of Johan Gottschalk Wallerius, the first professor of chemistry in Sweden. In the last chapter of the dissertation, Foss demonstrates how prior chemists and historians have modelled a certain conception of Scheele’s career in order to make it fit the ideal of eighteenth-century Swedish chemistry.
A weakness of this otherwise very readable dissertation is its strict focus on Sweden. Although Bergman’s chemistry was strongly influenced by the developments in chemistry in Britain and France, and even though Bergman (and other Swedish chemists?) participated in the international republic of letters, the relationships between Swedish and international chemistry and chemists remain unanalysed. Consequently, the Swedish scene seems to flow rather unattached to the rest of Europe — which is clearly not what Fors intended, as his introductory statement that “Swedish science . . . was integrated in a wider European context” (7) is used to argue for the application of Rudwick’s and Golinski’s analytical frameworks to the Swedish scene. Hopefully, Fors will address this point in further studies.
The study will undoubtedly appeal to scholars of eighteenth-century chemistry and science in general. Fors has succeeded in convincingly linking the strengths of his analytical framework with the source material. The book could well be used to draw comparisons with other national contexts.
Universitetet i København
ANITA KILDEBÆK NIELSEN
From Elements to Atoms: A History of Chemical Composition. By ROBERT SIEGFRIED. Pp. x + 278, index. American Philosophical Society: Philadelphia. 2002. $24.00. ISBN: 0-87169-924-9.
From Elements to Atoms presents a position in the history of chemistry that has had the luxury of maturing for more than thirty years. The 1968 publication of Siegfried and Dobbs on the theme of chemical composition as the key to the chemical revolution has long since become a classic contribution to the debate over the nature of this event (“Composition: a neglected aspect of the chemical revolution,” Annals of Science 24 : 275–93). The intervening decades have not shaken Siegfried’s conviction — and he is doubtless correct — that the theorising of chemical composition constitutes an essential contribution to the foundation of modern chemistry. Nevertheless, one of the questions that exercise historians so much is whether the history of science should limit itself to the genealogy of essential contributions to modern science. Having raised this question, I have to add that Siegfried does not limit himself to such an exercise, and for me this is the real strength of this book; that and its readability.
Siegfried offers an unapologetic history of ideas, but one that has the merit of questioning a number of classic tropes in the history of chemistry, particularly eighteenth-century chemistry. He explicitly acknowledges that the field of the history of science has changed over the last three decades, and in the area in question, the emphasis has increasingly been placed on understanding chemistry in its contextual richness and diversity, rather than searching for progressive revolutionaries and unearthing any neglected precursors. He is again no doubt correct when he argues that the history of ideas needs to remain part of the history, but the larger question remains — what history of the chemical revolution? Thus, although a valuable contribution to the history of chemistry, this book fails to address adequately the underlying historiographic questions that it raises.
The first two-thirds of the book are the most convincing and inspired, with the subsequent examination of the early nineteenth-century aftermath being more predictable and less illuminating. The problem with this second part is that the book becomes rather precipitately teleological. As soon as Lavoisier and Dalton come into view, the narrative becomes a race to get the pieces of the modern atomic view of composition in place. At this point, any opposition is put down to a series of practical obstacles that needed to be cleared away. By contrast, Siegfried’s reading of eighteenth-century chemistry is considerably more sensitive than classic intellectual histories of this period, which tend to see it as a confused pre-history of chemistry or simply as the age of the “phlogiston theory” (or a combination of the two). By attacking the idea that pre-Lavoisian chemistry was organised around this theory, Siegfried effectively poses the question of whether chemists needed an overarching theoretical structure to generate clarity in the science and to acquire a broad functional knowledge of the chemical world. He concludes, first, that there was no “phlogiston theory” as such, and second, that the location of combustion at the heart of eighteenth-century chemistry was a post-revolutionary construction to further emphasise Lavoisier’s contribution, and does not reflect the contemporary chemists’ own view of their subject.
Leaving the world of high theory to one side, Siegfried joins other historians in pointing out the enormous advances that were made, starting in the seventeenth century, in terms of a practical command of chemical reactions that operated with an implicit empirical understanding of “pure” compounds with determinate, relatively simple compositions. This is particularly clear in the case of simple salts, as is illustrated by the practical data summarised in the famous table of rapports published by Geoffroy in 1718, which has been of so much interest to recent historians, such as Ursula Klein.
Overall, Siegfried’s book is very clear and very readable, and is a most accessible introduction to eighteenth-century chemistry.
Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg
Literature and Science, 1660–1834. Edited by JUDITH HAWLEY, DAVID CLIFFORD (Vol. V) ROB ILIFFE (Vols. VI & VII) and BRIAN DOLAN (Vol. VIII). Four vols., pp.xxxi + 509 (Vol. V), xix + 427 (Vol. VI), xxiii + 430 (Vol. VII), xxi + 472 (Vol. VIII), illus. Pickering
and Chatto: London. 2004. £350.00; $525.00. ISBN 1-85196-740-0.
Four volumes of this set came out last year (see Ambix 51, no. 1 : 81), and these complete it. The editors have been given a fairly free hand in their choice of the substantial extracts, which are reprinted in facsimile (of moderate readability). Volume V deals
with fauna, contains some translations, and excerpts standard works of natural history, taxonomy, anthropology, and evolution. Volume VI, on astronomy, tells the Newtonian story but is particularly focused on astro-theology and plurality of worlds; and thus introduces scientific controversy, and works directed at women and children. The selection is therefore more quirky, and everyone will meet unfamiliar material. Apart from Huygens, the authors are British. Natural philosophy (all British) is the subject of the seventh volume; again, we have neglected texts, scientific heretics such as John Hutchinson, and controversy. William Paley is here, although, curiously, mostly on animals and their adaptation; but Hooke, Desaguliers, Franklin, and Cavendish are not. Again, it is a stimulating and idiosyncratic selection, not obviously based on contemporary or current reputation, scientific importance, or literary merit, but illuminating in its revealing of different levels and audiences.
Volume VIII is similarly offbeat: we do not find Boyle, Priestley, Watson, Faraday, or any French, Swedish, or German chemists. The focus is on useful chemistry, at first medical, with controversy over Paracelsian remedies and the frauds of apothecaries, and John
Arbuthnot on air, in the Hippocratic tradition. Henry Brooke’s poem on Beauty brings in mineralogy; and Hales on air leads to gases, with Tiberius Cavallo on ballooning (sometimes beneath inflammable air). We find Thomas Beddoes and Erasmus Darwin treating
consumption with factitious airs; and the Anti-Jacobin mocking their efforts, literary pretensions, and the gluttony and fatness of Beddoes, a windy writer about healthy lifestyles. The odium of discovering laughing gas falls there upon Beddoes; but we next encounter Davy, upwardly mobile, in his inaugural Royal Institution lecture, envisioning a bright day of plenty through chemistry. Extracts from Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, on “attraction” and on gases, follow; with the hack-writer Jeremiah Joyce’s Dialogues for comparison. Then we have Daniel Clarke on the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe and its value in analysis (much better than the galvanic battery); extracts from The Chemist, radical and proletarian; and finally passages from Davy’s Consolations on what it means to be a chemical philosopher. The extracts are substantial — more than sixty pages of Jane Marcet — and the themes diverse. This is a view of the history of chemistry in its palmy days that will make readers think about what is important and characteristic; and many of the originals are hard to find. The series will be useful and stimulating to students, not only where there are not libraries well stocked with books and journals from the long eighteenth century.
University of Durham
Alchemist of the Avant-Garde: The Case of Marcel Duchamp. By JOHN F. MOFFITT. Pp. xiii + 468, illus., index. State University of New York Press: Albany. 2003. $86.50 (hbk); $29.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-7914-5709-5 (hbk); 0-7914-5710-9 (pbk).
“Si j’ai fait de l’alchimie, c’est de la seule façon qui soit de nos jours admissible, c’est-à-dire sans le savoir” (Duchamp, 1959). Since his death in 1968, Marcel Duchamp, acknowledged as Artist of the Century, has come to be considered a forerunner of practically every
postmodern artistic tendency. With postmodernism reaching its fin-de-siècle, John F. Moffit, professor emeritus of art history, has written this monograph in an attempt to detect the spring of Duchamp’s inspiration and perceive his contribution to our postmodern condition, with alchemical practice as the interpretative master key. The author, labelling himself historian–detective (91), endeavours to establish his thesis in the form of a legal procedure, although his evidence is merely circumstantial, since Duchamp himself constantly denied any conscious alchemical connection. The book’s chapters are systematically narrowingdown circles, beginning with the rise of esoterism in Symbolist art, and continuing with Modernist assimilation of alchemical iconography, and the intellectual formation of Duchamp himself around 1912, the period of his presumed switch to esoteric subject matter. There then follows an attempt to set up some material evidence by aligning alchemical characteristics with elements of Duchamp’s work by visual and textual analysis of his biggest construction, “The Large Glass” (1923), and his later ready-mades.
The author moulds all contingent information into the alchemical paradigm, creating an impression of a “missionary” effort, using forcefully bent, tendentiously selective data,
such as speculations about books that Duchamp might have read, figures that could have influenced him, and his personal traits of non-materialism, elitism, and aspiration towards clearer consciousness, as “evidence” for his alchemism.
Nevertheless, even if one is not convinced, the journey could be worthwhile for any art enthusiast, since this extensive and profound research is highly informative, thoughtprovoking, and horizon-broadening. However, the overwhelming flow of esoteric ideas and (pseudo) scientific terminology is likely to prove challenging for any “uninitiated” reader. Another shortcoming is the presentation of exemplary images in black and white, as colour and contents in alchemical iconography are inseparable.
Knowledge and Competitive Advantage: The Coevolution of Firms, Technology, and National Institutions. By JOHANN PETER MURMANN. Pp. xxi + 294, index. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2003. £45.00; $60.00. ISBN: 0-521-81329-8.
It is always a welcome sign when some aspect of the history of chemistry is placed within a new context and made relevant to new audiences. This is what Johann Peter Murmann has achieved with considerable success in this book, which reworks the story of the synthetic dye industry in England, Germany, and the USA during 1856–1914. Knowledge and Competitive Advantage is undoubtedly the result of a tremendous amount of hard work and careful analysis. The intended readers are mainly those interested in the modern business world, namely, “management scholars and organization theorists, business and economic historians, and evolutionary economists.” The emphasis is on the different levels of interaction between firms, technology, and national institutions that brought about both success (in Germany) and failure (in the UK, after a good start, and in the USA).
Historians of chemistry and technology will find much of interest in the recasting. The account of the emergence of the synthetic dye industry is excellent, with useful detail, including a good appendix dealing with the relevant dye chemistry. The importance of industrial research laboratories, industrial–academic collaboration, strategies for protection of patents, and marketing, is recognised throughout. The author’s aim is to place the dye industry into a far wider framework of success and failure in technological innovation through processes of coevolution. The theoretical discussion, and extrapolation from the dye industry, benefits with inputs from evolutionary theory, sociology of technology, including social construction, and organisation theory, all leading up to what Murmann describes as his coevolutionary theory. For historians of chemistry, perhaps the most novel, and certainly most valuable, contribution, based on close collaboration with Ernst Homburg (Maastricht), is a computer database of synthetic dye firms that existed during the period under study. This compilation is described in a second appendix; the long-term intention is to make it available over the Internet.
While the extensive bibliography includes many very recent publications, this is not the case for the synthetic dye industry. This is a great pity, since more complete information that would have been important to the author’s discussion is now available on the Congo Red patent litigation at the end of the 1880s, particularly the role of Heinrich Caro as a supposed impartial expert witness (156–158). This also explains the background to a major strategic alliance that BASF hoped to forge with Ivan Levinstein in Manchester, as well as the reasons for the latter’s subsequent close involvement with AGFA and Baeyer (159–160). More could have been said about technology transfer (mainly UK to Germany), the parts played by UK patent lawyers who represented German interests, and the markets for dyes. (See, for instance, C. Reinhardt and A. S. Travis, Heinrich Caro and the Creation of Modern Chemical Industry [Dordrecht, 2000]). Finally, although the author does not ignore the important role of Kekulé’s benzene ring theory, mainly with respect to the development of azo dyes from the mid-1870s, he fails to link it to the considerably earlier development of a route to synthetic alizarin developed by Graebe and Liebermann, and the subsequent collaboration in structural elucidation carried out by Baeyer and Caro (1874). This I consider to be a major omission of one of the principal factors responsible for the success of the German synthetic dye industry, since it included not only the contributions of chemical structural formulae, but also the first major stimulus for academic–industrial collaboration. And surely Kekulé is of sufficient importance to deserve a place in the index.
These points should not, however, detract from what is first and foremost a business history that demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic perspective when studying such an important subject. In that, Murmann has certainly succeeded.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
ANTHONY S. TRAVIS
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. By BRENDA MADDOX. Pp. xix + 380, illus., index. HarperCollins: London. 2002. £20.00 (hbk). ISBN: 0-00-257149-8.
In the commemorative events in 2003 to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, note was often made of the absence of one of the story’s key characters, the so-called “dark lady of DNA,” Rosalind Franklin. An earlier biography by Anne Sayre served primarily as an antidote to her infamous appearance as “Rosy” in James Watson’s popular book, The Path to the Double Helix. In this popular book, British biographer Brenda Maddox provides a readable and considerably richer account of Franklin’s life and
work as it contributed to the establishment of the structure of DNA, and also to several other scientific fields, before her premature death in 1958, at the age of thirty-seven.
The strongest section of the book is on Franklin’s early life, where Maddox shows how her upbringing influenced her decision to study science and shaped her personality. Franklin came from a privileged Anglo-Jewish family, part of an elite network in British society. From her childhood, Franklin was noticed by relatives to be “alarmingly clever,” enjoying arithmetic for pleasure and always getting the sums correct (15). She was raised in an environment of nannies, educationally competitive boarding schools, weekends in the country, and foreign travel, as well as a commitment to social causes and observant (although not strictly orthodox) Judaism. Maddox persuasively argues that Franklin’s relatively novel position, as an English “gentlewoman” and a Jew, shaped her life choices and views, and particularly her discomfort with England as compared to the continent.
From an early age, Franklin chose to study science, primarily chemistry and physics. She pursued her studies at Cambridge, where she discovered crystallography. Having achieved a strong second at university, she was given a scholarship to stay on at Cambridge, where her early laboratory experiences were marred by poor choice of problems by supervisors. Only when she began to work at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, after deciding against advice to allow herself to be “de-reserved” along with other women researchers, did she begin to do highly original research, completing a Ph.D. thesis in 1945 on the porosity of coal and carbon — or, as she disparagingly described it, the study of holes in coal. She moved to Paris to join a governmental laboratory focused on postwar industrial applications, a perfect job for a Francophile who wished to learn more about X-ray diffraction and crystallography, and spoke fluent French. Unfortunately for historians primarily interested in science, Maddox’s account of Franklin’s research work is intertwined with comments on her personal life — including extensive discussions of her relationship with her mentor, Jacques Mering — and provides only occasional glimpses of Franklin’s scientific accomplishments during this time, although her work on carbon came to be internationally recognised, especially because of its industrial applications.
In 1950, she took a fellowship at King’s College under J. T. Randall, originally awarded for the study of proteins in solution and changes in structure due to denaturing, although she agonised over the decision to return to England, delaying her fellowship for a year.
When she went to King’s in 1951, Randall reassigned her to work on the fibres of DNA, a fateful decision indeed. The story that follows of her often unhappy experiences at King’s conflicts with those by Maurice Wilkins and others, and the detailed crystallographic work on DNA is very familiar to historians of science. Maddox’s account adds surprisingly little, although it provides some context and insight into Franklin’s interactions with the major figures in the DNA story. The third part of the book traces Franklin’s life after her move to Birkbeck College in 1953 to work with J. D. Bernal on problems of virus structure, particularly tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), arranged before the climax of the DNA debates. She continued to travel around the world giving talks, and her supportive professional and personal interactions with Watson and Francis Crick, along with many other prestigious scientists, allow us a glimpse into her elite scientific circles. Her work with Aaron Klug from 1954 onwards on TMV, and later with Don Caspar, recommended to her by Watson, was among her best; although it put her in direct conflict with the virologist Norman Pirie, it fostered further collegial interchanges with Watson and collaborations with Barry Commoner, among others. These are important additions to Franklin’s story, particularly since
she has become a sort of feminist icon of the woman consistently “done wrong” by male scientists.
The closing section of the book describes her brief and sad battle with cancer, and her attempts to keep working despite her illness. Maddox’s biography constructs a complex image of a scientist who was a woman among many other things. Although at times she
attempts to answer the question of what credit is due to Franklin with regard to DNA (the focus of the book’s epilogue), the biography is at its best when it examines Franklin’s life in all of its complexity, scientific, social, and otherwise. As the physicist J. D. Bernal wrote in a long obituary in The Times, Franklin and her work were distinguished by clarity and perfection; her X-ray crystallographs were among the most beautiful ever taken. Maddox’s account forces us to shift our focus to these considerable achievements, which
should overshadow any remaining visions of Rosy, the obstructionist dark lady of DNA.
University of Sydney
RACHEL A. ANKENY
The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. By MAURICE WILKINS. Pp. xiv + 274, illus., index. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York. 2003. £16.99; $27.50 (hbk). ISBN: 0-19-860665-6.
The publishers prevailed upon Maurice Wilkins (1916–2004) for the title of this book. Like quite a few British scientists of the first rank, he came from a non-conformist family. He enjoyed an idyllic childhood in New Zealand. His family’s return to the British Isles, and
a life-threatening illness that crippled a sister, Eithne, who he was very close to, were a downturn. A bit of an introvert, the boy Maurice took pleasure in finessing telescopes and other scientific instruments in his workshop. As is well known, there is a strong playful
component in the make-up of a scientist. After studying at the Cavendish in Cambridge, Wilkins became a physicist. He was set to work on thermoluminescence. Such entrapping of electrons by crystalline irregularities, and the subsequent light emission upon release
through heating, enthralled him. It led to his career-long association with John Randall, first in Birmingham, and then at King’s College in London.
On the plus side, Randall was a superb entrepreneurial scientist, raising money for ambitious projects, building laboratories and assembling their staffs, and running research. Thus, he carved a handsome niche within biophysics and the budding molecular biology. On
the minus side, he was deeply ambivalent about his role. He coveted combining hands-on experimental science and laboratory administration. The attendant deviousness on his part, a divide-and-conquer attitude, led to Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins becoming
estranged from one another, in spite of being coworkers on the DNA structural problem.
Physicists had already become interested in molecular biology in the 1930s, Niels Bohr, in particular, playing a pioneering role in DNA research. Elucidating the structure of DNA was the very difficult problem that Wilkins tackled almost as soon as he joined Randall’s team. How do you get a small group of smart people to work together and keep collaborating? Egos get in the way — Wilkins hints that this was a major determinant of Franklin’s attitude. Competition can breed emulation, but it can also become destructive. Wilkins
repeatedly expresses his longing for congenial, cooperative, and productive teamwork.
He brought to it some clumsiness in interpersonal relationships, in particular with women. He underwent psychoanalysis for much of his adult life, with daily sessions for quite a while. Reading between the lines, I think that the illness-caused alienation from Eithne
crippled his interactions with other women. Such intimate knowledge is made available by Wilkins’s candour. His testimony strikes one as utterly reliable.
What, then, is there in this memoir for the historian? Definitely not the expected firsthand account of the discovery of the double helix. True, this book corrects some of the misconceptions and downright mistakes. We learn, for instance, that Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation contains errors, which is no big surprise. Wilkins’s narrative, coming as it does after many others, shows the DNA story as an all-too-familiar episode, a Rashomon tale. The protagonists and the witnesses each recall a different version. Wilkins’s version shines, not only with truth, but also with his admiration for Watson and Crick’s feat in unravelling the DNA structure.
But there is an Ariadne’s thread for reaping the rich meaning of this volume. This is the author’s creed in science as a craft (96): “that down-to-earth idea of craft expresses the need of the scientist to understand and respect the material on which he or she works (and that idea has more meaning in it than loads of philosophy of science).” Examples given are: the device for drawing a fibre of DNA from a gel (Fig. 31); new kinds of microscopes for studying living cells (115–16, 128–29); and model building, pioneered by Pauling as a bottom-to-top tool for structural analysis (231), which Franklin discarded out-of-hand. My favourite is the description of Ernest Lawrence’s experimental prowess (82):
My research job was to continue looking for a way of vaporizing uranium metal. The vacuum pump I was given was more than 10 times the size of the one I had used in England (things were big in Berkeley). Even so, I did not seem to be making much progress. Then, one day, Lawrence, the head of the lab, suggested I should try sputtering uranium instead of heating it. That meant having an electric discharge between two pieces of uranium. I tried this, but I had no experience of making electric discharges. Then Lawrence took over the controls, and turned them like a racing car driver. Soon he got a very big discharge, and a lot of uranium evaporated.
To sum up, Maurice Wilkins’s tale does not add much to the DNA double helix story, but it is a highly readable, honest and candid, and valuable book about the craft of molecular biology at the inception.
The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor. By KEN SILVERSTEIN. Pp. xiv + 209. Fourth Estate: London. 2004. £12.00 (pbk). ISBN 1-84115-229-3 (pbk).
Two common assumptions made by historians of science are undermined by this book. We usually assume that modern laboratory science is only carried out by professional scientists in well-equipped buildings lavishly funded by governments, foundations, and corporations. We also assume that the popularisation of science is an essentially passive process. At best, the public use the popular presentation of science to better understand what scientists do, make their minds up about specific issues, and, in the case of young people, perhaps as inspiration to train as professional scientists, in order to do the type of science that is carried out in well-equipped buildings, etc. In particular, the information put out by the nuclear power lobby is often considered to be largely ineffective in terms of changing public perception. Usually, these assumptions are valid, but in one bizarre case, they were turned on their head. This is a journalistic account of how one American teenager, David Hahn, became obsessed with nuclear power and tried — with remarkable success — to build his own reactor. In the end, he failed, partly because the task was beyond the means available to him, but mainly because a routine inspection of his car by policemen looking for a tyre thief brought his nuclear activities to the belated notice of the very startled and increasingly alarmed authorities.
The story can be read on two levels. It is partly about the popularisation of science, especially for youngsters, and the efforts of the nuclear power industry to win over young people. Hahn became an enthusiastic reader of old-fashioned popular science books —
especially Robert Brent, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (New York, 1960) — and the publicity material produced by the nuclear power lobby. The can-do, even gung-ho, attitude of these science books (cf. Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten) persuaded him that he really could do anything scientific that he wanted. After becoming bored with the usual “garden shed” experiments, Hahn decided to make his name by becoming the first teenager to build a nuclear reactor. By various clever and often devious means, he rapidly obtained both the materials and information he needed. His father’s attempt to divert him away from his experiments by getting him to join the Scouts backfired when he took the Scouts’ nuclear power badge — another attempt by the nuclear power lobby to influence young people; hence the book’s title.
On another level, it can be read as a story about the problems of young people in modern America. Hahn came from a broken family, and his mother had become an alcoholic. This background promoted escapism and left him almost completely unsupervised by adults. By chance and by inclination, Hahn was wedded to the obsessive pursuit of nuclear power, and effectively retreated from the problems of modern life back to the technological optimism of the 1950s. There is one question that hangs over this narrative and that is only partly answered by Silverstein: why did Hahn take a secretive, deviant route to science, and not the more socially acceptable (and useful) route of developing his scientific interests within the normal educational framework? Clearly, he had psychological problems. He was also not academically gifted, and hence not good at science in the conventional sense of passing school examinations. Above all, however, he wanted complete control over, and all the credit for, what he did. He wanted to do something extraordinary and on his own terms.
Silverstein writes well and with considerable wit, mixing the gasps of horror and laughs together. He tries very hard not to make fun of someone with psychological problems and about something so serious, although he does not entirely succeed in this laudable aim.
Silverstein is a journalist, and he is not generally aware of the scholarly literature on the history of nuclear power, beyond Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986). Nonetheless, there appear to be surprisingly few technical errors. Although this is not a
serious monograph on the popularisation of science or the activities of the nuclear power lobby, it does provide insights into the popular reception of science and how the amateur nature of science lived on in a deviant form in a wooden shed in Michigan in the mid-1990s. In that regard, it represents an important contribution to the history of science.
Science Museum, London