Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein and other great physicists and biologists are household names, but the great chemists have recieved little recognition. Yet it could be argued that chemistry, more than andy other scientific discipline, has made the modern world possible, largely through products that we take for granted.
Well, mostly no. In Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s Prometheans in the Lab we meet some important actors in the story. They’re worth hearing about. Readers already averse to chemistry’s technicalities will find a few chemical structures and equations with which to grapple but these aren’t often an impediment.
The author has assembled a diverse group (if one is permitted to call an all-male group “diverse”) who reveal a spectrum of character to admire or decry. In the final chapter, we find a hero in Clair C. Patterson, whose work led famed novelist Saul Bellow to nominate him for the Nobel Prize. We are brought to appreciate the social contexts in which these men worked. The stories present the complexities of attempting that which benefits us at risk of damaging us too. The author doesn’t much pursue explicitly how to reconcile such diverging effects or how to value one act over another and perhaps it’d be a stronger book had she attended to it more. That could, however, detract from the narratives she chose to tell, narratives which interested and surprised me. These stories make Prometheans in the Lab a fine contribution among books discussing chemistry.