Amherst, N. Cathy Cobb's book is not about culture or technology, yet no history can help but be cultural, nor any history of chemistry technological, and Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks is no exception.
From early Arabic methods for determining the composition of alloys to late-twentieth-century dreams of molecular-scale nanomachines, Cobb describes how chemistry and technology have pushed and prodded one another forward. Subtly, by focusing on the history of physical chemistry, Cobb reveals one of the core struggles in the disciplinary history of chemistry; the effort to be seen as "pure science" rather than applied "art," a designation that carries with it the association of technology—be it the triumph of the steam engine or the scourge of chemical toxicity. As many previous histories have demonstrated, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the legitimacy of chemistry as a science was bound up, at least in part, with becoming more like physics—that is, more Newtonian and more mathematical.
To this end, chemists strove for significantly higher levels of theoretical and experimental precision and reproducibility for their science, and thus, by most accounts, the rudiments of physical chemistry were born.
Cobb, in contrast, locates the roots of physical chemistry much further back along the time line of science. Physical chemistry, as its name implies, exists at the boundary of chemistry and physics, and therefore, by Cobb's account, the history of physical chemistry lies within the history of physics, which lies within the history of mathematics.
Those who study physical chemistry know that it is sometimes difficult to locate the point where physics ends and chemistry begins. When is the study of thermodynamics or quantum mechanics chemistry, and when is it physics? It is obvious that Cobb struggled with these questions.
Despite her assertion that when the scientific focus is on molecules and atoms we are in the realm of chemistry, in actuality the structure of her book reveals the splendid porosity of the sciences. Starting with the mathematics of Aristotle, forging onward to Galileo's physics and Lavoisier's chemistry, and ending with Marie Meyer's nuclear science, it oscillates, like physical chemistry itself, between the disciplines.
Cobb relies on chronology and biography to push the narrative forward. Her thesis is premised on telling the story of physical chemistry through "the mavericks who ran outside the herd, the renegades who took the path less traveled, the visionaries who saw connections that others could not" p. She uses an outmoded and academically unfashionable way of writing history to do this, presenting brief biographies of each of her [End Page ] characters followed by summaries of the relevant science; through this formulaic structure she encapsulates the lives and contributions of literally hundreds of scientists, from the obscure Jean Perrin to the sublime Newton.
About halfway through the book this formula grows stale, and it becomes quite a slog to get to the conclusion.
Magick, mayhem, and mavericks : the spirited history of physical chemistry
Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks may not be a book that one wants to read from start to finish, but it is an excellent biographical resource set in a solid framework. Indeed, Cobb's hero-centered history has a number of strengths.
But before chemistry could develop into a fully fledged science, it needed a little help from mathematics and physics. In Magic, Mayhem and Mavericks, Cathy Cobb tells the story of physical chemistry — that area of the field that involves careful measurement and the use of mathematical models — with verve.
Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks: The Spirited History of Physical Chemistry
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