Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review: "Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science"

Ursula Klein and Wolfgang Lefèvre's Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science: A Historical Ontology (MIT Press, 2007) is an in-depth history of how chemists understood, identified, classified and studied materials objects during the eighteenth century. The authors argue that by examining the important historical contexts of how chemists dealt with material substances during this period, we can better understand both materials science and the field of chemistry as they have evolved over time.

If one can get over the jargon-filled, mechanistic prose of this book, there is an interesting story lurking within. Chemistry and chemists' understanding of materials were shaped significantly by how those materials were used in other contexts (mining, metallurgy, medicine, craftsmanship, &c.) and how chemists went about acquiring those materials for study. It was practical experience, observation and experimentation brought about by the wide overlap between chemical study and artisanship that led to the development of certain classifactory practices within the discipline and beyond.

Klein and Lefèvre provide an analysis of how chemistry terms have changed dramatically over time, noting that words in use today (compound, or composition, for example) would have been understood and used very differently in the eighteenth century, thereby making our own analysis of how earlier chemists operated much more difficult.

In several chapters the authors analyze early attempts at systematic classification of chemical substances; this gets a bit sloggy at times, but they do provide alternative chapters for those whose interests lie elsewhere. Finally, the third section examines how the classification of plant-based chemical products changed over time.

I suspect this book might have been made more interesting for the general reader by removing some of the jargon and adding a bit more narrative structure, but for what it is, it's a tough but interesting read.