Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World

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9780071350075: Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World

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. The author Sharon Bertsch McGrayne tells the history of the chemical revolution through the lives of the men who created it. We don't recognize their names, but their legacy is all around us. Before Nicholas LeBlanc discovered the chemical process for making washing soda in the early 1800s, soap was a highly taxed luxury item, and now it's something we use many times a day without a second thought. Without chemical fertilizer there might have been worldwide starvation in the mid 1900s. Even something as simple as affordable dyes, which brought bright clothing to the masses and democratized fashion, is given full attention. This text looks at not only the upside of each pivotal discovery, but also the often devastating unforeseen effects they wrought on the environment and public health.

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Review:

"I highly recommend this thoughtful and thought-provoking book... McGrayne successfully demonstrates that chemistry and the use of chemical technology in our lives is a human endeavor, neither good nor evil, just human." - Chemical and Engineering News; "...a compelling read" -Nature

From the Back Cover:

Every day we enjoy an array of chemical products that make some of the simplest aspects of our lives easier, healthier, sweeter, and more fun. Soap, sugar, pesticides, clean water, synthetics, and refrigerants­­they move invisibly through our days. We barely notice their presence, yet few of us would choose to live without them. Behind every one of these products stands a chemist. Compared with Darwin and Einstein, these scientists have gained little recognition. Yet chemistry­­perhaps more than any other scientific discipline­­has made the modern world possible.

Now, acclaimed science writer Sharon Bertsch McGrayne tells the history of the chemical revolution through the lives of nine people who helped create our modern way of life. We may not recognize their names, but their legacy is all around us. Nicolas Leblanc, in the late 1700s, invented a process for making "white gold" that put cheap soap within the reach of everyone. Henry Perkin, in the mid-1800s, turned black coal tar into a beautiful (and inexpensive) purple dye, democratizing color and blanketing the world in "Mauve Mania." Wallace Carothers battled baffling medical problems and depression, yet gave us synthetic fabrics and rubber.

The author tells the stories of these scientists with passion, wit, and drama, taking the reader back through revolution-torn France and the slave-owning American South to the gas-guzzling 1950s and the environmental breakthroughs of the 1990s. With an even hand, McGrayne also explores the effect these chemists and their innovations wrought on the environment and on public health.

Rigorously researched, often from original diaries and letters, Prometheans in the Lab dramatizes the tangled relationship between technology's benefits and drawbacks. Fritz Haber, for example, personifies the moral dilemma between duty to one's country and to humanity; his nitrogen fixation process feeds millions but his poison gas prolonged World War I. Without Paul Hermann Müller's DDT, millions would have died of insect-borne malaria and typhus during and after World War II; he won a Nobel Prize in medicine and warned against DDT's overuse. Thomas Midgley's Freon-12 made safe refrigeration one of the foundations of modern preventive medicine but gauged a hole in Earth's protective ozone layer.

Here is a fascinating account of how scientific discoveries are made and how those discoveries can change the world irrevocably­­for good and bad.

The story of chemistry's revolutionaries and the discoveries that changed our everyday world.

"Chemistry's relationship with the public is unique among the sciences. Chemistry's products become part of our everyday lives and are profoundly intertwined with society's tastes, needs, and desires...."

Leblanc, Perkin, Rillieux, Haber, Carothers­­these are not the household names of science, yet they are just a few of the chemists responsible for household products and innovations that quietly make our lives easier, cleaner, sweeter, and more pleasurable. Soap, sugar, colorful dyes, clean water, safe refrigeration, and powerful cars­­how many of us would choose to live without them? We take them for granted, yet behind every chemical product is the fascinating story of a scientist and a breakthrough discovery. Acclaimed science writer Sharon Bertsch McGrayne tells the history of the chemical revolution through the lives of the people who created it, taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of history through epidemics, wars, and revolutions and through scandal, scientific intrigues, moral dilemmas, and personal tragedies. With an even hand, McGrayne explores not only the upside of each pivotal discovery, but also their sometimes devastating effects on the environment and public health. Here is a lucid and enlightening account of influential chemical discoveries, the people who discovered them, and how they helped to shape the modern world­­for better...and for worse.

"...these are the dramatic stories of bold chemists who irrevocably changed our lives. They are indeed Prometheans who made our modern world."

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