Meet Carsten Reinhardt

Photo by Conrad Erb.

On August 1, 2013, Carsten Reinhardt began work as the third president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The following profile is based on an interview conducted by CHF’s Communications Team in late August 2013.

When talking to Carsten Reinhardt in CHF’s corner office, it’s hard not to notice instrumentation pioneer Arnold O. Beckman smiling from a book jacket on a shelf just over his shoulder. Beckman’s presence is fitting; his instruments changed the scientific world, and a focus of Reinhardt’s scholarly work is the instrumentation revolution of the 20th century. But perhaps more fitting is that Reinhardt sees CHF as an instrument in itself—one, like those made by Beckman, capable of affecting the whole of the scientific enterprise.

In a presentation Reinhardt gave as part of his application for the presidency, he told CHF staff that we live in a “chemical world” but few are aware of its benefits. The notion of a “chemical world,” he explained, meant that modern societies to a large extent rely on synthetic materials and that we experience both their benefits and their hazards. Now, from his office looking out over historic Old City, Philadelphia, he talks about how CHF can help the public achieve a better understanding of the complexities of that notion.

With regard to the phrase “chemical world,” he says, “There are always two sides, and our society and our world are to a large extent now artificially produced. . . . You cannot pollute so heavily if you want to survive, but you need the materials coming out of the production cycles.”

“If [the public has] a more-or-less balanced understanding of how the scientific fields actually work, you can better improve how science works for societal needs. At the same time, we hope to have people getting more involved with chemistry and how it is used.”

About CHF, he said, “Our most important goal is to make the scientific enterprise more understandable for nonscientists and even more for the scientists themselves. Just open that black box of the sciences and technologies and look into the mechanisms and how they work. Do it critically, fairly, in a way that’s well-rounded, and with open eyes.”

Reinhardt’s first exposure to the “chemical world” was as a child growing up outside of Stuttgart in a suburb that was so quiet that, Reinhardt jokes, “they roll up the streets at night.” In the basement of his house Reinhardt played with chemistry sets alongside his older brother. But it was the history—not the practice—of chemistry that suited him best.

“I think that in understanding the world, understanding society, understanding everything almost, I tend to do it historically,” he says. “I go back to the development of it and see how it emerged, how it changed, and that helps me understand what it is now. I was just fascinated by historical narratives. And, of course, in my work this [fascination] is related to chemistry.”

A high-school chemistry teacher with an unusually strong interest in the history of science encouraged him in the subject and loaned him books. He was hooked. While many historians of science begin in either a scientific or humanities field and then cross over at the M.A. or Ph.D. level, Reinhardt decided to be a science historian at the young age of 19—and never looked back.

“For some reason I was naïve enough to think it could work,” he laughs.

Photo by Conrad Erb.

After receiving his Ph.D., in which he specialized in late-19th-century chemistry, he went on to become an assistant professor at Germany’s Regensburg University before spending the last seven years as a full professor at Bielefeld University. He has authored three books and contributed to five, published 40 academic articles, and received numerous awards and fellowships, including being named a fellow at the Max Planck Institute and a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, École Normale Supérieure, Paris.

His first introduction to CHF was as an Edelstein Fellow in 1998−1999, where he says he found an “ideal environment” to do his research. Originally intending to write a comparison of U.S. and German instrument technologies, it was partly the rich archives of CHF that caused him to instead devote his time to studying what he terms “method makers”—communities of scientists who choose to focus on developing methods to help other scientists find solutions to scientific problems rather than devoting their time to finding those solutions themselves. Examples include pioneers of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, mass spectrometry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.

CHF’s reputation was strong enough to bring Reinhardt from Germany for a fellowship—and to bring him back full time as president 14 years later. Now he wants to give something back and raise CHF’s recognition and reputation around the world.  

Unlike universities, some of which have had centuries to raise their profile, he says CHF has the challenge of still being a relative newcomer. He believes part of the solution is to strengthen and build off the success of CHF’s fellowship program and in-house research and collections, and to reach out to history-of-science communities currently on the edges of CHF’s constituency. Further, he wants to make the history-of-science community eager to put the CHF label on its research.

“We need to make clear that a particular scholar’s achievement has been reached through, with, and because of CHF.”

Reinhardt notes that opportunities abound to document the history of science. “We’re dealing to a large extent with the modern sciences and technologies, and they have experienced an exponential leap in the last century. They grew like hell. So what do we do with them if we don’t grow? We can’t grow as fast as they did,” he said. “So we have to be quite inventive with our own methodologies. We have to digest more in a shorter amount of time.”

While he says part of the solution to cataloging and interpreting an exponentially growing field lies in traditional historiographical means, he also says that “the digital revolution will be a crucial method and tool for us historians, especially historians of science and technology. This is so because digital methods will enhance the processing and interpretation of historical sources.”

“I would say that this is where we expect the largest additions and arguably changes in our daily work. But then, predictions always carry the risk of being wrong,” he says.

“I think CHF, like any institution, has relied on opportunities, but CHF has done this in a very energetic way,” he says. “History is about contingency. It’s not about pure chance, but it’s also not determined what will happen. If you are not ready to be surprised, you will not make it. So I think past staff members of CHF were ready to embrace surprises. I want to keep us prepared for surprises.”

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