Books to Note: Summer 2010

Londa Schiebinger, ed. Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. 265 pp. $65 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Hilary Domush

As editor of Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering Londa Schiebinger argues that raising scientists’ and engineers’ awareness of gender bias in their research will lead to new and better understandings of their own results. In part, Schiebinger and her contributing authors see the collection as a guidebook for researchers who must comply with the National Institutes of Health’s requirement that researchers address the impact of gender difference on the results of clinical trials. The collection will help those unfamiliar with gender analysis learn to identify if and when it has been used. It contains specific examples that highlight how considering women specifically instead of as a generic, genderless group of consumers can alter a research project’s outcome. But the book’s intended audience, especially researchers outside of the biological fields, will have difficulty learning how to effectively use gender analysis in their own research.

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham. Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneer British Women Chemists, 1800-1949. London: Imperial College Press (distributed by World Scientific Publishing Co. Singapore), 2008. xvii + 542 pp. $75, £41.

Reviewed by George B. Kauffman

Although historians have usually considered chemistry in Britain an exclusively male endeavor, since the 1880s British women have studied and contributed to academic chemistry. In their latest book on women scientists the Rayner-Canhams have drawn upon the published literature and various archives to present biographies of 141 of the 896 known British women chemists working from 1880 to 1949. The authors correct the imbalance promulgated by traditional historians by highlighting the role of British female chemists. They illustrate the determination of these women to survive and flourish in a maledominated environment, and they show the existence of an active culture of female chemists in Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of the 13 chapters concludes with a commentary. Unfortunately, no portraits are included, but doing so would have increased the price of the book. This volume will be of interest to historians of science, chemists, educators, persons concerned with women’s studies, and general readers.

Alfred Bader. Chemistry and Art: Further Adventures of a Chemist Collector. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2008. x + 246 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by Mary Virginia Orna

“When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.” I know of no individual who has taken this maxim to heart more than Alfred Bader. In the second installment of his remarkable autobiography, he continues the story of his flight from Nazi Austria, his internment as a prisoner of war in Great Britain, his work to become a Harvard Ph.D. chemist and found the Aldrich Chemical Company, and, most notably, his subsequent ouster from the very company he brought into being. This story is about making not only lemonade, but a delicious concoction of a second career as a collector and dealer in the fine arts; it is laced with tale upon tale of Old Master discoveries, theft, intrigue, and confrontations with government laws regarding the exportation of works of art. Throughout the book, we catch glimpses of the deeply human and humane. Bader confronts injustice when he encounters it but also forges lifelong friendships and philanthropic ties. This book will delight and entrance; and it will awaken an interest in art and forensic science.

Patrick Coffey. Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 400 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by Ron Reynolds

Patrick Coffey traces the development of physical chemistry through the personalities and rivalries of its pioneers from Arrhenius to Pauling. P-chem was the “hot science” of the 1920s, analogous to today’s biotechnology or nanotechnology. Coffey presents frank and unvarnished portraits of those who unraveled the nature of the atom: the reclusive Gilbert Lewis, closeted with his handpicked students; friendly, outgoing Irving Langmuir and his lightbulbs; Walther Nernst’s popular German laboratory and his fierce competitive spirit; Fritz Haber’s vanity and the institutional consequences it produced. Some fairly long sections on key scientific concepts are quite technical. The non-chemist may prefer to skip these, but all readers can appreciate the human stories and frailties of the renowned chemists that Coffey depicts.

Tyler Volk. CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. xvi + 223 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by Zoe Marquardt

Tyler Volk juxtaposes two apparently competing views of carbon dioxide (CO2): that it is a naturally occurring molecule essential to maintaining life on earth and that the unprecedented growth in its levels over the last decades signals an unsustainable change in the carbon cycle. He familiarizes readers with the chemistry of the carbon cycle and the history of carbon detection by following “Dave,” a carbon atom who sometimes exists as one of the 42 x 1039 CO2 molecules in the earth’s atmosphere today. Named for C. David Keeling, a pioneering carboncycle scientist and obviously one of the author’s heroes, Dave appears variously in a glass of beer and in a gust of wind that turns the blades of a turbine. Yet CO2 Rising is not a one-man show. About halfway through his book Volk introduces readers to Oiliver, Coaleen, and Methaniel, who, unlike Dave, were purposefully extracted from the earth and have been in the biosphere for a much shorter period. Volk is quick to point out,that the origins of the three new carbon atoms (which are patently clear in their names) do not separate them from Dave—since being released into the atmosphere they have circulated in the same fashion as their “purer,” limestone-derived counterpart. Instead, the rising “birth rate” of carbon atoms accounts for the spike in global emperatures and the other symptoms of global warming that have become increasingly apparent in the last few decades. While some of his detours seem superfluous, Dave and friends are nevertheless more than competent tour guides to the complexities of the carbon cycle.