Books to Note: Winter 2013

Book shelf.

New books from the wide world of chemistry.

Cyrus C. M. Mody. Instrumental Community: Probe Microscopy and the Path to Nanotechnology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 280 pp. $36.           

The title of Cyrus Mody’s discussion of probe microscopy is doubly descriptive. On the one hand, this book is a meticulously researched history of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which enabled the examination and manipulation of matter on an atomic level. On the other hand, it explores how the academic scientists, industrial researchers, and entrepreneurs who developed these technologies were themselves instrumental to the establishment of nanotechnology as a scientific field. Beginning with the 1981 construction of the first STM at IBM’s Zürich laboratory, Mody traces efforts to replicate the new apparatus as well as the debates over its potential applicability to different categories of material. By the early 1990s the proliferation of probe-microscopy techniques threatened to splinter the networks that had formed around the instrument. Although a few early adopters embraced this fragmentation, others seized on the rising interest of government officials and futurists in nanotechnology. Through recasting themselves as “nanotechnologists,” probe microscopists consolidated their ranks while supplying federal officials with a new model for interdisciplinary research. Although this volume merits examination from scholars interested in government-sponsored scientific programs, it will primarily appeal to historians of technology, business, and innovation.—Benjamin Gross


Hiro Hirai. Medical Humanism and Natural Philosophy: Renaissance Debates on Matter, Life and the Soul. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011. 241 pp. $136.

Hiro Hirai provides a novel exploration of the intellectual debates of several key 16th-century medical humanists. These humanistically trained physicians constructed new notions about the natural world from ancient and contemporary medicine and philosophy. The roles of matter, the nature of life, and the source of the soul all intertwine in one central question: how are living things generated? The connection between the soul and the material body remained a central concern to these Renaissance men and prompted a wealth of responses. Renaissance interpretations of Plato provided a resource for Jean Fernel, who emphasized a connection between the Platonic world soul and the internal spiritus of a living creature. Another physician, Fortunio Liceti, transformed the Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino’s invisible, spiritual seeds of life into tiny bodies of matter. Liceti’s explanation of spontaneous generation, of life arising from nonliving matter, directly informed Daniel Sennert’s philosophy and his experimentally based theory of chemical atomism. In his atoms Sennert unified the power to form life with the source of life itself, creating ensouled building blocks. Now that we know more about the crucial influence of Sennert on Robert Boyle’s chemical atomism, the medical debates that shaped Sennert’s system take on even greater importance. I highly recommend this book for specialists.—Evan Ragland


David S. Caudill. Stories about Science in Law: Literary and Historical Images of Acquired Expertise. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. 164 Pp. $104.95.

David S. Caudill’s Stories about Science in Law, dull title notwithstanding, is a readable tracing of how science appears in law, especially as represented in literature and popular culture. Following a brief introduction Caudill lays out his reasons for studying science in law through the prism of literature. In the remaining five chapters he then analyzes this topic as it is depicted in short stories, films, plays, novels, and television. Each chapter traces one important thread linking science and law: Caudill looks at ethics in relation to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; explores forensics via two accounts of suspected arsenic poisoning; and probes public understanding of science in law by looking at Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Fictional images of law, says Caudill, “have the capacity to direct sympathies, encourage moral judgments, or create hero-figures, which effects can in turn influence how law students, lawyers, and judges respectively learn, practice, and apply the law” (p. 3). Popular culture becomes a source of law. Fictional images of science can likewise bring “insights to how science works in legal contexts” (p. 137). Caudill’s chapter on Vacationes, a collection of science-fiction stories by renowned neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, illustrates the importance of consensus building and persuasion in science just as in law. Caudill’s book leads to ethical and practical questions about how judges admit science into evidence.—Kelly Tuttle


William H. Brock. The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales From Chemistry. London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2011. 362 pp. $32.

One way to provide an audience with welcome relief from data overload is to illustrate lectures with historically relevant tales. As a bonus, this method also enhances the reputation of the lecturer as engaging and well-rounded. Every chemist aspiring to such a reputation should read The Case of the Poisonous Socks and then keep it as a ready reference. It is, to be sure, decidedly British in flavor and focused on the 19th and early 20th centuries, but that is precisely what makes it such a valuable reference. Science historian William H. Brock sticks to his scholarship in assembling this collection of 42 short essays, and he tells them in an entertaining manner that facilitates learning and subsequent retelling. Chapter 1 explains the book’s title and provides insight into the development of product safety and worker protection. From there the stories can be accessed in any order and tell fascinating tales of the people who helped develop modern chemistry as well as those who, while educated in chemistry, made their reputations in other fields. My personal favorite is “The Chemist from Hanwell Asylum.” Brock here tells the story of the mid-19th century author of two satirical letters who claims to have been driven mad by the lack of standardization in chemical notation at a time when even simple chemical structures, such as water and ammonia, lacked consistent notation.—Bob Kenworthy