The Grey Area
Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building, 1920. Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875–1970). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Henry H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, photograph by Will Brown.
The centerpiece of “Progress and Its Problems,” this painting celebrates industry, but it also suggests the environmental dangers of progress.
At the Chemical Heritage Foundation we celebrate chemistry’s rich history and positive impact on humanity. But in the museum we have a section called “Progress and Its Problems,” which considers some of the stumbling blocks chemists have faced over time. Some new products had unexpected, negative effects on human health while others damaged the environment. The artifacts contained in this section of the museum help tell that difficult story of new discoveries with unintended consequences. At CHF our mission is to tell the story of chemistry, and that story is a nuanced one, full of the best and worst of human history, good and bad, success and failure . . . and everything in between.
“The Case of Plastics” endeavors to explore that same balanced narrative. In fact, this case is part of a larger project called Conflicts in Chemistry, the first in what we hope will be a series of cases that explore controversial issues throughout chemistry’s history. It’s only by thoroughly understanding the positive and negative sides of chemistry—and all the grey areas—that we can hope to allow our understanding of history to inform the way we react to the present. After all, though chemistry has caused problems in the world, the solutions to many of those problems will also be found through chemistry.