Image and Reality: Kekule, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination

Nineteenth-century chemists were faced with a particular problem: how to depict the atoms and molecules that are beyond the direct reach of our bodily senses. In visualizing this microworld, these scientists were the first to move beyond high-level philosophical speculations regarding the unseen. In Image and Reality, Alan Rocke focuses on the community of organic chemists in Germany to provide the basis for a fuller understanding of the nature of scientific creativity.

Nineteenth-century attempts to visualize the atomic world. CHF Collections.

Arguing that visual mental images regularly assisted many of these scientists in thinking through old problems and new possibilities, Rocke uses a variety of sources, including private correspondence, diagrams and illustrations, scientific papers, and public statements, to investigate their ability to not only imagine the invisibly tiny atoms and molecules upon which they operated daily, but to build detailed and empirically based pictures of how all of the atoms in complicated molecules were interconnected.

These portrayals of “chemical structures,” both as mental images and as paper tools, gradually became an accepted part of science during these years and are now regarded as one of the central defining features of chemistry. In telling this fascinating story in a manner accessible to the lay reader, Rocke also suggests that imagistic thinking is often at the heart of creative thinking in all fields.

About the Author

Alan Rocke is the Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and the author of several books, including Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry. His research interest is in the development of the science of chemistry and its applications during the course of the 19th century, especially in Germany, France, and Great Britain.