International Conference, Paris, 17-18 September 2004

List of Abstracts

Philip Ball: "Chemistry in XXth-century novels"

The first half of the twentieth century is sometimes described as the era of physics, and the second half as the era of biology. Chemistry, by implication, is a science whose era had passed. If literary fiction holds a mirror to society, that impression seems at first glance to be confirmed in twentieth-century novels: there are plenty of examples that explore ideas in contemporary physics and biology, but chemistry is much harder to find, beyond the occasional use of chemical poisons in murder mysteries. But a clutch of novels by modern American writers tell another tale: they portray chemistry as a pervasive aspect of contemporary life, providing the smells, colours, textures and tastes of everyday experience. I shall look in particular at three of these - "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon, "White Noise" by Don DeLillo, and "Gain" by Richard Powers - to explore what they have to say about today's attitudes to chemistry. These books seem to display a love-hate relationship with this discipline, portraying chemical science both as an essential and inescapable element of modernity and as an ominous, potentially dangerous force in industrialized society.

David C. Brock: "Revolutionary Tools and the Women Who Wield Them: (Re)presenting Chemistry to Diverse Audiences"

This presentation will explore recent experiences of the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry in creating exhibitions on the history of chemistry. These experiences will be examined as examples of the way in which historians and curators actively produce a "public image" of "chemistry in the twentieth century," in other centuries, and the present. Various factors that shape this public image will be addressed including: audience, purpose, resources, scholarship, venue, process, engagement, and the political economy of funding. Discussion of these factors will emerge in a comparison of two exhibitions: one titled "Revolutionary Tools: Instrumentation and the Transformation of the Chemical Sciences," the other titled "Her Lab in Your Life: Women in Chemistry." 

Robert Bud: "Penicillin as a wonder drug: The construction of a public image and its collapse"

The idea of a wonderdrug produced by chemistry was well-established in the 1930s before the creation of penicillin. It had its roots in Paracelsianism and alchemy and had been apparently vindicated by the science of Ehrlich and the success of sulphonamide drugs. So the qualities of penicillin could be said to have preceded the drug. From the beginning there were of course challenges to the popular image: resistance built up early and the spectrum of penicillin was limited. However these problems seem to be overcome. Early in the 1960s however faith that such success would continue began to wane. Real and difficult problems emerged at a time when the public was becoming more sceptical of authority in general and science and technology in particular. The paper will go on to explore why nonetheless usage of the drug continued to grow.

Paul Caro: "The chemist as an autodidact"

The chemist uses tools. Intellectual tools such as theories and practical tools such as instruments or glass hardware to tease out the problems of understanding matter and its properties. The chemist may have to invent both theories and instruments by himself or he has to learn their practice and uses from others. The learning process in chemistry is a never-ended one as new things constantly emerge. The chemist has to create his own world, he is a permanent autodidact watching on a frontier. In the past half century the figure of chemistry was completely changed by the introduction of so many analytical methods, by the advent of the computer, by the mastering of processes for synthesis and other techniques down to the manipulation of even single atoms. The wide array of new techniques used by the chemist is an enlargement of his capacities and offer a deeper view on matter. But there is a perverse effect. As chemists enter more deeply the mysteries of their specialities, they progress, they learn exclusive arts, but at the same time the communication lines with fellow chemists embroiled in another speciality are cut and isolation, may be incomprehension, result. There is today a need for chemists to practice themselves autodidacticism across the broad area of chemistry at large, at least in a superficial way to be able to understand each other through a chemistry popularisation action. An effort after all comparable to the one requested by many for the general public especially in defence of chemistry as a "central science". 

R. Emmanuel Eastes: "From primary school to university: the main obstacles to the comprehension of chemistry"

Which child does not dream of a chemistry kit or of a real chemist's classroom visit? Who never tried, in the secrecy provided by temporary parental absence, to mix food or household chemicals in order to transform them, sometimes even harbouring the secret desire to see them 'blow up'? In children, one single origin lies behind such likes and behaviours, which are spontaneous, as well as innate: 'experimentation'... playing with matter and seeing how it behaves. Yet ask their parents, their neighbours; tell them that you are a chemist, and you will be surprised by the recurring reaction: 'Ooh! Chemistry... I always hated it. And I never understood it! Too remote, too coded, too magic...'. Should you then try testing the knowledge remaining from the time when they suffered through chemistry in school, you will be astounded by the absence of any coherent memory, be it the simplest writing convention or the difference between an atom and a molecule... What happened between childhood and adulthood? How can we explain the replacement of the excitement generated by chemistry as an 'experimental science' by the rejection of its language and laws? How can we understand this aversion, which disheartens us, chemists who have remained keen on the transformations of matter, despite the difficulties of learning symbolic expressions and descriptive models? What repercussions does such a dislike bring, on the one hand, for the image of our discipline among laypersons, and on the other, for the phenomenon of disaffection with chemistry studies at the university level? We shall attempt to answer these very questions by studying the evolution of teaching in our area throughout the past twenty years. Without condemning school curricula, we show that between 'disconnected spectacle science' and 'theoretical coded discipline', chemistry's image can only suffer from the disequilibrium between the attention given to three poles, which are, (1) the pleasures of practical experimentation, (2) the hardship of formal learning, and (3) students' own questionings. We shall then reveal the main obstacles to the grasp of chemistry in all its paradoxical complexity, as well as problems at all levels (didactic, epistemological, cognitive, affective... ), which are encountered in chemistry teaching. We shall end by providing some suggestions to overcome difficulties, and thus hinder negative consequences in the relationship between 'students and citizens (former students)' with chemistry.

Marc Devisscher: "Image of the Chemical Industry in Europe 1992 – 2004: From bad to worse or maybe not?"

By influencing the chemical industry's product markets, public opinion can be a powerful "driver" of the chemical industry's business environment and this same public also forms the electorate of the politicians. "Public Opinion" will hence act as a strong catalyst for regulatory initiatives in the political arena. Since 1992, Cefic has been conducting biennial public opinion surveys in Europe to guide the industry's efforts in ensuring a supportive business environment and to enhance a reputation whereby industry's licence to operate and to market its products is not in jeopardy. However, looking at representative survey results over the past twelve years, it is clear that - in line with developments related to its poor general public reputation - the chemical industry's "licence to operate" came under increasing threats, particularly more recently with REACH. For the first time since 1992; this year, the balance of the overall image at pan European level is positive and after years of decline, the position among eight benchmark industries has improved by one rank from 7 to 6. The current upward image trend is certainly to be seen as good news. However, the chemical industry's reputation is still not good enough, there is room for improvement. Will the upward trend be maintained? 

Roslynn D. Haynes: "(Al)chemists in Fiction: The Master Narrative"

The respectable origins of alchemy were soon obscured by the mediaeval stereotyping of alchemists and by the promises that they represented of illicit power, wealth, eternal youth and the creation of life. The human weaknesses to which these attractions appealed have not gone away and those who profess to satisfy them continue to be regarded with mingled fascination and fear. In Western culture, as expressed in fiction and film, the master narrative concerning science and the pursuit of knowledge perpetuates the archetype of the (al)chemist as sinister, dangerous and possibly mad. Like all myths this story may appear simplistic, even outdated, but its recurrence suggests that it embodies complex ideas and suppressed desires and fears that each generation must work through. This paper explores some of the most influential examples of such characterization and links them to contemporary modes of fulfilling the basic lures of alchemy. It also asks why, amidst all the beneficial outcomes of chemistry, fiction, film, journalism and the media continue to focus on disastrous consequences, often treating even 'good' spin-offs with suspicion. It may even suggest an alternative image for chemistry in the twenty-first century.

Robert D. Hicks: "Lessons Learned in Teaching the History of Modern Chemistry On-line"

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, promotes the history and heritage of the chemical and molecular sciences through its collection of instruments, documents, and images; encourages research based on its collections; and maintains a program of outreach and interpretation to advance an understanding of the historical role of the chemical and molecular sciences, technologies, and industries in shaping society. CHF created an interpretive and outreach effort, Science Alive!, a Web-based program to teach science through an historical presentation which combines biography, a narrative structure, and science activities. Science Alive! intends to realize national (USA) educational standards concerning the history and nature of science, standards usually ignored or minimalized in most curricula. Broadly consistent with national standards, Science Alive! teaches that science is a human endeavor which relies on acute observation of nature, an essential curiosity, cooperation and collaboration, and a disciplined process of reasoning, inquiry, and analysis. What distinguishes Science Alive! from other science educational resources is the emphasis on the history and heritage of chemistry and the molecular sciences, and the program's multicontextual, multidisciplinary perspective. The pilot project for Science Alive! focuses on the life and work of African-American chemist Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975). The grandson of slaves in Alabama, Percy sought a career in chemistry which took him to the University of Vienna to obtain a doctorate before World War II, and to a lifetime of research based on plant products such as soy and the calabar bean. Julian's work led to the synthesis of physostigmine (esserine), for the treatment of glaucoma, the bulk synthesis of progesterone, testosterone, and cortisone, and during the war a flame retardant, Aerofoam, which saved lifes aboard aircraft carriers. Julian held more than 100 chemical patents, and his career included the founding of his own successful company, Julian Laboratories. This presentation outlines the goals and methods of Science Alive!, and poses questions about the best methods of teaching the history of modern chemistry via Web curricula. The creation of the Julian lesson modules for the Web, on-going since fall, 2003, has posed challenges in determining the fit for modern chemical history in science and history curricula, in designing strategies to reach both science and social studies teachers, in creating multi-contextual lesson plans where no comparable lesson plans exist on the Web, and in reconciling standards for teaching the history of science where the recommended standards do not agree with scholarship in the history of science. The presentation concludes with recommendations for creating multicontextual curricula for the Web on the history of modern chemistry.

Pierre Laszlo: "On the Self-Image of Chemists, 1950-2000"

Drawing on a variety of texts, such as the Westheimer (1965), Pimentel (1985) and Breslow (2004) Reports, but including also other sources such as, to name only a few, short stories by Isaac Asimov, novels of Carl Djerassi, books by Primo Levi and a number of other autobiographies, the talk will chronicle processes including: (1) tribal organization of the profession in the 1950s ; (2) NMR Revolution; (3) evolving notion of "Better Life Through Chemistry"; (4) perceived impacts of chemistry on society, on the economy, and on the environment; (5) problematic coexistence with molecular biology. During the second half of the twentieth century, the self-image of the chemical profession was determined to a large extent by a symbiotic relationship between the science and the industry. Until the 1980s, the plurisecular joint roots with pharmacy continued to be strong and mutually nourishing. Chemists veiled to themselves the cyclical character of the industry with an ideology of growth—exponential growth being viewed as excellent. The existence of a language of chemistry, which its practitioners had taken years to master, was held as a pre-requisite to any communication, which ran against popularizing rudiments of the science (or of the industry). Hence, chemophobia was able to feed on industrial accidents (Seveso, Basel, Bhopal) and on the spectacular expansion of the chemosphere during that period.

Jeffrey L. Meikle: "Material Doubts: The Popular Consequences of Plastic, 1945-2000"

Early twentieth-century promoters of the Plastic Age envisioned a never-ending flow of miracle materials conjured up by modern alchemy out of air, water, and coal. By the Second World War, such synthetic materials as Bakelite, Plexiglas, vinyl, and polystyrene had eclipsed celluloid, invented in 1869 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. As plastic continued expanding into everyday life, it embodied the promise and the threat of limitless material abundance. This lecture traces America's ambivalent involvement with plastic, from Bakelite radios and nylon stockings to Tupperware and polyester suits. Focusing mostly on the post-World War II period, it explores the strategies used by manufacturers and promoters to gain public acceptance for new materials and explores the symbolic hold of plastic on the popular imagination. It also shows how America's enthusiasm for everything plastic has been complicated by environmental doubts and by the plasticity of postmodern existence. The lecture raises various issues in science and technology, manufacturing and marketing, design and architecture, and American consumer culture. The conclusion suggests that plastic, endlessly malleable in the face of material desire, merges into the immaterial reality of electronic media.

Guy Ourrisson: "The 'Appel de Paris' - Chemistry as viewed by other scientists"

In May 2004, a very interesting document has become available and has received some impact in the media: the "Appel de Paris". This is a rather long document, launched in fanfare during a well-attended meeting in the UNESCO building in Paris. It denounces the dangers for human health of chemical pollution. The Appel has been signed by many scientists of very high calibre : bioscientists like François Jacob, Luc Montagnier, Jean-Pierre Changeux, Pierre Chambon, Chrisitine Petit, astroscientists like Jean-Claude Pecker or Hubert Reeves, physicists like Anatole Abragam, climatologists like André Berger, … the list of the first signatories is impressive. They have been relayed by many "green" associations, such as Greenpeace and consumers' associations, but also eschatological ones, relaying the voice of God. All call their followers to sign the Appel. The explicit goal of the organizers explicitly to collect a million signatures before the end of this summer will most probably be reached. The Appel de Paris consists of two parts. It begins with a long list of undisputable statements, to which anybody is bound to subscribe. Who would not accept to the statement that the Rights of Man should be protected, that pollution is a bad thing, that Protocols like those of Rio, of Stockholm, of Kyoto, are a good thing, etc. What follows is however quite different. It is a series of scientific looking and blunt indictments of chemical pollution for the development of cancers, allergies, reduced libido, premature deaths, diseases of the respiratory tract, of the skin, etc., etc., all these are, like the disappearance of many plant and animal species, the consequence of a world-wide chemical pollution, a consequence of the irresponsible behaviour of chemists and of the chemical industry. The Chemistry Section of the Académie des Sciences has published a rebuttal, quoting in particular a very recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that (in the US, but their problems are not very different from ours) the major causes of death are : tobacco, unhealthy nutrition and lack of exercise, alcoholism, etc…. It is remarkable that the Appel de Paris has been signed by many scientists of high integrity and competence. I shall try to discuss why and to suggest what we, chemists, should do to avoid undue blame and nefarious actions.

D. Rhees: "From 'Merchants of Death' to 'Better Living Through Chemistry': The Case of Du Pont"

"Better Things for Better Living... Through Chemistry" is a familiar slogan that came to epitomize the public image of chemistry in the United States for generations. Less familiar are the reasons why the Du Pont Company invented this slogan, which are rooted in a major public relations crisis that stemmed from its role as a munitions producer during World War I. This crisis, in which Du Pont was branded as a "merchant of death" in the public press in 1934, triggered more than a slogan, but gave rise to a broad-based advertising campaign that utilized a wide variety of educational and popular media. These techniques included sponsorship of a national radio show, films, pamphlets, a speaker's bureau, and a remarkable series of exhibitions on the theme of the "Wonder World of Chemistry" which appeared at major science museums and state and world's fairs. To design, execute, and evaluate this campaign, Du Pont relied on a bevy of new "experts", including industrial designers, public relations "counselors", and even psychologists. This episode illustrates the ways in which the public image of chemistry in the 20th century was significantly shaped by corporate needs and modern public relations techniques.

Joachim Schummer & Tami Spector: "The Visual Image of Chemistry and Chemists"

In this paper we study the public image of chemistry and chemists as codified in popular visual representations. Unlike previous studies, which focused on representations in film, newspapers, magazines, and television or analysed visual stereotypes by letting people draw a scientist, we choose two popular digital image sources. Our first source is a searchable database of clipart cartoons that portray subjects such as science or chemistry in stereotypical, humorous, or satirical way. Our second source are photographs that people post as digital images on the Internet in various contexts and which can be retrieved by search engines such as the Google/image tool. Using a variety of search terms the clipart database allows comparing the relative visibility of scientific disciplines and their visual associations to scientific emblems such as the laboratory, experiment, research, and various instruments and tools. An analysis of all chemistry related cartoons provides a ranked list of stereotypical associations with chemistry, for which we try to identify historical roots. While the clipart analysis gives a broad perspective on chemistry's principle role as a visual indicator for science and its stereotypical associations, our detailed analysis of photographs provides a more nuanced assessment of chemistry's visual image. Examination of the visual images derived from different search terms of the same semantic field, such as 'chemical', 'chemist', and 'chemistry', enables us to elucidate how internet images contextualize chemistry, parse its visual tropes, and correlate with the sociologically important categories of sex, race/ethnicity, and age. Comparisons between the images produced by each of these search terms also subtly differentiated the ways in which they codify the image of chemistry on the Internet. Finally, our work reveals the particularities of using Internet and clipart images for statistical and qualitative analysis as compared to previous studies and how, and if, such images build on the messages communicated in these other media.

Peter Weingart: "Chemists and their Craft in Fiction Film"

The representation of science and scientists in the popular media such as fiction films reflects stereotypes and myths about science. In particular, the representation of different disciplines reveals expectations and anxieties that are deep seated in Western culture. Chemistry is a paradigmatic case because of its prehistory in alchemy and its literary reflection in the Faust saga. The quantitative analysis of 220 fiction films is the basis for the focused look at the representation of chemistry in these films, partly in comparison to other disciplines.

Last updated 9/6/2004 by Joachim Schummer <>