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  • Experiments, Models, Paper Tools: Cultures of Organic Chemistry in the Nineteenth Century
  • Alan I Marcus
Experiments, Models, Paper Tools: Cultures of Organic Chemistry in the Nineteenth Century. By Ursula Klein (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003) 305 pp. $65.00

Klein's volume does many things. On its simplest level, it demonstrates the transformation from the eighteenth century's chemistry of naturally occurring substances to the substitution-dependent carbon chemistry of the mid-nineteenth century. In this regard, it is not for the faint-hearted or the general reader. A considerable acquaintance with chemistry is necessary to understand Klein's specific issues. But the book has many virtues that do not require the specialized knowledge of a historian of chemistry. In particular, it surveys and informs the debates that have animated the history of science profession during the past forty years. It reminds readers that the history of science used to be simply the great thoughts of great humans. But beginning with Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), the individual genius was replaced by the idea of a community of scholars, persons sharing similar insight and perspective. By the later 1960s, this approach began to devolve into a total rejection of thought and concentrated on the community itself. What social discriminants made these persons a cohort? How was their knowledge socially constructed, the product less of mind than social circumstance. Although an occasional voice mentioned that ideas were also text, not just subtext, social circumstance dominated and ideas drifted ever farther from public view.

Klein is a member of a generation that has begun to resurrect ideas. Her volume refuses to explore who these persons were and what social bonds they shared. She uncovers, instead, scientific cultural communities and cultural epochs and locates them in the same place but separated by time and ideas. Culture is to Klein a matter of shared assumptions about the nature of matter, not simply a consequence of sex, race, religion, or some other social matrix. Cultures can be superimposed chronologically on each other or exist in simultaneity.

Klein's approach is multidisciplinary; it cites and borrows from philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. But Klein also maintains that scientists engage in a virtually unique form of reasoning and knowledge. Hence, her work fits most neatly in the field of science studies, an amorphous group bound together by the apriori assumption that what scientists do is presumably more interesting and better than what other persons do. These scholars see their work as the study of creativity itself, the highest well-spring of humanity.

This view does not determine the utility of this volume. Klein takes great care to show how chemistry in the nineteenth century emerged from a tradition analogous to natural history and predicated upon reproducing it. Artificial binomial nomenclature typified the natural-history chemistry. Her understanding of later eighteenth-century chemistry is reminiscent of Foucault's various analyses of eighteenth-century systems [End Page 279] of thought.1 And Klein's elevation of paper tools to a kind of cultural cement is intriguing. Taxonomies from which algebraic expressions could be discerned suggests a sense of linearity, something progressive as well as predictive. Klein sees these tools as restrictive yet dialectical; they channeled thinking but forced persons to confront certain realities generated by these models. She views them as akin to laboratory experiments, not only as the product of determinations but also the precursor of new agendas. Paper tools become her material/intellectual causal mechanism to explain the emergence and development of carbon chemistry and substitution theory since about 1830.

Alan I Marcus
Iowa State University


1. Michel Foucault (trans. Alan Sheridan), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1970).



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pp. 279-280
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