Historical Matter

John Dalton’s birthplace image001

I tend to the opinion that chance occurrences, at certain critical moments, play a large part in the determination of one’s subsequent life. The seeds of my later decision to become a scientist, and in particular a chemist, were sown during my late pre-teen childhood years. I was born in the 1940’s about 10 miles from Sellafield, and grew up among relatives who worked there and were able to explain to me many of its intricacies. About 10 miles to the other side of me was the birthplace of John Dalton, who first postulated the atomic theory.

I had a largely literary childhood, so the almost equal proximity of William Wordsworth’s birthplace could well have influenced me toward a career in the arts. The critical event, however, was when my father gave me a book about the historical development of the Atomic Theory. I was enthralled.

I followed this fascinating story from the early philosophical speculations of Democritus and the Ancient Greeks, through the fumblings of the alchemists to the era of true science. I read not only about Dalton, but about Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, about the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel and the Curies, and of the final realisation of the nuclear structure of the atom by Rutherford. I learned what an atom was and how it was split, and of the phenomenal energies that could be released from it.

When I was taught these things at school, a year or so later, I felt a certain superiority over my classmates in knowing it already. I had even, by then, made a pilgrimage to Eaglesfield, to see the tiny house in which Dalton had grown up.

Though I was not then aware of any personal preference for science lessons over the arts, I am sure that in my subconscious the decision had been made and I was firmly hooked.

This fascination with the historical aspects of chemistry has remained with me. I am interested in why Lavoisier gave oxygen its name. The 19th century squabbles between the Dalton and Gay-Lussac factions show scientists to be human. Gay-Lussac’s experiments with reacting gases seemed to show that atoms could be split, while Dalton’s theory rested on the proposition that they could not. The problem was solved to the satisfaction of all by Avogadro’s introduction of the concept of the diatomic molecule.

While many chemists of my generation feel the same, I am saddened by the fact that very few of our younger colleagues seem aware of the history of our calling.

A few years ago, I was complemented by a school inspector for bringing a historical point into a lesson. When the national curriculum was first devised, one of the attainment targets placed great emphasis on the history of science. In slimming down the national curriculum, this aspect has vanished. This is a pity.

My daughter followed me into chemistry, and is at present establishing herself in a research career. When I mention names of great chemists of the past, she admits that she has never heard of them.

I once saw a research chemist on a television quiz show look totally perplexed when asked what the English chemist, Newlands, was famous for. Newlands’ law of octaves, and its importance in the development of the periodic table, was something he was unaware of.

A short time ago, my department received a copy of the Royal Society of Chemistry publication, Education in Chemistry, which contained an article about the first international chemical conference, held in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1860. Delegates to the conference comprised a Who’s Who of the greatest names in chemistry. Mendeleev, the originator of the periodic table was there, as were Kekule, who solved the problem of the structure of benzene, the organic chemist, Wurtz, Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen burner, Fehling, whose test for sugar is still used today in biology and medicine, and many others. Even Alexander Borodin, the chemistry professor better known for his musical compositions was there.

At the time we received this magazine, we had a newly-qualified graduate chemist on teaching practice in the school. While I and the older chemists on the staff grew excited at the concept of so many famous people being in the same place together, our young student could not share our enthusiasm. Apart from Bunsen, he had never heard of them.

The ensuing conversation led on to the heroic dedication of Dumas, Victor Meyer and others in their measurements of molecular masses. I even dug up some ancient apparatus from an all-but-forgotten corner of a laboratory cupboard, and demonstrated its use. Our student was mesmerised by something he had neither heard of nor read about. Yet he was a graduate chemist, accomplished in the use of the most modern analytical techniques.

Of course a knowledge of the history of chemistry does not make one a good chemist. Yet I feel that our student had missed out on something. A sense of a tradition perhaps. It was as though a student of English literature had graduated without having been taught Chaucer or Shakespeare.

I like to communicate something of this tradition to my pupils. I tell them about Dalton, Priestley, Avogadro and the many other great chemists who have played major roles in the construction of the modern world, and show them that chemistry is not a dry subject for study, but an exciting, evolving human endeavour in which I am proud to play a minuscule part.

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