Book review: The Cathedrals of Science

Science Cheerleader contributor and friend, Neil Gussman, submitted this book review shortly before he shipped off to Kuwait where he’s serving our country. At 54, Neal’s certainly among the seniors there. He’s on leave from his job at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. (A real loss for CHF because frankly, Neal adds a much-needed down-to-earth element to the staff. It’s no wonder he gives this book about softening the image of scientists a thumbs-up).

Here’s Neal’s review of Patrick Coffey’s  book The Cathedrals of Science: The personalities and rivalries that made modern chemistry.

Kirk, not Spock Would Have Earned the Nobel Prize

I once loved Star Trek, but now I am ready to shoot a posthumous photon torpedo at Gene Roddenberry.  Why would a 50-something Baby Boomer who should be nostalgic for the voyages of the Starship Enterprise now scorn one of the icons of the 60s?  The answer is Spock.  Like so many millions of ill-educated people of my generation, I knew no scientists personally and assumed they were all like Spock.  I mean who wants to grow up to be Spock?  Men don’t follow him, women ignore him, and according to Vulcan custom, he only has a wife/girlfriend for one weekend every decade or so.

Kirk on the other hand was in charge and had a babe on every planet.  I joined the Air Force right out of high school.  Seven years later I went to college (to be a writer—still had the Spock aversion) and 25 years after that got my current job where I actually met leading scientists.  It turns out, the men and women at the top tier of science are anything but nerds.  Men or women, they are a lot more like Kirk than Spock.  Sure they have to master an immense body of knowledge and practice, but they also have to have the drive, the ambition, the confidence bordering on or crossing over into arrogance that takes all the risks necessary to make great discoveries.

Sadly, most scientific biographies put their subjects on pedestals and leave out the passion that drives discovery.  But times are changing.  Patrick Coffey’s new book The Cathedrals of Science: The personalities and rivalries that made modern chemistry weaves together the lives of the leaders of early 20th century chemistry to show how fights over priority, backstabbing, cronyism and grudges shaped the history of chemistry just as much as the actual discoveries.  It is a 300-page antidote to the false impression that science is done by Spock-like automatons.

The story centers on two American chemists, Irving Langmuir and Gilbert Lewis, who began their careers together in the first decade of the 20th century.  Langmuir was thoughtful, affable, brought people together (mostly) shared credit with collaborators and managed to be a great family man while becoming a rich, famous (on the cover of Time) Nobel laureate.  Lewis was home schooled, did not play well with others, carried lifelong grudges for slights large and small and died in self-imposed obscurity without a Nobel, although he is arguable one of the great chemists his time.  Coffey says Lewis’ life shows how not to win the Nobel Prize.

Cathedrals tracks the professional lives of Lewis and Langmuir and their interactions with other great physical chemists of their time.  Read this book and you will not think of the kind of person who would say, “Logical” in response to a question.  If you have been poisoned by the lab-coat-and-clipboard stereotype of scientists, read this book.

I work at Chemical Heritage Foundation, a museum and library of the history of chemistry located opposite Independence Mall on the same block as Ben Franklin’s house in Philadelphia.  We have books dating back 500 years to the invention of printing and hundreds of oral histories of people who made great discoveries in chemistry.  We host award ceremonies and history conferences where we hear talks by the passionate people who become the leaders in science.  Mildred Cohn talked at CHF recently and spoke about the struggle of being a woman and a chemist in the 1930s—then she showed the audience a picture of her first time hang gliding—on her 90th birthday.  Gordon Moore talked about turning silicon chemistry into a successful business—he is co-founder of Intel Corporation.  Nearing his 80th birthday, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA (with Francis Crick in 1953) was still crowing in 2005 about beating the chemist Linus Pauling (1901 – 1994) to discovery of the structure of DNA more than 50 years later.