New Book Brings Chemistry to Life With Art, History, Humor
By Beth Potier, Media Relations
February 28, 2007
An engraved plate attributed to Augsburg printmaker Martin Engelbrecht
in the early eighteenth century depicts an 18th-century engraving of a
ragged, impoverished alchemist. The poems below, one in German and one
in French, attribute the subject’s poverty to alchemy.
A new book chronicles the beauty, mystery, truths, lies, and even humor
of chemistry. “From Alchemy to Chemistry in Picture and Story” (Wiley,
2007), by professor of chemistry Arthur Greenberg, connects five centuries
of the development of chemistry to human history with 200 brief essays
and a rich array of historical artwork, including 24 color plates.
“Chemistry’s history is really fascinating. It’s about
how we’ve tried to understand nature around us,” says Greenberg. “Looking
at it historically, you get a feeling for how chemistry went from this
spiritual way of trying to make sense of nature to becoming a science.”
The book opens with the symbolism and allegory of chemistry’s roots
in alchemy, the attempted transmutation of lead into gold via the philosopher’s
stone. Although alchemy is widely considered a pseudo-science, Greenberg
notes that it counts among its believers (and practitioners) Isaac Newton
and Robert Boyle. The image Greenberg chooses for the book’s cover,
however, is powerful in its caution: An 18th-century engraving of a ragged,
impoverished alchemist with a poem below that ends, “Nobody ever
got rich from making gold, but many have ended up on the beggar’s
On the route from alchemy and metallurgy to nanotechnology and femtochemistry,
Greenberg introduces some of chemistry’s leading lights and surprising
supporting actors, including:
- Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, who recognized
that both combustion and calcination arise from the combination of atmospheric
oxygen with inflammable substances and metals, but who nonetheless died
by the guillotine as an aristocrat during the Reign of Terror.
- Elizabeth Fulhame, active in the 18th century, who introduced
a theory of combustion and anticipated the concept of catalysis.
- The Andean Incas, who were skilled gold makers.
- Future U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who, with his wife Lou
Henry Hoover, wrote the first English translation of Agricola’s 1556 “De
Re Metallica,” which charted early developments in mining and metallurgy.
- Maxfield Parrish, whose chemistry laboratory notebooks from Haverford
College reveal his early fascination with the woodland fairies that would
populate his later artwork.
- Maurice Sendak, who earned his way to high school graduation
(with $100 in his pocket) by illustrating “Atomics for the Millions,” a
book co-authored by his physics teacher at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn,
Before he was a well-known artist, Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966)
took chemistry. Here is a page from 19-year-old Parrish’s laboratory
notebook from Haverford College. Part of the Quaker Collection of the Haverford
“From Alchemy to Chemistry” consolidates and updates two of
Greenberg’s previous works, “A Chemical History Tour” (Wiley,
2000) and “The Art of Chemistry” (Wiley, 2003). All three works
tap Greenberg’s 30-year passion for collecting rare books of chemistry,
and much of the art in “From Alchemy to Chemistry” is from
the author’s personal bookshelves.
“The art drives the essays, for the most part,” says Greenberg. “This
tries to be a good cultural book, to put things in a historical context.” Greenberg
hopes the book will catch the attention of not only chemists but educators,
scientists in other disciplines, and an interested general public looking
for a compelling read and beautiful artwork. “You don’t have
to have had a chemistry course to appreciate it,” he says.
Greenberg, an organic chemist, was dean of the College of Engineering
and Physical Sciences from 2000 to 2005. Prior to coming to UNH, he was
professor and chair of the chemistry department at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte. In addition to his books on the history and art
of chemistry, he has authored more than 150 scientific articles and was
co-editor of the journal Structural Chemistry.