Form and Content
Exploring Chemistry is a well-written description of the science of chemistry that is intended to introduce the field in an appealing fashion to nonscientists between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Written mostly in the third person, the book is divided into four unnumbered chapters—“Why Did Chemistry Begin,” “Matter and the Alchemists,” “The New Chemistry,” and “Frontiers of Chemistry”—each of which is a well-illustrated exploration of a facet of chemistry that prepares readers for the next chapter.
Roy A. Gallant starts his book by explaining why chemistry began. In antiquity, human beings first attempted to find ways to meet their many material needs by manipulating the world around them—for medicines, for fuels, for agricultural chemicals, and so forth. He also points out that the practice of modern chemistry provides an adequate supply of these things.
Among the first examples given in the book are the use of fire and the ability to turn clays and metals into needed implements and weapons. Gallant clearly shows that the development of these divergent yet cojoined endeavors led to science and then to chemistry. As he notes, “It is the way that man works, the method he uses, that makes him a scientist.” The accidental discovery of fire is linked to later “accidents” that led to pottery, metal working, and glass making. Throughout, it is made explicit that accurate record-keeping and inquisitiveness led to the accumulation of more information. It was this information that set the stage for the development of science and of modern chemistry.
In “Matter and the Alchemists,” Gallant explains how the protochemists of antiquity prepared recipes for making materials and used them for many generations without understanding them. He next identifies the Greek philosopher-scientists (or natural philosophers) after 600 b.c., who wished to identify why materials could be made and what matter really was. Men such as Empedocles (c. 490-430 b.c.) were severely limited by the lack of advanced technology and supposed that all things were made by the mingling of four basics, which were named elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Their teachings, after modification by Democritus (c. 460-c. 370 b.c.), who identified atoms as the smallest pieces of matter, stagnated for many centuries because physical experiments were not carried out.
Next on the scene were the alchemists, who sought to make gold from base metals and reigned until a.d. 1400. Their incorrect theories, Gallant notes, at least arose from carrying out physical experiments. In addition, they developed many techniques for making substances and pieces of laboratory equipment that proved useful to later chemists, and (in “The New Chemistry”) Gallant describes how these individuals coined their own erroneous concept in the sixteenth century. Alchemists such as Paracelsus (1493-1541) proposed that matter was made of a fabulous material called “phlogiston.” The disproof of the existence of phlogiston and its replacement with correct ideas, such as a valid explanation of the elements and a modern atomic theory, came next. These crucial scientific changes may be attributed to the work, over two centuries, of chemists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), Joseph-Louis Proust (1754-1826), and John Dalton (1766-1844).
Gallant points out that, after this stage in the development of chemistry had been reached, the rate of achievement in this science greatly accelerated. For example, between Dalton’s time and the 1950’s, chemistry developed so quickly and so extensively that it became necessary to divide it into five areas: analytical, biological, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry. Further advances led to subdivisions of these specialty areas. Many exciting aspects of both theoretical and practical chemistry are described in Exploring Chemistry.
Finally, Gallant notes in “Frontiers of Chemistry” that the chemistry of his own time is essential to virtually every aspect of life: to making clothing, to producing and protecting crops in the fields, to protecting humans from and curing diseases, and to making rocket fuel, to name a few. He also points to many other events in chemistry, filling most areas of human needs, that were expected to occur after the 1950’s; most of them did.