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Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry Hardcover – August 29, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195321340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195321340
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.4 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #755,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Chemist and scholar Coffey brings to life the struggles of pioneering chemists who modernized the field. Many of these scientists met tragic ends and twists of fate, such as Fritz Haber, who developed the pesticide that would be used in Nazi gas chambers to kill his own relatives. Other scientists, like Marjorie Wrinch, became so attached to disproved pet theories that they sank into endless resentment. Coffey begins with some giants of European chemistry-Arrhenius, Nernst, Ostvald, van't Hoff-and proceeds through a number of their followers, including Americans Gilbert Lewis and Irving Langmuir. WWI saw Haber achieve infamy for his invention of mustard gas; soon, Langmuir was working to replicate the Germans' chemical weapon for the U.S., and Lewis was training gas officers for the frontlines. WWII also saw important chemistry advances; Lewis, his student Harold Urey, and Glen Seaborg pioneered techniques of nuclear chemistry essential to the creation of the Bomb. When told the loss of Jewish scientists would irrevocably damage German science, Hitler replied, "Then we will do without physics and chemistry for the next hundred years"; in this engrossing, often somber history, Coffey reminds us not just that science trumped by ideology is a damning proposition, but that even the most complex science starts with the efforts of mere humans.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review


"Focusing on [Gilbert Lewis, Irving Langmuir, Walther Nernst, Fritz Haber] and other dramatis personae, their convoluted motivations and fierce dedication, Coffey narrates the story of not just how physical chemistry became a modern sciene, but also how it helped changes the world - economically, socially, militarily, and politically. Ulitmately the book's greatest strength grows out of what the author intended: a graphic depiction of the "personalities and rivalries that made modern chemistry."--ISIS


"Weaving together the lives of the leaders of modern chemistry, Coffey shows how fights over priority, backstabbing, cronyism, and grudges shaped the history of chemistry just as much as the actual discoveries. It is an effective antidote to the bromide that science is the work of selfless, Spock-like automatons."--Books and Culture


"Coffey aims at unveiling how different personal characteristics led to differences in scientific styles. How friendships, camaraderie, enmities and rivalries played a role in shaping developments in science, in strengthening scientific and social networks, in articulation of research groups, in the establishment of codes of conduct between senior researchers and young students, and in responding to various political context, often extreme as in the case of the two world wars. Definitely, it is when discussing how conflicts of personalitites and controversies over scientific matters shape the real world of physical chemistry, that the author excels."--Metascience


"In Cathedrals of Science, Patrick Coffey returns to headier days for the field, when the work and relationship between a dozen-odd chemists - their brilliant collaborations, bitter one-upmanship, shifting loyalties and long-standing grudges - came to define modern chemistry and show how exactly scientific theories come to be attributed and accepted."--Zocalo Public Reviews


"An excellent overview of the developments of physical chemistry."--Chemical Education Today


"A gripping page-turning narrative that elegantly combines popular science with a serious history of science."--Chemistry World


"Cathedrals of Science sets a professional standard for the furthur historical analysis of the evolution of physical and theoretical chemistry."--Bulletin for the History of Chemistry


"Coffey has the proverbial good eye for anecdotes, which enlivens what could have been a dreary list of scholarly accusations."--Chemical and Engineering News


"The center of Patrick Coffey's remarkable story is the ultimate difficult genius, an American original, G. N. Lewis. Around him, in peace and war, move the men and women who have shaped our understanding of molecules and how they react. And they are hardly at peace with each other."--Roald Hoffman, chemist, writer, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry


"This superbly crafted book traces the intertwined careers of scientific Titans whose work, despite human failings, created major parts of the conceptual edifice of modern physical science. It is a grand saga, as illuminating for our era as the Canterbury Tales are for the age that erected great masonry cathedrals."--Dudley Herschbach, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry


Patrick Coffey's wide-ranging account colorfully demonstrates, the pioneers of modern chemistry nurtured not just intellectual innovations but a collection of squabbles and grudges that influenced American science for a generation or more. Coffey excels at showing how chemistry developed both despite and because of personal rivalries in this complex and engaging tale."-- David Lindley, author of Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science


"Coffey has the experienced chemist's command of the science, the story-teller's gift for narrative, and the detective's tenacity in chasing down new evidence. Newcomers and experts alike will discover here a marvelous account of the main axes along which chemistry developed in the twentieth-century and find many new insights into both the science and the personalities of those who made it. This book is a joy to read."--John Servos, Anson D. Morse Professor of History, Amherst College and author of Physical Chemistry in America


"Patrick Coffey has combined science with biography to create a sweeping history of the transformative chemical discoveries of the first half of the 20th century. It is a history alive with brilliance and infused with human frailties. A compelling account of scientific revolution, tragedies, rivalries, and inspiration." --Nancy Greenspan, author of The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born


"in this engrossing, often somber history, Coffey reminds us not just that science trumped by ideology is a damning proposition, but that even the most complex science starts with the efforts of mere humans." --Publishers Weekly


"A fascinating insight into the character of many of chemistry's most important personalities."--Nature Chemistry


"Cathedrals of Science is an engaging, well-written, balanced account of 13 chemists who built modern chemistry...High recommended."--Choice Magazine



More About the Author

Patrick Coffey was born in 1945 in Chicago, Illinois and received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from St. Louis University in 1973. He has founded or co-founded several companies that develop chemical instrumentation and software. "Cathedrals of Science," his first book, won the 2008 PROSE prize for the best book on chemistry or physics published by a scholarly press. He is at present a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of science in general, and the history of physical chemistry in particular.
David Chandler
Coffey's book is scrupulously detailed and brings to life a story of war, politics, deceit, passion and betrayal in the rarefied atmosphere of the scientific elite.
Michael Whitt
I thoroughly enjoyed these stories .... these lines drawn from the past to the present, through the lives, work, anger, joy of a group of brilliant minds.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Michael Whitt on September 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A remarkable study of a genius, one who's greatest enemy was himself. Coffey's book is scrupulously detailed and brings to life a story of war, politics, deceit, passion and betrayal in the rarefied atmosphere of the scientific elite. It is a riveting account of the psychological, political and scientific struggles that consumed some of the greatest names in chemistry as they sought the Nobel Prize for themselves and as some conspired to deny it to Gilbert Lewis.

It is also a cautionary tale. As we read of the excesses and abuses of government and society in a turbulent period of our history, we are reminded of the social and political unrest of our own time. Coffey writes with wit and wisdom and his biography of Lewis does justice to an amazing man and his extraordinary accomplishments. No background in science is required to enjoy this work, just an appreciation for thorough research and fine writing by an accomplished author.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Chemistry One on April 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed the book, and relished the little nuggets of knowledge such as :
G.N. Lewis invented "activity","fugacity", "ionic strength" and "photon" as terminology. "Lewisite" was named for a different Lewis.
I had not realized how involved he was in heavy water and isotopic labeling.
The material on Haber was interesting, but much of it was available elsewhere.
I had never read much about Langmuir before- his life was fascinating:
the mountain climbing, the connection with Kurt Vonnegut etc., and of course his work on chemical bonding and surface chemistry. I was impressed that he spoke fluent French and German.
Nernst I want to read more about, and Ostwald.
A theme throughout the book was the extreme sensitivity of many of these scientists to personal slights, quarrels over priority and the like.
Academic advancement depends on reputation-makes people crazy over things
many of the rest of us would let pass.
Dorothy Wrinch was new to me. Feminists may find her story pathetic, but possibly less so than that of Rosalind Franklin.
The assertion (p.209) that the first transmutation of an isotope of one element into that of another was done at Berkeley is most likely incorrect. I also found confusing the statement that an isotope had been
formed by bombarding something with neutrons in a cyclotron. I suspect some technicalities were left out in respect of general readers.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By wobs on October 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A great read! I liked the way the author describes the different work cultures and habits of both Lewis and Langmuir...academia vs. industry.
The author's plain talk about "the battles over priority of invention" and the scientific discovery methods gave me much insight into my own career in software engineering.
One other thing that I _really_ liked was the feeling that I had just taken a refresher chemistry class (except this was way more fun :-)
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By David R. Mattson on December 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed Cathedrals of Science. The narrative was every bit as captivating as a historical fiction, yet the detailed research gives one a rewarding insight into an extremely interesting subject and historical time period. As with many, I have read extensively on the popularly know quantum physics pioneers. Coffey's work more broadly illuminates the "age defining" discoveries and key personalities of the period. I found the author's discussions of the Pathological Science of Langmuir especially relevant to today's political - scientific discourse.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By David Chandler on February 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I am a physical chemistry faculty member at Berkeley, in the chemistry department that G. N. Lewis built, and I am also the recipient of the 2005 Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics. So understandably, I am interested in learning about these two towering and competing figures. Coffey's book is about these two men and a few others who contributed to creating the field of physical chemistry during the first half of the 20th century. His descriptions of scientific principles are vivid and accurate, and his stories about Lewis and Langmuir are fascinating. In view of the former, I trust the accuracy of the latter. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of science in general, and the history of physical chemistry in particular.
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