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Isis review, Reinhardt

Carsten Reinhardt. Shifting and Rearranging. Physical Methods and the Transformation of Modern Chemistry.
vii + 428 pp. figs., ill., app., index. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications/USA, 2006. $49.95 (cloth).

The history of chemistry after World War II is a relatively uncultivated field, not only compared with the chemical revolution in the late 18th century but also with chemistry in the 19th century. (In this respect, history of chemistry differs from history of physics.) And yet it can be argued that chemistry underwent a second revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, an “instrumental revolution” that profoundly changed the field. Carsten Reinhardt is not the first historian to call attention to this revolutionary phase, but he does it in a new way which focuses on the transfer of instrumental research methods from physics to chemistry. At the center of the transformation were instruments based on physical methods and knowledge, of which Reinhardt deals in particular with NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. The development of chemical NMR is the main subject of the chapters 2, 4 and 6, whereas mass spectrometry and its wide-ranging use in organic chemistry is examined in the chapters 3 and 5. In a final chapter on “The Spectrum of Methods,” Reinhardt summarizes and reconsiders the complex interplay of physical and chemical methods, both in academic science and as it influenced the academic-industrial collaboration.

The new physical methods changed the domain and very nature of chemistry by giving chemical reactions a much lower significance, and for this reason they initially experienced considerable resistance in the community of academic organic chemists. However, Reinhardt argues convincingly that the instrument-based transformation did not constitute a revolution in Kuhn’s sense, and nor did it reduce chemistry to physics. The pragmatic chemists succeeded in “taming” the spectroscopic techniques by making them parts of their own experimental culture, and chemistry remained a stable and coherent, if less centralized, scientific discipline. Although several historians and philosophers of science have dealt with instruments and experimentation in post-Word War II chemistry, they have largely ignored the interrelation of chemical research methods with the development in physical instrumentation. This is a topic that Reinhardt explores in great and fascinating detail, primarily through the study of pioneers of chemical NMR and mass spectrometry (his core group consists of Herbert Gutowsky, John Roberts, Richard Ernst, Fred McLafferty, Klaus Biemann, and Carl Djerassi). He places a great deal of emphasis on the development of methods, which not only involved how to operate the new instruments but also how to understand them theoretically. Methods were applied in the research process and, what is more important, they were sometimes the final outcome of the process.
The role of the chemists in the instrument revolution was dual, as they were users as well as actively involved in developing and improving the instruments. The scientific “lead users” were those individuals who were able to create and direct the market for scientific instruments, to mediate between industry, instrument makers, and academic chemists. One example was the Caltech chemist John Roberts whose close cooperation with the instrument manufacturer Varian Associates became of great importance to the dissemination of NMR spectrometry into organic chemistry (on this topic, see also Reinhardt’s article in the June 2006 issue of Isis). The university-industry nexus occupies a central position in Reinhardt’s analysis of the transformation of modern chemistry. Commercially built mass spectrometers and similar advanced instruments first found application in the petroleum companies and related chemical industries, and only subsequently in university laboratories. In the early stages, most academic chemists learned about the new powerful methods from scientists employed in industry. It was of crucial importance to have strong connections not only to the instrument users in industry but also to the instrument manufacturers. The relationship, which Reinhardt describes in detail, was beneficial to the manufacturers as well as to the research chemists: the chemists got early access to advanced instrumentation and as users they contributed with improved design and construction.
Shifting and Rearranging is based on many years of study, including interviews and archival research. The meticulously documented work is a most important contribution to the history of how physical methods have changed the modern chemical sciences. It is more than a book on the history of chemistry, though, for it also adds significantly to the history of scientific instruments and our understanding of the intimate connection between science and industry in the period from about 1950 to 1970. Although it includes a company index and a name index, for some reason it has no subject index. Reinhardt’s account combines historical and sociological approaches with a penetrating insight in the scientific and technical content of the instruments and methods he deals with. For this reason, his work will not only be of interest to historians of science and instruments, but also to the many chemists who work in a research tradition with roots in the period that Reinhardt describes so comprehensively and insightsfully.


(Note on Contributor)

Helge Kragh is professor of history of science at the Steno Institute, University of Aarhus, Denmark. He has worked in the history of modern physical sciences, including chemistry and astronomy. His most recent book, Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006.