University News

Hay exhibit extracts chemistry’s secrets

Contributing Writer
Friday, October 7, 2011

When the United Nations designated 2011 the International Year of Chemistry, Lee Pedersen immediately posted the news to the bulletin board in her office. Pedersen, a physical sciences librarian with a background in chemistry, set out with Holly Snyder, curator of the History of Science Collections at the John Hay Library, to put together a chemistry exhibit for the University community.

Their effort culminated this month with “Unveiling the Secrets: The Evolution of Modern Chemistry,” an exhibit at the John Hay Library. The exhibit features photographs, published texts and letters — all taken from University collections — from the 15th century to the mid-20th century, ending with the detonation of the atomic bomb in 1945.

“The challenge of doing this kind of exhibit is limiting it,” Snyder said.

The International Year of Chemistry honors French chemist Marie Curie, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her work on radioactive elements. Because Curie’s research made the atomic bomb possible, Snyder and Pedersen decided to end the exhibit there.

The clandestine nature of the development of the atomic bomb echoes the theme which gives the exhibit takes its title: secrecy. Unlike physics, mathematics and other fields that made advances during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, chemistry eschewed a tradition of publication and collaboration because many chemists were alchemists who aimed to conceal their discoveries for profit.

The exhibit pays particular attention to these misconceptions and fantastical expectations. Sections include “Alchemy as Theory: The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone” and “Phlogiston: The Heart of All Combustible Resources.”

“I was fascinated by phlogiston,” Pedersen said. Phlogiston, a substance that does not exist, was once believed to reside in all combustible materials. Early texts in the exhibit also assume that the Aristotelian elements ­— fire, earth, air and water — make up all matter.

The development of modern chemistry accelerated dramatically after the publication of Robert Boyle’s “The Sceptical Chymist” in 1661, which is featured in the exhibit. Boyle’s text challenged the Aristotelian paradigm from an experimental standpoint. Though Boyle believed in both phlogiston and alchemy, his work raised the standards for published, rigorous and experimental chemistry.

“It’s wonderful to see how meticulously they have written their papers,” said Satya Reddy P’98 P’00 P’01, adjunct professor of chemistry for research. He hoped the exhibit would inspire his graduate students, who have the advantages of computers, to pay the same care.

When considering some of Boyle’s disproved theories, Snyder said it is important to “understand the limits of what knowledge was available.”

Because of Curie’s prominence as a woman in science, Pedersen and Snyder made an effort to include more female chemists. “It’s clear that women played a really key role in chemistry,” Snyder said. She noted that some of the earliest chemists were bakers, cloth-dyers and, Pedersen added, perfumers. Pedersen and Snyder were ultimately disappointed by the sparse number of chemistry texts written by women in the collection. Chemistry is a “weak spot” in the University’s library collections, Snyder said.

Professor of Chemistry Paul Williard P’11 said library resources are “one of the hidden treasures at Brown.”

“Not everything is online,” said Tovah Reis, who used to work as a librarian at the Medical School. The exhibit could draw attention to the collections at the University, she added.

“Not a lot of us know about this,” said Natalie Uduwela ’12, who stumbled upon the exhibit after a class in the Hay. Sedik Mohammed ’15, who saw an announcement for “Unveiling the Secrets” in Morning Mail, thought the exhibit was “informative” but added that “old manuscripts, especially about chemistry,” might not interest every student.

This is the library’s third science-oriented exhibit since 2009, when the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the International Year of Astronomy were celebrated. The cross-disciplinary nature of the exhibit appealed to both Pedersen and Snyder. “It was a great journey for me to learn the roots of my own field,” Pedersen said. Snyder, who disliked chemistry as a school subject, said she developed an appreciation for it through the project.

The exhibit will run until Oct. 31, after which the works on display will return to the library collections.

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