Prometheans in the Lab | by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Prometheans in the Lab

Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World
by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
(McGraw-Hill, 2001, 243 pages)

This is a well-researched and well written book about nine great scientists and their contributions that changed our lives and defined our modern society.

The chapters all follow the same outline of a brief biographical sketch, the scientist’s brilliant discovery and how it improved our lives. I had a good time reading about the scientists, their lives and adventures. I find their scientific journeys to be just as exciting as the end results. What gives the book more depth is that the author doesn’t shy away from issues and consequences that were brought on by these discoveries. Thomas Midgley’s leaded gasoline and Freon refrigerants made our lives healthier and happier. But they came at the cost of thousands of poisoned factory workers who worked with high levels of lead. American biologist Rachael Carson’s best seller Silent Spring was discussed in chapter 8 which covered Swiss chemist Paul Muller. Muller’s discovery of DDT and its use in the control of vector diseases won him the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His discovery saved millions of civilians and soldiers from insect-borne typhus and malaria during World War II. Carson’s book expressed environmental concerns of the use of DDT as pesticides. Carson and her work also inspired the environmental movement, the establishment of the EPA, and the rest is history.

Norbert Rillieux is another name you must remember if you have a sweet tooth 🙂 According to the author, “Rillieux was a straight-talking, free African American in slave-holding Louisiana and a cousin of the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas. Norbert Rillieux’s triple-effect evaporator helped fill the world’s sweet tooth with cakes and candies” (30). American Chemical Society’s web site has this to say about the great chemist:

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), widely considered to be one of the earliest chemical engineers, revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the multiple effect evaporator under vacuum. Rillieux’s great scientific achievement was his recognition that at reduced pressure the repeated use of latent heat would result in the production of better quality sugar at lower cost. One of the great early innovations in chemical engineering, Rillieux’s invention is widely recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and for saving large quantities of fuel.

I found the book to be informative, engaging, and even thrilling at times. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of science and/or biographies.

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