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Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World

Leblanc, Perkins, Rillieux, Haber, Carothers—these are not the household names of science, yet they are just a few of the chemists responsible for household products and innovations that quietly make our lives easier, cleaner, and more pleasurable. Soap, sugar, colorful dyes, clean water, safe refrigeration, and powerful cars—how many of us would choose to live without them? We take them for granted, yet behind every chemical product is the fascinating story of a scientist and a breakthrough discovery that solved a critical social problem. Acclaimed science writer Sharon Bertsch McGrayne tells the story of the chemical revolution through the lives of the people who created it, taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of history through epidemics, wars and revolutions and through scandal, scientific intrigues, moral dilemmas, and personal tragedies.

With an even hand, McGrayne explores not only the humanitarian and scientific upside of each pivotal discovery but also their sometimes devastating effects on the environment and the public health. Here is a lucid and enlightening account of influential chemical discoveries, the people who discovered them, and how they helped to shape the modern world – for better… or for worse.

The nine scientists and their breakthrough discoveries are Nicolas Leblanc (soap); William Henry Perkin (dyes); Norbert Rillieux (sugar); Edward Frankland (clean water); Fritz Haber (fertilizer and poison gas), Thomas Midgley, Jr. (leaded gasoline and safe refrigeration); Wallace Hume Carothers (nylon); Paul Hermann Müller (DDT); and Clair C. Patterson (lead-free gasoline and food).

Praise from Reviewers

“On your next trip to the bookstore by pass the action adventure thrillers and seek out Prometheans in the Lab… I wish that McGrayne’s book were twice its length.”

—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“This book is a gem! Rarely have I seen chemistry so clearly and eloquently explained, while still showing all its shortcomings…. A good and easy read.”
—AAAS Science Books and Films

“Their lives illustrate the interplay of consumer demand, corporate greed and environmental fallout… A compelling read… many fascinating stories… an ambitious book, and well-researched.”

“Appealing… humbling… moving.”
—New Scientist

“I highly recommend this thoughtful and thought-provoking book. McGrayne successfully describes the ambiguous effects of chemical technology and the role that human strengths and frailties play on mitigating or exacerbating those effects. … An excellent job of describing the chemical processes and their legacies – both beneficial and unintended.”
—Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN)

“Artfully combines scientific, economic, political, and sociological implications of the discoveries by focusing on the inventors and their lives.”
—National Science Teachers Association Recommends

“Evenhanded… [describes] both the benefits that chemists have conferred on the world and the social and environmental problems that they have inadvertently caused…. This is indeed unusual, if not unique… Her portraits of warts-and-all personalities and private lives are engaging…. Both important and complicated. Well done and worth reading —certainly for students, but even for academic historians.”

“Masterly… exciting and absorbing. McGrayne critically examines the tangled and complicated interrelationships between the public’s insistence on progress and comfort and the need to preserve the environment. … Meticulously documented.”
—The Chemical Educator

“Sharon McGrayne’s appealing collection of biographical essays reminds us how much we owe to chemistry. Industrial chemistry is too often made the whipping boy for all of our environmental problems. It’s good to get a bit of perspective and this book provides just that.”
—New Scientist

“Gripping… Sparkling… balanced… A joy to read. A wonderful book.”
—Chemical Heritage

"Strongly recommended."