Chemistry as a science developed from alchemy and phlogiston theory – both are terms are now obsolete. Lavoisier is usually claimed to be the father of modern chemistry; his revolution of chemistry was not only scientific but also literary/linguistic. When he proposed a change of approach from qualitative to quantitative, he pushed alchemy out of its mystical and philosophical realms and into the hard sciences – alchemy was no more, it was chemistry. If a modern chemist read “chemical treatises” before Lavoisier’s intervention, they would find them incomprehensible. Therefore, literature and language have been important defining factors in the inception of chemistry.
The literary representations of chemistry can be divided into two periods: the literary representation during the nineteenth century and the twentieth century.
During the nineteenth century, the English Romantics describe chemistry as “the striving after unity of principle, through all the diversity of forms… it was poetry” For example, Humphrey Davy’s work (an English chemist and poet – you can find more about him here) influenced the creation of Frankenstein; Keats’ use of “poetic” words such as “ethereal” had an extra layer of scientific meaning from Davy’s work. In Elective Affinities, Goethe uses metathesis as a metaphor for human relationships – a comfortable couple is torn apart when one (or both) is more strongly attracted to another party – with a lengthy discussion on metathesis, which he describes in both abstract and specific terms. While literary depictions didn’t focus on up-to-date chemical theories, authors showed increasing awareness of the prominence of modern chemistry in nineteenth century science and society.
During the twentieth century, chemistry became less interesting, a trend ascribed to the absence of “grand themes”: chemistry is perceived to have become more about technology than about asking deep questions. Many of its literary depictions focus not on chemistry but on its consequences. Crime fiction and detective stories gained popularity, and with them, chemistry was relegated to explaining complicated and almost-supernatural murders.
With the introduction of gas warfare during WWI, the negative image of chemistry was perpetuated. A common theme started to arise – cautionary tales about environmental degradation and adverse health effects, all the way up to global-scale catastrophic events.
Three recent authors have brought up chemistry in a positive light. Primo Levi (chemist and Auschwitz survivor) reconnects chemistry and life with his essay “Carbon” in the The Periodic Table. Roald Hoffman writes about chemistry and its use of creativity rather than artificiality. Carl Djerassi writes about the scientific profession and its culture rather than science itself.
The shifts in focus that chemistry has had in literary depictions tell us about the past – they illuminate the cultural perception of its role in society, but they also help us think critically about the way chemistry can be used and perceived in the future.