The pen is mightier than the sword
(attributed to so many people…)
I do not usually write ‘instant’ posts in response to news, other publications, book releases…but this time I will make a special exception. What’s more, I will try to keep my post as short as possible: a daunting challenge.
An article published on the online platform The Conversation UK has drawn my attention. Its title is From chrome plating to nanotubes: the ‘modern’ chemistry first used in ancient times and can be read, and republished, for free. Have a look at it first, and then come back here.
This article makes for an engaging read, and it is an informative piece: I have learned for example that ancient smiths were extremely skilled in forging swords of unsurpassed quality with Damascus steel which, as it turns out, contains carbon nanotubes.
“The result was beautiful blades covered in swirling patterns. And more importantly for the soldiers of the time was the exceptional durability and the razor-sharp edges the steel held. We now know the exact composition of Damascus steel, yet modern metallurgists have failed to reproduce it so far.”
Brilliant- and good for the pub quiz. By the way, the text also fails to mention that these blades were forged from so-called wootz steel, shipped from India, which means that the credit for cutting-edge technology should be shared across the Euphrates and the Indus. (This piece of information actually appears in the 2006 Nature paper reporting on carbon nanotubes, but also in a very recent article published on the website Chemistryworld summarising the research on wootz steel).
So, looking more closely, the article published on The Conversation UK does not quite cut it. My criticism will follow two main lines of reasoning, one addressing how the article communicates chemistry, and the other analysing this article on a deeper, ‘philosophical’ level.
First and foremost, let’s try to put ourselves in the audience’s shoes. What is the take-home message? Apart from the wow effect of the examples cited in the text, I believe that the lay reader will at best forget all of this quickly. At worst, the reader will feel confused. All in all, ‘modern’ chemistry is not so modern; so, what are all those chemists doing now? Don’t get me wrong: I am not voicing my criticism just for the sake of it: if seen through the lens of the toolkit for public communication of chemistry drawn up by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC henceforth), this article misses the mark in terms of letting the public know what chemists do, while also failing to “keep it simple”.
As a fledgling communicator of science and a newcomer to the world of blogging, I cannot but recognise the limitations of my own posts (too long, not enough pictures, their scope is too broad), which probably helps me to spot the shortcomings of other articles, too. In fact, the piece appeared on The Conversation UK puts too many irons in the fire by listing too many examples, instead of just focussing on a single case-study, for example the carbon nanotubes in Damascus blades.
Depth of analysis and extensive overviews do not go hand-in-hand. True, the author clearly states that his aim is “to hunt down some of the most advanced uses of chemistry” after finding several example of “scientific methods that we put down to modern minds were actually discovered by ancient civilisations.“. Fair enough, but a shopping list of beautiful produtcs will not buy you new customers. Audiences want to read stories, and a single engaging story will do, all the more so when articles are quite short (800 words). Although pitched at a more specialised level, the piece on wootz steel on Chemistryworld is, in my opinion, a brilliant example of narration-based science communication. Any example taken from The Conversation UK? Here you go: The science behind making a perfect pancake.
Despite stressing modern technological applications of carbon nanotubes, thus “making it tangible” as suggested by the RSC (“When used within composite materials they can massively enhance the strength of an object resulting in super strong and light components, some of which you can find in wind turbines, sports gear and vehicles.“), the article published on The Conversation UK does miss out on a great opportunity to trace a connection between the material world and the realm of the laboratory, where chemists, the modern counterpart of ancient craftsmen, engage with matter to create new chemical entities and to make sense of them.
So, here’s my humble suggestion: starting from the discovery of the secrets of Damascus steel and the craftsmanship of bladesmiths, one could then have chosen to mention that airborne carbon nanotubes have been found in the lungs of Parisian children, raising serious health concerns. Alternatively, the author could have explained how scientists did find out the presence of carbon nanotubes in the blades. This would have turned the article into a compelling ‘detective story’, while also offering the cue for the transition to the next topic: what are chemists doing with carbon nanotubes in the laboratory now? Making new materials? Yes, and what else?
I’m asking this question because chemistry is much more than a provider of novel, oh-so-cool consumer materials. This relates to the philosophical side of my criticism. Chemical entities are material objects but also materialised knowledge, and working tools to shed further light on the material world 1. New compounds are often synthesised on purpose just to prove, or disprove, a certain chemical theory. Carbon nanotubes themselves unlock more sensitive analytical methods targeting many other compounds, thus becoming a major node in this great network of related objects and mutual relationships that create the chemical universe. At the same time, the study of carbon nanotubes raises questions on the properties of their carbon atoms as a function of their position along the tube.
There’s much more than this, though. The blade chips when it hits the issue of putting chemical ‘discoveries’ or chemicals, into historical perspective. This is not surprising, because here we have to negotiate an epistemological minefield. I am just an amateur of philosophy, but I will try to do my best to explain why this piece falls short of my expectations, or worse. In fact, the article teeters on a knife-edge: by comparing and contrasting past and present chemical knowledge and practices, it seems to place them on the same footing. Yes, discoveries can occur independently and at different points in time, and scientific facts can surely be rediscovered: yet, the material and epistemological toolboxes of those making these discoveries are always different. One can stumble upon a certain intriguing materials, or phenomenon at any moment, in a lab or in a smithery, but this is just the starting point: what matters is how this discovery connects with other known facts, or contributes to unveiling something new. I think that, in terms of science communication, this should be made very clear from the word go.
It does not take much effort: the opening of a 2006 Chemistryworld article reporting on the discovery of carbon nanotubes in wootz steel reads: “Carbon nanotubes are no longer the proud boast of 21st century materials scientists. It appears their discovery was unwittingly pre-empted by mediaeval Muslim sword-smiths whose tough Damascus blades taught the Crusaders the true meaning of cold steel when they fought over the Holy Land.”
One word changes it all: unwittingly.
I do not think that the final paragraph of the article that I am criticising is a saving grace: rather, a coup de grâce:
“The incredible technologies devised by craftsman and artists of ancient civilisations are astounding. Much of it can’t be bettered by modern techniques. But what separates science from skilled craft is an understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved in the making of the material. Underpinning this understanding in modern chemistry is the atomic theory often credited to John Dalton in the early 19th century. But philosophers of old also had a good crack at thinking about the nature of matter. And in fact atomism has sprung up multiple times in antiquity. Most notably from the Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus who speculated that everything is composed of physical, indivisible and invisible atoms back in the 5th century BC.”
Too little, too late. Those words, technology, technique, are giveaways of another trap chemistry lays on the path of science communication: our discipline is seen by some philosophers as science and technology at the same time 1. If the two aspects coexist, say, like a version of the wave-particle duality, those communicating with the public should try to disentangle them first, which is what the last paragraph does not attempt to do at all. (Besides, Dalton’s atomic theory was first and foremost a combinatorial theory, in which atoms were regarded more as tools explaining proportions in compounds, rather than physical entities.)
So, what should we do? I believe that a comparison over time (i.e. diachronic) of how present and past societies regard/handle/exploit/make the same chemical entities can surely be extremely interesting and intriguing, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Science communicators had better be extremely careful in the way they approach diachronic comparisons, or even avoid this topic completely for fear that our readers and ourselves might end up stuck in the middle of that very minefield, with no philosophical compass helping us to navigate it. Safety notice: sharp edge, handle with care. But why?
Philosophers of chemistry have noticed that chemical entities feature a fiendishly complicated relationship with their context. Some researchers assert that substances are “not universal immutable objects given by nature, but things being shaped in human practice and having the same historicity and contingency as human practice“2, others have pointed out that the very constitution of chemical objects, in particular at the nanoscale (nanotubes anyone?), invariably bear the traces of the history of process that has led to their synthesis and the ‘mode of access’ to make them visible3. Another line of reasoning emphasises that the constitutive objects of chemistry (i.e. the level of ontology) are considered to be, at least partly, theory-dependent4 (which means that they can be related, but non-reducible, to their counterparts living in the realm of physics).
As you can see, even a simple statement such as “the people of Damascus were making use of nanotubes in their steel hundreds of years ago” is a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
Philosophical inquiry aside, let my try to say it in my own words, at my own risk: Damascus sabres owe their durability to a type of steel containing a form of the element carbon that is currently known as ‘carbon nanotubes’, that can be imaged with electron microscopes, and now (wittingly) used to endow composite materials with desirable properties. But…
“But what?“, I hear you scream. I know, I know, now you smell a rat, and some of you might even suspect that I am going down the same dangerous path once trodden by French philosopher of science Bruno Latour, when he famously argued5 that pharaoh Ramses II could not have died of tuberculosis because Koch had not discovered the bacillus yet…
So, before you suspect that I am a social constructivist under cover, let me talk about… a candle. Chemists have found out that candle soot contains allotropes of carbon known as fullerenes6. I think you will agree with me that if we take some heritage wax, or tallow, or whatever fuel, we make a candle and we burn it, and then we analyse it with the same techniques used by other investigators, and we finally detect fullerenes in candle soot, we can state that (mind the words please) “the same candle, long time ago, also produced fullerenes when burning“. And the candle did so unwittingly, regardless of social constructions, of the chemical knowledge of people lighting the candle, and so on. Now, any other statement about our ancestors “making fullerenes before modern minds” does not make sense, which, to me, looks like a truism. The same goes with sabres and carbon nanotubes. Do not “retrospectively craft narratives from the facts“, warned Philip Robinson on Chemistryworld a few months ago.
The example of fullerenes in candle soot highlights the power of reproducibility of experiments, plus the vantage point represented by the current body of knowledge supporting the existence of fullerenes. This approach also bear traces of Lavoisier’s twins : analysis and synthesis, the operations which are central to the study of wootz steel, which rests on the analysis of surviving samples while also trying to make them from scratch. Learning by making: a fundamental aspect of a chemical mindset1.
The root of the problem of diachronic comparisons in chemistry, as I see it, is the entanglement of material agency and human agency so typical of this discipline. Both forms of agencies are equally gateways to knowledge in chemistry. The scope of human action on matter changes with changing scientific theories, technological innovations, and (yes, unfortunately) social factors and even the chemists’ own motivations; thus, the comparison of what we know and what we used to know rapidly turns into a Gordian knot, with no Alexander to cut it.
On the other hand, when matter is poised to form a certain chemical object, human actors can find themselves playing the humbling role of unwitting triggers rather than glorious discoverers. Let’s come to terms with this.
With an eye to science communication, what matters is to spell things out. Chemistry happens, sometimes without us knowing it. Read serendipity if you like. Perkin’s synthesis of mauveine was ‘educated serendipity’, as he was well-equipped to make the most of what he had stumbled upon. One cannot simply throw the accidental synthesis of mauveine and the recipe for ancient Egyptian pigments like desert sand in the readers’ eyes, as the article does, while turning a blind eye on the vastly different motivations behind these two chemical operations.
In the end, what most matters in a historical perspective, I believe, is describing, inevitably from our own viewpoint, how other human civilisations, within a certain context, have always tried to make the most of their (material and immaterial) knowledge, and available resources. Realising the maximum potential of stuff with what you have got at hand: that is the key point, and all examples in the article demonstrate how ingenious our ancestors were when faced with practical issues.
Something that is probably not true anymore, think about climate change.
Another topic making chemistry tangible. Another sword of Damocles over our head.
PS: if, dear reader, you are a philosopher, and you spot any fallacious argument in what I have written, please do comment and criticise. I would be grateful if you could do so.
- Chemistry: The Impure Science, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Jonathan Simon, Imperial College Press, 2012 (2nd edition).
- U. Klein, A historical ontology of material substances, C. 1700-1800, in Stuff: The Nature of Chemical Substance (K. Ruthenberg, J. van Brakel eds., Königshausen & Neumann, 2008) as quoted in J.-P. Llored and S. Sarrade, Connecting the philosophy of chemistry, green chemistry and moral philosophy, Foundations of Chemistry, 2015
- J.-P. Llored and S. Sarrade, Connecting the philosophy of chemistry, green chemistry and moral philosophy, Foundations of Chemistry, 2015
- O. Lombardi, M. Labarca, The Ontological Autonomy of the Chemical World, Foundations of Chemistry, 2005, 7, 125-
- Read Latour’s own argument in his article On the Partial Existence of Existing and Nonexisting Objects.
- J. B. Howard et al., Fullerenes C60 and C70 in flames, Nature, 1991, 352, 139–