Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book: The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany

This book is a great source on the history of chemistry and its relation with politics, governments and of course war. 

By the end of the 19th century, some German chemists (Emil Fischer -"a pillar of militarized science" in particular) started to think that they were losing their position in chemistry (especially in inorganic chemistry) to the US. "We must do more for inorganic and general chemistry again, if we are not to be put to shame by other countries."
Fischer and several other chemists decided to convince the Kaiser to fund chemistry and open new labs. What they had in mind was a large research facility with the most modern equipment. So, it took years and a lot of PR to convince companies and the Kaiser himself to open these research centers. Not surprisingly for those years, about half of the funding came from Jewish businessmen (you can read the reasons in the book). These centers, in turn, brought much success to Germany and tens of Nobel Prize winners. 

The best part of the book in my opinion is that it allows you read the discussions among academicians and politicians regarding the importance of funding, research ideas and commercial applications of the products. Just like today, many chemists believed that chemistry was no longer a career or how little chemists were respected. There were also fights among several professors on why there were few positions (or too many chemists). On the other hand, there were chemists telling that there were too many professors at upper ranks. Professors complaining about teaching duties... Basically, everything was exactly the same as today.

There are also so many details that I didn't know about such as the rivalry between Nernst and Haber, Willstatter's research interest in photosynthesis in the living leaf, Einstein's pacifist letter with only 4 signatures and Fischer's wish for Haber's tests "failure from the bottom of my patriotic heart"

Some interesting quotes:

"Science did not escape the rise of nationalism but adapted to it.

[Ostwald] it was not frequently claimed that I was no chemist, because I never produced a new substance.

Big science, like big industry, needs operating capital.

Standstill is retreat (Duisberg).

As an Austrian women, a Jew and a physicist, Meitner's presence meant little to the German chemists....with the nonposition of unsalaried "guest".

[A university professor] is freer, because he can replace many assistants by students and doctoral candidates.

[Harnack] our enemies...brought German science and military strength as close together as possible.

[Liebknecht] science and research in uniform have hardly ever done good.

...the war converted him [Ostwald] virtually overnight, to an ultranationalist. "

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