HPSC C313: Topics in the History of the Physical Sciences
Dr Hasok Chang / Dept of Science & Technology Studies / UCL
Projects available for 2004-05 (term 2)
Description of each project
Almost as soon as chlorine was discovered in 1774, its power to destroy colours was noticed, and scientists quickly proposed practical applications. One might think that this discovery would have led straightforwardly to the development of bleaching techniques, especially given that at this time of the Industrial Revolution the burgeoning textile industry created a great demand for simple and economical bleaching methods. But actually the establishment of chlorine bleaching was a long and complicated process. Why? Olympia Brown started off this project in 2000-01, quickly identifying two main geographical strands of the story (British and French), which were investigated further by Jacob Soper and Saber Farooqi (2002-03) respectively. Manchi Chung (2003-04) then highlighted the need to go beyond the linear model and technological determinism in order to give a good analysis of this complex episode. Manchi's line of thought needs to be pursued more thoroughly, and there is also still a great deal of factual information to be unearthed about the history. This project needs someone with an interest in the history of technology, economic history, science and technology policy, or the sociology of science and technology. Some competence in chemistry will be helpful, but not required. If you can read French, that would be useful for pursuing the French side of the story further.
Chlorine's power to arrest the spread of contagious diseases was also noted early on. Similarly with bleaching, however, the use of chlorine and chlorine compounds as disinfectants took a surprisingly long time to be widely accepted. Elinor Mathieson (2000-01) started this project and charted the history of the early attempts in chlorine disinfection. Fiona Scott-Kerr (2003-04) followed the story well into the 19th century, and discovered a similar pattern of promising starts fizzling out time and again. Fiona has advanced the thesis that disinfection techniques were only established after the germ theory of disease was accepted, allowing good explanations of why chlorine worked to stop the spread of infections. So we have made very good progress on this project, but still there is more work to be done in tracing the development of the theories of disease, as well as discovering further details about the failed attempts at chlorine isinfection. This project is ideal for someone with interest and background in the history of medicine. Ability to read French or German would be helpful, but is by no means required.
The elementary nature of chlorine
When chlorine was discovered in 1774, it was not considered an element. The Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele, its discoverer, was a believer in phlogiston theory, and he thought he had made chlorine by taking phlogiston away from hydrochloric acid; the latter was known as "muriatic acid" at the time, so Scheele called chlorine "dephlogisticated muriatic acid". When Lavoisier's oxygen theory replaced the phlogiston theory, chemists re-conceptualised chlorine as "oxygenated muriatic acid", definitely a compound. The story up to that point was told excellently by Ruth Ashbee in 2003-04, but the next phase in chlorine's life needs more investigation.
Mårten Åkesson (2000-01) very nicely started off the research on how chlorine became an element. At the centre of this development was the overthrow of Lavoisier's theory that all acids contained oxygen, so Mårten traced and assessed the arguments over the theory of acids. We need to bring this story to a conclusion, up to Humphry Davy's work, which was crucial in the rejection of Lavoisier's theory of acids. This project requires someone who is willing to delve deeply into the primary sources, with some ability in chemistry. Skills in French or German would be helpful. Some knowledge of the philosophy of science may also be quite useful.
Chlorine found itself at the centre of yet another controversy in the 19th century. The English physician William Prout in 1815 proposed the hypothesis that the atomic weights of all elements were integer multiples of hydrogen's weight. Prout's hypothesis attracted some attention at the time, and modern scientists see it as an anticipation of the discrete structure of the atomic nucleus. But throughout the 19th century exceptions to Prout's hypotheses were noted and debated; chlorine was a salient anomaly, its atomic weight stubbornly converging on 35.5. Jonathan Nendick and Dominic Scrancher started this project in 2003-04, and despite their excellent work much remains to be done. Jonathan surveyed the history and identified two distinct phases of debates, each of which ended inconclusively. How can we best make sense of this curious history? Dominic examined a famous treatment of this case by Imre Lakatos, who used it as an example illustrating his ideas about scientific research programmes; he reached a strong conclusion showing the inadequacies of the Lakatosian history. Something identified in Jonathan's history may point to a better account: each phase of the debate was dominated by a distinct research school, led by Thomas Thomson in Glasgow in the first case and by Jean-Baptiste Dumas in Paris in the second case. Someone needs to follow up on this idea, making use of the existing historiographical literature on research schools; that task will suit someone with historiographical interests and aptitude. We also need to find out more about the history itself, which will require working with both primary and secondary sources; for this aspect of the work, some familiarity with chemistry is desired, and knowledge of French will be helpful though not required.
The British entry into chemical warfare
The German chlorine attack on Allied forces in April 1915 opened the era of large-scale chemical warfare. David Bulley and Nick Coppeard in 2000-01 ably started the work on the use of chlorine in the First World War. The British political and military leaders had a considerable dilemma in deciding how to react to the German initiative, as they had a distaste for this new method of warfare for many reasons, not least of all the desire to honour the Hague Convention. James Cambrook (2003-04) made a careful consideration of the various factors affecting the British deliberations, which resulted in the decision to respond in kind with chlorine in the first instance. There are further investigations to make, particularly about the political process, and also about how the political and the military leaders interacted with each other. It may also be interesting to follow up on later decisions as chemical warfare escalated during the course of the war, and in that connection we might note Nick Coppeard's curious observation that it was actually Britain that first broke the letter of the Hague Convention. This project is suitable for someone with interests in military history or British politics.
The international control of chemical weapons
The use of chlorine gas and other toxic chemicals in the First World War led to widespread condemnation of chemical warfare, leading to its prohibition in the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Catherine Jefferson (2003-04) found that the Geneva Protocol was not simply an expression of the public condemnation of chemical warfare. Through the analysis of two British newspapers of the time among other sources, she has shown that public opinion on this matter at the end of the First World War was in fact ambivalent and generally ill-informed. Catherine's considered view is that the main motive force behind the Geneva Protocol was the League of Nations, with its own concern about restoring international order by quasi-legal agreements. This project could be further developed in a few different directions: learning more about the exact course of the debates and negotiations that resulted in the Geneva Protocol; reaching a better understanding of the workings and motivations of the League of Nations; carrying on with more newspaper analysis and other studies of public opinion at the time. This project is suitable for someone with interests in political history, international relations, arms control, or media research.
Physiologists in the First World War
An application of new technology in warfare requires the participation of scientists and engineers. The First World War has been dubbed the "chemists' war", but the introduction of chemical warfare also resulted in the involvement of physiologists, for studying the effect of the various toxic chemicals on the human body and designing protection and treatment methods. Building broadly on previous work in the course, Daisy O'Reilly-Weinstock (2003-04) investigated the effect of this wartime involvement on the community of physiologists, and concluded that it brought physiology out from its previous isolation into political and scientific prominence. This is a very promising start, which should be followed up in a few different directions: a thorough survey of secondary sources should be made for more leads; more evidence should be found to support Daisy's thesis; more background knowledge should be gathered about the history of physiology (and its relation to clinical medicine). This project requires someone with interest in institutional history or the history of medicine who can work creatively in locating and synthesising relavant information from a variety of sources.