UCL News


UCL Bookshelf: 'An Element of Controversy'

31 October 2007

Imagine turning up to an undergraduate class, being given a dissertation by one of your student predecessors and told to improve on it.

This was the experience of successive cohorts of undergraduates at UCL Science & Technology Studies between 2000 and 2005. The result of this innovative approach to teaching is a full-blown academic monograph published this month by the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS).

The brains behind this unique experiment, historian of chemistry Dr Hasok Chang, set the class of 2000 the task of researching and writing dissertations about aspects of the chemical element chlorine from its first isolation in the 1770s to the late 20th century.

"The chief innovation of the project is its use of the mechanism of inheritance," says Dr Chang. "Each year students received a body of work produced by the previous group of students, and made improvements and additions to it. This process was repeated until publishable materials were produced."

"This is a very exciting way to introduce undergraduates to the skills involved in real research," says Frank James, historian of science at the Royal Institution and current president of the BSHS.

The theme for the monograph was controversy - something that highly reactive chlorine has been associated with repeatedly throughout this 225-year history. The first half of the volume deals with debates in the theory of matter, starting with the disputes on whether chlorine was an element at all. The second half of the volume addresses controversies arising from the practical uses of chlorine, including bleaching, disinfection, and chemical warfare.

'An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Technology, Medicine and War' is edited by Hasok Chang and Catherine Jackson and published by the BSHS.