In this brief, renowned inorganic chemist Jay Labinger tracks the development of his field from a forgotten specialism to the establishment of an independent, intellectually viable discipline. Inorganic chemistry, with a negation in its very name, was long regarded as that which was left behind when organic and physical chemistry emerged as specialist fields in the 19th century. Only by the middle of the 20th century had it begun to gain its current stature of equality to that of the other main branches of chemistry. The author discusses the evidence for this transition, both quantitative and anecdotal and includes consideration of the roles of local and personal factors, with particular focus on Caltech as an illustrative example. This brief is of interest both to historians of science and inorganic chemists who would like to find out how their field began.
About the Author
Jay Labinger is a California native, born in Los Angeles in 1947. He was an undergraduate at Harvey Mudd College, and received his Ph.D. (in inorganic chemistry,of course) at Harvard University in 1974. After a postdoctoral stint at PrincetonUniversity, he held successive positions in academia (University of Notre Dame) and industry (Occidental Petroleum, ARCO) before coming to Caltech in 1986, where he is Administrator of the Beckman Institute and Faculty Associate in Chemistry. His chemistry research has been focused in the areas of organotransition metal chemistry and energy-related catalysis. Many of his contributions have taken the form of mechanistic explanation of transformations that are potentially valuable in the energy sphere; these include oxidative coupling of methane, selective oxidation of alkanes by soluble metal complexes, and conversion of methanol to a high-octane hydrocarbon. He was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009. For the last twenty years or so, he has also been active in scholarship on the borders between science and the humanities, writing on topics such as science and literature, controversial episodes in the history of chemistry, and the “Science Wars.” He co-edited (with Harry Collins) the book The One Culture (2001), a conversation-in-print between scientists and scholars of science. He is a past president of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts.The One Culture (2001), a conversation-in-print between scientists and scholars of science. He is a past president of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: Brief history of the disciplinary formation of organic and physical chemistry, and the contrasting status of inorganic chemistry, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including commentary on the comparative inattention to inorganic chemistry by historians.- The (re)birth of inorganic chemistry.- The personal factor: inorganic chemistry at Caltech during the period leading up to this transition, as an illustrative example of the importance of local factors and personalities, with particular focus on the career of the one (self-described) inorganic chemist at Caltech during this time: Don Yost.- Agents of respectability: Investigation of the developments and people primarily responsible for the transition of inorganic chemistry from a secondary, underpopulated subfield to a fully coequal specialization.- Conclusions: summary of the arguments; how inorganic chemistry has been able to establish a coherent, intellectually viable persona for itself even while increasing interdisciplinary moves would seem to favor fragmentation; speculation about possible future evolution of the field.