- History of modern chemistry
- History of modern sciences
- History of scientific glassblowing
- Scientific pedagogy and collective practice
- Laboratory history and lab studies
- Material culture studies
As chemist and historian, my interest is in science as a learned, material, collective practice. At present, I’m focused on completing my first book – a history of the origins and development of synthetic organic chemistry in nineteenth-century Germany. My study, called Material World: Making Modern Chemistry, explains the rise of this powerful and productive science. Built on a fundamental revision in our understanding of the accomplishments of one of history’s most famous chemists, Justus Liebig, my study explains why chemists began doing organic synthesis, and what it allowed them to do. It’s a story of personal ambition and heated dispute, of broken dreams and broken glass, of high theory and low cunning, of indecipherable notebooks and imperial ambition. By 1900, organic synthesis had launched mighty industries, transformed molecular understanding of organic nature, and laid the foundations for the molecular life sciences. My book provides the first historical explanation of these remarkable achievements. In doing so it contributes to our understanding of the rise of technical modernity.
Research for Material World highlighted the importance of glass and glassblowing to the science of chemistry, and it led to a collaborative project (founded with master scientific glassblower Tracy Drier, UW-Madison, Chemistry: https://www.chem.wisc.edu/users/drier) that examines the essential role of flame worked glassware in mediating chemists’ interactions with the molecular microworld. The spaces inside glass bring skill, fire, and substance together to make new worlds. Their shape and content are subject to minute control, they’re impervious to corrosive chemicals, yet they’re so fragile almost none remains from the past. Generations of chemists fought over the meaning of these spaces, saw things inside that we cannot, and taught us to share their vision with coloured ball-and-stick models. That’s why I’ve called this project Microheterotopias.