Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Frank A. von Hippel's "The Chemical Age"

Frank A. von Hippel is a professor of ecotoxicology at Northern Arizona University. He has taught ecology field courses in over twenty countries, and conducted research in the Americas, Africa and Australia. He hosts the Science History Podcast.

von Hippel applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Chemical Age continues a sentence from page 98:
…from plague and mice, and why, in the fifteenth century, the Jews of Frankfurt were forced to pay a tax each year of five thousand rat tails. But the greatest misery that rats conveyed was not typhus—rather, it was an unparalleled pandemic that destroyed civilizations of the Old World, twice.
Browsers opening my book to page 99 would have both a good and terrible idea of the content. The Chemical Age is the story of how scientists developed chemicals to fight famine, plagues, and other people, as well as the emergence of the environmental movement. Page 99 gives an inkling of the coverage of famine and plagues - famine, because rats were responsible for many famines and their associated diseases (hence why Jews were forced to kill rats), and plagues, because the text refers directly to one of the pandemics covered in the book (typhus) and indirectly to another (bubonic plague). But because page 99 is the tail end of the chapter on typhus, with only 1.5 sentences of content, the browser would be forgiven for having no inkling of what the book is about. Indeed, the book’s coverage of famine focuses on the Irish Potato Famine, not on rats. And the book’s coverage of pandemics does more than discuss their impacts on history; it chronicles discoveries of the responsible pathogen and animal vector and the struggle to eradicate the disease with chemicals. Chemical innovations to fight famine and pandemics comprise the first two sections of the book. Section 3 centers on innovations in chemical weaponry, and cross-talk between development of chemical weapons and pesticides. Section 4 discusses how widespread pesticide pollution led to the environmental movement. Clues to these sections are not revealed on page 99. Even a Talmudic scholar would find it difficult to infer how rat tails, typhus and taxes relate to chemical warfare and ecology.

Nevertheless, the page 99 test reveals something else about The Chemical Age. The book is also a story of racism, slavery, genocide and misogyny told within the context of colonialism and war. The scientists are the story – their struggles toward discovery, their competitions for renown, and their personal paths in a chaotic world. For Jewish scientists, anti-Semitism often overwhelmed their hopes to dedicate themselves to science. They were, in their own way, collecting rat tails as a tax on their existence. Similarly, The Chemical Age reveals how former slaves struggled against white supremacy as they cared for yellow fever patients in 18th century Philadelphia, how Irishmen responded to famine brought about by English subjugation, and how Rachel Carson overcame misogyny to alert humanity about corporate and government malfeasance. Each of these struggles redirected society’s trajectory to a better place.
Learn more about The Chemical Age at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue