Books in Scientia – Cathedrals of Science


Title and author

Cathedrals of Science by Patrick Coffey

What’s it about?

A history of modern chemistry spanning the late 1800s through to the 1940s. The focus is on the personalities of some of the influential chemists of the time, as well as their scientific achievements. The main ‘character’ is Gilbert Lewis, American physical chemist and arguably the best chemist to never win the Nobel Prize.

What are the good bits?

The last few pages are particularly gripping and almost murder mystery-esque. The exploration of the character and personal quirks of many of these chemists (especially Lewis) is quite engaging. It reminds us that these giants of modern chemistry, whose names we use every day, were real people with real flaws as well as brilliance.

What are the not-so-good bits?

I found the book a little hard to get into at first. Beginning with acids and bases, it’s not the most thrilling of chemistry topics to me and I didn’t really warm to Nernst and Arrhenius as the first chemists we come across in the narrative.

What does it say on p303 line 19?

On Lewis resigning from the National Academy of Sciences: “This petulant resignation must have discouraged many of his supporters, and the American Nobel nominations for Lewis fell off after 1934.” Yet another entry in the long list of reasons why Lewis never won the Nobel. Sounds like if he wasn’t such a copper nanotube things might have turned out differently for him.

Who should read it?

Those who want to find out more about the foundations of modern chemistry, with a focus on the personalities of people who contributed significantly to it.

How good is it?

Reasonably good, a worthwhile read.

3.5 bunsen burners out of 5

stars cathedrals