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Excellent coverage of the highlights of chemistry over more than five millennia.

Excellent coverage of the highlights of chemistry over more than five millennia.

Originally shared by Robert Woodman

An Enjoyable Walk Through Chemistry History

Do you know who is the first chemist whose name is recorded on an official document? Do you know what role chemistry played in the development of the Pantheon in Rome about 2000 years ago? Have you heard of a person named Geber? If so, do you know what are his contributions to chemistry? Do you know what role adhesive tape played in the development of graphene?

Sterling Publishing Company in New York, a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, publishes the Sterling Milestones series, which includes The Math Book, The Physics Book, The Psychology Book, The Physics Book, and more. The most recent addition to this series is The Chemistry Book by Derek B. Lowe. Dr. Lowe is an organic and medicinal chemist who has worked for several major pharmaceutical companies. He is also one of the pioneer science bloggers, writing the wildly popular blog In the Pipeline, now hosted by the publishers of Science.

The subtitle of Lowe’s book is “From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry.” In this book, he celebrates important accomplishments in chemistry, moving chronologically from circa 500,000 BCE when the Cueva de los Cristales (Cave of Crystals) formed, with its truly stunning, massive gypsum crystals. From there, the book jumps to 3300 BCE and the Bronze Age, and then moves forward to the present day, hitting the highlights of chemistry along the way.

I’m sure that some people might object that he included certain events and excluded others, but I won’t quibble. The book provides excellent coverage of the highlights of chemistry over more than five millennia, and Lowe takes care to show how early concepts influenced later developments and later developments related back to earlier concepts. He maintains a focus on the science, but he provides interesting insights into the people, personalities, and disputes in the sciences as he moves through time.

Here are a few examples from the book of interesting points about chemistry.

• The first chemist whose name we know is Tapputi, a palace overseer and perfume maker. She is mentioned on a Babylonian text from 1200 BCE, and in the text she is described doing things quite familiar to working chemists, such as distillation and filtration (page 22).

• Although Rome did not have a strong science culture during its existence as Republic, and then Empire, one area in which it excelled was making concrete. Analytical chemists have recently figured out the recipe that the ancient Romans used for making concrete, and it turns out that in several respects it is superior to Portland cement, developed in nineteenth century England. The Pantheon, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world was built by the ancient Romans about the year 126 CE, and it still stands today as a testament to how good Rome’s concrete technology was (page 34).

• Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, known to Western scientists and historians as Geber, lived in modern-day Iraq from about 721 CE to about 815 CE. Among other subjects, ibn Hayyān studied alchemy, but in many ways, he was a prototype for alchemists and, much later, laboratory chemists who followed in the centuries after his death. A dedicated researcher, ibn Hayyān insisted that practical laboratory work was necessary to obtain competence in alchemy. He kept notes of his experiments and wrote numerous detailed manuscripts about his work, attracting many followers. His followers also wrote numerous manuscripts about alchemy, attributing them to Geber (ibn Hayyān). These false Geber manuscripts are written in an elaborate style that is particularly difficult to decipher. Lowe informs us that the word gibberish (commonly defined as “talk in no known or understandable language” and also, “overly technical and obscure language”) comes from the difficulty historians and others have had in translating and understanding these writings by Geber’s followers (page 40). Lowe’s discussion of the origins of the word “gibberish” is only one of a few theories of the word’s etymology, and it is not the most widely held theory. Moreover, a few people assert that the word has become a racist code word, the use of which should be avoided.

• Graphene was a form of carbon that long had been thought to exist but remained undiscovered until 2004 when Andre Konstantin Geim and Konstantin Novoselov produced it by applying adhesive tape to graphite and peeling it off, leaving graphene layers stuck to the tape. Although I have known this story for years, I remain surprised that it took so long for anyone to figure out how to obtain graphene by such a simple technique (page 492).

Lowe covers the discovery of elements, the gradual conversion of alchemy into modern chemistry, the development of the ideal gas laws, and numerous other topics of great interest to chemists. He doesn’t focus solely on great events, but he touches also on smaller events that are of great importance to practicing bench chemists, including the development of separatory funnels (page 140), the Erlenmeyer flask (page 152), structural formula (page 154), the Dean-Stark Trap (page 266), and the rotary evaporator (page 362). I find it hard to imagine doing good quality modern chemistry without these devices!

Chromatography and spectrometry are extensively covered in the book, as these are vital techniques for analyzing chemical compounds and deducing the structure of what has been synthesized or isolated from an extract. These are tools that I use daily, and it is interesting to learn the back-story of how these things developed.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in chemistry. If you know a young person who is interested in chemistry, this book may be a great gift for him or her, a gift that will stimulate the mind and help develop an appreciation for how far we have come and where we are going in chemistry, the central science.


Derek B. Lowe. The Chemistry Book. From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry (part of the Sterling Milestones series). New York: Sterling Publishing, 2016, 528 pages. 


Derek B. Lowe Wikipedia: 

In the Pipeline blog by Derek Lowe

Some In the Pipeline blog posts are also featured on the Chemistry World website, run by the Royal Society of Chemistry in England.

See, and search for Derek Lowe by name. The search will return the featured blog posts he has written.

Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān

Encyclopedia Britannica: 


There are quite a few websites that have pages dedicated to Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān. Some are well done; others are much less well done. If I could go back in time and meet a famous scientist, he would be on my list of people to meet.

History of the word “gibberish”


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