Making a Hidden Discipline Visible

An interdisciplinary group of researchers is preparing a handbook on the history of modern chemistry. Their workshop at ZiF is called “Chemical Connections: Studying Interdisciplinarity Through the History of a Discipline,” and is convened by Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld University) and Paulina Gennermann (University of Heidelberg). Here, the conveners give some insights into their project.

Could you first define what you mean by interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity?

Carsten Reinhardt: The definitions are pretty flexible, but for me, interdisciplinarity is the interaction between scientific disciplines. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, means the connections of a scientific discipline with other social sectors, most importantly, industry. But you might also think of the sphere of medicine or of politics. Transdisciplinarity means everything where science actually affects social development.

What made me curious about your project was the idea of looking at interdisciplinarity through the lens of one discipline. There seems to be a contradiction, how does it fit together?

Carsten Reinhardt: I think chemistry is a form of inter-discipline or trans-discipline, as chemistry is basically everywhere. If you want to find it, you will find it, and it affects a lot of other disciplines. So we can have a look on chemistry through the lens of physics or through the lens of molecular biology. And chemistry is also an industry, it influences society, it is a technology and an approach that actually manipulates the world around us. In our view, you cannot study chemistry just with a disciplinary focus. You would miss much, arguably most, of what chemistry is about if you don’t consider the other sides. Actually, chemistry in this way is the perfect case to study the interlinkages of science with the world.

Is chemistry in this respect different from other disciplines?

Paulina Gennermann: If you say physics, it’s pretty clear what you mean. And if you say biology, it’s also pretty clear what you mean. But with chemistry, it’s not. And we are interested in what is actually causing this semantic uncertainty and how it has come about. Another aspectthat makes chemistry special is its perception by the society, how people are looking at chemistry. A lot of people are thinking immediately of industry.

Carsten Reinhardt: At the same time, chemistry is in a way invisible, we call it the hidden science. If you look in the media, physics and biology with all their variants are much more present than chemistry is. Genetic engineering, evolution, the atomic bomb, all that is present. Chemistry rarely is. But it has certainly an equal impact on society, we just do not perceive it as influential as the other disciplines.

Why is chemistry invisible?

Carsten Reinhardt: First of all, chemistry and especially the chemical industry avoid publicity as much as they can, because they know it is mostly bad publicity. Chemistry has a troubled relationship with society and the media ­- and for a reason.

Paulina Gennermann: I would add, it is even more important and also more interesting for us on the epistemic level. Chemistry is a kind of a toolbox for the other sciences. It is a set of techniques that other disciplines employ, adapt and develop. It’s linked to the level of manipulation that chemistry is the specialist in, which is the molecular dimension. In manipulating this intermediate dimension, not the inner parts of atoms, not the larger organisms, but the world of molecules. And this has been very successful.

Carsten Reinhardt: And these phenomena are also invisible in the real sense. But the discipline has been kept invisible for a variety of reasons. Some of them are epistemic. Some of them are social. And that makes it such an interesting case in the way that we have to unlock it, to make it visible. So we have to overcome the hurdle that we cannot access the real impact of chemistry as easily as we might be able in the case of biology and physics and other disciplines.

Here at ZiF you are preparing an Oxford handbook on the history of modern chemistry. What do these special features mean for writing the history of chemistry?

Carsten Reinhardt: The links of industry and science, for example, have been an important part of the history of science for many decades. Also, the impact on society is a traditional part of what we look at. The combination of all that in one book has not been done to this extent for other sciences. Also, I would say that the intensity that we see in this case is rather unusual. With that, I mean, to give you an example, pollution and other environmental problems. It is remarkable that no one is blaming physics for the nuclear risk, both civil and military. But in the case of chemistry, risks are at least partially blamed on the discipline. All that creates some challenges for writing the history of chemistry.

Paulina Gennermann: To write the history of chemistry you have to be a historian of the senses, a historian of industry, a historian of politics, of social movements. And a historian of science. And, if you really want to cover all aspects of chemistry, you have to be it all at once. And that’s impossible. That is why we do it in the book with a group of scholars. The dream would be to convey the complete, the roundabout face of chemistry. The whole experience of chemistry, if you like. And we do not yet know if we will succeed. In any case we want to make chemistry visible in all or most of its entanglements and interrelations.

What will your contribution to the handbook be?

Paulina Gennermann: We are preparing a joint paper about smell and taste in chemistry. We want to show how chemistry impacts us via our sense of smell and taste in our daily lives. And to talk about this industry behind perfume and aroma, which is for a lot of people invisible. This is a joint paper. We are both interested in smell. So smell and taste are an example of what we just discussed because it’s so hidden, but it’s also so influential. But there are a lot of other topics and also philosophers, sociologists, gender studies people.

And chemists?

Carsten Reinhardt: No. Some of us are chemists, even PhD chemists, but they have for a long time now gone into the history of chemistry. That would be another project to bring in the chemists themselves. There is a long tradition in chemistry and all the other scientific fields that chemist practitioners do write their history. And I think that’s very important and key to do it. It would have changed the overall compactness, so to speak, of the project, which is, as you now know, already pretty large, if we would have taken in the chemists themselves. Again, I mean, that’s not only academic chemists, it would be also industrial chemists.

And is it challenging to have so many contributing authors?

Carsten Reinhardt: It is challenging, but we need this challenge in order to get this overview about what and where chemistry is. History of chemistry is still a pretty small field, we have a joint language, and everybody knows almost everybody. For that reason, it is also very international, because it’s so small, you have to leave your own country. And also as historians of academic chemistry we are very much aware of the chemical industry. So we are a rather coherent group despite the different topics. And it is fascinating to see how the project develops. In our workshop we will try to intensify the connections between the different contributions.

Cite this blog post
Manuela Lenzen (2023, September 28). Making a Hidden Discipline Visible. Interdisciplinarity. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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