We’re proud to feature an article from Steve Cohen, an STC-PMC member and creator of “The History of Chemistry” podcast. Steve’s latest book is O Mg – How Chemistry Came to Be – check it out! FYI, I own Steve’s science travel book, America’s Scientific Treasures, and it’s a must-have for uncovering our country’s scientific places. Thanks for the article, Steve! Rob
From childhood on, I have drawn cartoons. I also have PhD in chemistry. Shortly before the COVID pandemic, I began writing and drawing a graphic history of chemistry. The project lasted two and a half years, well into the pandemic, and was published last year as O Mg! How Chemistry Came to Be, by World Scientific.
While technical communicators generally think of their work as instruction manuals, webpages, or help files, writing about scientific topics is another form of technical communication. Chemistry is especially well-suited for illustration. Consider molecular structures, chemical reactions and
their mechanisms, and laboratory apparatus, all provided in diagrams in textbooks and research papers. Therefore, a history of chemistry in a graphic format—a popular literary form now—seems apropos.
I call chemistry the invisible science:
(1) Chemists study invisible things: atoms and molecules.
(2) Many chemists, especially women, were written out of scientific papers and even general chemical history.
(3) Finding a chemistry book for the non-expert in a bookshop is difficult. Fewer than 3% of all science titles in a bookstore are chemistry-related.
For these reasons, chemistry itself needs an advocate among the general public.
To continue the momentum after the book was published, I decided to delve deeper via a podcast, “The History of Chemistry,” into chemistry topics that I glossed over in a short book. Speaking of scientific topics is also technical communication. The target audience is the interested layperson. Chemistry is loaded with reactions, mathematics describing the reactions, and technical terms and ideas requiring explanations, all of which present severe challenges for the technical communicator in a purely verbal setting.
The technical aspects (recording equipment and sound engineering) I already knew. I read up on designing podcasts, and bought usage rights for snippets of music for the “theme,” and developed a unique catch-phrase at the end of every episode: “Brave the elements!” I used my graphic knowledge to invent a logo via Photoshop, for use on podcast apps. The average length per episode is 20 minutes, which is about all my voice can handle in one take at a microphone.
My modus operandi is to present overarching ideas of chemistry with no mathematics and little technical jargon. For example, I do no balancing of equations, and no math beyond an occasional ratio. I have not used that chemical word that freaks out students, the “mole.” Rather, my method is to relate the evolution of chemistry to local events, history, arts, culture, and politics. For example, you may know of Alexander Borodin, the composer whose music was incorporated into the musical “Kismet.” His occupation was chemist, and he was a friend of Dimitri Mendeleev, who invented the Periodic Table. You may have heard of Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel. He also was a chemist who helped the British Government win World War I, and used his influence to gain Israel’s independence. You have heard of President Herbert Hoover, but did you know that his was a mining engineer by trade, and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, was a geologist who knew Latin? They together translated the classic Renaissance work De Re Metallica into English—and is still the definitive English version. All these factoids, and many more, I incorporate into my podcast.
To bridge the humanities-science gap in my podcast, I invite experts to talk of a topic that relates to chemistry for a few minutes. I include an expert on Biblical Hebrew to chat on metals in the Hebrew Bible; an art-history professor to chat about scientific art in the 18 th century; a brewer to chat about pH and beer-brewing; a writer of classical program notes to talk on Alexander Borodin’s life; an English professor to chat on Holocaust survivor, chemist, and writer Primo Levi; and more.
I pull no punches: I talk of pollution, chemical warfare, and sexism in chemistry departments. These topics show that chemists are a product of their times. There are over 60 episodes with dozens more planned, covering prehistoric times to the present, hosted at Buzzsprout (https://thehistoryofchemistry.buzzsprout.com) but available on most apps. Listen Notes rates it in the top 10% of all podcasts, Apple rates it 4.1 out of 5, Podbay ranks it #3, and Chartable lists it as #6 of all US Chemistry podcasts.
When we talk of technical communication, remember that technical subjects like science itself need to be described in an unambiguous, understandable way for laypeople. There is a reason that Carl Sagan, Rachel Carson, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson have a following. With scientific misinformation so easily transmitted around the globe, science communication, a form of technical communication, is needed more than ever.