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Women shape chemistry

The periodic system of the chemical elements is a work of women as well as men

World Scientific

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Credit: World Scientific

Who do you think of when you hear the words "women", "discovery', and "chemistry"? Marie Curie? Or how about Lise Meitner?

Yet they were not the only women behind the invention and development of the periodic system. Apart from the numerous men already often accredited for their contributions to chemistry, many women lesser known than Curie and Meitner played a role in its making and the many kinds of tables or shapes which represent the "periodic law".

In 38 chapters, each focusing on a woman (or a group of women) and an element (or a group of elements), Women in Their Element: Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic Table, edited by Annette Lykknes and Brigitte Van Tiggelen, provides ample evidence that there are female contributions to the iconic table of chemistry. The book shows how the women showcased contributed to the building and understanding of the periodic system and to the finding the elements themselves.

Stories of women, the editors believe, contribute to the understanding of the nature of science, of collaboration as opposed to the traditional depiction of the lone genius. The lengthy introduction situates the short stories in the longue durée and explains how they illustrate the communal nature of chemistry research and development.

The Periodic Table hangs in every classroom and adorns every chemistry textbook around the world. Boys and girls learn it, and woman as well as men use it to push further the boundaries of chemical and scientific knowledge. And this year, it has been featured prominently as the International year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements celebrates the 150th anniversary of D.I. Mendeleev's first publication of what he called the Periodic System. Yet many know so little about the stories behind its discovery.

By paying attention to lesser known figures than Marie Curie or Lise Meitner, the volume also emphasizes the multifaceted character of the work on the chemical elements and their periodic relationships. To make that case, the editors have deliberately expanded the narrow perspectives that usually restrict the narrative to the development of the system and the finding of elements to fill in the gaps. This traditional take ignores many other essential endeavours such as understanding the concept of element, identifying properties, developing analytical methods, mapping the radioactive series, finding applications of elements, or comprehending their toxicity and that of their compounds.

Women were present, active and contributed significantly, as the 38 stories illustrate, through cases ranging from the early modern period for the pre-periodic table period, with an emphasis on work conducted in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And the book includes elements from different groups in the periodic table, so as to represent a variety of chemical contexts, touching on industry and teaching as well as academic pursuit.

By going beyond discovery stories, be it on the elements or the understanding of matter, the book also takes the opportunity to shed light on less notorious but nevertheless indispensable work accomplished by the invisible army of chemists, from laboratory leaders to unpaid assistants to the often ignored technicians. In this celebratory year of the periodic table, it is crucial to recognize how it has been built and continues to be shaped by these individual efforts and broad collaborations.

This book will be of value to all who are interested in women's contributions to chemistry and science including the general public, students, chemistry students and academics. It will also be helpful to those teachers in need of historical material to be used in the classroom.

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Women in Their Element: Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic Table retails for US$45 / £40 (paperback) and US$128 / £115 (hardback). To order or know more about the book, visit http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/11442.

About the Editors

Annette Lykknes is historian of chemistry and professor of chemistry education at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). She is chair-elect of the EuCheMS' Working Party on History of Chemistry. Her research interests include 20th century history of chemistry and of radioactivity and nuclear science, the history of women and couples in the natural sciences, the history of chemistry teaching practices, history of chemistry in Norway. Lykknes is co-editor (with Donald L Opitz and Brigitte Van Tiggelen) of For Better or For Worse? Collaborative Couples in the Sciences (Birkhäuser, 2012) and co-author (with Joakim Ziegler Gusland) of Akademi og industri (Fagbokforlaget, 2015) on 100 years of research and teaching in chemistry at NTNU in Trondheim.

Brigitte Van Tiggelen is Director for European Operations at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, and affiliated with the Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Sciences at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Since her doctoral thesis devoted to an 18th century chemist, she has published on 19th and 20th century topics. Her research interests include domesticity, women and couples in science, materials and philosophy of chemistry, and history of chemistry in Belgium. She recently co-edited (with Pierre Teissier and Cyrus Mody), From Bench to Brand and Back: The Co-Shaping of Materials and Chemists in the Twentieth Century (Cahiers François Viète, 2017) and (with Donald L Opitz and Staffan Bergwik) Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016). To promote history of science among the general public and especially among secondary school teachers, she founded Mémosciences, a Belgian non-profit organization that organizes an annual conference cycle on the history of chemistry, scientific conferences, and teacher workshops.

About World Scientific Publishing Co.

World Scientific Publishing is a leading international independent publisher of books and journals for the scholarly, research and professional communities. World Scientific collaborates with prestigious organisations like the Nobel Foundation and US National Academies Press to bring high quality academic and professional content to researchers and academics worldwide. The company publishes about 600 books and over 140 journals in various fields annually. To find out more about World Scientific, please visit http://www.worldscientific.com.

For more information, contact Michael Beale at mbeale@wspc.co.uk

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