Frank A. von Hippel


On his book The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth

Cover Interview of September 02, 2020

A close-up

If a reader were to flip open the book at a random place, I hope they would encounter one of the eccentric scientists pursuing their research with a singular focus no matter what chaos stirred around them. A reader would gain a quick understanding of the book’s major themes by reading the four-page prologue. A reader could also start any of the four sections of the book—famine, plague, war, and ecology—to see if the book’s style is attractive to their tastes. The epilogue is best read last, because it tells a personal story that relates to the broad historical sweep of the book.

A reader most interested in the origins of the environmental movement would especially like chapters 10 (Resistance), 11 (Silent Spring), and 12 (Wonder and Humility). These chapters examine environmentalism through the personal struggles and beautiful writings of Rachel Carson. These chapters also reveal how the environmental movement is rooted in democracy and repulsed by corporate and governmental violations of the public trust. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring motivated citizen engagement in protests against pollution, the enactment of environmental laws, and the organization of scientists to stop the environmental destruction of the Vietnam War. Corporate malfeasance and governmental neglect continued, but no longer against the backdrop of an uninformed and uninvolved citizenry.

“The problem that I dealt with in Silent Spring,” Carson said, “is not an isolated one. It is merely one part of a sorry whole—the reckless pollution of our living world with harmful and dangerous substances.” It is my hope that The Chemical Age furthers Carson’s goal to educate people about the pollution of our world. The book does this by exposing the lofty ambitions of scientists to rid the world of hunger and disease, and by examining how chemicals designed for public health were appropriated for the battlefield (and vice-versa). For in the end, history is much more complex than battles between good and evil, and good people trying to solve intractable problems often create even bigger problems in the process.