New book delves into the cultural history of chemistry



”The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry” (Oxford University Press) is the evocative title of Chalmers Professor Lars Öhrström’s new book, which just landed on bookstore shelves.

On December 5, he will present his book at the Lohrs Pocket Med Mera bookshop in Gothenburg.
”The idea is that there should be a mix of high and low. There is a spy story about one of the most sophisticated sabotage attempts ever made. With that one, I managed to pick up on something that was pretty unknown. Then there are things that are more well-known, like the story of Napoleon’s buttons during the campaign against Russia in 1812. That one is commonly known among chemists”, says Lars Öhrström.

Lars Öhrström was born in Gothenburg and received a Master of Engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Chalmers.
”Basically, the book has the periodic table as its theme, but it is completely different from other books of its kind. Many authors have written about how each of the different elements were discovered, but this isn’t that at all. There are virtually no scientists at all in my book. The focus is on other people, known and unknown”, he says.

A winding road
”The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry” takes the reader on a meandering journey through the history of civilization. It is chock-full of literary references. Peter Höeg, Agatha Christie, August Strindberg and Stieg Larsson are just a few of the names the reader will encounter.
”Stieg Larsson is included more as a curiosity than anything else. He appears in a chapter on arsenic which also includes Astrid Lindgren’s Master Detective Blomkvist (“Bill Bergson, Master Detective” in the English translation). Of course, Stieg Larsson’s main character is also named Blomkvist, and is even called Kalle Blomkvist sometimes. But the most interesting thing is that the name of the female protagonist Lisbet Salander also comes from the Astrid Lindgren character Eva-Lotta Lisander. So Stieg Larsson was probably inspired by Master Detective Blomkvist when coming up with both names. That, I think, is less well-known,” says Lars Öhrström.

Executions in Stockholm in the 1700s
The book is full of enticing chapter headings – often with a humorous twist: ”From Bitterfeld with Love,” ”War and Vanity” and ”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Airship.” Not to mention ”Death at Number 29”:
”29 is the atomic number of copper. I make the point that people fight for silver and gold treasures, but globally and historically, many regimes and rulers have fallen because of copper, and not so much because of gold or silver,” Lars explains.
The chapter begins with an execution in Stockholm after the peasant uprising at the Fourth Dalecarlian Rebellion (“Great Dalecarlian Dance”) in the 1740s.
”The uprising was led by a man who was an accountant at a copper mill up in Dalarna. Next I talk a bit about Chile, the Congo Crisis, and Dag Hammarskjöld, all of which is copper-related. Competition for our finite natural resources is also a recurring theme in several chapters.”

The foreword allows the reader a peek into the world of bestselling author Dan Brown.
”We usually see the periodic table in the most ordinary way, the way everyone recognizes from school textbooks. Then there are those who are keen to rearrange the system and bring out other interesting correlations. It is said that there are at least 700 different varieties. There is also the numerological connection, for those who are so inclined. I think Dan Brown would get a lot out of the periodic table, and I simply suggest to him a possible approach,” says Lars Öhrström.
How did you find all these stories?
”I have collected them for years. The Napoleon story is an anecdote among chemists, which still lives in some textbooks. His army wore clothes with tin buttons, and tin undergoes a phase transition from metallic tin to a more diamond-like structure, in principle at thirteen degrees below zero, but it picks up around minus 30 to minus 40 centigrades. This is called tin pest. As the volume increases dramatically, the buttons start breaking. Some people think this was the reason that Napoleon lost the war with Russia 1812. That’s probably a load of rubbish, but it’s an interesting story. I attempt to get to the bottom of it,” says Lars Öhrström.
The Napoleon story is probably the one he spent the most time on while working on the book, which has taken five years towrite. The author finds it nice to make it to the finish line.
What type of reader are you imagining will pick up your book?
”Of course, people who are starting to study chemistry, but even those who are generally interested in history, culture, history and science,” says Lars.

In Swedish 2014
Reading Lars Öhrström’s book, one can’t help but think of Ulf Ellervik, Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry at Lund University, who wrote the acclaimed popular science books ”Ond kemi” and ”Njutning”, or ”Wicked Chemistry” and ”Pleasure”, as their titles would read in English. The two know each other previously.
”The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry” will be released in Swedish in 2014, from the same publisher that publishes Ulf Ellervik’s books, Fri Tanke Förlag.
How did it come to be that Oxford University Press publishes the English edition?
”I got in touch with them when I was asked to read a few chapters before the reissue of another chemistry book, and asked if they were interested in my book. They are huge and have a somewhat different organizational structure than a traditional book publisher, since they are part of the University of Oxford. You have to pass a council of Oxford Professors who decide whether a manuscript will be taken on for publication. They have been really professional,” says Lars Öhrström.
”The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry” is his first popular science book. Previously, he wrote the specialist monograph ”Molecule-Based Materials: The Structural Network Approach” (Elsevier), along with Dr. Krister Larsson, now IT strategist at Maxlab at Lund University.
”There were nearly a 100 000  US dollars in sales, but each copy itself is quite expensive, so there was a total of not more than maybe 700 copies sold. But that’s not bad for such a slim book.”

Crucial support from the Chalmers University of Technology Foundation
For the past five years, Lars Öhrström received support from the Chalmers University of Technology Foundation, the Hasselblad Foundation, the Foundation of San Michele and The Royal Society of Chemistry (UK), which allowed him to free up time to write his book. It started with an author’s scholarship in 2008 from the Hasselblad Foundation. This gave him the chance to spend a month at the classic Hotel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing in France. For the final stage of the work, the Chalmers University of Technology Foundation stepped in and supported the author:
”It was incredible. The Foundation gave me financial support so I didn’t have to teach and could finish writing the book. That was really helpful during the final crucial phase. And without the initial support of the Hasselblad Foundation, there might not have been any book at all,” says Lars.
He is also grateful for all the support and encouragement he received from colleagues at Chalmers, particularly in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, where many stepped up to teach in Lars’ place and helped out in various ways.

Text and photo: Michael Nystås

Lars Öhrström presents his new book >>>
Where: Lohrs Pocket Med Mera, Landala Torg, Kapellplatsen 2, Gothenburg
When: Thursday, December 5, 2013, 18:30
Map: www.hitta.se/lohrs+pocket+medmera+ab/g% C3% B6teborg/xWs5UHb77e

Lars Öhrström’s chemistry podcast on Chemistry World >>>
www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/podcasts

Follow Lars Öhrström on Twitter >>>
@larsohrstrom