Chemists in the nineteenth century were faced with a particular problem: how to depict the atoms and molecules beyond the direct reach of our bodily senses. In visualizing this microworld, these scientists were the first to move beyond high-level philosophical speculations regarding the unseen. In "Image and Reality", Alan J. Rocke focuses on the community of organic chemists in Germany to provide the basis for a fuller understanding of the nature of scientific creativity. Arguing that visual mental images assisted many of these scientists in thinking through old problems and new possibilities, Rocke uses a variety of sources, including private correspondence, diagrams and illustrations, scientific papers, and public statements to investigate their ability to not only imagine the invisibly tiny atoms and molecules upon which they operated daily, but to build detailed and empirically based pictures of them. These portrayals of 'chemical structures' gradually became an accepted part of science and are now regarded as one of the defining features of chemistry.
In telling this fascinating story, Rocke also suggests that imagistic thinking is often at the heart of creative thinking in all fields.
Alan J. Rocke is the Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and the author of several books, including, most recently, Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry.