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The perks and perils of trespassing

Some eight years ago I sat down to draw out a blueprint for a book that should tell stories about how the chemistry of individual elements of the periodic table had changed, for better or for worse, the courses of ordinary peoples’ lives. Several things motivated me; I was sitting on a number of stories where literature and history intersected with chemistry that I would love to tell to a bigger audience, but I also found there was a lack of popular science books in chemistry that actually explained something, as opposed to just telling how things are.

The chemistry was to be the firm ground from where I could make fishing expeditions into history for suitable protagonists and where I could anchor up with a set of characters I had already decided upon. Roughly half of the stories that ended up in The Last Alchemist in Paris are there because of a particular chemistry I thought needed telling, and the other half because of my particular interests in history, literature, and film.

Having no formal education above upper secondary school in any of these latter subjects of course made me somewhat nervous, but I got some very good advice from my editor. One was to avoid stories too close in time, as these are much harder to judge. The same goes for more sensational stuff. In both cases, if you get it wrong then it may get quite visible and distract the attention from what you are really trying to say.

Having said that, there were controversial stories that needed including, and where I had to dig deeper into the history discipline than I am perhaps formally qualified to do. Did Seretse and Ruth Khama (subject of Amma Asante’s movie A United Kingdom to be released later this year) get exiled from the Bechuanaland protectorate because of South African blackmail over a uranium contract? Easy to believe from the more popular stories, but more problematic if you looked up what professional historians wrote in more scholarly texts.

Professor Rimantas Jankauskas helps in the search for Napoleon’s buttons in the storage facility of the Lithuanian National Museum in Vilnius. Photo © Lars Öhrström.
Professor Rimantas Jankauskas helps in the search for Napoleon’s buttons in the storage facility of the Lithuanian National Museum in Vilnius. Photo © Lars Öhrström.

Then the Napoleon’s buttons story, where basic fact-checking of the historical literature has been sadly lacking, both in chemistry textbooks and popular science books. Here I hit a dead-end after having dug up as many survivor diaries from the 1812 disaster I could find on the internet. So I had to rely on someone more knowledgeable than me, and the author of 1812 Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoysk, agreed with my conclusion that this was yet another sensational story that could be filed away as a persistent myth.

In general I found asking people worked well, scholars of different disciplines were happy to provide help and feedback on anything from playwright August Strindberg to the 18th century use of pencils, and even a local CID officer and an ex-prime minister answered my question.

While The Last Alchemist in Paris on the whole has a lighter tone, it also set off an unexpected side reaction. Since 2015, I teach and develop a Master’s-level course called “Resources and Innovations in a Chemical and Historical Context“, as this, completely unplanned, turned out to be a major theme of The Last Alchemist in Paris. The course can be taken to fulfill the required credits in the area “Humans, technology, and society” needed for an engineering degree from Chalmers University of Technology.

Hand transcribed copies of the illustrated English travel diary of industrial spy Reinhold Angerstein in the library of the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association in Stockholm. Perhaps the long lost originals contain more information on his meeting with the marchioness of Rockingham? Photo © Lars Öhrström.
Hand transcribed copies of the illustrated English travel diary of industrial spy Reinhold Angerstein in the library of the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association in Stockholm. Perhaps the long lost originals contain more information on his meeting with the marchioness of Rockingham? Photo © Lars Öhrström.

The only sad thing about this trespassing activity is that you turn up potential lines of research that you can never follow up. So please, if someone has the time and resources, do write a biography or make an 18th-century costume drama about Mary Bright, marchioness of Rockingham, who once may have met with Swedish spy Reinhold Angerstein, but who’s life is full of other, far more interesting episodes, among these begin close adviser to the UK Prime Minister.

A version of this blog post was originally published by We The Humanities.

Featured image credit: The neat and tidy kgotla in Serowe where, in 1949, Seretse Khama addressed the Bamangwato tribal court with unforeseen consequences, to be told in Amma Asante’s coming movie, A United Kingdom. Photo © Lars Öhrström.

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