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Séminaire d’histoire et philosophie des sciences : Chimie, science et société

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Laboratories, Old and New (c.1900, c.1970)
Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld)

18 mars 2010

Twentieth-century chemistry experienced a transformation that replaced chemical methods, most notably chemical reactions, with physical methods, most importantly spectroscopies of various kinds. With this transformation in the analytical parts of chemical practice came changes in the functions and the organization of the chemical laboratory. In 1900, the laboratory was a place for human labor, based on manual procedures, and focusing on sense impressions. It was designed to enhance education, to channel communication (including visual communication), and to sustain the hierarchy of the research group. Above all, it was a place for producing, and of dealing with, a stream of substances. In contrast, around 1970, the chemical laboratory had to accommodate a whole array of machines, with NMR-, IR-, UV-, and mass-spectroscopy taking over large domains of chemical work. Sensory perception was replaced by data measurement, and manual dexterity in shaking test tubes had to give way for an aptitude for tinkering with electronic gadgets. From lab to shop? Basically, the functions of the "shop" were the same as those of the "lab": education, communication, and research. Nevertheless, I argue that we recognize far-reaching differences. Large centralized labs, built around the Arbeitssaal, in 1900. Small specialized shops, built around the instrument room, in 1970. These changes of space (how the laboratory is built, its topography) relate to differences in place (where the laboratories and their users are located, their geography). The modern, instrument-based laboratory depends more heavily on its external relations, often done in a collaborative manner (the "collaboratory"), while the traditional laboratory is more inward-bound, and often rests on an internal hierarchy. In my lecture, I will compare these two types of chemical laboratories, using some examples and arguing that the "shop" did not completely replace the "lab", but complemented it.

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Carsten Reinhardt Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld)

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