Perhaps among the features that best characterise the work of Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Paris-Sorbonne University, are her tireless efforts to build intellectual bridges and help us understand science in the past and present. Born in Béziers (France) in 1949, she is married and has three children. Bensaude has built bridges between the history and philosophy of science, enabling us to integrate knowledge of the past in philosophical reflection on the status of an experimental science like chemistry; bridges between past and present, helping us understand current chemistry from a historical perspective; bridges between science and society, each with their own knowledge, fear and ignorance. We talked about all this with her, about chemistry, history and philosophy, experts and laymen, ignorance and fear. She is the author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles in which chemistry, its production and its social image, play a major role.
Why would someone like you, with philosophical training, devote your life’s work to the history of an experimental science like chemistry?
And presumably chemists too. What have you learned from them?
Do you think, then, that chemistry essentially differs from physics?
One of your main research fields has dealt with the work of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. You took part in numerous events and publications related to the bicentennial celebration of his death. Now that almost two decades have gone by, can we assess the repercussions this commemoration has had on how this scientist and the chemical revolution are viewed?
Does that mean that historical research has failed to change the image of the chemical revolution engraved in the collective memory of chemists?
Your book Lavoisier: Mémoires d’une revolution (Lavoisier: Memories of a Revolution), published in 1993, was an invitation for critical reflection on the figure of the French chemist, whose hagiographic tone was unlike a great many books and events commemorating the bicentennial. What did you hope to achieve with this book and what do you think you achieved?
Where, then, was the split, if there ever was one?
And in terms of language…
|«The very essence of chemistry in itself does not exist. Its identity has been built over a long history of different and manifold practices»|
|«Science can be presented as an attractive and sensational spectacle, which can make you dream, laugh and, sometimes, even… think»|
|Do you think your book has served to bridge the gap between history and the memory of the chemical revolution?
My intention, in any event, was to show the reader the historicity of the different interpretations of the chemical revolution. As well as remembering the eighteenth century origins of the «scientific revolution» concept, my book presents different interpretations of the chemical revolution, starting with the main player, Lavoisier, and the testimonies of those events, which saw –amongst other things– the tragic death of Lavoisier by the guillotine. I show how nineteenth-century chemists (Jean Baptiste Dumas and, later, Charles Adolphe Wurtz, among others) were the ones to forge the statue of Lavoisier as the founder of chemistry, within the context of nationalist disputes between French and German chemists in the late nineteenth century. All this has been done to confront the many stories and their interpretations, put forward by contemporary professional historians. From this confrontation, I wish to invite wider reflection on the relationship between memory and history and the role that history plays in the lives of scientific communities.
Do you believe chemists today can recognise themselves in eighteenth-century chemistry?
What role does science popularisation play in raising the awareness of scientific responsibility?
Think too about the possible causes underlying chemistry’s current image or to the drop in students attending chemistry lecture halls…
Do you think that today’s chemists can recognise themselves when they look at eighteenth-century chemistry?
How can history help to address the «fear of chemistry»?
But, as you point out, the relationship between chemistry and new modes of industrial production is also very important.
And with the production of waste…
These campaigns demonstrate the chemical industry’s continued interest in influencing public opinion. One of your books is entitled L’opinion publique et la science à chacun son ignorance (Public opinion and science: each to their own ignorance). What is the greatest ignorance of science?
Antonio García Belmar. Professor at the Department of Community Nursing, Preventive Medicine and Public Health and of History of Science. University of Alicante.
|«Chemistry was a science adored by the public in the eighteenth century, regarded as an essential cultural element of the Enlightenment, valued as a science that was useful for the public good»|