Neither Physics nor Chemistry: A History of Quantum Chemistry, KostasGavroglu and AnaSimões, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012. $40.00 (351 pp.). ISBN 978-0-262-01618-6

The way new areas of science are birthed is similar to the way continental masses are formed: by the contact and interaction of previously existing structures, which are subsequently modified so that they never are what they were before. And just as interactions between continental masses lead to tectonic events such as earthquakes and volcanic activity, the gestation of a new scientific field is usually not smooth.

Quantum chemistry was born in a rocky, volcanic fashion, and the history of its formation has not been covered extensively until now. In Neither Physics nor Chemistry: A History of Quantum Chemistry, historians of science Kostas Gavroglu and Ana Simões trace the development of a field that came about through interactions among physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, and what we now call computer science. An illuminating and well-researched book, Neither Physics nor Chemistry covers the half-century expansion period of the 1920s to the 1970s, from the era of Walter Heitler and Fritz London through the tensions between the chemists and physicists, between the New World and the Old, and even among the actors in the field with differing political affiliations. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, quotes, and foundational ideas conceived by those players.

Neither Physics nor Chemistry parallels Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1997; reviewed by W. K. H. Panofsky in Physics Today, December 1997, page 65). In Image and Logic, author Peter Galison paints a similar multidisciplinary picture of the birth of particle physics. In particular, in a chapter on computer simulation, Galison describes the conceptual “trading zone” between the physicists and computer engineers that, starting in the 1940s, led to the use of the first computers, such as the MANIAC at Los Alamos, to carry out Monte Carlo simulations. The book narrates the visionary work, from around the same time, of chemist Samuel Boys, who used the EDSAC computer in the UK to carry out early quantum chemistry calculations.

The biographies of the heroes of quantum chemistry are less known than those of the founders of quantum mechanics or of the creators of the atomic bomb. Many people know about Wolfgang Pauli or Werner Heisenberg, but fewer know about Hans Hellman or Robert Mulliken. Neither Physics nor Chemistry addresses that discrepancy. Moreover, it contains plenty of material about the critical discussions that are still relevant to how chemists work. If one wants to dig to the roots of why organic chemists still think in a “local” valence bonding picture, yet many theoretical chemists are rooted in molecular orbital theory, this book provides the historical context.

Almost a hundred years have passed since the beginnings of quantum chemistry, and both of the parent fields, quantum physics and chemistry, have changed a lot. One thrust of current quantum mechanics is quantum technology: Every day we witness advances in the development of novel devices that could be used for quantum information processing. Meanwhile, theorists are developing new ideas based on quantum information, and experimental physical chemists are using light to probe atoms and molecules at very short times and very high energies. The interaction between 21st-century physics and chemistry might lead either to a renewal of quantum chemistry or to a new field that harvests the current developments from physics and chemistry. Perhaps one might call it quantum information chemistry; that may be the subject of a book by future historians, who would do well to be as lucid in their analysis as Gavroglu and Simões have been.