The Leonardo Project

Humanities and Social Relevance for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Students

John M. Prausnitz
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and Center for Studies in Higher Education
University of California, Berkeley 94720-1462

About the Project

Project Purpose

This project concerns undergraduate chemistry and chemical engineering education. Its goal is to prepare educational materials on the interface between chemical technology and society for use by chemical engineering or chemistry professors in their regular courses.

For effective practice in industry, government or education, chemists and chemical engineers today and tomorrow must understand how technology interacts with the society that it serves. Chemists and chemical engineers need to understand (and be sensitive to) the culture in which they practice their profession. Because chemists and chemical engineers increasingly interact with a variety of people who often have little or no scientific background, chemical and chemical engineering education must expose students to the cultural implications of chemical science and practice.

All too often, current methods for including humanities and social studies in chemical and chemical engineering education have limited success because these subjects are taught apart from regular science and engineering courses; there is a lack of integration. In large universities, professors who teach history, philosophy, literature, etc. are rarely interested in the education of scientists and engineers. Further, special (service) courses for students outside the College of Letters and Science are usually taught by part-time lecturers; these courses are often not taken seriously because they (and their instructors) carry no academic prestige. Regrettably, all too often, the chemistry and chemical engineering faculty has little interest in such courses, regarding them as a “nuisance” or, at worst, a “waste of time.” As a result, chemistry and chemical engineering students tend to see little or no connection between humanities or social studies requirements and their regular courses in science and engineering.

A possible alternative or supplement for teaching humanities and social studies to chemists and chemical engineers is provided by the Leonardo Project: to introduce relevant social and humanistic content directly into existing courses in chemistry and chemical engineering. This alternative (or supplement) suggests that, occasionally, in a given lecture, a professor may devote (say) 10 or 15 minutes to show how a particular science or engineering topic interacts with human concerns as indicated by history, or politics, or ethics, or religion, etc. The Leonardo Project suggests that, typically, the professor may do so twice a month. However, to do so, the professor needs help; he or she needs case studies or examples. The goal of the Leonardo Project is to prepare and provide short case studies (reports) that cover a wide range of technology-society interactions. These reports illustrate that chemical technology is not apart from, but a part of, our humanistic and social culture; they are available here and can be accessed free of charge.


The Leonardo Project reports are available as PDF downloads. Reports are organized by category. Click on categories to access folders with downloadable reports (PDF).

Chemistry in Literature & Art


  • Bond between Chemistry & Art
  • Chemistry and the Written Word: Chemical Foundations in the Global Spread of Knowledge
  • Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Versace & Monet
  • Chemistry in Literature and Art with Special Attention to Goethe
  • Entropy and Christianity
  • Human Aspects of Chemistry and Chemical Practice: The Life and Work of Primo Levi
  • Synthetic Textiles for Fashion: Polyester, Nylon and Kevlar
  • Using X‐ray Radiography to Restore Heian Era Art
  • Written Communication in Chemical Technology

Old and New Materials


  • Asbestos: Miracle Mineral and Deadly Carcinogen
  • Catalytic Converter for Automobile Emissions: A Government‐Supported Chemical Invention
  • Lignin Coating Promotes Waterproof Paper
  • Low‐cost Road Surfacing for Rural Development
  • Mustard Gas: WWI, WWII and Today
  • Neutralizing Acids for Book Preservation
  • Nylon: The Natural Synthetic
  • Role of White Phosphorus in Two World Wars
  • Synthetic Textiles for Fashion: Polyester, Nylon and Kevlar
  • Toward Meeting Tomorrow's Energy Needs: From Carbon to Hydrogen
  • Transistors and Global Culture: Contributions of Chemical Engineering

History of Chemical Companies & Products


  • Accidental Discovery: Teflon (Polytetrafluoroethylene)
  • Air Pollution: History and Some Methods for Control
  • Chemical Engineering in the Paper Industry to Meet the Needs of Society
  • Dow Chemical Company in Times of War and Peace
  • Heeding Malthus and Feeding the World: The Role of Chemical Technology
  • IG Farben: Giant of the German Chemical Industry and Participant in Nazi Atrocities
  • Impact of Alkali Production on the Emergence of Chemical Engineering
  • Origin & Growth of the Synthetic‐Fuel Industry

  • Rise of Chemical Industry in the United States due to WWI: DuPont in the Nation's Service

Old and New Chemical Processes


  • Advances in Chemistry Improve Water Purification Processes
  • Chemical Science of Warfare and Human Destruction
  • Disappearance of the Ancient Parsi Ritual: The Surprising Risk of Pharmaceuticals
  • Discovering Gibberellin Helped the World to Reconnect after WWII
  • Engineered Agriculture for Increased Production of Food
  • Fritz Haber's Ammonia Process: The Effect on WWI and on Contemporary Agriculture
  • Green Chemistry and Green Engineering: An Essential Task for Chemists and Chemical Engineers
  • Green Energy
  • Improvements to WWI Battleships Due to the Steam Turbine
  • Love Canal: Failure of Chemical Engineering Ethics
  • Manhattan Project: Then and Now
  • Petrochemical Industry & Its Influence on Pharmaceuticals
  • Plasma Method for Waste Treatment
  • Role of Helium in Today's World
  • Synthetic Rubber for WWII and After
  • Water for Peace



  • Assessing the Environmental, Safety and Health Hazards of the Semiconductor Industry
  • Antibiotics and the Reemergence of Bacterial Disease
  • Antimicrobial Plastics
  • Benefits from Using Seafood Preservatives
  • Blood Transfusions in Peace and War: The Cohn Process
  • Carl Djerassi: The Poetic Father of the Pill
  • Chemical Technology for Dentistry
  • Chemistry and the Needs of Society: Rickets and Vitamin D
  • Children’s Safety: Toxic Substances in Toys
  • Chill Chemistry: How Air Conditioning has Changed our Lives, Culture and Society
  • Cholera Epidemic Stimulates Chlorine Disinfection of Water
  • Development of the Miracle Drug Penicillin
  • Elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders through Iodized NaCl
  • Ethics in Science: Debates Surrounding Stem‐Cell Research
  • Freeze‐drying of Vaccines for Eradication of Smallpox
  • Global Initiative to Eradicate Polio
  • International Efforts to Create and Distribute an Oral Cholera Vaccine
  • Melamine‐Tainted Milk: Progress in Impurity Detection
  • Molecular Gastronomy: A Brief Look at Culinary Science in the 21st Century
  • Oral Contraceptives & their Social Consequences
  • Poison Ivy: Biochemical Mechanism Suggests Methods for Relief
  • Removal of Poisonous Arsenic from Groundwater in South and East Asian Countries
  • Role of Chemical Scientists in the Food & Drug Administration
  • Role of Chemistry in Preventing Obesity
  • Sports and Energy Drinks: The World’s New Elixir
  • Studies in Molecular Structure Help to Develop New Cancer Drugs
  • Synthetic Sweet Tooth: How High Fructose Corn Syrup Changed the Way We Eat
  • Thalidomide: The Tragedy of Chiral Chemistry

Safety and Law


  • Abuse of Doping in Sports
  • Assessing the Environmental, Safety and Health Hazards of the Semiconductor Industry
  • Chemistry for Crime Detection
  • Children's Safety: Toxic Substances in Toys
  • Dangerous Side Effects of the Internal Combustian Engine
  • Environmental Protection Agency and Monsanto, Inc.
  • Harmful Effects of Coal‐Generated Electricity
  • Hydrogenating Dietary Oils
  • International Ban on Ozone‐depleting Chloro‐fluorcarbons
  • Melamine-Tainted Milk
  • OSHA: Regulations for Safety and Health for Employees in the Chemical Industry
  • Safety Violation: Ammonium Nitrate Explosion in Toulouse, France
  • Solving Crimes with Chromatography

Quality of Life


  • Beauty & Chemistry
  • Chemical Engineering in the Alcohol Industry: Alcohol and Societ
  • Contribution of Plastics to the Standard of Living
  • Cosmetics and Society
  • Feminist Studies and Engineering
  • Fireworks: A Contribution of Chemistry to Celebrations and Festivities
  • How Sugar Became a Readily‐Available Commodity
  • Medicine and Religion: A Clash of Ethics
  • Pain Relief for Everybody: Large Scale Production of Aspirin
  • Religion, Spirituality & the Chemical World
  • Sewage Treatement for Health and Quality of Life
  • Silicone for Cosmetic Surgery
  • Synthetic Textiles for Fashion: Polyester, Nylon and Kevlar
  • Technology and the Way We Live: Child Labor in the Coal Mines of Industrial England, 1800‐1842