Skip to main content

30-Second Elements – Ed. Eric Scerri ****

Remarkably soon after reviewing Eric Scerri’s A Tale of Seven Elements he’s back with 30-Second Elements. I need to admit up front that I have made a small contribution to thisbook – but it’s no more than 10% and only in writing a few of the articles, nothing to do with the overall volume. The way the book works is as a series of 50 articles, each on an element and each a two-page spread, with pithy text on the left and an illustration on the right. It is given a bit more weight with a longer introduction and a profile of a key figure in each of seven main sections.
If I am honest, I have been scathing about these ’30-Second’ books in the past, because I have found it hard to understand why anyone would buy one. They generally aren’t readable through like a real book, but aren’t detailed enough to be a reference. However, they have sold plenty of copies, and this particular one is something of an exception to my uncertainty because the subject of the elements lends itself to this ‘bitty’ approach – they are, after all, bitty things.
The text is broken into a series of parts – the main text, long enough to be readable, the ‘3 second state’ which gives some basic facts like the chemical symbol, the ‘3 minute reaction’ (which strangely is shorter than the main ’30 second’ piece), giving a little side bar of tangential information and the dates of a few key figures. Although I did write a few of the entries, I hadn’t read most of them and found myself surprisingly drawn into the elegant little factoids and stories, learning, for instance, that we store about 3 years’ worth of magnesium in our bodies, and that fluorine finds its way into the wet-weather clothing Gore-Tex via Teflon. Not to mention a handy discussion of the difference between silicon and silicone – useful if you want the right materials in the right place.
So while I still prefer a popular science book that is an end-to-end read, I have to admit this example of the 30 second series, with the ‘rough hewn cardboard’ feeling cover that is part of the series look and feel, has rather won me over. But then, if anyone knows his periodic table, it’s Eric Scerri.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …