Skip to main content

Molecules - Theodore Gray ***

I have been flip-flopping like a confused politician over whether to give this book three or four stars. Part of me wants to give it three, because I really can't see the point of coffee table books. Apart from anything else, I haven't got a coffee table. As far as I can see such books are just designed for decoration, too big to really read, just to be flipped through occasionally. Admittedly, this is at the small end of such volumes, but it is decidedly hard on the wrists if you try to read it, and I think it has to count as one.

But then I switch round and am tempted to like it much more. It is full colour, glossy pages all the way, and some of the illustrations are very good. Rather than simply list a whole load of chemical compounds and why they are interesting, in parts of the book Theodore Gray really makes things come alive by linking together a set of the page spreads. For instance there's a reaction via sulfuric acid leading to ether (no, I'm not being American, the Royal Society of Chemistry insists on sulfur rather than sulphur, as my spellchecker wistfully wants it still to be, these days). But rather than just show the sequence of molecules, Gray gives it to us three times, first with the rather beautiful alchemical names like 'oil of vitriol' and 'spirit of wine', then with the common names and finally the modern systematic names.

There are other good sequences, like a section on soaps. But here is where I flop back again to my final three star rating. In the end the overall effect still was a little bit dull. There are rather a lot of chemical structures (inevitably), which though done with pretty graphics, look dim and uninspiring on the arty, but in the end off-putting black background on which each page is based. And in the end, the book has no continuity, no arc, nothing to make it readable as a continuing narrative. It's a collection of facts. Sometimes interesting facts - but not what makes for good popular science. It might make a good school book, though. And it's certainly a worthwhile effort - a handsome and pictorially impressive presentation.

Hardback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…