Friday, 3 October 2014

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.

Review by Brian Clegg

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