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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

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 …