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

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…