Skip to main content

Around the World in 18 Elements - David Scott ***

I don't think I've ever reviewed a book with such a tightly focussed audience before. If you are doing A-level chemistry or perhaps are in the first year of a chemistry degree (and I say that as someone who did chemistry A-level and the first two years of a chemistry degree), the book will be a genuine delight. But for anyone else it may prove a challenging read.

At first sight, what the reader gets is a more detailed equivalent of the Royal Society of Chemistry podcast series Chemistry in its Element, featuring the history, nature, uses and oddities of, in this case, 18 of the elements. There is a lot more here than there is in the podcasts on the actual chemistry of the selected mix of nine metals and nine non-metals - so, for instance, on sulfur we stray into alchemy and the earth's crust, sulfuric acid, sulfates, thiosulfates, organic sulfur and the mysterious hydrothermal vents. 

Though the text is noticeably heavier on facts than a typical popular science book, this material is put across in a reasonably approachable way. But then, suddenly, the reader comes up against a question that isn't about the material in the book, but rather is testing the reader's readiness for chemistry A-level, for example:
Q1. Assign an oxidation number to sulfur in each of the following compounds: SO2, SO3, H2S, (CH3)2S, (CH3)2SO, FeS, FeS2 and CaSO4.2H2O.
It might seem that it would be easy enough to skip over the questions, but it really isn't, and as they occur on pretty well every page they take up a significant portion of the book.

So, should you fit in that very tight audience (or if you are someone who teaches at this level), this is a book that could well make chemistry significantly more approachable and meaningful, making the title very much recommended. But for the rest of us, it's probably not likely to be a worthwhile addition to your collection.


Paperback 
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…