Skip to main content

The Chemists’ War 1914-1918 – Michael Freemantle ***

From the title of this book you might expect it to be a chronological history of the First World War told from the point of view of the chemists involved in it, most likely focusing on the chemical weapons that played such a controversial role in that conflict. But actually it’s much broader in scope and more loosely structured than that. As the author says in his preface: 'It was not my aim to write a book that could be read from cover to cover but rather one for the reader to dip into. Each chapter is intended to be self-contained and can be read independently of the other chapters.' The result is a remarkably diverse collection of essays whose only common thread is some kind of connection with both chemistry and World War One.

I was surprised to find that only one of the chapters – Chapter 13: 'The World’s First Weapons of Mass Destruction' – is focused entirely on chemical weapons and their use in WW1. The subject crops up in other chapters, but only as part of a broader context. For example, Chapter 12 is a 30-page biography of Fritz Haber, Germany’s unrepentant 'father of chemical warfare', but only six pages of it deal with his activities during the war. Chapter 14, about mustard gas, starts in WW1 but then fast-forwards to WW2 and the Bari tragedy.

The title of Chapter 1 is 'Much More than Chemical Warfare', and that could really have been the book’s subtitle. Explosives are chemicals too, after all, and chemists were in demand to keep a step ahead of the opposition in this area too. Sometimes the link between a problem and its solution was far from obvious, and it’s here that the book can often become unexpectedly fascinating. Why did the British government suddenly urge children to collect conkers (horse chestnuts) for them? The answer was a state secret, but it came down to the fact that they could be converted into acetone – a key chemical needed in the manufacture of cordite. There was also a sudden upsurge in the demand for whale blubber, which could be used to make nitro-glycerine, and even chamber-pot urine, which proved to be a useful source of the nitre needed to make gunpowder.

Although the author is a professional chemist, this is very much a history book rather than a science book. 'Chemistry', as far as this book is concerned, simply means 'chemicals' – and chemicals are always referred to by name rather than formula. There is nothing about chemical reactions, and no explanation of why certain chemicals have the effects they do. Personally I was disappointed by the lack of scientific explanation or insight the book provides, but I guess that for a general readership it’s safer to err on the side of too little technical detail rather than too much.

The blurb on the back cover says 'The book will appeal to the general reader as well as the many scientists and historians interested in the Great War' – and I wouldn’t disagree with that.


Paperback 



Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…