Skip to main content

The Case of the Poisonous Socks - William H. Brock ***

We've often commented here that there isn't enough popular science based on chemistry. Physicists are inclined to point out that this is because all the interesting bits of science in chemistry are physics anyway (a terrible exaggeration, I'm sure), but one thing that this collection of essays on all things chemical shows is that there are plenty of stories in the history of the subject.

What we have here is a wide-ranging collection of chemical stories from the exploits of the euphoniously named Justus von Liebig to the early days of women being able to study chemistry at Cambridge.  Old Justus is a good example of why there's plenty to explore in chemistry. When I write podcasts for the Royal Society of Chemistry he is always coming up, yet I had never heard of him the way I know pretty well all the big names in the history of physics, or even biology. While there aren't many surprises in the actual chemistry, there's lots of history here that's new to me - plus a reminder of just how much chemistry has contributed to everyday life (and death in some cases) over the years.

The publisher claims that 'Light in style, this collection of essays about chemists and their discoveries will interest scientists, teachers, historians and laypeople.' And that (along with the £20 for a paperback price tag) illustrates the difficulty faced when an academic publisher - in this case the aforementioned Royal Society of Chemistry - tries to address a general audience. The result is strangely balanced somewhere between being a very readable, but lightweight, history of science textbook and popular science. A whole combination of factors make it this. Even the way it is printed somehow doesn't feel commercial. The writing style is perfectly readable, yet nevertheless retains a certain academic tone. If we were to draw a Venn diagram for that 'will interest' list it would include practically everyone in the world, yet I think it's not going to make much of a mark with the laypeople on the list. Which is a shame, because they would learn a lot.

Just a bit too specialist, then, to get four stars, and I did skip through a couple of entries, but enjoyed it overall.


Paperback 


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…