Wednesday, 1 July 2015

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.

Review by Brian Clegg

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