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 

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…