Skip to main content

Strange Chemistry - Steven Farmer ***

There is a dire shortage of popular chemistry books, so it's always a pleasure to find a title that is undoubtedly chemistry, yet is also likely to be of interest to the general reader.

Steven Farmer's subtitle for this book is 'the stories your chemistry teacher wouldn't tell you,' making it intriguingly suggestive of the interesting bits of chemistry that for one reason or another are considered to risky (or morally dubious) to feature in the chemistry classroom. It's a neat idea - and in many cases, it works very well as a way in.

There's a lot here on drugs, whether they are over the counter medication, prescription drugs or the illegal stuff. This certainly fits into the category of 'unlikely to be taught at school' with a few exceptions like aspirin (of which more in a moment), though after a while it did get to feel a bit samey, especially when having already had a couple of long sections on them we then get chemistry in popular culture, and we're back to them again, notably with the inevitable Breaking Bad (this didn't really do it for me, as this is a show I had no interest in watching).

I was much more interested by the venture into explosives, finding out a lot I didn't know (though I was sad not to see that old favourite, nitrogen triiodide featuring). Similarly we have a lot of fun with smells, oddities of food and just delightfully random material, such as what is the bitterest substance, and what costs $62.5 trillion per gram?

I wanted to go back to aspirin just to point out a couple of limitations. The subtitle promises us stories - and in my experience, the best popular chemistry books make good use of storytelling - but there's a bit of a tendency here to pile in facts without enough narrative. There's a great story to be told about aspirin - how it was developed and how it was part of the settlement after the First World War, meaning that a number of European countries could freely produce it - but we don't hear that. In fact, the whole book is very US oriented.

I'm sure the chemistry is excellent, though when the author strays into physics, things aren't always quite as solid - notably we are told 'All of the uranium-235 was created at the birth of the universe' - this is quite a leap from the reality that all the hydrogen, much of the helium and a bit of the lithium was created, but all the other elements were forged in stars (up to iron) or supernovae and stellar collisions (above iron) - not only a bit more complicated, but much more interesting.

I do like this book, and it would be a good one to encourage someone to read who's not sure what the point of chemistry is. It is very scattergun with lots of disconnected articles and a limited amount of narrative flow - but that would make it ideal for bitty reading, perhaps on a commute (it's a shame that the book's price is phenomenally high). Without doubt, one of the best popular chemistry books I've seen in the last few years.



Review by Brian Clegg


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…