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.


Paperback:  


Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…