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

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…