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Solving Chemistry - Bernard Bulkin ***

This is an odd one - it's a memoir highlighting the chemistry in the career of Bernard Bulkin, who has been a significant figure in both academic and industrial chemistry (the latter primarily at BP). It's interesting that Bulkin does not really define what chemistry is - something we rarely attempt to do (the Royal Society of Chemistry's website doesn't say what it is either). Instead, Bulkin places chemistry with respect to the other sciences, filling the gap between physics and biology.

By far the most fascinating content here is Bulkin's assertion that chemistry is finished - that unlike any other significant field of science, it's pretty much complete in the academic sense. There are plenty of new applications to be worked out - but the fundamentals are pretty much there: perhaps this isn't a great time to be a theoretical chemist (as opposed to an applied one), though Bulkin certainly gives the impression that he enjoyed his time in academia (even if, to be honest, he seems to have enjoyed business more).

There is also interesting material on what it means to be a scientist - the fundamentals a scientist should have (but that aren't necessarily taught) and on Bulkin's experience in business. However, there are two significant problems with the rest of the content. Although this isn't in any sense a personal memoir (we learn hardly anything of Bulkin's private life), it is framed as a scientific memoir - and the memoir form really only works with someone famous, someone who has gone through a dramatic life experience or someone who is a brilliant writer - and none of these applies. There's one section where we're introduced to Bob and Stan and Jim and Mary and Henry and Laura in just two paragraphs, and I found it hard to care.

The other troublesome area is that there is far too much technical material on the chemistry and methodology Bulkin was involved with during his academic phase, which, I'm afraid, only a chemist could love. Although (having done chemistry for two years at undergraduate level) there were some aspects I enjoyed in a reminiscent sense, I found it hard to become engaged.

Just occasionally a bright spark of interest comes through - for example when Bulkin discusses the mechanism by which bread becomes stale, and cookies can be made with crispy outsides and soft insides (the same chemical basis), but there wasn't enough of this kind of content.

For a limited audience, then, this is a fascinating read (and I will be passing the book on to my chemist brother-in-law, who I think will be particularly interested in this 'chemistry is finished' thesis), but it doesn't have the right approach to keep the attention of a general audience throughout.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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