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The Beauty of Chemistry - Philip Ball ***

To do this review fairly, I ought to point out that I'm not a great fan of books where the images dominate the text - a more visually-oriented reader may appreciate the book more than me. However, there is enough text here by Philip Ball to lift what could otherwise be little more than a coffee table book. The text I'd definitely give four stars, but in the end, the dominance of the imagery by Wenting Zhu and Yan Liang pulled it down to three stars for me, because I did still find, for example, the number of pages of pictures of bubbles or crystals (for example), started to get a bit samey.

From the opener on bubbles we go on to the inevitable chapter on crystals - surely chemistry's visual superstar. I was disappointed not to see Roger Hiorn's 2008 work Seizure featured, when the artist covered a bedsit with copper sulfate crystals. I think this reflects a weakness in the visual approach, which gives us the chemical imagery in isolation from the real world - a crystal floating in space, rather than Hiorn's very grounded, in the real world, installation. I would have liked to have seen the chemistry in its setting - whether it's the lab or, say, the verdigris on a copper dome or the rust on an anchor - both for context but also because it would have been visually more interesting.

Next comes precipitation - sometimes a little murky in its imagery, but at its best suggesting diaphanous jellyfish - in this section the text seems less directly linked to the concept and imagery, talking about, for example, hydrogen bonding. Things return to the more dramatic visual with dendritic (tree-like) growth - back to crystals in the kind of thing anyone who has lived in a house without central heating will be familiar with on the windows in winter. We then go on to flames (mostly combustion, but also think spectroscopy), electrochemistry, the way that chemicals influence colour changes in plants (particularly flowers but also leaves), impact of heat on visual/infra-red appearance, chemical gardens and the elegant patterns of some chemical systems that are out of equilibrium.

Chemistry is infamously poorly represented in popular science, so I very much applaud this as an attempt at a different way to crack open chemistry's shell. I love the idea that Ball opens with the suggestion that there ought to be a word 'for people who delight in stuff'. For me, though, the appeal of science is rather different - and that's as someone who up to the second year of university intended to be a chemist - but I can certainly appreciate, as Ball says, that for some, the aesthetics of chemistry is at the heart of its appeal.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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