Skip to main content

The Secret Lives of Molecules - Kathryn Harkup ****

A number of years ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry began a podcast series called Chemistry in its Element. After completing the 118 episodes for the elements, they branched out into the much richer field of compounds. Kathryn Harkup did not contribute to the series, but this book feels like the next step from those podcasts - bite-sized, enjoyable pieces, in this case looking into each of 52 key molecules. (Even if you've heard the podcasts, the content here is entirely different.) 

Harkup builds into each article a significant story that may be tangential, but makes the subject come alive. So, for example, when talking about sodium chloride - salt - she majors on the significance of salt to humans and Ghandi's protest against the restrictive salt laws in India in the 1930s. As you go through the book you will meet other familiar, big name compounds, such as water, carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid (oddly, this, and sulfur are written as sulphur, despite sulfur now being the standard spelling both according to international chemistry bodies and the RSC). But there are also molecules that are rather more obscure by name if not by function, from lithium iron phosphate to cyanidin and geosmin (evocatively described in the article's subtitle as the smell of rain).

This is a handsome book that would clearly work well as a gift - and it is ideal for dipping into on the commute, though probably not one to read end-to-end in a sitting. It is aimed at an adult audience, but I felt occasionally that Harkup's tone drifted towards writing for younger readers. Take, for example, the final paragraph of the sodium chloride article: 'His actions, and those of his followers, did not end the salt tax, but it was the start of change. The world was now watching what went on in India. And it was clear that the British could not rule there without the consent of the Indian people.' This wording feels pitched at the level of a GCSE textbook, rather than for a more sophisticated reader.

Secret Lives certainly isn't a textbook, though. Harkup does some excellent storytelling and this makes the book an excellent addition to the surprisingly short list of good chemistry popular science titles - for some reason chemistry is definitely the Cinderella science in this regard. Although I was familiar with most of the compounds we met, in every article I learned something new. Harkup has a gift for taking a story in an unexpected direction. So, for example, in the geosmin article, she gets in the Gods of Olympus, the smells of wet earth, bacterial action, the insects called springtails and the human sense of smell. It's a book that's entertaining and informative in equal measures.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg - See all Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly email free here


Popular posts from this blog

Making Sense of Chaos - Doyne Farmer *****

This is a remarkable book, pulling together two key threads - chaos theory and economics. Doyne Farmer has a reputation as someone who breaks the mould: famously, he dropped out of studying physics at graduate level, working with a handful of others to put together a wearable computer (back in the 70s, when such a thing would have seemed pretty much impossible) to enable them to successfully beat the odds at casinos, picking up on the slight biases in roulette wheels. Now, he presents a powerful case for applying chaos theory to economics, modelling economies in a totally different, agent-driven way rather than the traditional approach taken by economists. This combines for me the impact of two books I've read and greatly admired, but in both cases had felt that there needed to be a next step. The first of these was Chaos by James Gleick, which got me all fired up about chaos theory, but proved a bit of a let down as it was great to explain why, for example, it's difficult to

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t