Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Periodic Tales

So, yeah.  Chemist and IYC. 

Meaning I had to read Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc almost as soon as it appeared on bookshelves.

It was a bit of a follow-up to my reading of Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon but less humorous.  This is a very well-researched look into how the discovery of the elements impacted the lives of everyday people:

Hunger for gold as a valuable commodity (Pliny disapproves).
The yellow lamplight of dystopian fiction derives from sodium.
Mercury was praised as a cure-all then turned into a poison.
The development of the Haber-Bosch process by Fritz Haber - the process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilizer - was a side project in his development of chlorine and other gases which changed the face of warfare in World War I (and led to Wilfrid Owen's poem The Old Lie).

It's best to treat this book as a series of essays linked into "chapters" by similar themes rather than a cohesive book of history.

Drawback - what pictures included are in the book are small and black-and-white.  Bo

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Clockwork Universe

IYC is in full-swing and I had yet to "officially" start "reading chemistry" - so along came The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick.  According to the subtitle, the book is about "Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World".  Isaac Newton means alchemy so, of course, I had to read it.

Unfortunately, I'm terribly disappointed.

In truth, this book is about how Europe (London, England, in particular) transitioned from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment through mathematics, calculus, and physics.  Newton is a central player, but Kepler and Galileo must put in an appearance beforehand and Leibnitz, the co-discoverer of calculus, is also of importance.  The Royal Society is in the background but no significant part of the book details the founding of the Royal Society.  The subtitle needs some work.  Additionally, there are pages of notes at the back of the book but no symbols in the text to indicate that there is a note; even Oxford Classics throw the reader a little superscript 'o' to indicate a reference.

The book opens by looking at the living conditions at the time of the Restoration in the United Kingdom.  Disease, superstition, and natural disasters sent by God are common.  The twin disasters of plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666 are prominent.  Newton's insterest in alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone are mentioned...and then quickly abandoned as the focus settles on the development of mathematics and geometry to explain the wonder of God's creation.  There are odd disgressions, like one detailing how the best work of geniuses in mathematics and physics is done before the age of 30 - this observation coming between Kepler's discoveries and Newton's.  There are also strange bon mots, like "Kepler would have loved The Da Vinci Code", which makes no sense because a) I'm thinking Kepler didn't read many novels and b) Kepler wouldn't have taken highly to an offshoot of early Christianity that promoted the union and offspring of Jesus Christ and Mary Magadalene.  It's uncalled for, pandering to the lowest common denominator to make up for the lack of science.  The chapters in The Clockwork Universe are short, something that bothers me in a work of non-fiction because it creates the illusion of cliff-hangers when, in reality, there is nary a cliff-hanger in sight.

The Clockwork Universe is a pretty history book with lovely cover art and a nice section of plates (I am partial to pictures and photographs in history books).  This is an important period in scientific thought - reason went from "Take the witch out and burn her" during plague years to a well-ordered universe, ticking like a clock the way God intended, in less than 100 years - and it should be understood by more people (current basic science education as it is, the general population is more likely to learn on their own than in school).  However, parts of the book feel like scientific cop-outs; when Newton and Liebnitz work out the calculus Dolnick actually skips from a graph showing how calculus helps figure out instantaneous speed to "oh, hey, Galileo was right but we're going to skip all the calculations since that's confusing".  This might be popsci but the "Sci" people will read this book, too, and we might like at least some of the calculations since it is also hinted that only the truly dedicated will muddle through Newton's Principia.

I would be less disappointed in The Clockwork Universe had the book been marketed as a history book and had a different subtitle.  For my science history, I'd rather go back and re-read Age of Wonder, a slightly later time period but with better science.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

No, not that type of poisoner's handbook; think "true crime".

The Mystery Book Club that meets at my store picked The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum as one of their next reads (I think April, maybe May).  So I was like, "Hmmmm, a history of forensic medicine, specific to poisons and chemistry, in Jazz Age/Prohibition New York....I'll read that!"

From a true crime/history of forensic medicine standpoint The Poisoner's Handbook is interesting and fun to read.  Blum focuses on a major poisoning case in each chapter, be the agent methanol, arsenic, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, or radium.  Medical examiner practices we take for granted today (timely autopsies, accurate death certificates, etc) were implemented to lend the profession credibility; corrupt and ill-trained coroner systems as well as the political machine that was New York City politics had to be dealt with.  It's all very fascinating and readable.

But then there are some things that bug me about this book.  There are no graphs or pictures in this book - not even a Periodic Table.  A picture is worth a thousand words when you're explaining why radium is taken up by the body in the same manner as calcium (they're in the same group so they have the same basic chemistry) but radium causes major problems because of its reactivity and radiation (it's easier to explain radioactive decay of alpha, beta, and gamma particles if you've got a picture).  Similarly, I can line up the molecular models of methanol and ethanol in my head along with their acid and aldehyde by-products and understand how those chemicals act in the liver but I'm thinking the average Joe with a high school chemistry background (at most) won't be able to do that.  I've had six semesters of chemistry, up to advanced organic, and I have a degree in biology, so I understand all the physiologic processes described in the book but a non-science-background reader might need a boost.  So, diagrams would be nice and maybe also the photographs of the scientists and other historical players described in the text.  Also, some of the text descriptions of what happens chemically are kind of vague ("titration" is not really described as titration but as a progression of colors when you add acid to a solution); vagueness makes my little chemist's heart sink (I am a member of Alpha Chi Sigma Professional Chemistry Fraternity - so is Bassam Shakhashiri who is thanked in the acknowledgements). 

I also found the chapter layouts a little weird.  Each chapter revolves around a specific poison, which is nice, but the middle of each chapter gets into the general history of the crime lab for that time period before returning to the case involving the specific poison.  It gets a little confusing to read about cyanide poisoning then about all the methanol deaths during Prohibition (and the enforcement laws about denaturing industrial ethanol) before returning to a case of death by cyanide.  It would have been a little more clear to have separate chapters for the poisoning cases/poisons between chapters about the general history of the department. 

If you love true crime or history of criminology, definitely read The Poisoner's Handbook.   If you see this on the shelf with the rest of the chemistry books in the "Science" section of the bookstore be forewarned that it might not have as much chemistry as you would like but it's still fun to read if you're looking for something light.

*Cross-posted from Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon

I'm a big nerd. I think chemistry is pretty fun (where else do you get to set stuff on fire, distill alcohol, make drugs, and play with expensive machinery like Rotovaps and even more expensive machinery like NMRs). I heard Sam Kean speaking on NPR about his new book The Disappearing Spoon, a book that is all about the elements on the Periodic Table. It sounded so wonderful I just had to have it - I opened up my nook, called up the Shop, and had it downloaded in about a minute. Ahhhh, book love, instant gratification at my fingertips.

Anyway, back to The Disappearing Spoon. Kean doesn't start with hydrogen, helium, and beryllium, discussing each element in turn as the periodic table ascends in number - good for a textbook, not so fun for a popular science book. Kean instead groups the elements by type (noble gases), function (poisoner's corner), or interesting stories (gallium tea spoons and radioactive lead). He opens the book with his own fascination with mercury (an element strongly linked with his childhood) and then on into the depths of the periodic table. This allows him to talk about elements that are chemically similar or elements with similar stories of discovery. The periodicity of the elements (the first functional arrangement is credited to Mendeleev) helped a number of chemists, some of them quite eccentric, determine where and how to look for "new" elements.

Kean does a great job of both telling stories and explaining the chemistry. Having a chemistry background, I wasn't bored when Kean gave an elementary explanation; that being said, a casual reader without a scientific background won't be overwhelmed by technical explanations and equations. The Disappearing Spoon is really a fun book to get people interested in the stories behind the science (scientists are just as nutty and gossipy as the average human) - from there people might stay interested in the science. Who knows what somone might discover.

[Cross posted from Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books...]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Welcome to Reading Chemistry!

Reading Chemistry is the brainchild resulting from the metaphorical intersection of Conclave, a book, and the UN.  While I was at Alpha Chi Sigma's biennial Conclave, I attended a forum to brainstorm ideas for the International Year of Chemistry (IYC).  I was also reading Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon.  When I got home from Conclave, I finished The Disappearing Spoon and then ordered three more chemistry-related books. 

Then it hit me - I could start a blog so people could post about chemistry books of all types.  Scientific, popular science, history, biography, fiction.  All different types.  And I could get it up and running by 2011.

Genius!