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.