Chaotic pleasure

C&I Issue 3, 2017

Chaotic pleasure


Hal Sosabowski

Chem CoverTitle 50 ideas you really need to know about chemistry, Author Hayley Birch, Publisher Quercus Books. Year 2016, Pages 208, Price £11.99, ISBN 978-1-84866-667-2

There are many things that I like about my job as professor of public understanding of science. One is that I get asked to review books like this, books that I might choose to read in my spare time, and hopefully learn something. I have read, for example, Sam Kean’s The disappearing spoon perhaps 10 times, picking up nuggets of useful information each time; indeed it’s the book I wish I had written, and I include snippets from it in most of my lectures.

In this book, Hayley Birch lays out her 50 favourite/best/most relevant chemistry concepts in, what appears to me, no particular order. Each one is dealt with in four easy-to-read pages with monochrome diagrams where relevant. I’m guessing the book is aimed at the general reader with an interest in science.  

My enjoyment of the book, however, got off to a shaky start when I read the introductory paragraph. I was somewhat bemused, bordering on disappointed to read ‘Chemistry is often looked upon as the underdog of the sciences….thought of as less relevant than biology and less interesting than physics’. Some mistake surely? I would have thought the opposite.

I then quickly got a bee in my bonnet about the book’s structure. I think there was an opportunity missed by the author to present the coverage in some sort of logical order. Reading the contents page, I initially thought there was a passing nod to the order – ideas one to seven appear to emulate the first chapters of common textbooks by addressing topics such as atoms, elements, isotopes, compounds, phases then energy. From that point on, however, each heading seems as random as the previous one, which adds a sense of unpredictability and chaos to the presentation.

As far as the actual coverage is concerned, there are the usual suspects that you might expect in a book such as this: cracking; chirality; spectroscopy; carbon; water; petrol; plastics; CFCs; and proteins. But Birch also includes some delightful and unexpected semi-oddities, such as artificial muscles, lab-on-a-chip, astrochemistry, 3D printing and future fuels.

Overall I enjoyed reading the book, it reminds me of Jheni Osman’s 100 ideas that changed the world, which I enjoyed equally. On balance this one probably belongs as a novelty on every well-read chemist’s bookshelf.

Hal Sosabowski is professor of public understanding of science at the University of Brighton, UK.


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